What I Like Most About Mensa


Recently I traveled from New York back to Providence by my favorite means of transportation on that route--first class on the Acela Express. It's a fabulous service, on time far more often than not, and virtually hassle-free (and, not insignificantly, the drinks are free). Unbeknownst to me, this was a new scheduling and was a "super express," non-stop all the way to Providence. It was packed on a Friday afternoon.

I settled in with my book and drink in a single seat, and looked forward to dinner with my wife in less than three hours. That's when a disturbance broke out in the rear of the car.

The car's steward, whom I recognized from prior trips and I knew to be a railroad veteran, was engaged in a polite but loud confrontation with a passenger who was not holding a first class ticket. The passenger was refusing to move, insisting that he was told to board the first car of the train (we were in the last car of the train, so he must have been counting from the wrong end), that he had too much luggage to "wonder through the train looking for a seat," and stating that he would simply "upgrade."

The steward was having none of it. He pointed out that the bookings were full, that it was safe to walk through a train, and that the Acela doesn't upgrade en route in any case. (First class on airplanes would be so much nicer without the ubiquitous upgrades, all with beepers and phones on their belts, and all trying to consume a gallon of free liquor within the two hours of flight time. I can spot an upgrade every time.) After a standoff, with both refusing to budge, the arriviste trooped off to the conductor to plead his case with management. The conductor apparently told him to move or get off the train (at this point clearing 100 miles an hour) and so he gathered three huge bags and huffed off into the swamp of business class up front. Adieu and farewell.

I enjoy being an elitist. You should get what you pay for and what you merit, but the former is more of a guarantor than the latter in an imperfect world which sees Brittany Spears as a celebrity. The airlines, rental car companies, hotels, and other service providers have to continually improve their perquisites, since the hoi polloi insist on the same benefits as the best customers. (Now the best programs are semi-secret, such as Hertz Platinum and American Express Black Card, and others for which I'd be killed for even mentioning them in a publication.)

That's one of the things appealing about Mensa. It is clearly elitist, no matter how much intellectual problem I have with its rickety and suspect entry requirements. I mean, the place does unabashedly and confrontationally say, "You have to be smarter than the average bear to belong" (and, ostensibly, smarter than 98% of the bears). The organization will stand up to parody ("Densa") and mockery ("Saturday Night Live") and even being ignored (most of the scientific community). The collective philosophy is: "We're better than you because we say so, and that's that. Word game anyone?"

This guy on the train wasn't even an egalitarian. If he were at least a socialist, I would have admired his stand that there shouldn't be a first class on public transport (despite the fact that the heart of socialism, Europe, pioneered it and continues to lovingly nurture class distinctions). But he was simply a guy trying to sneak in the theater door without paying for a ticket. He was a parvenu with an attitude.

Give me an honest elitist over a weak democrat every time. It's what keeps first class special. It's what Mensa is all about.