Last week I returned from a trip to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast that included an overnight stay in Accra, Ghana. I went through four airports in four different countries: New York, Istanbul, Abidjan, and Accra. That gave me a lot of time to watch people, which is a hobby of mine, along with taking photos of them surreptitiously. My daughter worries that I will get caught someday, but so far I have managed to avoid detection. The secret is to act as if what you are doing is not a secret at all. Maybe I’ll write a manual about that.
Let me put my observations on the table so that you can examine them and draw your own conclusion. Mine is reflected in the title of this post, but I ask you to decide for yourself. Business people, flight crew, or anyone who flies regularly should have no problem confirming what I am talking about.
Here is what I observed people doing publicly in airports. As my grandfather used to say, hang onto your hat: toe cleaning, nose picking, mucous inspecting, phlegm sucking, testicle massaging, nail clipping, hair teasing, teeth flossing, ear wax extracting, eye wax gazing, ass scratching, and finger sniffing. People also did the usual coughing, sneezing, yawning, belching, and farting that accompany this kind of behavior without anyone feeling the need to cover their mouth or excuse themselves. What I find interesting is that people either think no one can see them (a variant of the baby game “peek-a-boo”), or they just don’t care.
Then there were the men at the airport in Istanbul who came out of the bathroom stall, bypassed the sink, and went straight for the exit. I imagined the airport police arresting them with sanitized handcuffs.
Believe me when I tell you that I am not a personal hygiene, clean freak. I used to teach Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Teresa, the love interest, “can’t reconcile herself to the idea that the human body pisses and farts.” This is said by Teresa’s mother, who then farts loudly and laughs.
While it’s true that my refrigerator is immaculate and I take my shoes off when entering my apartment, I am not Teresa. The Macedonian couple downstairs does the same thing. I do not even object to dirty feet. If someone wants to have dirty feet, that’s their business. I just don’t want to sit next to them. What do you call people who display them as if it were the most natural thing in the world? You have to wonder about their rearing. You also have to wonder about people who eat, make a mess, and then leave their trash behind. Is this intentional? Do they think someone ought to pick up after them, or do they simply not think?
This is about more than people being slobs. It’s about public spaces and the kind of actions that are appropriate there. In an age not of informality but anti-formality, it has become customary to act as if other people do not exist. To wit, the guy who took up an entire row of seats on my flight, because he needed to stretch out. He acted as if it were his unalienable right. He never offered a seat to one of the three, big men packed together in the row across from him. He also chased others away looking for an unoccupied seat. People assume rights without responsibilities.
You might think that traveling first class is better. On certain airlines, that’s true. With more space, people tend to act more civilly, but even that has limits. These behaviors have become universal. I also recognize that when people wax nostalgic for the days of courtesy, manners, and stewardesses serving gourmet meals on china, they usually do not take into account airfare. Thanks to deregulation and discount airlines, you can fly from San Francisco to New York for a fraction of what it cost in the early days. With lower prices come, well, lower people.
I think it’s time for me to join the Delta Sky Club. At least the feet there will be in gold-toed socks.
This is the second of a three-part series on my trip to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Eventually, I will get out of the airport. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Start work on my new invention that allows you to pee in your seat while traveling on the plane (i.e., the “Urinator”).