For the sake of others 

Sometimes you find bliss in unexpected places

If I were to pick the best coach-class seats on a Boeing 757, it would be the ones a few rows behind the first row in the coach cabin, because if the plane were to crash and its head were to break off, the area right in front of coach would be, like, the "neck" area of the plane, which of course would snap in half like a chicken bone. So the row a few rows behind the first row is the place to be, because that is the neck "stump" area of the plane, and stumps are stronger.

So that's exactly where we were, my 6-year-old and I, in the neck stump of the cabin of a 757 when I noticed the flight attendant flitting around some sick guy in the first row. The first row, now, is the most comfortable row in coach, because it has all the legroom in the world, plus it's right there next to the door in case there's an impact and the plane's head doesn't break off, leaving you able to sidestep the ball of fire coming through the fuselage.

Anyway, the sick guy's head kept lolling around and his eyes kept rolling back, and if I were the flight attendant I would have surrounded him by flares, covered him in lime and left him on the fucking jetway. But that's just me. The flight attendant working the flight, on the other hand, let him stay yet discerned he was so sick he might not be able to operate the door in an emergency, so – and let me say this slowly – she asked him to trade seats with the man next to me.

At this, of course, I freaked like a fruit bat. "'Scuse me. 'SCUSE ME!!" I squealed to her. "You're not putting that sick man in this row next to my daughter." Having thrown down that gauntlet, I must have persuaded her to leave him where he was, though for the rest of the flight she eye-stabbed me like I was a radioactive turd. I even heard her apologize to the sick guy for me. That's right, she apologized for being unable to move him from the most comfortable seat in the cabin in order to squish him next to a 6-year-old. That sick guy, who was probably just hungover, was happy as hell he didn't have to move, believe me.

"I'll just stay here, out of the way," he sighed, "for the sake of the other people on the plane."

Right. How kind of him -- for them both -- to suffer for the rest of us. Ha! They don't know what suffering is. When I was a flight attendant I used to have to fly L-1011s across the Atlantic. That's suffering, folks. Those L-1011s were like creaky Winnebagos with wings. They were big, lumbering old crap traps with seats upholstered like the La-Z-Boys that your beer-drinking dad stagnated in and farted on all day. It was like sitting inside the filthy bones of a big mastodon with double motors in each ear all the way across the ocean.

There were about 20 flight attendants who worked the crew on a full L-1011, and a full L-1011 was a frightening thing. It sat something like 7 million people, all of them piss-assed drunk from the free booze, all of them panicked a little, because here they were in a smelly metal blob bigger than a building hurtling through the sky at rocket speed. Whenever I got called to work an L-1011, I wanted to stab myself in the head. I wanted to lie down and cry.

The L-1011/250 transoceanic series had a galley below the cabin where one flight attendant was required to work separate from the rest of the cabin. Legend had it that this position was hellacious, and most of us avoided it like a pocket of nerve gas, but at the preflight briefing some senior dragon would always volunteer to do the job, reiterating to the others it was the most miserable position to bid for. She would suffer it for the sake of the rest of us, she sighed, and the rest of us would practically genuflect in gratitude.

Then one day I ended up with the lower-galley position by some fluke. When it came time, the other flight attendants had to lead me there by the arms like a dazed death-row inmate on the way to the chair. Once down there, though, it took me maybe, at the most, five full minutes before I realized it was pure bliss being separated from the passengers for the whole flight. It was lovely, peaceful and private. I could stick my finger in all the first-class meringues and sample the lobster chunks off all the business-class appetizers if I wanted. I could rub all the rolls on my armpits if I wanted. I was in heaven.

Those bitch-ass senior dragons, I thought; they've been keeping this secret all these years! How unfair is that? I was ready to confront them at my next briefing, but the next time I briefed for an L-1011 trip, it was the first time I happened to be the most senior flight attendant on the crew. "It's miserable down in that galley," I told the others, who nodded with frightful eyes, "but I'll work that position for the sake of the rest of us."

Hollis Gillespie is an NPR commentator and author of two acclaimed memoirs. To register for her writing workshops, visit www.hollisgillespie.com.

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