Thursday, October 25, 2012

Steaks on a Plane

"Excuse me, sir, could I please see your boarding pass?"

I looked up from my laptop, instinctively tightening my feet around my bag and placing a hand on my rollaway. A woman in my airline's uniform with disarmingly large Persian eyes stood waiting for my response.

"Um, yeah sure, just a sec."

I handed it to her out of my shirt pocket, and waited to be told that I would need to go back to American Customs Pre-Clearance to sort out the ambiguities I'd inadvertently penned into my information card.

She eyed my ticket. "Please bear with me for a moment, sir." Then she walked away. I closed my computer, watched the desk under the sign for GATE 105, and thought about what a great story I'd have if I were detained in Dublin for the whole weekend by customs agents perplexed by my inconsistent passport use on flights to and from the US.

I ended up with a different story, however. My flight attendant returned and looked at me with her huge eyes. "Sorry about the confusion, sir. You'd gotten an upgrade and we wanted to make sure it was printed on your ticket." She handed me my boarding pass and I looked at it, then back up at her. "Wait a second—I'm sorry, what does this mean?" I must have misunderstood the word printed in place of "Economy" in the lower right corner, next to the almost-certainly misprinted "SEAT 3G". She replied, "It means you are now flying business class." She turned on her heel and walked away.  I smiled, caught myself, furrowed my brow, and smiled again, unable to bury my excitement.

So it begins: the story of a wide-eyed midwestern boy's adventure behind the business class curtain. 


Soon after receiving boarding pass 2.0—the experience was akin to that of receiving a handwritten note from God, in my state—I was standing in line to board with my fellow business-class travelers, doing my best to look both serious and at ease. My anxiety intensified as they boarded two rows of disabled passengers. We would walk past their section on our way to the front of the plane.

The wealthy and powerful were clustered around the gate, fiddling with iPhones or staring impassively at the tunnel we were about to enter. Soon we were given the go-ahead. After entering the plane’s thick steel door, flight attendants directed us left. I glanced to the right, down the empty rows reserved for my true plane class, and felt a guilt settle upon me. This was unbelievable, as far as good fortune goes. 

The curtain opened for us and we entered. With wide eyes, I beheld my enormous seat. An empty arc of plastic extended behind the headrest; this space would allow me to to recline my chair down into the console of the passenger behind me without affecting his mounted video screen in the slightest. There was also a cave for my feet, or so I inferred. I was not permitted to put my bag there.

Everyone sat, so I sat. I self-consciously opened my Raymond Carver book (Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?), thought about classism, and looked up to see an attendant emerge from the curtain in front of us carrying a silver tray laden with water, orange juice, and champagne. My guilt was not assuaged.


With the PA system apparently on mute in our part of the airplane, the business class was free to lounge about, enjoying a selection of mixed drinks and imagining that economy was steadily, pleasantly filling with economy passengers—people who were absolutely not having a hard time heaving their bags into place, and who were definitely not climbing over one another, or sweating, or trying to pacify their restless infants. The champagne and spirits certainly helped us to imagine these negations, or so I assume. Myself, I opted for the most delicious orange juice I have ever tasted.

I abruptly discovered that the panel on my left armrest opened on a hinge, and furthermore, that the panel concealed a complicated diagram of my seat. Smooth buttons rose out of the diagram at different junctures, and I realized that these must refer to various axes of movement. I stared at this diagram. My neighbor, who sat adjacent to the other aisle, stared at me. I looked at him. He glanced at the buttons. I looked back at the buttons, then at him again. He looked up. We looked at each other.

"I was given a surprise upgrade and don't belong here and I don't understand how to operate my chair," I confessed, and also lied, because I had sort of figured it out during the "looking" episode.

"Oh, that's fine," he said Irishly, "don't ask questions, I say." (About the upgrade, I inferred.) Then he pointed vaguely at the seat diagram, and as my legs swung up on the back of an extending leg-rest in response to a depressed button, I voiced my appreciation. "Yap, there we go, thanks." My new friend then tried to get a conversation going, but when he found out that I was returning from a school program, our chat faltered. With a look of nonchalance, he attended to his own buttons. Apparently no one is a pro at omni-positional seat management. 

We took off. I calmed my takeoff nerves by holding the traveler's toiletries kit we'd been issued along with menus and water bottles. It had a clear plastic pouch that was pleasant to the touch. Packed inside were numerous miniatures: mouthwash, toothbrush, toothpaste in a tiny tube, moisturizer. The kits were meant to be used as part of a landing protocol for business class passengers, who would likely be meeting important people on the ground and therefore needed to be looking the freshest, the cleanest, the moistest, the lip-balmiest. For my part, I intended to close my collar and put on a tie. I didn't yet know who would be on the ground waiting for me.


At cruising altitude, smiling attendants stepped down the aisles to take drink orders. There was no point-of-sale now, and nor would there be, because tickets for business class are all-inclusive. Inferring this, I opted for an adult drink. The ensuing dialogue is fairly representative of my whole experience: 

"Would you like something to drink, sir?" 
"Yes, I'd like a glass of red wine, please." 
"Would you like the Spanish or the Chilean?" 

I hesitated and timidly asked for the Chilean, the description of which I'd studied at length during her approach. She pulled the bottle out of her cart and held it up for me, half-cradling it as waiters do at fine restaurants in movies and situational comedies where the main character is about to become the butt of a joke about pretending to sophistication. 

"Will that be all right for you?" The bottle loomed. Her smile was huge and white and unrelenting. "Yes, that's fine." Adeptly, she poured into a glass that had a three-leaf clover laser-etched on the far side. This she had set on the wind-swept expanse of my tray table after covering it with a folded linen cloth. This linen: it was not the sort you can just spill wine on without withering under a sudden red-hot shame, I quickly discovered. 

What would emerge next but our hors d'oeuvres for the afternoon, "hot and cold Canapés”? Arriving in threes atop delicate porcelain plates, the Canapés were little rounded cracker constructions filled with zesty cheeses. I had not heard of them before I saw them on the menu, and was thankful I did not have to actually pronounce an order for them. While sipping my Chilean wine I furtively glanced around, just to see how everyone else was handling the task of actually eating the stupid things before making my own attempt. You never know when an indirect route to ingestion is to be preferred, according to some inscrutable custom, when immersed in a foreign culture. In this case I discovered that the method was fairly intuitive: Canapés are to be popped into the mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Fair enough. 


A new discovery perplexed me. While sitting, I would occasionally close my eyes to rest, or turn to peer out a far window, or blink. Whenever I returned my gaze to the linen'd acre of tray table in front of me, I often found that my wine level had risen, miraculously, and for this miracle I gave thanks many times. I then progressed to asking forgiveness many times. 

Flight attendants in business class apparently have two modes. One is cheery, visible, and helpful, while the second is silent, invisible, perfectly efficient, and terrifying. “Unsolicited stealth refills” sound amazing, and are amazing—but something about mixing job qualities that would benefit an assassin with the normal service-oriented set left me feeling, well, concerned for my life. And the more stealth glasses of Chilean wine I imbibed, the more suspicious of a conspiracy against my life I became. I also felt woozier and more loquacious, but that is certainly besides the point. 

The crew delivered blankets shorn of plastic packaging to each of us, returned to their dark anteroom, and reemerged with hot towels. I swathed my face in a steaming cloth and looked back up at our attendants with narrowed eyes. Then I put my glasses back on and swaddled myself in the blanket. By this point the Chilean wine had finally dissolved the last vestige of tension, my conspiratorial anxiety, which had lasted all of about thirty imaginary seconds. As they brought out my steak fillet with scalloped potatoes and asparagus—and a chocolate volcano cake after that—I only smiled with drowsy gratitude. 


I am not ashamed to say that I spent more time watching snippets of television shows than I did reading my Raymond Carver and my Thomas Merton. During the excellent animated movie Tangled I even shed a couple tears, which I turned to hide from my Irish seat-mate out of self-consciousness—which rotation forced me into watching, through watery eyes, an entwining couple across the aisle, mid-cuddle. I stared only so long as it took for my face to dry, which could not have been more than ten minutes. They didn’t mind, I inferred. They were wearing complimentary eye-covers. 

Sleep was all but impossible in this cylindrical dreamland. The coffee—poured into fine china cups over yet another linen cloth, and served with crystalline chunks of maple sugar and adorable pitcherettes of cream—kept my neural pathways busy and open, but not enough to sustain a desire to write or read. Instead, I was trapped in a sort of alert consumer state, sipping and chewing and watching while leaving my pen and paper in a stowed bag. 


The sun set; the sun rose; windows were pulled down and back up; people massaged their stocking feet and stretched. We were nearing Chicago. I sat, exultant, leaning to get a glimpse of the skyline through a far window. The woman across the aisle noticed my excitement and asked me if I had been away for long. “Sort of…” She smiled at me and looked back at her amorous companion, who was still slumped against the plastic wall. The yellow light of a midwestern summer sun was irradiating his double chin in all its folded, stubbly glory. 

I buttoned my collar and put my tie on in the bathroom. I gathered my things. I read a final Carver short story. I prayed that the landing would not redirect my journey across the River Styx. We descended, and my prayers were answered. We had already traversed the only body of water we were meant to cross during our flight, the Atlantic. 

Finally came the muffled squeal of tires on the runway, and an easy landing. Business class immediately pulled down its bags and evacuated the plane. While disembarking I carefully avoided glancing into economy, my erstwhile aerial home. Guilt over my good fortune had never quite lifted. Outside, the tarmac quivered like a mirage. Temperatures had climbed into the triple digits that day. 

Among the first pieces of luggage to appear, my bags sluggishly swung around the carousel before I heaved them onto a cart. My father appeared soon after. As he sped up his pace and opened his arms to embrace me, I wondered if my indulgent jaunt behind the curtain had all been a dream, or worse—a mistake I was going to pay for in full. “How was your trip?” he asked. “Oh man,” I said, putting a hand on my luggage cart, “you’re not going to believe this…” His incredulous laugh reassured me that the airline would not bill me for my upgrade, and together we stepped out into the American heat, free and happy. 


  1. ah, your voice. so much love.

  2. I stumbled across this gem of an entry after realizing that I hadn't checked your blog since before I left for Peru. Wonderful.