Tuesday, February 9, 2010
We should have taken a boat
We first noticed the man in gray shorts when he released a lionesque roar at the completion of an over-the-top yawn. He stretched his arms and shook his head when finished, like a boxer shaking off a sharp jab to the nose. Thirtyish with broad shoulders and a patch of poorly conceived stubble, he stood in the last row of our departing plane, lording over his seat and the two empty ones next to him. He seemed bemused as the plane filled with fellow passengers.
It was about 8:15 on Sunday night, moments before our plane from Johannesburg to New York was scheduled to leave. Our pleas to the South African Airways ticket agent for a seat in the emergency exit row were greeted by grunts and weary refusals, as we were apparently not the first people to ask for a reprieve from the tiny, torturous seats that awaited us on the 20-hour flight.
We had two seats at the back of the plane, with only an aisle separating us from the guy who had sole custody of the middle seats.
As the plane took off into the South Africa night, I took a second to glance to my right. About a minute after the plane lifted off, the man next to me reached for one of the rectangular pillows with a brown covering. He lifted it to his mouth. Without hesitation, he vomited for about five seconds, filling half of the pillowcase with his wretched deposit. The stench hit me before I even fully appreciated what had happened. He stuck the pillow into the sleeve on the seat in front of him, giving it a home next to a South African travel magazine and an unused and unappreciated barf bag.
Wiping his lips with his hand, he leaned back in his seat and started snoring. Two minutes later, he woke up, ready for round 2. This time he didn't get everything into his puke pillow, hitting the floor and the seat next to him. By now the entire rear of the plane smelled like a fraternity bathroom on New Year's Eve.
We frantically pushed the call button for the flight attendant. After about five minutes one arrived, blissfully unaware of how his life was about to change. Although we figured the ogre was simply drunk, there was also the chance he was suffering from a serious illness. Louise said, "This man is extremely sick and you should check to see if he's okay. He vomited all over the pillow and it's on his seat and the floor."
The attendant stared at the disgusting scene that had sullied his workplace. Another flight attendant soon arrived as we dove into our books, trying to ignore the vomit-covered man next to us. Soon after, the first attendant leaned close and told us, "It's okay, he just took too many sleeping pills and alcohol."
That might have been the first time the phrase "it's okay" was ever uttered before the words "took too many sleeping pills and alcohol." How many people have been hospitalized because of that combination? How many have died, whether intentionally or accidentally, after ingesting that deadly cocktail? But now it's okay that this guy apparently had too much of both, just moments into a flight that would last an entire day?
The puke pillow remained in its place, emitting its foul stench. The floor and seat? Still soiled. And all the while the guy responsible for the atrocity slept peacefully. I'd say slept like a baby but a pair of infants on the flight spent much of the trip screaming, so I don't think this is the time for that particular cliche.
We finally asked an attendant if they planned on cleaning up the mess. It wasn't their fault it was there, but it seemed like it'd be their responsibility to get rid of it.
"We're going to make him sleep in it," the attendant replied. "That will be his punishment."
Yeah, that'll show him! This guy obviously cares so much about hygiene and is concerned about what his fellow passengers might think of him resting in a pile of his own vomit. Make him roll around in it, that should impart a life lesson, the type of thing you can't pick up in an after-school special.
But what about us, we wondered. Are we going to be cursed with the unholy smell for the rest of the flight?
Outraged, Louise pulled out our camera. She took several shots. Here's the least-offensive one, showing a portion of the contaminated seat.
She kept clicking, causing me to panic slightly. People kept looking to the back of the plane whenever the flash went off, trying to figure out if someone was lighting something up. I pictured security yanking us off the plane after an emergency landing, leaving John Bonham's protege resting comfortably in the rear of the plane while we faced felony charges in a foreign country with a hostile attitude toward Americans.
The flight staff eventually woke the man and forced him to go to the bathroom, where vomiting sounds could be heard over the roar of the engines. He returned with a pair of towels and cleaned up the mess, seemingly unembarrassed by the offending deed or the ensuing chore.
After completing his half-hearted janitorial duties, the guy lifted the armrests on the seats in his row. Pulling the blanket over his weary body, he sprawled out, claiming every seat as his own, with his head in the seat nearest to me. He slept with his mouth open. Every once in awhile I'd smell some more vomit, which made my own stomach turn. Over the next 18 hours he woke up twice: once during an hour stop in Dakar, and again upon our landing at JFK. In Dakar, a new crew takes over the plane, while a cleaning staff prepares the plane for the rest of its journey. As a cleaner approached the back of the plane, a flight attendant warned the man to "put your gloves on when you pick up that pillow," a helpful and healthy hint, though it should have been followed by a plea for a mask. Finally, after nearly 10 hours, the puke pillow made its way off the plane.
The guy sobered up as the trip progressed, judging by the way he stopped sweating and snorting in his sleep. Instead he settled into a comfortable slumber while everyone else on the plane twisted themselves into economy-class seats. By the time he walked off the plane at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, I'm not sure if he even knew what he'd done nearly 24 hours earlier.
Aside from that? Great flight.