by Ruby Comer
I’m puttin’ on the Ritz, my darlings! Tonight I’m decked out in full regalia for a benefit here at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California. Perched high on a bluff overlooking the mighty Pacific—what a view!—this iconic hotel has hosted other AIDS fundraisers as well, and is currently involved with Surfers Healing, Second Harvest Food Bank, and Laura’s House. They are noted in Condé Nast Traveler as one of the Top 100 Resort Spas on the U.S. mainland and their Club Level, where I have planted my weary body for an overnight stay, has been recognized for three consecutive years as the Best Club Level in the World. That’s peachy!
When I checked in earlier this afternoon, the Club Level concierge, a sparkling, charismatic woman by the name of Tina Ferrari, greeted me. I was so taken with her engaging presence and her killer smile that I wanted to chat more with her, but unfortunately, she was on duty. I’m captured by how she exudes so much passion for her job.
This native California girl started off in retail at fifteen and eventually landed a flight attendant position with TWA in the late seventies. “I loved that job!” she says. In 2003, sadly, she was laid off when the airline merged with American Airlines. Down, but not out, Tina soon began working with the Ritz.
I meet Tina the next day after the breakfast rush is over in the homey petite dining room. Fresh flowers adorn every table and a cozy fire burns in the hearth.
Ruby Comer: When I first laid eyes on you, Tina, I was struck by the remarkable resemblance to Nancy Sinatra [A&U, May 2003], especially the way she looked when she recorded her number-one hit, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin.’” [She bursts into a luminous smile, as if she’s been told that before.] Okay, girl. You’ve done retail, airlines, and now hotel. What attracts you to the service industry?
Tina Ferrari: I have to say…the guests. I love treating each guest like they are the only person in the Hotel. At times serving people can be challenging but for me it’s rewarding. Good service comes from the heart. People know when your care and concern are genuine. At the end of the day, I want to believe that because of me, they will come back to the Club Level at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel!
How can they not?!
Say, what impact has the AIDS epidemic had on you?
It’s affected me because of the business I am in. I have so many acquaintances that are affected by HIV. In the airline business, there are many gay men who are flight attendants, and actually, in my experience, gay men work harder than the straight men do! [She smiles.] I have many friends, too, who are involved with AIDS charities.
What have you participated in?
Many years ago, while I was living and flying out of the San Francisco area, I was involved in a few benefits to raise money for HIV/AIDS. I had several friends affected by HIV at the time, too. One [activity] was the AIDS Walk San Francisco and I know TWA was one of the supporters.
That’s good to know. Ahh, TWA, Trans World Airlines. That was the first airline that I flew on. I was thirteen years-old. Scared to death. As you know, in those days everyone dressed up; both the passengers and the flight attendants. I wore a little chiffon number that Mom had homespun along with a pink angora sweater. Oh enough of going down mem’ry lane. Tell me, Tina, have you known anyone who succumbed to AIDS?
I have lost two very good friends from AIDS. My first friend, Bobby, was living a double life. He had a wife and child. I did not know about him being gay until after he died. I felt as though he was not able to be who he really was. But that is my opinion, after the fact. Maybe for Bobby, that was the way he wanted to live his life.
After?! Oh my stars.
I was very surprised. Just prior to his death, I remember he told his friends about his “other” life. I suppose he knew he had AIDS. Since we lived in two different states I didn’t see much of him, especially after he married. He was a Continental flight attendant, a wonderful man, and a good father.
And who was your other friend?
His name was Phillip and he was a TWA flight attendant whom I flew with many times.
I loved his spirit, his great sense of humor, and he was a great cook! So often in the airline business you may not see someone for several months and then you would fly with them for a month. I was very surprised when Phillip passed from AIDS, although I knew he was promiscuous by his own admission. It wasn’t talked about much, though I had heard he “might be suffering from AIDS.” He did not want anyone to see him.
[Tina excuses herself to wait on a couple who need directions. She returns and continues.] Looking back, I suppose both my friends knew they had AIDS but just didn’t want their friends to know.
Even more heartrending, huh? Your position here—[Tina interrupts.]
I have to tell you, Ruby, it is with bitter sweetness that I will be leaving this position to return to American Airlines as a flight attendant. After being laid off for eight years, they have recalled me. This came as a surprise to me, but I will have thirty-three years with AA, so I must return. I hope to stay connected to the hotel on a part-time basis, schedule permitting.
I’m sure the Ritz will miss your effervescent personality, Tina. And speaking of leaving, I must dash off to conduct my seminar at AIDS Services Foundation Orange County this morning. But before I do, let me ask: Do you remember the first time you heard about the AIDS epidemic?
I think it was when I heard Bobby had it in the early eighties. Since then, Ruby, every time I hear the word “AIDS” it makes me distressed to think of those who are infected. [She looks off for a moment, and then briefly stares at the dainty seagull that has just landed on the railing outside the window.] I will continue to support those who need it. My heart goes out to them….
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]