I soon realized that, despite the excitement of waking up in a fancy hotel halfway around the world every week, I wasn’t cut out to be a stewardess.

Each month you had to bid on a schedule of flights for the following month by listing the available ones in your order of preference. The senior girls got all the best schedules and the junior girls the most grueling ones, including a long, arduous flight over the pole to England, an overnight during which you couldn’t sleep because of jet lag, and a return flight the next day. The junior girls were also the first to be rerouted. I was—on a flight to Hong Kong—and had to fly a shuttle back and forth between Tokyo and Vietnam for days. True to form, I kept getting sick—colds and flus. And Operations wouldn’t let you fly with a cold because nasal congestion can cause your eardrums to burst at high altitudes. So they continually grounded me and docked my pay.


“I’m so fed up I could cry—all the little things that could possibly go wrong are doing just that. I’ve been trying so hard to be organized, to counteract my tendency to be absent-minded—care, thoroughness, planning. But what good? My wig gets singed in an oven blast—how could I have known artificial hair was so sensitive to heat? My pocket notebook with myriad important dates and addresses, as well as a favorite drawing, disappears; apparently it fell out of my purse sometime yesterday during the bustle of my arrival in LA. My pantsuit is likely to be permanently stained, the lady at the dry cleaners tells me. And on and on. It all seems so senseless, like everything I touch goes awry.

“I keep feeling rushed, vaguely panic-stricken, as though there isn’t going to be time enough for me to complete each thing that I undertake, whether it’s an afternoon of shopping for sandals or an hour of guitar practice. I wasn’t cut out to be a stewardess, it seems—because I’m only allowed a day here or there in which to carry on a normal life. I keep thinking, I have three days…I have three days, as though my next flight to San Francisco were going to be the end of my life.”



“My training flight was from New York to Frankfurt. We left six hours late—the first 747’s were full of glitches—so, of course, when we arrived at 3:00 in the morning, there was no crew bus to take us to our hotel. One of the stews had rescued a diminutive cake that no one had claimed from the first-class galley. It looked like an old-fashioned powder puff box and had a glaze you could rap with your knuckles and only hurt your hand. Somehow or other we broke into that cake and devoured it in hunks with our fingers as we sat, stupefied, on our upended luggage, waiting…

“I flew only one charter flight, battling a regiment of soused dentists who ultimately conquered the plane. First they took the aisle, where they played craps, gambling for the duration of the trip, and later the galley, where they raided the liquor and mixed their own drinks. Led by our purser—diminutive, frantic, and as high-strung as a bird—we mounted a gallant defense but were no match for their numbers. One dentist finally pried open our commander’s mouth—which was full of gold—emitted a boozy gasp, then gravely handed her his card.”


“My purser to Vietnam was a disciple of some Eastern guru who espoused ‘the way of roughage.’ While the rest of us skirmished over the leftover prime rib in the first-class galley, she nibbled beatifically on wilted lettuce from the brown paper bags she carried with her everywhere.

“When I found out the other stews were laying bets about whether my short auburn curls were natural or not, I tipped my wig to the winners.

“Over Vietnam, the landscape from the window of the plane looked as green and calm as a dense-weeded sea floor. The crew was led off the tiny airfield at Ben Hua to a couple of rooms which memory won’t furnish. In one, however, there was a shin-high white ceramic elephant for sale. My purser, reading what must have been an acquisitive glint in my eye, asked what sign I was, then nodded pityingly. ‘Yes, Taurus is materialistic.’ Which is why I didn’t buy that elephant—and still have it trumpeting through my dreams.”



A number of years after the fact, I wrote about my experiences as a “stewardess,” as we called ourselves.

“My recollection of the training school in Miami is like a bad collage—snippets of irrelevancy:

“A make-up room at the school with a long row of mirrors, like a chorus girls’ dressing room. It was there I had my first and last contest with a false eyelash. It would not conform to the arc of my eyelid. Mostly it contrived to stick gluily to my fingers, but on the occasions it opted for my eye, it assumed crazy configurations of its own.

“According to regulations, if you didn’t want short hair, you had the option of a stunted ponytail—more like a shaving brush, actually, than anything you’d find on the backside of a horse. I sat at the hairdresser’s in a white paper poncho, hair hanging to my waist. He collected the fine strands and, clutching them at the nape of my neck, performed the amputation with a single metallic clash of his scissors. I walked out into the warm-bath-water air toward the motel…but detoured around a tree in a weedy yard to have a brief cry. “

Those of us with ponytails were directed by the grooming instructor to wear a spit curl in front of each ear. After pulling out two small, pink rollers each morning, I tried to embalm each curl with a blast of hair spray. But, no thanks to the humidity, from one side of the highway to the other—which I crossed to get to the training school—my strawberry blond springs came unsprung. So the instructor threatened me with even more drastic surgery.

“Monday mid-mornings, after our overseas shots, we all dragged our arms around as though they were cast in concrete. At break time our instructor issued aspirin, and we converged on the water fountain for a pill-popping.

“The motel had a smorgasbord of inedibles—an assortment of jellos, macaronis, and cold cuts. I went around with a chronic bellyache till a Cuban named Eduardo I met at a party rescued me, inviting me to his apartment for home-cooked meals. He fed me black beans and tocino del cielo—a kind of custard—and tried to talk me into quitting and becoming his secretary.

“One afternoon, under the supervision of our air safety instructor, we played at being marooned at sea. We bailed into an inflatable life raft in the motel swimming pool, and, after throwing up the awning on poles, we took our ease in its shade, sucking on lifesavers, which were among the raft’s standard provisions. Back in the mock-up room at the school, in a midsection of airplane with a few seats and an emergency exit, we rehearsed emergency landings on land and sea and hypothetically lost ourselves and passengers to both elements in trial after trial.”



I spoke too soon. I did do another drawing from life after Thayer—which I came across when I was looking through my old artwork the other day. My freshman year of high school, I babysat three sisters over a period of several months. The eldest was Linny, in the portrait above. One night their parents came home early and found I hadn’t put the girls to bed yet. Not that I hadn’t tried—but the kids were having too much fun and wouldn’t mind me. Having been disciplined by my parents with intimidation and shaming, methods I wasn’t about to use on my charges, I didn’t know how to exert my authority. And so, despite their children’s attachment to me, the parents fired me.