Passengers call me different things: steward, flight-attendant, air-hostess, even bastard (when I refused to serve a screwdriver to a young man with slurred speech during boarding). But most folks just wave and yell “SIR!” whenever they want something. The shiny nametag stuck to my button-up shirt reads, KYLE. But hardly any passengers call me that, and if they do it always catches me off guard. Sometimes my crewmembers and I make up funny names for one another when introducing ourselves over the PA. If it’s a Friday night Vegas flight, we might fabricate ridiculous stripper names. If we’re headed to Orlando with a ton of kiddies, we’re most likely Goofy, Arielle, Beast, or other Disney characters. Sometimes pilots join in on the fun, though all they ever seem to come up with is presenting themselves as Captain Clarence Oveur and First-officer Roger Murdock from the movie Airplane, or Maverick and Goose from Top Gun.
“Morning, Ma’am. Something to drink?”
“A beverage?” I scoop ice into a row of cups while she thinks.
“Do you have peanuts?”
“No, but we have snacks for sale.”
“Like king-size bags of pretzels, chips, cookies. Three-to-five bucks a bag.”
“Nothing for free?”
“Just drinks, minus the booze. Those are complimentary.”
“What do you have?”
The same shit as every other airline, I want to say. But I don’t. I only say, “Coffee, tea, soda, juice, water.”
“Do you have lemonade?”
“We have Sprite.”
“Does it have caffeine?”
I double-check the can. “Nope.”
She nods reluctantly. I snap it open, pour, and hand it to her fizzing.
“Oh, sorry, I actually don’t want it with ice.”
“HEY!” a guy in 16F yells. I’m pulling the drink cart toward the front of the aircraft, getting in position to start service. “DO YOU HAVE ANY NUTS?” He’s a hefty fifty-something man wearing those nifty noise-cancelling headphones. He must have the volume kicked to the max. Outside his window, the Rockies look like the spine of a giant alligator dusted with snow.
I mouth, yes, and most passengers turn around to search for the yelling man. Ever since 9/11, passengers freak if someone shouts or if a baby suddenly wails, and rightly so. It’s nice to know people are on the lookout, that they’d be willing to jump up and help me knock a lunatic or terrorist to the floor. But this big guy is pure entertainment.
“DO YOU HAVE ANY SALTY NUTS?” He accentuates “salty.”
“That all depends,” I say. “It’s been a long day.” In reality, it’s the last leg of a three-day trip. Passengers laugh as the man yanks off his headsets to see what the hoopla is about. But I’m already backing away with the cart, shaking my head.
Tonight, as I’m trying to fall asleep in my hotel room, I hear a man and woman making a racket in the hall. It’s after two o’clock in the morning. I figure they’ll knock it off after a few minutes, but they don’t. That’s when I get out of bed and walk to the door, ready to tell them to pipe down. But first, I bend forward and look through the peephole.
It’s Jess, one of the attractive women I’ve been working with for the past three days. She’s standing directly across from my door with her arms draped around our first-officer’s neck, a stout Midwestern with short white-blond hair. He’s bunching up her green blouse, trying to slide it up over her head, but she won’t stop kissing him.
The whole crew had gone downtown for drinks, but Jess and the first-officer decided to stay at the bar for a couple extra rounds when the rest of us called it quits. They were busy swapping divorce stories. Now they’re good and drunk, laughing and shouting. Once he nearly has her shirt pulled off, she says, “HOLD ON. LET ME FIND MY ROOM-KEY.” She picks up her giant purse from the floor and rummages around, but there must be 167 random items inside. “NOT STOPPING,” he yells, reaching for her belt buckle. “BETTER HURRY UP.”
It’s nearly midnight, September 10th, and I’m standing in the middle of the aircraft, welcoming people onboard our flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy. Boarding takes forever this late with people so tired and sluggish. It’s my job to help push things along and get us out on time. I’m helping a woman stow her bag in an overhead bin when a group of obnoxious French tourists starts pushing toward us. One of them, an old man, has a purple jewel attached to a strand of yarn. He keeps walking up and down the center aisle during boarding, long after his friends have taken their seats, and swings the gem, praying or something. I can’t understand him, but he’s loud and sounds crazy. People are already freaked out because of the date and where we’re headed, so I tell him to knock it off and sit down.
Five hours later, September 11th, we touch down safely at 08:40. As we taxi toward our gate, I wonder if everyone else is thinking about American Airlines Flight 11—how a decade earlier, the Boeing 767 was only a couple minutes away from crashing into the North Tower.
Tonight, while taxiing out to the runway in Philadelphia, the woman in 14A rings her call light. She’s hyperventilating, pulling at her hair, scratching her face with her fingernails. “Take me back to the gate,” she says. “I thought I could do it. I can’t. I need to get out of here. Take me back.”
I kneel beside her row and try to calm her down, try explaining how it’s more dangerous to drive on an undivided two-lane road than fly on a commercial airliner, but that doesn’t make a dent. Her boyfriend tries to sooth her but he can’t keep her still. It seems like she can barely hear either one of us. Then she looks straight at me and says, “If you don’t get me off this fucking plane right now, I’m going to open a door and jump out! Do you hear me?”
I tell her I do then hustle to the nearest interphone to notify the captain.
It’s funny how accurate stereotypes can be. Today, on my flight from Seattle to Los Angeles, most every ethnic makeup is represented in the cabin. Black, White, Indian, Asian, a few Australian and Europeans travelers. Black folks, eight times out of ten, want Sprite or cran-apple. White people want Diet Coke if they’re young or chubby; if they’re old and upper-class, they want club-soda with a wedge of lime. Indian people generally drink most of the orange and tomato juice. Asians tend to order hot water and juice without ice. “No eye,” they say. Europeans like Coke-a-Cola, and the Aussie’s request lemonade, which means Sprite. Kids drain all the apple juice, babies suck down the milk cartons. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly fun or bold like I am today, I simply pour drinks by stereotype and pass them out like some kind of magician.
Nobody ever wants to work a day of Vegas turns (four legs: SFO-LAS, LAS-SFO, SFO-LAS, LAS-SFO), especially on weekends. That’s because they’re always sold-out, turbulent, and rowdy. But sometimes you get stuck with them. This Friday afternoon is no exception. I’m working in the back with this guy named Steve Montana, an older guy who’s been flying thirty years. He tells me stories about military charters, delivering soldiers and their weapons to Desert Storm and the Iraq War. Stories about prison charters with men shackled to their seats and armed guards monitoring the aisles. He also has a wacky sense of humor. Everything is a joke to him.
“So how did the hearing go?” he asks after we’ve parked the cart in the aisle and started pouring drinks for passengers. He speaks in a booming voice. “Do you really think they’re going to charge you on both counts of assault?”
“The truth is…” Passengers look up at me open-mouthed, and I try to play along for Steve. “Well, it’s not going too well. My lawyer said I’ll be lucky to get off with six months’ probation.” When we move the cart back, he unravels another fabrication. “I can’t believe your sister is going through with the pregnancy. Sextuplets! Seriously, she must be a saint. I’d jump off a bridge or something if I found out I was going to have six kids at once. I mean, you must be terrified to become an uncle, right?”
Later on, when we’re killing time and swapping stories in the aft galley, he opens the lavatory doors for passengers and says, “Just make sure you don’t flush. We’re flying over a city.” Then he shuts the door. Likewise, when we’re on the ground, boarding, attached to the jetbridge, he says, “Just make sure to yell down before you flush. The mechanics are working right underneath the toilets.” Some people laugh, some smile timidly, others nod in all seriousness. One woman even raises her voice and yells down into the pot before flushing.
Late tonight, on a layover in downtown San Diego, a homeless guy startles me while I’m waiting to cross the street. He’s tall and skinny, a few years older than me, wearing a dirty clothes and a hiking backpack. He gets up close and asks for money, says he hasn’t eaten all day. He kind of freaks me out, coming out of nowhere, getting in my face, and I scoot across the street toward Wendy’s and mumble an apology as I go.
As I stand in line, waiting to order a burger meal, I feel my blood pumping. The guy looked desperate and hungry, not dangerous. He seemed frantic, like he’d just recently fallen into a hard spot. I think about that. I try and imagine not eating all day. And I think about my steady job, my steady paychecks and benefits. The lady behind the counter motions me forward, but I turn around and push my way outside.
I search for the homeless guy. I walk up and down and around the dark city block but he’s vanished. I want to tell him that he can join me back inside the restaurant. I want to tell him that I’m tired of eating alone on my layovers, that I’ll buy him a big burger meal so long as he sits down and talks and eats with me.
This morning, immediately after taking off out of Dallas, a loud thud reports from the belly of the Airbus. The captain calls on the interphone, asking if we heard anything unusual. We tell him about the thud. He calls back a few minutes later and says he received a brake-failure notification. He figures at least one of the tires has blown on the left-main gear and tells us that we’ll continue on to Los Angeles as planned to burn up fuel in the event that our gear and brakes fail upon landing. He tells us to us to keep the news to ourselves. He doesn’t want to alarm the passengers until the end of the flight.
For the next three hours, we act like nothing is wrong. I serve Cokes and coffee, collect trash, and make small-talk with folks waiting in line for the lavatories. But I’m nervous, knowing of the uncertainty that lies ahead. The other two attendants have flown longer than me and don’t appear too worried. They’ve already gone through things like this. But the three of us review our flight manuals, looking over the emergency procedure checklists in case things turn worse.
When we’re forty-five minutes from landing, the captain makes his announcement. Right after that, we prepare the cabin for the worst kind of landing. Passengers study my face and watch my every move, trying to read the severity of the situation. In the end, after a dramatic flyby over LAX—the runway encased with dozens of fire trucks—we touch down safely, slow down, and the cabin fills with clapping. Once we park at the gate and passengers deplane, the whole crew gets a good look at the gear. The inside tire on the left-main is gone. It exploded and shot up against the belly of the Airbus, leaving huge depressions in the skin, and the landing light was knocked loose and hangs by its electrical wiring, like a tetherball.
Early this morning, the two gay guys I’m working with on the red-eye to Boston tell me to check out 15D and E. We’re three hours into the flight, and I’ve been standing under a bright light in the aft galley, reading, trying to stay awake, while they’ve been gossiping and flirting behind the curtain in the forward galley. “Seriously, you have to see this,” they say.
I grab a trash bag and make my way down the aisle, the cabin as black as the sky outside. There isn’t a single reading light on. Everyone appears to be sleeping, twisted up in their seats, their faces mashed against the fuselage or pressed down on tray-tables. But 15D and E—a blond girl with a hook-shaped nose and an anemic-looking guy with a bristly beard—are wide awake, despite the fact that their eyes are closed. She’s straddling him, working her hands and lips up and down his neck and chest. They’re both wearing flannel shirts, unbuttoned. He appears to be in the process of removing her bra when I walk up with my bag and say, “Trash?”
“Damn,” the girl says, closing her shirt. “You scared me.” I raised my voice when I’d asked for trash. “We’re fine,” the guy says and slides his hands down the woman’s back, down to her hip bones, and grins like a drunk.
“You two need to simmer down, understand? You think you’re on your own private jet or something?” I point across the aisle. “Seriously, there’re two kids sleeping right next to you.”
Tonight, after driving home from the airport, I dump my uniform out of a trash bag and hose it down full-blast on the driveway. Earlier, on a long-haul from DC to San Francisco, the boy next in line for the lavatories—he was eight or nine years old with a thatch of brown hair—barfed all over me, all over the galley floor. Projectile vomiting, like his mouth had turned into a fire hose. Ten minutes later, as I scooped the boy’s barf into a bio-hazard bag, wearing gloves and a mask, I remember thinking, how the hell did I get here?
This morning, on our final approach into Orange County, I hear creaking. I’m working the forward-attendant position, strapped into my jumpseat, and turn to find the cockpit door ajar. I can see the pilots punching buttons and hear their radio chatter with ATC. When I get up and reach for the door to slam it shut, I don’t notice the pistol aimed at my forehead.
The first-officer, a Federal Flight Deck Officer, had swung around in his seat with his handgun, ready to defend the cockpit. I learn about this first-hand once we park at the gate and I disarm the forward doors. After all of the passengers deplane, a mechanic comes onboard and discovers that the cockpit’s triple-locking-mechanism needs adjusting. He radios for another mechanic to assist him with the repair, delaying our leg back to San Francisco.
When I flop down in my jumpseat, shaking from the thought of having a pistol pointed at my face, the first-officer says, “I need some air.” He throws open the jetbridge door and storms down the exterior stairs to the tarmac, rattled from having almost fired a bullet through my brain.
Today, on a jam-packed fifty-minute flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I move the drink cart back to row 12 and ask three old Asian women what they want to drink. They eye me like I’m a Martian. They look shrunken and shriveled, roughly four-feet tall, and they’re squinting at me, acting like I’m shining a spotlight in their faces. I mime, taking an imaginary sip from an imaginary cup, and they whisper among themselves in their native tongue. Because there’s no time to waste on a short sold-out flight, I start tapping my foot, fretting that I won’t be able to serve everyone onboard. “Drink,” I say loudly, then mime again.
The woman in the aisle seat eventually says, “Meeerrr.”
“You have to pay for beer.” I’m surprised these little old ladies want booze instead of juice. “We have Heineken, Miller Light, Sierra Nevada—”
“No, no, no,” the woman says. “MEEEERRRR.”
“If you want BEEEERRRR, you have to pay for it.”
They convene a second time. Then the woman in the aisle seat holds up little cupped hands and pumps them, one up, one down, like pistons firing. She makes odd noises, too, and squeezes something in her cupped hands. That’s when it all makes sense. She’s pumping and pulling imaginary teats, making pathetic cow sounds.
I pull three low-fat cartons from the ice bin and say, “MIIILLKK?” The ladies reach for the cartons and start to crack up. I laugh so hard that passengers pull off their headphones and turn to see what’s was going on. The four of us are all pulling imaginary teats, laughing and mooing.
This morning I’m working in the back with a sweet black woman named Lakeisha. This is our fourth day and ninth leg together. Not once during the whole trip has she called me by my name. It’s always Baby this, Baby that. “Baby, will you give this Coke to 22 Echo?” When I’m sitting in my jumpseat, snacking: “Baby, can I have a few of your pretzels? I’m hungry, Baby.” On final descent, when we’re getting ready to prepare the cabin for landing: “Baby, you want to nag while I bag?” As we hug in the middle of the terminal, all done with our trip: “I hope I get to work with you again, Baby. Now give me a kiss before I run.”