coach class to charlotte

US airlines have the oldest air-hostesses. This is both quaint and not a little sad. Mostly quaint, revealing a paternalism in American corporate culture that is surprising. A facet we as outsiders have conveniently overlooked. Unlike like the bimbo’s on Virgin, all visible pantylines and rustling stockings, US Air has no sense of the contemporary. It isn’t crippled by a desire to be contemporary. The styling, the seats, the folksy service, right down to the graphical layout and interface of the entertainment system menu, all harks back to a previous age. The southern, Georgian, if I?m not mistaken, accent of the middle aged black woman who greeted us and informed us of their current credit card/airmiles tie in with Bank of America, was so thick, so ethnic, so unselfconscious, that the vast diversity that such a country contains, encompasses, and in some way takes for granted is again surprising. On this plane, and other American carriers, you chance upon a quietly confident everyday America, at ease with a diversity of ages, not just of peoples; the cadence and diction of this woman’s voice, albeit reading haltingly off a crib sheet the details of how many points earnt per so many miles, introductory interest rates, and sign up bonuses, this voice could have been heard in another century. Or so it made me think.

And the words, the turns of phrase used by these air hostesses. Attentive yet oddly euphemistic, which is itself an old fashioned way of talking about things. The pride the cabin crew take in having things taken care of, helping us with our paperwork, which means filling out those damned annoying visa waiver and customs forms.

Like the American word ?cocktails?. A word which celebrates the contents of the wet bar. Again a phrase both euphemistic and nostalgic at the same time, containing both a memory of the illicit pleasures of prohibition, yet also suggesting a post war optimism in the triumph of a certain kind of civilisation. I conjure a tipsy Cary Grant when I get served a vodka-tonic, which I call a vodka and tonic. The omission of the ‘and’ somehow refers back to the drink being a cocktail. Losing the ‘and’ performs a runic function on my drink, transforms it into my cocktail of choice, one of the Brahmin liquors. A word that was at home in the luxury of ocean liners and aeroplanes that used to look like them. That conjures be-fezed barmen behind hotel bars in Cairo and Tunis, the colonial privilege of cold drinks in places surrounded by desert. Cocktail hour, the tinkle of ice in short glasses and the fizz of champagne in tall ones. Gimlets and Bourbon, Manhattens and seasonal eggnog. Chivas on the rocks. It evokes for me also the darker fifties atmosphere of John Cheever’s short stories. The flip-side of so much civilisation. Cocktails being an essential counterweight to the everyday failures and compromises of suburban living. A little catholic promise to self at the end of each day, made upon waking. Also their mixers, which speak of an age of innocent convenience, the giddy ease which proffered Cheever such a gilded underbelly to ravage.

When the drinks trolley comes around I ask for a tomato juice and get a legend. Mr. and Mrs. T’s famous bloody Mary Mix. Every time I fly US I look forward to it?s savoury smack before I even pass security, and the can which actually advertises a website celebrating the American art of tailgate parties, It?s promise lures me through security, the ritual taking off of shoes, socks nearly as embarrasing as knickers, the unsnaking of belts, the debagging of laptops, all just hurdles I have to jump in order to quench my thirst with somebody else?s nostalgia.

Many of these words, phrases, politenesses, hint at and are echoes of a civilisation at a higher point in the arc of it?s rise and fall. As if surviving members of a once great tribe still unselfconsciously use remnant words from this golden age, names of great halls, wars and the formal exchanges of an elaborate court diplomacy in an age of mud and hunger. I hear in the voices of these ancient air-hostesses the rhythm of a supreme confidence and optimism that to an outside observer seems out of place. Words that have become totemic in the space of a mere fifty years, freighted with the meaning of a long lost cargo cult.

But who is this outside observer? Not me, as I sip my spicy tomato juice and crunch my chive and onion pretzels, not me.

There is also a kindness about the service on these planes that reminds you of a more conservative yet polite era. The hostesses are very helpful. I heard one take an elderly Anglo-Indian woman through her immigration forms, because she couldn’t read English, without a hint of condescention or impatience. She read out the questions on the customs form for the woman to fill in. ‘Have you been in contact with farm animals recently?’ The woman was visiting her daughter in Charlotte, I had seen her wheeled onto the plane at check-in. I don’t want to read too much into this, but the absence of any racial/cultural superiority in this exchange did surprise me. I was sitting next to a young Muslim woman, who at six O’clock took off her earphones, she had been enjoying Pirates of the Carribean Dead Man’s Chest whilst eating her special meal and sat quietly with her hands on her knees, head slightly lowered and keened ever so slightly as she offered prayers. I was reading the Daily Star, a tabloid British newspaper I had found on the plane, opened on a photograph of a topless model. As I closed the paper surreptitiously I wondered if the plane facing Mecca, as I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She was studying marketing at a University in Virginia and spoke in an American that employed the same phrases and pleasantries as all the other Americans that surrounded me.

Slight turbulence. The overhead lockers rattle on their central spine, looking to shake themselves free and kill us all. A cascade of perfume and liquor. Death by duty free, killed by our own hubris.

These planes are old too, bits falling off them, broken trays, ripped stiching, all dutifully entered into a manifest for future repairs. None of the gadgets look modern. America is a national expression of the Microsoft Windows, a little off the pace stylistically, the start button is functional without the expectation we have come to demand from our gizmos. I like this. This uncoolness. It also extends itself to how middle America dresses. Especially dresses to travel. Comfort over style, accomodation over cut. Is there also an arrogance, an assumption that who cares what we look like, we rule the world. Would lazy gods smooch about in tracksuits, hoodies, baseball caps, T’s, the older ones looking like pampered daycare/spa patients? Is there an implicit insult to other cultural sensibilities in this informality? I think again of the (badly)conservatively dressed Muslim woman sitting next to me, habitually tucking her hair up into her headscarf.

The fatness and girth of these people, whose size demands comfort clothes with elasticated waistbands and drawstrings. Up close and personal I felt all this, felt revulsion, felt the attractiveness of this otherworldliness, in fact I felt old like the country I come from, conflicted in my opinions because I had over a thousand years accrued so many of them. America still has this ability to wrongfoot one’s assuptions. It’s all about the money stupid, yet at the same time it isn’t. When we landed it was night and a fire engine circled the plane hosing us down with water, it’s siren blaring. An announcement told us we were all lucky to be on board the last flight of air attendant Gale Jordan, who had given thirty three years of service to US airways, flying over 60,000 hours. The fire engine was a welcoming committee from her home base of Charlotte. Everybody stared clapping and Gale blushed. The Muslim woman clapped and smiled at me. My hands stayed face down on my knees, I keened forward a little. The sentence ‘On a wing and a prayer’ popped into my head as Gale silently wept. Under the layers of make-up and blusher that had tried to protect her skin for the last thirty years I saw her face colour and tears well up and spill over her mascara. She looked like a played out hooker. I felt terrible. As we got off the plane we passed a banner greeting Gale, and a gaggle of famliy members waiting for her to disembark. They clutched balloons filled with helium, which eased them up on their toes in expectation. This duty, her career, a life celebrated by her family, co-workers and fellow Americans. ‘Go Girl!’ and ‘Love you mom’ rang in my ears as I walked to customs. The banner read. ‘Mom, happy retirement, we love you! Go Gale Go.’ I glanced behind me as I hurried past. Gale was coming up the ramp escorted by her captain and crew.

They bore her up into the terminal on wave of celebration that made me feel ashamed of myself for hating them.

Welcome to Charlotte.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.



One Comment to “coach class to charlotte”

  1. Wrong- footed by America.

    The place is just to big to fit in the box I would like to put it in.

    I remember flying to LA once on United and the experience was as you descibed. In one sense it was shocking, the plane was in bits and the noise on take off was amazing. It was like being on a B-17 on a daylight raid over the northern Rhine. Not what I expected from a modern American airline but that just goes to show how much I know.

    The American economy is fucked and the totems of that economy are falling to bits as rapidly as the economy itself. The country that brought us the international jet set and a whisky mac at 30,000 feet can no longer maintain the illusion and I get the feeling they don’t care very much. They are just tired from the effort, like Gale the cracks beneath the make up are beginning to show.

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