Winging it

Robert Reed (American Airlines flight attendant, artist)
Income: $35,000 (last year)
Health Insurance: 80 percent covered by employer
Rent: $820/mo.
Utilities: $50/mo.
Phone: $200/mo.
Food: $500/mo.
Transportation: $100/mo.

There was this woman who was having sex with five people on the plane… The purser kept coming back and yelling at her and then she would take somebody else back to the lav. I was yelling at her, too. She finally sat down and cried."

Well, it was New Year's Eve.

Robert Reed, 37, was explaining what it is like to be a flight attendant. Sitting in his East Village apartment, every inch of which is covered with rugs shaped like poodles—his sideline business—he says flying is a "great" job: flexible hours, cheap travel, and the new "companionship passes" that allow his boyfriend to fly for as little as he does.

Yet the pay is not high. According to their union, new employees make about $18.24 an hour based on an average of 72 flying hours a month—only about $16,000 a year. "At almost 10 years, I make $34.50 an hour. But we're only paid when the door is shut and the brake is released. While people are boarding or if there's a mechanical breakdown and they don't shut the door, you just get $1.75 an hour… I knew some new stewards who were so poor, they'd fly to Chicago so they could eat on the plane. They'd fly back the same day to have dinner."

The first attendants, circa 1930, were Sky Girls who wore long capes and hats like shower caps. With time and alligator pumps, flying became a glamorous and well-paying job. But it was a life of "diet pills and girdles… getting fired if they got married or pregnant or gained weight" and retirement at 32.

The old spirit of the "the charm farm," the nickname for flight school, goes on. "They still say, I want to see your lips and nails across the room. My friend almost lost his job when he said, Are you going to dye my eyes to match my gown? And the classes! There was a 15-page book on the coffee machine and it was so confusing, but then you'd get on the plane and you'd realize all you had to do was press the on button."

Will Reed become like 77-year-old Juanita Carmichael, the oldest, longest-enduring flight attendant? No. He wants to fly part-time and concentrate on his paintings and poodle rugs. The poodle business began two years ago when a flight attendant colleague "got bit by a standard (poodle) and had to have $35,000 worth of cosmetic surgery done. He said, Can you do a painting of whatever reminds you of me? I did a painting with a poodle rug in the corner. Then people said I should make poodle rugs." He made 500 out of vinyl and fluffy bath mats. At 18-by-26 inches, with their sparkling collars and French names—Fifi, Gigi—they ended up in Henri Bendel's windows and in a Bergdorf Goodman shoe ad and now they are all the rage at $125 each.

Is Reed getting rich? "The rugs are very labor intensive. I had to rhinestone my whole vacation—three rhinestones on each vinyl eyelash. That's 3000 total but I ended up doing 5000 because they didn't all work."

The seeds for both flying and art appear to have been planted by his mother in his early years in Independence, Missouri—"Truman High School, Truman Road, Truman Library." She was "the number one Midwest Avon lady" and the "owner of Ruth's Bargains Galore" thrift store. She got him started young—"making mice families out of seashells, with magnets to put on refrigerators. I'd have to go to these women under the dryer in the beauty shop and I was shy trying to sell them. I think I became a flight attendant to come out of my shell."

What about the poodle rugs?

"I don't know. My brother's therapist is buying two of them. My brother makes his living from slot machines on gambling boats."

 
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