A Birthday Boy at 10,000 Feet

I’m not big on birthdays. Particularly my hands. My hands are especially tiny on my birthday.

Seriously, birthdays…not a fan. I mean, I guess it’s significant, but what are we really celebrating on birthdays? Another year of survival? Uh…congratulations? I understand lamenting people on the anniversary of their death, but I’d rather celebrate our lives (while we’re alive) more than once a year. Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway…my point is, I don’t like a lot of pomp and circumstance on my birthday. I appreciate everyone who sent me an e-mail or a text or a Facebook wall post (I think that’s currently the least personal form of communication available, right below tagging “happy birthday” in red spray paint on my condo door), and that’s all I really needed.

Even more perfect for avoiding surprise parties or dinner obligations was the face that I was traveling on my birthday (which was, lest I forget to mention, January 9). That was the last day of the development conference in Austin, and Linda, my development director and mentor, and I were flying back to St. Louis. Linda didn’t even know it was my birthday until I mentioned it at the airport.

See, I had a plan. I work for a church, so naturally I had coach tickets, but I wanted to try to get bumped up to first class by using the birthday as leverage. My fortunes brightened considerably when I went through the electronic check-in and saw that American Airlines was offering $90 upgrades to first class. Beautiful. The plane wasn’t full, and first class seats were available.

Stage One involved me sweet-talking the ticket agent, a middle-aged woman named Barbara. I had hoped that she’d notice my birthday on my passport, but she looked at the document with the same unseeing, glazed expression that most airport personnel have stamped permanently on their faces. So I chimed in with my “charm.”

Me: So…it’s my birthday today.
Barbara: Congratulations.
Me: So…I noticed that there are first-class seats available. [Runs index finger over countertop in seductive manner.] You think I could get upgraded?
Barbara: For free?
Me: Well…yes.
Barbara: I can’t do that. Try the gate agent.

No straight middle-aged woman can resist my charm, so I assume Barbara is a lesbian. Good for her. But not good for me.

Fortunately, Linda had a better strategy for the gate agent. Instead of me asking, which kind of seems selfish, Linda would ask for me. As a development expert, Linda’s extremely personable. She could talk a pig into flying.

So a few hours later (we were early), the gate agent showed up, and we were ready for Stage Two. I pretended to read while Linda worked her magic. She described the dialogue as follows.

Linda: Hi, how are you? Tracy, is it? That’s a beautiful shade of mascara you’re wearing. (Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what she said, but Linda can say things like this and make them seem sincere.)
Tracy: Thank you. It’s “Morning Mist.”
Linda: Just beautiful. Say, do you see that young man over there? [Points at me.] Today’s his birthday. He’s from St. Louis, and he’s been working all day, unable to celebrate. I know that he would consider it such a blessing if you could bump him to first class. Tracy, do you think you could do that for him?
Tracy: I’m sorry, I’d love to—he looks so handsome and mature…I bet he writes a delightfully tongue-in-cheek blog. But airline regulations say that we can’t upgrade passengers without incurring a fee. At least, for the computer. But you can try to talk to the flight attendant.

A half-hour later, we moved on to our final chance, Stage Three. I walked onto the plane in front of Linda, and she pulled a flight attendant aside and gave her the same spiel. Unfortunately, due to some special guests being in first class, Melissa (the flight attendant) couldn’t upgrade me. She could, however, offer me free drinks (I think she thought this was my 21st birthday). This really wasn’t a bad thing in the end, though, because Linda and I had three seats between the two of us, and we had plenty of work stuff to talk about.

Before the plane took off, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that in addition to our regularly scheduled flight from Austin to St. Louis, we’d be experiencing a rare treat…this was the pilot’s last flight. This was simultaneously cool and worrisome for us passengers—was this our last flight as well? I doubted it, since the “special guests” in first-class turned out to be the pilot’s family. Surely he’d ace the landing with his wife four seats behind him.

Once the plane was airborne, Lyann—another flight attendant—came around and asked for drink orders, and I got a beer. I really like beer at 10,000 feet for some reason. It’s twice as refreshing up there, and more potent.

A little while later, Melissa came over with her arms laden with snacks. Not just normal snacks. Big snacks. A full case of Lays Stax, the biggest Three Musketeers bar I’ve ever seen, and a cookie the size of a Frisbee. These were snacks bred in prehistoric times.

Needless to say, I was surprised, delighted, and extremely thankful to Melissa. That was actually when I learned her name (and Lyann’s), because I told her that I wanted to write a letter to AA to inform them of the high level of personal service the two of them had offered me. Melissa was gracious about all this.

But she wasn’t done. A few minutes later, she came by with a tray spread with a first-class dinner. Lasagna, cheesecake, red wine, salad…a meal fit for a king. A king with low expectations, but a king nonetheless.

Again, I was caught off guard and extremely thankful. And aware that the other coach passengers around me were wondering what was going on. What kind of person flies coach but gets first-class service and meals? Perhaps they thought that I was a third-world leader, or a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice.

The catch to the first-class meal was that I already had reservations to go to Atlas Restaurant with Caroline back in St. Louis. I informed Linda of this and asked her to help me eat the meal. Under the guise of wanting to taste my cheesecake, Linda asked Melissa for a fork.

By this time, Melissa was the world’s greatest philanthropist, because instead of bringing Linda a fork, she showed up with a whole new tray of food for her. Ah, Melissa. Bless her heart.

I had no choice but to eat the meal, which was surprisingly good. I ruined my appetite for dinner, but that just left more food for Caroline.

As predicted, the pilot aced the landing, and we were back safe in St. Louis. As the final kicker for the celebratory flight, one of the flight attendants came on the loudspeaker as the plane taxied to the gate. “Thanks for choosing American Airlines, and welcome to St. Louis,” she said. “Let’s give a big hand to the pilot, who just completed a long and successful career.” [Pause for applause.] “I’d also like to announce that we have a special guest on board today. He’s seated in 10E, and today’s his birthday. We hope he’s 21.” [More applause, as if my birthday was an equal achievement to piloting a 150-ton chunk of metal from Texas to Missouri. I waved.]

Slightly buzzed, I offered a slurred congratulations to the pilot and his family as I disembarked the plane. An hour later, I watched Caroline eat dinner, and a few hours later, I ended the long day by thinking about development ideas in bed.

All in all, a great birthday. My hat’s off to you, American Airlines. You came through in the clutch.

Endnote: Check out my friend Adam’s blog: http://whatilove.wordpress.com/ He writes a mean movie review, and by “mean” I mean incisiv
e and insightful. It’s worth a feed.

Tomorrow:

My Brilliant Idea, Their Great Idea, and Twins