Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Do You Speak English?

Recently I've heard a lot of travel horror stories. People sitting on the runway for 6 hours, broken seats, terrible customer service. It reminded me of a flight I took; but it wasn't the terrible customer service or any issue with the airline that stuck in my memory. It was the poor, single flight attendant who had a nervous breakdown on the flight. It's a long re-telling, but if you're looking for a laugh this should do it.

I recently witnessed a flight attendant having a nervous breakdown on a flight from Raleigh to Boston. I knew from her black frizzy hair splayed around her head that something was wrong from the start. The plane was small; the kind that makes you feel nauseated even before take-off. It was a full house and everyone was in their best cocoon posture. Elbows tucked politely in respective personal space bubbles. Knees pressed tightly together like good private school children. Everyone seemed content, after all, it was going to be a short flight.
Our flight attendant had dark brown eyes to match her hair. Big and bugged out. There was definitely more cornea showing than could be healthy for any sort of high altitude. She was a tall woman, with a healthy amount of American style living on her Hellenistic frame. I’m not sure of her name, so we’ll just call her Jane. I’m told that back in the day, flight attendants were classy. Outfitted with stylish, flattering uniforms and matching sophisticated little hats. Jane obviously thought that sort of dressing old-fashioned, perhaps it made her feel too confined with-in the labels of femininity. Jane wore the sleek, city color of mourning. A big chunky black sweater, with plastic white buttons. Black knee length shorts with black opaque hose and black Reebok tennis shoes. The whole ensemble, topped off with the bugged out eyes and spray of frustrated hair was quite impressive.
As with most problems in life, it all started with personal baggage.
“Please make sure all your carry-ons are placed completely underneath the seat in-front of you.” The voice was friendly enough filtered through the intercoms professional accent. But passengers are like children and have to be told most things, at least twice. “A reminder, that all carry-ons and personal luggage must be placed completely underneath the seat in-front of you. This includes all straps that may be attached to your luggage.” I took a look down at my small knapsack, feeling confident in its ability to pass the “underneath the seat” test. Jane walked down the aisle. Her eyes had an odd familiarity about them. I felt like I’d seen them before, maybe on the nature channel. Jane stopped. Her eyes seem to actually zoom in on a bag. I could see them extend like the lens of an automatic camera. “Sir, would you please make sure your personal items are completely underneath the seat in front of you.” The Sir gave his leather bag the obligatory nudge with his foot. Pushing it under the seat a few more inches. “Sir, I can still see your bag. I need for it to be completely underneath the seat.” By now a gathering of curious eyes had turned their attention to the scene. Woman in black versus the Sir with leather bag.The man leaned down, using his hands to push the bag even further underneath the seat. The situation became more tense. Jane got down on her hands and black hosed knees, her head nearly in contact with man’s knees. She pushed, shoved and grunted in-between words, “You must (shove) make sure (push) that your bag (grunt) is completely (breath) underneath the seat!” All the pushing and bending made Jane’s hair—grow. As she rose to her feet, and brushed off her hands leaving small bits of dirt on her sweater, Sir looked up at Jane. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I know they must have shown fear. Fear like tribal people hold for their gods. But Jane’s appeasement wasn’t to be met with just that one leather bag.
After the little hands-on demonstration, we fellow passengers quickly reached down, and pushed and shoved our own bags as deep as we could into the under-seat abyss. “Hurry!” I heard my brain say “Hurry, here she comes!” Her acute eyes swept my personal space. I was evaluated, calculated and judged worthy. As she passed, I must admit I felt relieved and strangely violated as well. Other weren’t so lucky. A woman, three rows behind me was made to stand up, and move out of the way as Jane demonstrated the correct way to make a carry-on completely disappear before your eyes. She was like the Mary Poppins of underneath the seat spaces. Cramming everything from duty-free to Louis Vuitton bags out of site. When she moved to the front of the cabin again, I’m pretty sure I heard a collective group sigh.
“For those passengers seated in the emergency row, you must be able to assist in the case of an emergency, those passengers unable to do so must move to a different seat.”
Her voice, even through the filter of the intercom had acquired a peculiar ring to it. Like an out of tune note still ringing in the air. I was seated in row twelve. Praise the computer ticketing gods. Row eight was the emergency row. There were four people, two on each side of the emergency row. They never saw it coming.
Jane put away the intercom microphone and headed straight for them. They had no where to escape, they were already in their seats in upright and locked position with seat belts securely fastened! Jane spoke to the middle aged man sitting by the window first.
“Sir, are you confident in your ability to assist in an emergency, by opening the emergency door and helping others without causing harm to yourself?” The man nodded, anxious to be free of her unblinking gaze. But she didn’t look away. Rather, she leaned in over the woman sitting in the aisle seat. She leaned in so close that the woman was eye level with Jane’s left ear. In a much louder voice, Jane repeated the question. He nodded several times, sort of in a panic stricken kind of way. I’m sure his face was beginning to sting from her gaze. His brain was probably screaming “Oh, look away! For the love of god will you just look away!” The plane was silent. There was an electric tingle of collective anxiety in the air. Jane stood up. The woman in the aisle breathed. Jane was still looking at the man. I think he was beginning to turn gray. “Sir” Jane said in a very loud, but slow voice, “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”
With every syllable she said, she sort of nodded her body toward the man. There was no answer. “SIR, DOOO YOUUU SPEEEAK ENNNGLISH!”
“Yes, yes, I speak English.” He stammered, finally out of his trance. The spell broken with the woman beside him pressing her body as far back against the seat as her spine would allow. Her quick shallow breaths’ mimicking everyone’s pounding hearts.
Jane straightened. Her frizzy hair dusting the top of the plane. “Oh, well, you didn’t verbally respond so I just assumed you didn’t understand me.” She then looked down at the woman pressed deep into her seat. “Ma’am, are you confident in your ability to assist in an emergency”---“Yes!” the woman blurted. “Ma’am, please wait until I’ve finished asking you the full question-- by opening the emergency door and helping others without causing harm to yourself?” Jane stood waiting for the woman’s response. The woman nodded, and then remembering the rule, quickly said “Yes, I am able to assist in opening the emergency door.”
Without changing the angle of her shoulders or neck, Jane turned her body around. I swear, she still hasn’t blinked. The next two passengers seated in row eight. Japanese business men, the look of a long flight from Tokyo still in their eyes. Jane didn’t even give them a chance. “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?
There was an announcement from the cockpit. “Flight attendant, please prepare the cabin for take-off.” Jane immediately ran to the cock-pit. Her hair disappeared as she spoke to the captain. A few moments later, she was back on the intercom. “I’m sorry ladies and gentleman, but we will not be allowed to prepare for departure until everyone understands the rules of this plane. I have spoken to the captain, and explained that we cannot leave the runway until everyone is properly seated and their belongings are properly stored.”
“Can she do that?” I hear a man in disbelief behind me.
“I need for the isle to be cleared. This mean you sir, yes, you in the blue coat. I need you to make sure your feet are not in the aisle.” I saw a foot disappear from the isle four rows in-front of me. I was seated next to a teenage girl. She leaned over and whispered, “Hi, I’m Ellie, do you speak English?” We laughed then quickly stifled our giggles and looked down. Jane was eyeing us.
Once all passengers were mentally handcuffed, tied to their seats with feet nailed to the floor. Jane allowed the captain to take off. We had been in the air about fifteen minutes—long enough for most of us to have temporarily forgotten the bizarre enthusiasm of our flight attendant. Suddenly, Jane unbelted her own seat belt and came sprinting down the aisle. Her eyes wider that I’d seen yet, and her hair flapping above her head. I now understood the Reeboks. Most everyone leaned away from the aisles, as she flew past. Jane reached the end of the cabin and was now pounding with both fists on the bathroom door. I thought we were all going to die.
“Sir!” she screamed in hysterics. “Sir! The Captain has not turned off the seatbelt sign!” I heard a quiet woman’s voice behind me. “I think he just really had to pee.” The door opened and a man, ashen faced appeared from the bathroom. I’m sure he thought he was going to die too. “I’m sorry, but you are not allowed to leave your seat until the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign.” He nodded then ducked his head and slipped quietly into his seat. I’m sure he was trying to focus on his happy place. Someplace safe on land.
Jane returned to her perch at the front of the plane. Buckled in, she could resume her watchful gaze. A few minutes passed. The seatbelt sign was still on. I began to panic. The morning’s grande coffee was beginning to create a lot of pressure in my bladder. I glanced around, fearful Jane would know what I was thinking. I half whispered, half whimpered, “I have to pee.” I heard a strong, deep voice just behind me. “Don’t worry, I got your back.”


  1. OMG, Mary

    I am going to Boston this Sat.!

    I hope she won't be on our flight attendant!

    please wish me luck....

    Chiu Mei :I


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