Camel Man and the Airline From Hell
by Andreas Economakis
Few things in life are worse than bad breath. Ever been trapped in a confined space with someone who has halitosis? I think jabbing a souvlaki stick under a fingernail is less painful. Ever stop going out with somebody or not ask someone out on a date because his or her breath could kill your cat? Do people with bad breath realize they have bad breath? I suppose they don’t, because if they did they would do something about it, kind of like fixing a flat tire for the first time ever while trying to learn how on TreadHunter.com or pulling out a cactus thorn from their big toe. One thing is for sure: it is virtually impossible to tell someone that they have bad breath. It’s akin to offending one’s newborn or insulting a dead granddad or telling someone that a booger is stuck to the tip of their nose. We all just gulp and breathe through our mouths, praying to God and the high seas and the yellow flowerpot to get us through the encounter without turning blue. My Uncle Ric once wrote a poem about this very issue; he mentions leaving pieces of Dentyne gum around his house every time his halitosis-afflicted friend dropped by for a visit. He said it was like dropping “Dentyne hints” and, frankly, it’s not such a bad idea. Unfortunately people with bad breath don’t generally chew gum or candy. If they did, well, there wouldn’t be a problem would there?
Like most people, I always try to put some distance between people with bad breath and myself. But sometimes there’s just no choice or way around it. And so it was that I found myself flying to Greece one day, on that savage Dutch airline whose fiscal belt-tightening has practically given all its passengers gangrene. They may have cheap tickets but they sure make you pay for it in other ways. They pack you in like death row sardnines and their 747’s seem to be the oldest in the world. I arrived at LAX early, hoping to get a choice seat, bulkhead window or aisle, a seat I could stretch out in for the 12 hour first leg of the trip to Amsterdam. No such luck. The lines were huge as per usual and the cops were jittery like angry navy seals. By the time I made it to the check-in counter all that were left were seats between other seats. Damn. Oh well, I decided to drown my sorrow with a ridiculously overpriced beer from the terminal. (Man, they really stick it to you in airports, don’t they? If I wasn’t so traumatized by all the security I would have snuck in a couple of tall boys and a brown paper bag before the flight, like the good old days before 911…).
When I finally arrived at my seat assignment, my heart sank. Seated by the window was perhaps the world’s fattest man. We’re talking Guinness Book of World Records big here. This mountain of a man was sweating buckets just from the exertion of breathing and he was spilling over into my entire seat. When he saw me looking at him like a deer in headlights he kind of sucked his gut in a bit, trying to reduce the hostile takeover. Now he only spilled over into 3/4 of my seat. I stood there, wondering what I should do, when the stewardess walked by and kindly asked me to take my seat. I squeezed into my seat and became instantly slap-glued to the fat man, who started sweating even more profusely, obviously ill at ease with my dilemma. The man’s unease didn’t last for long. Remarkably, he turned his head to the window and fell into a deep, wet sleep. Like a nervous oyster stuck to a huge rock, I looked over to the empty seat on my left and prayed and prayed that it would remain empty. I even prayed for calamity to fall on the occupant’s head – anything, so long as the seat remained empty. That’s bad, and so providence punished me with a cruel trick in the end. A very thin old man approached and indicated that he was the seat’s occupant. I became instantly enthused by the prospect that at least I could spill over into his seat to avoid the perspiring mountain to my right.
The thin old man slowly sat down, arranged his affairs and reclined in his seat. All was well. Or was it? First thing that hit my nostrils was that all too familiar smell of stale tobacco most smokers have lingering about them. I then noticed the soft pack of Camel Cigarettes in his shirt pocket, kind of like an exterior pacemaker in reverse. Who smokes Camels? The man was obviously terminal. Camel Man then turned his head toward me to say hello. That’s when it happened. First came the long nicotine yellow camel teeth, large like primitive fossils desperately clinging for dear life in deathly grey gums. Camel Man unleashed an unreal nuclear blast of bad breath my way. Halitosis central. My nose hairs shrieked, curled and then dropped dead out of my nose, dusting my shorts. I pressed myself into the wet fat man fearing for my life, like in those cartoons where Daffy Duck becomes paper thin against a wall to avoid a killer car that’s trying to run him over. I became one with wet man. My eyes were watering when I introduced myself to Camel Man, half-gagging. To my horror, he smiled and then fell instantly asleep, head tilted my way, mouth agape, deathly Camel fumes blowing my way like mustard gas. I must have passed out, because I don’t really remember the rest. When I finally got home the next day, my t-shirt was still wet with the fat man’s sweat, white fat-man salt crystals forming wave patterns up and down my shirt. I could still smell Camel breath in my brain. I was a war victim. Would I ever recover? I vowed to never ever take that Dutch airline again.
Two months later, there I was again, a passenger on the same dreaded airline (they sucker punch you in the wallet every time). I had to return quickly to LA for a job and Kyriakos, my travel agent, could only find me a cheap ticket on the cursed airline. I pleaded and pleaded for something else but it was high season and I was out of luck. I would once again have to endure that clog-wearing, holier than thou, why do they all speak fluent English (?), tulip gathering airline. I got to the airport early, fingers and toes crossed. Middle seat again! If there weren’t so many Greek cops with machine guns lounging about (these guys are arguably more relaxed than their American counterparts if all the coffees and cigarettes and jocularity is any indication), I would have leapt up on the ticket counter and done a self-immolating voodoo dance in front of the smiling blonde wooden clog-wearing stewardess. Defeated, I shuffled onto the plane and arrived at my seat assignment.
To my good fortune, the two people on either side of my seat were young, thin, and, I realized upon seating myself, freshly tooth-brushed! Hallelujah! Smiling like a jackass with a fresh bucket of hay, I laughed and settled in for the long ride. The plane took off and just when the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign went off, I tried to recline my seat. Nothing. I pressed the button harder and pushed backwards. Nothing. I jammed and jammed, pushed and pushed harder. Nothing. I looked around for a stewardess for help. By this point everyone in the entire airplane was fully reclined and some had even fallen into a comfortable sleep that would last 12 hours. Desperate, I finally flagged down a stewardess who, after trying what I had tried, apologized. I asked for another seat and she shrugged with a satanic smile. The plane was booked to capacity. “Holy shit,” I thought. She smiled and walked off, leaving me bolt upright, my face millimeters away from the oily bald spot of the man in front of me. Dude was fully reclined and already sawing wood. I could practically smell his dandruff. I swallowed hard. Maybe there is something worse than halitosis after all.
This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.
Copyright © 2011, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.