Why I committed Career Suicide.
I am nervous as fuck, uncomfortable as fuck, looking at 14 pairs of eyes as I walk into an unsmiling first-class cabin. It’s the dot.com heyday—1995—and I’m working a flight from Austin, Texas to San Jose, California.
I’d just spent 27 hours at the Super 8 Austin Airport, which was located under four criss-crossing interstate bridges. Before my trip, I noticed I’d be spending a day and a half in Austin, Texas, Live Music Capital of the World, home of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, and revered as the city that “is like a whole other country”.
I’d pictured myself walking through the city’s streets, hearing R&B, country, bluegrass, and jazz blaring from street corners and rooftop bars. The city would be filled with hip, friendly people; I’d be enjoying beers with the new friends I’d make while dancing to soulful music and listening to spoken word. Perhaps I’d go mountain biking in the hill country the next day. What an awesome career I had! Getting paid to take a bite out of the most beautiful places in the country.
Super 8 at Austin’s Bergstrom Airport was nowhere near downtown Austin, and I didn’t have the money to even order room service, let alone pay for a cab ride to get to the city. After waking up from a fitful sleep where I’d dreamt of the ex-boyfriend who’d dumped me (a recurring dream, which had me waking up crying and sometimes with wet panties), I looked out my dim motel room window, and saw a TGI Friday’s that looked reachable by foot.
“Well, at least I can get some fresh air and exercise,” I thought to myself, as I got dressed and planned to walk over to Friday’s. I exited the hotel’s front door and realized there were concrete interstates with no sidewalks, in every direction. “Well, this should be an adventure, “ I rationalized, as I climbed over a guard rail separating the highway from a frontage road.
I sprinted across the first road, coughing from the exhaust fumes of a car that honked at me and yelled, “What’s up, stupid bitch?” Two near-death highway crossings later, I reached Friday’s. I found peace in imagining what was on the menu of this mediocre food chain. I got a veggie burger to go and began my trek back.
I felt a little shaky as I entered the Super 8’s automatic doors with my Styrofoam box containing a lukewarm, soggy burger. The dream about the ex, knowing I was no longer loved by the ex, having been alone for the past 20 hours, being called a slew of profanities while trying to sprint across busy thoroughfares, was enough to make my throat tight and that sadness that I’d been evading start to take over.
But I am an expert at lying to myself. “This isn’t so bad…” I thought to myself. “I am finally in the career I’d wanted, and I live in a world-class city…” (I shared a studio with another flight attendant on a busy main thoroughfare in downtown San Francisco, where car horns, bus exhaust, screaming voices, and ambulance alarms assaulted us 24/7).
After eating my burger, I decided to go for a workout at the hotel gym. “I always feel good after working out,” I thought to myself as I walked down the mold-smelling motel hallway.
The workout room, which was more like a closet that stored a bunch of broken equipment, looked out onto the motel’s courtyard. After a failed attempt at working the dead stairmaster’s controls, and unplugging and re-plugging the broken treadmill, I decided to make the best of things and run around in circles in the motel’s courtyard.
There’s nothing like running in circles in a 200-yard fishbowl to dampen one’s spirits. After about five minutes of this activity, I gave up. I went back to the motel room where I’d spent the last 24 hours and showered for my airport pick-up.
So where did I leave off? I am scared and uncomfortable as fuck, about to walk into a grim-faced first class cabin to ask 14 passengers what they want for dinner. I am the lead flight attendant’s “helper”, meaning I get to do whatever she tells me. This is the first time I have ever served a first-class dinner. I start “taking meal preferences” at the back row of first class, since we are heading West (we start with the first row if we’re heading East).
“Umm, Ms. Schroeder? Uh, what would you like for dinner?”
“What do you have?”
“I have maple-glazed chicken with rosemary sauce and garlic mashed potatoes or four-cheese ravioli with tomato-mushroom sauce.” (I was trained to market our bland, dried-out airline meals, giving passengers as much detail as possible).
Last Row: “Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken.” (A row in first class consists of four seats across).
Second-to-last row: “Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken.”
I look at my piece of paper and realize I have already run out of chicken and I still have six more passengers to ask. I run up to the lead flight attendant, Tanya, and ask her “Is there any way we have any more chicken anywhere? We’ve already run out and I’m only halfway through the cabin.”
“Whatttya think? That I can just slaughter and pluck a chicken outta nowhere and give it to these assholes?”
“Uh, no. Sorry.”
I walk back out into the aisle, and ask a middle-aged businessman if it’s okay if he has pasta for dinner. He narrows his eyes, glares at me, and says, “I don’t like you.” I am taken aback, to say the least. I think, “Maybe I’ll lose my job. What have I done to fuck this up? How can I make this guy happy? Oh goooooooddddddd”
I respond with, “I know, you’re right. I’m sorry. I’m new. I screwed up.”
To which he says, his tone quickly escalating, “I paid for a CHOICE. Didn’t they teach you that in SCHOOL?!”
Tanya peeks her blonde head out of the galley but retreats when I try to make eye contact with her.
“What is WRONG with you? Are you stupid?”
“I’m so sorry, sir. You’re right.”
The bleakness of the past 27 hours at the Super 8 Austin Airport, my recently having been dumped by a guy I thought would always love me, making $18,000 per year while living in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, and my discomfort at not being able to give this customer what he wants, slams me.
“Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.”
I walk to the front of first class, lock myself in the bathroom, and sob, deep in my chest, heaving the sour urine smell of the lavatory into my lungs. Fat tears wash down my cheeks. I think to myself, “You have to stop. You will lose your job if you keep crying. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Three minutes later, I come out of the bathroom with swollen eyes. Tanya tells me she took the pilot’s chicken dinner to give this man what he wants. (Why couldn’t this have been an option when I asked her earlier?) He is smiling smugly.
The next five passengers are kind to me, saying what a great job I am doing and that they are happy to eat the pasta for their entrée.
I serve drinks, nuts, hot towels, tablecloths, salad, appetizer, entrées, make and serve ice cream sundaes, and pour coffee and after-dinner drinks. It takes the entire three hours of the flight’s time.
We land, I drive home, exhausted, and open a bottle of $2 white zin at 10am. I drink into the early morning, listening to Counting Crows’ “August and Everything After” over and over, trying to use the wine and music as catharsis.
That was 18 years ago. People ask why I retired at age 43, from a job with such good benefits, and I don’t know how to put it into words. Perhaps this sliver sheds some light. Good God.