United We Shoulder

Perfectly inline with United’s burgeoning reputation as the most physical airline experience for those of Asian ethnicity, I had to muster the toughness of Emmitt Smith when he rolled the Giants with a separated shoulder during a 3-hour, 35-minute flight from Tampa to Denver.

It was my right shoulder put to the test after I was deposited in aisle seat 38C, no doubt due to my race. From this spot in the very last passenger row, I could reach the handles of both bathroom doors with my abnormally long arms.

I thought nothing of it and fell asleep as usual during takeoff, only to be pulled into a semi-conscious state with repeated bumping against my shoulder. It was a flight attendant passing in and out of the back area, and in retrospect, the heralding of a continuous, incredible, laughable, baffling amount of contact.

Never in the history of aviation have so many passengers gone to the bathroom on a flight. Either I missed a beer bong tailgate at the airport terminal, or first class was passing back lines of cocaine. No other explanation could suffice.

I still can’t believe it. I had my work laptop and a good book, but all I could do from groggy wakeup until merciful descent was analyze why I kept getting bumped with varying degrees of intensity — and how not to go insane over it.

The first factor I noticed was the mountain of a man in the aisle seat across from me. His entire left leg rested in the walkway, effectively turning the 405 into three lanes.

For a short time, I fumed at his apparent lack of effort to fold into his seat like everybody else. Then I happened to glance at my own shoulder, which protruded into the aisle.

This realization caused a pang of sheepishness, a feeling quickly hijacked by the satisfaction of self-acknowledging my broad shoulders. They were so wide I could not sit squarely in the seat without extending into neutral air space.

Broad shoulders create a tapered, athletic look for the torso. I love it when I manage to cut out refined carbs for 4-5 days, and my stomach has more definition than a dictionary. With full-length mirrors in our bedroom, it really takes intercourse to another level when I can stare at myself in admiration. A bit narcissistic, but this line of thinking distracted me from my bumpy plight for at least 15 minutes.

Once those good feelings subsided, the next thing I thought about was why some people chose not to pivot and sidestep between the Mountain and the Shoulder. This seemed to me an obvious solution that humans intuitively if not automatically try when confronted with narrow space.

Perhaps after navigating 20 rows down an aisle, focus unraveled in the last few steps once the bathrooms came into view. Or maybe all the focus went to avoiding the Mountain. Some folks might optimistically underestimate their own size, have poor spatial perception, or simply approach a cramped plane like a concert, with incidental contact being expected and without need for excusal.

My favorite flight attendant usually did sidestep, but this only meant she mashed her derriere into me. In my younger days I might have channeled my inner Bill O’Reilly and strategically propped my chin on my fist to get a face-full each time.

Instead I sat stoically while getting a taste of what it felt like to be backed down by Shaq in the post. She absolutely abused me. This was not brushing against my shoulder. I’m talking bumper-car collisions. Thank goodness the battering ram had some padding, and the impact was distributed over ample surface area. Had the force been applied by say, a fist, I would be typing this in a sling.

Not only was sidestepping ineffective at times, it only contributed to the comedy of errors in some cases. Each person exiting the bathroom had to pass anyone waiting in the aisle for both to get to their destination. This of course is very normal interaction on airplanes, but highly unscalable.

Several times, people just couldn’t wait for an opening any longer and piled into the aisle. Watching them dry-hump and play Twister to grind past each other provided some more diversion for me in the form of vindictive enjoyment.

One behemoth, who looked like he could have been Emmitt’s right tackle, needed to pass a tiny woman and vice versa. They both just laughed, and she quipped, “How is this going to work?” I half-considered suggesting she crawl through his legs.

But I swallowed my voice, fearful that the airline had planted some undercover Chicago P.D. in the economy cabin. The last time an Asian brother expressed an opinion on a crowded United plane, he was dragged out by the arms, a near-martyr in a misdirected war, kind of like when Forrest Gump pulled Lieutenant Dan through the Vietnamese jungle.

So I kept my mouth shut while my mind continued to churn. I just couldn’t grasp how and why so many people had to go to the bathroom.

In my 12-person block comprising the last two rows, I counted only three, including me, who did not go. I tried to project that 75-percent potty rate over 38 rows of six, but was unsure of the layout in first class and whether any row numbers were skipped. There were certainly more than 100 passengers, and 75 bathroom goers seemed like a decent lower-bound guess.

Whatever the number, it was easily high enough to merit accusations of selfishness. A full-capacity domestic flight is not meant to accommodate everyone going to the bathroom. That would be a logistical nightmare given the limited time, facilities and paths to them.

Essentially, people with normal-functioning bladders need to “subsidize” those who legitimately cannot hold it during the flight. It’s kind of like the right lane on eastbound Rosecrans that accesses the on-ramp for 405 North. Honest drivers line up and wait their turn. Some nonlocal folks might be unaware that the northbound entrance ramp is counterintuitively on the right side. So they should be allowed to cut into the line, but if everyone has to do that, the system becomes unsustainable.

Every airline passenger has the responsibility to make a preemptive bathroom trip before boarding. I chugged a water bottle in the security line, so it did not take very complicated cause-and-effect reasoning to decide to whiz beforehand, even though my seat was one of the two closest to the bathrooms.

I did this rather than crowd around the boarding line before my group was called, which is another selfish prisoner’s dilemma. (The most socially efficient outcome is for all passengers to relax until their group is called. However, regardless of what your opponents/fellow passengers choose to do, lining up early is individually the best strategic move if you care about overhead luggage space.)

Such rudimentary game theory and estimates of bathroom visits made the jarring flight go by faster. I will never understand how three-fourths of the plane had to use the restroom in the same condensed window of time. Pit stops for drunk buses have shorter lines.

The incessant rattling of the right side of my body got to the point where I had to use mental tricks to avoid getting annoyed. All happiness comes down to perception. I tried to convince myself that the bumping felt good, massage-like. That worked for a little while.

I also pictured some of my friends whose laid-back nature I envy, and how they would react in this situation. But then I realized one of them is impossibly obese, the size of a baby elephant really, and had he been in seat 38C, some sort of Lion-King-stampede-meets-sumo-death-match would have ensued.

Overall I think I handled the war of attrition well. Getting bumped every minute while trying to sleep is akin to the Chinese water torture technique in which water is repeatedly dripped on the forehead. This is supposed to cause insanity.

But I kept any thoughts of an outburst in check. As we know from current events, when flying Asian on United, it is probably better to be bumped on a flight rather than from a flight.



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