Red-eye - by John Sealander

R ed - Eye

It's been a long day. It is ten minutes after midnight and I'm finally headed home, buckled snugly in seat 27B on the red-eye from Los Angeles to Dallas. We should be in the air by now, but the plane was overbooked and a few people are still wandering around in the aisle with dazed, sleepy looks, trying to find space for their carry-on laggage. The overhead bins were completely full ten minutes ago, but they still open and close the bins, hoping for a miracle. A frail, older Hispanic woman seated directly behind me is having an argument with one of the flight attendants. Apparently she has managed to sneak a bag that is too large to stow under her seat on board. It is sticking out into the aisle and the flight attendant is attempting to remove the bag so it can be stowed below as baggage. The older woman speaks in fractured English so I can't understand everything she says, but the upshot is that she is not turning loose of the bag. "Fragile, it will break," she says over and over.

"I don't think you realize the seriousness of the situation," says the flight attendant. "If this plane were to have problems, your bag would trap that woman next to you in her seat." I turn around just in time to catch a horrified look on the face of the woman sitting in 28A. Now the entire row behind me is alarmed. A man two rows back is telling the older woman to "get that fucking bag off the plane." The woman clutches her duffle tightly and looks like she is about to cry. A second flight attendant joins the first and tells everyone within earshot that this little incident is keeping the plane on the runway and that we aren't going anywhere until the bag is properly stowed. By now, the woman with the offending bag seems paralyzed by fear and is almost catatonic. She still has a death grip on the bag.

One of the flight attendants tells the woman she is going to get the pilot. The other tells the woman to open her bag and start removing items until it will fit under the seat in front of her. A pathetic array of clothing and personal articles are removed one-by-one from the woman's bag and stuffed by a flight attendant in odd nooks and crannies in nearby overhead bins until the oversize duffel will finally fit under the seat in front of her. The stupid bag is now wedged directly under my seat, but it's been that kind of day. I think the incident is over, but just then, the other flight attendant, the one who had left earlier to get the pilot, returns and tells the older woman that she doesn't ever want to see her, or the bag she is carrying again. We are cleared for takeoff forty-five minutes late.

As we take off, I am wondering why this plane is so full in the middle of the night and why the drama that has just taken place behind me has already been relegated to the status of a minor sideshow. If this weren't the red-eye out of Los Angeles, I might wonder what sort of precious object was sitting under my seat. Under other circumstances I might have been curious, but instead, my eyes have the same glazed-over look as my disheveled looking fellow passengers. We are all tired and I'm sure most of us have seen stranger things today just going about our normal business.

For starters, I've just seen my client walk into a restroom at LAX and walk out a minute-and-a-half later wearing a completely different outfit. "I'll watch your bags if you want to go change too," she says. I'm dumbfounded. It typically takes me fifteen minutes to change and I can't imagine changing in the men's room at LAX anyway. I'm so clumsy, I'd drop my wallet in the toilet and some bum in the next stall would steal my shoes before I was through.

I'll have to hand it to her though, Karen looks great for being up twenty-two hours straight. We've had quite a day. After a forty-five minute cab ride to our first location at one of the company's offices on Wilshire Boulevard, we discover that the executive we were sent to interview is still in New Orleans. After several frantic calls, we are told he thought we were filming him tomorrow. I read a small sign in the building lobby. It says "due to an increase of robberies in the area, we do not advise employees to smoke outside or go to their cars alone." I look outside. I see palm trees, well manicured lawns and late model european cars, but no robbers. Still I am a bit nervous. We have left a $50,000 Beta-SP camera in the car.

Later we do find people to interview. We are making a video that is supposed to boost morale for new employees on a particularly difficult assignment. The idea is to get a bunch of alumni from the assignment to talk about how their tenure served as a springboard for career advancement and professional growth. These people are supposed to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. There's only one problem. Everyone I'm talking to still considers the assignment a fate worse than death. One guy tells me that he actually had to quit the company to get transferred off the account. Another says that he got his doctor to say his allergies couldn't tolerate living another year in L.A. in order to get transferred. I hear tales of eighty hour weeks, impossible deadlines and career stagnation. I keep fishing around, trying to get something good on tape I can use. I ask what they accomplished as a result of this assignment. "I lot of us became alcoholics," says one guy. "Surely you took away something valuable from this," I say. Someone tells me he learned an appreciation for single-malt scotch. Another says he learned how to go to Paris on the weekend and turn it in on his expense account as a trip to San Jose.

"I know the assignment was difficult," I say, "but surely you must have made some technical breakthroughs?" "Naw," says one of the guys I'm interviewing. "They were in the ice ages when we got here and they're still in the stone ages." I find myself liking these people. They are kindred spirits. They work so hard, and yet it is difficult to figure out what it is they actually do. They are constantly in motion: the best and the brightest management consultants money can buy. When the camera is off they will readily admit it is largely a facade. They, like me, are running in place.

I am constantly busy. There are days when I am driving around and I honestly can't remember what day it is. I'll know what building I'm heading for, but can't remember the name of the person I'm supposed to meet with. I'll shake their hand and greet them like I've known them forever and eventually they'll tell me who they are. I am comforted by the fact that even if I don't know which way I'm going, I'll be OK if I can just manage to keep moving. It is only when you are standing still that you are devoured. The people I interviewed today knew this instinctively and that's why they uniformly hated their assignment. They were standing still. I've been up twenty-two hours. But like my bleary-eyed fellow travelers, I'm still moving. I will be able to make a nine o'clock meeting in Dallas this morning. After that, I will take the five hours of horror stories I have collected on tape and turn them into a few minutes of fond memories and glowing praise for an assignment that was universally hated.

A few snips here and a few snips there and I will make these men I have just interviewed look like senior management material: the kind of dedicated professionals who would leap tall buildings in a single bound for their employer. I wonder if the frail woman behind me with the precious object in her bag might be the only honest person in L.A., but I fall asleep before I reach any conclusions.

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