On the flight back from Milwaukee on Friday I sat beside a grossly obese lady. Or rather, she sat beside me (much to my dismay, I must admit). In a process that looked enormously painful and seemed to take every ounce of her strength she heaved herself between the narrow seats of that purgatory we call coach and then wedged herself in for the flight. I resigned myself to my tighter quarters, popped my earbuds back in and went back to my book.
Then moments later, I heard her say to the flight attendant: “I need an extension.”
An “extension”? What’s she talking about? And with one furtive glance I realized the problem: her seatbelt was not long enough. It took perhaps ten minutes (even as we were preparing for take off) before the flight attendant brought her a seatbelt extension so she could get buckled in like the rest of us.
Back to my music and book.
About thirty minutes later came the drinks cart.
“What would you like sir?” the flight attendant asked.
“Nothing, thanks,” I replied.
“Ma’am?” she said to my neighbor.
“Coke,” the lady replied.
“Diet Coke?” the flight attendant asked.
I couldn’t believe it.
“Coke,” the lady replied through tight lips.
All in all my neighbor handled the awkward situation well. Perhaps it was the weariness in her eyes. One could only imagine how often she had endured comments, questions, and stares all precipitated by her weight.
Sadly, I doubt I offered much respite from the subtle barrage of prejudice. Did she read my resigned expression when she first gestured to the empty seat beside me? Did she see my furtive glance when she was struggling with the seatbelt? Did she notice me making an extra effort to lean into the aisle?
Suddenly I felt uncomfortably like Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy), the father in the Hollywood classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”. Matt is a socially progressive liberal … until his daughter arrives draped on the arm of a black man. In like manner, I was perfectly free of prejudice … until an obese passenger on the plane arrived.