End of the Line

Flying’s Bad Rap

Making tunes and new friends in the sky

Illustration: Barry Blitt

In the Newark airport recently, I entered a narrow men’s room. Urinals lined one wall, stalls and sinks the other. It appeared that I was alone, which was fine with me. I like other people well enough, but not in the context of air travel, where there is so seldom enough room for both them and me. Then, from one of the stalls, came a soft voice, laying down this:

I’m You-know-who, I’m This and That.
You doubters, haters—wack and wack.
I’mona chill, thrill, I’mona keep my head up,
Get the word out, how much I’m fed up.

Singing in the shower is one thing, but rapping in the john? Was this fellow just speaking his heart? Or working up material? The acoustics…maybe he was recording.

You never know. Let me tell you about another flight-and-hip-hop-related experience. Some months ago, by using hard-earned frequent-flier credits, I upgraded to first class. Room for both of my legs, feet and all, and both of my elbows too! And an aisle seat. And no one next to me, even. I accepted a free Bloody Mary, and basked.

Then, damn. A middle-aged man and two teenage boys. One of the boys took the seat next to me, and the other the seat behind me. I certainly never got to fly first class when I was their age, but never mind. One thing to be said for my row-mate: He evinced no more inclination to talk to me than I to him.

He pulled out a smartphone. Apparently he’d been texted. Fine. Soon he’d have to endure, for a couple of hours, a status dear to my heart: incommunicado.

But this text affected him profoundly. He went wide-eyed and flattened himself against the back of his seat, as if desperate to gather his wits. Then slowly, stealthily, he twisted his head and extended his neck, like a turtle, to take a quick peek over the back of his seat. What he saw seemed to exceed his capacity for wonder. Now he was back down and thumbing out a message of his own. I didn’t want to know.

Then, as we began our ascent, I sensed that this youth was staring, from inches away, into my right ear.

I returned his gaze. No, he was peering back between our seats toward the seat behind me. Urgent staccato whispers were exchanged. Was he that needful to be in touch with his buddy?

“When the seat-belt sign goes off,” I suggested kindly to the little blighter, “I’ll change seats so your friend can sit here next to you.”

He looked at me as if I were insane. “No!” he said.

For the rest of the flight, I zoned out as best I could. The kid kept leaning and twisting to exchange urgent facial expressions with his friend and also with the man who’d boarded with them, who was across the aisle.

We landed. The man accompanying the boys leaped up and leaned across to whoever was in the window seat next to the other kid. “Could the boys get some pictures?” he asked. “Mr. West?”

For it was he. The last time I saw him he was wearing a vivid red-orange suit and lots of dangling gold chains, and he was surrounded by I’d say fifteen or twenty coolly worshipful angel-ballerinas in minimal white onesies who writhed around and waved voluminous white sheets as he favored us, on Saturday Night Live, with “Power,” which seemed to be about how put-upon he felt about becoming so legendary.

This time he was wearing a nondescript dark suit and pressing himself back against the window as if held at bay by wolves. “Okay, quick!” he said. Suddenly jolly, the boys hopped to and took turns posing—draping their arms over his flinching shoulders and gesturing thumbs-up, as if he were Mickey at Disneyland. Then old Kanye bolted. I hope to a place where he could have some time to himself.