My Trip to Portugal Summarized by Five Remarkable Bathroom Visits (Part II)
Bathroom Visit #5: United Airlines, Flight 167, Basic Economy Class, Boarding Group 4
As we’re waiting to board the plane, the flight crew makes an announcement that one of the toilets on board just broke down and they’d rather take off and get us to our destination than fix it. They push departure back 25 minutes to give everyone time for a final trip to the bathroom, like mom and dad nudging the kids to go potty one more time before hitting the road for Florida. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but this is my worst nightmare.
We board the plane and I’m immediately weirded out that it’s a domestic aircraft with two aisles instead of three and far fewer amenities than I’d prefer for six and a half hours of travel. Because I do most of my booking through the prestigious CheapoAir, Vin and I are sitting separately, both in crappy middle seats several aisles apart. Vin heads to the very back row and I take my seat six aisles ahead.
To my left is a patient Portuguese mom and to my right sits just a terribly irritable woman in her late 60s from Chattanooga. She has a nagging smoker’s cough so hearty it rocks my chair and some deep inner turbulence that’s manifested in an alarmingly low frustration tolerance. Before taking off, a baby started crying and my neighbor yelled out, “Discipline your fucking baby!” and “If that baby doesn’t stop crying I’m gonna give it something to cry about!”. When the young woman in front of her leaned back in her chair, she shoved it violently several times like an insolent toddler. I stuck my nose in my book and tried to practice non-judgmental compassion from my cramped middle seat while silently cheerleading my bladder to be a champ and hang in there.
An hour or two into the flight they announce that the toilet magically isn’t malfunctioning anymore so we are welcome to use it “conservatively”. The minute they announce the word bathroom I have a Pavlovian need to use it, so I head toward the back row where my husband is loaded on Dramamine and passed out on another woman’s shoulder. As I’m waiting to visit this famously fickle toilet, I catch a glimpse of the meal service cart they’re about to roll out and am stunned to observe that at some moment in time there was a meeting where supplies were purchased and United officials said, “Sure, sign us up for 200” when CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA was suggested as a dinner course on an international flight with poorly serviced restrooms. I blinked a few times in case I was hallucinating, since not only is Indian food incredibly polarizing, but it’s also what’s served just before every diarrhea scene ever captured on film.
Before I head back to my seat, I wake up Vin with a tap on the shoulder and warn him not to order the chicken because I am an excellent wife.
Our row is on the tail end of the dinner service route, and the flight staff has already learned they must shroud the menu in secrecy if they’re ever going to unload these chicken tikka masalas.
“Hello, ma’am. Would you like dinner? We have chicken or a vegetarian meal.”
My ornery neighbor has a hard time hearing the stewardess, so she leans over my lap and asks for clarification, “What’s that? Chicken or what? Oh, vegetarian? Ugh, no way, hahaha, cough cough cough, no thanks. I want chicken.”
I knew better of course and waited patiently for my predictably bland but ultimately harmless frozen veggies. I paused to read the label before peeling back the steaming plastic.
Thai Red Curry! What the fuck is wrong with this airline?
Once dinner is over, I decide to take a little cat nap but am interrupted by my neighbor, who is again pissed off that the girl in front of her has moved the seat from its upright position back down to a more comfortable lean. This time instead of a few abrupt shoves, she throws her full weight onto the back of the girl’s chair and stays there for several minutes, pushing against the seat with both of her elbows and when she grows tired, her head. Eventually she gives up and tries to get some sleep. She brings her carry-on to her lap and folds herself over it, occasionally letting out a deep throaty cough followed by a long shallow moan.
Things are uncomfortable but tolerable until another announcement is made a few hours later. Turns out, they were totally wrong about the bathroom being okay, and now not just one, but two (meaning… all) bathrooms in coach are unusable. (Bear in mind here that they never invite the servants in coach to use the toilets in business class). To avoid the potential media circus of what would inevitably make headlines as United’s Big Blowout, after they’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean they’ll need to make an emergency pit-stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia to service the toilets. They assure us it’s a real easy fix that will only take about 30 minutes and we should all be able to still catch our connecting flights.
The plane makes its premature descent and we land in tree-lined Nova Scotia (which, not for nothing, just made its way onto my bucket list). Startled awake, the aforementioned baby starts to cry. My neighbor, who’s been pushed to the brink at this point, shakes her head and mutters “Jesus Christ. Not that fucking baby again.” I’m starting to lose patience for her perspective on the matter, as the only thing that sounds worse than being stuck on an airplane with no functioning shitters is being an exhausted parent trapped on an airplane with some judgmental cranks and a crying baby in need of a diaper change.
Long story short, the toilet repair does not take 30 minutes, and we are stuck on the ground for almost two hours. At this point, most of us have realized we won’t be catching our connecting flights in Washington (me and Vin included). My neighbor, as you can imagine, is showing real signs of distress (**this is what I sound like when I’m being extremely tactful**). I try to help her figure out when she can get to Chattanooga via the United app, but it’s not looking good. There’s some real significant cursing happening, and it’s no longer under her breath. She’s still pushing against the girl’s seat in front of her and she is also complaining about being in pain after sitting so long, which is completely understandable. It’s at this point I’m fairly confident she’s withdrawing from something, and is feeling pretty terrible after this unanticipated delay.
I give her some space to breathe and stretch and go visit my husband in the back, even though he’s right by the dysfunctional bathrooms. I’m there for about 5 minutes when I hear a wail from my row. The dam finally broke, my window-seat neighbor is sobbing, and she has rung the emergency bell for assistance. She spends the rest of the flight in the attendant’s booster seat and is eventually taken off the plane in a wheelchair. When she rolls up behind me in the customs line, she is uncharacteristically chipper, perhaps happy to finally be back on American soil and more than 20 feet away from any crying babies. This seems like a fair time to mention that this is the second time I’ve been seated next to a sobbing woman on an airplane in the last six months, which begs the question...Is it me?
We miss our connecting flight and are bumped to one that leaves five hours later, which is a much better outcome than having to spend the night in Washington while trying to book a new one. Our internal clocks read five hours ahead so we hit the sad airport restaurant and I order the worst Caesar salad of all time while trying not to fall asleep in it. Our flight to La Guardia takes 40 minutes. We could have walked there from Nova Scotia six hours earlier and arrived at the same time.
I’m not exactly sure what the moral to this whole story is but I’m starting to feel guilty that I went all the way to Portugal and all I brought back for anyone was bathroom stories.
Sorry. Those vintage tiles are heavy.