It Could Have Been Worse, Right?
Christmas day, 1995: I’m in a deep slumber from which I can’t wake up. I’m dreaming I’m being chased by a mass of hungry, tired people. I try to tell them that I can’t help them, but whenever I try to speak, my voice is gone.
I hear a wailing siren; the police are after me too. The siren blares repeatedly. I wake to a ringing phone on a hotel nightstand.
“I’ve been crying all morning. I miss my mom. I miss my friends.” It’s Wendy, my roommate who I worked a trip with last night.
“I know, but just think how things will be when we get off probation and we can fly for free. This is just temporary.”
“Can I come to your room?”
My roommate Wendy was the baby in our flight attendant training class–21 years of age, old enough to get hired, but young enough to still believe that the world was a kind place.
We had worked a flight from San Francisco, our home base, to Miami, the night before. We’d been flying two weeks. Our Christmas Eve flight departed SFO at 22:00 (10pm), and landed in MIA at 07:00 (7am). Since the rest of our crew was Miami based, we were considered “extras”—flight attendants who, because our Christmas Eve flight was full, were needed because the passenger-to-flight attendant ratio was uneven.
As extras, to get our hotel assignment, we had to call crew scheduling when we landed in Miami Christmas morning:
“Scheduling, this is Nora.”
“Hi, Nora. This is flight attendant Jhung, employee number 446101? Um, I’m wondering which hotel you’ve assigned me and flight attendant Wilson, employee number 446122, for this morning’s layover?”
“Go out to the curbside. Look for the Howard Johnson shuttle.”
“Ok, thanks. You have a Merry…”
Wendy and I had never before been to the Miami International Airport. Christmas morning 1995 was like any other day here—ill-disposed, sweaty people bumping into each other as they rushed through the airport. “Fuck you” was uttered in every language, as bodies collided and passengers fruitlessly sought help from apathetic airline employees. “Fuck you” was the mantra on this sweltering, hurried morning.
It took Wendy and I forty minutes to find our way out of the bowels of the Miami International Airport. Humidity and bright sunlight assaulted us as we finally reached the pick-up curb.
With tears in our eyes, we searched the arrivals area for the Howard Johnson shuttle. Hyatt, Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Wyndham vans all drove by, some multiple times, but no Howard Johnson.
After 30 desperate minutes, I looked at Wendy and said, “I’ll go inside and call.”
“But what if they come when you’re inside?”
“Try to hold them.”
I fought my way through hordes of hurried people and found a payphone. A half-torn yellow pages guide hung from the payphone’s bottom shelf. I tried to look under “hotels,” but the “H” section had been ripped out. I called 411, and asked for the number of Howard Johnson.
“Which one? There are seven Howard Johnsons in the Miami airport area.”
“Ummm, can you name all of them? I’m not sure.”
“I can name two at a time, then you have to call me back.”
So I called information four times, scrawling seven phone numbers on the back of a receipt.
I started to dial the first number, when I heard Wendy shouting at me:
“They’re here! Hurry up!”
I chased her out of the airport to a dilapidated, crowded hotel shuttle. The driver was yelling at us as we approached:
“You are making me late, perras!”
All eyes on the shuttle glared at us as we boarded. Neither of us wanted to cry in front of everyone, but both of us had tears running down our cheeks as we stood in front, holding the hand rail.
The Howard Johnson Plaza on Le June road was in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, with constant sounds of car horns and ambulance sirens. The hotel windows were thin, but both of us were so exhausted, we passed out the minute we got to our rooms. It was 10am, Eastern Standard Time.
After having slept three hours, Wendy woke me up with her phone call. It took me a minute to realize where I was. Instead of falling apart like I wanted to, I realized I had to be strong for Wendy.
“Yeah, come on by. I’m in room 221, two doors down form you.”
We sat on the double beds and watched “My Girl,” a movie where two pre-teens become best friends, start to have romantic feelings for each other, then one of them dies. (I have no idea why this movie was shown on Christmas Day—on any TV network—but it was befitting for our experience).
Both of us were sobbing messes by the end of the movie. Our faces were swollen, our eyes puffy. Pick-up to go back to the airport and work our flight home was in an hour.
“Wendy, we have to get ourselves together. We’ll get fired if we show up crying and with no make up.”
“Okay. I just feel really sad right now.”
“I know. But we have to be strong. Think of all we’ve worked for to get to this point. We don’t want to throw it all away.”
Wendy went back to her room, and by the time the hotel shuttle came to take us back to the airport, our woefulness was hidden by copious amounts of make-up.
After take-off from Miami to San Francisco, the galley flight attendant (“cook”) started to prepare the meals for the coach service. In our misery, neither Wendy nor I had eaten in 24 hours. The galley flight attendant started stacking meal trays, some of which contained a chicken and pasta salad. When she wasn’t looking, I grabbed a chicken strip off of the tray and popped it in my mouth.
She must have had eyes in the back of her head, because she turned around and gave me a look. I was worried at that moment there’d be an ugly confrontation and I’d get fired for pilfering food.
“When did you guys last eat?”
“Uh, I think earlier today?”
“What do you mean, you think earlier today? There’s no way you’d eat this crap unless you were starving. Both of you sit down in the jump seat and eat anything you want before we do the service.”
“But will there be enough meals for the passengers? Won’t we get in trouble?”
“There are actually some smart motherfuckers who eat before they get on the plane so they don’t have to poison themselves with this trash. Now have at it.”
Two weeks prior, in flight attendant training, Wendy and I had learned that if we were to eat in public, we were to eat ‘like ladies’. The general public expected uniformed flight attendants to be dignified.
Wendy and I tore through three airline meals each, inhaling every morsel. When we’d finished, ranch dressing, marinara sauce, bread crumbs, and pieces of chicken were splattered on the front of our uniforms and all over the galley floor.
“Now go to the lav and clean yourselves up. Here’s some club soda.”
I felt a high I hadn’t ever remembered feeling. I’d gone from starving to sated. And someone had been kind to us.
The rest of the flight home was uneventful, as most passengers were subdued and our hunger pangs no longer plagued us.
When we landed in San Francisco, both Wendy and I were relieved that Christmas was almost over. It was 10 pm on December 25th. We thanked the other flight attendants for their kindness, then wheeled our luggage up towards the front of the plane. As we were walking up the jet bridge, a public announcement went off in the airport:
“Flight attendant Wendy Wilson, please call crew scheduling.”
Wendy got tears in her eyes again, as we fearfully looked at each other. Was she getting fired? Was I?
I stood with her as she used a pay phone to call scheduling. After she hung up, she looked at me blankly and said, “They want me to deadhead to Las Vegas, spend the night, then work to Dallas tomorrow morning. I think I’m getting re-assigned.”
“Oh God. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m just really glad we aren’t getting fired.”
She wheeled her bag towards the Vegas flight, and I wondered who was worse off: Wendy for not getting to rest until later tonight, or me for having to be alone the last couple hours of Christmas.
When I got to our closet/studio apartment, I felt so despondent all I could think of was booze. We didn’t have any, so I walked to the liquor store.
As I walked home with my bottle of Cold Duck Sparkling Red, a couple of drunk men dressed as Santa walked by me and yelled, “Merry fucking Christmas!”
“Me too,” was all I could utter. Merry fucking Christmas.