It’s a cliché among flight attendants, but the first time I heard it, it still cracked me up: stepping into the back of a 767, I came upon a flight attendant on her hands and knees on the sticky, knobby galley floor, up to her shoulders in a cart of dirty meal trays. By way of an offer to help her, I asked, “What are you looking for?” She backed out of the cart long enough to look up at me, regulation up-do askew, and crack, “The Glamour.” She did eventually find the pen or the reading glasses or whatever it was that a passenger had left on his meal tray, but these days you can ransack an airplane with glamour-sniffing dogs and still turn up empty.
Mind you, while I do go back as far as the days of First Class champagne and caviar, and I carved a roast or two in the aisle of a DC-10, the Glamorous Age of Air Travel predates even my career by decades. Boeing’s 707 ushered in the Jet Age in the late 50s, and with their speed and relative comfort, jet airliners were a manifestation of the all-important Future Today! They were shiny, they were sleek, and they involved cocktails — they were basically The Sixties with Wings, and airline companies raced to out-mod each other. Perception counted, and airlines made an effort to present the public with crews that lived the Good Life. Top designers created stewardess uniforms that changed according to market and season, the girls were never seen to handle their own luggage, and they stayed in hotels like the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the then-glitzy Sands in Las Vegas, where a table was reserved in the Copa Room for visiting crews to soak up the nightly show. Stewardesses had to be young, slim, and pretty (according to whichever bottom-pinching executive was conducting interviews in this town on that day), but they could also be black or Japanese or Native American, which was not true of many careers in those days, and the (relatively) early integration of the stewardess ranks lent an inescapable cosmopolitan air to flying. Air travel was the domain of the rich, the famous, and the Business Big Shot, and you didn’t win these customers with a workaday, drab reputation; you want to fill your airplanes with social climbers, you need to look like you’re a couple rungs up the ladder yourself.
But somewhere between Pucci and PEOPLExpress, the glamour fell by the wayside, and in the years since 2001, at least in this country, it has been chucked out definitively along with the bathwater, the baby, the clawfoot tub and most of the tile. With the possible exception of Richard Branson, for whom profit is not The Only Motive Worth Living For (having already turned so very many over the course of his career), no one running an airline these days thinks it’s cool. Nobody has any appreciation for the Wow Factor of putting huge hunks of metal into the sky, or, for that matter, of bringing them back to Earth, still loaded with gasoline, and slamming them onto ginormous slabs of concrete at 200 miles an hour without decimating the surrounding area with great balls of fire. American airline executives see employees, pretzels, and other frills as bonus-draining fripperie to be done away with by any means necessary, from the golf course or the massage table if at all possible.
Of course, the real reason “The Glamour” is a funny thing for which to be looking is that even in the Glamour Days, it was largely an imaginary construct. Certainly when I started flying in the 90s, even after weeks of training meant to disabuse me of these very expectations, I thought that my new career had a certain cachet. Even today, when seen from the observation deck of a busy airport (other countries still have those, throwbacks to the era in question), I think there’s something inherently exotic in the notion that Whither Goest This Flying Machine, So Goes Her Crew. But the up close, on board reality is actually quite jarring. People expect you to adjudicate disputes over armrests and bin space; people get drunk and unruly and slur way too much information about their yeast infections at you; grown-ass people get out of their seats to throw up on you. It has fallen to each of us to dig through 400 dirty meal trays looking for some kid’s retainer, which is always but always on the very last tray in the very last cart, and I’m here to tell you, when you are following the defibrillator’s computer-voice command to apply pads to a chest that you have had to bare by cutting off someone’s undershirt, the furthest thing from your mind is how glamorous you look or don’t look while you’re doing it.
The glamour that we all miss is one that we never knew, if it ever existed. Maybe we hang onto the concept after all these years to soften the blow of ever-lengthening duty days spent trolling the aisles collecting trash in a leaking plastic bag. Maybe we need the residue in order to justify yanking ourselves from our beds at 2 o’clock in the morning to be away from our families and our lives for days at a time. Or maybe the in-flight service — “Here’s a can of Coke, now leave me alone.” — and the imaginary Past aren’t the right places to be looking for it. I’m not a woman, and I have neither the figure nor the sense of style to pull off designer duds — even if it was as glamorous as everyone who never lived it “remembers” it, flying in the 60s would not have been for me, and had I been a bottom-pinching businessman in those days, it would not have been stewardess bottoms that I was looking to pinch. My uniform is tired and slouchy; my company is penny-wise and absurdly pound-foolish; my schedule is unpredictable and beyond my control, with too many early mornings and way too many late nights — there’s no glamour here. But I do have ridiculously comprehensive and affordable health insurance, and I can share it with my husband. I work with a spectacularly diverse and ever-changing group of co-workers from every corner of the world, whose side gigs run the gamut from singer/songwriter to soap opera star; people who are almost always interesting, and, as importantly, who I will probably never see again if they are not. And I have access to all the time off I want, which I can spend traveling or entertaining my niece and my nephews or at home with my husband when we’re up to something fun or, like today, when he’s laid up on the couch in need of chicken soup and my blog needs attention. I’ve had a few jobs in my day — I’ve waited tables and worked in bookstores and answered phones and pounded dirt — and from what I’ve seen, a gig like this one, where I can pay my bills and bring benefits home to my family without having to even show up to it on the days (weeks) (months) I don’t want to, might be pretty damn glamorous after all.