‘Performance art in airport,’ 2019. Mixed (social) media.

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In July, as I geared up to set off for a month of studying abroad in London, I believed that the stories of my travels would originate in my destination. I was more than ready to cash in on that tasty bit of dopamine generated by the high of commodifying my experiences via social media. Although I didn’t know what to anticipate when I got there (I’d never been to Europe), I expected a pretty simple and commonplace sequence of events during my trip.

I’d pack my bags, panic that I forgot something, say goodbye to my family, nurse that gnawing feeling of a forgotten something, get to London, figure out what exactly that something was and be at peace. On Instagram I’d be having the time of my life, pictured at extravagant stops in Milan, in Paris and at an Amsterdam pride party. 

My mental health would be trash, as being so far from my support system usually begets, but the internet didn’t have to know that. I figured if my trip was performative, it wouldn’t be the first time that my feed has been filled to the brim with projections of a better, happier me. Images of the Hollywood movie me would make and unmake myself over and over for all of my followers to see.

This trip was bound to be no exception.

My flight across the pond was to begin with a connecting flight in Chicago and then on to London from there. When I boarded my plane, I headed to my seat for what I believed would be an inevitably subpar seat, considering I decided to forgo the fees of trying to choose one. I was going to be in the middle, but as luck would have it, I was put in one of the seats with extra leg room. The flight was only four hours long, and the combined power of my distaste for water and bladder of steel would surely get me through.

As I boarded to the humdrum tune of people on their own journeys milling about much like I was, the comfortable peace was shattered by the shrill voice of a woman clearly displeased. Her presence was punctuated by the moment she slammed the overhead compartment above my head and dropped like a rock into the seat right beside me. The woman, older than me, was decked out in clickity-clackity ornamentation that underscored every angry shift in her seat, every mad stomp on that extra-leg-room floor. Adorned in an oversized Dragon Ball Z T-shirt and The Daily Cal sweatpants, I wondered what her Instagram profile might look like.

She gripped a bright red Michael Kors bag with cerulean claws and shouted incoherent threats to herself, the plane, the crew and god himself. And beside her I sat, tense as a brick wall. At some point, a crew member informed her, and me, that she would be removed from the plane. The means — by force or through her cooperation — were completely up to her. 

She said, “Call the cops.” 

Scared as I was in that moment, I felt an absurd respect for her. I didn’t, and still don’t, know what brought her to this moment— what unseen transgression delivered her to my row in a state of such belligerence. But I felt for her, regardless. Who hasn’t been inconvenienced to the point of rage at one point in their life? Not to mention, flying is incredibly stressful to many people. We’ve all seen disaster films; we know what a fictionalized airborne catastrophe can look like. 

In her anger, there was undoubtedly an anxiousness that I could relate to. 

And as the incident progressed, I couldn’t help but begin to point out the similarities between this woman and myself. A woman whose skin was only a few shades darker than mine. Who had twists in her hair a few shades darker than mine, just a touch wilder. I couldn’t help but notice that when I was finally able to disembark (after many of the passengers had already done so because of the potential escalation of the situation), that when I was greeted by other passengers with concern, her disembarkment was greeted with camera phones and giggles. 

Jokes. 

At one point, after we’d been approved to reboard the aircraft, I heard a passenger joke to a flight attendant that next time they ought to tase her and drag her off the plane. 

Perhaps the woman, who could have presented a very real danger to me, is not owed this kind of consideration, this kind of internalization and comparison. In that moment, there were certainly more differences between us than similarities. 

I am only able to comment on my own feelings on the matter, but it was jarring that I felt more empathy for this woman as one of the people most directly in the path of her tirade than almost everyone else around me. One passenger commented, “At least we got free entertainment.” And a collection of laughs followed. I wondered where the line of “free entertainment” intersected with the line of their own commodification of these events, exchanging a stranger’s misfortune for likes and comments. And I wondered if I should take this vulturous vying for attention at face value. Was this a performance too? When I share this column on my Facebook, do I become the attention-seeker I criticize? If so, I am no better — there are diatribes to be written about my own complacency and the way it related to how everything panned out. 

Should I have shaken off my fear of this woman and tried to speak to her? Or joined in as she verbosely sang the songs she played aloud with her phone? Or made her the star of one of my stories, taking advantage of her spectacle like everyone else?

As I write this, I am forced to question how much of this woman’s story I feel I am owed simply because I witnessed a part of it, and how many folks decided that for themselves instantaneously when they took their videos of her arrest and cracked jokes in their small circles. 

Two women got off that plane because of some unknown transgression. One was arrested and the other got on her connecting flight without a hitch. 

Areyon Jolivette is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].