You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
Muddy Waters in the Middle Seat.
It’s 5 am. The line of Portland Passengers standing in line to board flight 1099 to Dallas is long. I’m tired. It’s hard to focus. Travel day is always stressfull. Starting at 3 am is just a time bomb.
So there I am, standing in line with a throng of sleep deprived Americans. There is a sense of anxiousness, impatience as the bleary eyed souls push toward the gate attendant.
That’s when I hear Muddy Water’s voice cackle.
It’s a country fried chuckle. It’s one part Potato dumplings, one part country road gravel being churned under a truck tire.
Muddy Waters is a black man is in his 80’s. He is slouched over like a devining rod pointing to an aquifer.
Muddy Waters is wearing a black Fidora on his mostly bald head. He has a smattering of facial hair littered with white specs, like vanilla sprinkles, that extends from his sideburns under his hat.
I am two passengers behind the old man who seems lost or disinterested.
Muddy is wearing an oversized winter coat that is 3 sizes too big.
He stares at the gate attendant with bemusement. He seems lost in the new age modernization of pre-boarding check in.
The old black man, with the gravely southern voice addresses the frustrated employee. His voice is like a Harley Davidson starting on a cold morning. His words rumble into the cavernous confines of the Portland International Airport. Whatever he says is almost unintelligible, as if spoken through a mouth full of squash and lima beans.
He shuffles a McDonalds togo bag from hand to hand while searching his oversized pockets for paperwork as enigmatic to his senior existence as the sea scrolls.
“I ah know I ah gotta gave that uh papah thing, pass ah…”
His deep, southern drawl is almost unintelligible as English.
It’s a guttural, primal form of communication that is half verbal half facial gestures. It’s a dialect from a region of this country where dating your cousin is still acceptable.
“Sir, please step aside, and allow me to help these other passengers while you look for your boarding pass.”
The old black man reminds me so much of a Muddy Waters album cover I saw in a record store years ago. Unlike the other passengers, shifting from side to side, watching and waiting, Muddy seems unconcerned. He steps behind the podium with an exceedingly large woman, every bit of 250 pounds. She is younger, perhaps a caregiver or a daughter.
I move to the gate attendant and put my iPhone on the scanner.
“Thank you Sir, have a nice flight,” the gate attendant says.
I move into the flying tube of Ebola. Every cough, every sneeze, every deep sigh and exhale adding to the confined airspace of sickness. I think about respiratory distress as I move to the back of the plane where light diminishes and oxygen is something you pay a premium for.
For whatever reason, my son sits by the window. I sit in the aisle. Who booked these seats I think to myself? Oh, I did, I remember.
It’s a full flight. I leave my seat belt undone, knowing that I will undoubtedly be standing up to allow someone to sit in the center seat.
WHO WILL IT BE?
The flight to Dallas is 3 hours. That’s a long time to sit next to someone who is unpleasant, stinky, or over sized I secretly pray for a diminutive ballerina with small bone structure.
I watch passengers young and old, man and woman shuffle forward. As they move, their eyes search for an uncomfortable seat that’s too narrow with leg room designed by a pygmy.
That’s when I hear a rooster crow and a 3 bar blues chord.
It’s Muddy Waters shuffling down the aisle. He is walking unlike the other passengers, without alacrity, without concern for pending connecting flights. He wobbles ever so slightly, like a child moving barefoot through a rolling stream filled with rocks.
I watch as his 250 pound caregiver leads the way. She is holding a shopping bag and a neck roll. Her body fills up the aisle, sucking up all available space, like that last pickle packed into the jar.
“I’m the window she says,” to the couple in row 24 across from me.
Row 24 is suddenly the center of a chaotic universe.
The people next to me get up and the large woman pries herself into her seat. It’s a tight fit and I wish someone would have lathered her ever expanding ass with some warm butter to reduce the friction of the seating process.
I watch as the massive woman pushes her way into the window seat. She is pleasant and apologetic. It makes me think of a sausage politely excusing itself as it is crammed into the digestible sheath that holds it all in place.
Once big mamma is situated, the regular sized passengers beside her take their seats.
Suddenly it is the Muddy Waters show.
I hear the gravel voice, and hear the gritty chunk of a blues riff somewhere.
“You wan I sit o’er there?,” He bellows to his companion across 2 rows of agitated passengers.
His voice is strident, yet soulful. It’s somehow smooth like designer coffee with thick grounds floating on top.
Muddy stands in the middle of the aisle. He is neither concerned nor in a rush.
Over the intercom, a flight attendant admonishes passengers to take their seats.
But thanks to Muddy Waters, row 24 is stopped up. It’s a traffic jam of bluesy unconcern.
Muddy Watters stares around blankly. He is wearing a large overcoat and clutching his McDonalds bag. He is one part Delta blues legend and one part homeless man outside a Mississippi bus station.
He mumbles something low and gutteral. It is strangely rhythmic like a Hootchie Cootchie 3 bar lick.
I imagine Muddy sitting on a box crate, perhaps on Beale Street in Memphis. He is plucking the worn strings of an old guitar nicknamed Sweet Mary Lou.
As he stands in the aisle, I think I sense a bluesy aura, and a smoky guitar riff.
And then Muddy bellows out to no one in particular. “I gotta get this big ole coat off. It’s gonna be a fry oven in this ….”
Whatever he said dissipates into the background sound of an aircraft trying to prepare for takeoff.
Muddy is unconcerned as he begins to remove his very large coat.
“Gotta take this off,” he says in a voice filled with southern fried Chitlins.
I get up realizing that I have to help this old blues legend get situated.
“You’re right here, sir. Between me and my boy.”
As the line continues to back up like a train station public toilet, Muddy begins to take off his winter coat. It’s like watching an old weather vain, rusted and bent, shift ever so slightly in the breeze.
So slow, so unconcerned with the modernization of the moment. Muddy is a timeless bluesy note that lingers in an echo chamber of who cares. He is a TSA walking, sauntering violation.
A man behind Muddy Waters pulls the coat from his arms and stuffs it in the overhead bin.
“Thankya Thankya, hurumpha gonna be hotta,” he mumbles.
I look at Muddy Waters. He is dressed in black. His fedora is black, his T-shirt with a stain on the front is black, his rayon pants also black as night.
“I think you are here,” I say to Muddy Waters.
He smiles and grabs the seat back to stabilize himself. That’s when I see his gold bracelets. His wrist jingles like a tambourine on a sultry southern street corner.
The old blues legend sits between my son and me.
I sense relief in the rest of the aisle that begins to unclog and sift to the rear of the cabin.
I pull the seat belt and snap it across my waist.
Muddy Waters chuckles.
“Lookah this young man, here,” he says referencing me, his words chock full of thick unrecognizable diction. “He all ready to buckle up and get goin.”
I feel a twinge of anger. I’ve been up since 3 am and this is my reward? A center seat filled by a blues playing, diction lacking octogenarian with no sense of urgency.
I smile and put my sunglasses over my eyes. I hope the decreased visual wave length will diminish the impact the Blues legend will have on the next 3 hours.
Just then, the flight attendant leans over us.
“Sir, you need help buckling up?”
The center seat passenger who sings the black man’s blues looks up at the young woman, so eager to help a senior citizen.
“Liddle ladah. I ole enuff to be yo gran pappy. I sure don’t need no hep putting on my seat belt.”
I roll my eyes, as the old man produces an egg McMuffin from his pocket. Like some sort of Delta Blues Magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, Muddy fondles the little breakfast sandwich in his trembling hand. His fingers are long and bony. They wrap around the tiny muffin, dripping with yolk, like an octopus wraps around a delicious nutritious starfish.
He takes a bite. His crooked, teeth chew as his lips curl into a smile infused by egg magic.
As he swallows, his adam’s apple strums an open D Chord.
He looks right at me and out of nowhere, without provocation or request he says; “OOOOH. Eggs make me fart. It’s gonna be stinkin in here.”
My son bursts out laughing. Muddy Waters burst out laughing.
DID HE REALLY JUST SAY THAT OUT LOUD?
I stare at the old black man from the Mississippi Delta. If he wasn’t sitting beside me eating a breakfast sandwich, playing blues with his adam’s apple, predicting he’ll be egg farting, stinking up row 24. Well, I just wouldn’t believe it.
I burst out laughing.
“OK, old timer. Just slow your roll. Buckle up. Keep your stink to yourself.”
Muddy Waters chuckles a gravel rumble.
He mumbles and takes another bite from his breakfast sandwich.
“It gonna be a long flight, I tell you that,” he says.
I close my eyes and try to breathe out of my mouth.
What’s worse, I think to myself. Ebola? Muddy Farts?
“Flight attendants prepare for departure,” the pilot says.
There is no good answer I decide. I fold my arms across my chest and lean slightly toward the aisle. I resign myself to a 3 hour adventure starring an old blues guitar player from the Delta swamp
“Ah gotta buckle this thing up,” I hear him say as he moves in his seat.
I tune out the rumble grumble and invite the darkness in my brain.
It’s going to be a long flight, I think as I let the sleep infuse my mind.