The Ugly American: The Perfect Flight Attendant

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My sister just broke her leg—I mean bad—and it’s my fault because I’m the one who talked her into becoming a flight attendant. But in my defense, she was perfect for the job; she’s old, she speaks fluent Spanish, she’s strong—like a moose, that girl—and she likes to labor. Most people think (and she did, too) that you have to be young and waiflike for the job. But no, I’m here to tell you, the airlines like to hire them old and co-dependent these days.

Don’t even argue with me on this.

Cheryl’s the perfect pick for them. She started waiting tables when she was fourteen, went to college for five years but is the only one of my siblings without a degree, but then she’s the first of us to own her own home, which she sold to buy a bar. In Nicaragua. She labored like a mule at that business until she moved to Atlanta four years ago, right smack during the recession. She paid cash for another house. She couldn’t sit still, discovered Craigslist, got a job selling meat from the trunk of her car, and she didn’t even have a car.

“You’re not using my car to sell meat door-to-door,” I told her. It’s not even that I cared about my car. This is downtown Atlanta. When I moved here the police found a severed human head in a plastic sack on my street. It would have taken her three doors, tops, to knock on before I’d get a call from the coroner’s office asking me to come identify her body. “The airlines are hiring,” I insisted. “Get your ass online and apply.”

Now here she is in the hospital with her leg in traction because the plane fell, like, five hundred feet or something. She was in the aisle serving people at the time. “Then I was on the ceiling,” she says, “then on the floor, then on the ceiling again.” She got tossed around like a rag doll. The doctors keep coming in, looking at her chart, and saying stuff like, “Looks like you fell,” and my sister, pumped full of morphine and Percocet, keeps insisting, “I did not fall, the plane fell.”

My sister has never broken a bone in her life. Me, I broke my foot just walking out my front door last year. Cheryl, though, is a hard worker, so she broke the hardest bone in the human body there is to break—her thighbone. She broke it in half. “The only thing holding my leg together right now,” she slurs, waving her hand languidly at her splinted leg, “is meat.”

They wheeled her into surgery. It took four hours. Steel rods, bolts, plates and staples were involved to put her leg back together. She thinks she’ll be back at work in a few months. The company claims adjuster keeps calling trying to record her statement, to which she thankfully has the sense to respond, “I’m on drugs right now,” probably the only time in the history of aviation such a statement can’t get you canned. She’s just been informed that her request for physical therapy has been denied due to “lack of response” from the airline insurance company.

I beg her to call an attorney. I even have one picked out for her. “Here’s his number,” I plead. But Cheryl hates attorneys. She hates red tape, litigation, bureaucracy. The airline knew what they were doing when they hired her—they can sense this in a person, see it in their eyes like how horse trainers can pick a winner from a stable of standbys—and it’s my fault because I knew they would know. Cheryl just wants to roll up her sleeves. She just wants to work. She is the perfect flight attendant.

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, coming out in June. Follow her on Twitter @hollisgillespie.

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