Today it’s a cane fight between two senior citizens on a JFK/Ft. Lauderdale run. One guy wants his seat reclined. The other guy wants his tray-table space. First guy pulls out the cane he stored under his seat. He threatens to whack the other guy over the head. Other guy climbs over his seatmates to get to his own cane in the overhead. Next thing, it’s something out of Star Wars, except with canes.
The call lights go off. People point. They tug my flammable blue polyester blazer, poke my thighs and ass, whatever they can reach.
“Do something,” one woman says, and I do.
I grab one of the canes. I block the other cane with my shoulder. This sends one guy toppling into the lap of a lady in a fancy velour pantsuit. Her Bloody Mary and pretzels go flying. She demands a free round-trip ticket and free dry cleaning. She threatens to sue, which makes the first cane guy threaten to sue, and the other cane guy threaten to sue, demand a free ticket and an upgrade to first class, where he says he’ll try to forget about this by drinking as much free champagne as he can.
I hate my life.
I came to New York to be a writer. Instead I’m a flight attendant. I want to be done with it.
“No more,” I say to the men and wiggle my pointer finger. “No more.”
They both hate me. It’s the one thing they agree on.
I took this flight attendant job so I could be based in New York. Now I don’t write. I have a tiny rent-controlled apartment in Queens and I’m never home. I don’t have furniture. I don’t buy milk. I keep my toothbrush in the fridge so cockroaches won’t crawl all over it. I sleep on a sofa bed that came with the apartment. The sofa bed never stretches all the way out, so I sleep in a V. It takes me a while to stand up in the mornings.
“You must revise your life,” the great writer William Stafford used to say.
I’m trying. I’ve been sending out resumes for publishing jobs, editing jobs, anything that has something to do with words. When I checked my voicemail earlier, there was a message, a lady who wanted to set up an interview. She left a phone number, an address—350 Fifth Avenue.
“The Empire State Building,” she said.
And now I think my life is going to change.
For the rest of this horrible flight, I imagine taking the E train to the 6 every morning. I’ll stop at a corner deli for coffee in an “I Heart New York” cup. I’ll take the elevator to my office in one of the world’s most romantic buildings, a building so legendary I never thought of it as functioning office space but more of a movie set, the kind of place where ordinary people can be transformed. King Kong, An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle. The great ape, Cary Grant, Meg Ryan and me.
More call lights go off. I ignore them.
“A person could die on here and they wouldn’t even care,” the woman in 28 B says. She’s wearing a surgical mask. She thinks the ice airlines use in drinks is poison.
On the ground, I call the woman about the job. I call from the free phones in the flight attendant lounge. “Thursday, yes,” I say.
I cup my hand over my mouth, try for privacy. All around me, other flight attendants are calling home, hands cupped to mouths, or they’re collapsed on recliners, alarm clocks in hand, drooling into neck pillows, waiting for their next flight out.
It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember which job I’d applied for, which company the woman on the phone represents. She beams through the phone like an emergency exit.
“One thing,” she says before we hang up. “How do you feel about adult content?”
“Not a problem,” I say.
Before all this flight attendant business, back in grad school, I was the editor of a literary magazine. We’d done special issues against censorship, and published a terrible poet named Antler who wrote a lot about fellatio and hemorrhoids and being naked in the wild.
“He’s our Whitman,” one of my grad school poetry professors said. I thought of myself as open-minded, progressive. I think of myself as open-minded, progressive. I tell the woman on the phone this. I don’t ask what she means by adult content.
On Thursday, I take my trains. I stop at a deli, buy a coffee, a sesame bagel, a Daily News. I like living out my own New York story. I imagine my life as a script by Woody Allen, who says in Annie Hall that a relationship is like a shark, it has to move forward or it dies. I love that line. Here I am, moving forward. Here I am, not dead.
I’m early so I hang around the lobby, take in the art deco and avoid the security guards. I don’t want to look like a tourist in this building full of tourists. With their communal air, their somber clothes, most Manhattanites are beautiful accessories—tiny diamond studs, a silk scarf, a pair of Manolo Blahniks—worn by the city itself. I’ve worn my one black suit. I don’t have the budget or ankles for Blahniks. I shined my flight attendant shoes and they look o.k., but I worry that everything about me blares desperation.
I check my reflection in anything that shows it. Everything shows it. Walls, windows, a steel beam. I pick and prod my hair, which I’ve swept up in a twist, and check my teeth for sesame seeds and lipstick. At one forty-five, I find the elevators that will take me to my new life. I check my reflection in those, too.
When the doors slide open, I enter a narrow hall lined with Mapplethorpe prints—huge lilies, an image of a man’s naked and muscular back. This, I think, is a good sign. I know some things about Mapplethorpe. I know Jesse Helms, that censorship nut who spent most of his life in the senate, hated Mapplethorpe and began a campaign against the NEA because he felt the government shouldn’t support “vulgarity.” I could talk endlessly about Helms in my interview.
There is only one door at the end of the hall, so I open it. The receptionist, her burgundy hair pulled and waxed into a high ponytail, has a phone balanced between her ear and shoulder as she goes on typing. She’s a marvel of multitasking because she can still wave at me with her chin. I can tell from the chin point that I should sit so I do, in one of two plastic chairs against the far wall. The room is tiny, run-down. There are no magazines to read, nothing to distract. The chairs face the receptionist so I stare at her like she’s on TV.
When she finally hangs up, she says, “You must be our two. Kathy will be out shortly.”
I smile, nod, nod more. The receptionist smiles back, crooked, the kind of smile people sometimes give to lunatics, then goes back to typing.
At 2:30, Kathy comes for me. She is a large woman. She wears a man’s tie and suspenders with cartoon figures on them—little Porky Pigs and Bugs Bunnies dance over her breasts and wide shoulders. I think she’s going for a pop-culture Charlie Chaplin look. I think she must have a porkpie hat hanging on the back of her office door.
“Sorry you’ve been waiting,” she says. Her voice is throaty and warm. “Come on back.”
Kathy leads me through a tight maze of cubicles and a few more Mapplethorpes, then into her office. Her desk is piled high with paper. Her computer is decorated with animals made from pom-poms and attached to the top and sides of the screen by sticky, oversized human-y feet.
“So you’re a writer,” Kathy says. “Looking for editorial work, correct?” She leans back in her chair and it squeaks. She tucks her hands under her suspenders, the way detectives do on TV.
There is one window in Kathy’s office. From it I can see New York stretched out, all possibility. “Yes, yes,” I say. “That’s right.” I lean forward. I want to look eager. I probably look like I’ve just been tazed.
“Your background is impressive. The position I have open, though, is entry level,” Kathy says. She lets the suspenders go with a snap.
I mutter something about wanting to learn, paying my dues. I want to say as long as no one here tries to beat each other with canes, as long as no one here hands me a leaky diaper or sends me on a layover in Cleveland.
Kathy says, “And I mentioned the issue of adult content?”
“No problem,” I say, and compliment the Mapplethorpes.
Kathy says, “So you could work on something like this?”
She opens the top drawer of her desk and pulls out three magazines. She fans them in front of me. The names, blasted in bold, are simple, direct—Sexy NYC; Legs, Legs, Legs; and Suck Me.
I try not to let anything register.
“Sure,” I say.
I don’t touch the magazines. I don’t move at all.
Kathy says, “You might want to take a look at them to get a feel for what we do.” She pushes the magazines closer. I pick one up and leaf to the centerfold. A woman in a black fishnet crotchless bodysuit is bent over, back to the camera, her wrists bicycle-chained to her ankles. Her ankles teeter on see-through Cinderella stilettos. The woman’s face is mostly obscured, but her long dark hair hangs down onto the floor. The floor looks wet, industrial.
“That’s a good one,” Kathy says. “It’s part of a photo essay we shot in the meatpacking district. We do a lot of photo essays.”
I have nothing against porno. I learned a lot about sex in college from Hustler. I’ve rented porno flicks and learned to give head while watching Flashpants at a drive-in in the 80s. I like erotica. I think The Rabbit vibrator is genius engineering. I’ve enjoyed Amsterdam’s red light district. But I wasn’t expecting all my New York dreams would one day rest on working for a magazine called Suck Me. It’s a lot to take in.
“What you’d be doing mostly is writing captions,” Kathy is saying. “Do you think that’s something you’d be interested in doing?”
I nod and for a moment, believe it. And then Kathy hands me a take-home assignment. It’s a series of caption-less black-and-white photocopied pictures. In the first picture, a woman in large glasses and a lab coat is holding an empty test tube. As the series moves along, she loses the lab coat, the glasses, her hairpins, her regulation nursing shoes and so on. For some reason, she holds on to the test tube, even in the last spread-eagle shot.
I feel my writer-neurons click on despite everything—Why the test tube? What’s the story here? Where are we going with this? Is this lab woman a sympathetic character? What does this all mean?
“No more,” I’d said to the old men on the plane, but there’s always more.
Hope is built on more. The idea of more is, most days, the only way to go on.
“Just take this home, write the captions, then fax it back to me by tomorrow,” Kathy is saying.
My reverie crumples. Fax it. Fax it where?
Tomorrow, if everything is on schedule, I’ll land in Kansas City at 10 p.m. I imagine walking into an all-night Kinko’s, in Kansas—Kansas!—and handing over my project to a clerk, who will remind me of my sixth-grade music teacher. I imagine trying to fax it from the flight-attendant lounge where a southern Barbie of a supervisor will creep up, tap me with her fake French-manicured nails, and say, “We don’t ah-prove of such thangs hare at our airline.”
I look out Kathy’s window. From up here, there are no sounds of the city. New York might as well be nothing but a postcard. I thank Kathy and put the photos in my bag.
“You might want to take these along,” Kathy says, “for inspiration.” She winks, then picks up the magazines and hands them to me.
“Of course,” I say and grab at the magazines. I stuff them in my bag.
I thank her for the opportunity. I back toward the door. I let myself out through the maze of Mapplethorpes, down the elevators, out into the street where I nearly knock over a hot-peanut cart.
I walk block after block and feel sick.
I think about Kansas City. I think about a stop-over in Little Rock. I think about the beverage cart, the trash cart. I think about all those call lights lighting up into their own kind of city. The magazines in my bag are more promising than that. At least I’ll be writing. At least I’ll be here, in New York, on the ground.
Being grounded as a kid is a punishment. Being grounded now is a dream.
On my way to the subway, I try to feel better by stopping by the library to check out some Whitman and Ginsberg, those huge voices. Now there are two New York writers who, if they wrote what people called porn, did it on their own. I plan to take Whitman and Ginsberg home to my empty apartment. I plan to open a bottle of wine a pilot friend brought from a Paris run. I plan to get drunk and weepy and then write my captions for Kathy, who might very well hire me and save me from Kansas City now and forever amen.
I check out the books and head for the exit. As I pass through the theft detectors, a guard—a huge grim-faced man who looks like George Foreman before George Foreman sold grills—touches my arm.
“Miss,” he says. “Open your bag.”
I stand there. I watch his lips. His teeth look like Scrabble tiles. I think about faking bad Spanish. No hablo Ingles.
“Miss,” he says again. “Your bag.”
He points. I stare at his arm, all those meaty muscles. I think of all the things he must have seen. This is New York City, after all. People must have come through with stolen books, at least, or better, body parts, a brain floating in a mayonnaise jar, an eyeball in a cup. A guy on my last shuttle flight to D.C. snuck a Chihuahua through security and got caught because he’d tucked the dog in a zippered pocket of his jacket and run it through the x-ray belt. Some savvy TSA agent spotted the skeleton, all those wriggling bones.
The magazines in my bag are not stolen. They are not a body. They feel like a body. What’s left of my own gouged-out heart.
Whitman sang the body electric. Whitman said, “I exist as I am and that is enough.” Whitman said it is lucky to die. I unzip my bag.
There, on top, is my complimentary copy of Suck Me. On the cover is an image of a man, eyes closed, his face content as a baby at a breast, running his tongue between the toes of a perfectly pedicured foot, the little seashell nails tipped red, the ivory ankle cocked in delight, and, above it all, a woman’s disembodied fingers dangling a pair of strappy spike-heeled red sandals that are, I’m sure of it, Blahniks.