Hot-seat question: to sit or sell?

I had just unfolded into my airline seat, and a cramped four hours stood between me and Portland, Ore. I wasn't looking forward to breathing stale, manufactured cabin air and the perfume of the lady next to me. But I had secured a bulkhead seat, the envy of the rest of the plane. I could stretch out my two telephone-pole legs and my dogs, as they say, could breathe.

"That's more like it," I thought. "No nibbling my knees on this trip."

People shuffled past and wedged into their seats. A serious-looking gentleman with glasses and a tweedy jacket slid into my space and stared at me. It seemed he had a problem with me. I felt my ears get hot. He stood for a minute, both of us priming for the unexpected.

"I'll give you $20 for your seat," he said, extending the bill, as crisp and ironed as his starchy shirt.

What? Give up my little field of industrial carpet?

"I don't want to walk all the way back there," he said, motioning to the back of the airplane.

I didn't think he needed the space as much as I did. He wasn't particularly tall and his femurs couldn't hold a candle to mine, which are as long as fireplace pokers.

"Where are you sitting?" I said, not really caring, just buying extra time to think about my predicament. He was in C-22, an aisle seat deep in the bowels of the plane.

Did this guy always get what he wanted by buying people off? I debated teaching him a lesson and making him squish into the cheap seats. But I also really needed the money. It's not everyday you can get that much money for such a small inconvenience. I would have to get used to a numb derrier and legs bent like an accordion for the long flight. But I figured I'd stick my legs out in the aisle and endure the lunch-cart abuse.

"My bag is already up there I said," grudgingly getting out of my seat, but lunging at the cash.

"Well, is there any more room ...," he hesitated. Reconsideration crept into his voice. "Oh, don't worry about it," he stammered.

Before I knew it, I was sharing an arm rest with a woman who slept with her mouth open, regretting that I let cash have such an influence on me. It was a trivial matter to ponder so deeply, but I was totally absorbed with the thought that people who have money get what they want. Was I just as wrong as he was for accepting the money? He might well have been a weary businessman who needed to stretch out, not an arrogant weasel who bought luxury.

I've concluded that my dilemma was less about putting a rich man in his place and more about my own pragmatism. I admire people who can stand up for what they believe in, but in some cases - such as this - there is no need to rock the boat. What I don't like is petty, inflexible people determined to teach everyone a lesson. This case didn't warrant that.

I never saw the man again. But the next time I fly and, on the off chance someone offers me dough for my seat, I will gladly coil up for $20.

*Lane Hartill is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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