Almost certainly I was the only passenger on the American Airlines flight from LaGuardia to Dallas/Fort Worth last Thursday who had taken a subway and an overcrowded municipal bus to the airport, only to be seated in the first-class cabin.
My ticket had been obtained for me by generous friends with a surplus of frequent-flyer miles who convinced me it was compensation for taking care of the music for their wedding in Lake Tahoe. First class had apparently been the only seat available.
I hate flying — the indignities of security checks and $5 snack-paks, not the flying itself. Breezing through the first-class check-in line was on one level a pleasant change, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty and also separate from the coach-class passengers, my people.
The feeling of unfair separation continued on board my flights and was joined by a new source of anxiety. Was I acting first-class enough to avoid being spotted instantly for a fraud? I decided a mixture of gracious noblesse and quiet imperiousness was the right tone to take with the stewardesses who brought me meals and drinks, but I often caught myself slipping, not demanding enough, being too thankful rather than projecting entitlement.
I could, of course, easily get used to flying first-class. The greatest benefit is definitely the extra space — legroom in front, a wide seat, a generous armrest separating you from the person next to you.
I was fortunately seated by the window for all my flights. I love looking out the window while flying, either at magnificent cloud formations or at the patterns of development on the ground below.
It occurred to me on the approach to Reno, watching the desert give way to fresh suburban housing tracts, that there is a basic logic to land development, to the process of subdivision in particular: A given chunk of land will be divided into the smallest parcels that will retain whatever the desired essence of those parcels is to be. Suburban areas are being developed in ever-smaller lots with ever-larger houses squatting on them. But these suburbs maintain their suburbanness by keeping some little bit of yard on all sides of each house. What is being preserved is the illusion that the homeowners are masters of their own country manor in miniature; should the house actually abut another one, the illusion could not be maintained.
The same logic applies to houses outside of town, what looked from the air to be vacation homes or just houses for people who didn’t mind driving a few extra miles in to work in Reno. These houses each had several acres around them, but the acreage wasn’t enough to do any real work — you couldn’t raise horses or cattle, for example. The illusion of a Western ranch was carefully maintained on the smallest possible surface area. Similarly, the gorgeous lakeside estate where the wedding took place had just enough land to maintain the feeling of being its own world, even though neighbors were less than a hundred yards on either side, enjoying their own lake access. And it occurred to me that the reason a New York apartment can be so small is that, as long as it occupies some square footage rather than none, it will still retain its key quality of being a New York apartment.
Those are my thoughts, anyway, as I sit in this oversized first-class seat — just large enough to maintain its luxury lead over the coach cabin — on my way back to my room in my shared Brooklyn apartment where, thank God, I at least don’t have a vestigial front yard with illusions of country squiredom to maintain.