Ah, the clink of the forks in First Class. From where I’m sitting on this plane, just three rows away, the sound is like wind chimes heard through a closed window, reminding us: we are here and not there where those pretty breezes are blowing.
I’m in Economy Plus, where apparently there’s a little more legroom. I did not pay for or upgrade to this section; I think it’s a bone the airline threw me after my earlier flight was cancelled.
Going through security at Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport, I noticed an express lane and signs urging me to sign up for a card that would give me the privilege of using this special lane, presumably after traveling thousands of miles or paying extra, or both.
None of this is particularly new. But it feels just a little more—in your face than it used to. Pay for this card and cut in line! Pay for an Economy Plus seat so you can cross your legs! Pay Lord knows how much and eat real food with real forks!
Here in Economy Plus, I’m sitting next to a blonde, sleepy teen in a hoodie whose suntanned and bejeweled mother, seated in First Class, just brought her back a chocolate sundae in a glass dish.
After eating her ice cream, teen daughter popped her ear buds in and went back to sleep, leaving me to wonder about her mother, as I always do about people in First Class: what is it like to have so much money you can spend a thousand plus dollars to fly across the country?
A few times in history, I’ve landed up there, due to some crazy act of God that never involves my money, and I have to admit it is very pleasant to have a huge seat, constant doting service, real food and free liquor. But it’s hard to imagine paying for it.
But I digress. I’ve just spent four days in Virginia and Washington, D.C., where the income gap might be more alive and well than in many other cities—or not. Maybe it just looks that way to my Seattle eyes, unaccustomed as they are to seeing men wearing expensive suits in any weather, let alone in the middle of a D.C. heat wave.
The men in suits and the women in summer dresses make for good people watching. But an even better and equally free activity, especially when it’s 101 and swamp-humid, are the museums. Free, as in no cost! Just to put this in perspective, admission to the Museum of Modern Art in New York is 25 dollars. Seattle Art Museum: 17 dollars.
On this visit, I discovered the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, two collections housed together in what poet Walt Whitman called, quote, “the noblest of buildings.”
I saw Harlem portraits by Gordon Parks, Bill Clinton’s portrait by Chuck Close, Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell, Civil War generals photographed by Matthew Brady. Amelia Earhart. Ethel Waters. Dolly Madison. Faces of Americans, famous and not, filling room after room.
Outside, the heat wave broke into thunder, lightning and pouring rain. The museum was, suddenly and literally, a port in a storm, a port full of Americans, rich, poor, and in-between; some of us living and walking; others alive only on the walls.
I felt connected across decades and centuries; I felt that cornball emotion Whitman captured so well in his poem, “I Hear America Singing:” quote, “singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
I felt, for an hour, like the whole country had been upgraded to First Class.
I’ve got an article this month, “Laughter and Forgetting,” in Seattle Met Magazine.
Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.