Decameron Day 6. Wit is in the air.

Incomincia la sesta, nella quale, sotto il reggimento d’Elissa, si ragiona con chi con alcun leggiadro motto, tentato, si riscotesse, o con pronta risposta o avvedimento fuggì perdita o pericolo o scorno.
A skill I’d pay good money for is the one of being able to make a good come-back. Of being able to deliver knee-slappers with surgical precision and at sizzling-hot temperatures. Unfortunately I’m the kind of person who’d brood over a situation for days, eventually going “ah-ha! That’ll teach them”… but the moment has passed.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why today’s theme – witty remarks that can get people out of a sticky situation – might be a tad hard for me to write about. Luckily, though, I worked in an industry where pants-burning sarcasm is a widespread skill. Those working in the civil aviation industry often see some of the least commendable human behaviours: the rapaciously selfish, the criminally inept and the catastrophically stupid are all frequent fliers, it seems. Wit, ça va sans dire, is necessary to survive. Here are four brief snippets from my time there, either witnessed personally by yours truly or by friends and close ones whose honesty I can vouch for.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.
Tragedy.
A flight to a destination where meat consumption is an act of faith. Catering, in its wisdom, has loaded only 10 steaks in a Business Class cabin of 40. Three rows in and the inevitable happens: no more meat. And it couldn’t happen at a worst passenger: a long-faced, whiny Englishman, one of those who wear pink chequered shirts. You know the type. Well, for this guy nothing will do. Not the salmon, not the chicken, certainly not the p-asta. On and on he whinges at the poor crew: “That’s not good enough. Not good enough, I said. What are you going to do about it?”
Before the crew could interject, magic happened.
Tragedy
When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on
Tragedy
When the morning cries and you don’t know why
It’s hard to bear
With no one to love you
You’re goin’ nowhere
Yes. From the other side of the aisle another passenger declaimed in Homeric tones, without raising his eyes from his laptop, the refrain from that immortal Bee Gees song. He then looked at Mr. Whingy, at the crew and smiled.
Salmon was OK.
A First-class seat ain’t one.
The day after the 2012 Olympics ceremony. As the nation reeled from the after-parties and calculated the bill for the whole shebang I was at the airport, going through the motions that precede the boarding of a plane (there’s a lot to do besides answering your questions on why it’s taking so long, I’ll have you know). The flight was one to JFK.
One of the suited-and-booted slickers that, in the company, looked after VIPs glided to the gate. “Chaps”, he opened “Be advised that Herbert Bullwinkle and his entourage will be joining this service today”.
Cue in blank faces from all of us. Who the heck is Herbert Bullwinkle?
Seeing the question marks buzzing like neon signs above our head, the VIP chaperon used his stage name. Aaaah, THAT guy. East Coast rapper. Millionaire discographer. Yeah, rings a bell.
Soon, before we started the usual charade of allowing families with small kids and those who need a bit of extra time onboard, another suited colleague arrived at the head of Herbert and his entourage, consisting of a fridge-freezer-sized man and a slender woman who brandished a MacBook like an axe. Boarding passes and passports out, scan the pass… red BEEEP.
As I typed furiously to clear the message, change two seats and re-print boarding passes I could feel the woman’s eyes piercing furiously into my head. Is this guy dumb or what? I could feel her asking. A foot was tapping somewhere. To their credit, Herbert and Mr Fridge-Freezer remained calm, joking about yesterday’s performance with the Caterpillar, a man from the security company whose job was to inspect passports on US departures and thusly named thanks to his resemblance to the character in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Same face, same voice, same moves. It even looked as if he’d just smoked a whole narghile loaded with opium.
Anyway, message cleared, seats modified, passes printed. I snagged them from the printer, scanned and passed them on to the Caterpillar. He held Herbert’s passport up, had a good peep, closed it around the boarding pass, handed it over and said
“Mr Bullwinkle, you might have 99 problems but a First-class seat ain’t one”.
Mic drop.
The cones, guv.
Thursday afternoon. Huddled in the room called ‘The Fridge’ for its over-exuberant air conditioning system, we all waited for whatever came first: frostbite or the arrival of our boss and chair of the meeting.
Eventually, with only twenty minutes’ delay, the immaculate suit of Alistair slipped through the door (with Alistair within it). Now, Alistair isn’t his real name, but he so should be an Alistair. His mother made such a mistake when he called him… can’t say.
Anyway, Alistair sat down with his usual smirk. One eyebrow raised, pale blue eyes glimmering with humour, mischief or irony – or perhaps all three. For the umpteenth time I thought all he needed to be a Bond villain was a cream suit and a red carnation in his lapel.
“Sorry all” he said as soon as he sat centre-table, like Jesus. “Just came over from checking out Yankee Mike”. Those of us who knew groaned, the others were brought up-to-speed quickly. -YM was an airplane which, that day, had the misfortune of getting T-boned at speed by one of those motorised sets of stairs whilst having the audacity of being parked at its gate surrounded, as it is the law, by bright orange cones.
“Damage’s quite extensive” he continued. “They all but ripped off the starboard winglet, it’ll be quite a while to repair it”.
“How on Earth did they achieve that?” I asked.
Alister looked at me and smiled even more. “That’s what I asked the guy who was driving the steps. Wanna know what he said? ‘I was trying not to hit the cones, guv’”.
Study, mama said. 
Economy class, long-haul, day. A flight to somewhere, sometimes after the main meal service. Passengers staring into their seat-back screens, light oozing in from the windows, the humdrum of the engines. Two crew are working together, clearing out meal trays and stowing them into a trolley between them.
Clearing trays is, let me tell you, a thankless job. Almost without exception what is dished out neatly packaged, wrapped in paper and plastic, will return torn to shreds, butchered and dismembered as if it’d been attached by a troop of baboons armed with machetes.
A mother and his child are waiting with their trays held aloft. They’ve been doing that for a while.
As soon as the crews reach them and grab the trays mother looks at son and says, loud and clear: “Study, or otherwise you’ll end up picking up the trash on a plane when you grow up”.
After the briefest moment of silence one of the two crews, without missing a beat, replied, looking at the son:
“Study”, he said. “Study hard, or otherwise you’ll have to sit in Economy with your son when you grow up”.
And that, as they say, was that.

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8 Responses to Decameron Day 6. Wit is in the air.

  1. Good stories. But “the rapaciously selfish, the criminally inept and the catastrophically stupid”, I’m glad I must have skipped my studies and therefore land up in economy all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I may use the Tragedy song some day – love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love the tragedy tale, and the study hard one, oh and the one about the stairs, chuckle. Fun.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks Alison. Although I’m selfishly glad not to be in the industry anymore given what’s happening now, and although the way I’ve been treated by HR upon my leaving has left me with a strong distaste for the airline I served for 10 years… I still miss the people. They made it great.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Bama says:

    A friend of mine who works as a flight attendant for an airline based in East Asia told me these kinds of stories. It’s incredible how bad people can behave — you really can’t take things too personally to be able to survive in this industry.

    Liked by 1 person

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