I had never dreamed of flying business class. There’s something about it that repels me. Maybe it’s in the designation: Business class is clearly made for those who sport pressed suits and shining shoes, who tote matching designer luggage sets, who actually have business abroad, and who may or may not be paying for it on their own. I’d seen business class before, but during my most recent stay towards the front of a commercial aircraft, I felt particularly out of place, having bummed around Africa for nine months previously with hardly more than a single change of clothes. Business class is not called Dirtbag class for good reason.
It hadn’t yet dawned on me that I was leaving Africa when I approached the Emirates gate at Bole airport in Addis Ababa. My boarding passes bore the usual seat designation: a number higher than 25 coupled with a letter like H that I wouldn’t expect to exist inside the cabin. Perhaps it’s a patio seat over the wing. The (gorgeous) ticket checker lady took my pass, shuffled a paper or two, twiddled a pen and, with a grin, announced that I had been upgraded to business class. My original seat number, 87R, had been crossed out and replaced with 11C, clearly a seat of distinction.
I walked down the telescoping hallway wondering how or why such luck should befall me. What are the odds that one of the hundreds of economy cattle should be chosen to join the prestigious upper classes? One in a couple hundred, I reckon. It was my first time flying with Emirates, and they became my favorite airline before I even boarded the plane. Perhaps it’s an elaborate marketing strategy to upgrade first-timers and give them a taste of snazzy perks. I daresay it worked.
Stepping through the hatch, I was greeted by another pretty Emirates employee who, in a tone I thought to be not overly patronizing, exclaimed “Ahhhh! 11C! Very nice.”
“I know. Fancy right?” The scribble on my boarding pass and my scummy outfit of course betrayed any notion that I had actually paid for the position on my own.
“Very,” she said. I laughed.
I took hardly a dozen steps before arriving at my seat, and as I arranged my junky carryon stuff, I began to feel self conscious. Most of the women were wearing heels, scarves, and holding leather purses in their laps with LV (whatever that means) printed all over them in obnoxious colors. The men wore suits, or parts of suits, and fussed persistently at the stewards who hurried to find suitable storage for their suitcases.
EXECUTIVE: (Indignantly) Please, put the case in this other bin. Last time someone put it there, it was scuffed. I don’t want that again.
STEWARD: Yes Mister Lin. Perhaps I could put it in the storage locker at the front of the cabin?
EXECUTIVE: That will do.
As I sat, my neighbor, a man with a purple sweater vest (and a wife in matching garb) asked about the instrument I was carrying. Was it a mandolin?
“It’s a Ukulele,” I said. “Unfortunately it was broken during my latest tour, so I haven’t been able to play much.”
We didn’t speak for the remainder. I looked down at my knees, protruding dramatically from year old Levis that had served as my only pair of pants for nine months. My black shirt, made to fit by a roadside tailor in Kampala for six bucks, was wrinkled and probably stinking. On my head sat a second-hand corduroy fedora with a fragment of a feather in the band. I decided to mold the attention that my ukulele and shabby appearance brought into a mysterious façade: I became an obscure singer-songwriter continuing my tour in the Arabian Peninsula.
“I’m big in Dubai,” I didn’t say.
The trip was enjoyable, of course, but bewildering. My chair was outfitted with a dozen motors capable of manipulating my body into any number of fairly comfortable positions. When an offer for wine was made it came with a list, and I was forced to elaborate on my request for red, though I had to fight the urge to ask if the wine cost anything (lest I come across as a cheapskate). The stewards even did their research before asking me my meal preference, addressing me by my last name. And when the end came at Dubai’s extravagant airport, I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the privileged passengers to exit the cabin before me: I was a privileged passenger.
If only I had been blessed with the same class upgrades on the other three flights I had to take from Addis Ababa to Denver via Dubai, Frankfurt, and Reykjavik. No dirtbag is that lucky.