My Camel Looks So Tired
The flight from Dublin to Barcelona is full – heavy on the Irish family with a couple of children under six. Irish kids in that age group don’t whine and fuss for their parents the way American kids do, instead they move straight into breaking-stuff-mode. Arms are a favorite; Airbus A320 seat arms; annoying little brothers’ arms. Eyes are not entirely safe either, as knows anyone who has survived a just-before-Christmas-too-many-children-aboard Boston to Dublin flight – the aisles of which resemble Lord of the Flies meets the Exorcist.
The flight attendants – armed with the knowledge that the customer is not only always right, but also, ninety nine percent of the time, turns into a double-asshole when asked to do anything out of the ordinary – make fake smiling, yes-yes-yes-we-know-you-picked-this-seat-personally-online-but-now-you-have-to-move, seat reassignments to get everyone seated in a manner commensurate with their powers of self-preservation and projected apathy to small scale assaults in the next seat. Several five and six year-olds, with their iPads or, for the nouveau-traditionalist-Irish-families (who, to keep current their more-Irish-than-thou bona fides, loudly direct their children “as Gaelige”*) Irish mythology coloring books and organic-fair-trade-dolphin-safe crayons, are gently relocated to aisle seats; from which the Airbus’ seats were reckoned the better to survive faulty signals from apprentice bladders.
With their passengers relocated to comparative safety, the attendants retreat to gossip loudly at the galley – an older attendant, tall, stringy, heavily made up, grey-blonde hair, repeatedly brings her right hand up to her face in an I-wish-I-was-smoking action. I gaze around the cabin. Next to me, my kids, excited at the vacation-inside-a-vacation – a few days in Barcelona while visit-ationing in Ireland – are temporarily intrigued by a clunky-graphics, iPad Camel Racing game; suggested by a much younger cousin in Ireland. They share a set of earplugs, laugh too loud, my son elbowing me in the ribs to join in the ridiculous fun.
On the opposite side of the aisle from me sits a hairy-eared, jowly man in his early sixties, tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, black gabardine pants, dark-socks-and-sandals. He pages slowly through an Irish boating magazine plastered with glossy pictures of cabin cruisers lazing along the river Shannon, under suspiciously blue and cloudless skies, with white-bikini clad models, Catholicly-reclining on brilliant white decks.
The Airbus starts down the runway, vibrating violently under the thrust of jet engines. We swoop off planet earth, up into the sky. As we achieve altitude, the captain crackles onto the speaker, giving a clipped, but managing-to-include-a-few-captainly-sighs, update on our two and a half hour flight, arrival time at 11pm, and, most uselessly, the Barcelona nighttime temperatures.
I settle into my book: A massive biography of Hitler, with a correspondingly massive – and a small bit hard to explain given today’s rush-to-judgement-e-sensibilities – black swastika in a white circle, emblazoned on the Nazi-red cover. I fold over the cover to avoid some five, or twenty-five, year-old’s indignant interrogation, and delve deep into the narrative of humanity’s greatest weakness: Our herding instinct. This instinct, a vestige of a too rapid evolution, that in times of great change crave the sort of strong, absolute leadership – that comes packaged with fake-charismatic narcissism, and a deep vein of cruelty – behind which, too many humans are willing to forsake personal responsibility and slavishly follow the dictator’s edicts. My mind burrows into the world of homelessness in 1910 Vienna; the ever-cold-and-hungry, broken men huddling around a table to listen to the budding, intoxicating terror of a young Adolf Hitler.
About twenty minutes later – with camel hooves flashing relentlessly next to me, iPad movies flickering and crayons mushing paper along the aisle – the clinking of glass announces the start of cabin service. Two pony-tailed, big-hipped, attendants start to lug a stainless steel cart full of over-priced junk food and booze down the aisle, forcing some quick-thinking-bathroom-access decisions on behalf of the four-year-old and fifty-plus crowds. The cabin fills with the-Irish-are-on-holidays-again sounds; the pop-fizz of beer cans opening; the snap of single serve wine and liquor bottle seals breaking; guffaws of relief laughter.
The stainless cart works its way down the narrow aisle, attendants ad-libbing jokes with passengers, until it’s next to me. By then, Hitler, his ambition to become an artist in tatters after a double rejection by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, is now eking out a pretend, I’m-actually-still-homeless, living by painting weak copies of Austrian postcards, which he sells for pennies to picture framing shops, who use them as throwaways to fill the frames advertised for sale in their windows.
A screech from the opposite side of the plane yanks me from Vienna 1910 back to the plane.
I hold my thumb in position at the end of a paragraph.
“I want him out of here,” a woman’s voice snaps, her tone rising to a shrill-almost-scream.
In the row on the other side of the aisle – two seats inside the jowly-boater; who doesn’t even look up from the models fake-sunbathing on the Shannon – a woman in her sixties, gaunt-faced, heavy make-up, hair too brown-too-be-true, her back pushed up hard against the window, is all at once spouting angrily at the attendant, while her eyes project a petrified fear.
“He has to go,” she yells, spittle flying from her lips. “This is intolerable!”
Her hands involuntarily retreat up in front of her chest.
In the seat between this woman and the jowly-boater, sits one of the nouveau-traditionalist dad’s, his eyes burning two holes in the seatback in front of him.
“You need to stop that,” the big-boned flight attendant says forcefully, shaking her ponytail. “You’re upsetting meself and the other girls. Our job is to keep everyone safe, and that man is only there because your son gave up his seat so that he could watch his children. Now calm down.”
“No! He can’t stay,” her spine stiffens, pulling her head back, eyes moving off fear into unbridled anger. “He has to go. I’ll hurt him if he doesn’t.”
The dad’s head whips around to the attendant.
“You be quiet now or we’ll turn back and leave you off at home again,” the attendant snaps. “It’s not fair to everyone else. There’s children here. That man has children.”
The woman against the window swells taller as she gasps in a breath.
I turn to my kids. They’re both sitting forward, staring in fear-curiosity over at the woman.
I point at a camel’s rump, in position to start a race.
“Put a bet on that one for me,” I say.
“How?” they both ask.
“Figure it out: If I win, no dessert for you tomorrow, and if you win double dessert.”
They set to work.
When I look back, the woman against the window is still holding her breath. The anger wavering in her eyes.
Then her face collapses.
Fear takes over her eyes.
“I want my son back,” she whimpers.
The floodgates let go.
“I just want him back. Please. Please.”
She scrambles for a tissue.
The attendant leans in with a clump of napkins.
“Sir, you’re going have to do something about this,” the attendant says, straightening up, and glaring down at the boater.
“We went through this before, and you agreed you’d have to give her something before flying.”
The boater looks up from his bikini clad models.
“Eh, a Jameson please,” he says, countering the attendant’s glare with faux-pleasant-surprise.
The dad stares up at the attendant, his hand up at his mouth, eyes full of panic.
“Sir!” the attendant says sternly. “We can’t be going on like this forever.”
“Lookit now,” the boater says with a sigh.
He gives his models and cabin cruisers a little shake, forces a smile up at the attendant; nodding, nodding.
“Between the jigs and the reels, sure it’ll all be grand in the upshot.”
The attendant pauses for a moment, then reaches into the cart for a Jameson, shoots the dad a not-much-I-can-do-for-you look, and cracks the seal on the green shot bottle.
“Eh!” the boater says, speaking louder, nodding his head sagaciously. “You know what, you might as well make that two; two Jamesons.”
The crack of the second seal snapping fills the false silence.
“We won Daddy!” my son says too loud, elbowing me hard in the ribs, knocking my thumb out of the Viennese homeless shelter.
“Haha, double dessert for us – but my camel looks so tired.”
* as Gaelige – in the Irish language