IT HAPPENED TO ME: Becoming An Airport Janitor Got Me Free Flights And A Lesson In Privilege

I wondered why my coworkers didn’t make use of their flight benefits when it was the only reason I took the job. Doing it for just the minimum-wage pay seemed ludicrous to me.
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Publish date:
November 11, 2014
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airports, jobs, white privilege, minimum wage, Janitors, Summer Jobs

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is located 10 miles south of downtown Atlanta, but it really feels worlds apart from the city center. With 207 domestic and international terminals, and flying more than 260,000 passengers daily, it’s the world’s busiest airport; and spread over 4,700 acres, it makes every other airport look and feel like a quaint port.

It is also home to Delta’s corporate headquarters and technical operations center, which employs over 25,000 Atlantans. Through a subsidiary staffing agency, I became one of those employees for a summer.

It was the summer an African oil baron tipped me 40 bucks that I lost an escalator as I was leaving work; the summer a D-list hip hop group sexually harassed me and all I did was blush and laugh it off; the summer I was the only white girl working in the Delta Sky Lounge, the summer I read Brother Lawrence’s “The Practice of The Presence of God,” and learned to check my middle-class white privilege that I’d never realized needed checking until then.

It was the summer before my senior year of undergrad, and, having been rejected from all the internships I applied for, I learned that sky lounge room attendants (fancy jargon for janitors) at the airport received full flight benefits in exchange for working just two to three shifts per week. I would do many, many (legal) things for cheap or free flights, so of course I went for it.

The requirements were having a pulse and passing a drug test, so with relative ease, I landed the gig and got right to work sweeping floors, washing dishes, and pilfering cheese and crackers from the lounge to munch on during my 15-minute breaks.

I drank straight espresso to stay awake all day, because the hours passed slowly, and I smiled at all the ritzy travelers, always eager to engage in any and all conversations. I was genuinely interested in hearing about people and where they were traveling to.

My favorite terminal was Terminal E -- it was the largest lounge, and the only one that serviced international flights. Nothing made me happier than sweeping up invisible crumbs and eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t understand in Arabic, Portuguese or German. Technically, I could understand sparse amounts of German, thanks to my brief encounter with the language in college, and I once made a group of German businessmen hold back their laughter while I stumbled through some pleasantries in Deutsch.

I also loved the international lounge best because it had showers for the guests, and one of my duties was to clean and re-service the shower rooms after they were used. Those were my five minutes of solitude, locked into a private bathroom. I would sing and pretend I was Cinderella cleaning up after her evil step-sisters, sopping up all the moisture in the room with the dirty towels and squeegeeing the shower so it looked fresh and clean. (But really, it wasn’t clean -- just dry).

My greatest takeaway from that summer however, wasn't the free trips I took to Seattle, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Boston again, but the lessons I learned about myself via my coworkers. I attended one of the most diverse universities in the nation, and always felt happily challenged in my classes that typically boasted a roster of students of all backgrounds, and nationalities. I was a sociology minor. But working at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in College Park, Georgia, the world’s busiest airport, and one of its largest, I became truly aware of my privilege for the first time, in an uncomfortable and jarring way.

Brought up with a “no task is too small” attitude and accustomed to positions of service, I didn’t think I had anything to “check” myself for. I was a smart and aware young woman with a good head on her shoulders. Oh, but pride cometh before a fall, as some of my more religious coworkers would have said. (That was another way we often passed the time, discussing the Bible and having religious debates as we made circles around each other, looking busy with our brooms and dust pans; or simply encouraging one another with uplifting Bible verses we’d bookmarked. Bet you’ve never seen airport janitors sparring about Jesus and feminism, or waxing poetic about the love of God before.)

I found myself exhibiting an odd mixture of pity and self-righteousness when travelers would ask what I was doing working a job like that? Like it was somehow beneath the awesome, well-mannered me. I hastily reassured everyone who asked, and often those who didn’t ask, that I didn’t need this job. No, I was just doing it for the flight benefits, and yes, I was a serious student pursuing a serious degree, and I would be quitting this whatever job in the fall to go back to school.

But it took me a while to realize that this stuck up mentality was incredibly off-putting and insensitive to my coworkers, many of whom were born and raised in underprivileged neighborhoods of South Atlanta, historically plagued by crime, inequality, and simply fewer opportunities than a middle-class, suburban white girl like myself.

I was the definition of sociology-textbook class privilege when I incredulously balked at the suggestion that 20-year-old me could possibly be a mother, because it’s something I was often asked: “How many kids you got?” I thought it was a joke, but most of the other girls my age had growing families, and I actually asked people, “Why don’t you just take classes at community college? And then you can pursue what you really want!” I wondered why they didn’t make use of their flight benefits and travel around, when it’s the only reason I took the job. Doing it for just the minimum-wage pay seemed ludicrous to me.

I confessed my peaheadedness to a friend, and he recommended I read the book “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence, so on the long journey via public transportation, through security, and aboard the airport people mover (yes, that’s its official name) between terminals, I committed those passages to heart, in a genuinely pious attempt to lose my pride and ego. Through my days of endless sweeping and trash emptying, these words gave me comfort: “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

And when a fellow room attendant shared with me her tribulations as a single mother, about her depression, and her attempts to take her own life, I fought back tears, and listened intently, letting her pour her heart out. I didn’t do anything for her but listen and hug her tightly, but it moved me deeply, and made me feel purposeful in being there in a way I hadn’t recognized before.

It was also the job that taught me to overcome my fear of discord. When a grumpy room attendant scowled and slammed doors in my face throughout a shift, I didn’t simply retreat in fear and mope about it. I tracked her down and asked, “Are you upset with me? If I’ve done something to upset or offend you, please let me know so I can fix things.” She scowled again, but eventually shared what was going on and was in a brighter mood by the end of our shift. I’d learned that being purposeful and direct is often necessary in order to deliver the olive branch that was always desired.

I was surrounded by travelers almost daily. With so much of my identity belonging literally up in the air, and in transit, I felt at peace there, with boarding calls and flight delays as my background noise. It was my haven, like the cloud where angels and spirits rest between worlds, because they don’t claim any particular one as home. It was like a constant real-life montage of the opening scene of "Love Actually" when everyone is greeting their loved ones at the airport.

Decently traveled, but not yet desensitized, the magic of the entire process of journey-making had not yet worn off on me, and even with my clear plastic purse, in my black slacks, black button down, and slicked back ponytail, scurrying along to my assigned terminal, I couldn’t help smiling at every briefcase-toting stranger, wondering where they were off to, wondering where they had been, and who was waiting for them at home.