by Lori Jakiela
“New Yawk to Hot-Lanta,” the gate agent in his red coat drawls over the PA. His voice, all swamp and grits, sloshes down the jetway to where I’m standing, sneaking drags off the coffee I have stashed behind the galley wall. It’s 5:30 a.m., first flight out of LaGuardia, and I’m miserable.
The red coat’s name is Gary. He works a lot of my flights. Even though my name is on his departure reports and on my wings, he never uses it. Gary calls me Darling. He calls me Sugar. Sometimes, Hey Mama.
I hate him.
Maybe underneath the polyester coat and the dyed black comb-over, Gary is a nice guy, but I can’t stand his jokes. “What’s the most important part of a head flight attendant’s uniform? The knee pads!” I hate how happy he is when he loads up an airplane full of drunks, then tells me to have a nice flight.
This morning, before he starts boarding, Gary sticks his head in the door and yells, “Ready or not, y’all, here they come!”
Gary loves to push a flight. All gate agents do. They’d use electric prods on passengers and flight attendants if it would help them set on-time records and earn them the company’s coveted Feather in Your Cap award.
The Feather in Your Cap award is, literally, a feather glued to a piece of paper. No raise. No night on the town. No Delta Dream Vacation. Just a feather – which looks suspiciously pigeon-like – and the words GOOD JOB! HERE’S A FEATHER IN YOUR CAP.
This morning, when Gary says, “Ready or not,” I say, “not” and wave him off. I’m in a mood. I’m nearly always in a mood on early-morning flights when passengers come on board exhausted and pissed off. They demand Asiago omelets and cappuccinos when they know they’ll get a cookie and crappy airplane coffee with powdered creamer if they’re lucky.
I say, “Good morning. Welcome aboard.”
They say, “I’ll have the omelet,” or, on later flights, “I’ll have the lobster.”
I smile and say, “Good one” or “That sounds perfect” or “I think I’ll join you.” I smile again, a big landslide that smothers other things I want to say.
There are so many other things I want to say. But there are those pesky rules, regulations. Just as passengers must never say bomb when passing security, flight attendants are forbidden to use words like crash or otherwise incite fear in our on-board guests. When passengers give me a hard time about putting their tray tables up, I’m tempted to explain that, in the event of impact, tray tables work like guillotines, neatly slicing whatever’s behind them in two. During cabin safety announcements, flight attendants never say, “If there’s an explosion.” We say, “In the unlikely event of a sudden decompression.” We say, “Breathe normally.” We do not use words like storm, tornado, hurricane. We say, “We are experiencing weather.” We don’t say turbulence. We call it rough air.
Gary sends them down at five forty, early as usual, and I yawn through my welcomes, suck on an Altoid, and hope my lipstick hasn’t already bled onto my teeth. I’ve just heard my voice say, “An omelet? How perfect!” when I see this tiny woman halfway up the jetway, wrestling with a shoulder bag.
The woman looks about seventy. She is tiny, dainty, lace and flowers on her dress, a little hat topping her perfect ringlet-ed hair. The bag keeps throwing her off balance as she bumps toward the plane, into other passengers who harrumph or say “excuse me” or just look generically mean.
When I say the woman is tiny, I mean the flower on the brim of her hat hits below my shoulder. I bend down and ask if she needs help.
“I don’t want to be any trouble, honey,” she said. “Don’t want a fuss now.”
I lift the bag and sling it over my shoulder, even though I’ve been trained not to do this. “Lift passenger bags at your own risk,” the training manual says.
Airlines try to save money by cutting on-the-job injuries, so nearly everything passengers want flight attendants to do – maneuver a beverage cart, perform the Heimlich maneuver when someone chokes on a pretzel, restrain drunks and fellow flight attendants when they want to jettison the emergency slides – is at our own risk.
Once, shortly after I started flying, there was a storm and our plane was hit by lightning. There had been little warning – no calls from the cockpit, just bumps and dips, the usual rough air – and so I was in the aisle when there was a flash, then a loud bang. The plane dropped, like an elevator might if someone cut the cable, and I ended up on the floor six rows from where I’d been standing. I strapped myself into the nearest passenger seat and had to climb over a man to do it. “Don’t you have you own seats in the back of the plane?” he said.
I was shaken, but not badly hurt. Another flight attendant in the plane’s lower galley, though, had been pinned by a loose beverage cart. Beverage carts, when they’re full, weigh more than 200 pounds. By the time I made it to the galley, she was lying on the floor. Another flight attendant was trying to calm her down. I’d never seen anyone convulse and it was terrifying. The woman’s whole body spasmed and she made strange sounds, high-pitched, deep in her throat. When we landed, paramedics took her off through the cabin service door on a stretcher. When they moved her, she screamed.
Later, a supervisor came on board and interviewed the rest of us. Was the seat belt sign on? Did we think it was safe to be up? Shouldn’t all the carts have been locked down?
The supervisor built the company’s argument. The flight attendant should have been seated, the carts locked in place. She was irresponsible. She had been working at her own risk.
Back on the Hotlanta flight, I shift under the weight of the woman’s bag. It feels loaded with bowling balls. I don’t know how she’s managed it this far and tell her so.
“Oh I try and manage what I can,” she says. “A girl needs a lot of makeup at my age.” She winks, then adds, “Don’t want to be no trouble, really now.”
Just a week before, a woman named Marge struggled to stuff a bag like this one into the overhead and nearly knocked out another passenger sitting underneath. He was nailed with the corner of what turned out to be a bag filled with frozen meatballs, two roasts and a meatloaf. I had to fill out paperwork that said just that. The passenger was fine, but he wanted a free round-trip ticket and maybe one of those free Easter hams the airlines used to give out back when airlines used to care about people.
“Turkeys,” I told him.
“What?” he said.
“The airlines used to give out turkeys. For Thanksgiving. Not Easter.”
“Whatever,” he said.
As for Marge’s bag, it took two of us, plus Marge, to stow it under an empty seat in the back of the plane. Marge was headed to Fort Lauderdale to visit her daughter. “My daughter,” Marge said, shoving the bag with her foot. “She likes my cooking.”
Did I say it’s March? That means New York is a slag pile, all muck and slush. How nice it would be for someone to show up in March dragging a bag of meatballs. How nice it would be to wake up with the sun in Ft. Lauderdale, where everything smells like strawberry lipgloss. On all our family drives from Pittsburgh to Florida, my father taught me long ago that Florida was a working-class dream. It was the reason people killed themselves every day at jobs they hated for two weeks’ vacation a year. It was where nearly everyone I knew wanted to go to die.
Sometimes I think I’d be happier if I transferred to Florida. I told this to Marlena, a flight attendant I met on a turnaround. She had transferred from New York to Orlando and seemed to be doing fine. “Traded Times Square Mickey for the real thing,” she said.
Marlena was pretty, maybe forty, with chin-length bobbed blond hair and blue eyes. The company likes this look and encourages it. They send hairdressers to the training center and to bases, where they subliminally try to convince us that blond and bobbed is the way to go. At first I fought it, but soon I started hitting the peroxide. By the time I met Marlena, my hair was nearly white-blond, although it was still too long and had to be pulled back in a ponytail.
“You have such petite features,” one company hairdresser, Phil, told me. “A nice bob would take the years off. It would make your cheekbones pop.”
Phil was blond, with yellow highlights. His hair stood up in gelled spikes. He looked like an albino porcupine.
Marlena’s hair was cut beautifully. It swept down in a perfect arch and made a J-curve around her jaw. I was sure Phil had nothing to do with it.
On the jumpseat, waiting for takeoff, Marlena and I chatted. Flight attendants have a ritual called jumpseat therapy. We meet each other, prep the flight, then plop on our jumpseats and tell the stories of our lives in precisely the time it takes for the plane to get off or on the ground. I don’t know why we do this, but we all do. Maybe it’s the design of a jumpseat, bodies pushed together, thighs and hips and shoulders touching, physical intimacy giving over to other kinds. Or maybe there’s comfort in knowing that outside any given flight, we remain strangers and aren’t likely to run into each other any time soon. Or maybe it’s just the nature of the business, the lack of connections on the ground. Maybe it’s the same impulse that leads drunks to talk to strangers about their bowel habits.
Whatever it is, there are flight attendants all over the company who know my failed dreams, and I know intimate details about people whose names, even now, I can’t remember. But I remember Marlena.
We were on the jumpseat and I was asking her what brand of blonde – store or salon, Garnier or Clairol. I wanted to know where she got her hair done. I told her I needed a change.
She smiled in an odd way and said, “I go to Bumble. I spend a fortune to keep this thing up. It has to be exactly right, you see.”
She pushed back the hair from her forehead and right cheek to show me the scar. It was jagged and brown and looked like an artery that had been ripped open. The edges were serrated and the skin around the scar toward her hairline was lumpy and looked bruised. Marlena held her hair back like that for what felt like a long time. I wanted to look away. Anywhere else, looking away would have been the right thing to do, but on a jumpseat, things are different.
“It’s been a year,” she said.
She’d been living on the Upper East Side, a good neighborhood, expensive, no rats or roaches, a good building, a brownstone, four stories, no doorman. She was coming home from a Vegas all-nighter, around five in the morning, exhausted. She didn’t see the man, didn’t know where he came from, until his pushed through the security door as she dragged her bag behind her. He started hitting. He beat her so badly the police asked if she knew him because they didn’t usually see this much violence in rapes by strangers. He had a razor. He cut her face. He told her he was going to cut her face off. He would have killed her, probably, if she hadn’t started screaming and kept screaming.
The police, when they came, told her she was screaming fire fire, just like they teach you in Girl Scouts, but she didn’t remember doing that. The police caught the guy. There was a trial, a conviction. She had operations.
“I just came back on the line last month,” she said. “The company flew me down to Atlanta to meet with a group of supervisors before they’d let me come back. They said it was to see how I was doing. They really wanted to see how I looked. Can’t go scaring the customers.”
She let her hair fall back into place and smiled and everything was perfect again.
The great writer Raymond Carver once said he was a cigarette with a writer attached. Brendan Behan, the Irish playwright and poet, called himself a drunk with a writing problem. Me, I was a pair of wings with a notebook I never talked about.
I should have told Marlena this. I should have told her that I knew, even then, that someday I’d write her story down. I should have told her why. I would have liked to have said something to her other than “I’m sorry,” other than “Christ.” I would have liked to have said something comforting, whether Marlena needed it or not.
“Last call for Hotlanta, woot woot!” Gary’s voice prances down the jetway, annoying as feedback. I store the woman’s bag over her seat, 3B, First Class. I hand her the standard mite-infested blanket and pillow, and make a show of fluffing the latter until it is almost three-dimensional.
“You airplane people are so sweet,” she says, and puts one doll-hand in mine. It’s strange, not because she touches me, but because she insists on making eye contact before she lets go.
The woman is nice, too nice to be traveling in First Class. Some flight attendants choose to work First Class because they believe it adds status to the job. They believe First Class passengers are more civilized that Coach passengers. It’s not true, of course. This is just something working-class people think about people with money.
But this woman does not ask for an omelet or lobster. She doesn’t want a fuss. She is polite. She says thank you. And on top of all that, because my parents are old and awkward travelers, I’m soft on her.
Still that bag is ridiculous. My back already aches and I have a twelve-hour day ahead. What could have been so important that this miniature woman tried to carry a bag that could carry her?
It was Gary’s fault of course. He should have checked it.
One of Gary’s other favorite jokes when he does check passengers’ bags goes like this: “You know what our airline name stands for? Don’t Expect Your Luggage to Arrive.” Then he sends the passengers on board, where they panic in the galley and press their faces to the cabin-door window and try to spot the ground crew putting their bags in the belly of the plane.
Hotlanta. Gary’s word for the great capital of the South.
Jagoff. Pittsburgh’s word for people like Gary.
“Jag? Like Jaguar?” Gary says. “That’s one sweet ride.”
I scan the manifest and find the woman’s name. Mrs. Clemons. I bring Mrs. Clemons orange juice and a biscuit.
“Thank you so much,” she says. “I don’t like to be trouble. It’s my son, you see. He makes me fly up here. My son, he worries. I have arthritis and the bigger seats, well, he says it’s better. My feet don’t swell up as much if I’ve got some moving room. I don’t like to be fussed over, though. I’m o.k. sitting in back. I tell him, ‘I’m fine.’ But ever since he’s been in that band, he gets me these tickets and he says ‘Mama, you fly First Class; First Class for my mama.’ What can you do?
“My son, he plays horn. You like music?”
I nod. She is wearing me down and this time when I smile, I mean it.
“My son, he just loves playing horn. I always say, you have to find what you love in this world. Take you, for instance. You must love what you do, being so nice to help me and all. It’s a blessing, Lord, it really is. A blessing.”
I want to tell Mrs. Clemons I don’t believe my job is any kind of blessing. But she seems so happy to talk about her son and it feels peaceful to listen. All around us call lights go off like game-show buzzers and people scowl and check their watches, but I pretend not to notice. For now, there’s only me and Mrs. Clemons and this, I realize, is making me feel better. Not good, but better.
Some days, I like disappearing. Other days, there’s comfort in being seen. I’ve given away free drinks, champagne, headphones – all the perks we are supposed to reserve for when we spill hot coffee or run out of meals or live through rough air – just because someone asked me how my day was going and waited for an answer.
This is why I wrap up a bottle of red for Mrs. Clemons. I’m sure she doesn’t drink. She might even take offense, but it’s the best I have to offer, along with some chocolates.
“Oh you shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t fuss,” she says. “But thank you. I don’t know if it will fit in my bag, though. Gracious.”
She laughs and pats me on the arm. “I’m going to tell my son how nice you’ve been. He worries, my son. He plays horn, like I said. I never much cared for rock n’ roll myself, but it’s been a blessing, really it has. He plays with this nice man, Bruce Springsteen. He’s from New Jersey. You know him?”
Clarence Clemons. The Big Man. Mr. C. The Reverend C.C.
In concert, Springsteen liked to tell about the time the Big Man joined the band. It was, he says, an event of near-biblical proportions that night Clarence Clemons showed up during a storm and opened the door to the Student Prince Club where Springsteen was playing for fifteen dollars a week on the boardwalk in Asbury Park.
The wind, Springsteen says, just blew the door off the hinges and Clarence stood there, lightning and thunder at his back and said, “I’d like to sit in.” They played “Spirit in the Night.” Midway through the song, their eyes connected. And that, Springsteen always said, was that.
Clarence Clemons. Tiny Mrs. Thelma Clemons’s son. All six foot three, three hundred pounds of him.
The Christmas after I met Mrs. Clemons, The St. Petersburg Times will run a story, “An Angel Named Clarence.” The story will be about Clarence’s volunteer work with Jesus And You, or JAY, a crack-house-turned-mission on Avenue S in Riviera Beach.
In the story, Clarence and the mission’s founder, Brother Bob Felder, will sit at a long table with residents and listen to their stories. Henry Mason Jr. will talk about the time he was shot in the stomach and came to JAY to heal so he could kill the man who shot him. “But instead,” Mason will say, “I healed my spirit and feel like I have a purpose in life now.”
Jennifer Clayton will say she used to be a hooker and a coke addict and JAY helped her regain custody of her five children. Bill Clark, who’d spent most of his 47 years in prison, will touch Clarence’s hand. He will say, “I used to listen to this man’s music when I was sitting in prison. This is something beyond my wildest dreams.”
Clarence will tell the reporter, Dave Scheiber, that he learned all about kindness and love from his parents, who were sometimes too poor to buy anything but comic books for their children for Christmas. He will say, “It only takes one person, a person to treat the problems from the inside out.”
Scheiber will call the mission a place “where many lives have been pulled back from the brink and rejuvenated.” He will say Clarence Clemons made broken lives wonderful.
When our flight is over, I help Mrs. Clemons with her bag. I walk her to the end of the jetway. I thank her for flying Delta and wish her a good day and hand her off to a gate agent who is not Gary. Everything is the way it always is, and I doubt Mrs. Clemons will remember me after this flight. I’m sure she tells her stories to every flight attendant she meets. I’m sure she is always open and unassuming and that she never thinks about it. But on this flight today, she may have just saved my life. I would like to tell her that. Mrs. Thelma Clemons, who taught her son everything about kindness.
Lori Jakiela was a flight attendant based in New York for seven years. These days she teaches writing at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and is the author of the memoirs The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press 2013) and Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012). Her third memoir — Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe — is forthcoming from Atticus in 2015. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their two children. Her website ishttp://ljwritesbooks.com.