What I always wanted as a little girl was to tell stories on the stage, because I wanted to be connected to something bigger than myself, and I wanted to be connected to other people.
And I believe that a really good performer takes a group of individuals and, through a shared emotional experience, turns it into a collective. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do this.
I’ve wanted to be a performer... slash stewardess.
I grew up in my mama’s beauty shop in Texas. It was this old A-frame house with big mirrors and swivel chairs in the front room and shampoo bowls in what had been the back bed- room.
My mama had this long line of hood dryers on one wall, and I would wait until all the ladies were held captive under the dryers and give mandatory concerts. That was my very first stage.
When I wasn’t telling stories and doing shows for the ladies, I would play stewardess, and I would push this little manicure cart around the beauty shop.
“Miss Helen, Miss Melba, would y’all like a magazine? Would y’all like a cocktail?”
And the ladies would say, “Baby, you just give great customer service.”
I was all about customer service.
And sometimes I’d sit on the porch playing with my Barbie’s Friend Ship airplane, and I would wear this long, silk scarf tied on the side (and it’s hot in Texas in the summer). But I loved playing stewardess.
“I was living in New York City, working as a performer, telling stories and singing songs on the stage. Bad pay, no job security, no benefits. I really needed a job.”
Well, about ten years ago, I was living in New York City, working as a performer, telling stories and singing songs on the stage. Bad pay, no job security, no benefits. I really needed a job. And I very randomly met this lovely girl with a long, silk scarf tied on the side, who said nine words that changed my life forever:
She said, “Have you ever thought about being a flight attendant?”
Three weeks later, I was in Miami training. Training was so exciting. It was a brand-new airline. They had seven airplanes, a handful of destinations, and a lot of great buzz. They had buzz around the fact that there was live TV at every seat. And they had blue potato chips and designer uniforms. But most of the buzz was around the fact that they had amazing customer service.
Perfect! I was all about customer service back at the beauty shop.
And when the founder and CEO of the airline came into our training class and gave this amazing, uplifting speech, I knew I was in the right place.
He said, “Every one of you is here for a reason, and that reason is your ability to smile and be kind. We can teach you how to evacuate an airplane. We can teach you how to handle a medical emergency. We can teach you how to serve. But we cannot teach you to smile and be kind. Your mother did that. Please thank her for me.”
So beautiful. He said he saw this not as an airline, not as a corporation, but as a humanitarian experiment. He said his goal was to bring humanity back to air travel. I was right on board with this vision. I was so caught up in it. And when I graduated, they made me president of my class, and they even gave me this special certificate called the Spirit Award.
I couldn’t wait to get out there on the line—to surprise people with kindness and, in the process of moving people from Point A to Point B, really, actually move people.
And then I graduated. And then I started the job. Maybe you see where this is going.
“I had this epiphany almost right away: This job is hard, and people are horrible. Really horrible.”
I had this epiphany almost right away: This job is hard, and people are horrible. Really horrible.
First of all, the job was physically exhausting. In the beginning I was on reserve, which meant that I was on call and had to be within two hours of Kennedy Airport at all times. So I was either running to get to the airport or waiting for the phone call to run to get to the airport, constantly on edge.
And then the actual commute to the airport was extremely hard. I had to take the subway to the bus to the shuttle to the terminal. Even before I got on the plane, I was exhausted. And then when I did get on the plane, there was a whole world of hurt.
My feet hurt. There’s this thing that happens where you get bruises on the bottom of your feet from turbulence, and it was horrible. And new flight attendants are sick a lot, because it’s kind of like being a kindergarten teacher – you’re exposed to a lot of germs. At one point I had pinkeye in both eyes, a sinus infection, a double ear infection, and strep throat all at the same time. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t talk. And it was mainly because I was taking garbage from everyone all day. And saying “thank you” for it!
“Thank you. Thank you for your garbage. Thank you.”
They actually made us stop calling it trash. We had to call it “service items,” because some of the really bitter girls would say, “Sir... you(’re) trash,” “Ma’am ... your whole family’s trash.”
But I understand why they were jaded, because I was kind of getting jaded too. I just couldn’t believe how horrible people could be.
It’s really hard to be mean when someone is smiling at you and handing you a cup of coffee and a cookie, but people are. Because a lot of times they don’t see you—they just see a uniform.
And traveling is hard. It’s stressful, and people get ugly. I tried really hard to keep that vision and to smile and be kind, even in the face of meanness.
“I just couldn’t believe how horrible people could be. A lot of times they don’t see you – they just see a uniform.”
But I hit bottom one day when I had a passenger who had a heart attack on my flight. He was lying in the aisle, and we had opened his shirt and had the pads of the defibrillator on him. I was holding an oxygen bottle.
And this woman in the row sitting next to me kept tugging on my blouse: “Excuse me. Excuse me!”
I was like, “Just a minute, please. We’re trying to save this guy’s life.”
She kept tugging and tugging, and I said, “Just a minute! JUST A MINUTE!”
And then I thought: Wait a minute. Maybe she has an emergency, or maybe she knows something.
So I said, “What is it?”
And she held up her coffee cup and said, “This coffee is cold.” And I learned that people can be cold.
There’s also something that happens to your psychology be- cause you see the world from above when you fly a lot. And I saw a lot of really horrible things from the air, like devastating California forest fires, New Orleans under water, and most upsetting for me, lower Manhattan smouldering for weeks and weeks.
And in late September of 2001, I was working a flight, and a passenger came on with a garbage bag, which is kind of a flight attendant pet peeve, because, “Really, sir, a garbage bag? Fourteenth Street, $9.99. Get a roll-aboard.” You know? But you see that. Sometimes people just throw things in a garbage bag and bring it on.
So he goes to row two, which is where he was seated, and he opened the overhead bin and put the garbage bag in.
And my next thought was: What’s in that garbage bag? Because in late September of ’01, we were all still a little edgy and paranoid, so I was kind of keeping my eye on him and the bag. And he put it in the overhead bin and closed the bin and stood there with his hand on it, guarding it.
“I saw a lot of really horrible things from the air, like devastating California forest fires, New Orleans under water, and most upsetting for me, lower Manhattan smouldering for weeks and weeks”
Which is another flight attendant pet peeve. The overhead bins are shared space, okay? And if you hog up all the space, somebody’s bag is gonna get checked. And by the way, if you’re in row twelve, please don’t leave your bag in row one. It’s not nice. You’re taking somebody’s space.
So my instinct was to go up to this man and say, “Sir, please sit down.”
But I thought: Just let it go. Just smile and be kind, and if we need the space, I’ll deal with it later. So I didn’t say anything.
I also didn’t say anything when he got up while the seat belt sign was on and came and stood, waiting for the bathroom. If the seat belt sign is on, it’s because the captain knows something we don’t know, okay? And it might not feel bumpy, but he’s probably heard from an airplane further out that there’s turbulence ahead. I have a friend who broke his ankle on the ceiling on a smooth flight. So that’s another flight attendant pet peeve.
He stood there, waiting for the bathroom, and I said, “Sir, the seat belt sign is on.”
He said, “I know, I know, but I really need to go.”
And again I thought: Let it go. Just let it go.
I was sitting on the jump seat, and it was kinda awkward because he was just standing there, and I felt like I should say something.
So I said, “Are you traveling for business or pleasure?”
And he said, “Neither. I live in California, but I came to New York because my son was a first responder at Ground Zero, and he died there. I came to pick up his uniform, which is all I have of him, and it’s in a bag in the overhead bin.”
“My job enables me to be part of something bigger than me, and to be connected to other people”
And I remembered why I was there, and why I was hired and why I wanted that job. Because I remembered that everybody has a story, and I don’t know what that story is. People fly for a reason. Maybe they’re going to a funeral or to see someone who’s sick, or maybe it’s something joyful, like a wedding. I don’t know what their story is, but for that little piece of time, I’m a part of it, and I have an impact on their experience.
And what I love about performing is taking a group of individuals and, through a shared emotional experience, turning it into a collective. But my job as a flight attendant is to take a collective and to turn it back into a group of individuals.
Flight attendants talk about “crowds” sometimes, like, “Avoid the Fort Lauderdale crowd. They’re horrible,” or “Avoid the Long Beach crowd.”
But every crowd is a group of individuals, and every individual has a story. And yeah, I saw a lot of horrible things from the air. But I’ve also seen a lot of amazing, beautiful things from the air, like the Grand Canyon, the Northern Lights, fireworks from above.
And now when I go through the cabin with my garbage bag, saying “thank you” and smiling, I mean it, because I’m making a gratitude list in my head. And every time I say, “thank you,” I think of something I’m grateful for:
“Thank you” (for my job). “Thank you” (for these comfy shoes). “Thank you” (for my life). Because my job enables me to be part of something bigger than me, and to be connected to other people, like this. So thank you.
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