Sunday, September 13, 2009

Adventures in Flight: JumpSeat Therapy

Jump Seat Therapy by Penguin Scott 2-21-09

It’s so good to be back home. My two cats are purring and a storm is blowing in with lots of rain and wind. I would have beat the storm had I not had to stop at the store on the way home from the airport. I do love my milk, and since I’m off for the next four days, I needed a few other provisions as well.

I find it difficult to keep track of time with my job. Weeks have little meaning to me, since my schedule is always different and most of my weekends are 3 or 4 days long. But what’s worse is just keeping track of days. I only left yesterday morning, but it seems like it was 3 days ago. It’s hard to imagine I’ve only been gone 41 hours. After all, in that time I’ve been to Vancouver, Chicago (twice) and Buffalo, NY for 19 hours. It’s why I demand my watch have two time zones, one of which I always keep on local time, and also have the day and date. It’s a common affliction with flight attendants; having a hard time keeping up with time.

This was an easy trip; only two days, most flights had light loads, the layover was 19 hours. But yesterday was such a long day- a 12 hour duty day with nearly 8 hours of flight time. The hard part was that I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, when I wasn’t due up until 5:00. I never could get back to sleep. So by the time I arrived in my hotel room at the Hyatt in downtown Buffalo, I was spent. I even passed on the offer of drinks by our pilots, something I normally would not do.

Mostly, there were just the three of us on this trip; myself, my flying partner, Tea, and the purser, Michelle. We were all very close in seniority, my being most senior, which is quite rare! There was one segment of the trip when we were on a larger plane with two others joining us. But otherwise, it was just us three.

One fun aspect of my job is the camaraderie. There is a term commonly used in our industry: jump seat therapy. The jump seat is the fold down seat near each door on the plane where we are assigned to sit. Flight attendants tend to open up and tell their flying partners things most people wouldn’t tell complete strangers. And with over 15,000 flight attendants system-wide, most people we fly with are complete strangers. Well, they start out that way. After a 2-day or more trip with them, you get to know them really well. It’s easy to open up and very therapeutic, so before long one starts to hang all the laundry out.

Tea is a woman in her mid 40s. She lives in the northern part of the East Bay with her husband and two daughters. Well, actually, one daughter, as one just left for college. They are attractive girls, both with natural blond hair, but the one who just left for college had hers dyed red. I know this from Tea’s blackberry, which had a photo of her girls on the front screen. Each time we landed the first thing she would do is pull it out and turn it on. Looking over at it, I had a good view of the photo, so I asked if they were here girls.

This was Tea’s second trip back from a year off for a medical leave. She got an infection on her finger that was similar to a staff infection. She had to go the hospital daily for an I.V. She was a little rusty and full of questions. “What are the new rumors of a merger? How do you do the new liquor paperwork? Now that we staff 757s with four, how do we work the service? Do we still have the nice downtown layover in Chicago?” Just simple questions, normal for someone who’s been gone for a while, and I was happy to give the answers I could. She was not rusty on the beverage cart, though. She was quite prompt, in fact. But I have a tendency to say hi or strike up a small conversation with passengers when I’m delivering drinks, so there are times I seem slow in my service. So many flight attendants just fling the drink at you and move on. And all of our flights had plenty of time, so I was even more encouraged to be polite.

Tea liked to name drop. On her time away from flying, she had volunteered for the Obama campaign. She was even invited to attend a speech in Phoenix where she got to stand right behind him as he gave his address. She got to meet him as well, and his wife. Later, she would plop down next to me with her lap top to show me photos. They were much like any photo I’ve ever seen of Barack or of Michelle, although I have yet to see a photo of the silver shoes Mrs. Obama wears. “My daughter asked me to take a picture of her shoes,” she told me when I chuckled at the shot.

Her friend just lost a dog, who was more a child to her. She took 2 weeks from work to grieve. When she heard that a famous actor had just lost his dog, this friend of hers, who makes jewelry, designed a necklace for him with a photo of his dog in it. She found the name of the actor’s agent and got in touch with them to see if he would be interested in having her send it to him. They asked if she could do so within two days, before he left for the Oscars. He was so excited to receive the necklace, he called her to thank her and wants to meet with her for dinner.

There were other names dropped. But as usual, as I sat on the jump seat, my interest was more in line with seeing what I could out of the small windows we have to see out of. With my airplane disease (obsession with planes), I like to see the airport, the runways and the planes taxiing. I like the views as we ascend or descend and of the clouds. I’m often deep in thought and tuning out most of what the women sitting next to me are spewing out, trying only to catch the important parts so that later I can regurgitate some of it so they think I was listening.

It’s different sitting next to another guy. We can sit in silence for 10 or 15 minutes and not be afraid that we don’t like one another. And if the guy next to me has little in common with me, it’s not uncommon to remain silent for nearly the entire trip. And that’s just fine with guys. There are always the standard questions, whether flying with a man or a woman, which are: what is your seniority, where do you live, if they commute, where do you commute to, where did you grow up and what did you do before becoming a flight attendant? Most flight attendants cover these basics at some time or another in the trip, whether you are with them for one flight or six. And talk of union and work issues is almost always guaranteed to carry us through the down times of the flight.

Whereas Tea liked to drop names, Michelle really liked to talk. I didn’t really notice that she was so addicted to speaking as she is until we got in the van to drive to our hotel last night in Buffalo. Michelle worked up front and I was in back with Tea. Tea set up the galley on each leg, which meant I greeted passengers up at door one, right next to Michelle. She did have a habit of interrupting me when I was speaking. She did have a lot to say. But when we got in the van (after twelve hours of working, eight hours of flying, we were tired, it was dark and the ride took us about 20 minutes) she talked. I was in the beginning of what would eventually become the worst migraine headache I’d had in years…many, many years. Out of the airport, she talked; along the freeway, she talked; through downtown, she talked more. When the headache again woke me this morning at 3am, I couldn’t help but wonder if wasn’t from all the talking.

Michelle was a little younger than Tea, and me; I’d guess she was in her late 30s. She just celebrated her ninth wedding anniversary the night before our trip. They had gone out to dinner, and while she wasn’t up too late, she was tired. A few years ago she bought her first new car, all others had been bought used. It was a 4runner, which is what I drive, but I wasn’t able to relay that information to her. It was stolen when it had 8,000 miles on it, which for some reason made it difficult to sell, which she had to do because the payments got to be too high. She was able to sell it and buy another car and pay it off 2 years sooner than she would have done with the 4runner. Now her only payment is her mortgage.

Michelle lives with her husband in Walnut Creek and mostly takes BART to the airport. I’m not sure how the car thing came up. I’m not sure why she started to talk about her sister and her brother in law and their house. Then I’m not sure what else she spoke of as I was doing all I could to phase her out and take in the sights of Buffalo.

At one point I was yelling at her in my head, “Shut up! You have not stopped talking for more than five seconds. I need some silence! Oh my god!” It was sort of funny, actually. It’s for times like these I wished I didn’t keep my MP3 player packed in my bag, which was stored in the back of the van, where I couldn’t reach it. My kingdom for some earplugs!

When we got out of the van, the captain made a comment to me about her chatter, “Sheesh, I make one comment about a car payment and it propelled her through the rest of the trip.” “I know,” I told him, “thank goodness this is only a 2-day trip. But I’m used to it as this is quite common with a lot of flight attendants.”

Back on the plane today, there would be times I went to the front of the plane to tell her something. She’d start in on a story and I’d wait patiently to for her to finish in order to get out that which I had to say. I’d finally have to give up on waiting, find a moment when she was taking a breath, and blurt it out only hoping she wouldn’t interrupt me. She did end up buying me an order of Buffalo wings at the airport in New York. She was very nice and treated passengers well. She was simply addicted to speech. And where I normally wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone buying me dinner, in this case I took it as compensation.

People were all nice on this 2-day trip. Our flight up to Vancouver was light and the last row of seats were left empty. We blocked them off so passengers wouldn’t take them. We call this our ‘lounge’. I’d been up so early and was already tired. After we finished the service, I took a seat in the lounge and looked out the window. Below was a large city along side a river and on the other side were some hills. I studied the downtown closer, lots of buildings, it was a good-sized city. I forgot where we were going for a moment, thinking maybe we were going to Chicago, and wondered if it was St. Louis. I found the major airport, and it wasn’t where the airport in St. Louis would be, and I couldn’t see the arch. I kept trying to think of what this city might be, thinking in my head of all the cities between San Francisco and Chicago. Then I realized that we were going north along the West Coast and the city was Portland. Ah, Portland; I have good friends down there. I jumped to the other side for a view of the snow-topped mountains. It was gorgeous. As well as having a hard time keeping track of days, we often forget to where it is that we are going.

We were only in Vancouver for an hour or so before setting off for Chicago, where we had just over two hours before our third flight to Buffalo. I spent my time on the computer working trip trades for the following month.

As we boarded our flight to Buffalo, a young boy of about 7 or 8 walked on the plane. I said hello to him and he looked up at me and said, “I love god.” I was a bit shocked to hear this. It’s not every day I hear this from a small child. “That’s, um, great!” I replied. His mother was just behind him and smiled to us as she informed us he had just received a new cross on his necklace and was referring to that.

After he passed, Michelle asked if she heard him correctly. This brought up a discourse on how religion on children is nothing more than brainwashing. “I mean, they believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny just as much as whatever religion their parents are shoving down their throat.” I was brought up with different views, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Shaman and Paganism. I agreed that perhaps it was best to treat religion like a subject in school and allow a young adult to find the path of their own choosing. I couldn’t disagree.

But then there was the girl on my flight home tonight from Chicago in seat 34G. She sat next to her mother who, on both of their tray tables, had spread out a virtual buffet of food; a feast for the two of them. I made a comment about this and the girl informed me of her loose tooth, thinking it might even come out during flight. I smiled back to her and said, well, at least if that happens up here, you’ll be closer to the Tooth Fairy! She smiled a toothy grin and looked over at her mom in excitement. She hadn’t thought of that! Funny how we let go of certain myths and hold dearly to others.

We were late arriving, which put a bind on Michelle’s schedule. She had a train to catch home or she’d have to end up spending the night in the airport. She left quickly so Tea and I walked to the bus together, then to the elevator in the garage. She got off on the 5th floor and we said farewell. Another trip was over. It was an easy week, but I’m ready for my 4-day weekend. I don’t know when I’ll see Tea or Michelle again. But I always carry extra aspirin; and I’m always ready for my next session of jump seat therapy.

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