“Every other week someone says that books are dead or dying, that…the obliteration of distinguished literary houses and imprints in the age of the corporate takeover [is] synonymous with the inevitable disappearance of books. The hearse followers mournfully announce that no one reads these days, can’t read, won’t read….
The book is small, lightweight and durable, and can be stuffed in a coat pocket, read in the waiting room, on the plane. What are planes but flying reading rooms?”
—E. Annie Proulx, speaking at the 1994 PEN/Faulkner Awards
As a stewardess, I am of two minds about the PEN/Faulkner Awards. PEN/Faulkner is a more frantic crush than Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Frankfurt Book Fair, Whitbread or Booker time, or even the week of the Lila Acheson Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Grants Reception. Peak PEN/Faulkner has me on twenty-four-hour call for added flights; although that spells overtime pay and a chance to serve the public above and beyond the routine nurturing of airborne literacy, there are moments when the phone awakens me from a nap in my uniform and I must repair my maquillage, hail a taxi for JFK, and be courteous to avid readers and writers whose boarding passes are printed with ink-blurs of indecipherable bibliographical data and call numbers, conflicting reservations for rare editions, expired or nonapplicable guarantees of free upgrade to Belles-Lettres Class—truly, at such moments I almost wish for a job where I might help people just by twisting open Smirnoff miniatures or dispensing headsets for a first-run feature or a program of rock oldies.
But I love being a stewardess. It is the stewardess’s privilege to hand out the little magnifying glasses for the compact one-volume OED stowed above each seat in the overhead bin, and then to stand in the aisle of the main cabin and demonstrate emergency procedures for consulting that incomparably useful work if need be. The stewardess is in on the romance of flight’s arcane traditions and lingo; the pilot greets her with his usual line—“Coffee, tea, or McPhee?”—and she can hear, beneath the ritual laconic tease, reference to a shared code of research standards, as well as respect for the stewardess herself, a fellow professional trusted to honor the superstition about never flying with a copy of the Scottish Play on board.
Such superstitions derive from a morbid awareness of d–h which is, I suppose, an occupational disorder and which perhaps also accounts for aircraft passengers’ affinity for literature. Few, it would seem, desire to plunge to a briny or fiery d–h while reading ephemera or trash. In any case, it is part of my job to be conscious of danger. Lately, stewardesses have all been taught how to conduct a body search, for even the most elaborate security-gate technology has proved unable to detect the John Grisham novels that occasionally slip through in defiance of CAB regulations. I must also keep a trained eye on the type of passenger who restlessly changes seats; unexplained movement from genre to genre may constitute a suspicious behavior pattern, unstable dilettantism, or mere browsing.
Accidents do happen. On one occasion, a live rattlesnake being shipped to Frankfurt as a promotional stunt for the Diamondback imprint escaped in the cargo hold, causing unforeseen publicity; it was found a month later, near a warm air-vent, curled up on a copy of Robinson Crusoe. E. Annie Proulx, the novelist and futurologist who predicts that books are here to stay, is a frequent flier; she advocates bringing your own book, but books have been known to fall out of coat pockets. There is very little that air-traffic control can do about such risks.
The majority of passengers rely upon the crew to meet their needs. With advance notice, we can provide virtually any book available within the web of our destination routes, via the Detroit hub—even works written in Hebrew or vegetarian. And the regular selection of reading matter is excellent, with particular depth in Virgil, Dowson, Rimbaud, Egyptology, Plath, Forensic Pathology, Poetry of World War I, Aeschylus, Twelfth-Century Social History, and Edgar Allan Poe. On the “red-eye” between LAX and JFK, you can reserve the Norton Chair, a curtained sanctuary-like carrel, forward of the Classics Section. Sadly, we have yet to find a safe way to permit reading in the bathrooms. But if you feel distracted by the pilot’s Yeageresque recitations from his navigational charts, it is my pleasure to tiptoe up to the flight deck, put my finger to my lips, and go “Shhhhhh….”
The only unpleasant aspect of my job is the stereotype of stewardesses as sexless grinds with eyeglasses and sensible shoes. In fact, we have to pass a rigorous optical examination that entails reading the footnotes to The Waste Land in a flight-simulator under conditions of heavy turbulence. As for our white boots, their sensibleness cannot be denied: the Velcro soles are a safety feature for climbing the bulkhead library ladders during takeoff and landing. The boots, as well as our chalk-white jackets and pants, allude to the costumes designed by Hardy Amies for the air hostesses in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many men who discern that allusion find us seductive, and I suspect that the others are responding phobically, to unconscious fears stimulated by the film’s theme of d–h.
I am proud of my uniform, and was never more so than at the high point of my career as a stewardess—the stewardesses’ strike in support of Salman Rushdie. On February 15, 1989, the day after the Ayatollah called for Mr. Rushdie’s d–h, word spread quickly on the grapevine of air-terminal cocktail lounges and out-of-print bookstores. I happened to be at the Holiday Inn out at LGA, in a mandatory Poise Refresher Course, and when the announcement was made in the classroom, the book fell off my head. (If memory serves, it was a novel by Tanizaki.) Our union shop immediately voted for a wildcat work-stoppage; after picketing the Pan Am Building for an hour, we won our demand that the airline replace the in-flight magazine (which everyone hated anyway) with a free copy of The Satanic Verses in each seat-back pocket.
We wanted to do something further, though, to address the issue of Mr. Rushdie’s personal safety. And one of the girls came up with the idea of putting a life-sized effigy of Mr. Rushdie on every single domestic and international flight, to confuse his enemies. (She got this idea—where else?—out of a book.) Fabricating hundreds of effigies was not a formidable task, given the exacting techniques of makeup, coiffure, and grooming that every stewardess commands. We have all grown rather fond of carrying “Mr. Rushdie.”
And so, if you fly Pan Am on a regular basis, now you know the explanation for that mysteriously omnipresent figure, the one who always sits next to a stewardess, in the rear row, in the only seat whose overhead reading light is never switched on. It is not really he…or is it?