Coffee, Tea—But Not Me

The winter of 1973 was harsh in the Midwest but that particular January day was especially unforgiving. Delayed by a blinding snowstorm, our beleaguered Dallas-based flight attendant crew finally arrived at our layover hotel in downtown Chicago after a grueling, twelve-hour day. Despite our fatigue, we decided to unwind with a drink in the hotel bar.

Since it was against company policy to consume alcohol while in uniform, we scattered to our rooms to change, intending to meet up shortly. My uniform, reeking of stale tobacco smoke and old airplane food, was tossed in a corner and quickly exchanged for cleaner, more comfortable street clothes. Entering the empty elevator, I slouched against the wall, letting it support my exhausted body. I closed my eyes and relished the silence, hardly noticing when the doors opened a few floors down. A thirty-something man wearing a dark business suit entered. I felt the man staring at me. As I looked up, he smiled charmingly, and asked, “Are you a working girl?”

There were three factors in play that he, unfortunately, was not aware of: It had been an extremely long, trying day; I was tired of having to be nice to people I didn't know; and especially irritated that he was trying to "chat me up" by asking me about my job. I had run out of patience and, no longer on the company clock, I snapped. Facing him, with one hand placed on my hip, I wagged my index finger in his face, and blasted away, “You are damn right I’m a working girl! I've been working for twelve hours straight and I am not working one minute longer! Now leave me alone!”

“So there!” I thought as I crossed my arms and returned to my wall slouch. His charming smile evaporated. Slowly turning away from me, he stood immobile as the elevator continued its journey to the lobby. When the doors slid open, I righteously marched right past him.

I met up with the crew and, after we ordered our drinks, I shared what happened with the elevator guy, emphasizing how annoyed I was at him for asking me about my work. They all doubled over with laughter.

Confused, I asked, “What’s so funny?”

One of my co-workers put her arm around me and said, “Oh honey! You really don’t know, do you?”  

What don’t I know?” I said, still bewildered by their reaction. She whispered in my ear, “‘Working girl’ is a euphemism for prostitute and he was trying to hire you for a couple of hours.” 

Replaying the scene in my mind, I felt my face go flush with embarrassment and all I could utter was a small, soft, “Oh.”

As I lay in bed that night, I asked the universe, How did I end up in a hotel elevator in a strange city with some guy trying to hire me for sex, when just two years earlier I was a bright-eyed, soon-to-be college graduate, ready to take on the world? It was a time in my life when everything was possible—or so I thought. But the reality was that in 1971, with a few exceptions, there weren’t many career choices for women. Even those of us armed with college degrees were pretty much limited to teaching, nursing, retail or administrative—aka secretarial.

None of these choices interested me and with good reason. I knew I didn’t have the temperament for working with children; I hyperventilated at the thought of getting injections, much less giving them; I had worked in a department store and didn't sense many opportunities for growth in retail; and during my junior year in college I had come very, very close to failing a shorthand class, so secretarial work probably would not be a good fit.

I discussed my dilemma with my roommate and she suggested, “Why don’t you try the airlines? It would provide a decent income, you’d get to fly all over the country, see new places and meet all kinds of interesting people. It would be fun.” Her suggestion made sense. So I applied to a major domestic carrier and, after a series of interviews I was hired. I began to look forward to my career as a flight attendant, hoping it would be filled, not only with fun, but with adventure, excitement and glamour—just like in the movies!

Two days after college graduation, I joined fifty other eager, fresh-faced young women—men were not hired as flight attendants back then—at the training facility in Fort Worth, where we spent the next six weeks together mastering essential skills, such as how to evacuate passengers in case of an emergency and how to mix a dry martini. The day finally came when we received our wings and were entrusted to put our newly acquired expertise into action. 

The bloom was quickly off the rose for me and "flight-attending." While there were some wonderful moments—the sun rising on the horizon while flying over the Golden Gate Bridge—I found, to my dismay, it was anything but exciting, adventuresome, or glamorous.

The hours were long, and the work was physically demanding. I frequently found myself kneeling on the coffee-soaked rug in the galley hastily stuffing meal trays littered with people’s food scraps back into the serving cart before leaping to my jump seat just in time for landing. The coffee-soaked rug stained the knees of my uniform pants a dark sludge-like brown color and left a lingering aroma. Stale, recycled air on the plane combined with smoke from passengers’ cigarettes were constant irritants, contributing to respiratory ailments. Trudging up and down airplane aisles in high heels for up to ten hours per day necessitated wearing thick support panty hose to offset damage to the veins on my legs. The thick panty hose combined with tight fitting polyester uniform pants brought about recurrent yeast infections caused by the layers of unbreathable synthetic fabric, necessitating frequent trips to the gynecologist for treatment. Some glamorous life I led.

Along the way I discovered I did not have the "gift" of working with the general public. A boarding passenger would ask, "Are you going to feed us tonight?" To which I would sarcastically reply, "We'll be serving dinner, sir, but you will have to feed yourself." My supervisor, trying to help, encouraged me to imagine the passengers as guests in my living room. I smiled and nodded at her recommendation, but what I really wanted to say was, It would be a cold day in hell before I’d invite people who acted like that into my home!

Life as a flight attendant often felt like one long military deployment. Some unknown managerial entity dictated where I would go, how long I would be there and when I could go home. I managed to last for five and a half years and finally threw in the towel, resigning after spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on a layover, not in sparkling San Francisco, but in cold, gray Buffalo, New York, too far away from family and familiar traditions. I’d had enough of my thrilling, glitzy job.

Many years have passed since I crisscrossed the country as a flight attendant. Whenever I recall that snowy night in Chicago when I was unknowingly propositioned by the guy in the elevator, I always have a good laugh. I’ll never forget the look on his face when my righteous indignation exploded all over him. I can’t help but wonder if he ever remembers that night. Something tells me he does, but I doubt he’s laughing.



Susan Dillon Tschudi is a former flight attendant from another era and is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of “Loving Someone with Attention Deficit Disorder.”



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