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Behind the Scenes With a Flight Attendant

It was 1978. I was fresh out of college, 21 years old, sitting at a table with five women just like me. We all had Dorothy Hamill haircuts and shiny lipstick. We all had smiles frozen on our faces. The interviewer, who hadn't stopped smiling either, leaned forward and asked: "Would you rather give a party or go to a party?" "I love to entertain people and make them feel at home," I answered, even though the only entertaining I'd ever done was one candlelit dinner for my boyfriend.

Two years before I became a flight attendant they were still called stewardesses. Three years earlier, they were required to wear girdles. Ten years earlier they were forced to quit when they had children. But in 1978, more than half of the new hires were college-educated, and 30 percent were male. So what if we had weekly weigh-ins?Or if the dangle of our earrings and the height of our heels were carefully measured?Our starting salaries were higher than those of my friends who went off to jobs in banks and schools and offices.

More important, the small square suitcases we pulled through airports were packed for overnights in Cairo or Paris or San Francisco or Las Vegas. Rather than promotions or upward mobility, we had the lure of the whole wide world. "Breakfast in New York on a winter morning and lunch in Miami under palm trees is all in a day's work," read a line from How to Be an Airline Stewardess, a book I had studied as a girl. "Dinner could be in London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, or Rome. Could be?It is, every day."

While my college friends took classes in résumé writing and bought gray suits with floppy bow ties, I'd spent most of the spring of my senior year at airline interviews. The first part of the three-step process involved walking into a room and introducing myself while one of the interviewers looked at my legs and teeth. Three airlines brought me back for a group interview, and one for the third, final step: a three-day trip to its hub, where I had a physical, a uniform-fitting, psychological and drug testing, and still more group and one-on-one interviews in which most of the questions required some version of the answer "I love people and I love to travel."

With a degree in English and a 3.7 grade point average, I was certain that my six weeks of training would be a breeze. It didn't take long to realize how wrong I was. A typical day included learning how to apply makeup, identify liquor miniatures without their labels (they slide off in heat and dampness), fix a broken coffeemaker, serve caviar, administer oxygen and CPR, and evacuate a burning 747. Every morning someone failed a test and was gone by lunch. The night before a quiz on 300 three-letter airport codes, my roommate shouted in her sleep: "MCI, Kansas City! EWR, Newark! LHR, London!"

My first flight was from Boston to Los Angeles. The actor who played the teacher on the TV show Room 222 was on board, but I hardly noticed. As the junior flight attendant, I set up (and broke down) all the first-class carts; ran food from the galley below, up an elevator, to first class; helped serve the liquor in coach; and returned to first to serve warm rolls and second drinks. I did most of this in my stocking feet since my regulation pumps hurt so much that I had no choice but to remove them. I was forbidden to do anything that wasn't regulation, but the senior crew, long over their six-month probation period, had donned flats after takeoff.

That night, with my feet soaking in the hotel-room tub, I thought of all the things I wanted to see in L.A.—famous handprints in cement, the Pacific Ocean, the HOLLYWOOD sign. But none of them appealed to me like the big bed.

Each month a packet arrived with flight pairings—listing who was flying which routes—for the next month. Everything was based on seniority. As a junior flight attendant, there was a good chance that instead of a schedule you'd get "reserve" duty. On prescribed days you would wait by the phone until someone called in sick or forgot to show. Then you took their place, usually with about an hour's notice. My only alternatives, since I was based in Boston, were to fly Phoenix layovers—in summer—or to fly a red-eye from Boston to Newark to Los Angeles to San Francisco, where I would get a 30-hour layover.

I chose the latter, and for six happy but exhausting months I got to know San Francisco as well as I knew Boston. True, during my probation I was often surprised with spot tests, when a supervisor would check my shoes, jewelry, hair, and weight. (One of my six roommates was fired for gaining 15 pounds; she was later reinstated.) But the job grew easy quickly. For six or eight hours of hard work I was rewarded with a room in the Mark Hopkins and expense money. I started buying handmade cucumber soap and Peet's coffee. I learned to navigate the trolleys and BART. I had my first taste of crab Louis on Fisherman's Wharf and Irish coffee at the Buena Vista.

Before I knew it, my probation was over, I was left alone, and my parents and I had free unlimited passes for as long as I remained a flight attendant. My high heels stayed mostly in my crew bag while I worked in loafers or, later, Doc Martens. On all-night flights I took out my contact lenses and put on my glasses. A bad month had me working a DC-9 from St. Louis to Louisville to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Providence, laying over for 10 hours, and doing the same trip back the next day. With flights like that, the job consists of boarding passengers, stowing bags, running down the aisle with drinks, and then deplaning, again and again and again.

Flying became as natural to me as riding in a car. And so I flew: more than a million miles in all, zigzagging across continents in the middle of the night, roaming foreign capitals through a bleary fog of jet lag. Sometimes I scored a coveted route for a month, and I would find a boyfriend, a hairdresser, a favorite restaurant in that city, making it mine for a small time. My closets and cupboards burst with duty-free bargains. I bought Dom Pérignon in Paris; perfume and Godiva chocolates in Brussels; gin, Waterford crystal, and Baileys Irish Cream in London.

"But the travel and glamour are not yours just for looking pretty," How to Be an Airline Stewardess had warned me. "They have to be earned." On a 747 I would have to help more than 300 people board, finding safe places for everything from cellos to TV sets. (My least favorite passengers were the ones who carried on oversize bags.) After takeoff, I had to roll heavy carts up and down the long aisles while waiting endlessly for passengers to move their crawling babies, nodding heads, and Wall Street Journals out of my way. Then I would walk through air heavy with smoke, and mix gin and tonics, scotch and sodas, and Bloody Marys—breaking my nails on the pop-tops, splashing Coke on my hands, running for more milk, hot tea, Sweet'n Low. And then I would push another heavy cart up another smoky aisle and ask three dozen, four dozen, five dozen times: "Chicken or beef?" After I picked up the empty meal trays, strangers' gravy under my fingernails and peas crushed under my heels, I would sell headsets, start the movie, and sneak up to first class to eat leftover caviar by the spoonful, baby lamb chops, the ends of the chateaubriand.

Of course no flight was complete without an incident or emergency. Sometimes passengers had to be taken off the plane by police, like the man who threatened to kill me because we had run out of manicotti. Sometimes people simply did shocking things, such as having sex under the blankets or in the lavatories. (Then there was the woman who breast-fed a cat in first class.) All flight attendants get their share of sexual remarks and come-ons, but I was more insulted by the man who, when I commented on how much I had liked the book he was reading, looked at me and said: "You read?"

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