of a Continental Drifter
When Fists Flew on the San Juan
Back in the mid-1980s, when DC-10s roamed the air space between
New York and Puerto Rico, when I was new with the airline, when
the world lay before me like a virgin wearing nothing but a wicked
grin, I worked, on occasion, the most dreaded of all flights:
the infamous San Juan Special. The S.J.S. had the dubious distinction
of departing from JFK shortly before midnight, seven days a week,
365 days a year. It was always filled to capacity with two-hundred-ninety-five
cut-rate passengers who didnít give a damn about the 3:30
a.m. arrival time. What mattered was the $99 one-way airfare.
Only the hardiest flight attendants remained mentally and physically
unscathed after working a typical three-and-a-half-hour flight.
The Saturday night departure (a.k.a. the Saturday Night Special)
was particularly rough. It seemed there was always a fight, always
a problem, always an incident to add to the pages of airline folklore.
On one particularly comical Saturday Night Special, I watched
a new flight attendant experience a nervous breakdown while she
collected tickets at the boarding gate. A hoard of overanxious
New Yorkers the likes of whom the poor, naive Texas girl had never
seen descended upon her, trying to board the airplane all at once.
From my faraway position at the aircraft end of the jet bridge,
I could barely make out her frantic shouts: "Please please,
back up," she cried. "Y'all listen to me, nooooooo!"
Forgoing my assigned position at the aircraft entry door, I stepped
into the jet bridge, looked down the corridor and saw one of the
strangest sights of my airline career. The flight attendant was
sprinting toward meóarms flailing, knees pumping, big hair
splashing around her head like a waterfall gone berserk. A herd
of heckling passengers crossed the jet bridge in leisurely pursuit.
"They won't listen to me, they won't listen to me,"
she cried. "They won't listen to me, they won't listen to
me," mocked a voice from the approaching crowd.
Riotous laughter erupted inside the jet bridge, but from the flight
attendant's perspective, the eruption might just as well have
come from a volcano. Crazy with panic, she shifted into overdrive.
I had no idea a country gal could run so fast wearing three pounds
of make-up and two-and-a-half-inch heels. She seemed to be more
than ten feet away when she launched herself, flinging her arms
and legs around me as if I were a soldier returning from war and
she was the expectant fiancée. Sobbing uncontrollably,
twin rivers of snot running from her flaring nostrils, she trembled
like scrub bush in a cold Siberian breeze.
With the hysterical flight attendant still glued to me, and a
smile struggling to blossom on my pseudo-serious face, I announced
to the passengers that boarding would commence in a moment. They
waited impatiently smirking, rolling their eyes, jostling for
position with an elbow or a kneeówhile a coworker escorted
the traumatized flight attendant to a lavatory where she could
collect herself. But she never did. The very next day she submitted
her resignation and returned home to Texas where only the cattle
Such was life on the San Juan Special. The passengers ate you
up and spat you out. Only the strong survived.
During the beverage service, it was not unusual for a female passenger
to demand a can of Coca Cola. Not for herself, mind you. The high-octane
soft drink was to be fed to her infant child. S.J.S. flight attendants
have been known to shake their heads and sigh while pouring oceans
of Classic Coke into baby bottles. I've done so many times myself.
To add insult to a very possible long-term injury, the same retro-mommy
might request five or six packs of sugar which would be torn open,
poured into the baby bottle filled with Coke, and then, like a
tit plump with sugar and caffeine and carefully-balanced phosphoric
acid, the bottle would be jammed into the screaming infantís
At any time during the flight you might witness a card game with
serious money involved. Gold chains flashed on a regular basis.
Boom boxes, while not uncommon, had the uncommon habit of blasting
music loud enough for everyone to hear. Rumor had it that on one
exceptionally rambunctious flight, a group of hookers worked the
coach-class lavatories. Passengers who wished to use the lavs
for conventional purposes simply had to wait.
Patience never fared well on the San Juan Special, however. Whenever
the lavs were occupied, even when alleged hookers werenít
on board, passengers sometimes found creative ways to purge their
swollen bladders. Once, I saw a man standing absently, a few feet
away from the lavatory. Upon closer inspection, I realized he
was peeing into a free-standing garbage bag. As if squirted from
a figurine in some debauched European fountain, the golden arc
of fluid glistened in dim light that, for one fleeting moment,
made the lurid scene appear respectable.
Considering the distance between man and bag, the passenger was
blessed with remarkable aim and trajectory. Had we been young
boys engaged in a peeing contest, I might have been impressed.
But we were grown men on a goddamn airplane. I walked up beside
him, threw up my hands in exasperation and said, "What the
hell are you doing?" He tossed a sidelong glance, nodded
his head, and smiled the blissful smile of a man who had finally
On one of my very first Saturday Night Specials, airport security
was summoned to the departure gate to break up an airplane brawl.
The fight was initiated during the boarding process, by two men
who, as children, probably suckled hundreds of Coke-filled baby
bottles and pissed liquid sugar well into their thirties.
Here's how the action unfolded.
I watched a nervous-looking gentleman as he placed his new Panama
hat in the overhead bin. Noting the tremendous care he bestowed
upon the hat meticulous placement of it, the way he moved it a
few inches to the left, turned it slightly, then moved it a few
inches to the right I couldn't help but smile. This was a man
who loved his hat, a man whose hat was as precious as a newborn
child. Clearly, this hat was not to be touched by the unsavory
hands of strangers. Though the overhead bin was otherwise empty,
the man closed it gently, leaving his prize to rest in uncluttered
I was standing at the rear of the airplane, about twenty-five
feet away from the hat man, when a heavyset gentleman plopped
into the last row of seats. His eyes were red. He stank of liquor.
He was sweating and panting and seemed on the verge of collapse.
Still, he looked up at me and smiled. "Pssssst, pssssst ...,"
he said. "Yo necesito un vaso con hielo (I need a glass with
ice)." He opened his jacket, pointing somewhat stealthily
to a fifth of rum tucked in his breast pocket. "Yo necesito
un vaso con hielo," he repeated. "Ahhh, ha, ha, ha,
This was the kind of passenger we occasionally greeted on the
Saturday Night Special a tipsy traveler impressed by his own resourcefulness.
As the final passengers squeezed into the crowded cabin, I noticed
a man dragging a heavy carry-on bag along the right-hand aisle
of the aircraft. He hurled repeated insults at his wife, who,
though she was half the size of her husband, was dragging a carry-on
that seemed twice as heavy as his. His wife snapped back at him,
delivering a Spanish-speaking retort that sent ripples of laughter
through the crowd of nearby passengers. Embarrassed by this public
display of female disobedience, the husband flew into a frenzy.
He yelled and cursed, berating her with a volley of conjugated
verbs that drew ice-cold stares from passengers. In the midst
of his tirade, the husband threw open an overhead bin. In one
blind movement, he picked up his massive carry-on bag and slammed
it in the overhead bin, directly on top of the precious Panama
The hat man sat still in his seat, frozen momentarily by the ramifications
of this callous act. When the paralysis finally broke, he leapt
to his feet, cursed the assailant, then reached beneath the bag
to extract what was left of his hat. To his extreme displeasure,
the crown had been completely crushed so that now it was level
to the brim. It looked like a broken Frisbee. Like a nest built
by druggie sparrows.
The hat man's jaw came unhinged. He began to tremble. His eyes
filled with something more complex than rage. Without taking a
breath, the hat man spat a fusillade of insults in rapid-fire
Spanish. The husband responded with a foul-mouthed blast of his
own. Their shouts attracted the attention of everyone on board,
including first-class passengers who were poking their heads in
the aisle, trying to get a glimpse of the ruckus in the back.
I threaded my way through the crowded aisle, hoping to intervene
before things got out of hand. But by the time I reached the two
shouting men, the first punch had already been thrown. The hat
man had been leveled by a vicious right cross.
A collective gasp seemed to suck the air out of the cavernous
DC-10 cabin. Many of the two-hundred-ninety-five passengers and
ten crew members froze in their places. There was no sound. The
seconds floated by like Goodyear blimps. Like a heavyweight champion
refusing to be beaten by a ten-count, the hat man rose slowly
from the floor. He massaged his chin for a moment, grinned sardonically,
then let loose an ear-piercing battle cry:
That's when all hell broke loose.
To the best of my recollection, the full-scale brawl broke out
as the husband prepared to defend himself against the hat man.
When hubby cocked his arm to throw another punch, his elbow inadvertently
whacked the head of a seated passenger. Infuriated by this unprovoked
assault, the man jumped to his feet and pushed the husband who
then fell atop a fourth man who proceeded to push the husband
upon a fifth. Like the climatic scene in a Jackie Chan movie,
fists were suddenly flying everywhere. Stranger battled against
stranger in an aircraft skirmish fueled purely by angst and testosterone.
Not to be outdone by the guys, some of the tougher-looking female
passengers joined in. I ducked beneath a misguided punch thrown
by a thirty-year-old woman in a tank top. I glared at her, thought
briefly about delivering a jab to the ribs or maybe an uppercut
to the chin. But then I remembered I was at work and in uniform.
Besides, she looked like the type who might whup my ass and live
to laugh about it. Instead of throwing punches, I threw a look
and retreated to the rear of the aircraft.
Unfortunately, my escape was blocked by a massive presence in
the aisle. It was the tipsy traveler. The big guy. The one who
asked for un vaso con hielo. He stood there, wobbling, a sudden
sense of purpose gleaming in his bloodshot eyes. Until that moment,
I hadnít appreciated the mammoth proportions of the man.
He stood well over six feet and weighed in at no less than three
hundred pounds. Amid the shouts and screams of the escalating
brawl, the big guy gathered his considerable voice and yelled
something in Spanish. Something cruel and daunting and suicidal.
He charged up the aisle, slamming into the fray with a fearlessness
instilled by the makers of Barcardi. Had I not slid into a row
of seats, he would have bowled me over like a cricket wicket.
The captain's voice soon came over the P.A. system, demanding
that everyone be seated, but the escalating clamor made his command
difficult to hear. Cheering sections had formed on the opposite
side of the airplane. When a favorite brawler connected a punch,
one group would yell "Whoooaaaaa" while the other group
sighed "Ooooooh." From a protected position near the
aft bulkhead, I watched an entire familyómother, father
and three kids applauding and throwing phantom punches, like spectators
at a Tyson fight. Iím certain that in some hidden corner
of the aircraft, someone was placing five-to-one odds on the big
As law enforcement officers stormed the airplane, as punches froze
in mid-arc and pugilists suddenly became pacifists, the big guy
moved to the back of the airplane and looked me dead in the eye.
"Pssssst, pssssst" he said, his eyes like wet tomatoes.
"Yo necesito un vaso con hielo. Ahhhh, ha, ha, ha, ha"