From the Red Wagon to the First Class Cabin
I have a surprise for you, Honey,” my husband, Denver, declared. “I’ve planned some things for us to do this Labor Day weekend.” I had been teasing him for months that I always planned our activities, so he was pleased that he had turned the tables on me. He handed me a box containing ten slips of paper, each with a possible activity written on it. He smiled and said, “I’m going to show you how well I know you. Pick out three slips of paper, and without looking at them, hand them to me. I’ll read them and pick the one I think you’ll choose.”
I picked three slips, which he silently read, then nodded and said, “Okay, I know which one you’re going to pick.” He handed the slips back to me. I read the first one: “Cruise to Alaska.” I laughed and said, “Wow, Honey, you really go all out,” then tossed it aside. The second slip said, “First class cruise to Alaska.” I said, “Ha, ha. Aren’t you funny?” A little annoyed, I read the third slip, “Go on an Alaskan cruise.” I frowned at him and said, “Okay, what’s going on?”
“So, which one do you choose?” he asked.
“I’ll take the first class cruise to Alaska.”
“I knew that’s the one you would choose, I was so confident I have already booked it; we leave on Labor Day.”
“Really?” I squealed.
“Yup, that’s what I’ve planned.” He pulled two first-class tickets out of his briefcase. I squealed again and jumped around the room. Then I stopped, looked at him, and said, “I have nothing to wear. I need to go shopping!”
For weeks, we pored over brochures and pictures and dreamed about day trips.
Wrapping my new sequined dinner dress in tissue paper for the trip reminded me of another time I packed papers. As a struggling, single welfare mom with four young children, every Monday morning I packed a rusty, little red wagon with newspapers, bottles, and cans to sell at the recycling center. I left the house at 5:00 am, so no one would see me in the dark. The police officer’s wife in the next door apartment cracked her door to keep track of my kids during the two hours I was gone. I filled the wagon with trash from the weekend and usually came home with ten dollars, which enabled me to buy food until the next Food Stamps arrived. Walking those dark streets in ink-smeared clothes and digging through trashcans smelling of beer, I never imagined I would one day pack beautiful clothes for an Alaskan cruise.
The long-awaited day finally arrived. Denver dropped me off in front of the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International airport, so I could check in while he parked the car.
“We have a first class upgrade available for your flight to Vancouver, BC,” the ticket agent informed me.” I didn't know what a first-class upgrade was, but I had heard about it. “How much is it?” I asked. “Fifty dollars a ticket,” she said and smiled.
“That sounds great.” I whisked my first ever credit card from my purse, handed it to her like a seasoned traveler, and with a quick swipe we were first class all the way.
I clutched the tickets. As soon as my husband came through the automatic doors, I ran to him, waving the paper sleeves like I'd won the lottery.
“You’ll never guess what happened,” I shrieked, like a little girl unable to keep a secret. “I got us an upgrade, and now we’re flying first class all the way!”
He lifted his left eyebrow, as he always did when we discussed finances. “And how much did that cost us?” he asked.
“Only fifty dollars each,” I swooned. “Can you believe our good fortune?”
"Guess you can't beat that," he said. He took my hand; and a familiar spark of love passed between us. Seventeen years of marriage had not decreased the love I felt for this good man.
We had some time to kill before boarding. While we waited, I sat and day dreamed about first class. Denver brought me a cup of coffee, steaming hot, light and sweet, just the way I liked it. Curving my hands around the cup I lifted it to my face and let the aroma fill my senses. I relaxed for the first time that day and soaked in everything around me: the hum of conversations, scurrying people and rolling suitcases, the smells of cinnamon rolls and fast food. I didn’t want to miss anything.
An hour later, a woman’s voice interrupted my people-watching. “We’ll now begin boarding our first class passengers.”
I smiled and turned to my husband. We gathered our belongings and headed down the jet way. Our tickets said Row 1, seats A and B. We stored our bags in the overhead compartment, and before we could sit down, a stewardess asked if we wanted something to drink.
“I’d love a cup of coffee with cream and sugar,” I said. I wasn't going to pass up the chance to have a beverage while the plane was still on the ground. I was used to waiting well into a flight before seeing a flight attendant. In a short time she appeared, holding a tray with pretty white cups and saucers trimmed in gold, little sugar cubes, and fresh cream in a tiny matching pitcher.
“Is there anything else I can get for you before takeoff?” she asked.
“This is fine for now,” I said, giddy.
I looked at the pretty cup, and leaned my head on my husband’s broad shoulder. Sitting next to the man I loved, anticipating a wonderful trip, I could hardly absorb it. I reached for his hand and held it tight to convey my gratitude. He hugged me. I told myself: Remember this moment. Remember this feeling.
I settled down and looked out the window. My mind hit the rewind button: my younger self rummaging through other people’s trash for cans and bottles on cold, dark mornings, just to get enough money for the days needs.
Without warning, tears spilled down my cheeks.
As I sat in first class, gazing out at silver wings, spoiled and pampered, the old desperation stabbed my heart. How had I traveled from a trashed- filled red wagon to a first- class airline cabin?