Nightmare Before 20,000 Feet

jfk.jpgMy cousin recently embarked on a trip to Germany, and regaled me with pics of the streamlined opulence of a Lufthansa flight. I told him I’d always heard that Lufthansa was highly esteemed by all kinds of travelers, both business and pleasure. But I couldn’t remember how I knew that, until a past employment memory came flooding back to me in one terrifying swoop.

About 10 years ago, I was laid off from the first full time job I’d held, post-college. Between that and losing a girlfriend to Jesus (another long story), it was not a happy time. I was simultaneously terrified and woefully naive about my prospects.

Eventually, I spent about 15 months without a regular job, although I wasn’t idle for most of that time. In fact, I probably worked harder at that time than I ever have before or since, because I had to hustle desperately and snatch at the vaguest hint of meal money. I lost a ton of weight, due to a deadly combination of running around like a maniac and serious drinking.

I did temp jobs, mostly at ad agencies, but occasional one-day gigs at odd locales like the UN. I did a lot online writing that earned me no money but I figured would help me gain some exposure, and some that actually did pay, like penning commentaries for NPR2, a very early satellite radio version of NPR that passed into the ether. I taught at a shady test prep school in Chinatown that paid me in cash, which enabled me to buy Christmas presents that year.

In one especially fallow period, a friend of mine suggested I work for her company. This firm did market research in airports. All I had to do was wear a shirt and tie, go to the international terminal at JFK or LaGuardia, and get people to take a survey about their airline experiences and preferences. 

Simple enough, except for one inconvenient fact: It was the worst job in the world for me. I’ve had worse jobs–much worse–but I’ve never had one that was worse for me, personally.

I’m not the kind of person who can just walk up to a complete stranger and bully them into answering questions. I don’t enjoy asking other people to help me. I don’t even like to ask people to move out of my way; I’ll find any way to go around someone before I resort to saying “excuse me”. If you asked me to craft my idea of a perfect hell, it would involve me having to confront random people.

However, I was not in the position to turn down any kind of work. So I said yes, knowing full well it would be torture.

Every time I went to the airport, I had to check in with security. This was pre-9/11, so all I really had to do was say who I was and who I was working for. I also had to trade my driver’s license for a security pass, which always made me feel uneasy. I was then waved into the gate area, where the real fun began.

Airports are weird places, and they become exponentially more weird the more time you spend in them. After a while, it all looks like an old timey Western back lot set, where all the shops are just facades held up by flimsy pieces of plywood. When you walk past the departure gates over and over, and all you can see are runways and swampland, you think you might be trapped in some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland.

The food doesn’t taste like real food. You don’t notice or care about this if you just need to grab a bite on your way to catch a plane. But if you eat your lunch in an airport every day, you start to suspect you’re being poisoned. I’m sure eating this food so often shaved years off my life. And keep in mind that the international terminal at JFK, where I spent the bulk of my time, has the best food in the whole airport by a huge margin. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had to work, say, the Delta terminal.

The air tastes strange in an airport. I have no idea why. It just does.

The strangeness of my surroundings, coupled with my complete unsuitability for the position, made for an anxious work environment. My friend came with me to do her own surveys, but I was more or less unsupervised, and so I would do anything to avoid doing my real job. Anything. I’d go to the newsstand and read entire chapters of books I had zero interest in. I’d buy The New York Times and do the crossword. I’d buy a criminally overpriced cup of coffee and drink it as slowly as humanly possible.

But I was also paid by the survey, not by the hour, and so eventually I had to get to work. Since many of the survey questions were geared toward business travel, I tried to zero in on folks who looked like business travelers. I always kept my clipboard visible, so my subjects would not feel ambushed. I would make eye contact, smile, and try to make it as obvious as possible, as soon as possible, exactly what my intentions were. If someone didn’t return my gaze, I passed them over. If they did, I’d move in and make my pitch.

None of my worst fears were ever realized. I was never abused or mistreated in the slightest. People would refuse to participate, but would always do so as politely as possible. I found that many business travelers welcomed the chance to talk to another human being who wasn’t a stewardess, even if our “conversation” was transparently venal.

And yet, I was always extremely nervous every time I approached someone. I felt as if my insides were shrinking away from my skin. Every fiber of my being rebelled against it, and the voice in my head kept screaming WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! YOU SHOULDN’T BE DOING THIS!

It didn’t get any easier as I went along. My fears only plateaued, and then rose again as I considered this horrifying prospect: What if I never get another job? What if I have to do this the rest of my life? This feeling was ridiculous, of course, and I knew it was ridiculous. But knowing a fear is ridiculous and being able to shake it are two very different things.

The fact that no one else shared my anxiety or panic, or ever acted discourteous to me, actually made things worse. Like I was the one guy in the thriller movie that knows THE TRUTH and is desperately trying to make everyone else realize it, to no avail.

Of course, I did eventually find a new job that was more suited to my temperament and phobias. I barely think about that time in my life anymore, for many reasons. But if I ever get a call from a survey firm, or approached in the street by someone with a clipboard, I give them a few minutes of my time. Because I always imagine that the poor bastard doing the surveying is just as terrified as I was during my airport days. It’s the least I can do. I mean, it is literally the absolute least thing I can do.