Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Poet Laureate of Flight Attendants


Lori Jakiela, one of my favorite writers, was born on this day in 1964 in Pittsburgh.

I first encountered Jakiela while driving home from work, listening to the normally monotonous local poetry program on one of our public radio stations. Jakiela, who was reading selections from her chapbook The Regulars, would have charmed the socks off me were I not at that moment engaged in driving down the parkway at 65+ mph. Her funny, often both funny and poignant vignettes from her experiences as an airline hostess made me laugh out loud, and were a breath of fresh air from the usually ponderous fare I had come to expect from the program. I made a mental note to reserve a special space in my very own personal literary canon for Lori Jakiela as the poet laureate of flight attendants.

Last year, Jakiela published a memoir of growing up in Western Pennsylvania and briefly following her dreams in New York City, entitled Miss New York Has Everything. Miss New York is a sweet and mischievous book, and Jakiela’s voice is so disarmingly blithe that at first it is difficult to understand why it gets under one’s skin.

I know that at least some of what attracts me to Jakiela’s tale is that both of our fathers were machinists. Jakiela depicts her adoptive father, who once dreamed of being the next Frank Sinatra, as a bitter and misanthropic man – “probably closest in temperament to the French writer Celine, who could say the word sh*t in seventeen languages and kept company mostly with dogs and whores” – whereas I tend to think of my father as more of a self-assured and chatty cross between Leonardo da Vinci, Jack LaLanne and Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. As Jakiela’s contemporary, the catalog of references from the junkyard of 1970s pop culture that tumble forth in her work, from “Seasons in the Sun” to Shaun Cassidy to Lassie and That Girl reruns, also sends inevitable shivers of recognition up my spine. Although I grew up in Southern California, a place with which I now enjoy a special love-hate relationship and a prison from which the teenaged me vowed to escape, I now live a mere two-stone’s-throws from the little town of Trafford where Jakiela survived her dour childhood; and it is with a mixture of irony and awe that I find myself viewing the 70s, 80s and 90s through the windshield of an adopted person from my adopted home, cruising past familiar Pittsburgh institutions such as the Electric Banana, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Iron City Beer (“If you’ve never had an Iron City Beer, suck on your car keys. You’ll get the idea.”), bingo night at the Polish Club, and the Squirrel Cage.

What really pushes my buttons about Miss New York Has Everything, however – the kernel of the universal in it that rises above the particulars, if you will – is Jakiela’s portrayal of that fine line between love and horror. One feels Jakiela’s warmth and empathy for the people of her hometown, even as she is compelled to share with us, as though possessed of a pair of X-ray glasses from an ad in the back of a comic book, the ruptures and boils that lie beneath the flowered housecoats of the Trafford ladies. Cartoon visions of hell play prominently amid her early memories.

The distance between horror and love for Jakiela, however, seems to be comparable in magnitude, as the crow flies, to the gap between reality and dreams. Everyone around her, it seems, has at least one broken dream, or a real or imagined near-miss with fame or good fortune; and yet, in her unfailing optimism Jakiela conveys the sense that we’re all walking around like unrecognized stars. Even as she admits that her aunt, the one her father called Shirley Temple, had plenty of ambition but no discernible talent, she is happy to remind you that before James Dean became James Dean, he had a bowl haircut and glasses and played Frankenstein in his high school production of Goon with the Wind. We’re all, it seems, a mere accident away from reaching out and touching the impossible.

In the meantime, as Jakiela observes wistfully,

… [L]ife and the people in it are mostly complicated. We might all be jokes, but there are a lot of punch lines and we don’t always see them coming.

The pope, a piece of string, a blonde, an Irish man, a black man, a nun, a rabbi, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and a midget walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Hold on, this has to be a joke.’

We don’t fit into neat categories, we don’t see ourselves clearly, and, even if we dress the part, there’s a good chance we’ve been miscast.
There you have it. There's a fine line between horror and love, a thin screen between dreams and reality. And, miscast or not, an unforeseen punch line can come along and push you right past those capricious, delicate barriers ... which is how an ex-flight attendant from Trafford can one day become a writer who deserves to be read, the poet laureate of flight attendants.

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