Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Homage to the Number "3"

What's in a number?

We normally use numbers in an attempt to be precise.  How many?  How much?  What street address?  To what degree?  What size?  When we ask someone their age, they respond with a number that evokes a more-or-less precise notion of where they are in their journey through life.  How big are your feet?  "Size #", is the answer you expect.  "Size 14" evokes one thought, "size 3" quite another!

The number 3, in particular, is my subject of the day.  What thought does the number "3" evoke for you?  Three is one of those rare numeric entities known as "prime', meaning that it is divisible ONLY by itself and by "1".  "ABC, easy as 123..."  "Three's company".  "Three's a crowd."  Today, I have an altogether different "3" on my mind and her name is "Gaye".

This month, I have the privilege of flying with the #3 Flight Attendant on my legacy airline's (pre-merger) seniority list.  Although I've known of Gaye for quite a while and flew a Paris trip with her in the 90s, I've never had the chance to "get to know her" like I do this month.  As a "chaser", my work position is in the 777 B zone aisle; Gaye is the non-speaker A zone aisle position.  This circumstance affords me the unique opportunity of occasionally glancing up and catching Gaye at work.  At the beginning of this paragraph, I used the word "privilege".  What a privilege it is!

Gaye is a "wisp" of a thing.  Her diminutive size and stature do NOTHING to prepare you for the gravity of her presence.  Her charming face and smile are reinforced by piercing eyes that let you know you are the focus of her attention, no question.  The gold and diamond 50-year service pin that Gaye wears as a pendant appears to be the size of a breastplate on her slight figure.  She wears that pin with pride and honor.  But the  pin, itself, is an unnecessary accessory for that purpose.  Gaye's face, her posture, her "presence" announce to all that she is proud and honored to do what she does, to be where she is and to offer her gifts to others, all with a humility that belies true contentment.

Yesterday, I had completed my B zone introductions and pre-departure drinks and began to offer newspapers in both B and A zones from the publications cart.  As I passed through aircraft right in A zone, I noticed Gaye on aircraft left, chatting unhurriedly with our new guests.  "Gaye doesn't work on aircraft left", I remember thinking.  As I crossed to aircraft left at the galley, I overtook Gaye in the aisle at row 2 or 3.  I did not alert her to my presence, choosing instead to wait, watch and listen.  I was mesmerized by the organic, natural way she interacted with these new faces, new customers for our company whom she treated with age-old friendliness. I aspire to dispel anxiety and build warmth and confidence with customers during Phase I, but I don't think I'll ever possess the level of "naturalness" that Gaye has mastered.  Like me, Gaye wants to say hello to everyone in the cabin where she works, not just the ones that she's responsible for serving.  Later, I mentioned to Gaye that I'd overheard and seen her introductions.  I asked, "these days, some poor folks don't have any idea how to be gracious and cordial.  What do you do when they give you that 'deer in the headlights, you've got 3 heads' look?" because they don't know how to interact with you.  Without even thinking about it, Gaye said, "I just stand there like I've got 3 heads!".  Whatever makes them comfortable.

Chatting between services as Gaye prepared a double-shot espresso for herself in preparation for the pre-landing service, I learned that Gaye eschews technology.  She kindly offered me a bound month-at-a-glance calendar that her husband's company uses as a promotional item.  "As a matter of fact, that is the very type of calendar that I loved when I still used calendars", I said in thanking her for the kind offer.  "But that calendar is missing one key thing that my phone and iPad have.....an alarm!"  Gaye quickly demonstrated the reason that I'd always found month-at-a-glance most useful by opening it and pointing to its ease of use.  That exchange started a time-gobbling, insightful conversation about how technology has changed humanity, essentially.  I learned that she was paralyzed with fear when she thought she'd misplaced and permanently lost her 10-year old flip phone.  She is so comfortable with what it does (and doesn't) do and loathes the very concept of a "smart" phone.  I asked if she was aware that the planned obsolescence of such devices was MONTHS, not YEARS.  

This time, it was Gaye's turn to look at me like I had 3 heads!

I mentioned that next month I was swapping lines with a reserve and was gobsmacked by her unexpected response.  She expressed no shock or surprise AT ALL!  It was as though, by my choosing to do such a thing, it validated the concept as perfectly reasonable.  Instead of asking, "What are you thinking?  Have you lost your mind?", as practically everyone else has, Gaye talked about her own 5 month reserve experience, now 50 long years ago!  "I was lucky.  When I got hired at TI (Texas International), we were getting ready for a big expansion.  We started our first routes outside of Texas when we began flying to New Mexico and I was in the right place at the right time."  Wow.  What freshness, what quickness, what insightfulness, what topicality a conversation with a 50-year Flight Attendant can possess!

I look forward to my next 2 trips this month!  I look forward to the opportunity to get to know a very special lady a little better, to learn a little more about what has made her journey special and unique, to spend a little more time in the presence of someone who is so comfortable in her own skin, in the knowledge that what she does, her service to others, is IMPORTANT.  Because she makes it so.  It's nothing short of a revelation, to me.

In physical stature, I may stand head and shoulders taller (literally, head and shoulders) than #3.  But I doubt that I will ever be able to fill those tiny shoes!  The #3 has gained an entirely new significance for me.


  1. Very attractive woman! I hope I'm lucky enough to get the kind of service you, Tony, and other flight attendants give to commuters when I travel to Singapore this summer!

  2. "These are the kind of flowers a woman prefers...." That's what Mrs. Howell, CHS Career Counselor said to me when I had her proofread an essay I had written to submit with my college applications. The paper was written about the positive influences Mrs. Catharine Malone had had on me during my highschool days.

    This article is a beautiful compliment to Number 3...I have no doubt she would take this "bouquet" over a bunch of live roses any day!

    As a former airline employee, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly make their way up and down the aisles of an aircraft. The good ones seem to be harder to find these days. Please express my gratitude to #3 for keeping the skies friendly and professional.

    Great article!


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