The basic facts of the now infamous August 9 flight from Pittsburgh to New York have been well documented: Two passengers argued over baggage space at the beginning of the flight, and one of them lashed out at Slater after the landing. In response, Slater went on the P.A. and said, “To the passenger who called me a motherfucker: Fuck you.” He then announced to his astonished audience, “I’ve been in this business for twenty years. And that’s it. I’ve had it. I’m done.” Whereupon he grabbed the beers, opened the emergency exit, and vamoosed down the slide.
But the truth of Slater’s big exit isn’t quite so cinematic. For one, as he jumped out of the plane, Slater realized that he had left his bags inside. “I’m looking back up at the airplane, and I’m like, Shit, now what?” he recalls. “Obviously it was a moment of adrenaline, and I wasn’t planning any of this. I can’t exactly yell, ‘Hey, guys, you want to throw down my bags?’ ” So he straddled the slippery, twisting slide and shimmied himself upward, as baggage handlers around him guffawed and took cell-phone pictures. The slide was covered with silvery powder, which Slater got all over himself. Having procured the bags, he slid down the chute a second time, walked a few steps to the terminal (for the fifteen-foot trespass, the TSA is threatening to fine Slater up to $11,000), found an open service door, walked through the underbelly of the arrivals hall, and emerged—in full uniform, dusty, bleeding, and with “the biggest deranged smile on my face because I am feeling so free and light and unencumbered”—in the baggage claim of JetBlue’s Terminal 5.
“People wanted me to slide into everything. A bar! A club! A New Year’s party in a baby diaper!”
“I go up to the ticket counters and go up the escalator,” Slater says, “and this guy comes up to me and asks me whether I am the flight attendant who just was on the flight from Pittsburgh, and whether I just quit my job. And I go, ‘Yeah, I did,’ and I rip off my tie and take my I.D. and fling it over the side of the escalator.” Slater then got on the AirTrain, high-fived some TSA workers and an American Airlines crew, got off at the parking lot, climbed into his Jeep, and went home. He stopped at a 7-Eleven on Cross Bay Boulevard to get a Red Bull and some snacks before going home to tell Rochelle the news. He changed out of his uniform, opened the soon-to-be-famous two beers he had grabbed from the tray, and chugged both, staring at the ocean.
One of the most vivid, and badass, details of the Slater legend is that he and Rochelle were having sex when the police showed up several hours later. Only it isn’t true. In fact, they were having a fight. Rochelle, who was in his underwear when Slater arrived, was so dismayed by his boyfriend’s tale that he, a devout Catholic, stormed off to the bedroom to pray. When the police commotion started out front, Rochelle emerged, disoriented and half-dressed—“and, of course, they immediately put us where they always put the gays, in bed,” says Slater. “I just think it’s funny—they’re imagining this sex romp, and he’s back there actually praying the Rosary. Like a little choirboy.”
Slater spent a total of 31 hours in custody, shuttled among a Port Authority cell at JFK, a Queens courthouse, and the Vernon C. Bain Center, a jail housed on a barge floating off Rikers Island. What he didn’t know was that, as the bizarre details of his escapade leaked out, public sympathy was settling in his direction. When he finally emerged outside on $2,500 bail, around 9:30 p.m. on August 10, he was a late-night variety joke, a tabloid cover, an op-ed metaphor, an Internet meme, and, finally, a kind of twisted working-class hero.
The weeks that followed provided a crash course in modern celebrity. Paparazzi tried to pick Slater and Rochelle’s locks and removed screens from their windows to get a shot of their bedroom. The Daily News published Slater’s HIV status, an act he’s considering suing over. “Before, I would look at a tabloid story and say, ‘You know what, you’re a star, you asked for it,’ ” he says. “But that was before I had things like my medical records printed in the press.” His Facebook and MySpace pages were wide open. “I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to an AA meeting,” Slater says. “The next thing, I’m a falling-down drunk in the papers and photographers show up at the meeting.” TMZ published a passenger’s snaps of him taken on a flight from North Carolina. One of the morning shows “edited a 24-minute interview into a six-minute crucifixion.” He couldn’t protest, he says, because he already realized that he might have to make the rounds of the same shows later, when he had something to promote.