Years ago I worked for a good-government nonprofit and racked up a number of frequent flier miles while working on a project to amend St. Louis’ city charter. Those miles, with their attendant promise of a free trip to Europe, were the most tangible outcome of the reform effort. Despite biennial trips on American Airlines to preserve this banked holiday, the opportunity to travel abroad never arrived and the airline increased the minimum miles beyond my reach. So when my mother suffered a mild stroke, I had the bittersweet wherewithal to fly to Cincinnati to see her.

In the years I’ve lived in DC, the separation of the nation’s capital from “America’s Heartland” has, at least west of the river, come to resemble the traditional bicoastal disdain for the flyover country. Before bipartisanship reinvented government as a spoils system for an incestuous consulting class, civic nerds outnumbered the cynical opportunists drawn to profit in DC. But from the War on Terror to the Great Recession, Washington has been remade into an imperial citadel. A barony of government contractors has grown fat off the public fisc, and the capital is now ringed by the three wealthiest counties in the country.

Declining crime rates, improved government services and a more diversified local economy have precipitated a white flight into DC neighborhoods long left to the urban poor. Dog parks, bike lanes and boutique restaurants have morphed from amenities to entitlements. Never has the heartland view of DC as a warren of out-of-touch elitists been so accurate, which a trip into the hinterlands where recession still lingers amply confirms. As the country and its capital have drifted further apart, a sojourn among the unfortunates now affords the kind of self discovery that is more commonly associated with foreign travel – as my flight to Cincinnati would reveal. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve flown back to see my parents so I was surprised to discover just how much of a flying jitney service mid-market air travel has become. Travelers from DC to Cincinnati (on US Airways) no longer warrant a jetway onto the plane but must troop onto a bus that is held until the last straggling passenger has come aboard before making an agonizingly slow passage across the tarmac to where the diminutive jet awaits. Knowing how cramped and confined the plane would be, I warily scanned my fellow bus exiles – on the lookout for the overly large or the piercingly shrill. And sure enough, among the last on the bus, came a Gorgon and her brood, headed, in all likelihood, back to their Appalachian homeland.

I dared not take a good look at her, but she was an unkempt mass of immensity. She was not sloppy or obese but had the sturdy dull-faced mien of a peasant astray from a Brueghel painting. While cradling an infant, she corralled an unheeding child engaged with his Game Boy as we all trooped off the bus. Once upon the plane, to my delight, the trio shambled down the aisle past my row and its open seats. But just as I was beginning to revel in my unexpected isolation, a commotion advanced from the rear and settled itself opposite me in the once-vacant row.

Prepared to make the best of it, I settled in with ear plugs and a Scandinavian crime novel as the newborn tooled up to match the whine of the jet engines. Once at cruising altitude, I became vaguely aware of a sing-songy susurration across the aisle that turned out to be a one-sided colloquy concerning the pangs of hunger. In retrospect, I should have anticipated what was to happen next but I have only been responsible for dogs and have never cared for an infant.

Curious about the solicitous conversation I was eavesdropping upon, I looked over to what cannot be unseen. Where once there was mother and infant, there now appeared a conjoined tit-head baby. The newborn’s smooth bald dome was perfectly matched by the pale orb to which it was attached. There was no discreet drapery; this was a mother and child reunion proud and out loud. The words of encouragement I seem to have heard are happily lost to me now. But the spectacle, in a confined space from which I could not simply walk away, held me captivated.

I do not think I am too different from many of the men in my demographic when it comes to public nursing. With all the bullshit we spin about motherhood, discomfort about breastfeeding in public is asinine. But I don’t want to see it, and I know that is on me.

So from time to time, I looked over – not staring or intrusive but fascinated. What repelled? There is no need for amateur Freudian histrionics though that is a long and winding path. As I sat there in seat 5A, sky borne with the hope of bringing some comfort to my mother, my disdain for this rude unsophisticate redounded upon me. For surely as she was with her child so too was my mother once with me.

I am not likely to leave the Imperial Citadel; life here is good though it is corrosive and the value of empathy should not be foresworn.