Story by Leslie Edwards
Cats on a Plane
by Leslie Edwards
Peter and I couldn’t figure out what the official policy was about pets when we began planning our move from San Francisco to Guadalajara, Mexico. The first time I called Mexicana airlines, the news was great and I thought I had this one major obstacle all figured out.
“Oh, certainly, Meesses, you can bring all three of them with you in the cabin.” When I called back fifteen minutes later to ask another question, I decided to verify that information. “Oh, no, Meeses, no animals are allowed at all on Mexicana — not een cabin, not een cargo.” I hung up and called back. “Only one animal is allowed on the whole plane. First come, first serve.”
We were getting freaked out. What was the official policy? How were we to get our three cats to our new home? Even if they could go in cargo, we were petrified of doing that. Thousands of animals die in cargo every year. And our cats had never been outside of the universe that was our apartment. If they didn’t die from heat or pressurization problems, they would die of fear. I had to get Mexicana to officially approve that I bring them on board. Their lives depended on it.
I made it my mission to call Mexicana several times a day to try to get one duplicate response, then make my own judgment based on a majority of similar answers. I was able to detect a pattern. Unfortunately, the pattern was like snowflakes — no single response was exactly alike. I started calling obsessively. Calling and calling to hear what wonderfully optimistic, or tragic or crazy response I would get on any day. On one call, the guy pretended to go ask his supervisor as he covered the receiver with his hand to muffle what sounded like the unique sucking in sound of someone taking a giant bong hit. “Oh si, Señora. You may bring as many animals as you want on Mexicana. We are known as the Noah’s Ark of the skies! We take the cats, the dogs, the eleephants — the piranhas if you wish it. And a free tequila for all of them!”
Travel agents were no help. The internet has made them obsolete. They just make stuff up to give the appearance of relevance so they don’t lose their jobs. They told me the usual policy on airlines was two animals per cabin. Any others would have to go in cargo.
“So you know for sure that that is the policy of Mexicana?” I asked one agent after explaining my recent experiences with Mexicana’s customer service.
She didn’t know at all (although she would never actually say so), waving a dismissive hand at me, saying, “Many of my clients have taken pets to Mexico and no one ever told me they had a problem.”
“So, you personally have booked people on Mexicana with cats — three of them — and you had no problem.” Oh such hemming and hawing and eyeball-rolling and harrumphing and tsk-tsking as if I am such a neophyte traveler and oh stupid stupid me.
One nice fellow did, in fact, take my number and called me later to endow me with his brilliant research analysis — that there was a website, Mexicana.com. “No shit Sherlock,” I replied. Well, not really, because I‘m not a rude person — in person, that is — but I’m pretty rude inside my head. You see, I’d previously explained to Mr. Holmes that we had not only checked out Mexicana’s website, but about a zillion other websites and forums on traveling to Mexico by plane with cats. There was nothing referencing animal policy on the Mexicana website, and other information we came across was non-specific or totally conflicting.
One day, I magically found the number for the Mexicana field office for San Francisco International Airport. It wasn’t listed in the phone book or online. I think someone passed it to me secretly — scrawled on a napkin while I was riding the bus. I called and spoke to a sympathetic administrative assistant, Olivia. Olivia’s mother had five cats, she said, and they were like her children. Olivia understood. Neither she nor anyone else in the field office knew or could locate the policy, but Olivia took our number. “But pray, also, to the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Olivia mysteriously added. “For that can do no harm.”
The next day, Olivia called us back. Shocking indeed. Such a thing would never happen with any American airline. She had made many phone calls for us and told us the policy: There was no policy. You can’t make plans in advance. It is all up to the pilot of that particular flight — and you can‘t know until you are there at the gate when he arrives with his team. There — after you have sold your car and all your belongings at a garage sale, and left the rest on the sidewalk to be taken away. There, after you have quit your job, left your rented apartment, and shown up for your midnight flight with your three completely freaked out cats, the eight pieces of luggage that are now all that you have left of the material possessions you have accumulated over the last twenty years, and your measly five thousand bucks to go down to Mexico and figure out how the hell you‘re going to make a living after that‘s gone because you have made a vow that you are going to goddamn well make it somehow and are never coming back.
And so I discovered the beauty of a non-American airline like Mexicana. Official decisions are made of the moment. They are artistic and visionary. They are arbitrary and emotional. If they like you, you are bestowed with a mantle of beneficent and wondrous policies. If they don’t like you, you’re fucked. This is a much more enlightened way to do business than the people-hating, zero common sense standards that guide American airline companies. It really is. It gives you room to breathe. It gives you room to be a good human being, and be rewarded for it. I started lighting candles to the unknown pilot. I prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The experience was bringing religion into my life. People tried to bring me down by telling me I had to have a back-up plan. Plan A was divine intervention. Therefore, the very idea of Plan B meant that I did not really have faith, which would automatically cause Plan A to fail. And so there could be no Plan B.
After months of anxiety, the moment came — as moments tend to. The apartment is gone, the job is gone, and we are at the Mexicana counter at SFO at midnight, with our wailing cats in their carriers, prostrating ourselves before Linda and Maria begging for their mercy.
And profoundly merciful they were. They would talk to the pilot, they said — they would use whatever influence they had to let us take our cats onboard. Linda winked and said under her breath, “I don’t think it will be a problem.” (Linda and Maria were also cat lovers). “This pilot,” she said, “we must make him understand.” We were to bring our cats to the gate and wait until the two hours before boarding — wait for the pilot to hand us the verdict.
And then that other moment came — as other moments tend to. The pilot strode into the gate area, followed by Maria and Linda. And oh the smiling and cluck-clucking and cooing into the faces of the cute kitties by the regal El Capitan and his co-pilot, stewardess, and man stewardess. Suddenly, El Capitan straightened himself up. Clearing his throat, briskly fixing his cap, thrusting his chin forward, he strode through the gate to his air ship. Linda and Maria smile and tell us, it’s good, it’s all good. We may bring all our children, and they will not freeze or suffer or die in cargo, and they will all be with us, living a glorious new life in wonderful, merciful, sweet, mysterious, official-policies-be-damned Mexico.
We entered a whole different world once we were seated on-board. A world entirely opposite of the American airlines and their Nurse Ratchitt-like staff and mental patient rules. A world free of lectures about airline safety and oh here’s what you do when we crash blah blah blah floatable seats and oxygen masks blah blah blah — because the staff of Mexicana are a hell of a lot smarter than their American counterparts, for they know that if the plane turns upside down and starts plummeting towards the earth at 600 miles an hour, that there’s no bloody use, and that we’re all going die, so cut the ridiculous oh-so-American denial and just face it, say a quick prayer to the Virgin, and take it like a Mexican.
We’ve got two rows of seats, and still stuck in my fear of airline staff and their rules and ways, we squish each carrier of crying cat under a seat — afraid to unzip it even a little bit — because I did that once on a Continental Airlines flight and the man-stewardess almost had me shot. The airplane zooms down the runway, and the cats are freaking out at the sound and the terrifying vibrations. Grommit starts punching crazily at his bag — punching fast and furious. And Gollum — poor, gentle giant panther Gollum — he starts howling. I don’t think I’m allowed to pull his bag out — so I’m leaning way over in my seat talking into the bag — cooing to him, “Mommy’s heeere, don’t be afwaid, I wuv you I wuv you I wuuuuuvvvv youuuuuuuu.” Nocha, the girl, is the brave one, the Zen one. She is as calm as Buddha. She is very wise indeed, compared to her dumb brothers.
The plane has just left the ground and is veering steeply upwards, and I see almost every passenger rip off their seatbelts and leap up, grab pillows and blankets, and boldly stride down the aisles, abandoning their own seats for these great empty rows that fill up the back portion of the plane. Neither the stewardess nor man-stewardess even blinks an eye. They are chatting in their own seats, and these other passengers all stretch out and go to sleep, for it is the middle of the night.
I can’t believe this, but I’m going to take a chance. I get down on my hands and knees to look under the middle seat to my crazy punching puppet, Grommit, and I pull his carrier out. I look over to the staff and they are not interested at all — I think they are doing it under a shared blanket — and I lift up his carrier and I put him right on the empty middle seat between Peter and me. I unzip the top and let his little head out and kiss him and stroke him. Now he is okay and I pull Gollum out from under the seat and I put the carrier in my lap and open the flap and I reach in, and the pathetic beast is wet and really smelly, but profoundly glad to feel my hand and he stops crying. But man, it smells terrible and Peter is worried that now this really will make the staff angry and something bad will happen to us.
“What can they do about it now?” I ask Peter. “Throw Gollum out the window?”
I feel around the pad upon which Gollum is lying and I touch several hard, hot little objects. There are five pieces of shit in his carrier. Who ever heard of a cat peeing and pooping all over himself when confined in its own carrier? This is why I think Nocha has always smacked Gollum around, telling him in cat-language how big and stupid he is. Now I understand. Poor, gentle, pissing and shitting himself giant Gollum. I use a napkin to reach in and pick up his poops, and still naively concerned about the stewardess people, surreptitiously hide the poop-napkin under my jacket and take it to the bathroom to dispose of. I return to our row where we have all of our gatos on the seats with us, and we can pet them and talk to them for the whole scary journey. We are happy.
We are beginning our descent, but neither the Captain nor the airline attendants have announced this. I am drinking tequila and not fastening my seatbelt as we descend towards the airport with our cats in our laps. We are going down, down. down — and there are no fake smiling fascist steward-people stomping down the aisle, snapping up your reclining chairs, forcing you to hand over your so desperately needed tequila, and hissing through clenched, bleached teeth that you better jam your freakin’ animals back under the seat before they confiscate them and send them off to a hotdog factory. No. We are left quite alone to drink our tequila and pet our cats and dream, dream, dream of our new land of wonderful, sweet, mysterious Mexico, the land of the miraculous Virgin of Guadalupe. The land that itself dreamed up and created the metal heaven of the skies, the only truly civilized airline in the world, Mexicana.