The term "steerage" originated in the age of sailing ships. The lowest-paying passengers were relegated to the bowels of the vessel, where cables connecting the wheel to the rudder were strung. This cabin class served my Irish ancestors perfectly well on their emigration to America. No onboard wi-fi or amenity kits, but plenty of legroom and complimentary beer.
Generations later, the genetic hardiness that served my forbears so well has attenuated to the point that I would probably come down with scurvy while the ship was still within sight of the Irish coast. The only residual toughness I possess is sharp elbows at the baggage carrousel.
I'm particularly bothered by an ailment unknown in the 19th century: Jet Lag. Say what you will about weeks of gruel, seasickness and lice-ridden bunks, when my great-great-great-grandparents finally stepped off the gangway in New York harbor they weren't nudging each other and saying, "No wonder I'm exhausted, it's 3:00 AM at home."
Sleep on a plane is an elusive goal for me unless I'm lucky enough to turn left when boarding. Nature has blessed me with many gifts, but drifting peacefully off to the Land of Nod in an upright position is not one of them. I've learned over the years that the best way to cope with adversity is to appreciate whatever aspects of the situation you can. My ancestors got through the gales, icebergs and rumored sea monsters by playing music, making friends onboard and savoring dreams of a new life in America.
Me, I look out the window.
In the age of the aisle seat I'm a holdout for the other end of the row. Laying my cheek against the cool glass I watch as we vault over the snowy Rockies to the Canadian Midwest, where ordered fields gradually give way to a Jackson Pollack pattern of intricate frozen muskeg lakes from horizon to horizon. Flying against the Earth's turn brings dusk up with startling speed. The clouds quickly turn pink and the planet's shadow looms like a wall. We plunge through and are enveloped by stars that shine unblinking in the thin atmosphere.
The flight attendants clatter by with gelatinous food. I'm simultaneously numb and aching, my feet are swollen and my eyes sandpapery. But outside, a faint veil of aurora is beginning to coalesce across the Greenland Icecap. I watch the spectral ribbon of light rippling across the sky until an orange smear of dawn grows ahead of us over the Hebrides.
In the front of the plane behind a discreet curtain the Business Class passengers have slept peacefully through the entire show. Of course I'd be happy to be one of them, to be free of the aches and pains, sipping fine wines and eating substances actually recognizable as food. But the view from steerage is something I've truly come to appreciate.