Hospitality in an Ambulance and Elsewhere

I am writing from 30,000 feet in the First Class cabin of U.S. Air. Flying is usually awful, of course. My current good fortune is due to my husband’s weekly commute to another state and a consequent frequent flyer upgrade. He and my children, including my 6’2” son, are currently folded up like origami in row 7 of Coach. I just blew my cover by ordering a coffee during beverage service. Every one of my companions in First Class ordered a Bloody Mary—the secret handshake of the rich.

Randy, handing out hot towels.

Here in the stratified world of first class, there is another secret. Not just a hot-meals-on-real-china-free-booze secret. There is Randy, a flight attendant in his 60’s, with an acerbic wit reminiscent of a Jack Benny monologue circa 1955.

Randy just gave us quite a spiel about the wine list; there is a Chardonnay, but he wouldn’t recommend it, as neither would the entire population of France, for that matter—and he’s lived in Paris. There is a Burgundy, no, the French wouldn’t let me say that, he corrected, it’s a Cabernet. Baccardi Blue Sapphire and Baileys are on board. He related the liquor list and lunch menu while he walked up and down the aisle before take off, telling jokes—working the room, essentially. He is a slight fellow, sprightly, so although the less fortunate were still boarding, he just shimmied this way and that between the seats while the coach passengers trudged past to their certain doom.

While the plane was still ascending, Randy was up fussing like a nervous hostess, opening and closing galley doors, arranging food, an act that brings to mind the baby buggy scene in The Untouchables, the way the food cart kept darting away from him. Randy’s impudence compelled another flight attendant way in the back with the crated chickens to mention over the P.A. system that the captain had not yet turned off the fasten seatbelts signs, even for the flight attendants.

Once at cruising altitude, Randy stood at the threshold of the great divide, boldly faced the thronging hoards and announced that their chances of winning the lottery were better than getting to a bathroom on this plane. However, he said, as long as everyone followed FAA regulations, no one in First Class would be condescending or sectarian were they to wander into our neighborhood in search of relief. Later, the low-rent flight attendant got on the P.A. and corrected Randy about that, too.



  1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.

I had planned to write about hospitality before even boarding the plane. It never occurred to me I might actually encounter it here, on the plane. I am old enough to have a foggy memory of air travel before it was transformed into a medieval Black Maria, but not old enough to remember actual in-flight hospitality, the generous reception of guest, visitor or stranger.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Southern women come to mind, the way they make a space in the present moment where you can enter and be awash in pleasant conversation and ease. A southern woman can make the state of your flower garden or the difficulty you are having with a child seem to be her greatest concern at that moment. I was trying to explain this cultural difference to our Swedish exchange student.

“You mean how I feel so happy talking to Mrs. Tomlinson?” Sven asked. Mrs. Tomlinson is a southern matriarch on our cul-de-sac in Scottsdale.

“Yes, exactly that.”

A brilliant choice of brown.
A brilliant choice of brown.

Mrs. Tomlinson was not happy we painted our new front door a sort of Greek blue, but she
adroitly related her opinion by telling us how happy she was we had chosen a dark brown trim. Any worry we felt at having displeased her with blue was sublimated into pride in our obviously brilliant choice of brown. That, dear reader, is magic.

Hospitality is the art of comfort, physical and psychological, purveyed to a visitor in the guest room, a neighbor in the street, a stranger in an airplane seat. A lack of hospitality is a kind of weapon, wielded against the vulnerable.

In 1990, my best friend Jennifer and I left our seats on Amtrak about 1 a.m. and headed to the observation car. We were traveling cross-country, California to New York, back to college and the beginning of our Senior Year. We were making two stops, one in Kansas City, where I had reserved a room at a Bed and Breakfast, and one in Chicago, where Jennifer’s father lived. We were students who could not afford a sleeping car on the train, so we were making the best it. The coach seating, like any coach seating, was quite “populated” and “public”.

The observation car held the spurious promise of sleep, and while we found a little privacy and darkness there, we also found molded plastic seats. Jennifer and I slipped around on the plastic, trying to find the best way to conform out bodies to the protruding parts of the hard blue seats— picture sleeping in an ice tray. When we finally came to rest, Jennifer announced, “Mas mejor.” Jennifer, Japanese-American from California and I, Russian-American from Arizona, on a cross country train to New York, sleep deprived and forbidden by train designers to rest comfortably, “Mas mejor”, precisely because it was not “Mas mejor”, summed everything up.

We arrived in Kansas City in anticipation of our first ever Bed and Breakfast. I recall the two of us waiting on grassy berm in humid weather. Our kind hostess picked us up at the station and mentioned she needed to run to the grocery store. Jennifer and I offered to stay in the car— we were road weary, having slept in ice trays for two nights— but our hostess said, “No, you need to come in. You might steal my car.”

The B & B was a painstakingly appointed Victorian, the bedrooms hemorrhaging ruffles and toile, but it was hospitality with a veneer of suspicion. In the morning, Jennifer and I ate our homemade breakfast on fine china with French linens in rigid persons-of-interest silence. I whispered to Jennifer, “Do you think she’s going to count the silverware when we’re done?”

For contrast, allow me to relate a trip I took this summer with my children.  We visited the mountains of Arizona at the invitation of some friends who keep a trailer up in the woods. The kids had set up their tent among the pines, and we were on the deck, drinking cocoa and planning the day, when a tiny little lady in white tennies and a nautical top teetered around the front of the trailer and up the steps.

“I see you have a tent set up,” said the woman, whose name, I would  learn, is Margaret. She is 82, and the proprietess of the trailer park. (Look at that— I mentioned First Class air travel and a trailer park in the same post.)

“I hope that’s okay,” said my friend, Joan. “The kifishds are going to sleep there. We don’t have room in the trailer for everyone.”

“Well, I don’t like the thought of your friends sleeping outside during a storm.”  Summer storms kick up in the afternoons and evenings in the mountains. “Why don’t they come sleep on my living room floor?” Margaret has a cabin on the property.

Frail little Margaret invited two teenagers, complete strangers, to sleep on the floor of her cabin, snug on plush blue carpeting. It seems it never occurred to her they just might steal her car.

The next night, when my children took Margaret a plate of grilled rainbow trout they had caught that day, Margaret said she wasn’t feeling well and could they please fetch Joan. An evening of attempts to call 911 with poor cell phone reception and firetrucks and distress ensued. As the paramedics were loading Margaret into the ambulance, she turned to Joan and said, “Please make sure the children sleep in my living room tonight.” Hospitality practiced from inside an ambulance is the apex of the art.

We are preparing for descent. Randy is handing out some hot towels.

“I only have a few left, so I’m handing them out to my ladies.”

James Vaughan
Photo and cropped header: James Vaughan, Flickr

I was lucky to meet Randy on U.S. Air when I did, and to spend a very happy 3 hours with him. It takes years and years of training to achieve the level of crabby efficiency flight attendants purvey in Coach. Randy has a long way to go.

6 thoughts on “Hospitality in an Ambulance and Elsewhere

  1. Well woven thread of stories here! Having the skill to make guests, particularly strangers, feel comfortable and well-attended is increasingly rare in our attention-poor society. Margaret the trailer matron and Randy in Fabulous First Class have it down; Snotty McParanoid the B&B lady likely never shall.


  2. Pingback: Al Capone, Golf and Vegetables: History Trapped in Your Friends and Relations | A Word, Please. . .

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