Life Issues – Steward Life
My phone is ringing.
I don’t pick up.
I don’t need to.
No one is on the other end.
Just a computer. An automated system arranged by the company. They tell the computer when to pick up the phone, and when it does, I crawl out of bed and sleep a minute more in the shower.
I never bother to set the alarm clock. How could I tell it when to ring when I don’t understand what time it is, what day even, or remember where I am?
A car is waiting for me downstairs.
I know this without checking.
The company moves me from place to place, in and out of hotel beds, hotel showers, hotel restaurants.
I am cleanly packaged in a sanitary wrapper, just like the food I serve. They have given me a jacket and tie. I’m grateful that the ensemble of choice is no longer a skimpy skirt and a plastic-brimmed hat. My wife wouldn’t like it.
I haven’t spoken to her in days. Months, maybe. Or maybe just hours. I try not to call her too often when I work. She sleeps next to a clock that tells her when to wake and sleep. I no longer believe in time.
Who needs a clock when hours slip forward and backward as senselessly as gravity is dismantled?
When I reach her at night, her breath is so heavy it begins to sound like she’s really alive. When we speak in the day, her voice is stilted, tired. Our conversation scripted. Her breath is hidden. I can’t feel my wife across a phone line. I need to hear her breathe.
I walk past the phone, out the electronically keyed door, stumble into an elevator with computer-generated music. It’s supposed to sound pleasant, but it scrapes across my ears like screeching tires. I press the button with the “L” on it. I don’t know what floor I’m on as the doors close. The elevator doors reopen to an identical hallway with an identical sailboat painting. I have not seen or felt the elevator move, but it is my job to believe I am somewhere new, this is a different hall on a different level in this unknown hotel.
I walk through the flourescent hallway, around the wall with the painting, past the man in the maroon suit, through the glass doors, and slide into the black sedan with tinted windows, where three other stewards are already waiting.
The car rolls forward until it stops at the airport.
Marble floors, a tinny voice overhead, an overpriced restaurant, a news stand, a lost children collection counter, a juice bar. I walk past the line at security, lift my black wheeled suitcase into the X-Ray machine. If I turn around, someone will be glaring at me. I don’t need to check to confirm this. But I make a show of presenting my employee pass.
In the employee’s area there is a row of washing machines. I do my best to fill it with my spare work-clothes, my single set of streetclothes, my pyjamas and three pairs of socks. I don’t bother to count which machine is mine. I could trade my collection with any other man on my circuit and I might not even notice.
I leave my clothes to clean as I begin my prep-work.
I print the itinerary from the networked word processor, fuss at the computer to load the passenger list for printing. One copy with names, one copy noting only passengers of special importance. A blank page. I scan the names for people I know, wondering what happened to my close friends from days ago, hoping to spot a celebrity the celeb listing failed to note. Nothing. I highlight the food requests before putting my clothing in the dryer.
Special order meals. Indian cuisine for seat 4B. Kosher meals for row 16. A vegetarian entrée in 56D and E, a vegan dish in 57E, and gluten-free in 64C. I pull these meals from the on-ground freezer, peel computer-generated stickers from their backing and affix them to the trays. The rest of the meals were probably brought on two days ago by the heavy lifters.
Our plane hasn’t landed, and I’m sitting in the bay with a cart of foil-wrapped meals wondering if I feel hot or cold through my polyester costume, if the food I carefully arranged will have time to spoil before I am able to cart it to safety inside the plane.
Jennifer, the new girl, joins me, clutching an awkward box of plastic-wrapped headphones. I tell her to set it down. She smiles awkwardly and holds it tighter.
When the plane finally lands, we enter through a low service door in the belly of the craft. We have two ovens and a walk-in refrigerator below the passenger level. After setting down our own loads we help a man from the incoming crew to wheel the trash to the ground-level dumpster.
Once the passengers have cleared out, we use a tight service elevator to move up to the passenger level, and, carrying white plastic bags, the two crews work together to clean out pounds of trash. Candy wrappers, plastic casing, wrapping paper, newspapers, magazines, a forgotten pacifier and some small toys. There are grapes in the corners, and some smashed into the carpeted foot space. There are full bags of chips that I regret to throw away, but I follow the regulations and discard of all food-matters that have touched passenger hands.
I let Jennifer take the easy job, recollecting the headphones, which are to be resealed in plastic bags before our fickle customers will feel comfortable using them. I fold the thin cotton blankets, and carry several heavy loads down to the laundry cart.
Our prep sheet specifies that we should deliver a blanket to every seat, so I bring boxes of bagged blankets back up in the elevator, and toss a bag onto each of the seats. A woman from the incoming crew chases me through the craft, throwing pillows on top of my blankets. I instruct Jennifer to flatten the headrests and velcro sanitary cloths to each.
A woman I have worked with before, Rose, is sliding into each row of seats, raising the plastic shades on the windows. I prefer them up so that I can physically see us travel, but 20 minutes into the flight, most of these windows will be down at my request. It makes the drop-down TV screens easier to see. And better television makes for quieter flying.
When the passengers board, some of the girls tear tickets while Rose and I greet passengers from on the plane. I am checking tickets as I direct the passengers to their seats. Almost a quarter have boarded the plane before their turn.
I once accidentally gave the landing speech to a boarding plane.
Thank you for flying with us, we hope you have had a nice flight and enjoy your stay here or wherever your final destination may be.
I didn’t apologize when I realized my mistake, but allowed my poorly timed remarks to hang awkwardly in the air.
Today, it’s: As you get seated we’d like to let you know that your flight to—
I haven’t checked yet. Rose yawns and bends an itinerary toward me.
Paris— The Vancouver-New York-Paris route, will include a meal, which we will begin serving shortly after we are in the air. There will be a series of in-flight films and television. We’d like to remind you that our safety demonstration is vitally important, and may contain information unique to this aircraft.
Slap each overhead bin to assure that it is properly closed. I am ready to give the safety demonstration when the seat-change requests start coming in.
44F wants to sit further from the baby. 22 and 23F just got married and want to sit together. I tell them that it’s sweet and choose to spare them a lecture on responsibility and early planning. I convince 44D and F to move to the front, give 44E the aisle seat, and move 22 and 23F to the adjacent seats.
When we are finally in flight, I put the first-class and special request meals in the oven. I trip over Jennifer as she is distributing plastic-wrapped headphones, and the drinks cart overtakes me as I serve the passengers in the main cabin. By the time we finish distributing meals the in-flight film is about to end, and once we have collected all of the half-emptied trays, the overhead assistance lights are aglow throughout the cabin.
I hide in the crew bathroom for a few minutes of downtime, lean my head against the tiny mirror, breathe.
A knock at the door. Jennifer. She pushes past me into the bathroom. I leave her there, with my smudge on the mirror.
There are some children toward the front of the plane, playing gin rummy and shrieking. There are some passenger complaints, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I nod my head at the man who moved forward to get away from the sleeping baby.
A stewardess and I stroll through the plane, passing out bags of crackers and bottles of water.
The girl with the kosher meal follows me carefully with her gaze. She stares out through thick round glasses that she will regret wearing when she is older, and the glass magnifies her eyes. They are dark orange and remind me of my wife.
When the new movie comes on, the requests slow to a steady trickle.
I take my break, slip up to the crew cabin, slide into a seat and sleep. When I wake it is time for the landing preparations.
We’re now approaching New York City. We ask that all passengers de-board so that we may clean the aircraft. In the mean time, please make sure that your seatbelts are fastened, your trays are in their seatbacks, and your seats are in their upright and locked positions.
I skip the ridiculousness about the local time.
Jennifer has attempted to collect the headsets. She returns with about fifteen. Most of the rest are in the seat-pockets, but a few will inevitably sneak out in backpacks and briefcases.
My tie is too tight.
I return to my crew seat, hold my breath, and wait to land.
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