I recently found an old draft of this post and decided to share it. - sm
Where do I even start this story?
It was last July (2010). I was standing in the entryway to the airplane, watching my soon-to-be seatmate in the first class cabin put lotion on her hands, and I had a bad feeling about this.
I was on my way back to NJ from Spokane, WA and North Pacific Yearly Meeting in Missoula, MT. I’d accepted a voluntary bump that re-routed me through Portland on a twin-prop plane, instead of going through Salt Lake City on a commuter jet.
Happily, coming into Portland, it was a calm evening, and the view of mountains and rivers was gorgeous. (Gorges, for the Columbia River Gorge?)
Powell’s Books in PDX was an unexpected respite and delight. I’d been upgraded to first class for the second, red-eye part of my journey, an ambiguous delight. (Paying for real, unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast at JFK the next morning with an airline voucher was deeply satisfying.)
I was feeling ambiguous about being in first class. I’d been thinking about class a lot lately, talking about it a fair bit, and been writing about it some. And hoo boy, had I been feeling in touch with my working class roots and self.
So that night, on one hand, I welcomed the extra space on a flight where I would really, really need to get some sleep; Beloved Wife was overseas on a research trip, and I was going to need to get myself to central NJ on public transit from JFK when my body thought it was 3 am and I was under the weather. But I felt somehow like I was reinforcing the class system. And I also felt somehow like I wasn’t presenting as “good enough” for first class. Conversely, with our family's scruffy travel backpack, no makeup, my faded Guatemalan print pants and my hiking shirt, traveling first class on a mitzvah, I also felt like I was subverting the class system. (And representing well, too...)
So I sat down next to my seatmate. And oh, my, was that lotion strong. I can’t even tell you what it smelled like, except it was very spicy somehow.
Because first class boards early, I had a lot of time to contemplate what to do. Or not to do. I had a lot of time to argue with myself that that lotion wasn’t actually making me sick. It wasn’t giving me a migraine, so it was easy to argue that it wasn’t really making me nauseated – that was just how warm the airplane was.
I’d already had a bad asthma attack this trip because of totally unexpected mold exposure; both the asthma attack and the meds to treat it had left me feeling pretty vulnerable. The next day I’d had an ADA accessibility problem and a chemical exposure problem within the same ten-minute time frame, both of which also left me feeling tender and vulnerable. I’d been wrestling with these kinds of issues for a good chunk of my trip, with Friends who love and respect me, and even with that love and support it was hard – so let me tell you exactly how much Ms. Scruffy Itinerant Minister Bumped Up to First Class felt like telling a total stranger her hand lotion was a problem.
I got up to pull my cell phone out of my bag in the overhead and turn it off. Standing in the aisle, I instantly felt much better.
Shit, I thought. I have to say something. What do I say? How do I ask this total stranger in first class to go wash her hands?
I sat back down. Lotion. My head pounded and my stomach rebelled.
“Excuse me,” I finally said. “I need your help with something…”
And it worked.
My seatmate was quite startled, but very responsive. I kept it short and sweet and talked about it in terms of allergies. She was sympathetic. She’s from Europe and her husband’s from the US, and they have very different allergy problems when they visit family in different countries. She obviously felt a little silly washing her hands, but then worried the fragrance in the soap would be a problem. It was fine, and I was deeply grateful.
She drank her wine and went to sleep.
Eventually, I went to sleep, too.