Life In The Open Lane
Everyone has dreams of what they want to be when they grew up. Maybe you wanted to be a doctor, veterinarian, beautician, actor, or policeman. Some lucky children become their childhood dream after they graduate high school. The problem with me was I changed my mind as much as I changed my underwear. One day I’d wake up and want to be an archeologist, other days a dog trainer or marry a mobster. For the most part I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was my high school senior year and it was my tenth time meeting with the high school guidance counselor in less than two weeks. She was beginning to get very frustrated with my indecisiveness about the future of the rest of my life. She flipped through her file of my academic records, hobbies, and interests. She peered up at me through her pointed reading glasses and said, “Well Miss Turner I hope you spent this past weekend reflecting on the direction you will take.” The truth was the only reflecting I did the past weekend was checking out my reflection in the mirror imitating the Laverne and Shirley characters.
“Well frankly I’m only eighteen and I got the rest of my life to figure out my life.”
Needless to say she didn’t like that response. I had never taken the any math higher than pre-algebra so SATs were out of the question. All my electives were in art and I was barely passing painting. I wanted to write, travel, and entertain, but the thought of college made me want to join a circus or become a nun. I found a list of careers and circled the ones that could work for me. That’s when I came across flight attendant. I was eighteen and never had been on a plane. My longest trip was to Lake Erie a two hour drive for fishing. I began reading up on becoming a flight attendant. It sounded like a pretty glamorous job, and no math or SATs needed. That week I made an announcement to my family about my career. My mom scrunched her eyes as she ate a plate of steamed peas and mashed potatoes, reminding me I had never flown. How hard could being a flight attendant really be? I mean all you really do is look pretty and serve people, I already had experience in that. My mom tried convincing me I might not like flying at all. The truth was the thought did cross my mine, but I put it on the back burner. The perks were far more enticing. I pictured myself in a form fitting short dress. I would have a cute set of luggage on wheels I could roll behind my five inch heels. That was a far cry from my family’s square suitcases from the seventies that you had to sit on to lock. I would live in hotels, travel to exotic countries, and date sons of royalty. All my friends would be pretty, and the pilots would all be charming Ken dolls that came to life. The best part was the downtime on the airport layovers. I was under the impression the crew drank and hang out in the airport bars. “No Emily, the crew does not drink on the job. How would they fly the planes?” my mom said as she rolled her eyes. The whole FAA alcohol restriction was a bit of a buzz kill, but I figured I could get around it. My mom booked us a cheap flight so I could see what flying was like.
My first blow of reality hit as we climbed up the stairs of a piece of metal with rusty propellers.
“Um mom why does it have those things?” I said as I pointed to the propellers.
“Oh those are propellers, they help it fly.”
I had pictured a gigantic plane, a staff of beautiful blond flight attendants with French twists and brunettes with the short mod bob; all would have Orbit white teeth and sky caps. They would pass out peanuts and say, It’s a lovely day to fly welcome aboard! My mom clutched my hand as the plane wobbled through the clouds. I think I made our flight attendant nervous as I watched her every move as if I had just awoken from being frozen for sixty years. I observed everything about the plane.
“Mom where is my parachute?” I asked a bit worried. I was shocked as I was informed we didn’t have parachutes. I always thought if a plane was crashing the passengers stood in a single file line and jumped out of the plane with their carry-on luggage. It was a whole mess of unsettling information, but I was determined to become a sky goddess.
After using a flight attendant recruitment service for $100 in the spring of 2000, a small commuter airline called me for an interview in Washington DC. They flew me down for free. I was so excited it didn’t even faze me I was on a thirty passenger plane. I smiled at the flight attendant and told her I was about to work for her company. The interview went exceedingly well. The in-flight supervisor, Mrs. Brown, a tall black lady with strong features smiled and said, “One last question. Where would you like to be relocated?” Although anywhere was better than my hometown, I had the option of DC, Chicago, or New York City. It was a no brainier the Big Apple was my first choice. Little did I know when I chose New York I would have the rare opportunity to start a new airline, train with the FAA for six months, automatically be in the top ten in seniority, and be a supervisor at age nineteen.
I lived in a long term rental in Sterling, Virginia paid for by the airline with the other first class flight attendants. I was the youngest out of the class of fifteen so my nickname became Baby Em. It was my first encounter with gay men, and to my surprise they were nothing to be scared of and they all had their own distinct personalities. Greg was the whiner, a splitting image of Richard Gere, ex-wife and two daughters at home, recently came out of the closet. Marcos a bald straight shooter from New York always had something to say and most of the time it was condescending. Kavin was my favorite. He had ice blue eyes, black hair, and style. He didn’t talk a lot but when he did it was something sarcastically funny. I’d slide out of my seat laughing. Kerri, my new best friend was a curvy blond with blue eyes that glowed. Her laugh was infectious, and carried for miles.
The training was intense. Normal in-flight training lasts five to six weeks, and that’s what I was packed for. Our first day we were informed we’d be in the first class of flight attendants to start a brand new airline with brand new jets that were coming in from Germany. The six weeks turned into six months. The hours were long, seven in the morning till late at night, then later nights playing pool and drinking margaritas. When we’d see pilots on the weekly trips to the airplane hanger we’d all get a little giddy and flirt. The gay flight attendants loved the trips.
“Oh he goes both ways,” said Kavin.
“What’s both ways?” I asked confused.
“He’ll do me while he’s kissing you.” The gay men scared me at first. They had a stronger sense of sexuality, one I couldn’t compete with.
After the wings were on and the airline was approved by the FAA, we were shipped off to New York. I had only been in Manhattan once when I was ten. After seeing a robbery and a man piss on the street, I knew one lucky day New York would be the place I called home. Eight of us shared a crashpad for a few hundred bucks a month. The crashpad is where the trip starts and ends. A group of crew members paid to have a place to crash at in between trips and commuting home. It was a diverse mix of flight attendants and pilots. Some crew members would crash one time in two months, others practically lived there. It was an adult playground with bunk beds, and blow up mattresses, pizza boxes, mini liquor bottles, posters of Madonna, DVD’s of Star Trek. Sometimes there would be only one crew member alone, other nights four flight attendants piled on the deflated air mattress. Our crashpad was in Jackson Heights, Queens and it was nothing like Manhattan. I felt like I lived in a third world country. I got a lot of attention at the bus stop. I made some friends, Lolita, and Chimos. We drank Presidente beer on our stoop and went dancing on the nights I was home alone.
Whenever the crashpad was in need of supplies we obtained it for free from hotels, and the service galley. We had mini ketchup, packets of sugar, mini bottles of water and wine, Westin bath robes, toilet paper, bags of pretzels, and silverware from a diner in South Carolina. Kavin was in charge of the crashpad and he loved to collect trash. He got me involved in bringing it home on occasion when he was drunk and couldn’t stand straight. “But baby it’s beautiful, can’t you see it’s like art work,” he said one night as he stroked the head of a Moses statue.
Work was always entertaining. The security agents knew my latest gossip, the rampers gave me rides in their go carts, and flirting with scheduling got me out of on call days with pay. I was literally on top of the world. Sean the only straight flight attendant joined our crashpad. He’d take the ladies back to our crashpad, sleep with them, and in the morning put on one of the pilots extra uniforms. It worked when he wasn’t getting busted by the pilots who called him out on it.
The crashpad was the home to many pillow fights and late night snacks in the kitchen which turned into all night affairs with crew members. The crew lounge is the center of the universe for the crew. Pilots would be propped up sleeping on bags of pretzels. Flight attendants being bitched out in the office for having the wrong color purse, and crew scheduling calling the office phones. It was a tight space with one round table. Not all the crews got along so sometimes the tension could feel intense. Mixing cocky pilots, dramatic flight attendants, and sassy gay men in one space is a volcano waiting to erupt. The crew was one sky goddess and two pilots. If the pilots were lame I’d order in pizza to my room after a trip, do a beauty spa, and watch a Lifetime tv movie. Boring crews made five hour days fell like fifteen hours of hell. Some pilots didn’t even want me in the cockpit. The fun pilots became buddies of mine. If they were as senior as me we would bid for the same trips. They’d want me in the cockpit as much as possible. They’d tell me to quickly do service then get my butt up in the cockpit to hang out. I’d receive a call from Captain Dixon, he’d say, “Em I need a coffee with cream, and your right thigh. What the hell are you doing back there? We need you up here!” Sometimes they’d let me talk to the other planes on the head set, “Hi there it’s fallen eagle 342, we are fifty miles due south of Greenville … do you copy?”
It was a privilege being a supervisor. Being the only sky goddess working a flight I made my own rules on the plane. Being bases out of LGA a.k.a. La Garbage meant two things, neurotic angry New Yorkers, and an infinity of delays. Nothing was worse than a 90 degree day in two layers of polyester convincing a passenger he did not want to turn the plane around and get off. “Please just sit down,” I would say pleading with the passenger. “We are already twenty five in line. I bet we will be in Boston in five hours.” It killed me to see their tears and glares so I took it upon myself to shake things up. I’d get on my intercom and say, “Ladies and gentlemen you see that little flight attendant button? Well we’re gona use it. I got a load of wine and beer and you all look very thirsty after that long wait on the runway.” I would ask random questions and have passengers ring their call button for a shot to answer and drink. They were ridiculous questions I heard come and go such as what animal causes the most human fatalities in Africa? How long does a pigs orgasm last? Where is our Captain from? By the end of the trip the whole plane felt like a group of friends on a charter flight. Passengers would slap me and the pilots high five as they left the plane.
Other days my pilots and I played jokes on each other. “Please congratulate your flight attendant for a new contract with Avon as a hand model!” The pilots would say on the intercom. I’d strike back in revenge the next flight leg saying, “Please congratulate Captain Brady on his new triplets and recent divorce!” Some days it got pretty ugly. The best part of the trip was the overnight. Every overnight was different. From the city, to the interests of the crew, it was always spontaneous and fun.
Pilots and flight attendants have an mandatory rule no alcohol eight hours before work. Normally company policy kicks it up a few hours, but that still gives many crews time to party. Sometimes we’d have the hotel van driver pull over to pick up a case of beer if we got in on an early afternoon layover. We’d fill our tubs with ice, jump on the beds in our pjs, order in pizza and watch cartoons or HBO’s shows. At night we’d always start at the hotel bar for pre-briefing call time for the next day, and drinking agenda for the night. Some nights were mild, dinner and a beer then call it a night. Other nights cool crews would find their way to each other on a mission for a blast. One night in Columbia we stole silverware from a diner. Our first officer Daniel shoved fourteen forks into my back pocket. Afterwards myself and another flight attendant and four pilots in their late 30’s crashed a frat party. We just followed the sound of music to a big white house and let ourselves in. Two hours later we jumped the gated pool fence and all skinny dipped in our Ramada Inn hotel pool. I looked up to see some seventy year olds from a national bingo tournament staring down at us. The beautiful thing about having a hotel contract is we never got in trouble.
A clear sky, pleasant passengers, and laid back crew equaled a great day. After serving my passengers I would entertain myself for hours like an only child. I read magazines, made to do lists, did my nails, told passengers stories, and meowed like a lost cat into the back intercom , it was amusing to watch the passengers look around for the kitty. I would make myself sick by playing all you can eat galley games with the pilots. I once had thirty biscottis and eight bags of party mix down in less than an hour. Sometimes I’d lock myself in the lavatory and pretend I was having sex with a passenger. The truth was in two years of flying I only saw one or two men I would join the mile high club with. Sometimes I would stare into the lavatory mirror and practice my Oscar awards speech, and I was humiliated when I got caught. On very turbulent flights I would buckle myself into the jump seat located in the front of the plane. I loved turbulence and had a very bad habit of dozing off. I’d dart my eyes open and peer around the plane to see who saw me sleeping. Was it thirty seconds or ten minutes? One time after a nap flight a customer de-boarding said, “Nice nap?”
Downtime in between flights could be painful, especially when I was broke. The airline paid the crews in peanuts, so sometimes I had to find ways to kill time on a budget. If I had an extra ten bucks it would be spent on food, if I was lucky enough to be on a stopover at my own base things could get rowdy. There was one flight attendant Tommy who was as silly and ridiculous as me. We were always daydreaming and goofing off. Being that we were on a smaller commuter airline of a large corporation our office was downstairs. To enter it the crew had to walk down the 737 Boeing ramp and enter from outside. One day the ramp was vacant.
“Hey Tommy, are you bored?” I asked. Tommy was making a giant rubber band ball.
“Um how did you know?” He asked as he snapped the rubber band ball across the crew lounge. “These are not the rubbers I want to be using. I have an idea … you want to pretend we are super high tech FBI agents on a mission to find a top criminal?”
We snuck out of the lounge and to the outside of the ramp. We ran up the stairs and climbed up the ladder on top of the ramp leading to the roof. We spun, intertwined our fingers into guns, and cocked them in the air ready for fire. Tommy and I climbed down the stairs and entered the ramp as secretively as we could. We looked around to ensure no spies were on our tales. Once we were in the ramp we jumped in the air.
“Fire!” Tommy shouted. “Rigby we lost them!”
“Five O’clock,” I screamed. “I see a shadow!”
We rolled onto the floor and summer saluted down the ramp. We jumped up smashing into each other as a customer service agent stood in her red jacket at the entrance of the ramp.
“What are you two doing?” She asked in a stern voice demanding an explanation.
“Playing cops and robbers,” I said innocently.
“Not on the ramp! Off!” She shouted as she pointed us out the door.
Tommy and I took our mission onto the airport gates. We scurried past passengers and hid behind pillars.
Hangovers are an elongated suicide. I always made sure I had extra airsick bags after a night of boozing. Nothing was worse than shoving my face into the lavatory toilet after it hadn’t been emptied in over five hours. There is one thing worse than flying with a hangover, flying with wicked passengers. The variety of them was as bright as a bag of skittles. I once had a whole plane of thirty two foreigners who didn’t speak a lick of English or wear an ounce of deodorant. I almost passed out twice because of the stench. During our decent into New York I tried to motion them to sit down and fasten their buckles. Instead they all stood up and stared out the window waving their stinky arms in the air. Some passengers attitudes were as foul as my grandpa’s socks.
“I’m the CEO of Lotus advertising. I want the pilot to drive the plane to the gate,” one old man in a three piece suit demanded one morning. I smiled and said, “I don’t care if you are the President, you have to get on the van like everyone else per FAA regulations.”
One old bitter lady asked for a 7up. I poured Sprite. “No I didn’t say Sprite. I want 7up,” she said with attitude. I cocked my head, gave her a look of power, snatched up her drink and said, “Now you get nothing.” Service was expected by passengers, but our number one priority is safety. I didn’t have to serve passengers, but I did have to give CPR if someone choked on a pretzel.
I know most of us flight attendants seem like flakes, a bit like airheads as we bounce around the airport, but after hours of flying you get a bit dizzy. Jet lag can be equivalent as a mild dose of laughing gas. When shit hit the engine, our flight attendants were super women in skirts. Flight attendants have the training and knowledge of fire safety, how to detach a bomb, child labor, heart attacks, death on a flight, high security prisoners, broken nails, and broken hearts.
When a flight attendant tells you to wear the seat belt, drop your ego and do the rest of the passengers a favor, wear it. You don’t want to be the asshole grounding the plane in Indiana or Kentucky because your head is stuck through the overhead bin when your plane’s destination was the Cayman Islands.
Being that I started a new airline with new jets each month a new one arrived. Every jet had a story attached to it.
402 – My first plane I flew on.
407- Jen had sex with Captain Jenkins in seat 3C
432- Diana Ross’s plane
413- Poop plane passenger left us a treat on the floor
In reality everything breaks eventually. Just as a car can have a simple malfunction so can any other machine. I never once felt unsafe flying. I was prepared for anything, and I had complete confidence with every pilot I flew with. I was fortunate enough to never have been handed a high risk situation. There were a few close calls. My captain informed me our whole windshield cracked into a spider web. We had to do a steep dive in altitude before the windshield blew out. Luckily there were no airplanes in our air traffic. Life in the open lane, sometimes you the only airplane in the sky for miles. Other times the air traffic control is signaling twenty planes in a section. After a smooth forty minutes of flying my plane dropped harshly. I told the passengers to fasten their seat belts because the turbulence was rough. Moments later the captain came on the intercom with a shaky voice. “Uh hi guys. We’re alright. Everything is ok. Uh we just did a quick dive because a 737 got in our air traffic. He was only 600 feet head on, but we missed him.”
Sometimes details should be spared, but in a life or death moment such as that the pilot was probably just comforting himself. If something on a plane is defective, but the plane is flyable the crew ferry flies it to a maintenance base without passengers. Ferry flights were my favorite. I could sleep, clean, sit in the cockpit for takeoff. Some crew members got their mile high status in the passenger seats, others played games. One little pilot, Ralph who was bred to be a jockey used to ride the service tray up the aisle for takeoff.
The airline career for the most part if fun, rewarding, and light. I loved my airline job, but couldn’t see myself serving peanuts for thirty years. I quit after getting accepted into a Manhattan acting conservatory. I wanted to go to college to be a writer, FBI agent, or lawyer. I didn’t get accepted into college because my math and nonexistent SAT score. I did get accepted with a scholarship to the School for Film and Television with a scholarship after I prepared a scene with Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blond.
I learned a lot about life and people through the airline. Passengers can have different job titles and bank balances, but once they were all crammed into my commuter jet it was all the same to me. I only showed favoritism to the pilots. They were the ones who fed me dinner and drinks after a hard day.
One thing we hate cleaning more than when a baby pukes and poops? An adult doing it.
Even though we get paid in peanuts, airlines discontinued serving them so don’t ask.
If you don’t fit in a seat belt, just ask for an extender, just don’t ask us to autograph the extender as a gift. It’s mandatory we have three per plane, and we never know when we are going to fly a team of sumo wrestlers or a group of kids to fat camp.
When a pilot asks a flight attendant, “What have you been up to?” It’s air lingo for what pilot have you been using your air miles on since our last trip?
It’s acceptable … different area codes = different lovers.
Never date a pilot.
After I quit I was in New York at a café on the Upper West Side. I should have been studying a monologue, but I was making a list of places I wanted to travel. A charming man in his thirties kept glancing my way.
“Do you mind me asking what you are writing?” He asked after we both got our checks.
“Sure,” I said as I held up my list. “All the places in the world I want to travel.”
He got up from his table and sat next to me amused. “That’s funny, I’m a pilot for American.”
“Well I used to be a flight attendant for AC Jet.”
We talked for a bit, then he said, “I don’t date flight attendants.”
“Well I don’t date pilots.”
“Can I get your number.”
“Sure, I don’t fly anymore.” I said as I slid him my number.
My highlight of my career was my last day flying. I had a big plan for a grand finale, and I was prepared. It was a late afternoon flight up from North Carolina. I informed the plane I was leaving the airline to become an actress. The plane cheered, I think the bulk of the load was from down south. I gave away all the alcohol. The passengers all hiccuped and hobbled off the plane. The captain looked at them and asked, “What did you do to them?” I just shrugged my shoulders as the Delta van drove them to the gate. I exited the plane and stood on the tarmac as the plane next to us boarded. I stripped off my uniform, jumped into the air in my underwear and screamed, “I quit!” I quickly tossed on my jeans and a sweater, handed my supervisor my uniform. He looked at the uniform and said, “That’s the quickest I ever got a returned uniform.” I quickly exited the airport before the rumors started hitting the fan.
Years later I’m still an airline legend. I’ll never forget my life as a sky goddess. The airline employees are some of the most hard working, down to earth, people I have ever met. If you want to get ahead in life, start miles above the rest in the airline industry.
I kept a uniform. I wear it sometimes in my apartment as I reminisce about the high life, life in the open lane.