My Dear Fellow Passenger,
May I say something honest to you, traveler to traveler, friend to friend?
Your (expletive deleted) emotional support animal is driving me (expletive deleted) nuts.
Those words sprang to my mind a few days ago as I boarded a small plane — two toddler-sized seats on each side — and squeezed past the man on the aisle, aiming for my refuge at the window.
The man was tall, fit, 50-ish and cradling a large bag which, I realized in dismay the moment I sat down, contained a dog.
I have many fantasies of the kind of person I’d like to be. I wish I were a sailor, but I get nauseous on a boat. I wish I were a fabulous cook, but even my best pasta dish is only passable. I am an amazing singer, but only when no one’s listening.
And in my fantasies I’m the kind of tender-hearted person who would coo at a bright-eyed, wet-nosed little dog in the airplane seat beside me.
Instead, I was mentally cursing.
I tried to convince myself that perhaps this man really, truly, deeply needed the dog for this flight — in my fantasies, I am compassionate — but my mind fixed on all the bad things I’d heard about comfort pets on airplanes.
You know: the possums and snakes traveling under the guise of emotional support, the urinating and defecating of these nonhuman travelers, the yapping and the whining, the lunging and the growling, the licking and the drooling, the downright fraud that some passengers perpetrate just because they think it would be nice to take a trip with Tabby or Fido.
Was it on this airline that a dog bit a neighboring passenger in the face?
From eavesdropping on my neighbor’s conversation with another passenger, I learned the animal in 6B was named Sugar. In my fantasies, I am not a person capable of harboring ill will toward a dog named Sugar.
And yet, as I felt Sugar’s doggy breath on my elbow, I began silently composing a screed about the abuse of the comfort-pet policy, hoping my objections would join the growing body of such vital public service journalism.
I was debating how to phrase my opening line — could I use a curse word? — when the dog owner spoke.
“Drugs kicked in just in time,” he said.
Whose drugs? His? Maybe he could share. Two and a half hours in sealed, cramped, airborne quarters next to a man and his dog called for a sedative.
Before I could clarify the drug situation, my neighbor went on.
A while ago, he said, his precious golden retriever had died, and he’d been sad. He’d sworn he wouldn’t get another one, but a buddy of his, a breeder, had one pup left. When offered, he couldn’t say No.
I glanced at the container, which by now had been stowed beneath the seat in front of him. It squirmed slightly. Was the puppy growing?
In my fantasies, by the time we landed, Sugar would be taller than I am.
And yet something strange had started to happen. As the man talked, I felt my crankiness soften, almost imperceptibly, like a frozen stick of butter sitting on top of a warm oven.
The man told me that he’d had a five-week out-of-town vacation planned for a while and didn’t feel right leaving the puppy with someone else for that long, so he’d fed Sugar a prescribed amount of phenobarbital and was hoping for a peaceful flight.
As we flew over Kentucky and Pennsylvania, we kept talking. The man mentioned that he’d married into a big Catholic family. He talked about his kids. He told me about his sister-in-law, who had joined a religious order at the age of 65, after her boyfriend, a paraplegic, died.
By then, that stick of butter that was my heart had turned to mush. I didn’t even mind — well, not much — when he pulled Sugar out of the container and passed her to a passenger across the aisle.
Sometimes all it takes is some pleasant conversation, the trading of a few life details, to make you realize that the enemy is your friend.
Even though I’d still prefer to travel dog-free.
Mary Schmich has been a columnist for the Chicago Tribune since 1992 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.
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