This post is different. I wrote it a year or so ago — long before the recent marches and protests over gross societal inequities. I made a few changes to it, in light of the recent happenings in multiple cities in the US. This flight did happen and I wonder if my reaction to the series of events would be the same today.
I’m not certain that this fits on a blog about career/life transition, other than some references to my own career shortcomings. I thought I’d put it out, nonetheless.
We are waiting to deplane after landing in Seattle. There’s a gray, disheveled man standing in the row behind me. He is insufferable. I’ve listened to his loud, croaky voice the entire trip from Denver. He has been drinking the entire time. It is 11 am.
Many of us on this plane are traveling to the same conference. He is one of the attendees. Although he looks a mess, I’ve learned that, like me, he is a professional researcher. His matted appearance isn’t all that uncommon in our field. I once took classes from a guy who owned only two outfits: black sweater and pants in fall and winter, brown in spring and summer. He slept on a cot in his office and showered at the gym. He was an ABD — All But Dissertation. Meaning he’s completed all the requirements for a Ph.D., just not the capstone dissertation. In other words, he was largely unemployable in the academic world. He survived by teaching introductory classes to undergraduates. I’m pretty sure that he was still there after I graduated.
The conversation between the drunk guy and the two young women seated next to him started nicely enough. Both women were graduate students, and this was their first time traveling to a conference to present their findings. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking! But never once did he ask them about the work that they were doing. I suspect that it didn’t matter to him.
Their conversation turned awkward by the time we reached cruising altitude and he started with personal questions. Did they have boyfriends? Where were they were staying and for how long? Did they want to meet him later for drinks? Questions that he might not have asked without the power of early morning alcohol behind them. I wanted him to ask about their work and to recognize them as beginning researchers. That didn’t happen. The conversation ended when the two plugged into their phones to escape him the best way they could in that tight space. I ached for them, having been in similar spaces over the years.
He ordered a drink and turned to his colleague seated across the aisle. They talked about the research that they were presenting and the upcoming field season. They gossiped about a graduate student and how he was struggling to finish his thesis. He would finish, but there were significant holes that he first needed to address. I wondered if they would have the same confidence in the student if he were female. Maybe — more likely not. They concluded that while his work was less than stellar, the student was a nice guy and had made some decent connections. Even as a marginal candidate, he would do well in his future job search.
Once the plane landed, the bell rung, and people stood to deplane. Dozens of poster tubes were retrieved from overhead storage for those who were assigned a poster space rather than oral presentations. Most national conferences have grown too large to accommodate all the scientists wanting to present their work. Poster presentations became the workaround to the problem of too many researchers and not enough time on the agenda for all of them.
Personally, being assigned a poster presentation at this stage of my career is kind of a letdown. That may just be me, but I’ve pulled more than one offered paper rather than be relegated to a poster spot. I’m too old for that shit.
As we stood and waited for the procession off the plane, the drunk guy spied a Black family seated in the row catty-corner to mine. Mom, Dad, and toddler. He could not hold back. He had to say something to them — perhaps to show that he was truly woke.
He complimented them on how well they dressed and how the little boy had been so good during the flight. The Dad nodded and said, “Thanks,” trying his best to brush off the drunk and protect his family from what was to follow. The drunk could not be brushed off. He started slurring and repeating himself. Yes, yes, they looked so nice. The boy was so good. And then he said it. “You know, you are some of the good ones.” They weren’t like those other Black people — the ones who were loud and wore their pants to their butts. This family was good, and he wanted them to know it.
The group around us went motionless and silent as the drunk grew louder and more insistent on making his point. He was paying them a compliment, dammit, and people needed to hear this!
I looked at the Dad whose mouth was now agape. I looked at the Mom, who had a protective hand on her son. I looked at the young female researchers who were trapped in the seat beside the drunk, leaning to avoid his touch as his arm flailed and his body swayed. My eyes met the colleague’s eyes, visually pleading with him to stop whatever might come out of the drunk’s mouth next.
The colleague put his hand on the drunk’s shoulder and suggested that he find his luggage and poster since the line of departing passengers was beginning to reach us. The drunk quieted and turned his attention to the overhead bins. It was as if he suddenly forgot about making his point.
I started to speak but stopped. I could feel my rage building. I wanted to confront him and tell him that he wasn’t one of the “good ones.” He was a complete ass and his behavior that day was sexist and racist. He looked like he slept in a swamp and dared to comment on someone else’s appearance. He hit on his young seatmates, leaving them feeling devalued and sullying their entry to their first professional conference. His comments to the family, that he felt were approving, were derogatory on multiple fronts. His drunken antics had cut all of us. By virtue of his professional stature — being entrusted with the education of future researchers — he should have done better.
Yet, I said nothing. I knew that the few words I could speak to this souse could very well have made the situation worse. He had no clue of his effect on that group of passengers that morning. Would it have mattered if someone had called him on his behaviors?
Perhaps de-escalation of the drunk was the best solution in those tight quarters, however unsatisfying the outcome. But in a world where public behaviors are constantly analyzed, this fool faced no consequence of his actions. Even in his inebriated state, he still basked in privilege. He had the privilege of not being cut off from more drinks. The privilege of not being escorted off the plane with the help of a security officer. The privilege of not being confronted by offended passengers. I can’t imagine that similar behavior from any person who was not white and male would have been so ignored.
I still think about this drunk guy on the plane and wonder how the situation could have been different. How wrongs could have been righted. I’m still displeased with myself for not facing him. Was I an enabler by not calling him out?