Skies aren

The last United flight to New York is crowded, and it’s going to be tight. We press against the barrier at the gate, on the balls of our Rockports, heavily laden with hand luggage, sweating in our business-casual microfibres. I check the competition.

The tall New Economy management type in front of me has managed to holster her late-model Nokia without taking her eyes off the flight crew. I know she means business. The Old Economy drone beside her is a pushover: gray hair, Samsonite luggage, an unwieldy copy of the Wall Street Journal. He’s even wearing a tie. He’ll be easy.

The rest are a mixed bag – some strong, some tired, carrying civilian giveaways like Banana Republic bags and small children. I run through the checklist one last time: 16 magazines to read on the flight, so I don’t get stuck with Business Week. Water bottle so I don’t dehydrate. Refueled silver Starbucks latte canteen locked and loaded so I don’t have to kick.

High-protein vegetarian baguettes strapped to the overnight bag so I don’t have to eat their sickening filth. Panasonic portable DVD player with Sony heads-up display so I don’t have to endure Bunting’s Window. Clean socks, so I can stow my shoes without embarrassment. Zippered Spiewack jacket to protect my shirt from the inevitable Virgin Mary mix-up. Rocket eBook containing the complete works of Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu and Lessig. Four recharged batteries for the Mac G3, good for serious delays. Mail-synced Palm V with complete text of The Prince in case the G3 jams.

Recharged Motorola StarTac with clustered extra battery life, for those discrete, illegal bathroom calls. RJ11 phone cord for that in-flight Airfone datalink, if things get desperate. MCI calling card. American Express travel card. United Premier Executive membership card. Red Carpet Club card in case we’re forced to deplane at a strange city. Pen. Notepad. Propelling pencil. Clean, white handkerchief. Swiss army knife, secured discreetly at the bottom of the laptop bag. I breathe deeply. I’m prepared. I’ve got a job to do. I can see the whites of the air steward’s eyes.

A bead of sweat rolls down his tanned face as he sees our grim mouths, our shoulders hunched like angry bears. He knows what we want: luggage space, aisle seats, leg room, air. He knows we’re not all going to get it. I watch his Adam’s apple bob swiftly, once, and then he says, “Ladies and gentleman, we’re about to begin boarding. If First Class passengers and Premier Mileage Club members would like to …” A forest of glistening silver cards appear, shining like bayonets in the harsh neon light. I’ve badly underestimated my situation. I’m surrounded by a Premier swarm, and it’s going to get ugly real fast.

The guy in the tie drops his Wall Street Journal. I curse, realizing it was a fake-out. He’s really been holding a tightly furled copy of The Industry Standard – 350 pages of Internet Economy billy club – and he’s going to use it. He lunges, striking low and hard into Nokia’s midriff, and she goes down like a dropped ironing board, and he’s off down the ramp, suitbag flapping behind him like a cape. I follow him, leaping down the long corridor, stiff-arming a guy holding a baby.

He goes down and the doll he was holding rolls away from him. I use the momentum to pivot around the corner and then I see it – the stark white oval of the plane’s door, and a wounded United stewardess bending low and coughing into her hand as she throws pretzels to the floor. It’s an old trick, nasty if you slip up and give them time to throw you to the ground crew below. The guy with the tie is in front, his boarding pass is out and he makes a staggering jump and sails over the pretzel minefield, landing free and clear and deep inside the door. He smiles back at me condescendingly and waves his hand. The door is about to swing shut, but I jam my titanium laptop case into the mechanism, and they have to reopen it. I force my way in. “Good evening, sir. 14A? Right this way.” I make my seat: The lie is good: window occupied by a drowsy, nonverbal introvert middle-age CFO type; middle seat vacant.

I kick of my shoes, jump on the seat arm, release the overhead bin, scoop up the usual material in the seat rack and stow it above, steal an extra pillow and blanket, place my shoes, laptop and overnight bag up there, close it, drop into my seat and do up my seat belt with a satisfied click. A tall figure looms above me in the aisle. “Excuse me, I think we have the same seat assignment.” I try to stand but the seat belt cuts into my thighs. He hits me hard on the crown of the head and I go down.

Parsons, the deputy editor of The Industry Standard in San Francisco, can be reached at [email protected].

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