FLYING WITH "GNARLY"
- for Nora
We must all remain grateful for the continuing vigilance of airline flight attendants who protect the flying public. "See something, say something" has become the watchword for passengers who alert airline employees to potential violence or threatening behavior -- just as flight attendants themselves make immediate judgment calls re ejecting passengers based on visual evaluation. Thus the appearance of threat essentially constitutes threat. However, (this is important!) the judgment must also (according to most airline security policy) rise to a level indicating that the perceived threat will become aggravated or dangerous behavior after the plane takes off.
So you have to try to figure out what the sense of impending bad behavior might have been in the matter of the professor who was kicked off a flight for writing math equations on a notepad or the young man ejected for speaking Arabic to his father on his cell-phone or why a rock musician whose butt-crack was visible was sent off -- and so on.
On December 22, 2016, I reserved a first class seat on Flight 567, from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. I was traveling to see my daughter who lives in Bend, for the holidays. The afternoon flight was delayed a couple hours (with no explanation), so I settled in at the Alaska Airlines lounge to wait -- where I encountered L.A. friends whose flights northwest were also delayed. We all chatted and sipped a glass of wine. As the flight finally boarded, I strolled up the jetway with other passengers, listening to others comment on the delay. I believe that I may have said something to a fellow passenger as I boarded, about waiting in the lounge for hours, with nothing to do but talk and "drink" with friends, but I honestly don't remember.
I took my seat in the first cabin and after texting my daughter, turned off my phone and began reading my copy of the New York Times.
Suddenly a presence materialized in the seat next to me. It was the Alaska Airlines flight attendant, a large blonde woman with a very loud voice. Fixing me in a dead-eye gaze, she inquired if I was "drunk". I stared at her. I think I said "certainly not". I know what I look like, though I was suddenly unsure how this woman was "seeing" me. I'm a well-dressed, groomed blonde woman who happens to be a tenured professor at a major university, author of several books, a little older than Hillary Clinton -- though, I'm vain enough to say that I look younger. I was certainly not drunk. And unless sitting quietly in one's seat reading the NY Times constitutes appearance of intoxication -- I wasn't acting as if I was.
The flight attendant, (whose name rhymed with "Gnarly") kept me in her bouncer's glare. She leaned in closer. "Then did you say you were drunk?" she asked, her voice growing more accusatory. At this point I felt a nervous laugh rising, but luckily, suppressed it. A chuckle would have undoubtedly sealed my fate with Gnarly. Despite my exhibiting every sign of sobriety - this individual was clearly trying to impress upon me that she had sole authority to act based on whatever image of me she might conjure up. Perhaps she "saw" me, after take-off , dancing in the aisles, throwing up on seat-mates and/or blocking the drinks cart? If this were an accurate reflection of my potential behavior, she would have been right to question me. But since I wasn't intoxicated, and perhaps had just commented in passing about having had drinks with friends in the lounge - the anger directed at me seemed much more to do with her taste for intimidation than anything else.
She eyeballed me a bit longer, then seemed to lose interest. Still, she wasn't about to release me without one last reminder of her unilateral power. "Be careful what you say, do you hear me? I could have you thrown off this flight. Do you understand? I could have you thrown off right now!" Then she swept off.
She continued to sweep regally about the cabin. (Then, in a peculiar moment prior to take-off, a very young-looking pilot stood before us to announce that "Gnarly" had instructed him that there would be "no bumps" during take-off . He said he was quoting her as an authority.) Somehow this odd break with procedure did not make me feel safer.
As soon as we were aloft, she began following up on drink orders. She had actually returned to me on her rounds, offering me alcohol more than once, but I was hardly going to accept a cocktail (or anything) from her hands under the circumstances.
I'm a writer. Slowly my instincts in that direction kicked in. As my late friend Nora famously said, quoting her Mom, "Everything is copy."
I began to observe carefully, as per my passenger rights -- my interrogator as she performed her duties. I turned the evaluative eye on her. As a flight attendant, Gnarly was loud and nonstop-sociable, a kind of cheerleader for her bar service. She ramped up a remarkable amount of jollity with passengers -- standing in the aisle chatting at length with those for whom she was serving drinks. Two women across the aisle from me were particularly "happy" with her service. At one point, after a very vocal voluble conversation with Gnarly, they cried out: "You're getting us drunk!" Whee!
Naturally, the overall irony here was not lost on me. And so, after we landed, as passengers filed out, I confronted her at the door to the jet-way. I asked her why she had threatened me with ejection when I was clearly not intoxicated. I was now in that slow-burn phase when I felt the need to tell her what was true -- that I had never had anything but pleasant experiences on Alaska Airlines with its helpful flight attendants, thus I found her behavior towards me puzzling. (I admit that I am more a "regular" on Delta flights to New York and beyond, but I am a always model passenger. I get along famously well with all flight crews. I even have some kind of "medallion" from Delta, for heaven's sake.)
But instead I simply asked her why she'd singled me out.
"Listen, honey.." she growled. (I immediately asked her not to call me "honey", but she, of course, ignored me.) "I told you, honey, watch it! In the future, watch what you say before you get on a plane, honey."
I asked for her last name and she muttered something inaudible. I told her that I planned to write about her. At this, she began shouting at me.
"Get off this airplane" she cried. "Get moving, get off now!"
As I turned to go, she lobbed her final send-off: "Merry Christmas, honey!" she called after me.
I wanted to remind her that it would have been more politically correct for her to offer "Happy holidays!", but something told me that Gnarly was not the type to be interested in political correctness, (not to mention free speech.) She appeared to me to be channeling her inner Trump. (In my memory, she begins to look vaguely like our president-elect.)
So remember, if you fly on this airline, the name rhymes with "Gnarly". And also remember to watch what you say: she's Gnarly and she controls "all the bumps on the way up" -- and the bump-offs before that. Got it, honey?
- Carol Muske-Dukes