Serving hot coffee in high-heeled shoes on a bumpy surface in a pressurized tube going 500 miles an hour feels like it should be left to the young and flexible; those with sunnier dispositions. The claustrophobic environment chafes me, as do my coworkers: pilots who pummel me with Fox News talking points; other attendants, relentlessly cheerful at five in the morning, jabbering about fad diets, sports, and People magazine’s in-depth coverage of Beyoncé’s every move.
When it becomes too soul-crushing, I lose myself in fantasies of escape. As I trudge off to work, I daydream myself into a loftier post – one where I’m assisting a spiritual leader like Ram Dass with his mission to be a servant of God. A life where I’m surrounded by other like-minded, soft-spoken individuals in yoga pants who constantly check in to make everyone’s needs are being acknowledged and validated. And there’s so much glorious personal space!
Back in my real life, the closest thing I have to heavenly intervention is an approaching collision with an act of God named “Winter Storm Neptune.”
Snow is swirling on the tarmac when I get to the gate at 6:30AM for a flight packed with people trying to get to Tampa on Valentine’s Day. Our operations agent hits us with the first of many terse bulletins:
“Your new departure time is 12:30 this afternoon. Oh, and a lot of people are booked on cruises sailing out of Tampa today that they’re not gonna make now. They’re already pretty pissed off.”
Well, I just can’t WAIT to see how they’ll be feeling in six hours when if we ever get out of here.
Over the next two hours we sit around, awaiting new information. Our departure time bounces around like a ping-pong ball: it’s 11AM, then it’s 1PM, then it’s back to 12:30PM again.
Suddenly it’s canceled altogether. I gather up my luggage to go work a flight to Minneapolis. At least I can wash my hands of the Tampa people who are angry about missing the boat.
No, no, no! Now the Tampa flight is back on. We can begin boarding as soon as I get back on and put my stuff away. There’s a break in the storm. HURRY! FOR GOD’S SAKE, HURRY!
It’s 8:30AM, I am exhausted, and no one has managed to go anywhere at all. It’s all part of the dance commercial aviation calls “irregular operations”, and it makes the inside of my head operate irregularly as well. All the bits I cannot control have me swinging back and forth between feeling hopeless and enraged. As many people traveling during winter storm season are also feeling hopeless and enraged, I need to suck it up and paste on a smile.
I close my eyes to steal a moment to regroup. I envision myself on a cloud with Marianne Williamson, who tells me our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure!
When I return to reality, I am literally standing in the clouds. I’m holding a tray of drinks while a guy pokes me in the rear end with his index finger, saying: “Can you take this?” while trying to hand me a bag of barf.
“My hands are full right now,” I tell him. “But I’ll be right back.”
We land, mercifully. I’m scheduled to fly to Boston. But guess who got there first? That cold, heartless bastard Neptune.
Announcements screech out of the airport’s loudspeaker: “Providence flights, CANCELED. Long Island flights, CANCELED. Boston flights, CANCELED. Please see a customer service agent in order to be re-accommodated.”
As people scramble to line up, I am surrounded by passengers who bombard me with questions they feel should be resolved by anyone wearing a name tag.
“Will we be able to take off later? What time do you think?”
“My cousin in Long Island says it’s not really that bad there right now. I think you people are exaggerating.”
“Should I re-book for tomorrow?”
I don’t know, I tell them, but if they stand in that colossal line of people forming at the counter, someone at the podium should know something.
“You people never know anything. ”
I nod in agreement, fearful that my answers will always be inadequate, and I will never feel powerful beyond measure.
I get a message from our scheduling department: since I can’t get to Boston, I will need to head to Baltimore. How can I possibly go to Baltimore while I’m in the midst of an existential emergency? Isn’t there some spiritual crisis hotline where Eckhart Tolle will tell me over and over again about how that the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but only my thoughts about it? No? Okay. Baltimore it is.
When I arrive in the self-proclaimed “Greatest City in America”, my world seems less than great. After I confirm my hotel, wait in the cold for their van, and stagger my way into the lobby, I am overcome by it all. I begin to cry.
Never before have I ever cried in my uniform in public. Pro travel tip, folks: if you lose your shit in a hotel lobby on Valentine’s Day, they will find you a room in record time. Here, here is your key. Here is a cookie. Please go hide in your room, immediately, if not sooner.
Managing my occupational angst revolves around being grateful when my day goes well, and keeping my cool when the situation starts to swirl the bowl. But when my good days are fleeting and my dark days are spent trying to shore up a crumbling facade, I question whether or not I’ve outstayed my welcome at the sky office.
A few days later, I put on my name tag again and head to work. I tie on a jaunty scarf – a shield against whatever fresh hell awaits. Let’s do this thing.
My first two flights go by without a hitch, much to my relief. When faced with some time between flights in Kansas City, I decide to celebrate getting through half of my day unscathed at Pork and Pickle, a BBQ restaurant in the airport. My coworkers decline to join me. They say it’s too expensive, but I just need to sit at a real table and eat off a real plate, not out of a Styrofoam box on my lap.
As I head there, a sandy haired guy in his late 30s stops me and says, “Do you know how to get to that BBQ place?”
Yes, follow me.
In the elevator, he asks, “Are you alone? Would you like some company?” I don’t, but I can’t think of a polite way to tell him so, so I agree to lunch with a stranger.
His name is Justin. He’s making his way across the country after his last day of being in the Marine Corps. He tells me about how he has been deployed overseas three times, and has been away from his wife and three sons far too long. He talks about military service. He asks me about airline work.
Justin is not only an engaging talker, he’s an attentive listener. He laughs when I joke that someday I will replaced by a Coke machine when the FAA finally figures out my true purpose.
Justin is bright and big-hearted, and I’m caught off guard at how glad I am that he took a chance and asked me to eat with him. We finish up and head to our flight, soon to depart for Portland.
The Portland flight is another quiet one, and I begin to think this day might go down as blissfully uneventful. Somewhere in the third hour, a teenage boy oozing with awkward comes to the back galley, where my coworker and I are reading in silence.
“Excuse me. Can I bother you for a Coke?”
As I pour the Coke, he says, “Can I ask you a favor?”
“I’m writing poetry to pass the time and I’m kinda stuck. Can you give me a subject to write on?”
As my coworker says, “What?” I tell him, “Claustrophobia. Write a poem about claustrophobia.”
And he’s out.
As I’m picking up garbage awhile later, the kid stops me and says, “I’m done with the poem. Would you like to read it?”
The poem is about a guy trapped in an elevator. It’s whimsical and imaginative and I feel lucky he wanted to share it with me. I ask him how long he’s been writing poetry, and he tells me about two years. “It’s just so much cooler than social media and video games,” he tells me as my heart explodes.
I give him suggestions on where to find writing prompts online; he scribbles them down furiously. I tell him it doesn’t matter whether he uses the resources or not, but he must promise me he will keep writing poetry because he’s really good. He smiles from ear to ear. Yes, he promises he will. He will because he loves it.
After we land, the captain comes into the cabin to say goodbye to the deplaning passengers. Captain Darren is a good ole boy from San Antonio and I pray he doesn’t say anything homophobic or racist or sexist or just plain stupid. I’m riding high from having two unexpectedly life affirming conversations in one day, and I cannot remember the last time that happened to me at work.
I bid farewell to Justin, and tell him to enjoy his civilian life. When the awkward poet makes his way towards the front, I tell him goodnight and say, “You have to keep writing poetry. You promised!” He nods yes, he will, and his father tells me he’s a good kid.
Captain Darren says, “Poetry?”
Yes, Darren, poetry.
“Well, I love poetry!”
I can’t tell whether he’s kidding, but I give him side-eye and prepare myself for limericks or something equally awful. And I’ll be damned if that big ole Texas redneck doesn’t pop off with: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote /The droghte of March hath perced to the roote”
My eyes grow wide for third time that day.
“Are you speaking in Middle English to me right now?”
“That I am. Canterbury Tales, to be exact. You like it?”
“It’s delightful and…surprising.”
He keeps reciting the Chaucer with a twisted Texas flair, and I laugh as the rest of the people file out, their faces unclear as to why we’ve strayed away from the stock standard buh-byes.
As we make our way to the hotel, my coworkers try to convince me to stay up and drink with them, but I tell them no, I’m tired. I am tired, and I also need the curtain to come down at this perfect spot.
The rest of the trip is filled with the usual mixed bag of testy passengers, overbearing pilots, and chatty coworkers engrossed in small talk, but I’m impervious to it all. I am fortified by this one great day that seemed to last so long, a day where I was exactly where I should be. A day where I felt content to be a cog, as long as I played an integral part in making the machine turn for the better.
The first thing I really loved about the job was that it attracted people who are as kind as they are tough: those relentlessly cheerful people who always manage to pack a little extra joy when they travel. Perhaps I could hop aboard their ride, embracing myself as a passenger.
If I were to get that fantasy job working with Ram Dass, he would remind me that we are all just walking each other home. I just happen to be walking hundreds of people home, in high heeled shoes on a bumpy surface, in a pressurized tube going 500 miles an hour.
Eileen Dougharty, upon moving to Chicago in 2009, pursued writing as a way to find new friends. She was thrilled to discover it also brought her life unprecedented joy and purpose. She recently contributed to a TEDx talk on storytelling and her work has been featured in Reader’s Digest, WBEZ’s “PleasureTown” podcast, Thread, and previously in Story Club magazine.
Eileen believes stories can be more than entertainment, they can also be instrumental in powerful social change.