Last week, I had planned to travel from Boston to Tampa with a connection in Philadelphia. I landed in Philadelphia without a problem but an ice storm descended on the airport and, after five hours of our flight’s departure time being pushed back, the entire airport was closed and all flights for that day were canceled.
When I arrived back at PHL the next day, two hours before the scheduled departure of my flight home — my trip to Tampa was, by this point, called off entirely — the airport was in chaos. Flights were still being canceled, airport information displays were inaccurate or switched off entirely and stranded travelers were everywhere. US Airways had deactivated the automatic ticket machines and there were thousands of people in scores of lines hoping for new tickets and assistance.
But unlike the day before, we all knew that planes were theoretically going to be leaving and that, stuck outside, we were not going to be on them. People wanted boarding passes and they wanted them desperately. But the lines were not moving and nobody — or almost nobody — was going anywhere. Meanwhile, the four teams of TSA workers at the security station were standing idly talking to themselves like attendants at a light night gas station. The only people inside the terminal were those that had slept there or flown in that morning.
After finding the end of a line, I asked someone what their line was for. Nobody knew, but each hoped it lead to someone who would assist with their particular problem. Usually they merely wanted to check in. Several people I asked had been waiting in line for five hours that morning only to find out that their line was, in fact, not a line at all but merely a mass of people leading nowhere or simply dissolving into other lines. Nobody knew what else to do so, I, like everyone else, queued up and hoped for the best.
An impeccably dressed and obviously wealthy woman asked what I was in line was for. I told her that I didn’t know but, like everyone else, hoped it would lead to a boarding pass. She wanted the same thing. She asked if there was a separate queue for first class and I pointed out that it seemed unlikely, in the chaos, that first class was getting special treatment. I pointed out that I also had a first class ticket — it was the only seat available when the harried agent rebooked me the day before and I had not paid extra for this, but I did not tell her this. She nodded to me in camaraderie. She stood pensively next to me for five minutes and then fumbled for her wallet and ticket. She asked me if I would hold her place in line and I agreed.
Five minutes later she reappeared with a boarding pass in her hand. Surprised, I asked her how she had obtained it. She stated, quietly so as not be overhead by the other would-be passengers but matter of factly, that she’d found a baggage handler and flashed a twenty dollar bill and her itinerary. She mentioned that the man she had paid had left but that, "any of them will do it." Sure enough, I was in the terminal less than ten minutes, and twenty dollars, later.
Despite growing up partially in the third world, I’ve only personally bribed a person once before — also in the United States. Like my previous experience, I didn’t feel good about buying my way out of what seems to have, in fact, devolved into a racket. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the situation and my action in the last several days.
Everyone, or nearly everyone, outside the Philadelphia airport terminal had twenty dollars and most of them would have happily paid it to escape their predicament. The reason that most people did not pay off baggage workers is not because they found it prohibitively distasteful, although certainly some of them would have, but because most of us, and I include myself, would have spent the whole day frustrated, desperate, and standing line after line without even considering a bribe as an option. While we know it on some intellectual, reflective level, the vast majority of us do not, in practice, imagine that we can use money as a way to manipulate people into special treatment. As a result, even in situations like that morning in Philadelphia, I simply don’t even think of the twenty in my wallet as a way to solve my problem.
It’s true that wealthy people, like the woman in line behind me, get what they want because they can pay lots of money for products and services. But it is not quite this simple. Some wealthy, powerful people get what they want in part because they think to use money in ways that the rest of us do not. Perhaps this is because this type of spending is frequently not an option for most of us or, we tell ourselves, perhaps even truthfully, because we find it distasteful and immoral. The difference between being inside or outside the terminal last Saturday was not about having or not having money. It was, in fact, about having a particular relationship to money and, through money, to other people. It was not about the value conferred by money but about a set of values that can result from having it in abundance.