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!