Hey, it's too cool for school. Have you checked it out — the new business class. C'mon, put a ticket on the company card, strap your butt to that stainless-steel projectile, and claim your place in the homeroom in the sky. It's hour number two of a five-hour flight — and me and my new playmates in the neato Business Class cabin are all watching a movie! The fact that it's a fifth-rate movie (even lower on the in-flight entertainment food chain than "Grumpier Old Men"), a movie so bad that I'd never go see it in a theater, never rent the video, never even watch for free on hotel cable — and that this is the third time I've sat through it in Business Class — is totally beside the point. I got the earphones for free! Unlike the poor schlemiels in Cattle Car, who had to pay $4. And this terrible movie is eating up time. I'm not reading, I'm not working — and 93 minutes of this ride will be over!
Speaking of eating, we've already been beveraged. And we've been lunched, as well — at least what they pass off as lunch, a chicken-flavored patty. Of course, lunch period didn't last long: after one bite of chicken-puck, I covered the rest with my crumpled napkin. This only earned me The Look from the frowning flight attendant. "All done?" she accused me. It's like being scolded for not finishing my homework. So with lunch break over, I'm reduced to this movie, showing up there on a monitor smaller than my personal digital assistant.
I'm in a window seat — I wanted an aisle, but all the aisles were taken. In the middle seat is a big guy, kind of a dumb-jock type. And because the seats are designed for the oblong rather than the obese — and this guy is livin' large — the side of his ample thigh oozes under the armrest, which he's already hogging. On the other side of the Incredible Hulk is a woman who's been working since before the Safety Lecture. She's got two highlighters going, a pink one and a yellow one. She's a kiss-ass cheerleader if I ever saw one. Highlighters — gimme a break!
And then, the worst thing happens — next to the pilot's parachute appearing outside my window: I have to hit the head. "I need to . . . " I say to the Hulk, gesturing toward the aisle. He rolls his eyes, puts up his tray table, but otherwise makes no attempt to move. I sidestep out, practically on the guy's lap, and Miss Kiss-Ass stands in the aisle, her paper crushed against her ample chest — sis! boom! bah! — the wet cushy tips of her highlighters facing outward. As I brush past her, I feel something graze my back and I'm thinking, She wrote on me! It reminds me of those pieces of masking tape we used to stick on each other's backs saying, Kick me hard.
And as I'm using the head — such a joke that I've heard that Billy Crystal has a 747 bathroom installed in his house — and trying not to think about the blue chemicals floating in that little steel bowl, and trying not to notice the stale, chemical smell in this vile closet, and the pathetic gesture some bathroom superintendent thought up of placing a bottle of Aveda Aromatherapy Liquid Soap (calming and energizing) in a stand by the clogged sink — I suddenly got it figured out.
This isn't Business Class, created to attend to the needs of us Road Warriors. This is Business Class — as in "detention." I'm back in study hall, where seats are assigned, and you need permission to use the bathroom. It's what Frank Zappa meant when he said, "The older you get the more you realize that life is like high school." This isn't even as good as high school — at least we had vending machines and electives. This is junior high!
Suddenly I understand my urge to slip my plastic fork underneath my chicken-disk and fling it across the aisle at the dweeb with the bulging Adam's apple and the Coke-bottle glasses who's been punching numbers into his spreadsheet nonstop for three hours; my frustration with the preppie clown wearing the fringe-top loafers and a pink knit polo shirt who's still bragging about his trip to Tuscany; the temptation I'm feeling to steal one of those tiny bottles of booze off the cart when the flight attendant isn't looking.
Back in my seat, I hear the Hulk's laptop go beep-beep-beep — and now he puts his seat back, stretches his hairy arms along both armrests, and dozes off. I try to play eye-footsie with Miss Kiss-Ass, but she's just now finishing her vegetarian plate, which she takes back to the galley herself, and I look at my watch for the bazillionth time and I ruffle through the papers in my briefcase, pretending to work, and I'm thinking, all those pre-algebra classes and science videos and band practices and Sadie Hawkins dances were geared to prepare us for one thing and one thing only: how to fly Business Class.
The Spy is a frequent-flyer and novelist who lives in the Pacific Northwest.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.