Monday, December 2, 2013

Black Friday comes to Thursday by PenguinScott

This year’s holiday internet battle cry apparently centers on Thanksgiving and workers not being able to spend it with family for having to do their job. Post after post from people I know deplores Americans to avoid shopping on Thanksgiving. “Think of the employees!,” they read, and, “They deserve to be with family like you do!” Is it only in America that we constantly have the need to project our desires onto everyone else? A few things came to mind around the 80th time seeing one of these posts.
                Anyone who gets a job in retail certainly doesn’t do so with the expectation that they will have the holidays off. I’ve worked in retail and I knew this going into the interview. I’ve worked the holidays as everyone in retail has. Sure, the first time I spent the holiday away from family was a bit tough. But I had something else working for me- pay.
                A lot of people enjoy working holidays for the holiday pay. I’m sure these days, in these hard times, these people depend on working Thanksgiving for the holiday pay that I hope they are making. Even if they only earn their normal rates of pay, let us not assume that everyone wants to be home not earning money.
                Then, there are those who don’t have family to spend the holiday with. Maybe they are college students too far from home or too broke to afford an airline ticket. Maybe it’s the crazy cat lady who has no one of the human kind to be with. Perhaps it’s someone who just can’t stand to be with family so bad that they shiver at the suggestion of staying home so they can be with those who judge, condemn, argue, smother or push other’s down in a competitive nature. I know I can only handle being in close proximity to my family for about 5 days, max (not for the reasons I just mentioned, in case they’re reading this). Some people can’t stand to be around family for 5 minutes.
                I hear the cry- stay home. Don’t go shopping. Avoid the malls. But for me, it’s about bucking the system; I’m such a rebel. I don’t want to shop on Black Friday mainly because it’s become expected to do so. I don’t want to shop on Black Friday because I’m saving money and I don’t have a lot to spend. I don’t want to shop on Black Friday because there really is very little that I need. I finished my holiday shopping weeks ago. Big screen TV for $100? I’ve already got one. DVD player for $20? Got one of those, as well. I think I’ll avoid the crowds and make a turkey sandwich, thank you. And I certainly don’t want to go shopping on Black Friday and join the fray of morons clamoring with fellow white trash royalty and ne’er-do-wells as they literally bust down doors and claw their way over their fallen to reach the stack of made in (insert foreign sweat shop country here) electronics, which will probably explode in 13 months, right after the warranty expires.
Penguin, post feast
  This year, I spent Thanksgiving with friends in Santa Rosa. These are good friends, and they know they are after hearing how I spent over 2 hours driving up from my home in Pacifica. Normally, that drive should take just over an hour and it’s no secret that I hate driving, especially in heavy traffic. But it seems either the city was being evacuated, or everyone and their dog was going to Northern California for the day…and apparently left about half an hour before I did! “Aren’t you people supposed to be at home cooking things?” I yelled from within my car (the Peng-U-V). There were as many people, or more,  walking on the Bay Bridge as any weekend during the summer! I was absolutely blown away. Maybe people were taking heed of the cries on line to spend the holiday with family; they just didn’t see the words, “at home.”
A line forms for a shop opening at midnight.
                The interesting thing about this Thanksgiving was that the daughter of our host had to go to work that evening. She worked at the mall, which opened at 8PM on Thanksgiving night. I’d never in my life thought I would see Black Friday come to Thursday evening! The question went around the group as we loosened our belts after the feast, seeming to knowingly save me for last, “Are we going to go to the mall tonight?” “Do you want to go to the mall and watch the chaos?” “Who wants to go to the mall?” The questions shot around the group like if asked enough, someone would win a prize. The prize was that when finally asked, I said, “Sure, let’s go!” After all, I didn’t want to be the only ‘no’ and I’m all for watching a train wreck.
                I did have some ground rules; I’d already posted that I would not be seen in a shopping mall on Thanksgiving and hoped to keep my reputation up to par. “No checking in, post no photos of me and if anyone ever asks, I was never here.” They were in total agreement, so off we marched to join the throngs of humanity at the mall.
A line for a bra sale outside Victoria's Secret

                The mall was much like a mall would be on any Saturday afternoon…but it was nearing midnight! I couldn’t believe all the people shopping this time of night on Thanksgiving. It was as if we have been doing this for years. Sleeping children were pushed in their strollers or sleepily clung to their parent’s hands while wearing cute PJs. My parents would never have brought me shopping at this time of night when I was 5! Groups of high school kids hung out like something from a teen movie and roamed in small packs. There were a few lines and mostly very well behaved people (we did see one fight nearly break out, but fisticuffs and weapons were not involved, although, I had my camera’s video function ready, just in case).

This boy kept watch over the family plunder.
   We laughed that we would make great hecklers as we observed the insane. Seeing the signs for “Doorbuster” deals, I made a comment about how it was amazing that, upon seeing some of the deals, the doors were actually still on their hinges! We commented on how some dressed, observing which stores remained closed and looked in wonder at the people eating in the food court, while our bellies were still so full.
Then, like flies, we went down. M found thermals normally difficult find, let alone for half price. C found sweaters that would make a great gift for family. But I held out. At least until I found the 800 thread count 100% Egyptian cotton sheets half off, followed by the cutest little shirts for my nephews. An $80 pillow for $25? Yes, please. Underwear for 25% off? I could use new underwear- I’ll bite.
Oh, no. What have I done?

            Dammit, my friends lured me to the mall under the pretense that I could go and make fun of those who bought into the frenzy of Black Friday on Thursday evening, and there I became one of them. In fact, after going back to C’s house, we returned to the mall for more, shopping until 2AM so C could buy a jewelry stand. You’re welcome analysts and retail giants. I’m happy to help your numbers kick off the season. I will sleep very well at night doing so- on my soft bed sheets and sensor gel pillow – that I found fifty percent off!  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Trip to Beijing, China

August, 2013
The smoggy view of Beijing I'm used to, taken from my hotel
Before going to bed I checked the computer. I was number 2 for a 4 day trip and there was 1 on the board- to Beijing. I think I rolled my eyes. I’ve been trying to get to Beijing for over 5 years. It’s been at least 9 since the last time I was there. It’s a neat city to visit, I wanted to return to the Great Wall and do some shopping. But it’s the most senior trip in the system and continually eludes me. I was so close. So yes, I rolled my eyes; so typical, the rotten luck! I hoped that something would happen; maybe another 4 day trip would pop up overnight and the flight attendant in front of me would get that, leaving me in line for Beijing.
      My phone rang at 0600hrs. I knew who it was by the ring-tone. The crew desk advised me they had a trip for me. As soon as she read the trip ID number, I recognized it…Beijing! I remained calm as I wrote down the information, thanked the scheduler, hung up and closed my eyes with my head dropping and a smile upon my face, full of joy. Finally, I would return for my 3rd visit.

A child's ride outside the local grocery store.

      Unable to sleep, I simply got up. I grabbed my Chinese money, packed, had breakfast and left for SFO. There would be no tardiness for me today. I felt on top of the world as I drove to work. Traffic was light and I caught all the lights green; fortune shown upon me. Did I hear singing? Some angelic choir, perhaps?
      Trips to China can be difficult to work. I love how some of the passengers say hello during boarding, but then later in flight, when told to be seated because the seat belt sign has come on, suddenly, don’t speak English! It seems like most passengers don’t like staying in their seat. They roam around the plane, visit friends and congregate. They go to the jump seat windows, raise the blind and look out, often taking photos. We’re over the Pacific Ocean. What are you taking photos of? When the chime sounds and the pilot comes on the PA to ask everyone to be seated is when many decide to get up. They ring the call bell to ask us for another customs form when they make a minor mistake, not understanding that at least when coming to the US, it’s all right to cross it out and make the correction on the form. And perhaps most irritating is how so many don’t put their tray down for us. It’s like a shock to them that we are asking what they want to drink or eat. Why do you think I’m pushing this heavy cart down the aisle…my health? You see the cart coming, start thinking of what you want to drink and have your tray ready!
     And the trip home was especially difficult for me, as I’ve never seen more passengers on our flights who didn’t speak any English. It was frustrating asking what they wanted to drink to have them point at the cart, full of sodas, teas, coffee, water, juice, milk and beer. What are you pointing at? All right, don’t learn how to say tea, orange juice or water. Maybe have someone make you a card with both English and Mandarin so you can show me what you wish to order, since showing you the menu with drink logos doesn’t seem to work either. I thought the Coca Cola brand logo was international. A mechanical issue delayed our takeoff nearly two hours, yet one yahoo rang the bell to ask me if we’d be landing on time. Yes. Yes we are landing on time because Santa is our pilot, and you know, he tends to fly fast! It was trying at times, to say the least. “Where are we?” another passenger asked. We all laughed out loud. Um, I don’t know…Boston? I’ve not looked out the window in 6 hours. I have no idea!
      The crew was great to work with. Everyone got along and worked very well as a team. There was much humor and I enjoyed my time with them. Asian crews are different from other crews I work with. They have unique culinary needs that they remedy themselves. It’s not unusual to see them bring soups, hot wings, steaks, legs of lamb, citrus and one time they even baked a cake on the flight. Many are bringing things difficult to fine in Asia. I’m always fascinated watching the culinary skills of Asian crews.
     Not having been to the Chinese capital for such a long time, the crewmembers were a wealth of information about the new hotel, where to find good deals on the products I wanted to shop for, and who to seek out for a great massage. These are the things important to a flight attendant. This trip, I decided was about shopping more than sightseeing. I had just picked up a trip to Beijing for the following week (when it rains it pours; 9 years without a trip to Beijing and now 2 trips in as many weeks) and I would put off a visit to the Great Wall for then.
My hotel room with glass bathroom walls.
      China is a great place for massages, as they are so cheap. In Beijing, an hour massage with tip costs about $25. They aren’t always the best massage. The first one I had on this trip was a petite woman with pink toenails who basically just wanted to rub the same 4 spots on my back for 20 minutes each. I had to ask her to start on my arms and legs and when she was finished, I asked for my hands to be done. She balked, but I told her I’d tip her for it. The massage felt very good at the time, but the next day I was sore on those 4 spots she had rubbed so vigorously.
      Shopping can be a pain in China. Fortunately, there are places frequented by airline crew, and these places aren’t as annoying as others. After all, they have to keep us happy or we all leave and find a new place. But in the markets, as you walk past the stalls full of wares, the workers stand at the entrance and call out to you, “Hey, you look. You want glasses? You need watch? I have purse! Come look, you buy!” No. No. No. As much as a glance into a shop turns these Chinese merchants into a bunch of seagulls and you have a nice big piece of shrimp on your forehead!

      I went to the Pearl Market with 4 other flight attendants on my crew. It was about 20 minutes from our hotel via taxi in the heavy morning traffic. I found that in the 9 years since my last visit, drivers seem to be catching on. Last time I was here, lanes were merely suggestions. Riding in a taxi was a horror, or a thrill if you are into such things. And I was always juniored into the worst place- next to the driver. Most motorists now do a very good job at keeping in their lane. And there were much fewer bikes on the roads, weaving in and out and playing Tetris at the lights, squeezing past stopped cars.
Shopping in Beijing; photo not mine.
      I’ve found the weather in Beijing to be oppressive on my past summer visits. Between the heat, humidity and smog, it’s not a great place for a picnic. I couldn’t get over how clear it was as the plane neared the airport and the city spread its complex carpet of buildings, parks, roads and entertainment complexes below. The skies were uncommonly blue and the weather was very nice; only slightly muggy and quite comfortable at night. The next day was slightly warmer, but still very manageable. The day we left, however, some 44 hours after touching down, the smog was a bit more noticeable.
      My shopping was a success, but Vaughn, Kitt and Sandy were ready to return to the hotel before I was. Vaughn asked if I had plans for dinner. Since I didn’t, I asked if he would like to join me. He said yes and Marianne and I continued our shopping pursuits for another couple of hours. We then returned to the hotel, where I set out to find a good foot massage. The woman I was told gave wonderful massages had moved and I had the old information, so finding her was a fail. I returned to my hotel and found another woman who would come to my room. My feet were sore, but not as much as my right ankle and left knee. Between the long flight the day before and all the walking I’d done in Beijing, my dogs were barking, and you know how I don’t like barking dogs!
      My foot massage (which in China includes the back, arms and legs) was the kind where you close your eyes and they constantly roll back. Your inner dialogue repeats, "Oh, my gods." Every now and then she'd hit a sweet spot and I'd think, "Fudge." Only not fudge, but the full-on F-word. After all, it's just my inner dialogue. Even if she could hear it, she doesn't “speakul the Englais” and she really does know how to give a sweet massage! I had her go easy on the sore spots that still resided in my back muscles. The part where she got to my feet and legs was bliss.
      She finished just in time for me to change clothes and meet Vaughn for dinner. In the lobby, he told me Kitt would be joining us. Good news; the more the merrier! With none of us knowing the area, we took the advice of another crew member and went to the food court in the mall across the street. Food courts in China are so much more interesting than those in the states; not full of mass-produced meals from national conglomerates.
     After ordering an oyster pancake and some dim sum, I found Kitt and Vaughn and took my seat at the smallish table with silver metal chairs. Kitt, wanting beef, had gone across the hall to McDonalds for a Big Mac and fries. I know, right? Who goes to Beijing and eats at McDonalds? I could tell his was a foreign value meal; the soda cup was the size of a can of soda and not the huge monstrosities served in the US.
      Vaughn, wanting vegetables and rice, had gotten a variety-pack meal from the food court; rice, soup, diced chicken and some vegies. He said it was good, although he seemed a bit uneasy with the whole deal and only finished half of what was on his tray. It was his first time in Beijing, and perhaps his first time in a Chinese mall food court, where one purchases a debit card for each station; no money changes hands. There were all sorts of great looking Chinese dishes. There were soups, dim sum, dumplings, noodles and all sorts of foreign oddities to delight the palate of those bold enough to try something new.
Gyoza and dim sum at the food court.

      The conversation came easily between the three of us. Vaughn was full of questions for both of us and Kitt was very outgoing. I enjoyed the conversation as much as my dinner companions obviously did, as we sat there for about 90 minutes- long after we had finished eating.
      People watching was fun as the conversation meandered around our lives and interests. Suddenly, I became very much aware of how great my life was. Here I was with two people I had not known before the previous day half way around the globe. Vaughn and I had worked together a few years prior going to Sydney, but we had not spent any time together. I love that I get to meet new people all the time with my job. I love that we bond over our jobs and sharing a city and new experiences. I love that in a short amount of time, I get to learn so much about people, and chances are, I won’t see these guys after this trip for months. Maybe years!
      Kitt is Swedish, hailing from a small town almost an hour north of Stockholm. He left for New Jersey at 17, although I didn’t ask why he moved. His parents still live in Sweden and he goes home once a year, although it’s been 2 since his last visit.
      I was amazed when he met us that morning to go shopping. He wore a grey tee shirt and jeans with the legs rolled up to the middle of his calves, very European. I had to comment to him at how well his uniform had hidden his muscles. I could tell he was in good shape, but now one could see just how well developed, and large, his muscles were. So large, in fact, that his veins sat above them, restrained by skin, looking like a map of German roads. Obviously, a guy who spends a ton of time in the gym.
      When I first met Kitt, I couldn’t tell he was gay. He did look German, with facial features typical of such, and blond hair with a hint of wave in the front. During the whole flight, it was hard to tell if his demeanor was slightly effeminate or just European. But when he spoke now, out of uniform, he definitely sounded gay. He began to speak of his partner, who he had married 14 years ago. I asked if he was a body builder as well. He is, but Kitt says he’s not as big. Well, If he were half as muscled as Kitt, he’d still be ripped.
      His partner owns a car dealership in the Denver area that specializes in luxury cars. They drive a used Bentley that was originally over $200.000, but they got it for “cheap”; a measly $50K! I looked at Vaughn, who looked at me, and said, “Obviously one person’s cheap…” Vaughn finished the sentence for me.
A street near our hotel.
      Vaughn is a larger black guy who lives outside Vancouver with his wife and daughter. He has two boys, as well, both in college. He normally only flies to Sydney, but has decided to start flying Beijing trips to do what so many other flight attendants do; sell inexpensive Chinese merchandise in the US. He told us of his plans to build a customer base through a web site to sell iPhone charge packs. But after he saw the quality of small Bluetooth-enabled speakers, he’s’ now convinced he can make over $900 in just 4 months.
      When asked about his plans for his first trip to Beijing before we left San Francisco, he told us that other than shopping, he was only going to stay in his room. He had no interest in seeing the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City. I was actually a bit surprised he was open to have dinner with me, thinking maybe he’d stay hidden in his hotel room that evening.
      He comes across as a shy, quiet type, who doesn’t like adventure or risk. In fact, he admitted as much at dinner. We started talking about cruises (Kitt has been on over 30) and he mentioned his fear of being at sea. “I can go all around the world and have no problem walking in bad parts of town, but being on the water in the middle of the sea…”
      Vaughn was very inquisitive and often kept the conversation going with a line of questions – what’s a luxury car to tell someone to stay away from? What’s your favorite city? What do you like most about going on a cruise? I could have sat there another hour, but when Kitt suggested we head back, we all just got up. I was eager to hit the gym, sauna and soak in the pool on the 27th floor of the Renaissance Hotel with a grand view of the moon rising over the ancient and now modern looking capital city. That was sort of surreal; being in a pool with such a view.
The pool at the Renaissance Hotel. Great views.
      As I clung to the side of the pool, I thought about dinner. It was very much like dinners I’ve had before in cities like Sydney, Seoul, London, Frankfurt or even New York, Miami and Chicago, getting to know crew members for a short time. I love my job and how I get to peek into the lives of so many interesting people while seeing so many wonderful places.
      After my soak, I returned to my room and opened a beer. My view from the 17th floor was the same as from the pool, only ten floors lower. The moon was rising. The buildings flashed images of children jumping rope. The Chinese do love flashing buildings at night! Tomorrow would be breakfast, packing and taking the bus back to the airport for my flight home. I can’t wait to return. Next time, I will go to the Great Wall of China. They say you can see the wall from space, but did you know you can see space from the wall? Lots and lots of space.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Day in the Life by Penguin Scott

After a long day at work you go home and what do you do? Cook dinner? Chat with your loved one or a neighbor? Throw a load of laundry in the washer? Take the dog for a walk? Maybe run to the store or work on a project in the garage.

    As a flight attendant, I don’t have the luxury of doing such things when I’m done with work. Half the time, I’m in another city; whisked away in a van to a hotel with a dozen sports channels on the TV and other various cable channels, all of which never live up to their name (Headline News rarely covers the headlines, Discovery Channel is full of things better left undiscovered and don’t get me started with MTV!). The workout rooms are small and the pools are often infested with children. For me, domestic projects have to wait until my days off and compete with all the other minutiae of things that need my attention; cleaning, errands, tasks, and, oh yeah, rest.

    There still seems to be an impression of glamour when telling others I’m a flight attendant. In many ways, I guess that’s still true. The hotels are deluxe retreats, the travel is wonderful – if you’re into travel, and one is exposed to a whole new world; one which is smaller than the one in which most people live. Breakfast in New York, lunch in Chicago, dinner in San Francisco; it’s no wonder it’s hard for me to keep track of time. I can be gone for 2 days and it feels like 5!

Aviation; an old propeller engine by PenguinScott

    Many people have no idea what really is involved in a typical day of a flight attendant. So I thought I’d open a little window into my world, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. Ours is a life full of Federal oversights, technicalities, legalities and union rules. I won’t bore you with the why’s of certain things, but feel free to ask if you would like to know more.

    First, a little background, one of the most annoying questions I get is what route I fly. Only the very senior can hold a route, and even then many don’t always fly the same trips. Each month we bid for our flying, and for most of us at my airline, we fly one month on reserve (on call) and the next month is a line month, which means we know exactly where we will be all month. We can trade and drop trips, thus we have much more control of our schedule. On reserve, I only know my days on and off and trading days is much more complex and often very difficult to do, as they are done so at the discretion of the crew desk, who need to ensure there are enough flight attendants to cover the ever changing needs of the flight schedules.

    For this typical day, I’ve chosen a reserve day. This when we have the most chance of experiencing problems, or as I like to say, having my trip go wonky. Things can change at the very last minute on reserve. You may think you’re going to do one leg to Denver and then fly home, but once in Denver, they may send you to Dallas for a layover and all of a sudden, you’re gone an extra night. That’s why I always keep my bag packed for as many days as I’m good to fly. Even if I go for a two-day trip, if I’m good to fly for 5 days, I pack for 5 days!

    Before going to bed, I look on line to see where I am on the list of reserves for the following day. This helps me gauge if I might get called for an early flight or a later one. I’m high on the list, so I go to bed at 2200hrs, which is very early for this night owl, who prefers red eye flights. (It helps with this job to use military time, so I’ll do so here as another way to show you what my life is like.)

    Sure enough, the crew desk calls at 0315 for a check in at 0835. I’m told I’m going to Philadelphia. After hanging up the phone, I now have to figure out what time to set my alarm. I have to leave my house an hour and 10 minutes before check-in and I usually allow an hour to wake, shower, print my paperwork for the trip and grab a bite to eat. After doing the math and checking it, I pray that I can get back to sleep. This is much more difficult than it seems. With a constantly changing schedule, my mind often thinks, ‘that was a good nap and now, let’s think about ‘all’ the stuff’!

    On the drive to work, I realize that I forgot to factor in that this is a Thursday and I hit rush hour traffic. Fortunately, it’s not too bad and I don’t have far to go in it; this is why I choose to live close to the airport. We are provided parking in a garage and a bus takes me to the terminal, which is why I must allow just over an hour to get to check-in even though I live 15 miles from work.

    Once past security, I squeeze past those who see the people mover as a ride and fail to keep to the right so those of us actually wishing to get somewhere soon can pass. I yell out, “Passing on the left and keep trudging through. Soon, I reach in-flight, our base of operations in the bowels of the airport terminal. I say hi to other flight attendants I recognize, never remembering their name or how it is exactly that I know them. Maybe it was a flight to Maui last year. Maybe it was a flight to Orlando last month. I have no idea, so I just say hi with a big smile and feign interest. I’m only really here because I have to check my mailbox and then log onto the computer to see what cyber info has been handed down from mother airline, in all her wisdom.

Passengers by PenguinScott

    After filling up the circular file, I find my room to brief with the flight attendants I’ll be working with. Those who are based with me in San Francisco (SFO) will be there. Sometimes we might fly with crewmembers from other bases; they will meet us at the plane. On this trip to Philadelphia, I’m assigned the purser position, which means I’m the lead flight attendant on the trip. I make the announcements, work first class and am responsible for briefing with the captain and relaying information to my crew. We are a crew of 3, flying an A320.

    Following the briefing, we emerge from the belly of the terminal and make our way to the gate. I brief with the customer service representative (CSR) and board the plane. Next is a busy time for me; stow my luggage, perform safety checks of equipment, brief with the captain, check galley provisions and start getting the galley ready to provide world-class pre-departure service to the wonderful people who occupy the first class seats, all while greeting the passengers with a smile, a few laughs and trying to look chipper as one can be at 0900hrs after getting 5 hours of sleep!

    Mr. Sir is upset that he’s not sitting with his wife and asks if I can help move people around. I know he’s already asked the CSR and been told the flight is full and he’ll have to ask people to move. I tell him the same thing; we are not allowed to move passengers. Tee-Shirt-Mom boards with her stroller, already tagged to be placed in the plane’s cargo hold, so I have to remind her to take it to the door so a baggage handler can stow it for her. People are shoving 2 and 3 bags in overhead bins sideways, so I have to make an announcement telling them not to do this. No one listens to our announcements, but I did my job. The bins fill up and there are still 20 people on the jet way with large roll aboard bags. I inform them there is no more room for bags and that they now have to check them, which really makes me a popular person. 2A , 2E and 3F all have jackets for me to hang. Mr. Got-an-upgrade-and-has-never-flown-in-first-class finds out he can have alcohol right now, and asks what I have. I ask what he likes as I have no intention of trying to name all of our drinks. I make his screwdriver, pour 2 red wines, and deliver 3 ice waters, a beer and 2 gin and tonics. The first officer wants a coffee with cream and sugar and the captain asks for a diet coke. The interphone rings and the flight attendant in the back tells me there are bags coming forward to be checked. I have overhead bins to close before we can close the door and 1F would like another glass of wine.

   Finally, the CSR hands me some paperwork, signaling that we are finished boarding and she closes the aircraft door. I make an announcement asking for all electronics to be turned off. About half the people actually do this, and most who don’t are in first class. I check with the pilots to make sure they have all they need and confirm that they want to eat their crew meal later in the flight and will call me when they are ready to eat. I make sure all passengers are seated and notify the pilots that we are ready to go.

    Now I start getting paid. You read that right. I am only paid flight time, which means once the brakes are released and until they are set again. It’s the same for pilots. This is why, so often, when we know there is a delay in taking off, that we push from the gate and go sit on the tarmac. We want to be earning money, and we can’t when sitting at the gate with the door open. Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, I think it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked for free.

Wheel markings and chocks by PenguinScott

    As purser, I make another announcement welcoming the passengers and introduce the video safety demo. For planes with no video equipment or if it’s broken, I have to read it live, while the crew demonstrates the safety features. Following the demo, I check for customer compliance, secure the galley and take my seat in the jump seat for takeoff. This is where I go over my emergency commands in my head, just in case, as there are only two times you can evacuate a plane: before takeoff and after landing!

    The flight time to Philadelphia is over 5 hours, so there’s no hurry to the service today. It’s drinks with warm nuts from the oven, drink refills, hot towels, lunch, ice cream and 90 minutes later I might get a chance to sit down for a minute before the cockpit calls to come out to use the lavatory.

Since two people are required to be in the cockpit at all times, I now have a chance to escape the passengers for a few minutes up front. I cherish my time spent in the cockpit during flight and the opportunity to get a front-view of the terrain below. I look over the cockpit controls; 32,000 feet, wind from the west, coming up to Denver with aircraft at our two o’clock and four o’clock. The pilots like to ask where I live, where I’m laying over, how the passengers are doing, if it’s cool or warm enough in the cockpit and sometimes we chat about world events or company goings on. It’s almost always the same drill.

    Later in the flight I’m back in the cockpit for a second break and this time I’ve got the pilot’s crew meals. The first officer scoffs at how cheap the pasta dish is. He asks if this is the same pasta I serve in first class. It is. He is dumbfounded at how we get away with serving it for what people pay to sit in first. I sort of agree, but offer, “Well, I smile a lot, if that helps!” This makes him laugh and the buzzer sounds notifying us that the captain is ready to re-enter the cockpit.

    Now we play Stay Awake for the rest of the trip, going out to replenish drinks every so often and reading magazines left on the plane from previous crews. You can normally see the crew start to get excited about 40 minutes before landing. Not only for the work we have to do to prepare for landing, by putting things away and collecting trash in the cabin, but just in the excitement that soon the seatbelt sign will be on and the constant line for the lavatories at the back of the plane is finally gone.

   This trip has gone well; the passengers in first class weren’t as needy as they can be. Some were quite nice and talkative as they got up to use the lav. The guy in 3F was surly the whole time, but at least he wasn’t demanding. Mr. Upgrade wound up sleeping most of the trip. Madam was nice, telling me about her cruise to Alaska with her daughter, who lives in Oakland. I enjoyed the flight and working with the crew in the back. But it’s great to take my jump seat and finally see the tree tops out the window of door 1 left. Hello, Philly! I make my landing announcements, with a dash of humor, and I enjoy looking at the passengers who catch it, chuckle and look up at me. The woman in 9E gives me a thumbs up when I ask that people keep their conversations interesting when saying that they can now use their phones…as we are all listening.

   The taxi to the gate seems to take forever, like we actually landed in Camden and are just going to drive the rest of the way! Seatbelt sign is off, so I’m up to disarm my doors and check that the aft doors are also disarmed by calling the crew on the interphone. The jet bridge comes and the agent opens the door. I tell her that I have 2 passengers who need a wheelchair and have no other specials; sometimes we have unaccompanied minors that need an escort off the plane. I now say goodbye to over 130 passengers; trying to vary the parting comment so no one hears me say the same thing twice; goodbye, farewell, thank you for flying with us, enjoy your day, see you next time, have a great day, thanks for your business, goodbye, see you soon, thank you, farewell, adios, have a great day, etc. A few passengers thank me for the great announcements. Two shake my hands, one gives me a hug. That hardly ever happens, but I never refuse a hug.

Airplane getting serviced photo by PenguinScott

   The pilots rarely stay in the same hotel and they leave with the passengers. Soon, the plane is empty and a few passengers are waiting near the door for the strollers to be brought up from the cargo hold. There isn’t a crew waiting so we have to wait on the strollers as well. Once all the passengers are clear, we can enter the terminal and head to our pick up for the van to the hotel. It’s all prearranged and the pick-up area is listed on my paperwork.  The van shows up after waiting a few minutes and we are taken to the hotel. This time we are down town, since the layover is more than 20 hours. If it were less, we would stay in a hotel close to the airport. Check in is a breeze for us; a name and some information on a form and we are handed keys.

   I say farewell, for now, to my crew. I head to my room, change out of my uniform and head out to explore the city. I don’t have long, as my return flight is 0800 the following day and those 5 hours of sleep the night before are dragging me down fast. But I love Philly and head to my favorite spot for a great cheesesteak sandwich. I walk a few miles and return, exhausted, to my hotel room. I enjoy the fact that my windows face an apartment complex across the alley and spy on a few people who seem to enjoy the fact that they live across from a hotel with prying eyes. Oh, you didn’t know I’m a voyeur? I see a topless lady playing with her 3 dogs, a couple having sex through half-drawn blinds and a guy eating dinner on his sofa. He looks over and up at me and waves. I wave back and we laugh.

   It’s been a long day and it’ll be a short night. Time for bed; tomorrow comes too soon so often in this job. I’ll fly to Denver before eventually reaching SFO. I’m good for 2 more days when I get home and I know I’ll be used for them. I’ll get home; too tired to do the domestic projects that most of you get to enjoy doing when ‘you’ get home from work. I’ll put them off for another day. Before I know it, that bill I thought I’d pay when I next get home, doesn’t get paid until my next day off, in 3 or 4 days. But at least I will have 4 days off; one day to recover and 3 to do get things done. It’s never a dull moment in the life of a flight attendant!

747 in air by PenguinScott

Friday, March 22, 2013

One of the worst days

Another gorgeous Pacifica day; clear blue skies, slight breeze, wonderful ocean with mist rising into the air; I love living here. I had my plan: Chinese consulate to renew my visa, stop at Costco for gas and a few items, doctor’s office, then to the mall to conduct a mystery shop for dinner.

I left a little later than planned, so I felt rushed to get to the consulate before they closed. Traffic was heavy, like it was nearing rush hour, but it was only 1:20. I found a parking spot only 2 blocks from the consulate, which was good for the part of the city I was in. It was now ten to two and the sign stated no parking from 11-2. There were many other cars parked, so I thought I’d take my chance, but no need to worry. I got half a block and suddenly I realized I didn’t recall grabbing my passport. I checked my pockets and the contents of the envelope in which I had placed my application. Nothing. All that way, all that traffic, for nothing. Back to the car in shame.

                Because of the traffic, I decided to go back a different route, which did seem better. I found a good parking spot at Costco and as I grabbed my wallet to show my membership ID, I realized I DID have my passport. Now I was really kicking myself. How could I have not realized I actually had it on me? Why didn’t I feel it when I searched my pockets? And the whole drive back south I was racking my brain on where I had put it the night before after making the required copies for the application. I just couldn’t remember.


                My brain has been on vacation for a while. It was very bad after my illness in November of 2009. It’s been a long, slow process of healing and feeling like I’m on top of things again.  A few weeks ago, I nearly missed my first trip back to work after thinking it was on a Sunday, when it was actually on a Saturday. I still don’t know how I did that. Now this.

                I felt bad and a bit worried about myself so I called Mom and told her. She laughed, saying she does things like this all the time. I hear that a lot, when explaining odd things I have done in my recovery. But I was never like this. Mom used to always tell me what a great memory I had. I graduated in the top 10% of my class. I’m a smart person. Or I used to be.

                I told Mom I was in Costco to get some mouthwash. I also needed to buy ink for my printer, cash my annual cash back check and stop for gas. I walked around as I talked to Mom and got a few food samples. I found the mouthwash and got in line. Before leaving, I thought I’d treat myself to a mocha freeze. I pulled out of the parking lot to head to the doctor’s office, not half a mile away. I still had 20 minutes, so I parked in the garage with a view of San Bruno Mountain and texted a friend of mine, who I knew would enjoy hearing of my time with trying to renew my visa. He did laugh.

                As I sat in the waiting room, I realized I had left Costco without getting ink or cashing my check. Now I was really feeling stupid. I was also feeling quite tired and while I waited to see the doctor about my sleep apnea, I wondered if there isn’t something more seriously wrong than just, well, “I do things like that all the time, it’s normal.”

                Things checked out OK at the doctor’s. My next stop was the mall. My assignment there was to have dinner at Five Guys to evaluate customer service and timing. I had also received in the mail a week prior a post card from the mall. Turn it in to receive a gold egg and maybe inside will be a $500 prize. Taking a better look at it, I now realized I was in the wrong mall. It was the right mall for the assignment, but the prize was another mall entirely. Not sure how I didn’t realize that, either.

                On the way home, with my failed day still going through my head, I thought about how I now am constantly worrying myself. When I leave for errands, when I leave a hotel room after a layover, when I board a plane or walk into the briefing room before a flight, I’m always feeling like I’m forgetting something. I take careful notes on what time I have to be places and what things I need to take. For weeks I’ve been forgetting to buy aspirin. Last week I went to cook meals for the pilots, turning on the oven without placing the meals in them. It caused me to overcook the meals for the passengers. I think now know what it feels like to be 80! And it’s scary as hell. This constant feeling like I’m forgetting something is stressful. What if I forget something important, like arming doors for takeoff?

                As I drove down Highway 1 towards home I enjoyed the view of the Pacific Ocean as the sun neared the horizon.  The sky was clear and there was now enough mist over the ocean that it rose quite high and created a haze as I looked out to the ocean. The breeze blew this haze on shore to where it nudged into the hills and gave way to the blue sky above. The light on my gas gauge came on. I had forgotten to get gas at Costco. God damn it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Going back to work hits a bump

March 2, 2013
Being back to work is so bitter sweet. I really missed being on airplanes and mixing with pilots and crew, talking to people from all over the world, making a passenger’s day, staying in hotels and seeing the world. But I’d come to really appreciate my freedom- to do as I pleased whenever I chose to do them.
                The 12 month furlough from work was voluntary- a fact I’d wanted at first to keep from my family. I was still struggling with medical issues stemming from an illness in late 2009, which nearly took my life and was tired of my health always being the driving force in conversations. When I first took the furlough, I felt as if I may not be alive at the end of it. I was constantly tired and run down and there was just an odd feeling that loomed over me like a sinister parrot on my shoulder. I felt like if I didn’t take the time off to work on my health, I’d die, which explains why I also wanted to use my time off to visit friends and family and do some leisure traveling.
                One of the more sinister fingerprints of that illness was how my brain was affected from the 106 degree temperature I suffered. I was having a very difficult time thinking in the months right after I got out of the hospital. It was as if my internal thesaurus no longer worked; I couldn’t think of words and in the middle of a sentence I would completely forget the topic. Many people told me they do that all the time and that it comes with age, but for me, it was new…and terrifying!
                I’ve been doing much better in the past 12 months, but apparently I’m still having some issues with how to read a calendar. As part of returning to work, I received my line of flying (a series of dates and trips) for March. I was very happy with the line I was awarded because it made easing back into that routine easy…with late check-ins, long layovers and for the most part, one leg a day. My first day back was a Sunday. Or so I thought.
                To get ready for my return, I spent Saturday afternoon getting things ready. I packed my suitcases and got my uniform ready. I sat down at my computer to send out some last minute letters and received a confused note from my neighbor, who thought my first flight was Saturday. I was about to set her straight when I thought I’d better check my schedule, just to be sure. I felt the blood leave my face as I realized how wrong I was.
                I looked at the clock; 9:00PM. I had to check in for my flight at 10:15PM. I dropped everything, got dressed, realizing I’d not shaved and would have to look like a bum. I grabbed my bags and shot out the door. I got 10 blocks away and realized I had left my airline ID. It was questionable if I could return home and still make it on time. Surely, I’ve never driven so fast to work in my life!

                This was not how I wanted to start things off with my return to work. As I sat on the employee bus, which seemed to move like molasses, I tried to figure out how I could make such a mistake. I looked at the calendar on my phone, which had Sunday as my first flight. Had I simply recorded the date wrong? I was to attend a party on Sunday morning and was happy when I saw my schedule that I could still attend. What made me think this?
                Even with difficulties getting through security, I still arrived with 5 minutes to spare. My flying partners were relieved I had made it on time after telling them what I had done. I left a message thanking my neighbor for sending a note when being confused about my schedule; had she said nothing I would have missed my first flight back, and that would have been bad. I also thanked the gods for me living so close to work and that I had not put off getting things ready. When I showed up, I was winded and disheveled, something I am used to with this job. So, not much has changed, it seems. Yep, I was back. Just a little more confused.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Black Eyed Peas for Prosperity

Black Eyed Peas for Prosperity
By PenguinScott
(Photos NOT by PenguinScott)

Superstition has always been a curiosity to me. Never having bought into superstition, I’ve always walked under ladders, have no issues with black cats, and don’t blindly fall for most religious doctrine, which in my eyes, is nothing but superstition. There is one superstitious practice I generally adhere to, however, and that is that I tend to eat my pie crust first and finish with the point. Yes, there are people who think eating the point first is unlucky. My reason for doing so isn’t about luck but that the point of the pie slice is the middle of the pie; the best part, if you ask me.
                Growing up, my father always made me eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Eve. It seems that in the southern United States, those who eat them are favored to discover good luck and fortune for the coming year. It’s a tradition I escaped from after leaving home and living on my own. I’ve had some really good years without my annual dose of black eyed peas; and I do like eating them!

                However, after several years in a row of what I would call…less than stellar years…I recently decided to break down and give superstition a chance. I decided that my contribution to the New Year’s Eve party I had been invited to would be the lucky legume I had avoided for so long. What could it hurt, right?
                No longer living in the south, it was not as easy to find them. Even though California has a pale-colored pea with a prominent dark spot named after it, none of the grocery stores I ventured into carried any. All right, that’s a bit of a mistruth; one did carry them, but not canned. I had been lazy and put off until the last minute purchasing any. December 31 is not the time to buy them raw and deal with cooking them. Not when the recipe calls for mixing a variety of canned beans to marinate overnight. Who knew it’d be so hard to find them?
                The party was starting in a few hours. I still had time to try a few more stores. I could make it when I arrived, let it sit overnight, and the next day, when we prepared our brunch, ta-dah, magical good luck for all!

   At this point, I had searched the shelves of five grocery stores. Then I thought about the Asian market a few miles out of my way, but surely to have them. After all, they have been commercially grown all over Asia much longer than they’ve been growing in the south.
                The Asian market is one I enjoy going to from time to time. They have a variety of items any local store would have. The bonus is the wonderful selection of Asian items; from kitchenware to frozen and fresh dishes normally only ordered at a restaurant. They also carry cans of black eyed peas. I think I even heard a heavenly choir as I finally found it on the shelf; tears spilling out of my eyes. Finally, the bad luck of the past few years with health issues, financial issues and death would be washed away with a few spoonful’s of lucky peas looking in all directions with those dark eyes of theirs.
                It was New Year’s Eve and the store, including the other restaurants and shops of the complex, all Asian, was bursting with patrons. Why, the parking lot was so packed that I wound up parking a full two blocks away on a neighborhood street. I was certainly determined.
Armed with my one can of peas, I found the line that appeared shortest and stood behind a young woman busy on her phone and began to look over the impulse items of Chinese cookies and treats. All of a sudden, a woman approaches with about a dozen items and plops them down on the conveyer belt. I realized that the teenager in front of me had nothing to purchase. She had been standing in line only to save a place for her mother. I tried to ignore it.
I failed.
                “Hi,” I started casually, “I think it’s rather rude of you to have your place saved in line like that.” She regarded me casually, in her black sweater and pants and well coifed hair. “I’m her mother,” she replied simply.
                “I don’t care if you’re if the president of the United States, what you did was selfish,” I replied back. I know. I feel horrible about it. But I’d been to five stores, walked two blocks from my car, and had been standing in line for over five minutes. Looking at the people behind me, I continued, “We all chose a line based on how quickly it was going to move. We all have plans. Then you come along with all these items and now we have to wait. It’s selfish of you to have your daughter hold your place in line while you shop.”
                At this point, the woman starts into me, that I’m selfish, and she begins to raise her voice. I retort, “I’m selfish? You do something wrong and you blame me? That’s not how this works. You’re the one in the wrong. I’m simply calling you out on it; and you thought you’d get away with it.” She continues yelling at me and the effect on me was to raise my voice in return.

A security officer who was nearby approaches and inquires as to what is going on. She continues yelling at me and he asks her to calm down. The officer suggests that I move in front of her with my can of peas. I declined. If she feels it’s so important to cut in front of a group of strangers, by all means, let her finish her business. I simply want to let her know it’s wrong.
                A young man in the next line over shouts out to me that I should let her be, and then he tells me I’m in an Asian market. Now I assume what he meant was that in Chinese tradition, one wouldn’t argue with a woman in line. Maybe he even meant that I should respect my elders. I looked younger than this woman, but I feel pretty confident that she was about my age. Surely, he wasn’t trying to infer that being the only non-Asian meant anything special.
                I look around me mockingly and reply to the young man, “Really? I’m in an Asian market? Well, I had no idea. Thank you for getting involved and helping me out.” He makes a snide comment and leaves the debate.
                The poor cashier had no idea how to handle it. Where she had been friendly and warm and talkative, she was now silent and sullen. She rang up the woman and placed her items in bags. The officer stood nearby. As she gathered her bags, she looked back at me, almost triumphantly. So I took the opportunity to get one more dig at her, “Good luck in the new year, you’re going to need it!” She almost looked shocked.
                Her reply is something I don’t feel comfortable in writing in this story. There was a certain word that most people try to refrain from using in conversation in public. I asked if that was the proper example to set for her young daughter. She repeated a portion of her first retort and huffed off, the daughter still engrossed with her phone.
                The cashier, still silent, rang up my can of black eyed peas and I paid. As I started to leave, the officer approached and warned me to beware of the young man from the other line. He and a friend were now standing in the lobby watching me and he was afraid for my welfare. I let him know in a voice they could certainly hear that I wasn’t concerned and that I could take care of myself. This was a lie. That young kid probably could have really put me in a world of hurt. But I’m a pretty good actor and know how to carry myself.
                As I walked out of the market, I did so with my head held high and the can of peas firmly in my hand. Maybe they’d make a good weapon. I didn’t look back and started towards my car a few blocks away. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. But I had stood my ground and made my point to everyone in the store that day. I was a mix of emotions. I was ashamed that I behaved so poorly and let this woman’s moronic behavior pull me down to her level. I was proud that I stood my ground. I was terrified this young punk was going to accost me and force me to try out my fighting skills, rusty from, oh, I don’t know, 25 years or more of non-use?
                At the New Year’s Eve party, I recounted my tale of the black eyed peas as I made my superstitious dish. I concluded by stating that I bet it’d be a long time before that woman ever cuts in line again. My host said she doubted that. I don’t know. I did make a big scene, intentionally. I just hoped I hadn’t cursed my magical peas. I needed to make 2012 a good year, after all.
                The following day, we ate the dish I had lovingly prepared for my friends in hopes that we could all experience prosperity and good fortune. It was a huge hit with everyone, even though none had realized that eating them was good luck. I guess it truly is a southern tradition; perhaps one that I should revisit and make my own on an annual basis. I’ll just try to get them a little ahead of time and avoid the Asian market on December 31st.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Lyngbakr, or, I should have known when she ordered the shark’s fin soup and chicken feet

The Lyngbakr, or,
I should have known when she ordered the shark’s fin soup and chicken feet      
By PenguinScott

I looked out the window and below me was France. There were towns and villages and roads meandering from one direction to another. It looked lush and inviting from 29,000 feet. I wished I were down there sitting in a café enjoying some wine with bread and cheese. Oh, and butter. I remember how delicious the butter was when I was in France!
                For the past six days I had been in Barcelona and I was flying back to America. I had been fairly stressed, which is odd, having been on vacation for 3 weeks. Before Barcelona, I had crossed the Atlantic on a cruise ship. We left from New Orleans with stops in Miami and then the Azores. It was a wonderful trip taken with a group of friends. We had all been through a lot, maybe not so much on the ship, but in Barcelona.
                I found myself loving Spain. It was my first visit and it was hard deciding if I liked Spain more than other European cities I’ve been to. The architecture was exciting. The food was fresh and creative. The people were vibrant and easy going. We had good weather for the most part and getting around was a breeze. I was choked up when viewing the steps upon which Columbus climbed to inform Queen Isabella that he had just returned from what would turn out to be America. Such history!   
                Flying over France, I was of two minds as I relived my vacation. I had truly seen both sides of the coin on this trip; the good and the bad. Sure, I had my camera and travel wallet stolen. Gone were all my photos from the cruise, from New Orleans, from Ponta Delgada in the Azores and from 2 glorious days sightseeing in Barcelona. That’s what I really cared about. Not the travel wallet with 2 credit cards and about $100 in cash. Not the feeling of being violated for having someone’s hand inside my front pocket without my knowledge…or enjoyment. Many of the photos can be reproduced from those taken by friends, but many- my artistic shots, shots of myself and shots I took when alone- cannot.
                The thing is, this is not the worst part of my trip. When people ask me about it, it wasn’t all of that behind my answer, “I had a great time. I had a horrible time.” No. The real reason behind it was that the woman I shared a room with on the cruise and an apartment with in Barcelona turned out to be a Lyngbakr. I had been calling her the Kraken, but Lyngbakr seems more appropriate.
                You see, Lyngbakr is a mythical sea monster known to bait seafarers by posing as a lovely island, and when a crew landed on its back, it sank into the sea, drowning them. This is a more appropriate illustration of my point; as I had been lured into a lovely relationship, even sexual, and then once safely at sea, the woman I had boarded the ship with in New Orleans turned into a monster, and sunk us into the darkness.  
                I had originally met Beth at a camp out with a large group of friends about six months prior. I hadn’t really gotten to know her. I can’t stand cigarettes and she smoked, so there was never really an impetus to go over and talk to her. She still walked with a cane after an illness left her paralyzed for a brief period of time. The extent of it was just a hello and a smile now and then.
                Several months later, when I realized that Christmas fell on a Sunday, I decided to see if I couldn’t round up some people to join me for dim sum, a traditional Chinese Sunday brunch. Beth was the first person to respond. Even though we hardly knew one another, I was excited to see her enthusiasm. She even tried her hardest to round up others, as well.
                As it turned out, it was just the two of us. There was a place she recommended right across the street from her apartment. The arrangements were all in place. My only problem was that I didn’t really remember what she looked like and I feared walking in and not recognizing my brunch guest. When I arrived at the restaurant, it was packed with people, and every single one of them was Asian, so it would have been easy to pick her out. At least I knew it would be a good place for dim sum, even if it was Christmas morning.
                Fortunately, she recognized me and approached as I was in line to leave a name. She was an attractive woman, taller than I and now off of the cane that had supported her when I met her. She still walked slowly and methodically, which is sort of the manner in which she spoke, making sure to pronounce each syllable of a word; sometimes over-pronouncing them. She wore a sun dress with flat sandals and her black hair was straight with a hint of body to it. She was also all smiles.
                We were seated and began to place our order on the menu sheet we had been given. I marked a few items I was interested in and turned it over to her. She marked a few things, asked a few questions, and then paused. She looked up at me and asked if I’d ever had shark’s fin soup.
                I immediately protested, “Of course not! Do you know how they treat those sharks? They cut off the fin and toss them back into the water to die a horrible and painful death. I’ll have nothing to do with shark’s fin soup!” My inside voice most likely continued, “And neither will you!”
                After another pause, I was asked if I had ever had chicken feet. Now, I’m sure they don’t cut off the feet of chicken and toss them into a pen to die a horrible footless death. But I have an issue with eating animal’s feet. I don’t eat pig’s feet. I don’t eat chicken feet. This, I made clear to her as well, but maybe not as strongly as my issue with shark’s fin. After all, someone might as well eat the feet; it just won’t be me!
                She made two marks on the menu order form and then explained that she likes to try new things. She was ordering both the soup and the feet. I was invited to try them as well. I assured her that as much as I love a new thing, I’d not be trying either one.
                She didn’t like the soup and asked that it be taken off the bill. She thought the chicken feet was disgusting. Nice waste of animal appendages, I thought to myself, but I didn’t gloat.
The rest of the meal was wonderful and with time to kill before attending a party we had both been invited to, we went to her place and talked for hours. Our conversation meandered through our separate medical issues and our lives and experiences. There was never an awkward silence or an acrimonious word. I had a wonderful time and made a new friend.
                Several weeks later, I saw a great deal on the 13 night cruise to Spain and posted it on line. She replied almost immediately. I had a hard time believing she was serious and after detailing all the expenses, I wrote her to say that if she said yes and I put down a deposit, there was no backing out. Even though it was her first cruise, she assured me that I need not worry.
                I booked the cruise and we started making plans. We got together a few more times at her house and usually had lunch or dinner together. I was really enjoying our friendship and the things we had in common. We’d spend hours on line chatting to one another- joking and flirting. It was looking like we were really going to enjoy ourselves on this trip!
                Soon, she had invited others to come along. Kit, a mutual friend of ours who I’d known for years and lived about an hour away and Will, a guy she knew from Burning Man, in his 60s who lived in Boston. I had mentioned the cruise to another guy I had just met in December, Jerry, so he was on board with our plans. The sixth member was a guy we met on line from a cruise community web site. He was our age, fun and seemed to have a lot in common. He’d be on the cruise as their stage manager, but wanted to spend a few days in Barcelona with us. His name was Nathan and he lived in Vegas with his partner of 19 years.
                For the 6 weeks or so leading up to the trip, we all got together on line for chats and planning sessions. We needed a hotel in New Orleans as we were arriving 2 days early to attend a festival. I led the way with our plans in the Azores. Several people were utilizing my buddy passes to fly to and fro. And then there was the apartment in Barcelona for the six of us. There was a lot to plan out for six people!
                Jerry invited those of us living in the bay area to his place for planning parties, which included dinner and a hot tub soak. We were all getting along famously and the anticipation of the trip was almost more than I could bear.
                Jerry, Beth and I flew together from San Francisco to New Orleans on Friday. Kit flew in Thursday to visit his daughter, who attends college there and would meet us at the festival. Will would fly in on Saturday and meet us at the hotel. Nathan arrived Saturday early enough to meet us at the festival. Each of us was so excited, it was better than Christmas!
                When we arrived in New Orleans is when Beth started to complain. It wasn’t major, but the airport was undergoing construction and there were no signs to indicate where to pick up checked luggage. We had to go outside, and then back in. Next, to pick up the van for the hotel, we had to go back out and to the other side of the terminal. It was late and she had taken a Xanax and may have been in a bit of pain as well, so I paid little attention to the complaining and tried to be accommodating. I’ve been in that situation numerous times…well, without the Xanax.
                With the festival going on downtown the next day, I was eager to get out of the hotel and explore. I set an alarm to wake us up, and after a breakfast of beignets, which she didn’t care for, and meeting Nathan at the airport, we were on a bus headed to the French Quarter Festival. We turned up Bourbon Street, which was cordoned off and full of people having fun and drinking. Beth needed a restroom break and Jerry needed a beer. At the first bar we came to, they went in to take care of their needs. I told them I’d wait outside for them. After all, this was Bourbon Street and I wanted to soak it in.
                It was a wonderful day; clear with a few billowy clouds and warm but not hot. The people in the street were all having a great time. I stood in the shade and waiting. After 15 minutes, a bit flustered, I wandered inside. What I found was an empty bar with lame music and my two friends sitting there with a beer each. I asked if they understood that they could walk around in the streets with their beer. They did. They had no interest in the goings on outside.
                I was near crazy. Who goes to New Orleans, on Bourbon Street, no less, and sits at a bar? Apparently only those two, as everyone else was in the street. You can sit in a bar at home! I told them I’d meet them later. We had already contacted Kit and told him we’d meet at the Napoleon House, so off I went, not wanting to keep him waiting.
                By dinner time we were all together, except for Will, who was arriving later that night and would miss out on our downtown experience. Nathan brought along a guy he would be working with on the ship and Kit was with his daughter. The seven of us went to dinner at a popular place and our adventure together was off.  
Then the bill arrived. At first, it got passed around and we all looked it over and contributed our portions. When it got to Beth, she pulled out a piece of paper and her calculator. She began to query everyone on what they had ordered and began dissecting the bill with the skills of some sort of hybrid mad surgeon/engineer.  It was the most thorough going over of a bill in history.
                Nathan gave me a look that I completely understood; as did his friend. We were eager to get back out to the festival and blow this joint already. We rose and advised the group that we’d meet up later; we all had our phones, after all. Beth looked cross at me and probed whether I had left enough money. My reply? “Well, dear, I’ve put in $5 more than what I owe with tax and tip. If you discover that I owe more, then you know where to find me. But I’m done sitting here and I need to get out there.” Nathan and his friend were all smiles as I led the way out the door.
                We did meet up later but Kit and his daughter soon made their exit. After a spectacular fireworks display and a long walk, we found ourselves in yet another restaurant. Seems we were eating our way across this fine city! It was a nice little Italian place, too. We had a grand time. The bill arrives and this time, there is a loud exclamation complete with expletives about the price of Beth’s hurricane. Heads turned in our direction. I wanted to crawl under the table and hide. I might have met Nathan under there had he followed his impulse to do the same. We explained to her that a hurricane is a large drink full of alcohol and being served in a nice restaurant during a festival. She slowly accepted this and began to calm down. We left a huge tip to apologize for making a scene. At least the bill didn’t get dissected again!  
My past cruise experiences have taught me to arrive at the cruise terminal early. I’d rather wait an hour in the lounge before we can board than wait an hour standing in line. We arrived around 11AM and got our bags checked in. Beth and Jerry needed some things from a grocery store and upon hearing of one in walking distance, they were off. Will was now with us, and had a mission of beignets and coffee from Café du Monde, so he was off as well. I got checked in within 15 minutes and found Nathan and a few people I had gotten to know on line waiting in the lounge and had a great time getting to know new friends.
                An hour passed quickly and I received a text from Jerry and Beth- Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum? They had decided to go back into the city and explore a voodoo museum and have lunch. I reminded them that we had to be on board by three. The people around me were a bit concerned. Jerry can be like a child and Beth had never been on a cruise. But I knew if they missed the boat, they could meet us in Miami and would have two days to get there. The funny thing is, we wound up leaving the pier an hour early. We did leave a few people behind, but Dee and Dum were not among them, and it was close.
                We got to Miami and Jerry’s parent’s, who lived a few hours away, had come to town to meet him. They offered for Beth and I to come along and they could take us to South Beach. We met them outside and they had also brought Jerry’s brother. Beth and I felt so bad about Jerry’s mom having to sit up front between the two seats on top of the emergency break that we nearly backed out. She assured us it was fine, and not a long journey, and that we should definitely get in the car.
                We headed out and Jerry’s dad needed navigational assistance. Beth got her phone out and started giving directions that I knew was a longer route than necessary. I got mine out as well and waited for it to boot up.
We were already on the causeway headed to South Beach. Our ship was to our right and I was so engrossed in trying to get a photo of her that I failed to realize that Beth had just instructed Jerry’s dad to turn around, which he promptly did. We were about a mile from our destination, but we were now headed back to downtown! This new route would take another thirty minutes. It was after we were well into our new route of taking the islands to South Beach that she realized her phone was giving walking instructions instead of driving. It was a scenic route, however, and nice to see the grand homes on the islands.
                With construction projects under way, there were a few police visible. Each time we passed one, Beth made mention of the “pigs”. After hearing this for the hundredth time, I asked that she not call them such. I had friends and family who were in law enforcement and I found it a little demeaning. She protested and asked when she had ever called them pigs. Well, since she asked, I informed her; this morning as we came into the port of Miami, there was a police boat and she called that a pig. When we were at Jerry’s house both times for our planning parties, she mentioned pigs. And the two hundred times this morning on our short, but detoured time in the car, she called them pigs. In fact, I’ve never heard any other name come out of her mouth than pig, when referring to the police. She apologized. I noticed Jerry’s mom smiling at me with approval.
                We were dropped off in South Beach and Jerry’s family went to find a parking spot for the car. It would be an hour before we’d see them again. We began walking to the south along the pathway of the beach. I heard mention of thirst and the first bar we came to, which happened to be the Ritz-Carlton Spa, we stopped. I was beginning to see a pattern here, and to regret my selection of travel companions. I got a text from Nathan, who was doing his own thing, asking how things were going. I informed him of what was going on. We both agreed that when we reached Barcelona, he and I would have to leave these 2 behind in a bar. I have a strong desire to see and explore. Sitting at a bar is for after having done so for long enough that my body needs a rest. We were just starting out!
                As we finally left the bar to meet up with Jerry’s family, I was shocked that there was no comment about the pricey drinks at the Ritz. They had 2 each, after all. But loosened up with libations, she let Jerry walk ahead of us and she confronted me about something. I slowed down and leaned in to listen. She asked that in the future I not call her out in front of other people. Not knowing what she was talking about, I asked for clarification. She was referring to my asking her not call cops pigs. I was floored! You mean I can’t ask not to do something that bothers me until we are in private? I don’t think so, and I told her as much.
                I had asked nicely. I even said please and thank you. I didn’t bark it out. I didn’t call attention to it. I stated it calmly to her in a volume of voice that was intended only for her. That the others heard it because they found it more interesting than to carry on with their conversation is not my fault. Then I warned her, I would do my best not to call attention to her shortcomings around others, but if I felt uncomfortable about anything she was saying, I would have to say something about it without delay.
                Perhaps this is when the beast was born. Lyngbakr: the monster who lures the unsuspecting and then carries them under the sea. It didn’t seem to bother her that I stood my ground. We carried on that day, having a delightful time with laughs and talks and stories and smiles.
                The next day at sea, and for the rest of our time on the ship, Beth was a different woman. Oh, there were times when the woman I had gotten to know the previous 3 months was with us. As a VIP on board the Spirit, I was invited to a small cocktail party hosted by the captain. I invited her, of course, and we even dressed up for the occasion. There were elegant canapés with caviar and shrimp and cream cheese on toast and the booze was flowing. The top officers were there in their ornamental dark uniforms with gold trim. She really appreciated having gone with me and said so numerous times. We even had sex that night. But for the most part on the voyage, she had become Lyngbakr and was dragging me into the deep.
                She slept all day. There was one day where she was only awake for 5 hours. Another night, I came in to go to bed around 2AM and she got up and went out. From what I could tell, she spent much of her time outside the room smoking in the lounge one deck up. I know that our room stunk to high heaven of cigarette smoke emanating from her clothing. And she had promised that she was going to quit for the cruise.
                When she did come to dinner with our group of new friends from the on line community, she complained about the food; not as bad as the scene she made in the Italian place, but close. She’d take a bite of a dish and push it back with a face of a child and exclaim, “Well, this is awful!”, as if to wish for the whole table to understand that she was displeased.
                At one point, one of our new friends leaned over to me and asked what was wrong with her. I explained that I had only known her for a few months and I guess she is one of those who need to complain about things to feel alive. It got to the point where others in our group began to complain to me about her as well. I was even asked if she had a drinking problem. And then I learned from a friend that she had gone of her meds right after Miami.
                “Off her meds? What meds?” One thing I didn’t know was that she was bi-polar and decided to stop taking her medicine to help regulate the condition. Why she would chose such a time is beyond me. It certainly explained the sudden turn of behavior in my friend.
                All I knew was that I was going crazy. I couldn’t go to the room and not find her in bed. I enjoy having my room attended to in the morning. I was receiving daily treats from various ships’ officers as a perk of being on the VIP list. There were days I didn’t get my treat, because she was in bed with the ‘do not disrupt’ sign on the door. One day, I found that my plate of chocolates was gone; my fancy delicate chocolates with the ship’s logo emblazoned across the top. She ate them; this after complaining to me several times at how her roommate back home was eating her food from the fridge! She told me she even wanted to dupe her by somehow contaminating a dish and leaving it for her roommate to eat.
                The last I could bear from her shipboard behavior came a few nights before reaching Barcelona. I was in the disco with friends, enjoying libations and dancing. While taking a break and sitting with a guy I knew, I saw two uniformed security officers enter the club. I’d seen them do this on rounds before, but I immediately knew these were not rounds. They were looking for someone. My heart sank.  I knew it was me they sought. Sure enough, they approached and asked if I was Mr. Penguin, rooming with Miss Lyngbakr. Yes, I was that poor soul.
                They had just escorted Beth to our room after finding her too intoxicated to make it back on her own. She was discovered in a bar, where others informed the officers that she had only ordered one drink. I explained that she was on medication for a health issue and maybe she had taken too many; or secretly, maybe she was drinking from the supply of vodka in our room! But perhaps more importantly- both!
                I was asked to go with them to check on her and make sure she didn’t need medical assistance. Jerry came along as well. I opened our door and was greeted with Beth’s bare ass, stuck between the bed and the wall. I grabbed the towel animal our steward had made and covered her up. With Jerry and the security lady, the 3 of us managed to get her back in bed. Apparently, she had attempted to use the restroom. She got her pants down, but fell and got stuck and passed out. Needless to say, she no longer needed to use the restroom.
                At this point, I was over it. I was this close to asking for a new room. The new low was the following morning explaining to our room steward that after Miss Lyngbakr awoke, he’d need to replenish all of our linens and bed coverings. He sure got a nice tip from me on the last day for that!
The hell of the cruise was over. I had loved the cruise and now had so many new friends. I assumed that she hated the cruise and that was the reason for spending it in our room sleeping and watching movies. I never had the chance to ask, because I had eventually given up on trying and we saw so little of one another. She even stopped joining us for dinner. Simply, she had just given up. Hopefully that would all change now that we were on land.
We were finally in Barcelona and were eager to experience this wondrous city none of us had been to. Of course, Beth had again over-indulged the previous night and before leaving the cabin, she relieved her stomach of its contents quite unexpectedly.
We got to the neighborhood in which our apartment was located. I called to have someone meet us with the key and while we waited, Beth needed someone to escort her to a nearby restroom; quickly. Only this time it wasn’t her stomach.
When we got to the apartment, we settled in for a bit. Nathan and Kit rushed me, exclaiming they wanted to share the room I had chosen and that Will and Jerry could share the room with Lyngbakr. I didn’t care; I had spent enough time in a small room with her and my reward was the one large bed in a room that didn’t include her. Another reward was that my room had a drawing of a Picasso penguin. It was fate!
At my urging, we selected a time at which to finish up settling in so that we could go out and explore the city a little. After all, I hadn’t come all this way to sit in a small Spanish apartment. They agreed, and after catching up their statuses on line, we were ready to head out. As we did so, Beth lay down on her bed and got under the covers, making it apparent that she would not be joining us. For this reason, not much was said about it by anyone. After all, she had spent much of the morning in the restroom, so we weren’t exactly surprised.
What did surprise me was that much like on the ship, she continued to stay in bed for most of her stay in Barcelona. She only went out in the evenings and usually that was to go to a bar. She never went sightseeing. She didn’t go on any tours. She never left our neighborhood. There was one day she never spoke to any of us but Will; and we later found out from him that she was being a Lyngbakr to him as well. One morning, she and Jerry were getting into it, as they often did. Will, who had the misfortune of sharing the room with them, turned over in his bed and asked that they turn out the light. She reprimanded him by commenting that she should simply die then, since she wouldn’t be able to see what medicine she needed to take. Oh, I guess she went back on them? Most likely not; she had many to take.
At night, we would announce sightseeing plans for the following day and invite anyone to join. She never said a word. We weren’t going to make her have a good time in Barcelona. We’d come a long way and wanted to get out without having to wake her and wait for her to ready herself. She knew the plans and if she wanted to join us, she could have done so.
The drama was much more than passive-aggressive. One morning she informed us that the night before she was attacked and nearly raped. We felt awful for her, until reading on line that her story didn’t match what she told us in the apartment. As proof, she showed us bruises on her arms. They appeared to be the same ones she got from getting her back into bed when she entrapped herself that night on the ship.
The following night, she tells us she heard a woman screaming. Fearing she was about to be raped, Beth goes downstairs to assist and was again, attacked, but she kicked the shit out of him. Later, in a post she made on line, she stated that one of the six of us had nearly been mugged on our first night. I went around to everyone to find out who this was and what happened, since I hadn’t heard about it. No one was nearly mugged. We doubted anything she said at this point.
Nathan, Kit and I traveled really well together- and even Will, but he usually had his own agenda. We spent a good deal of time exploring the city and dining out. We all liked to see as much as possible and had similar travel habits. However, it got to where, upon heading back to the apartment in the evening, we’d wonder to each other what had befallen ‘Drama Central’ that day. More arguments with Jerry? Another attack? It was scary.
I felt bad for her. But I had reached out to her more than once and she always closed down. She had trained me on the ship that I could try, and maybe she’d come around to near normal for a few hours. But then she would return to the dark side, close down and sleep all day. I was on vacation, not a bi-polar summer camp, after all.
While dancing early one morning in a disco with Nathan is when I had my pocket picked. I lost most of the next day dealing with that issue. As horrible as that was, it was nothing compared to being drug under a black ocean by Lyngbakr.
When we returned home, she commented on how bad a place Barcelona was. She shared her stories of rapes and muggings and of being abandoned in the apartment while we all went out and had fun. I couldn’t stand it. I posted back to her so that others could understand; she didn’t know Barcelona because she never saw it, so it was an unfair review. She wasn’t abandoned; she chose not to go out with us, even if we secretly hoped she wouldn’t. There were other people to hang out with besides Nathan, Kit and me, who she came to call the Three Musketeers. But most importantly, she needed help. There is no doubt that she had a bad time. She needed to be back on her meds and she could obviously use some good therapy. I knew she wouldn’t listen to me, so I hoped others could see through the veil and offer her that which she needed.
After we had all returned to America, Beth defriended us on line, telling others that I was spreading lies. Most everyone saw through this and many have lent me their support. It’s all drama under the bridge at this point. She is out of my life and I am out of hers. I survived the Lyngbakr. Barely; she nearly ruined what was close to being a perfect vacation. I would have gladly sacrificed the contents of my pocket if only that would have made the rest go away. I missed the woman I came to know in the month before we set sail.
She and I had a great few months together, and even a few good times on our cruise across the Atlantic. For me, it was a great trip; and it was a horrible trip. I’d do it all over again- with someone other than a Lyngbakr.