The veneer of civility is always thin on a red-eye. But somehow, at the airport, it seemed that the news playing on the screen overhead—the shootings, the civil unrest, the human tragedy—had forced some perspective on this particular group. Or so I was thinking as we waited to board, stoic, carrying pillows and eyeshades and cranky children.
And then a guy sidled up to the kiosk. “I see there’s one first-class seat left,” he said in an undertone to the agent. “Can I go ahead and grab that?”
“There’s a waiting list for that seat, sir,” the agent, a man in his fifties, said.
“Is there … really?” the passenger said, raising an insinuating eyebrow.
“Yes, there really is,” said the agent, whose name tag identified him as Justin.
I deliberately shot the insinuating gentleman a reproving look. People were dying, after all. Besides, we’d all be in first class if we could.
“But come on,” said the passenger, shamelessly. “Wouldn’t you rather give it to me?”
As a display of chutzpah, it was impressive. It was a level of entitlement I’d previously observed only in beautiful young women. In the case of this guy, it was a wholly quixotic enterprise, and in its way kind of heroic. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and all that. This American Life ran a memorable segment on the concept. I once read an article in a long-forgotten magazine that told you how to wheedle your way into a better seat. One woman swore by the following trick:
–Buy a large fruit basket.
–Go up to agent at check-in and say, Wow! Someone just sent me this large fruit basket! I can’t take it on the plane! Will you accept it as a present?
–Promptly receive an upgrade.
Even at the time, my first thought was how galling the inevitable failure of this stratagem would be. I imagined stony-faced agents surrounded by Edible Arrangements from gullible readers, staring them down with contempt. I imagined paying out of pocket for the fruit basket and having to dump it somewhere before getting in line for coach. I mean, if I had the money for huge fruit baskets, wouldn’t I be rich enough to upgrade, anyway? And the other passengers! Seeing! Knowing! Despising!
And yet, here was this guy, resolutely unashamed: “Wouldn’t you rather give it to me?”
I saw the agent steady his features in some act of containment. I hoped he would say, No. Not particularly. But instead, he said, “I’m sorry, sir. There is a line.”
I admired his approach. The veneer of civility, he seemed to say, will not crack on my watch. But the smarm veneer—I guess that’s just stuffing?—is apparently even thicker.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.