COLUMN: It’s often a two-class world

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I saw a friend of mine in a new vehicle last week, a sport-utility vehicle made by a luxury car brand that lists for more than $50,000. That’s a lot of money for a set of wheels.

Personally, I prefer a used car. My old Buick isn’t much to look at and garners a new nick or scrape every few months, but still gets me from point to point on time.

I’d much rather spend $50,000 as a downpayment on a tract of farmland. But that’s just me. These days, many people struggle just to pay their bills. Everything seems to cost more. The drought will no doubt make food more expensive in the weeks and months ahead.

Another buddy recently returned from a trip to Europe and grumbled about the size of coach seats compared to those in business class. He usually flies business but he and his wife didn’t have the frequent-flyer miles accumulated to upgrade them.

His comments and a recent story in the Wall Street Journal about airlines doing away with first-class service reminded me of a 2004 column I wrote after a vacation.

Airlines are putting more emphasis on business class and premium coach seats because so few people actually pay for first-class travel. Instead, they use frequent-flyer program miles. Business travelers are more likely to actually spend money on business-class seats.

Here’s the 2004 column.

An old lady in a drug store, a long trans-Atlantic flight and a castle atop an Austrian hill. What do they have in common? Each recently proved for me that money very often ranks us in one of two tiers in life: first class and every other class.

I watched the elderly woman shopping in the pain-reliever aisle of a local drug store a couple of Fridays ago. In a rush, I grabbed a bottle of aspirin and walked past the woman. But then I saw what she was doing.

The woman was jotting down on a piece of notepaper the prices of the four or five items in her handbasket. As I watched from the other end of the aisle, she reached into a black purse, and while I couldn’t see her hands, I suspect she was counting her money.

The scene both worried and upset me — not just because I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for little old ladies, but because I think it’s unforgivable that so many Americans, especially senior citizens, struggle to pay for health care.

I didn’t know anything about the woman, and while I suppose she could have simply been counting her cash, I suspect she was worried about paying for the two prescription bottles in her basket, a bottle of generic-brand aspirin and a few other items.

When it comes to health care, we’re either covered or not covered. Those of us with insurance and enough disposable income don’t have to worry much about the cost of a doctor’s visit or paying for our prescriptions.

But paying for even the most basic of medical care is a real issue for many in our community without health insurance. They either go without and hope they and their kids stay healthy or they pay out large sums for private coverage. Most go uninsured and in doing so, face the tragic and ironic situation of living as second-class citizens in a nation with a first-class health system.

I thought of the old lady’s black purse last Wednesday when a woman plopped down in the airline seat next to me.

I was returning from a vacation in Austria and wasn’t looking forward to the long trip home in a small, cramped seat.

The woman, who later told me her name was Donna, carried two pricey Louis Vuitton bags. She had apparently booked first-class tickets for the trip from Amsterdam to the United States, but it turned out the airline goofed. She had no first-class seat and ended up sitting next to me for the nine-hour flight to Memphis, Tenn.

When flying, I’m too stingy to pay for anything but a cheap, coach-class plane ticket. Yet, I grumble to myself when I peer from my narrow, uncomfortable seat and watch airline employees pouring wine to first-and business-class flyers in the front of the plane.

There just seems to be something unfair about gathering a group of people for a common purpose — taking them somewhere — and treating them differently, even though the guy in front (I hope) paid a lot more for his ticket than I did for mine.

Northwest Airlines employees did their best to make it up to the woman bumped to coach class. While she ate the same pasta dished out to everyone, later in the flight she was served treats few travelers in the cheap seats see. While I ate a vacuum-packed treat and sipped white wine from a plastic cup, she was brought wine in two glasses made of, well, glass. Donna also munched on a miniature loaf of bread covered in sesame seeds, fancy crackers and even candy bars.

It just didn’t seem fair to be treating one person differently than the rest, even though she should have been up front with the other high-rollers. But society has always treated some people differently.

On the day before returning home, I took the train from Vienna to the Austrian town of Melk, home of a large 1,000-year-old monastery. On the way there, while passing farmers chopping neat fields of corn into silage, I noticed several hilltop castles towering above small towns and villages. They were another sign of how society is divided into classes: rich and poor, those with power and those with none.

For centuries, I imagined, residents in those villages looked up at the huge fortress homes and grumbled about the inequities of peasant life, of eking out existences on land that wasn’t and never would be theirs, and of paying high taxes to support the rich and powerful.

A skeptic might say not much has changed over the centuries. Class divisions are still around us, from class divisions in airplanes to putting affordable health care out of reach for millions of us.

While Donna made good company for the long flight back to the States, I’m not sure if the folks up in the plush seats would have welcomed me, had I dropped by for a visit. During the train ride home from Melk, I was shooed out of an area I hadn’t paid for.

On the train back to Vienna, an Akron, Ohio, couple I met that morning and I mistakenly sat down in a car with far-nicer seats than the morning train that ferried us into the countryside. We found out why when the conductor came to punch our tickets. “You’re in the wrong seats,” he said in German and holding up a pair of fingers indicating our second-class status. “Next car, please.”