The Night the Lights went out in San Francisco
Rain is pelting the roof of our motel room; it’s raining so furiously it feels like rocks are hitting my head. Five of us are sharing a dank room at the Red Roof Inn San Francisco Airport. Four of us of us sleep in each double bed, two to a bed, and I’m the sorry sod sleeping on the floor.
We are in a state of shock: 12 hours ago we walked across the stage as new hire graduates from Flight Attendant Training at F.U. (Flagship University) in Euless, Texas. 10 hours ago we were driven to the DFW airport and put on a plane to our (glamorous, exciting) new base, San Francisco. 5 hours ago, we landed at the San Francisco International Airport. 4 hours ago the five of us stood at baggage claim at the SFO airport, looking at each other in disbelief. We had little money, no transportation, no place to stay, and had to be on call for work that evening. It was 1995; there was no internet or cell phones.
Wendy, one of the youngest of our group, looks at me tearily and says, “So what now? We have no money and no one cares about us. How do we survive?” Richard, the oldest of us, overhears us, and says, “Let’s walk over to the courtesy phones and see who we can call.”
We wander to the courtesy phones—a group of dumfounded nomads who, only 7 hours ago, were energetic, hopeful graduates with a promising new career—and stare at the plethora of phones for rental cars, taxis, rest zones, luggage storage, and lodging.
“See, this is easy. Look at all the hotels to choose from!” Richard chirps.
“Yeah, but who the hell is going to pay for it?” Donna, a heavy drinker in her 40’s, grumbles.
“We can all chip in for tonight, then see what happens.”
“Come on, you guys. We need a place to stay.”
“Well, how much is it going to cost?” Donna asks.
Richard grabs the red phone, converses for a couple of minutes, and hangs up the phone, his perfect smile still pasted on his face.
“It’ll only cost $69.99 per night.”
“Is that for five rooms or what”?
“Uh, that’s for one room.”
We are all wondering how five people are going to share one room.
“We can do this, guys. We just made it through seven weeks of training. We are superstars.”
We look at each other. Our faces show a hopelessness that is far away from superstardom.
Richard reads us the description of our new temporary home:
“A 3-mile drive from San Francisco International Airport, this unfussy hotel is economy lodging at its best. Free perks include a 24-hour airport shuttle, parking and coffee in the lobby.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound too bad”, I chirp, even though I want to crawl into a hole and disappear. “Why don’t we give it a shot?”
“It’s the only damn option, and it’s only days until we’re homeless,” Donna grumbles.
As we march outside, raindrops start to fall. Is this an omen? I wonder. But I can’t think that way; I won’t survive. We stand in the rain, waiting for the little red shuttle.
“Red Roof Inn?” The driver shouts at us. We all stare at him and are quiet. He starts to close the door and drive away, when Richard speaks up. “Yeah, that’s us!”
By the time we pull up to the “unfussy hotel”, the rain is coming down in sheets. Richard tells us to wait outside while he checks us in; he doesn’t want them to know five of us will be in the same room together. The driver sweats in the cold as he unloads all of our luggage from the shuttle. No one can afford to tip him, but I take 50 cents out of my wallet and give it to him, to show my appreciation. He glances at me, glances at the two quarters, then gets back into his shuttle without taking my money. I guess he’s insulted.
We follow Richard to our room. He opens the door and turns on the lights. “Well this isn’t so bad, is it? We can rest and get dry.”
“So what are we supposed to do now?” Donna croaks. We are all to call in at 8:00 PM to receive our first trip assignments. It’s 5:00. We all are hungry.
The flight attendants on the flight in gave us some leftover food from coach; I guess they knew we’d need it. We unzip our luggage, unwrap our five sandwiches, sit in a circle, and eat in silence. The rain pelts harder. Before we’re done disposing of the cellophane in which our sandwiches were wrapped, the lights start to flicker.
“What the…?” I say.
“Oh, isn’t this just perfect,” Donna groans.
“I want to go home,” Dee Dee, the youngest of the group, whimpers. She hasn’t spoken since we left Dallas.
A second later, the lights are out. Richard gets up and dials the front desk.
“Uh, can you turn our lights on? Oh. I see. Okay.”
He hangs up. “There is a power outage over all of Peninsula. The guy at the front desk says he has no idea when it will come back on.”
Dee Dee starts to cry. I think we all want to join her, but we’ve been holding it together for each other. “I want to go home,” she says again. Richard puts his arm around her and tells her that it will all be worth it, that we have a dream-career ahead of us, and that we just have to get through tonight and everything will be okay.
She’s inconsolable. “I miss my boyfriend.” With the mention of her boyfriend, she starts sobbing harder.
We spend the next couple of hours trying to console Dee Dee. When our watches read 8:00, we look at each other, hopeful for a work assignment to somewhere sunny, anywhere but here.
We call crew scheduling, and are all assigned trips for the next morning. Wendy is going to Kansas City, Richard to Tulsa, Dee Dee to Phoenix, and Donna to Miami. Oh yeah, and I get to fly to Dallas, then fly back to San Francisco in the same day. I have no idea where I’m going to sleep tomorrow night. I’m jealous of my friends, who at least have a hotel room for a night.
“Our uniforms!” Wendy cries. Our uniforms are in folded our luggage, in much need of an iron. And we can’t use the iron because we have no power.
“You know if we hang them up and all take hot showers, the steam will work just as well as an iron,” Richard chirps. I’m getting a little sick of his eternal optimism. But I don’t know what I’d do without it.
Each of us showers. Our sad uniforms still hang in the bathroom, a wrinkled mess. Wendy pulls out the hair dryer but the minute she tries to use it, we all realize a disturbing truth: no power means bad hair.
“Oh my God. We are going to get fired. Our uniforms look like hell, and our hair will not be regulation.”
This is a horrifying realization. The airlines have strict regulations as to how our hair, uniforms, make-up, smiles, and attitudes must be. It has been drilled into our minds that failure to comply will result in termination.
Our sign-ins (times to show up to work) range from 5:00 am to 6:45 am tomorrow morning. We know we have to get to sleep. But how will we face our first day of work looking like hell?
“Maybe the power will be on by tomorrow morning,” Wendy says.
“Yeah, let’s try to get some sleep?” I suggest. But I’m not sure if or how any of us will sleep.
“Richard and I get to share the same bed. We are the oldest,” Donna asserts.
“Dee Dee can have a bed too,” I say. She is still sobbing.
Wendy and I look at each other. “We can switch off,” I tell her. “You can have the bed for the first half of the night, then we can switch.”
“Yeah. Sleeping the floor is supposed to be good for your back.”
I get the extra pillow and blanket from the closet and set up my nest. I smooth my hair so it isn’t a rat’s nest when I wake up. Dee Dee is still crying.
The rain comes down with even more purpose. The rain and Dee Dee’s crying are the only noises in the room. I think I fall asleep for an hour, because I don’t know where I am when my travel alarm goes off at 3:30 am.
I look at my sleeping colleagues in the room. Dee Dee’s eyes are swollen shut. I don’t know how she’s going to work looking like that. Richard’s body is contorted into a “C” shape, as Donna is spooning him. At least they are at peace. Wendy opens her eyes and looks at me with a “What the fuck?” expression. I walk across the room and attempt to switch on the bathroom light. It flickers. My eyes get big, and all of the dread in my heart begins to dissipate. But the lights make a buzzing sound and shut off again.
The noise of the lights buzzing awakens everyone. “Is it time to get ready for work already?” Donna asks to no one in particular.
“Yeah, but we have a slight problem. The power is still out.”
It is still raining outside, but more like a sprinkler than in sheets. The room is cold and we have no way of getting warm except showering. I ruminate over whether or not to wash my hair; with no hair dryer it’ll poof out so badly I’ll get fired. Even though we are cold, moneyless, and hungry, our biggest concern is our appearance.
We all take turns showering. No one washes their hair, because our lack of hair dryer could lead to termination.
The hotel shuttle picks us up at 4:30AM. We ride to SFO Airport in silence, the rain seeming to sing a doomsday song.
Donna ended up laying over in Phoenix, where she was from, and never working back to San Francisco. Her career lasted one day. Richard ended up getting a month-long house sitting job from a woman he met on the plane. Dee Dee’s boyfriend flew up from L.A. and found a place for the two of them. Wendy’s two-day trip ended up a five-day trip, so luckily for her, she scored hotel rooms for the next five days.
I landed in San Francisco that same night, not knowing where I was going to sleep or how I’d stay sane through the night. I ended up sleeping in my car in the employee parking lot. When I woke up the next morning, I drove to the city and told myself I would not sleep again until I found a place to stay.
I ended up subletting a small closet called a studio apartment from a dot.com guy I met when I was wandering around the city scoping out “For Rent” signs. Wendy and I shared the place for the next six months. It was on a main thoroughfare in the city, and we rarely slept and struggled to pay our rent.
Still, we felt like the most fortunate people on the planet.