*It all started about noon, as our plane pushed away from the passenger dock at Denver International, en route to Oklahoma City. That’s when I noticed that the man in the aisle seat across from me and one row back seemed to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to me.
It wasn’t obvious. But from my own aisle seat, in my peripheral vision, over my right shoulder I could feel his ogle. Initially, I figured he was curious about the instant repartee between me and the woman in the window seat next to me. From the time she’d come aboard, the 29 year-old city planner and I made easy small talk. Perhaps the man found the rapport of two strangers interesting.
However, in glancing around the cabin to see if the crowded 120-seat jet was indeed full, I locked eyes ever so briefly with him. And then, in my mind, I just knew: this man, in his mid-30s, about 6’2 and maybe 230 pounds who looked to be from the Middle East, was a terrorist. He was sizing me up, I reasoned, lest I attempted to interfere with whatever he was going to do on this plane.
It’s not like that. Really. Usually, I’m the one sitting at my flight’s gate, observing with disdain the uncomfortable reaction fellow travelers exude when among us are men and women dressed in traditional Muslim garb. Shame on those who nervously pace the waiting area, anticipating tragedy. Wouldn’t someone plotting disaster want to dress more inconspicuously?
But this guy behind me looked like terrorists I’d seen on the evening news. In jeans, baby blue polo shirt and black loafers, he resembled the average westerner. Either my imagination had run amok, or I was onto something. Suddenly, I began to feel afraid. I considered sharing my thoughts with the city planner, but couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t freak out.
I knew what I was going to do. Use my ink pen to stab his eyes, then knee him in the groin. Or maybe not. The last guy caught on a plane with a bomb kept it in his underwear. That’s why they called him the Underwear Bomber. This guy here, his hair spiked up, could have been called the Too Much Gel Bomber. Way too much.
Discreetly, I began looking around the cabin for his possible accomplices. Ruling out these cowboys, retirees and college students, I then reexamined them all, determining who might be willing to “roll” with me when I decided to get busy.
Sitting nearby were maybe five men I thought might help me, including in the aisle seat two rows up and on the other side, a beefy, 40-something bearded blonde man in gray sweats and a tight white T-shirt. He caught me giving him the once over and in a nanosecond flashed a nondescript glance, looked away and then at me again.
I chatted with the city planner while making my periodic peripheral checks on Mr. Suspicious. Even after I’d calmed enough to drift into a light sleep, when the man suddenly unbuckled his seatbelt, I woke up. He waddled past me and up the aisle with a certain urgency, grabbing onto the back of the odd passenger’s seat or luggage bin above to steady himself. I sat up. He’s making his move! The man did appear headed for the pilot’s cockpit, detouring to the restroom instead.
I turned to look at his chair. There were no carry-on items under the seat before him; no magazines, hats or listening devices lying in his seat. He sure was traveling light. Admittedly, so was I–four days’ worth of clothes stuffed into my lone black Samsonite in the bin overhead. But I was making a run to OKC to attend my niece’s son’s high school graduation; where was this guy headed?
From what I’d seen, the passenger sitting next to the man, a middle aged Hispanic-looking woman in pastel summer pants, white long-sleeved blouse and pearls, hadn’t uttered a single word to him. I looked at the man’s seat, and the lady, lowering her paperback, shot a solemn look at me. Or was that a silent cry for help?
The beefy guy, rising to retrieve something from his overhead bin, looked at me. I, in turn, looked over my shoulder back at the lady in pearls; she looked at me. I looked again at beefy, who glanced at the lady in pearls and then winked at me.
“That guy just winked at you,” said the city planner. So he did. I wasn’t interested in the city planner, but I didn’t want her thinking I was something I wasn’t. Beefy got back in his seat, and I returned my eyes to the restroom door. What was he doing in there? When the man finally emerged, he ignored me. Once in his seat, like a nosy parakeet, I cocked my head to get him in my peripheral. And once again, he was looking at me.
The turbulent descent into Oklahoma airspace made me forget about any evil devices possibly planted in the lavatory; it was all I could do to hold my lunch. Once on the ground and waiting to deplane, all of us–Beefy, the Pearl Lady and the guy I’d kept under vigil for the hour long flight–we all ignored looking one another. I gave the city planner a handshake, got my bag and exited the plane as fast as I could. Nothing had happened. I was glad about that. But I was embarrassed as hell.
Striding through the terminal, I was haunted by the glances from the man I’d practically harassed on the plane. His was a strange expression, a peculiar yet familiar glare of both bemusement and sheer contempt. It occurred to me that I’d seen the look before, on the face of my mother.
This was in downtown Oklahoma City during the mid 1960s, when she’d take us shopping on Saturday mornings at the department stores. Inside, white salespeople would trail us but hang just behind and pretend to be there in case we had any questions. In reality, they were making sure the Negroes didn’t steal anything.
At some point, my mother would turn around and cast upon the salesperson the same look the man on the plane gave me–a seemingly blank, yet penetrating laser beam of a stare that, without the slightest grimace, mutely conveyed frustration, anger and hurt.
I don’t recall Mama ever complaining to us about the salespeople, but intuitively, every black person I knew understood the ritual. In TG&Y, my childhood friends and I would have fun acting oblivious to the heat-seeking salespeople, only to suddenly split up, effectively driving them crazy.
Knowing how bad the actions of those salespeople routinely made me feel, I couldn’t believe I’d done the same thing to a man some 30,000 feet above the ground, where he couldn’t escape my ignorance.
Leaving the car rental counter to get my vehicle, I caught sight of my victim near the baggage carousels, surrounded, presumably, by a joyous group of family and friends. I had a mind to walk over, introduce myself and apologize for what amounted to a simply ridiculous strain of racial profiling. Instead, I kept stepping, having made a big enough fool of myself already.