Steven Slater lives in the Rockaways, in the last house on an idyllic lane where children sled off snowbanks into the street. Church bells ring as I pull into the driveway. Slater meets me out front, in a checkered shirt, jeans, and a big gold watch. He lives here with his boyfriend, Ken Rochelle, a bushy-browed math tutor. The couple’s aquamarine Ikea living room faces nothing but the ocean and a strip of sand. A wall plaque says LIFE IS BETTER AT THE BEACH. It all feels hundreds of miles removed from the city, which is why Slater chose it. He “did the Manhattan thing” in his twenties, he says, and moved here three years ago to achieve a measure of peace.
Slater pretty much put an end to that plan last summer. When an irate female passenger cursed him out after their plane arrived at JFK, the then-38-year-old JetBlue flight attendant with twenty years in the flying business grabbed two cans of beer off the beverage cart, activated the emergency-escape chute, and promptly exited the aircraft, his job, and much of his former life. He now refers to that day simply as “August 9th,” as if it were a major disaster or Independence Day—both of which, in a sense, it was.
The initial press frenzy, which made Slater into a national folk hero, lasted about two weeks and has long since subsided. But there was something so elementally appealing about this story, so resonant of our high-strung, overworked-underpaid moment, that it didn’t fully vanish either. Instead, Slater, jobless and having plea-bargained his way out of jail (he was charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and criminal trespass), has settled into a kind of protracted twilight notoriety—the long tail of fame.
“Within twenty minutes,” Slater says, “there were lots of weird ‘Baby, I’ll make you a star’ calls.” Producers pitched reality shows where Slater would help people quit their jobs. Dance clubs offered guest-bartending gigs. He was asked to endorse weight-loss pills or to go on a brand-name diet (“I photograph heavy,” Slater says). Then there were the slides. “People wanted me to slide into everything. Slide into a bar! Slide into a club! Slide into a New Year’s party at the stroke of midnight in a baby diaper!”
The offers have slowed down over time but haven’t stopped, leaving Slater’s life an odd mix of the grave and the frivolous. He doesn’t have much money, doesn’t know what he’ll do next for a career, and, after years of drug and alcohol addiction, is working to stay clean. Today, Slater needs to set up a wireless printer, attend a meet-up for a flight-attendant friend who passed away two days ago, do an interview, refill a lost prescription, make a backstage media appearance at Newsical the Musical (he’s paid to do this kind of press by an iPhone app that employs him as a spokesperson), and sign and fax do-not-resuscitate papers for his mother, dying of cancer in L.A. He goes about each of these tasks with the same kind of resigned amiability and a hint of an eye-roll, as if, from August 9 on out, everything that happens to him just furnishes more proof that life is a crazy thing.
Steven Slater was born in Los Angeles, the only child of a pilot and a flight attendant. He has flown since the age of 19. “I was fortunate to fly during a very good time for the airline industry,” Slater says. “Pre-9/11 747’s to Europe. Châteaubriand, caviar, and escargot. Seventy-two-hour layovers in Frankfurt and Zurich. It was an amazing time.” He was young, gay, and single, in a profession that still held some globe-trotting glamour.
He was also depressed and addicted. Slater’s early adulthood—he got married shortly after high school, had a child at 21 as his marriage fell apart, lost his first job at SkyWest, and was living in a trailer—left him with a drinking, cocaine, and crystal-meth problem. “It took me to some pretty serious places,” says Slater. “I overdosed twice. I had a stroke.” In 2002, he tested positive for HIV. The diagnosis, plus the aftermath of 9/11, got him into Alcoholics Anonymous.
September 11, of course, also kicked off the airline industry’s decade-long decline. Slater had bounced from airline to airline—Business Express, TWA, Delta—losing hard-earned seniority in two corporate mergers and getting furloughed (basically downsized with a vague promise to rehire) before ending up at JetBlue. When Slater’s mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, in January 2009, he put in for a “hardship transfer” to JetBlue’s Los Angeles base. He relocated and moved his belongings to California, but the transfer was denied. “And once it’s denied,” Slater says, “you can’t move again for a year. Basically, I ended up in the position where I had to commute from L.A. to New York for work every week.” Rochelle, meanwhile, did the same commute in reverse to take care of Slater’s mother when her son was in New York. The couple barely saw each other. Free travel was just about the only perk keeping Slater on the job. Working limited hours, he made just $9,700 in 2009. “In my twentieth year in the business,” Slater says, “I earned less than I did in my first.” By last summer, the situation had become unbearable. On the night of August 8, he had one of what he calls a number of sobriety lapses.