Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Flight of The Stereotypes

This is one of those moments when I wish that I had practiced one of the much-valued lessons of blogging: batch writing. I've been off the grid for about a week, and gratefully so, but my blog has not seen a post for several days as I've returned to my hometown of St. Marys for a visit. The week thus far has already been one of emotional intensity; both sad and gratifying. I have much to write about in the coming days, but first I want to recount my day of flying last Friday.

The business of flying has always been a tricky one and is often fraught with frustrations of various sorts. I actually relish flying in and of itself....the often stunning aerial views of the places I fly in and out of; the sight of rising to cruising altitude, when you see the cloud formations from above...its often a breathtaking sight. Reflecting back, I even felt that way during the most challenging flight of my life: that terrifying flight from Boston to Charlotte many years ago. On that excruciating excursion, Keith and I were on a flight that tried to circle around a major storm but Mother Nature refused to be outsmarted and we instead descended right through it. Lightning struck the plane twice; the flight attendant wound up in a passenger's lap and it felt as if we traveling in a dryer on spin cycle. I remember wishing that I could tell my family that I loved them and wishing that I was sitting next to Keith as opposed to the astoundingly serene young man next to me reading Dostoevsky. The heroic pilots got us through safely and their actions became one of the reasons why I'm still not afraid to fly. I have always loved storms and continue to love them....prior to the scares, I thrilled to watching the storms from afar: the lightning dancing around and above the dark, foreboding clouds was an awe-inspiring sight.

The frustrations that have arisen over the past several years have come more from the airports and the actual business of flying. Flying remains the easiest way for me to return to my hometown but its become considerably more challenging lately. The poor economy and the rising gas prices make it difficult to find a good flight deal. Post 9/11, the new body scanners seem necessary but feel humiliating and refusing them can result in a patdown that can make you feel even more violated. I was flying out of Kansas City, after all, which is the airport recently garnering national attention for patting down an infant.

After checking in at KCI last Friday, I proceeded to the security checkpoint and as always, I have to steel myself a bit before beginning the process. I watched as a family with two small children removed their shoes and walked one by one through the metal detector. The security personnel, one of them pictured in the infamous infant patdown, were extraordinarily kind to the two kids but were as serious about the job as ever. I then walked through myself and was summarily waved on. As I sat to put my own shoes back on, I watched as the young Middle Eastern man behind me walked through and was then moved to the holding area to be patted down and have a wand waved over him. He seemed utterly unmoved for being singled out and I found my own thoughts were two-natured and battling for dominance. Is it fair for him to be singled out? Is it not? Nearly ten years ago, I stood in a parking lot in Washington, DC watching planes take off from Reagan Airport before my supervisor picked me up to drive us past the Pentagon to our meeting with other managers at a Marriott hotel about a mile up the road. About ninety minutes later, while we watched the horror of the Twin Towers falling from our conference room TV, a plane leaving Reagan Airport would crash into the Pentagon; killing hundreds. This past Friday, the flight this young Middle Eastern man and I would board was bound for Dulles Airport in DC for a layover.

Once in Dulles, an entirely different set of circumstances was about to unfold. I was stoked to discover a Five Guys at the airport and quickly leapt in line to order one of their most awesome burgers. Anyone who knows Five Guys Burgers, a DC original, knows that this ain't no McDonalds: you may have to wait a little longer but that beautifully succulent burger is always worth the wait. Sure enough, the guy waiting in front of me was sucking down beers and loudly complaining that "there were six people working behind there and it seems like they ought to able to put out food a little quicker. Maybe they do things different wherever they're from" (they all appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent). I told him that Five Guys is always worth the wait but he just grunted, grabbed his food and stalked off.

Later on at boarding time, four flights were about to board simultaneously and we were told to listen carefully as these flights... to Indy, Altoona, Pa, Charleston, WV and you guessed it, Charleston, SC were all boarding passengers at the same time. The folks announcing this were a pair of ladies; one Hispanic and one Asian and they were both using heavily accented English. It took me several minutes to realize "Indiana Police" was Indianapolis and for all of us it became a scene right out of the movie Airplane: several stops and starts; getting in the wrong line many times and growing frustration. My parents never raised me to be racist and always encouraged me to accept differences in other folks. Nonetheless, I felt that creeping sensation into my brain stem.....I could hear the echoes in my head...the ugliness was circling: "Why can't they speak good English?"

About the time those unspoken thoughts were entering my head, it happened: a middle-aged woman sidled up beside me and furrowed her brow and said, "What the hell are those people saying?" I looked at her up and down, noted the Nascar t-shirt and replied, "I'm not sure. Where are you headed?" She answered and I quote...

"West By God Virginia if these damn foreigners ever get us on the right plane."

...and there it was. As those sadly familiar thoughts entered my mind, I was slammed back into reality by the prejudices of another, not to mention the stereotype this woman herself displayed; one, in fact, that also tends to include me as a West Virginian. As a proud West Virginian, it got to me but good....I bristled at her prejudice and I suddenly envisioned this person getting into a confrontation with the airline workers. That became more about my own expectations again and she was perfectly well-behaved the entire flight. I was caught up in my own ego; fretting about everyone's perception of this woman representing what every West Virginian is like. In the end, I still felt like the only person truly judging everyone around me.

I boarded my flight and despite the Flying Winnebago with propellers that I flew on into Charleston, everything for the most part added up to a relatively smooth day of flying. I thought back on the day and reflected on my own ongoing battle with labeling and stereotyping other folks. I have been stereotyped my entire life....as a gay man, as a West Virginian, as a small-town boy. I've lived the labels of being too thin and too fat. I found prejudice in every job I worked: working with challenged children (how can you work with those hopeless kids?), in the restaurant business (why don't you get a real job?), as a wedding coordinator (isn't that a job for a woman?) or bookselling (re: real job). I battle with being labeled every day yet it still creeps into my own thinking. The labeling will never end but I can at least abolish it from my own thinking once and for all and try to be a better example.

The business of flying is like anything else in life: we all need to coexist and work together if we want it to go smoothly. I needed everyone Friday and I was color-blind in my need..I needed the folks working at all three airports, the pilots and flight attendants and certainly my fellow passengers to make this one day in the eternally tricky business of flying to make for a serene and safe experience and they, for the most part, did just that. I've had some deep conversations about labeling lately and realize that I still have work to do and work on it I will.

One last thought...the heroic flight staff that got us through that horrific flight many years ago? Two pilots: one white, one Asian. Two flight attendants: one black, one Asian. All heroes.

Just sayin'.

3 comments:

Lisa said...

Didn't realize you were in DC when that happened! Wow! I actually had Five Guys for the first time in DC of course a few years ago when my stepdad was working in DC and we flew there for the end of my Christmas break to visit him.

I'm the same as you. I'm going to have to type up my blogs and save them, as my home computer isn't letting me post my blogs since I upgraded to IE 9. I can type them and save them, just can't post them.

Ali, Terry and Garrett said...

Five Guys has finally made it to Portland, although we haven't been yet. Soon tho! Love it!

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