I’m standing in the Charlotte airport waiting to board a plane to Houston. And I’m well positioned, ten minutes ahead of time, in the Priority Boarding Lane of Gate C18. There’s a guy on the other side of a fat vertical column who has a cough every bit as thick as the cement post. It’s rich and deep - and quite impressive, in fact. It’s both frequent and explosive. I also hear the man sniffing. He’s really sick. I hope he’s not going to be sitting anywhere near me. It’s a big plane, an Airbus 320. There are hundreds of seats. But still, you know what they say about microbes in recycled airplane air. If he’s in the cargo area, I’m in trouble. That’s the sort of thing you learn from watching too many TV news shows.
But he’s here at the Priority Lane. A scary thought crosses my mind. Maybe like me, he’s in first class. That would be really bad. It’s a long flight and close quarters. But no, I remind myself, he could just be Platinum Preferred and able to get on soon, but will be sitting in the last row in the back of the plane. Yeah, that could happen. And maybe, just maybe, the germs would stay back there in his vicinity. He coughs again, thunderously.
I start hatching likely scenarios to keep me from worrying. He got here for this flight, last minute, up from his sickbed, or the hospital, and is going to board early because of the long walk ahead of him, far from my designated seat, 3A, which I chose just days ago when I switched flights to avoid predicted thunderstorms and tornadoes. Surely, my general good fortune will keep me at a safe distance from this germ distribution center. Did I mention that he never masks his cough with a hand or arm or anything? Yeah. He prefers to project out into the airport air more generally, getting those particles as far from his body as he can. I guess he figures that the rest of us can just take our chances. Where’s TSA when you really need them?
So we board. I’m the second guy on the plane. Mr. Sick is not third, or fourth, or fifth, or even sixth. Good. I feel relieved. Maybe he was just standing near me in the gate area for no good reason and he'll be in the back of the plane, after all, or possibly - hope springs eternal - he’s on another plane altogether. And even if - worst case scenario - he is on this plane and joins us in first class, there are 12 seats, which means 10 chances out of 11 that he will be in a seat that will keep me relatively isolated from his hawking, spewing, spraying barks of disease.
And now, here’s where I let out a big sigh. You can probably see already what’s going to happen. I couldn’t, eternal optimist that I am. And there he is, the human aerosol, hacking his way onto the plane and down the aisle. He’s not in row one. Not in row two. Ok. Then I see him stop and lift his roller-bag into the overhead compartment … right above my third row. Oh, no.
But there’s no need to panic. Row 3 has two seats across the wide aisle and well away from me - 3D and 3F. I quickly do the math. There are only 4 seats in the row, with 3 now available, and 2 of those are options I could live with. My chances are good. And, of course, he sits down in neither of these less harmful spots, but in 3C, right up beside me. My elbow is inches from his. The coughs continue, but after some hot coffee they slow down to merely one every 20 seconds or so. They’re still impressively powerful. The back of the seat in front of his is now more teeming with viral and bacterial flora and fauna than a petri dish in Mass General Hospital.
I lean as far up against the window as I can. I become one with the safety glass. What are my options? A massive attack of stomach gas on my part might encourage his own avoidance posture. Yeah, that would get him leaning in the opposite direction like nothing else. But this obvious tactic seems not to be an option right now. And that’s more than a little ironic, isn’t it? There are things in life that never seem to be available when you could most use them, and yet insistently near to hand when you least desire their advent. We live in a funny world. He coughs again to punctuate my sentence, and as if to mock my own normal and stubbornly reticent inner bodily functions.
I started writing this so I won’t have to face him and talk. The flight attendants serve food. He'll have the crepes. I'll have the caniptions. I practically bathe in Purell Hand Sanitizer. And I keep my food well out of his repeated spray pattern. I eat quickly so that ambient infectious particles can’t alight on the biscuit. I use more hand stuff.
An hour passes like this. The pilot announces we’re ONLY an hour and twenty minutes out from our destination and the possibilities of detox. By now, I’ve used most of my sanitizer, which I truly want to squirt down my seat companion’s mouth, but I’m already far too close to the volcanic orifice, continually erupting as it is, like Old Faithful. Where’s a surgical mask when you need one?
There he goes again. Everyone else on the plane is sitting quietly and like me trying not to breathe at all. No one else is coughing. Just this one guy inches from my face. At least I’m not flying to London with him. As it is, we should be met at the gate in Houston by a HazMat Team. And I’ve got the busiest week of the year coming up in a few days. I really should get this guy’s name, address, and legal contact, in case I need to sue him. But I can't turn to speak to him.
There should be some limits on who can get onto a crowded plane. In this guy’s present condition, he needed to be airlifted to Texas - medivac style - and hooked up to something in the presence of only people in decontamination suits.
This all leads me to reflect on the stuff we can’t control in life. All things considered, I guess this guy beats a tornado, but not by much. But why did that have to be my choice in the first place? Why do we get into situations like this at all? I’m a philosopher, and I don’t have the answer to that one. But it causes me to reflect. I do know that this epidemiological nighmare guy gave me a new sense of my own concerns and anxieties, and a clear chance to rise above the fatalism that our situation clearly seemed to suggest. And I now realize that, despite him, I’ll be fine. I'll rev up my immune system with the power of postivie belief. All is well, at least with my soul.
And then I sniff.