Dear Dirty America


Free Cocktails For Everybody: Starting A Dangerous Rumor

June 19
15:00 2012
Barney, North Dakota


(editor’s note: fine tuning the literary ‘acoustics’ of this piece has been maddening, but finally it is as ready as it’s going to be. The senseless outrage exhibited by so many people who have been trained to always be polite in public is something only a literary master could easily pull off. We left off with Part 4, about the rental car)

I don’t know why I say things sometimes, but I catch myself telling stories or explaining ideas that aren’t based completely on reality. It was that tendency that almost sparked a mutiny on board a budget airline flight last week, a non-stop zip from Los Angeles to Fargo, North Dakota.

We’d boarded the plane and everything seemed normal. We were taxied and preparing for takeoff, except then we waited, and then were taxied away from the runway, where we waited longer. Half an hour, probably. Suddenly, the speakers made their cracked sizzling sounds and then the pilot’s voice rapped at us: “Folks, I have bad news. Our left engine is not properly responding and we’re going to need to get it checked out by airline mechanics.”

We’d all been up at three in the morning in order to get to LAX for our 6.15 flight. Now, at close to seven, we hadn’t lifted off the tarmac.

Back at the gate, we gave the mechanics another half an hour to determine if the plane’s left engine could be fixed. I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be fixed by some bum who’d had a hard night drinking and now decided the left engine was good enough to propel us to North Dakota — maybe the big bird wouldn’t make it to Minnesota, but to Fargo, shee-it, might as well give her a good try.

At the same time, I wanted to takeoff. I just wanted to be there, because I’d only gotten three hours of sleep the night before, and I’d given up my rental car, so if there were any serious delays, I’d have to pay dearly to catch a cab back to Koreatown until another flight opened up.

The budget airline (I shall not name it out of proper decency and professionalism) said they only had two aircraft available, and the other was in flight to Kansas. Well, shit, I thought, now what? Sleep, read, get a martini at the bar? We ‘de-planed’, and then were told the airline was flying in a new plane from Vegas. It wouldn’t be there until eleven. We wouldn’t board until noon. We had four hours to wait. You would have thought we were told to camp out overnight at LAX, judging the sour, bitter faces of the sleepy passengers.

I sat in the designated seating with the other one hundred and fourteen disgruntled humans. Delta passengers flocked around us. Their flight was leaving on time. Kind of like rubbing salt in our wounds.

Mothers rocked young children, or handed them toys to play with. One black girl with thick braids spread a sweatshirt on the MRSA-laden carpet and took a nap. I cringed to think of all that bacteria from the millions of filthy shoe bottoms sliding over the floor. Whole universes of bacteria snapping their jaws at the vulnerable skin cells that made contact with the carpet.

Most of the people on the flight were North Dakotans going back home. They wore flannel work shirts. Or University of North Dakota gear. Or Minnesota Twins hats. One older guy whose body reminded me of the marshmallow man sat across from me. He kept eyeballing my person, and soon I became disgusted. He had a giant block head. His flabby cheeks and neck hung loosely below his jawline. I thought of a big chunk of melting cheese, with the heat source situated beneath, which left the top of the block still shapely, but distorted the bottom. Perhaps he had a stick for a neck. A stick jammed into his marshmallow body, with the block of cheese stuck to the top. In between head and body the cheese covered the stick, making it thicker, and flabby-looking.

I got a good look at him, either way. Every time I glanced up from the book I was reading — Dashiell Hammet’s The Glass Key — his eyes were on me. You bastard, I thought, I can’t read with this kind of undue attention. My deeper, more compassionate line of thinking politely suggested: maybe you look like someone he knows. Maybe he wants to say hi. Maybe he likes young men. I forced myself to forget about his gaze, and took an hour-long nap, and when I woke up, he still watched me.

Howdy, I called across the narrow aisle. His melting block of cheese perked up and rose on its gunky stick. His eyebrows lifted. His forehead bunched. Kind of a bummer, I said, this whole flying thing. He agreed. He cleared his throat of something wet and sticky.

“Boy I can’t imagine a-waiting here for more than a few minutes,” he said. He itched his arm with his fingers. I left my seat and sat in the empty one beside him. It sucks, I said, but thankfully the airline decided to treat us all to a free cocktail once we were in the air.

His flaccid cheeks came to life. A smile tightened across his face. “Really? I’ve never heard of an airline doing that before.” Well, I said, it’s just good politics. Free booze for everyone. Not for the kids, of course. They’ll probably get a complimentary apple juice. But for us adults, I heard it’s a free anything-you-want cocktail.

“That’s really generous,” he said. It is, but look at it this way. We deserve it, I told him. For all of this inconvenience and pain and suffering. A free martini is getting off easy, the way I see it. We could slap inconvenience lawsuits on them if we had to. But most of us will be bought off with a stiff drink. Whatever you do, don’t tell too many people. I heard it from the front desk, and when I asked about it, she said to keep it quiet until we’re on the plane and in the air, or else they may take back their offer.

“They’d better not be taking back offers,” he said. “One thing I hate are Indian-givers.” I rubbed the back of my neck and tried to whip up my energy level. If they don’t follow through, I whispered to him, I’ll unleash all hell for their company. “Oh?” he asked, leaning in. His breath smelled like digested crackers.

I run a blog, I told him, and it’s got a huge readership. One word from me, and I could get this airline so much bad press they’ll be offering to take us out on the town with their corporate credit card. Kind of like I blew the lid off the plan to award Charles Manson with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Then Yahoo! called it satire, but only to save the asses of the Walk of Fame committee. They abandoned their plans, wrote me off as a trouble-stirring hack, and left it at that.

“Holee shit,” he said. “Manson’s one wicked dude.” Holy’s right. Either you believe in the Spirit, or you don’t. But I don’t always make a mark. Most of the readers are in North Korea, but still, bad press is… and I let him finish it for me. “Bad press,” he said. But for God’s sake, keep it quiet until then, I warned.

Square blockhead did the most work on the rumor from there. He couldn’t stop talking about how thirsty he was getting for that free martini once we boarded the flight. “Can’t wait for it,” he called to me. I lifted my eyes from my book. He winked.

“Free martini?” a young man with wire-rimmed glasses asked. He sat in a row of chairs with their backs to us. The man’s well-groomed blonde wife and two little boys watched their dad twisted around to interact with that other, strange guy. “Or cocktail,” the marshmallow man triumphantly told him. “Free, once we board. For all the pain and suffering we’re going through waiting.”

I gave him a dirty look and put my finger to my lips. “Oh,” he told the man, “but keep it quiet until we’re in the air.” The wire-rimmed guy turned to his wife and told her what the fat man had said. “That sure sounds good about now,” she said. She puckered her lips and made a sound as if she were sipping hot coffee out of a mug.

The blockhead felt so grand being privy to this special information, he started speaking louder and louder about the free drink rumor, and stated it as if he knew it was fact. “Sure,” he told the guy’s wife. “Noon time free cocktail sounds like the right payment for this kind of muck-up.”

“Free drinks?” a high school kid asked, pulling his headphones from his ears. “Did I hear that right?” The fat man nodded. “Damn! I’m not even twenty-one yet.” The wire-rimmed glasses guy said he’d take the kid’s free drink then. Everybody laughed. I tried to read.

But suddenly the news took off. The high school kid had a friend beside him. “Yo, dude,” he said, tapping his friend’s shoulder, “we’re getting a free fucking drink on the plane because of the long fucking wait.” The other kid said, “Damn, bro, we’re not old enough. Think they’ll ask for IDs?”

An older, prudish lady wearing a velvet red hat, who sat across the aisle from the boys, scolded them for thinking about alcohol. “You know,” she told them, “underage drinking stunts your brain capacity and organ development. There’s nothing good or cool about drinking.”

They should be taking high doses of Vitamin D at their age, I chipped in, instead of booze. “That’s why we’ll be taking theirs on the plane,” marshmallow man said. The wire-rimmed guy agreed.

“On the plane?” the woman asked. “Taking their what?”

Free drinks! they all answered her, like she was a moron. The fat man explained the situation. “I wouldn’t mind a glass of wine,” the woman said, “if they’ll substitute a cocktail for that.” The fat man looked at me, wondering if that was possible.

I’m sure, I told her. They seemed pretty flexible at the front desk. Just a free drink, to take the edge off the flight after this unbearably long wait. But don’t go spreading it around like these guys. The manager said they would call off the promise if too many people knew about it before takeoff.

“Why’s that?” the woman asked. She straightened her hat. Her cheeks were blushed.

Hard to tell, I said, I’m not an affiliate of the airline. They probably don’t want to be caught making promises around other airline passengers, and then every airline, every time has to promise free drinks for any mix up.

Everybody nodded. I returned to my book. The lady left to get a salad — she informed us. After an hour of reading — mostly me struggling to stay awake, and mostly me nodding off after every paragraph — a grand announcement delivered the most promising news we’d heard all day — the new plane had arrived from Vegas, it was in good working order, and we would be boarding shortly.

I bundled my book into my backpack and stood in line with the weary, mostly overweight crowd (I don’t normally mention weight when it comes to people, because that’s unnecessarily mean, unless body size can somehow determine the overall tone of the situation. In this case, ‘overweight’ contributes specifically to the type of weariness visibly present).

When the plane lifted off the ground, half of the passengers facetiously clapped. I put my headphones on and listened to death metal for a few minutes. The best death metal reminds me of the music Vivaldi might craft if he were born and raised in the late 20th century. The music soothed me into much needed sleep. The drink carts were being prepared, but I didn’t want anything. Not that thirsty. Not hungry. Just ready to get to my destination.

“Excuse me,” a high-pitched female voice said behind me. I looked back. A female flight attendant stood before a row of three middle aged women, about ten rows behind me. The one in the red velvet window sat closest the window. I lowered the volume on my headphones.

“Can I get a glass of wine–” she started, but the flight attendant cut her off with a raised hand and said the drink cart would come around shortly. She had a sparkling ring on her finger. Probably just married, she looked so young, fresh, not yet scarred by the pangs of birthing.

“I mean,” the woman in the hat said louder, “I just want to know if I can substitute my free cocktail for a glass. Of wine?” The flight attendant said she hadn’t heard of any free drinks. She asked if the woman had some sort of drink voucher. “Well, no,” the woman replied, “but we were all told we’d be getting a free one.” The attendant promised to ask the head attendant, the one male, and find out about this free cocktail.

After two extended songs with incredibly long guitar solos — “Death’s immortal stench” and “Galvanized horror” — I noticed the tanned blond couple sitting beside me stretching their necks to see something up front. I heard a couple voices talking rapidly. I saw the back of that familiar square head. He was noticeably jerking it forward as he spoke. And then I heard, “I want my free cocktail!”

I yanked my headphones off. The flight attendant, a dark-eyed, young professional, assured the man there was no such offer. “Bullshit,” he said. “These budget airlines will promise you anything to get you back on their planes.” He pounded the back of the seat in front of him.

“Sir,” she said, using her hands in a specific manner — maybe to calm him, or possibly she knew how to displace and distribute energy, and she was sending a high volume into the man’s cranium with pure concentration and good technique. “Sir, if you don’t calm down, we will call security and make an emergency landing.”

The large man struggled to turn in his seat and face the rest of us. His eyes searched the peering faces. “Now they’re going back on their promise for a free drink!” he called. I ducked behind the seat ahead of me. “No cocktail?” a woman’s voice rang out. “But you promised!” she called to the flight attendant.

“This is bunk,” one of the high schoolers said. “Total, absolute garbage.” Other voices rose up, from behind me, some in front. Negative energy flooded the cabin. Are you serious? No free drink? You mean we don’t get a cocktail? That’s crap! What kind of a cheap outfit is this? We waited for hours for your damn plane, your damn fault!

The flight attendants gathered. One male, three females. “Calm down!” the male hollered. “Just calm down everyone.” Our jet plane still sailed smoothly over the desert. Down below I imagined the spirit of Charles Manson still roamed the sandy dunes, his lost soul not in prison, but still searching, for the last forty-odd years, for the enlightenment he’d read about in the Bhagavad Gita. His dirty fingernails displacing every movable rock, as his eyes searched for signs of life from Above. Looking for the Holy Spirit. Desperate to find human salvation in a world so delinquently developed past anything close to resembling redemption.

When I focused back our situation in the plane, I saw an older gentleman pleading with a few angry people to remain calm. “It’s only a drink,” he said. He stood slowly, so as not to cause alarm. He addressed the blockheaded man, and also made a point to face the rest of us in back. “Let us just get to Fargo safely. If you want a drink, you can have one. It’s only five dollars.”

“Seven, actually,” the dark-eyed attendant corrected. A shrill female voice shot from the back and reminded us how long we’d waited in the airport. And how goddamned unprofessional it was to falsely offer everybody a free cocktail to relax after a very stressful six-hour delay.

The male flight attendant — who looked like a thicker Ricky Ricardo — said that offer had never been made. She raised her hands in despair. The blockhead spotted me and pointed. “Can you believe it?” he shouted to me. Random faces jerked in their seats to get a look at who he was questioning. I had to answer.

Yes, I said, I can. But it’s a shame.

The blockheaded man shook his finger at the male attendant. “You’d better not hold back on the cocktail,” he said, “because that guy runs a website and he’ll report it and you’ll be eating your words all the way to North Korea.”

A village in North Korea,
celebrating a Dear Dirty America festival (one of many throughout the year)

The male flight attendant had disappeared to the cockpit. The pilot’s voice came over the speakers. It was a shaky voice from a normally cocky male uncertain about the amount of peril he was in. “Attention, please, everybody. While we hope you’re enjoying your flight, we also must ask everybody to immediately take their seats in the proper, face-forward position and KEEP YOUR MOUTHS SHUT while our flight attendants work to sort this out.” His tone was sharp enough, despite the small trembling undercurrent floating above his baritone voice, that everybody sat down. The old gentleman lecturing on civility. The blustering blockhead.

A crackling sound startled us again. Then, “I’ve been informed there is nothing to sort out. There will be no free cocktail on today’s flight to Fargo, North Dakota. We apologize if this inconveniences anybody, but disobedience or subversive behavior will not be tolerated.”

The male attendant stepped out of the pilots’ cabin and looked pleased to see everybody back in order. He cracked the knuckles on both his hands, just in case a fight was brewing. Because the plane was mostly filled with Upper Midwesterners filled with Norwegian or German blood, the situation quieted down fast.

A couple snide comments from behind me about airlines not keeping promises, or lamenting about how a free drink was the least they could do, everybody decided it would be better to get to our destination without incident. Besides, drinks are cheap in Fargo, as opposed to Los Angeles. And if you’re smooth enough, and talk just right, you might even get one for free.


Prelude: It’s good to be in the body scanner business
One: Memorializing a car wreck

Two: Men are killed by cars and other men
Four: Marring my clean slate with a tin-can rental car

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  1. Michael Segers
    Michael Segers June 19, 18:30

    I’ve been fuming today about all the garbage that shows up on Facebook claiming various celebrities say all kinds of unlikely stuff. Your article is a fun example of how that kind of stuff can take off on a life of its own. Hope you got a drink when you landed in N.D.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Orchiolum
    Orchiolum June 21, 21:15

    Another excellent read. When I was in grade school, our teacher gave one of a phrase (don’t remember what it was now) to repeat to the person sitting next to us. By the time those few words reached the last student, the phrase had totally changed, and I do mean totally. My first experience with the grain/block of salt.

    Reply to this comment

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