Thursday, February 3, 2011


When you’re crippled and you fly on the airlines you give up your wheelchair and they haul you to and from your seat in this thing they call an aisle chair. It’s shaped like the letter L on wheels. It’s only about a foot wide so it will fit through the narrow aisle of the plane. They strap you in like you’re about to be executed. My friend Greg Smith who’s crippled and flies a lot calls it the Hannibal Lecter chair.

When they’re hauling a cripple onto a plane, it looks like two guys delivering a fridge, with the cripple being the fridge. One guy walks backward, pulling the hand truck, while the other pushes from the front, hunched.

They might as well throw you in a wheelbarrow. That’s how comfortable and dignified it feels. So boarding a plane is not for cripples with a low embarrassment threshold. When they drag you past the first class passengers, bound like a captured fugitive, you have to have a large capacity for laughing off being conspicuous.

The last time I flew, while I was being strapped into the aisle chair, I heard the flight attendant behind me talking to Rahnee. The flight attendant said, “It’s a slow life in a fast world, isn’t it?” She said it with a sad tone of head-shaking pity.

She was talking about what a shame it is that it takes me so long to get off a plane. Rahnee just said “hmmm”, or something diplomatically dismissive like that. I felt like saying, “I’m not always this slow. I move as fast as the rest of them when they don’t take my damn wheelchair away.”

But I had something bigger on my mind. I was jazzed, cautiously jazzed, because I felt like I was on the verge of a great discovery. Maybe I had finally figured out a way around paying those fascist bag fees airlines charge.

I come from an economic school called Babushkanomics. I can’t help it. It’s how I was raised. It’s my mother’s Slovak blood. Our proud ancestors are the sturdy Eastern Europeans you see riding the Archer bus in Chicago, wearing a babushka head scarf and pulling along a two-wheeled wire basket just big enough to hold a bag full of groceries.

Those of us with a babushka soul are proud of our frugality. We find great joy in stretching a buck as far as we can. We hate wasting money. We hate being ripped off. We’ll drive 50 blocks out of the way to avoid paying for parking. When I was a kid and we went to ballgames and drive-in movies, my mother smuggled in pop corn and sandwiches. To a disciple of Babushkanomics, the symbol of all that is evil is a Rolex watch: “Wait a minute! You want me to pay three grand for a watch that tells me the same damn time as a Timex?”

I get similarly riled when I see a sign in a bank window that says Totally Free Checking: “Wait a minute! You’re gonna take my money and invest it so you make even more money and not charge me for it? Gee thanks! You should put up a sign that says ‘Open a Checking Account Here and We Won’t Kick You in the Balls.’”

Sullivan likes to give me endless shit about what a cheap ass I am, but he’s got a lot of room to talk. He comes from Bridgeport, the working class, corner tavern, beef stew, Friday night church bingo neighborhood where Babushkanomics originated. When the Bulls won their first championship, Sullivan bought a t-shirt that said NBA Champions 1991. But when the Bulls won their second championship, all Sullivan bought was a black marker. And next to 1991 he drew in a comma and 92.

When they unstrapped me from the aisle chair in the jet way, the flight attendant watched on, still looking sad. I said to her, “Hey you know when the passengers couldn’t fit their bags in the overhead and you took their bags away to check them through? How do you charge them for that?”

“We don’t,” the flight attendant said. “It’s complimentary.”

My face must’ve lit up right then because Rahnee gave me a look, that don’t-you-even-think-about-it look with her downcast eyebrows. She knew exactly what I was thinking: I did it! I beat the system! Now whenever I fly I’m gonna insist on carrying everything on, even if it’s a side of beef! And when it doesn’t fit in the overhead I’ll just say Ooooops and they’ll take it away and check it through for free!

But Rahnee gets embarrassed by my incessant attempts to practice Babushkanomics. When I proudly hand the waitress my two-for-one restaurant coupon, she hides behind the menu. I’ve given up suggesting that we drive around the block once or twice before heading for valet parking.

So for the sake of matrimonial harmony, I won’t be able to put my exciting discovery into action. But you can, my friends! Carry it on and beat the fascists at their own game!


  1. WTF!? Why is there an ad for Groupon that claims to save 90% off of local eats? You Smart Ass.

  2. i love this. especially the bit about babushka ladies on the 62 archer bus. i grew up in this world. and yes - i practice babushkanomics.

  3. Ha, Nice! I have been thinking about doing a photo blog devoted to my current $20 per week food budget (I might just do it once the discount replacement battery charger for my camera shows up in the mail -- it might be a while since i had them send it 25 day ground shipping to save a buck). I'll take this blog post as a sign from the minor gods of penny-pinching that i should go ahead and do it. If i have any lingering doubts, i'll walk the 10 blocks to the Archer bus (which my grandmother most certainly rode from time to time) and take a spin. I'll do it on a monday so i can stop at the UNIQUE thrift store on half off day. Would you like me to pick up some bulk pickles for you at Bobak's while i'm out that way?

  4. Your mom was a smart lady. My kids' movie-going experience is limited to only the dollar theater (75 cents on Monday afternoons!) and the obligatory stop at Walgreen's on the way where you can get 3 boxes of movie theater candy (they usually go for Mike and Ike's, Lemonheads and Raisinets) for $3. I take sandwich bags in my purse and divide the candy up between the 5 of them and when they ask for a drink during the movie I whisper sternly, "No, we can stop at the drinking fountain on the way out!"

  5. You sound like such a Jew. This is coming from a Jew, so I can say such things. I would be too embarrassed if I showed up to eat somewhere without my 2 for 1 coupon. Even if I was a multimillionaire. It's the way my mama raised me.

  6. Funny thing: I recently had the same epiphany.

  7. I haven't flown in 11 or 12 years; I think the last time was to & from an ADAPT Action in Columbus, OH in 1999. I used to call those frigging things "cargo dollies," & envisioned myself being hauled around as a stack of soda cases. I shouldn't be surprised that they still use those damn things. How long is it freaking going to take them to replace the planes made before 1990? *sigh* I guess the one "positive" of the cargo dolly, is that it does give you a general idea of how old your plane is, so that you can ratchet up your fear level accordingly. @@ With so many unmodified, pre-1990 planes still in the air, I really hope their attention to safety maintenance is exponentially better than their [lack of] attention to civil rights.
    I don't remember them charging for checking luggage back then, but I was always terrified of them losing my belongings. The Air Carrier Access Act only covered up to $2500 in damages at the time, if they destroyed or lost my chair, which is why I always used a manual chair instead of my powerchair, when I flew anywhere, & at a cost of $3600 (in 1997), my manual chair was still worth more than that if they had to replace it. I would strap everything I could tightly to my chair, gate-check it at the plane door, & carry everything else in my carry-on, in my fisherman's vest, & in my service dog's backpack, while they dragged me backwards through the über-narrow aisle, scraping my sides, hips, & elbows, before dumping me sideways over the immobile aisle armrest, bruising my hip, & sometimes hitting my head, or shoulder, on the center armrest.
    I have a shelf under my manual chair where I used to strap a 10 pound bag of my service dog's food. At least once, I went through hand-check security & forgot about the dog food while I was being poked, prodded, & bent around, & the security people somehow missed seeing it themselves. I remember thinking later, when I realized they didn't find it, that might be one way for someone with nefarious intentions to sneak on something fairly large & dangerous. o_O A number of years later I saw an episode of one of the Law & Orders where someone used a powerchair to sneak a bomb into a building through security. I would assume that post-9/11 plane security screenings of wheelchair users are much more invasive now...?

  8. Try this next time you fly. Conveniently be in the can in the terminal when they pre-board gimps. Then after regular boarding is well underway, show up in all your power-chair glory.

    Attendants DO NOT want to drag you through a cabin full of people putting things in overhead bins... so they dump your ass in first class! A friend of mine has been doing this for a couple of decades; he swears he gets 1st class about 90% of the time. That ought to fit into your Babuskanomis quite well... sumthin for nothing on actual plates!

  9. If I wasn't afraid of being seen as a terrorist I would totally drive my chair onto a plane hoping for first class. Oh I'd also need it for my assistant.