Runway 52: Trey Gets Airborne At Last

Your boy is gonna be a skymuffin. If he can afford to get through training next month.

Image result for airplane taking off

So this new adventure I’ve been hinting at? Welcome to the reveal.

Welcome to Runway 52 — so named ’cause I’ll be turning 52 years old on roughly the same day I take off on a whole new journey.

As a skymuffin.

You know, a skymuffin. Air mattress? Trolley dolly? Flight stimulator?

A flight attendant, Mary Louise. I just got offered a gig as a flight attendant. And I could not be more excited about it. (Also, I could not be less financially ready. But more on that in a bit.)

Five Years A Slacker

It’s been a little more than five years since I crashed and burned my first career. (This essay, written a year to the day after my last drink, is for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about.) Short version: I drank myself out of a job at NPR and into rehab, and I’m lucky to be alive. Still glad to be alive, too; still immensely grateful for the help I got from friends and family and strangers.

After rehab, and after a few months of taking it deliberately easy—living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, near my sister and her husband and kids, not working, draining my savings, self-medicating with sun and salt water instead of bourbon—I took stock of things, and I decided I’d give myself five years to see where the universe would steer me on the path back to full employment. I didn’t need the pressure of jumping back into a newsroom, especially not one in D.C.

I wanted to stay sane. To stay sober. Caution seemed the watchword.

Took this near the pier in Naples, Fla., Feb. 2015. I was three months out of rehab; days like this helped keep me out.

So I did nothing for a bit. Then I did holiday retail. I worked at a fancy Italian joint in Naples for a minute, where I heroically did not dump a hot plate of pasta bolognese on Newt Gingrich.

Later, back in D.C., I told stories to Segway-riding tourists, one of whom backed her machine into the Reflecting Pool one chilly October night while she was trying to take a picture of the Lincoln Memorial.

(Pro tip: Get off your Segway before you try using both hands to frame your iPhone photo just so. You will lean back, and your Segway will roll back. Because that is what it is designed to do.)

For a while, I did think about going back into journalism. I worked a contract doing hard-news editing for the French news agency AFP, over a stretch that included the San Bernardino shootings, the Paris terrorist attacks, and the death of Alan Kurdi, which is a moment in our collective history that I still cannot think about without needing to get away from other human beings for a while.

An aside about why I haven’t worked harder to get back into a newsroom: If you think the picture of that boy lying forever asleep on that Greek-island beach is a soul-destroyer, you should see some of the other photos that moved on the AFP wire that week. The ones that did not get widely published. The ones where the damage of water and rocks and shells was more plain to see. The ones that even the photographers don’t like to talk about. I saw them, and to this day I wish I hadn’t.

So no, not journalism. I ran box office for a fringe festival one summer, and did it again the following fall, this time for a D.C. theater whose season I also wrote about as a kind of critic-in-residence, or maybe an audience-facing dramaturg, I don’t know what you’d call it. It was a fun experiment, and I published some decent stuff there.

In November 2017 I made my way back to radio, picking up a weekend-host slot at Classical WETA. It was a return to a familiar groove: Not only had I done plenty of work for WETA (on TV and radio) over the years, I’d also hosted weekend mornings (OMG, mornings) back in the late ’90s/early 2000s at D.C’s now-defunct commercial classical station, WGMS. In fact my first-ever media job, a work-study gig at Augusta University, was spinning classical LPs (OMG, LPs) at WACG-FM, the school’s NPR affiliate.

In the studio at Classical WETA, my broadcast home since 2017. It’s a gig that makes me plenty happy.

And it’s all been great. I live small, I never have any extra cash, and yeah, most weeks I drive a Lyft for grocery money. But I’ve been living and working on my terms, and staying sane and healthy, and I’m pretty happy about having kept it together for five years and counting.

But time, she is up.

Wait, I Have To Be Presentable?

I started looking for full-time work last spring, and by fall I’d realized that one of the possibilities I wanted to chase was one that—like radio—I had tried before.

Or at least I’d tried to try: In 1985, at age 17, I took a bus to Atlanta, where I walked into the offices of Delta Air Lines and asked how I could be a flight attendant. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but it was something along the lines of “Come back when your voice changes.”

(I don’t know that I’d actually planned to wait 35 years before I gave it a second shot, but here we are.)

Anyway, a friend of mine went to work for JetBlue recently, and he loves it so much he’s been evangelizing the air-mattress life to everybody who’ll listen. Been offering advice and assistance, too. So in September of last year, I applied to an airline I’ve been flying a lot: Spirit.

Aside: Yes, Spirit. The ultra-low-fare carrier that adds on fees for everything from early boarding to bottled water. The airline whose seats don’t recline. The one that charges you to check in with an actual human agent. The one people loooooove to complain about.

You know why I applied with them? Because after five-plus years of actually flying Spirit back and forth to Boston and Florida and South Carolina to hang with family and friends, I realized that all those complaints? Are boooooollsheet. They’re whines from people who book insanely cheap seats and think that somehow they’re gonna get the extras free. Nope!

Because here’s the thing: Spirit has absolutely overhauled both its communications and customer-service games within the past three years. Once, maybe, there might have been some room to be surprised by the add-on costs. There is zero excuse now. Yes, you can fly from D.C. to South Florida for $45.70: Put two outfits and a toothbrush in your backpack, sit where the agent tells you to, and be happy that you just spent less on a flight to the tropics than on the dinner you’re about to eat on the dang beach.

You can also board early, skip the security line, pick your seat, pack a giant bag, carry on a pet or two, and sprawl out in a Big Front Seat™—just not for that same $45.70. I mean, come on.

Bottom line: You’ll actually have a pretty great flying experience on Spirit if you know how to travel light, or if you’re willing to pay not to have to. And you’ll know your options when you book. You’ll get told six times on the way to checkout. It’s your call, people!

Anyway, I applied to Spirit in September, didn’t hear boo back from them, and promptly forgot all about it.

Then just before Christmas, somewhere between back-to-back holiday fill-ins at WETA and a visit to the nephews in New Hampshire, I got an email: Hey man, want to come to Florida first week of January and meet us?

“Sure,” I thought, and RSVP’d with a click. It was more than a week before I realized I would probably want to wear a suit. And that I didn’t own one that fit. (Look, I work a solo shift. In radio. I might be talking to the entire DMV in my pajamas every weekend, for all y’all know.)

Oh, and I realized another thing, even later than the thing about the suit: My passport, which a hiring team at an airline that flies internationally was gonna wanna see, was at my beach apartment, three states away.

Life Comes At You Fast

“Holy balls,” thought I, three days before the daylong cattle-call interview I’d been invited to in Fort Lauderdale. “I have paid a nice lady to overhaul my resume and coach me on airline interview best practices, and I am going to get turned away at the door because I don’t have my passport.”

Happily, there’s FedEx, and my mom can still climb four flights of stairs. (The beach apartment, which is near my parents’ farm, is on the top floor.) So passport crisis averted.

Meanwhile the nice folks at Nordstrom (and The Blk Tux, which I highly recommend) supplied a cute three-piece suit for the occasion. I zhuzhed it up with a buttercup tie and pocket square that didn’t quite match Spirit’s highlighter-yellow trade dress, but which got close enough to show that I could muster a sense of team spir— er, esprit de corps.

On the afternoon before the interview, I hauled my three-pieced behind out to BWI with a change of clothes in my backpack—of course in my backpack, do you think I’m paying to check a bag?—for an evening flight that would get me to Fort Lauderdale in time to change out of the suit, hang it up in the shower to steam out, catch a brief nap, and study a bit before lining up at the Broward County Convention Center circa 5 am.

I had a plan, is what I’m saying.

The plane had another plan.

Involving mechanical difficulties.

Departure time came and went.

Announcements about delays came and went.

Announcements about gate changes came and went.

“Oh my god they’re going to cancel this flight,” thought I, “and I am going to miss this interview that I’ve sunk aaaaallllllllll this time and money into prepping for.”

And then, bless them, Spirit rolled up a replacement plane and hauled my extremely relieved behind to Fort Lauderdale. We departed three and a half hours late, and I have never cared so little about a delay.

Didn’t get much of a nap.

Did get to wash and iron the shirt, steam the wrinkles out of the suit, and change into fresh socks and undies. (A girl has some couth.)

Still got to the convention center before 5 am for the event’s 7-o’clock start. (I was far from the first nerd in line.)

Something like 500 hopefuls showed up. We all spent a little time in one big ballroom, participating in enforced merriment (there were pom-poms, at 7 am) and hearing from a handful of top Spirit executives about the airline’s history and culture (including changes over the last few years that I’d seen in the product but hadn’t read anything about in the trades).

(Yes, I have been reading the airline trades. I AM THAT GUY I CAN’T HELP IT.)

They broke us up into four groups not long after that, and after a round of pageant-style quick-fire questions, the three panels of evaluators who’d been watching from the back and sides of the room left us to stew in the ballroom while they compared notes. When they came back, it was time for one of the most gruesome experiences of my recent life: the cull.

They just started calling numbers.

Well, no, the woman in charge told us first: “If you hear your number, please take your bags and meet the Spirit team in the back of the room.”

Some of the younger candidates didn’t understand what was about to happen, and a few of them, once numbers began ringing out, squealed or clapped with excitement as they picked up their totes and walked back to the rear of the ballroom …

And were escorted out.

I’ve been through things like that cull before. I’ve been on the other side of it, so I thought I was braced for it. But as the rest of the room began to realize what was happening—that those bubbly, happy, optimistic young people were being eliminated without even having gotten a chance to sit face to face with a recruiter—the room grew more and more still. And look, I’m sure the ballroom’s air handlers were still working, but it felt suffocating. The relentless chime of numbers, just numbers, no names, plus the gathering, crushing silence of the crowd waiting to hear if the next number was theirs. It was awful.

And then it was over. They sent us to lunch. I walked out of that room and went to find a quiet corner to call my sister, and I am not ashamed to say my hands were shaking.

That Clinking, Clanking Sound

There was more to the interview day, of course, including face-to-face recruiter conversations and a strength test and a height check for which I had to take my shoes off.

But it ended with a CJO, or conditional job offer. For a thing I’ve always wanted to do.

A thing that comes with a health plan.

(I haven’t had a health plan in going on six years. God bless us every one.)

As I told a couple of close friends: I was so high on adrenaline for about two hours after I got the verbal offer that I kept giggling uncontrollably. And then tearing up. And then giggling some more.

The formal offer, plus the links to the background-clearance paperwork and the news of my assignment to Spirit’s Fort Lauderdale crew base, came Friday evening. I’ve got two weeks to get things wrapped up and get myself to Florida for training.

A month of training.

A month of unpaid training.

Oh, shit.

I am so not ready for this. I mean I’m ready mentally and physically and emotionally, but I am decidedly not fiscally ready. I thought I’d have another month or two. Or six, given the three-month silence between application and interview invitation.

Remember the part above, where I said I live small? I live really small. The margins are tiny. The cushion is nonexistent. That $400 unexpected-expense question the Fed likes to ask? The answer isn’t pretty.

Now I need to go a month unpaid. It’s a month solid, too, which means work at WETA is on hold for February as well. And no Lyfting. No room for freelance writing, either.

And it’s not just that I won’t be earning for all of February. Even before then, there are things to be lined up for the training, and other things to be handled on the way out the D.C. door.

There’s gas, probably three or four tanks’ worth, to get Elektra to Florida. (My car’s name is Elektra, because she’s a sturdy German girl who takes no BS. Don’t @ me.) Not to mention the oil change she should probably have before I hit the road.

There’s the car payment on Elektra, plus the insurance payment that keeps her safe.

There’s a bit of rent money for the tiny little space I keep in D.C., and payments on the storage unit where most of my stuff has been living while I’ve been in South Carolina for the winter. (Happily I can bail out of the beach apartment with no penalty and no wait—a benefit of renting it from my brother’s company.)

But there’s still a security deposit to be scrounged up, plus the first month’s rent, for a place in Fort Lauderdale once I’m released to the line at the beginning of March.

(Oooh, he said “released to the line”! That’s an airline-industry term of art, and you’ll be hearing lots of those here at In Good Company. Which, count on it, will be full of stories about life in Barbie Boot Camp and about your hero’s subsequent adventures in the wild blue yonder.)

But I’m getting way ahead of things. Even before training, there’s a prescribed wardrobe I have to buy for training—including a watch, which is mandatory, although smart watches including the one I already own are forbidden. And then there are the actual airline uniforms to be paid for, once I pass all the exams.

There’s airline-approved luggage to order. (Obviously I’ve been watching YouTube reviews of rollaboards. You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that career flight attendants have maaaaaaanny opinions about rollaboards.)

Hell, I spent $55 just printing the pre-training handbook they sent me! And then I had to buy a specific type of binder to put it in! Because rules!

Did I mention I don’t start making money until after training?!? That I won’t get my first airline paycheck until (gulp) mid-March or possibly even the first week of April?

Oh I almost forgot: Wheezer and Puck are going to hang for a while at Tails High, the excellent Northern Virginia foster/rescue where I adopted Puck in the first place. But fret not: They’ll come down to FLL with me once I graduate and get my wings and have an apartment for the kittehs to share. (And, I devoutly hope, a li’l garden or at least a screen porch for them to stalk lizards in.) So I should really scare up a couple of hundred bucks for Tails High, as a thank-you for keeping my boys safe and happy for a month to six weeks while daddy does his thing.

The Wheezer (right) and the Puck, who will have more sunlight to bask in soon. In Florida. Such lucky kittehs.

The Kindness Of Strangers (And Friends)

This is where the ask happens. Where you come in.

I don’t love asking for help, but I’m not too proud or stubborn to admit that I could use it. The fact is, I can’t do this thing without y’all— not without losing my car, losing the stuff I have in storage, stiffing my friend/landlord, and other unthinkable things.

And so with some reluctance, but also with very real faith in the kindness of my friends and followers, I’ve set up a Facebook fundraiser to help underwrite the costs of getting me to and through training, and of moving me and my two furry besties to Fort Lauderdale afterward. The goal is $5K, which I suspect is conservative. The stretch goal, if we hit that, is $10K, which is designed to let me retire some debt and face my flight-attendant future with extra confidence and less short-term anxiety about money.

Click above to donate, over on Facebook. And thank you.

I really, sincerely hope that if you’ve read this far, you’ve found something about my personality—here, on Twitter, at NPR or WETA, on the D.C. theater scene—that makes you think I’m fun to have around.

And I hope you will have concluded, if only from this long-ass chronicle of what’s been up lately, that getting back to full employment is a thing that’ll be good for me, body and soul.

Obviously, anyone who contributes more than $50 gets an instant upgrade to “paid subscriber” status here at In Good Company—for life, not just for this year. And you’ll all be on the invite list for the first In Good Company meetup, which I’ve been planning for late spring but haven’t announced yet. (I guess I just leaked that? Eek.)

But look, perks aren’t the point. The point is that as I wrote in that coming-out post a year after I got sober, expressing gratitude and acknowledging kindness are two of the greatest feelings in the world. They’re right up there with love and hugs. And chocolate.

So I’ll just say this: I would be most grateful if, as I take the last couple of steps in the direction of that five-year goal I set myself back then, I can count on your support.

Thank you kindly. Much gratitude, and much love.