A man farted in my face on the plane and I said nothing!

He was standing in the aisle and I was sitting in my seat. I felt curiously paralyzed.

By Cary Tennis

Published July 26, 2007 10:53AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

OK, this is going to sound weird. I was on a flight out of O'Hare a few days ago. Just before it was our turn to take off, the airport shut down the runways because of the weather, and our pilot shut off our engines for an indefinite wait. That was bad enough, but what came next was truly obnoxious. More puzzling was my reaction.

The flight crew said we could stand in the aisles, which several people did. A 60-ish man across the aisle from me stood up, but he violated an unwritten rule of airplane-aisle etiquette: Always face fore or aft when standing and, if possible, stand alongside a seat back so you don't crowd the personal space of a still-seated person. No, this guy stood with his butt inches from my face. Within moments, I smelled something awful. Could it be? I had my iPod headphones on, so I hadn't heard anything. I pulled them off, and within seconds heard a faint fart coming from the backside that was all but in my face. Then came the smell again. And then he farted again! I couldn't believe it. I turned my air nozzle on full and pointed it at his butt, but it did little good. He farted probably five times in the course of a minute and showed no inclination to apologize or even make his way to the lavatory.

More puzzling was my response. I wanted to shout -- no, state emphatically -- that he needed to stop farting in my face, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I'm not sure why. I didn't want to embarrass the guy, but that wasn't fully the reason. In the end, I never confronted him. After another minute or so, he sat down. I directed my air nozzle more in his direction and suffered in silence.

What explains my behavior? More important, what would you have done in this situation?

Suffering from Posttraumatic Fart Syndrome

Dear Posttraumatic Fart Sufferer,

Man, that is the grossest thing I have read in a while. I was hoping to get something funny after yesterday's disquisition on guilt and death. But this is just kind of gross.

Still. Damn. What would I have done?

I like to think I would have said, slowly and distinctly, in an audible but controlled voice, "Please, sir! You have farted repeatedly in my face! For the sake of our common environment, this must cease!"

But being partial to public oratory, I like to think that I would not have left it at that. I would have strung a few more words together on the threat to our freedom and dignity that is airline food, the way we feel more like hostages than customers, and then somehow I would have worked it around to our fragile and fraying obligations to each other in a democracy -- to make the observation to my fellow airline passengers sitting on the tarmac in the noble city of Chicago that, being citizens of a democracy, we must always take note of those situations in which we find ourselves curiously unable to raise our voices in protest, because those are the situations under which tyranny can bloom.

When we are crowded together on an airplane, the way we are now, citizens, I would have liked to say, we feel powerless and isolated from our fellow passengers, don't we? And under such conditions our democratic instincts often desert us, do they not? And let us not forget, in this gun-crazy country of ours: We do not know what this farter might be packing in his pants, besides a few more farts! Furthermore, what with sky marshals purportedly among us, do we not fear that any protest could be interpreted as trouble making? Who among us has not pictured himself being paraded off the plane in handcuffs for causing a disturbance -- while the one causing the disturbance sits smugly by?

Why, sir, one might ask, did you not raise a protest at the first hissing of that silent but deadly foe of all humanity? And if the accused farter should make a countercharge that you, sir, are nothing but a loudmouthed troublemaker, are you then prepared to insist on a thorough search of the man's underwear? Such constitutional questions must be considered carefully.

But let us get beyond the farting, the rudeness, the olfactory assault, my fellow passengers, and ask the larger question: Are we not sitting idly by every day as powerful people fart in our faces with impunity? Is there not a terrible stink in the national air about which we are saying nothing? Why are we filled with outrage and yet unable to raise our voices in protest? Are we not feeling mute and discouraged in our daily lives as we watch the news? Why is that? Is it because we feel vulnerable to the commands of the captain, fearful of being incarcerated if we raise a stink, pardon the pun, fearful of the consequences if we simply call attention publicly to the fact that a man is standing in the aisle farting in our faces?

By his actions he is almost begging us to say something. And yet we say nothing! Are we cowards? Do we not believe what we profess to believe, that robust free speech can bring down tyrants and kings alike? Do we not believe that we must practice robust free speech in all our day-to-day encounters, however trivial, lest we find our words have deserted us, our vocal cords have atrophied, when profound and urgent events call for it?

Furthermore -- and this is where you have to follow me, fellow passengers, because this is the real heart of it -- whenever we find ourselves curiously muted or feeling powerless and afraid to act, is that not a sign that we have not built the society we set out to build? Sure, we may vote in elections. But are we living as free, proud citizens in a democracy day to day?

So I ask you, fellow airline passengers, as you sit or stand in the aisles today awaiting takeoff from Chicago O'Hare, though this farting man has insulted us with his stinky, unapologetic farting, has he not also caused us to think more deeply about our roles as citizens in a democracy and as the creators of a new, freer, more robust world? Has he not in some small way contributed to our quest for enlightenment? Are not his farts, in that sense, not only an outrage but a gift to us? And so, even as we hope never again to encounter him in any airport where we are embarking or disembarking or catching a connecting flight, do we not also owe this man a debt of thanks?

So gather round, fellow passengers, before the air marshals restrain me with those little plastic handcuffs! Get out your cameras and your camera phones and your newly purchased iPhones! Let us honor this man with many photographs, e-mailed around the globe, noting his accomplishments, lest his service to our country be too soon forgotten!

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