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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Once, not too long ago, I was flying back to LA from London. The young woman in front of my, checking in, was doing her very best to finagle a free upgrade to first class. She was under the impression that the way to get an upgrade was to ask for one, and then when refused, to call someone named Nigel on her cell phone, complain loudly, and then, after hanging up, turn to the person behind the tall check-in counter and say, in a petulant tone of voice, "I'm actually quite well-known."

For the record, I'm not quite well-known, and I have a simple rule about air travel: if it's on me, it's very much a coach situation. If it's on anyone else – and I mean, anyone else, I mean, even if for some reason impoverished tsunami victims wanted me to come and tell them stories about Hollywood – it's business class. Or better.

The particular airline with the passenger who was unknown to me or the check-in agent but was, nevertheless, apparently, quite well known, has something called Economy Plus, which they try to trick you into thinking is just like business class, but trust me, I've flown it, it's impossible to detect exactly what's so "plus" about it. Better to save your money, load up the iPod, drink six glasses of red wine, fold yourself into coach, and sleep, snore, and drool your way to your destination.

I was flying back from somewhere once, with my brother, and at the gate we ran into an agent I know. We were all waiting for the plane to begin boarding – my brother and I were in something I think they called Zone 43 – and after the polite chit-chat, the agent launched into a hugely complicated story about why, exactly, he was flying coach that day. He missed the first plane, see, and there wasn't any space in first on the next flight, so he switched airlines, then couldn't upgrade, then the flight was cancelled. It was a strange, loopy tale, full of internal contradictions, and sad, really, because here I was scraping my knees into a coach seat and it hadn't occurred to me to wonder what that said about me, my coach ticket from Travelocity, my econo-box rental car.

Not that I don't splurge, of course – I'm no grim-faced Lonely Planet type, marching around with a water bottle and a map and a sour expression. But for me, when I throw money on a plane ticket or a fancy hotel, I don't do it to impress people I know. I do it to impress people I don't know. I do it to make people at the hotel think I'm some kind of mysterious secret agent – I do it to shed the kind of thing, the kind of thinking, we all do sometimes here in Hollywood, wondering if our car sends the right message about us, if our house conveys the proper amount of success, if our phone should be a Blackberry or an iPhone, if our office is big enough.

The trouble is, people in Hollywood want to be around people in Hollywood who are doing well. We're a superstitious bunch, without too much rational thinking. Success, to us, is something you can catch if you're close enough to it. That's why you want to sit at the pointy end of the plane, be at the right table in a restaurant, pull up to the intersection in the right kind of car. Success is contagious.

And so is failure. Or at least, so is the slow slipping down that happens, eventually, to everyone in this business. I mean, I know it's not. And you know it's not. But for some reason, around here, we often act like it is.

So at any airport gate, while a flight to LA is boarding, you can catch the locals checking each other out. Trying to figure out who everyone is, and where they're sitting.

The agent I ran into at the gate, those many months ago, is not now technically in the business anymore. I'm not sure where he is.

And the girl at the check-in desk did, somehow, get her upgrade – I know because I boarded the plane right behind her, and she turned left and I turned right, and the curtain swished closed between us. And as I crammed my carry-on into the shoebox-sized space underneath the seat in front of me, and shifted and twisted myself into a sad little coil, and despite the fact that I heard the girl at the counter essentially begging for an upgrade, I caught myself thinking, "Wow, that girl must be doing pretty well. She must be awfully successful to be sitting up there."

And then the wine kicked in and I drooled my way back home.

That's all for this week. Next week, we'll go below the line. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with.

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