America has a drinking problem. I know this because for the third time this year I am seated adjacent to a fellow cross-country traveler with a particular taste for the good life. A month ago, I was two seats down from a kindly older man with deep crags in his face who urgently pressed the help button as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off. At ten in the morning, my lifeline was a tall, styrofoam cup of coffee procured from the terminal just before takeoff. He, on the other hand, clutched at the two miniature bottles of whiskey dutifully brought to him as a child would his stuffed bear. After pouring the first bottle of Dewar’s into a plastic cup of ice usually reserved for diet ginger ale, the man unscrewed the second. Perhaps he should have finished the first one off before turning to the next because his shaky hands betrayed him just as he freed the sticky screw top from the bottle’s lips, sanitizing the aisle between row 22. You’ve never seen a more forlorn expression. “Don’t worry about it,” I tell the man, even as I continue to do just that.
This time it’s a couple behind me, laughing loudly while knocking back travel-sized bottle after bottle. They are young but not young enough for the rate they’re going. We’ve hit some turbulence and the flight attendants are hunkered down and buckled up. Suddenly, I hear the familiar beep signifying a need for assistance, presumably announcing an emergency. The sparky, young, male attendant overseeing my section hurries over to see what the trouble is. The couple is thirsty. “We will resume alcoholic beverage service when the captain turns the seat belt sign back on. We are experiencing some unexpected turbulence,” he cheerily informs them with a practiced patience I both dislike intensely and yet deeply admire. The couple seems taken aback by this news, as though the cabin’s wild shaking were otherwise imperceptible. “Oh ok, sure,” the woman agrees, “we’ll take another double Bacardi, then, when you can.” Ten minutes later the pilot has obliged, and the flight attendant returns with their rum. “Awesome,” the woman exults. “Awesome.”
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything terribly surprising about this behavior. After all, alcoholism afflicts tens of thousands of people each year. It seems noteworthy, though, that all my recent exposure to problem drinking has occurred on a passenger jet. Which, come to think of it, is also true of other widespread habits. For instance, I’m told raising children is a central occupation of millions. Yet right now, I mostly hear screaming babies only when I’m hurtling through space. Tongues from distant lands are far from foreign when I fly, though their presence rarely registers when I’m down on earth. Ninety-five percent of the conversations about reality TV I overhear are on planes.
One trendy postmortem of this past election that has the benefit of being true was that Americans were out of touch with their countrymen. Rural and exurban Americans fed up with political correctness were oblivious to the insights born from interaction with minority communities. Meanwhile, the professional class never bothered to find out what life in the service economy was really like. This insight can be overplayed. Greater interaction can take us only so far in combating unease, hatred, and mistrust. Yet, there is something to be said for a national consciousness and a common understanding. One nation, indivisible, or something like that.
Sports used to be the common medium that brought us together. Regardless of race, class, or politics, New Yorkers followed the Knicks, Wisconsinites cheered on the Pack, and San Diegoians worshiped the Padres. Differences were washed away at the watercooler when the topic was the local team. This, too, has become a thing of the past. As income inequality and the skyrocketing cost of tickets priced most fans out of regular trips to the ballpark, the explosion of satellite channels and social media outlets has provided an alternative. Now our neighbors are not just following different teams playing different sports, they are talking about them in different ways with like-minded fans, out of sight from the general public.
Which is why the crowded slog that is air travel may be our last, best hope for togetherness. It is not fun or fast or comfortable, but it is the common means to reaching our collective aspiration. Looking around the close quarters of my Boeing 737 at the wide range of accents, colors, shapes, and behaviors, I see the vast diversity of America. We are neither fully characteristic of the country’s homogeneous rural expanses or the supposedly cosmopolitan cities we are flying between. The airplane has achieved what society could not. We are united, held together by a shared destination and our inability to escape.