A telephone call between the author and a fictionalized Delta representative, in which their conversation ranges from the bureaucratic inanities of air travel to the ravages of global capitalism.
Thank you for calling Delta SkyMiles. My name is Alted. Do I have the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Adichie?
Yes. How are you?
I’m very good, thanks. How can I help you today?
I’m calling about my parents’ ticket. They’re flying tomorrow from New York to Lagos. I bought their return ticket with my credit card. They were supposed to fly home last month but my father needed to undergo a medical procedure and so I changed their return date, and I paid a change fee. I know Delta requires you to come to a Delta desk with your credit card for all ticket purchases and changes. And I’m calling because I am sick, I have a terrible cold.
Yes ma’am, I can hear it in your voice.
[Coughing] Yes. So I’m wondering if, since I have already shown the credit card before they flew on the first leg, and since I used the same card to pay for the date change, could you please let them board their flight tomorrow? Could you please waive my having to appear at the airport to once again show the credit card?
Ma’am, I certainly understand the inconvenience. But our policy is that you will need to physically present the card at a Delta desk.
I understand that. I’m just asking whether you are able to consider the particular circumstances here.
I apologize and understand the inconvenience. But you will have to physically present the card at a Delta desk in the airport.
Is there a manager I can talk to?
I am the manager. I’m sorry, but you will need to physically present the card at a Delta desk or your parents will not be allowed to fly.
Could I have someone else go to the airport with my credit card and driver’s license?
Ma’am, as the owner of the credit card, you would need to go yourself.
So if someone else shows the credit card and a matching ID, it means that person stole them from me and then miraculously decided to use both stolen objects to help my parents board their flight?
You will need to physically present the card yourself. It is our policy because Lagos is a high-fraud route.
What could the fraud here possibly be?
What could the fraud be? I’m a frequent flier of many years. I paid for first-class tickets for my parents. Now it’s a two-hundred-dollar change fee. On the same credit card. Nobody has the discretionary power to tell me, It’s okay, you don’t have to drive to an airport just to make sure Delta doesn’t lose two hundred dollars that by all reasonable assumptions it is not going to lose anyway?
Ma’am, I apologize and I appreciate the inconvenience.
Stop saying that. You sound like a robot. Is there anybody there that could please treat me like a human being? Does anybody there have discretionary powers? Anybody? Isn’t the point of being a manager that you can make judgment calls? Does Delta not do common sense? Have you all been bled dry of your common sense? Is that part of the training process?
Ma’am, I do appreciate the inconvenience.
I am paying you for a service, an overpriced service by the way, and yet I’m expected to work for you for free. This is the kind of capitalism I hate. This is bullying capitalism. Look, I am Igbo, I come from a trading culture. My people are merchants and I’m all for buying and selling. But capitalism has to be a fair exchange.
You really won’t let my parents board a flight even though Delta has already made thousands of dollars on that ticket, because their daughter is too sick to drive to an airport and show up like an accused person? What the fuck is that about? Sometimes, Alted, it’s only that word fuck that captures the kind of sublime frustration I feel right now.
Ma’am, we do appreciate your flying with us and we understand that you have other options.
I don’t, actually. Which is the problem. My father is eighty-six years old and my mother is seventy-six and Delta is the only direct flight to Lagos. Otherwise they would have to stop somewhere in Europe, tired and confused, waiting for wheelchairs that never come. Delta needs competition. Actually this kind of capitalism needs competition. We need alternatives to this bullying corporate capitalism that sells you something and also uses you. It’s like self-service at supermarkets. You pay the same price for the goods and then you do the work of checking out. Or self-service at airports. You pay for a ticket but you get no discount for doing your own check-in. It’s forced labor. And all because this bullying corporate capitalism is too shortsighted and tightfisted to hire actual human beings. It’s all about profit, profit, profit and cut jobs, cut jobs, cut jobs. So they can save two hundred dollars even after having made ten thousand dollars. They need to hire human beings! And I don’t mean human beings trained to be robots, like you. [Coughing] I’m sorry, Alted. You’re just an employee. You don’t make decisions. But surely you can see this isn’t right?
Is there anything else I can do for you, Ms Adichie?
Is there anything else you can do for me? Seriously? Who came up with this policy?
If Nigeria is good enough to make money from, then Nigerians have to be deserving of some tiny bit of dignity. But Nigeria really doesn’t matter. Nigeria is Third World. The government is toothless. Delta knows it can take our money and treat us like crap. I know some of my fellow Nigerians buy tickets fraudulently. Our collective intelligence quotient is quite high, if not always constructively employed. But hard as it might be to believe, Alted, we’re not all fraudsters. Take my father. He’s the most honest man I know. He would never take a piece of thread that didn’t belong to him. He doesn’t even understand the American obsession with tipping. It feels like bribery to him.
Ma’am, if there’s nothing else I can help you with …
Oh God. What is happening to our world? What’s going on? Why is everything so wrong?
Ma’am, as I said, I appreciate the inconvenience …
Alted, I’m fighting tears.
I do wish I could be of help, ma’am.
I am mourning a stranger. I am in grief for somebody I never knew. How is it that a man is butchered to death, and the whole world is cowardly and careful because of capitalism? When I was growing up in Nigeria, I thought the Americans and British had a glass of ethics at breakfast every day. Money mattered, but justice and uprightness mattered more. I thought there were certain things the Americans and British would never tolerate. But now a man has been murdered in an embassy, and his body cut up by somebody listening to music with earphones in his ears. And America is waffling about because they want Saudi money. And Britain is waffling about because they’re confused about Brexit and terrified of losing Saudi money. Because investments. Because capitalism. Who has moral authority now? Whom can we look up to? From where will salvation come? Who can stand firm and say, No, you cannot kill a journalist in an embassy office and cut up his body and continue to have a seat at the global table. [Coughing, tearful] Did you read about him, Alted? Did you read about Jamal Khashoggi?
There’s a video of him on the internet. He’s recording an interview and a cat jumps on his lap. It’s not his cat. He starts to laugh. His laughter is delightful. There’s a picture of him at a Thanksgiving dinner at an American friend’s home. He said he was thankful to be able to write freely. He felt free. But he really wasn’t free. The American president says he’s just a permanent resident and not a citizen, as if you can be murdered with no consequence if you have an American green card but not if you have an American passport. I’m guessing passports cost more. It’s all transactional. Everything is a capitalist transaction now. Actually, permanent residents pay taxes even though they don’t vote and can’t decide how their tax money is spent. So if Jamal Khashoggi paid taxes, has he bought the right to have America advocate for him, for justice and dignity after death? What do you think, Alted?
Ms. Adichie, if there’s nothing else I can do for you …
Do you like to read?
I read when I find the time ma’am.
You should read a really good book by Dave Eggers about Yemen. It’s called The Monk of Mokha. It’s not stuffy or anything. I’m a writer. I won a prize recently, a really lovely prize for writers who show courage. I cried at the awards ceremony. I was required to choose a co-winner, and I had a short list of impressive writers. I chose a Saudi lawyer. Waleed Abulkhair. He’s in prison. He defended writers and criticized corruption but you know what did it for me? Learning that he set up a salon for political young people to gather and talk. I imagined them drinking coffee and laughing and arguing. It’s so important to know you’re not alone. To have a community that has your back.
[Coughing, less tearful]
The world order feels so fragile. Our lives, our dignity, everything. It feels as if the world is free of consequence, as if it’s dark and freewheeling, with no safety and no certainty and no moral center. Do you know what I mean, Alted?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of award-winning and best-selling books including Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, and, most recently, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. She has written opinion pieces for publications including The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and many others internationally. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
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