I recently flew first class for the first time in my life. It was an eye-opening experience on a couple of levels. In terms of physical comfort, it was unquestionably the most luxurious means of travel I have ever known. For brief periods, it was easy to forget that I was 37,000 feet in the air flying at more than 600 mph. Conversely, in terms of mental/emotional comfort, I have rarely felt so discombobulated or so out of place. I felt a bit like the answer to one of those “What doesn’t belong in this picture?” puzzles.
The rare but much-appreciated opportunity arose due to the number of frequent flyer miles my mother-in-law, who was traveling with us, had accrued and was generously willing to expend to purchase first-class seats for me, my wife, and herself. As we were flying in a Boeing-777, the first-class compartments consisted of a series of individual pods. Each private pod possessed 6’6″ of legroom compared to 31″ in coach, a fully-reclinable seat compared to the 3″ of recline for a seat in coach, 22″ of seat width compared to 17.05′ in coach, and a hot meal served by an overly-attentive steward.
I loved it. I hated it.
When I was a child, my family of working class parents and eight children didn’t go on vacations. With the kids’ divergent ages and schedules, the logistics of organizing and moving ten people, and the high cost of such travel, vacations were a luxury we “dreamt not of.” The mere notion of a family vacation of any sort was an illusion, and the possibility of first-class accommodations was downright fantastical. As a result of these humble origins, I’ve always considered myself a member of what patrician Romans derogatorily called the hoi polloi or common people. My sons and I, half-jokingly but proudly, use the acronym M.O.P. (Man of the People) to describe ourselves and to keep one another grounded.
Unlike many of an upbringing similar to mine, whose working class roots inspire them to climb to higher rungs on the social class ladder, I have never directed my time or energy toward the pursuit of that which I’ve never had, for I have never considered myself underprivileged. Wealth, status, or possessions have never ranked high on my list of life goals. If they had, I would certainly have pursued a different career path. I can honestly say that I am not impressed by money, the things it can purchase, or the people who possess it. Some of this lack of envy I attribute to my immersion in literature, which repeatedly reminds me of the folly of equating the accumulation of money or possessions with happiness or a life well lived.
What I learned from my discomfort in flying first class is that the status and privilege inherent in such accommodations discomfort me. I felt every bit like a pretender, a phony — Gatsby-like in the denial of my origins and in the assumption of fictitious airs. Self-shamed by the spurning of my fellow citizens of the coach section, I waited as long as possible to board and then averted my eyes from those who boarded after me and passed me in route to their plebeian seat assignments. Stewards I treated with absurd politeness in the attempt avoid transmitting even the slightest attitude of condescension and to prove my M.O.P. status, and I refused to take advantage of most of the appurtenances of first-class travel. The warm meal, however, I accepted. I was starving! But I did eschew the cutlery and eat with my fingers, proving you can take the boy out of coach but not the coach out of the boy.
I do not judge or begrudge in any way those who choose to fly first class nor can I guarantee I will never fly that way again. As I often say, a person can get used to anything, and perhaps one day, as Matt Hooper says to Captain Quint in Jaws (my all-time favorite movie), I won’t “need this working class hero crap.”
For now, though, all I can say for certain is that on my first first-class flight, I felt like a little boy wearing a grown man’s suit, and I did not like the fit.
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