Just Visiting: My Foray Into First Class

by Lori Soderlind


Lori Soderlind is author of Chasing Montana, a memoir. Her essays have been featured on NPR and in anthologies—among them the Norton Anthology of Creative Nonfiction, which includes her essay “66 Signs That the Former Student Who Invited You to Dinner Is Trying to Seduce You.” She has reviewed for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and as a longtime journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The Times and The Boston Globe, Montana Magazine, and others. She holds her MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University, leads writing workshops in New York City and teaches journalism and writing at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut.

On Libations:

“In the great beer state of Wisconsin, where I have spent some part of nearly every year of my life, there is a brew for every type of summer day spent in all manner of places: Old Style in a can for the post-fishing dives, Miller drafts at the supper clubs, and mom's booze-free punch for family gatherings on the patio. At the end of a dock at sunset, I favor a deep, dark stout called Bitter Woman, and in the summertime, when the day is still and the muskies roll, even she is sweet.”

It arrived on my screen as I completed my online check-in the night before my trip:

“Upgrade this seat to first class! Click now!”

I’ve always wanted to do it, but it seems too extravagant. Not just “seems,” actually, but really is: take something as expensive as air travel, increase the cost by possibly twice what you might normally pay, and then double that again (because you can’t really bump yourself to first class and leave your loved one behind—and I mean literally behind, back in the nether world of coach). But this time I was flying alone. To Milwaukee. On an undersold flight. Under those circumstances, the distance between segregated elegance and the yowling maw is 50 bucks.

That’s a pittance. That’s the price of car fare from my apartment to LaGuardia. This is not how life normally goes; this is not the price of admission to The Other Half. If I were planning a trip to Paris six weeks from today, I could squeeze into steerage for $818 on Air Portugal but for a shot at those lovely, reclining, first-class accommodations on United, with a complementary sleep mask and bottomless champagne? That time-share of happiness is listed at $4,904. I figured for my Milwaukee trip, I could pass for a change on the car service to the airport, take the bus instead, and my 2.5 hours of elegance would be covered.

So I bought it.

Theory: if $50 was truly all that separated the wheat of personal wealth from the budget-constrained chaff, then on any given day, we might all feel like the good life was ours.

          In the morning, I slogged down to the M60 on Broadway wearing my good coat and better shoes as this is what The Good Life now seemed to call for.  Then I tucked my tattered canvas carry-on bag and secondary overloaded book bag between my knees and watched the thrumming fray of Harlem and Queens roll by, knowing that, soon, I would betray my class for luxuries I could only imagine: the scrunch of my body against the cool, clean leather, the wide arm rests, the complementary pre-takeoff cocktail in a real glass, the cloth napkin to absorb its ring, the fawning flight attendant checking in on me, personally, with her own clean, well-manicured hands to be sure that my seatbelt was fastened and my tray securely stowed, ah, in the seatback in front of me. Yes. And in first class, the attendant would be smiling, even if I should be unable to smile back, maintaining instead a never-quite-satisfied half-sneer—the right to which I’d bought for $50 the night before. I closed my eyes, pressed between a pregnant woman with an iPhone and a fat sweating man as I dreamed and the bus rattled on.

         The purpose of my trip to Milwaukee was a Green Bay Packers game, which I’d been invited to by my well-to-do cousins. They had ordered up a stretch limousine for the occasion, moving us in style from their suburban mini-mansion to Lambeau Field, complete with snacks and a well-stocked bar and Packers flags flying outside the tinted windows. The drive was as long as my flight was, and it would be equally out there in a stratosphere of luxuries as-yet unexplored by me. I had never been in a limousine before. Not even for a wedding.  And those seats for the game— just rows above the sidelines in a sold out stadium—who ever gets stuff like that? Not me. Not until this trip, anyhow. I’d been touched by fate’s golden finger somehow, not for cause but with the pure randomness that good fortune seems bound to, lately.

        I surrendered completely to my good fortune. Shopping at Brookstone at the airport, I bought a new carry-on bag—this one lightweight and hard-shelled, with four multi-directional wheels and a warranty. Why had I never allowed myself a functioning, hard-shell, purple rolling suitcase before?  It only cost about half the price of my original economy-class plane ticket. I’m not sure I understand that math but I certainly couldn’t imagine carrying my torn canvas sack to the seat I was now going to, raising the flopping canvas mess above the coiffed heads of the first-class flyers, squishing it as I might ordinarily do into an overhead bin where it would slouch alongside fine leather, buffed suede, and the carefully folded coats of businessmen. The new suitcase cost $100. I bought it.

        Confession: $50 is the amount I told my partner I’d paid for the seat upgrade. I felt guilty even before I’d committed myself to the purchase and had decided to round down. Allowing myself this luxury was decadent, I knew; a sign of character decay. I was raised with a certain WASP-ish thriftiness; the comfort money buys is long-term security, not a nice plane seat. None of the excesses of my Milwaukee trip had anything in common with how my partner and I live day by day, and not because we really can’t, ever, spoil ourselves but because we don’t believe in it. Or more than that: We do not possess the confidence to spoil ourselves; extravagance must surely lead to ruin.

Anyway, the real extra cost of my seat upgrade was $69, which I admit now only because I am committing the story to print. That price, plus the $100 miniature suitcase, and the $5 for the very large coffee I allowed myself to have (that’s venté, not grandé,  it should be observed) assured me that I was absolutely special as I rolled toward the gate. I was a new person. A person who deserved things. I found a new, strange, “other” place in my mind. A rich place, for a person with rich expectations, for whom comfort was a matter of course.

And here is what I enjoy most about travel: spending time outside real time, transporting myself to worlds I might not ordinarily be part of and belonging there for some short time. I travel to foreign cities and find it difficult to believe that, as I amble down a narrow, ancient street in Rome, or as I take up space in a Paris café for hours, or as I drive along the fringe of burned-out Detroit—it doesn’t matter where—I cannot believe that I really will never know what it is like to live there, to truly belong to the place I have dropped in on for a time, and I ache to know all that I can never, really, know.

Travel takes me beyond the ordinary. And yet the ordinary is in me and with me always, just the same.

At the very first hint of a boarding call, I rose and slid above it all and over to the crowd-free gate, as the first-class folks always do, to take my privileged spot at the head of the line, only to be cut off by a very large older woman with excessive baggage and a ticket for a seat in row 14. Row 14: that is nine rows behind the curtain, mind you. The woman of Row 14 told the gate attendant that one bag was a special cold pack full of her meds, which it turns out entitled her to free extra luggage, which my upgrade had bought me. (I didn’t need extra bags, but I did have that right. I bought that right; it was no handout.). So, okay. Let her have the extra bag, let the ill person board ahead of me; it is a sign of my class that I rolled my eyes but entered silently behind her and then, I found my seat.

Oh boy, it was wide. It was also littered with an empty bag of chips from the flight before, but I plucked that up and tossed it aside and then I raised my new bag into the overhead bin slowly, holding up the rest of the people waiting to board because I could do that. So I did.

Then I took my spot by the window and sighed, waiting in my fancy Tommy Hillfiger jacket, in my leather shoes, reading a literary journal and glancing about with a carefully selected expression of disdain that I have sometimes thought I’ve seen on my way to the back seats and so I wore one, learning the ways of my new place in this pecking order.

And then, the Presbyterian women’s guild from Milwaukee boarded. They wore zebra shirts, stretch pants, leopard print, pink polyester. All were plus-sized; all were delighted and clucking with joy over the shrewd choice they’d made to upgrade their seats on the way home from a shopping spree. And, “oooh, aaaah,” the wide first-class seats felt good and fit better and soothed all their aches and pains.

The women laughed loudly and played solitaire on their electronic devices and ordered tomato juice as their complementary beverage and shared stories of their New York City escapades loudly as we rose into the air. Not one was a movie star, but of course I should have realized there aren’t many of those in Milwaukee. The woman next to me had gas; I don’t know what made me think people in first class might refrain from farting. My free drink arrived—white wine in a plastic screw-cap bottle, a plastic cup on the side. That, and extra space around my ass: $69.

I have lately begun to feel as if I’ve waited long enough. For what, I can’t be certain. But whatever it is, it’s good and it’s reserved for a privileged few and I want it. I want my turn. There are people among us for whom comfort is not a luxury, it is not something fancy and special and clean, it is just what they can have without considering the cost. It has little to do with “deserve” because I know so many deserving people who would feel very good in a wide seat they can’t afford, on a plane to a game they may love but can’t ever go to. I heard recently that some cities in the United States have replaced their carpooling lanes with premium fast lanes—so that if you pay extra, you don’t have to wait in line. This is not your standard “E-Z Pass.” It’s the E-Z Pass upgrade. You are guaranteed a faster drive time if you pay more; carpools as public policy are out, and fast lanes for rich people are in. That is how even our public facilities are transforming: ease to the top bidder, snarled traffic jams for the rest.

It must be nice to feel so deserving of all that is good; that’s what I wanted, that moment of grace or elegance in which the world slows for me, so that for a moment I might believe I was special. But an upgrade on an undersold flight to a small, unglamorous city did not buy what I’d imagined, though it may be as close as the church gals and I will ever get. The adventure led me to a suitcase that will be much better for my tired back, but beyond that it only reminded me: the price of sanity is rising, and the uncomfortable mess left behind is getting messier daily, and the gap is spreading fast. What divides us is not a bump of “class,” but just money. Tons of money, and all the personal welfare that tons of money can buy.