Tag Archives: Business Travelers

Just Another Bitch on the Bus

When students came to my classes on the first day of the semester, they were not assigned seats, and over the years, I had ample opportunity to observe them as they filtered into the room looking for familiar faces and sat with other students they knew. Some sat apart from the others until they latched on to someone with whom they shared something in common. For the first week they tended to sit in those same seats they sat in on the first day, tacitly claiming them as “theirs.” Pretty much all the students followed suit in that same implicit way.

By week two, it was less likely that anyone was going to move into ”someone else’s” seat, even when that person didn’t show up for class.

By week three, you couldn’t pry students from their unassigned seats with a crowbar.

I was reminded of my former students three years ago when Bill and I went overseas with our good friends, Joe and Mary Jane. We traveled part of the time on a bus going from place to place, and it occurred to me that bus riders behaved the same way. Even when they were stuck in seats they didn’t particularly like, they were loathe to encroach on what they perceived as another person’s territory.

Most of the time, but not always.

To ensure you’d get your proper seat back upon returning to the bus, individuals used water bottles, sweaters, town maps, anything they had handy to mark their territory – unlike other creatures of the natural world that use urine for that same purpose.

If you’ve ever watched sheep in the fields, you know they take their cue from the sheep in the lead. The first one to turn in any direction is followed by one, then another, until the whole flock is moving in the same direction. Cartoons depict actions like this as groups of animated characters blindly following their leader across a cliff, but this happens in real life, too. Remember Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Hitler, any number of leaders of religious cults?

Students coming to class the first week or two.

Our last stop of the day before returning to the riverboat was an ancient village some distance from the river where we were docked. After our tour, we had free time to roam around on our own, then wend our way back to the bus on the edge of town for our return. Bill and I arrived before Joe and Mary Jane and attempted to save the seats they’d sat in all day and which were across the aisle from ours. As there were no assigned seats, seats were technically up for grabs any time we disembarked and returned, though our guide said we could leave our things on the seats because the bus would be locked. Like the students in my class, everyone tended to return to the same seats each time they got back on the bus. If there was a mistake made regarding possession, the person who’d had the seat previously got it back.

It was going to be a long return trip to the riverboat, and we tried to save our friends’ seats, putting our jackets on them. When a couple of interlopers tried to sit in the seats we laid claim to, Bill said in a friendly way that they were taken, as the woman had never even asked. Responding to Bill’s attempt to save the seats with a venomous tone Bill generally does not take well from anyone, the wife became demanding, insistent, and rude. Her docile husband never opened his mouth. We’d seen these people off and on all week long; they were always on their own and seemed not to have made friends with anyone. Frankly, it was not difficult to imagine why.

I was amazed Bill didn’t tell her off – or rather, shove her off the bus. Bill’s request to save those seats for our friends, who would have to move several seats away, was met with pure disdain. However, Bill proved to be a model of self-restraint, the likes of which are rarely seen. When we told our traveling companions what happened, Mary Jane’s only comment was “Just another bitch on the bus.”

Classic Mary Jane: honest and direct. Funny, too – she’s knows how to lighten up a moment and deaden a fuse.

Like Nathaniel Benchley once said, most people are sheep. They do what everyone else does and they are not amenable to, or perhaps leery of, change of any kind. But occasionally you’ll run across that “bitch on the bus” and best to tread with care when you do.

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A Violation of One’s Personal Space

You really are trapped when you fly on a plane, so if you’re going anywhere by air, you must realistically accept this possibility and prepare for it before you buy your tickets. And you must also come to terms with the fact that, especially these days, the airlines continue to cut back on everything that used to make flying something to look forward to, something fun. They have cut back or cut out every single amenity – pillows, blankets, beverages, food, newspapers, and magazines – unless you’re willing to pay extra for each and every one. Even your personal space, commonly thought to belong to you, is less and less yours each time you fly. Disclaimer: on overseas flights you will still get a free meal, and no charge for the pillow, blanket, or beverages (except the alcoholic ones).

But what can one do – stay home all the time? Of course not, so you turn your mind away from the possibilities and go.

Flying domestically in economy class, known in the private sector as slave or cattle class, has been severely condensed. While the discomfort varies somewhat on different airlines, coach class (its prior alias) is always cramped. Seats are smaller than ever, the space between aisles likewise, and the space between you and the person in front of you continues to erode. If you have long legs, only heaven knows where you can put them. No one talks about these mounting discomforts much anymore, and really, what can one say that will change anything.

We recently traveled with friends to the Netherlands and Belgium, and the first thing I noticed were those new seats they’ve installed in first class – the ones you can actually sleep in that you see in magazines and on commercials. We were told they cost approximately $5000 more than ours – and that’s why we don’t fly in comfort. What we noticed is how young almost all the first-class passengers were. I’d say in their low thirties on average. Business travelers with a company credit card. Either that or Mark Zuckerberg, or maybe Bill Gates, was on the plane. I didn’t see either of them – but they would have their own planes, wouldn’t they.

 

As our plane pushed back from the gate, a safety recording was piped into the cabin on our individual screens embedded in the seatbacks in front of us demonstrating what to do in the event of an emergency. The problem was, we couldn’t clearly hear the recording. The enclosed ventilation system combined with the engine noise makes hearing even what the captain says impossible most of the time. So what happens? No one listens. Even I just scout out the emergency exits so I’ll know which way to attempt an escape if need be – but there are so many people literally crammed together (think sardines) that it’s obvious to me, if no one else, that nothing had better happen or no one gets out of this tin can alive. If it’s my time, end of story.

I bury myself in a book, not wanting to think about the nine grueling hours ahead of me. The longest flight I’ve ever had was to Sao Paolo, Brazil – 11+ hours from Chicago, but that was a relatively comfortable flight at a time when they gave a little more than a nod to passenger comfort. Some sixteen years ago.

Those days are gone.

Bill and I are in the middle three seats of the plane and Bill strikes up a conversation with the woman on his other side. After a while I find Bill bending down trying to reach something that remains out of his grasp. But he’s bumping into the seat in front of him as well as the one in front of me, and I’m concerned he’ll annoy the people in those seats, so I pull him back, ask what he’s looking for, and tell him I’ll get it.

But really, it’s impossible. You can’t bend, fold, or contort yourself into any shape that will allow you to get anything once it’s dropped to the floor – there is simply no room whatsoever in which to maneuver. Bill said the woman he was conversing with had knocked over her cup of water and he became obsessed with finding that clear, plastic cup. Why? Even he couldn’t explain. He gave it up, for a while, but after we’d eaten, he started obsessing again and at last finding it was still unable to pick it up, so I unbuckled my seatbelt, stooped down in the aisle, and retrieved it myself just to get him to stop this. When I asked why he was so obsessed with it, he couldn’t tell me, at which point we both started laughing at how ridiculous this scene was.

Anything to break the monotony.

I thought I’d watch a movie – which shouldn’t have been a problem. But the guy in front of me wanted to sleep, and what’s the first thing we do so we can sleep? Right. Put the seat back. He pushed his back so hard I thought it was going to break, and he still wasn’t satisfied. When his seat wouldn’t recline any further, he pushed harder. I thought it would break and I’d find him staring up into my baby blues for the next 4000 miles. Seriously.

This is what the airlines do now. Take away as much of your personal space as possible by allowing the seatbacks to go farther back than before, and with the reduced space between you and the seat in front of you, his/her seat comes within inches of your face as it angles downward. Guess what else angles downward. Right. The viewing screen.

 

On the way back from Amsterdam, Bill’s reading light didn’t work and he was unable to read for entire trip back to Chicago. In addition, the arm rest on his aisle seat would not raise, requiring both of us to bend ourselves into “S” shapes getting into or out of the seat due to the minimal space available in all directions. When Bill asked about the light, the steward said someone had complained about the light for this same seat on the incoming flight to Amsterdam, too. He steward advised that on the Boeing 777 there are circuit breakers that can be adjusted but the 767, in which we were flying, doesn’t have them available to the cabin staff. He told Bill he would put it in his report and that he was sorry but they couldn’t move us because there were no unused seats. As for the armrest, only some seats can be raised because “the airline won’t pay for all of the armrests to have that capability. They don’t want to pay the extra money for all of them to work.”

These kinds of things make people testy. Particularly on long flights.

In some ways planes are safer, but in others they’re more dangerous than ever.