What Air Rage Says About Human Nature: David Sedaris on Delayed Flights and Pecan-Frosted Wraps

A brilliant and characteristically hilarious piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker, “Standing By”, […]

David Zahl / 8.11.10

A brilliant and characteristically hilarious piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker, “Standing By”, in which our hero reflects on the universal crabbiness that air travel seems to generate. But what could at first be construed as an elitist, bicoastal riff on the hoi-polloi, goes much deeper, and not just in its self-deprecation or its indictment of self-centeredness. Sedaris turns his observations into a meditation on hate in general, going so far as to suggest that despite how much we dress up our anger or blame in cultural-political garb, justifiable or not, the targets may ultimately be interchangeable. That the true issue may be an internal, rather than external one, ht BE:

It was one of those headaches that befall every airline passenger. A flight is delayed because of thunderstorms or backed-up traffic — or maybe it’s cancelled altogether. Maybe you board two hours late, or maybe you board on time, and spend the next two hours sitting on the runway. When it happens to you, it’s a national tragedy–why aren’t the papers covering this, you wonder.

Only when it happens to someone else do you realize what a dull story it really is. “They told us we’d leave at three instead of two-thirty, so I went to get a frosted-pecan wrap, and when I came back they changed the time to four, on account of the plane we’d be riding on hadn’t left Pittsburgh yet. Then I was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that an hour ago?,’ and they were, like, ‘Ma’am, just stand away from the counter please.'”…

Fly enough, and you learn to go braindead when you have to. It’s sort of like time travel. One minute you’re bending to unlace your shoes, and the next thing you know you’re paying fourteen dollars for a fruit cup, wondering, How did I get here?

No sooner had I alienated the grandmother in Denver than I was trapped by the man behind me, who caught my eye and, without invitation, proceeded to complain. He had been passed over for a standby seat earlier that morning and was not happy about it. “The gal at the gate said she’d call my name when it came time to board, but, hell, she didn’t call me.”

I tried to look sympathetic.

“I should have taken her name,” the man continued. “I should have reported her. Hell, I should have punched her is what I should have done!”

“I hear you,” I said.

Directly behind him was a bald guy with a silver mustache… [This commiseration session went on for a while, eventually turning its gaze toward other non-airline subjects]. The man with the mustache mentioned a G.M. dealership in his home town. “They were doing fine, but now the federal government’s telling them they have to close. Like this is Russia or something, a Communist country!”

The man in the khaki shorts joined in, and I wished I’d paid closer attention to the auto-bailout stuff. It had been on the radio and in all the papers, but because I don’t drive, and I always thought that car dealerships were ugly, I’d either turned the page or let my mind wander, which was unfortunate, as I’d have loved to have turned around and given those two what for. Then again, even if I were informed, what’s the likelihood of changing anyone’s opinion, especially a couple of strangers? If my own little mind is nailed shut, why wouldn’t theirs be?

“We’ve got to take our country back,” the man with the mustache said. “That’s the long and short of it, and if votes wont’ do the trick then maybe we should use force.”

What struck me with him, and with many of the conservatives I’d heard since the election, was his overblown, almost egocentric take on political outrage, his certainty that no one else had quite experienced it before. What, then, had I felt during the Bush-Cheney years? Was that somehow secondary? “Don’t tell me I don’t know how to hate,” I wanted to say. Then I stopped and asked myself, Do you really want that to be your message? Think you can out-hate me, [dillweed]? I was… hating people before you were even born!

We’re forever blaming the airline industry for turning us into monsters: it’s the fault of the ticket agents, the baggage handlers, the slowpokes at the newsstands and the fast food restaurants. But what if this is truly who we are, and the airport’s just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?

Very much in tune with that brilliant scene toward the end of Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco: