I became an airline steward in rebellion against my father. Dad was a 9-to-5 executive, family man, country-club golfer, weekend cross-dresser, and president of the local ABBA fan club. His dream for me was a career in theater. “Management is a fine job,” he once told me, “but to sing and dance in full costume…”
My real passion is mathematics. I love to look for pattern in randomness. In school, my math aptitude quickly outpaced the normal curriculum. While my fellow kindergarteners were gluing Popsicle sticks into houses (with very bad corner angles) I was studying the multiplication table pinned to the wall. For my sixth-grade science project, I derived a mathematical formula that predicted the days of the week Mrs. Gurney, our librarian, would wear her green sweater with the sequin cats—which turned out to be correlated with the phases of the moon!
By middle school my classmates were relentless in their ridicule. Math was uncool. I was beaten up regularly for my aptitude: usually Tuesdays, Swedish meatball day in the cafeteria. In high school being a math lover was still detestable but there were enough of us that we started our own club. A motion was made to give the math club an interesting moniker, such as the Chi Squares or the Pi People. In the end, we decided on “The Math Club.” It was the lowest common denominator. In the Math Club, 53 percent of the boys had Adam’s apples bigger than the girls’ breasts.
I scored well on my standardized math tests and was accepted at some excellent universities. Still, in my heart I didn’t know what to do. My math fixation was becoming a problem socially. I liked girls yet 94 percent of the ones I knew wouldn’t even talk to me. And I was still one hundred percent a virgin.
The answer to my dilemma came in the car on the way to the theater one Saturday evening. It was opening night for Thoroughly Modern Millie, with my Dad playing Millie. We were stopped at a red light. Dad was nervously applying his stage makeup in the rearview mirror. My eye caught a billboard on the side of the road. It was an advertisement for Virgin Airlines.
“Virgin. How appropriate,” I thought. And then it hit me. A career in the airlines. Travel. Beautiful stewardesses. Minimal mathematics. Perfect!
Schooling for airline stewards may take place on a jet but it’s not rocket science. I breezed through the classes. I learned to secure the aircraft in preparation for takeoff, to perform CPR on passengers in the narrow aisles of a Boeing 767, to pour coffee into a plastic cup in turbulent air. I worked hard and after a year I walked out on a stage to claim my diploma—top of my class!
My valedictory was concise, 272 words, delivered in two minutes—exactly the same as the Gettysburg Address. My mother looked on, wiping away tears; my father shouted out “Bravo!”
Seventeen days later, I lost my virginity on Virgin flight 283 to Amsterdam. We landed at Schippel before dawn; the plane had been cleared of passengers. I thought I was alone in the aft galley when Jenny, a business-class attendant, wandered back to introduce herself. She said she had some pointers for me and then grabbed me by my throttle, lest there be any confusion about her message. We made love in seat 26C, an exit row with a little extra legroom. Occasionally we stretched out over 26D and E. There was also some activity involving the fully upright seatback of 25C.
I started having sex in foreign cities with women who barely spoke English. I began picking up some key phrases in French, German, and Spanish. “You are so fine.” “Your eyes sparkle like moonlight on the Seine.” “I’ll call you the next time I am in Prague.”
While I was having the time of my life inking the pages of my little black book, there was one nagging detail that was beginning to trouble me. I didn’t like being a steward. The hours were long, the work tedious, and the customers—well, let’s just say that I wasn’t a people person. I received my first reprimand after just sixty-three days. A passenger had preordered a vegetarian meal but all I had to offer him was pasta or beef. “The pasta doesn’t have meat,” I told him. He reminded me about the cheese and rambled on about the evils of the meat-eating world. “Don’t be an asshole,” I lobbed back at him. “Eat the fucking pasta.”
Not wanting to lose the job that was the source of my libidinous adventures, I again retreated to the world of mathematics. I used numbers like mantras to get through the tedium. I calculated the percentage of men, women, and children on every flight. I noted the number of passengers listening to the preflight safety instructions (three in ten). There were, on average, twenty-three complaints per flight: twelve on seat assignments, eight on the quality of the food, three on the shortage of lavatories. (“Why can’t I use the one in first class?” “Because you are chattel and the folks in first class don’t want to see the likes of you!” Reprimand number two.)
My brain was filling with meaningless numbers. I went to sleep one night visualizing the pattern of balding men seated in rows sixteen to thirty-two. Something had to change.
And then one day it did. It was my first first-class flight: Seattle to Hong Kong. Sixteen men (five bald), three women, no children. The cabin was peaceful compared to the zoo behind us in coach. The passenger in 2A buzzed for a drink. “Birch beer,” he said. I congratulated him on ordering the least requested beverage in the airline industry. “One passenger in seven thousand.”
It turned out that 2A was a man who loved numbers as much as I did. Saw them in his sleep, too. I sat on the floor in the aisle and we talked for hours. I ignored the calls from increasingly irritable passengers. This would be my last flight; I knew that now. The passenger’s name was Bill Gates. “Did you know that by the year 2000 there will be a personal computer in seventy percent of American homes?” he told me. “No way,” I said. “Did you know that sixty percent of businessmen have stains on their ties?” He looked down. I got Bill Gates to look at his tie!
Seattle is not a bad place to live if you can get used to the weather. I went back to school and got my degree in mathematics. Software development is not as frightening as the shiny heads of men on 737s. Microsoft is a great company to work for. When I see Bill walking down the hall, I can still point to his tie and make him laugh. And the women? Well, let’s just say that mathematicians can hold their own out here.
I am doing just fine.