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I took myself on a great big trip recently, and one of the things I did was use my airline miles to fly first class from one end of the country to the other and back. Imagine the perks–food, drink, priority boarding, a big seat… It was my intention to soak up every privilege–without appearing to be too much of a bumpkin.

Except that I am a total bumpkin.

Rich people have codes and signals, and I don’t know them. My comfortable, versatile clothes didn’t exude the right kind of pristine. My skin, hair, and fingernails didn’t show professional attention. Luggage that looks like its’s been Port-au-Prince a dozen times doesn’t make a person look worldly. Even through I’d washed all the mud off my clogs, they still looked like I’d worn them outdoors. Unlike the suede shoes on the man seated next to me which would be ruined if they got wet. His feet would get soaked, too. But I’ll bet the chain across his instep is real gold.

The flight attendant made it a point to sidle up to him privately, and acknowledge that he was a member of the high pooh-bahs of plane ticket money spenders, “so if there’s anything at all we can do to make your flight more agreeable…”

I’d already seen the perfect tailoring of his suit jacket when he stood ahead of me in the red-roped priority check-in line, his left ear pasted to the shaved globe of his head by a phone, into which he was steadfastly “yessing” and “absolutely-ing”, firmly laying out why his interlocutor should give somebody a second chance. “I realize that our performance so far hasn’t shown you…” and “You can be certain that I personally…” It sure didn’t seem like he could affort to lose this account, or not close this deal. “I just want an opportunity to demonstrate that what you’ve seen isn’t an indicator of the way things are going to be….”

It was 5:00 in the morning in Boston. Who was he talking to? Someone in Europe? In Asia? Or some local insomniac bully who was enjoying his power to make this guy grovel?But the guy was good. His grovel was professional, as befitting his shoes and clothes. He was like a boxer, parrying blow after blow, and bobbing back up, nimble and eager. “You’re going to see something different when you find out what our best work is really like.” His head never went down. He had stamina. Whatever the upbrading coming down the line, he was going to flip it into an occasion to regard a new improved future. At 5 AM. All in a day’s work.

People tell me they have some of the most interesting conversations on airplanes. I suppose. I guess you really have to believe that you can make a connection with anyone. We’re all humans, aren’t we? I’m sure there’s some social signal I don’t know how to give that might have set up the context for a pleasant exchange between me and this man. “Hey,” I could have said. “Awesome the way you took that spanking back there.” and if I had said that, he wouldn’t have heard. He put on a set of those everything-cancelling headphones as soon as he sat down, the kind that if he turned and looked at me, I’d be reminded of Steve Martin with that trick arrow going through his head. He didn’t take the bulbs off his ears for the whole flight. Not for the omelette, or the bloody Mary, or either one of the hot towels.

I didn’t care. I had my own armrest, a book to read. The seat was so roomy I could kick off my shoes and sit cross-legged. And I said, “Yes, please,” every chance I got.