Pilots have been known to tremble when she comes plodding onto an airplane with a chip on her shoulder and a snarl on her face. Fellow flight attendants cringe when she commandeers the first-class galley, casting an evil eye on those who dare invade her "private" workspace. She's been chastised by management for a long list of infractions -- cussing out first-class passengers, refusing to serve hungry pilots, making unauthorized P.A. announcements that urge the disgruntled to grab their belongings and kindly step outside. She's a frequent flyer's worst nightmare, the poster girl for curtness and disdain.
Her name is Bertha, but we call her "Big Bertha," not simply because her ass is as wide and unruly as the tail section of a jumbo jet in turbulent air (30 years of feasting on airplane lasagna can wreak havoc on a flight attendant's posterior), or because her voice clacks through the cabin as if amplified through a megaphone. We call her Big Bertha because she's crass, mean, a borderline psychotic truly the flight attendant from hell!
Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, Big Bertha existed in the realm of legend and imagination. In more than a decade of flying, I had never actually seen her. But news of her existence was widespread, instilling fear in those who had yet to fly with her.
During one unforgettable flight, Big Bertha allegedly stormed into the cockpit after the captain demanded to be fed before the first-class passengers. Angered by his insolence, she raised her dress, peeled the super-queen panty hose from her sumo wrestler hips, pointed to a private place which hadn't seen action since the days before airline deregulation, and said: "Dinner is served, captain! But hurry up, I ain't got all day."
Needless to say, the captain lost his appetite. Some say the poor guy never ate another airplane meal.
Another Big Bertha classic occurred on a flight to the Caribbean. According to the story, a West Indian dignitary had been complaining about shoddy service. He settled into his first-class seat, demanding champagne and attention. Without giving the cabin crew adequate time to respond, he pressed the flight attendant call button. Within seconds, he pressed it again. Big Bertha approached him with her arms folded and eyes blazing.
Realizing she had brought neither champagne nor an appropriate measure of humility, the V.I.P. passenger went ballistic. "Where is my champagne!" he shouted. "Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?"
Bertha abruptly turned her back on the inconsolable V.I.P. She strolled into the galley, cleared her throat, picked up the microphone, and in the cool mellifluous parlance of a radio talk-show host, she made an announcement that will forever echo through the corridors of the P.A. hall of fame.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she said. "May I have your attention. May I have your attention, please."
The cabin grew quiet. Three pilots, four flight attendants and more than 130 passengers waited.
"We have a passenger in first class who does not know who he is," she said. "If anyone knows who he is, if anyone has a clue to his identity, would you please come up and let us know immediately."
The airplane erupted in laughter. Not surprisingly, the dignitary found no humor in this personal attack. He had been mocked, raked over the coals of rudeness and embarrassment. When Big Bertha finally delivered a glass of champagne, he gave her a look that could have melted a glacier, and she gave him a look that could have frozen the melt.
Although the dignitary remained silent for the duration of the flight, he complained to agents upon arrival and wrote a scathing letter to the company. Big Bertha was unceremoniously suspended -- one of her many suspensions.
As years went on, Big Bertha's legend grew to new heights of absurdity. Someone claimed she lived with 26 cats in a crumbling ranch house in Pasadena, Calif. Someone else said she had been arrested by Swiss police for causing a disturbance in a chocolate shop. Others said she belonged to a cult, slapped an offensive pilot and strapped cans of Purina to her roll-aboard luggage so she could feed stray cats during overseas layovers.
During one of Big Bertha's memorable flights, a passenger rang his call button to complain about the chicken entrie. "This chicken is bad," he told Bertha, in a tone as nasty as the meal. She snatched the poultry from his tray, raised it high in the air and smacked the chicken with her open hand. "Bad chicken, bad," she shouted. She then dropped the bird on his tray, stomped her hooves like a rhino and disappeared into the galley.
If these stories are true -- and they've been confirmed by many flight attendants -- Big Bertha is someone not to fuck with. I considered myself lucky to have avoided her all these years.
But as luck would have it, my time to confront her had come.
An hour before departure, I burst through the flight operations door and rushed toward a kiosk of some 20 company computers. Each was occupied by a flight attendant who was "signing in" (the computerized equivalent of punching the clock). When a terminal finally opened up, I hurriedly signed in for my trip.
After reading 20 pages of e-mail about the introduction of an Egg McMuffin-like sandwich on flights from South America, new milk containers, Styrofoam cup shortages and a system-wide crackdown on flight attendants suspected of stealing liquor money, I entered a code that called up the names of my crew.
I tore the sheet from the printer and saw that Rick, Jake and Bob would be our pilots. I wondered why so many pilots take on one-syllable names: Chuck, Ron, Rich, Dan, Dick, Don, Skip, Pat, Bud ... the list is as long as a layover in Odessa, Texas. Walk behind a trio of pilots, call out one of the aforementioned names, and chances are pretty good at least one of them will turn around and say, "Huh?"
Following the pilots were names of the cabin crew: Daniel, Samantha, myself, Bertha. Bertha? Big Bertha? No, it couldn't be. The word was she never flew three-day trips on narrow body aircraft. Not enough room in the galleys. No place for her to hide from passengers. No, it couldn't be Big Bertha.
I broke out in a cold sweat.
Most flight attendants -- young or old, black or white, male or female, straight or gay -- are good-natured people. We have to be. But every so often, a malcontent creeps into the ranks. It's difficult enough to deal with the demands of passengers, but when you're working a three-day trip and a member of the crew creates problems, the job becomes twice as difficult, the days three times as long.
As I tramped toward the departure gate, the inevitable clash with Big Bertha weighed heavy on my mind. Would she be as bad as everyone says? Would her uniform be matted with cat hair? Would her breath smell like fish gone bad in the refrigerator? I fought the urge to call in sick, to hop into my Civic and drive home.
I approached the gate, waved absently to the agent, walked through the sliding door and stepped onto the jet bridge. Like the majority of flight attendants, I've had occasional altercations with other crew members, but the bad memories are foggy. But as I moved closer to the aircraft door, a slew of images came at me in Technicolor clarity: the lazy galley guy we caught reading Cosmopolitan when he should have been serving drinks; the smoker who crawled into an empty meal cart to puff on a Marlboro every 30 minutes; the sky princess who slept in a row of seats during every leg of a three-day trip; the kleptomaniac who stole from the duty-free cart; the neurotic who sprayed insecticide in the pilot's sleeping bunk because they denied her request to cop a few Z's; and the hypochondriac who caused a health scare when she insisted upon wearing surgical gloves during the meal service.
The few times I've been forced to work with difficult souls such as these, words were exchanged, sides were taken and feelings hurt.
And now I was about to work with Big Bertha, the most difficult flight attendant in the skies.
Daniel and Samantha were lounging in first class when I walked onto the airplane. We exchanged introductions and the typical pre-departure small talk. How long have you been based here? Are you flying this trip for the remainder of the month? Do you live in town, or do you commute to another city? Do you know if the flight is full?
Suddenly, Samantha leaned forward and whispered, "I hope you guys know Big Bertha is working this trip." Daniel's eyes grew to the size of silver dollars. Apparently, he hadn't checked the crew list.
"Have you flown with her?" I asked Samantha.
"Yeah. And let me tell you, it wasn't pretty."
"What happened?" said Daniel.
Then from our seats, we heard the thud of heavy feet. It was Big Bertha.
We scattered like thieves.
I rushed to the back of the plane, while Daniel went up front and Samantha just froze. She was alone to face the beast.
I peeked out to watch the confrontation. To my surprise, Big Bertha actually shook hands with Samantha. Daniel popped out of the forward galley and she shook hands with him as well. They stood in the aisle chatting for a moment, but I was too far away to hear anything.
Big Bertha then walked to the back of the plane and extended her hand. She was a large woman, but not nearly the Jabba the Hut she had been made out to be. "I'm Bertha," she said. "Would you like me to help you set up the liquor cart?"
Her smile opened like a desert flower. Corpulent cheeks bore the rosy tint of a department store Santa. Her brunet bob swayed as she tilted her head, waiting for me to answer.
"No," I said. "But thanks anyway."
"You sure, sweetheart?" she said. "There's always too much work for the galley flight attendant. I'm happy to lend a hand."
I was magically transported to Sunday mornings in my mother's kitchen, where kindness oozed like the syrup she poured on homemade pancakes. A feeling of goodness swelled inside me. Bertha wasn't the flight attendant from hell, she was the kind-hearted co-worker from heaven.
"Ahhh ... well, maybe I could use some tea and Equal from first class," I said.
"Be right back."
The horror stories were all lies -- flight attendant folklore aimed to break up the boredom of a trans-Atlantic trip. Bertha was no monster. No airborne antichrist. This was a woman of good intentions, a sweetheart by all rights.
By the time our plane reached cruising altitude, Bertha and I were best buddies. Having been squished together (literally), I learned that she owned four cats, not 26. She lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., not Pasadena, and that she was definitely not the type who would pull down her pantyhose to freak out pilots.
In an action that proved her dedication to her job, Bertha almost leapt up when a passenger rang his call button.
But a moment later, I poked my head out to find Bertha locked in a heated debate. Judging by the way she jabbed her finger at the passenger's face, Bertha had fallen off the happy wagon. When she finished giving a piece of her mind, she straightened her skirt and stomped down the aisle, which suddenly seemed too narrow to accommodate her swinging hips. Big Bertha turned into the galley where I had retreated, hunkering over me, allowing no means for escape. Gone was the sweet woman who reminded me of grandma. Like Bruce Banner after a precipitous rise in blood pressure, Big Bertha had metamorphosed into the Incredible Hulk.
She looked me in the eye, her face twisting into a scowl that vaulted her eyebrows, curled her lips and distorted her speech.
"I hate assholes," she said.