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.
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.
But promote what? Unlike many other people who’ve stumbled onto a monetizable moment, Slater could take advantage of almost none of the offers his notoriety brought him. His guilty plea allowed him to avoid jail time under an alternative-sentencing program—a strict regimen of daily 12-step meetings, therapy, biweekly drug tests, and monthly appearances before the judge. After a year of this, his felony would be downgraded to a misdemeanor, and he would be resentenced to a year of probation and required to pay $10,000 in damages to JetBlue. He couldn’t risk ruining this arrangement by essentially taunting the court with media re-creations of his crime. Plus, he was a recovering alcoholic. Any liquor-related gigs—guest bartending, club events, beer ads—were out of the question.
He is now navigating the vanishing terrain of his fame as carefully as he can. He has a publicist in L.A., a literary agent with William Morris Endeavor, and a coterie of entertainment, finance, and criminal lawyers. He is selling T-shirts (with the inscription LET IT SLIDE) to raise money for his legal defense and shopping around a book—a memoir mixed with an insider’s view of the airline industry. William Morris set him up with a co-author, to whom Slater (“no kind of writer,” in his own estimation, though a fun and garrulous talker) has been e-mailing anecdotes for later use.
While the book is in the works, he is living mainly off savings and his 401(k). He also became a paid spokesperson for an iPhone app, Line2, which allows one, among other things, to text from airplanes. From this tenuous connection to Slater’s old job, Line2’s marketing team devised something called the Mile High Text Club, wherein people share their tales of mid-flight high jinks and Slater helps pick the winning entries. His main job, however, is to go about his public life, do as much press as possible, and slip the product’s name into interviews. Slater opens his laptop and shows me a YouTube video he taped for Line2. “I’m Steven Slater!” the YouTube Slater keeps saying, mock-pompously. “See,” the real Slater explains, “I’m trying to show that I’m in on the joke.” The video has 1,987 views and two comments. Last August, Slater, like many newly public figures, became obsessed with online haters; he even created a virtual alter ego named Fannie Eubanks—“a 60-year-old from Omaha”—to defend himself. Then Barry Manilow, who shares a publicist with Slater, invited Slater to his Atlantic City show and told him to stop reading his press.
Rochelle pops into the living room, having mastered the printer hookup.
“Who’s the world’s greatest?” he asks.
“You are, pumpkinpuss,” Slater answers.
He prints out the do-not-resuscitate papers, spreads them on the kitchen table, and signs. I look in his direction. “There’s no glamour here,” he deadpans.
The Newsical publicist is on the phone. It turns out the appearance they want Slater to make is not backstage but onstage. Someone in the show has the idea that Slater should come out and yell at the man playing him. “Okay, this would be the stage-fright portion of this evening’s program,” says Slater, laughing. He elicits a promise that he’s portrayed “lovingly.” He coos and giggles—“My Broadway debut!”—and assures the caller that he’s not some spoiled celebrity. “I’m the same man I was on August 8. I have my feet on the ground.” He then calls Line2’s publicist, setting up the night’s coverage. “Page Six” is coming. NY1 is, too. Who else? TMZ. “TMZ is okay,” Slater says. “They are what they are. If they send Adam, I’m okay with Adam. But not with Kate. Listen to me—could I be more of a diva?”
Rochelle disapprovingly glares from the couch and suggests Slater call his publicist, Howard Bragman, to get his opinion on the stunt. There are no slides onstage, are there? The closest Slater has allowed the media to get to the undocumented central image of his fame—that wheeee down-the-chute moment—was to be filmed sitting at the bottom of a playground slide once, accepting a Resignation of the Year award from Bravo.
Slater convinces Rochelle the cameo is harmless. “This guy portrays me,” he explains, “and they want me to bust up onto the stage and have a little meltdown—I’m the real Steven Slater! You’re an impostor!—and throw him off the stage.”
“Oh, ha ha ha,” Rochelle replies ruefully. “I’m a businessman, I understand,” he says in an aside, as much to himself as me. “Steven needs to work on his brand. It will help with the book later.”
Slater is already back on the phone hammering out the last of the evening’s details: a cast meet-and-greet at Newsical, the hissy-fit bit, media interviews after the show, a brief stop for dinner with friends, and it’s home to Queens. Then, a few hours of sleep and a flight out to L.A., to see his mother one more time. He and Rochelle will fly coach, on full-price tickets. “But you should see what goes on when I get on planes,” Slater boasts. “Pandemonium!”
The flight turns out to be too late. While the couple is changing planes in Arizona, Slater finds out that his mother has died. Slater installs himself in L.A. for the foreseeable future, to put her affairs in order and work on the book. He knows he has to hurry, that this strange chance or shot or opening or whatever it is will likely not outlast his probation. “Who knows what happens in two years?” Slater asks. “That’s why I have to sell as many T-shirts as I can now and maybe sell the book.” “To be honest, I have no idea why his fame has lasted as long as it has,” interjects Rochelle.
It’s hard to say if Slater regrets August 9. He cloaks his answers in recovery-speak: “I don’t believe in regret.” “I believe that each experience is part of the tapestry that makes us who we are.” “It’s just a part of my story.” And so on. He does, however, acknowledge at least one bit of good luck. “By the grace of God, this didn’t happen when I was 20 and drinking and partying. Because I would have probably imploded by now.”