Summer Jobs and Summer Not
My parents told me I had to work every summer to make spending money for college. I ultimately had only two summer careers: Bus Boy at the Irving Hotel and Short Order Waiter at The Act IV soda shop; both located in Southampton.
Busing trays was a physically demanding job. It also placed one at the bottom of the dining establishment’s employee pyramid. You could be a fully-grown man but still forever be referred to or thought of as nothing better than a “boy.” ,No wonder black people came to resent the term.
Not only that, but scheduling issues could entirely ruin any well-planned day, especially if one was required to work breakfast and then have to come back for dinner.
The job at the Irving Hotel had its ups and downs, like stepping into ice buckets, dropping trays, accidentally pouring water onto people or their food, or in helping the frustrated waitresses attempt to placate the perpetually unsatisfied dining clientele. Punctuated in the chaos of the kitchen would be the German Maitre D’s incessant intolerance of slacking with his repeated admonitions to:
- Come on boys. Get going. If you sit around any longer the only tips that you vill get is corns growing on your asses.
One also had to be vigilant about potential waitress embezzlement. They were required to give us ten percent of their take for the shift, so as we to cleared the tables, we kept a running estimate of the tip money left behind. It was a clear incentive to run around clearing tables and the only way to justify the arguments we had when later trying to collect our due.
Considering the fact that the hotel catered to the Palm Beach/Southampton social circuit, we were also constantly chided to attempt an air of respectability. Wear a white shirt and a black tie, say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no maam,’ stand up straight and most of all: Anticipate. Be proactive.
One busboy in particular we nicknamed Felonious Pat because of his penchant for petty larceny of hotel property. He was also particularly refractory to good grooming. We could never break him of his unsanitary habit of eating the leftovers that he scraped off bused trays and could never get him to change his Brooklyn based habit of referring to more than one person in a group as “Yuhz.”
- So, what can I get for the two of yuhz?
That drove the Maitre D’ crazy, not to mention the fact that Pat’s tie was always hanging half undone over his open top shirt button creating a panoramic view of his black upper chest hairs.
He did come in handy though, because he always covered for me when the doctor who told me I could not work one summer because I had mononucleosis, would unexpectedly show on the veranda for lunch. This forced me to hide in the back because I could not afford to be quarantined. I needed the money.
Lunch on the veranda was in itself potentially hazardous duty as illustrated by one particular incident that was humorous in a perverse sort of way.
One afternoon, at a veranda lunch, a typical blue blooded elderly woman, dressed in stilted clothes and jewelry similar to Queen Elizabeth’s out of date wardrobe, was having a fitful time trying to shoo a wasp off her cold poached lobster tail.
She began waving frantically for help saying:
- Boy. Oh boy. Come over here immediately and get this beastly insect away from me.
Although I tried my best in a dignified and discreet manner, the wasp was perniciously insistent on helping the woman eat her lunch. The woman got mad. The wasp got mad. And I had no luck in my endeavor. Finally, after much ado, I decided to let the wasp land on the lobster, then quickly and effectively squashed the critter into the meat with the woman’s dinner fork.
It made a little popping sound as its legs curled up, after which the woman retched, called the Maitre D’ over to scold me, dismissed me from her presence and after much fussing platitudinous reparations refused a new lobster. She re-ordered the Tuna Plate instead. The notorious affair of the Wasp fighting a wasp over a cold lobster lunch had come to clean conclusion. It was a draw.
Another encounter with America’s aristocracy occurred for me on a daily basis.
There was an elderly gentleman who dressed in a tweed suit, hobbled in with his cane, plopped himself at the same table for breakfast every day at precisely 7 a.m., took out his bifocals, asked for a menu and then no matter what was on the menu ordered
- Blue-barries and cream, please. I would like to have the Blue-barries with fresh cream.
Every day the same routine and every day the order was the same.
- Boy, I think I’ll have the Blue-barries and cream, please. But only fresh cream.
I felt like telling him that he shouldn’t worry himself about the cream because we only reserved the soured stuff for use by the wait staff. After waiting on him for two years, he never thought to ask me my name. I was simply his “boy.”
One day in an attempt to be proactive, as coached by the Maitre D’, I walked to his table, asking him as he sat down if he would like the usual Blueberries and fresh cream. He looked at me incredulously, admonished me for being presumptive and stated that dining etiquette always required the wait staff to present the client with a menu first. I graciously backed off, waited for him to peruse the menu and when he waived me over, politely and silently took his order for
- Blue-barries, please. With fresh cream.
Blueberries again. Bah, fa Napala.
There was an occasional bright spot in the job, however, such as when the hotel may have hosted a celebrity wedding or similar affair.
On a late summer Saturday, I was called in because extra help was required at a wedding reception for Joe Butler, the drummer for the band The Lovin’ Spoonful.
The bus boys were instructed to remain in the kitchen area and to keep out of the way, but my disappointment in not being allowed close to the celebrities lifted when I went to the bathroom and John Sebastian walked in and took a leak in the urinal next to me. Not only did I actually get to speak to him, but he also let me take his picture with my Polaroid camera when he was done and had his pants zipped up.
It was just John and I, peeing together side by side, and talking like brothers.
Celebrities aside, there were two other more pertinent problems with the job at the hotel. One was the inferior pay scale and the other was the fact that it was being sold and slated for demolition. This was a real tragedy that ultimately led to the loss of a great local landmark. Unfortunately, preservation societies were not too active in the area at that time.
When the news of the impending sale and demolition came out, Felonious Pat immediately began to fill his bunker with any items of value he could walk out with, hidden in his clothes. Nobody seemed to take notice that for the first time he was actually being seen wearing a waiter’s jacket. Also because nobody seemed to care, everyone started to steal, until in its final days, the place began to resemble a dead retiree’s house at the end of a yard sale. Even finding enough service to set a table was becoming a problem, while the old man at breakfast started to get his Blue-barries served with the wrong sized spoon or with Half and Half, symbolically portending in some small way the encroaching end to a certain lifestyle enjoyed by the old-guard American moneyed elite.
Personally speaking, I only stole one small pewter dish and an ice bucket. They hold a great deal of sentimental value for me as I still have them and still use them.
Having to cover my back on job sequencing, I put an application in at a local soda shop, Stan and Clyde’s: The Act IV, which was owned and operated by two homosexual men who had failed as Broadway actors; ergo the name of their establishment. Stan was the serious businessman and the brains of the outfit, while Clyde was the burned out piano playing alcoholic bar clown.
My friend, Raymond, who lived across the street, had worked there for two years and was making two to three times the money being a short-order-waiter-soda jerk, as I was making as a lowly busboy. He was a reliable, hard working employee whom they liked and trusted so much; he was given some minor supervisory duties such as being allowed to make change at the cash register.
That was a big deal, given my Uncle Bill’s take on his Bar employees having easy access to his cash.
Because of Raymond’s influence, I got a job there, where I worked for three sequential summers. Not only was the tip money good, but it was also a fun work environment.The front part of the business was a short order restaurant and soda fountain with a specialty menu of ice cream sundaes and egg creams that were made to order. The food was top quality homemade and thus a little pricey for the times, but that was one of its attractions: predictably good.
It was also just about the only quality place in town and was popular as a place to haunt after the local cinema let out. Under the supervision of Stan, it was open from seven a.m. to 11 p.m.
The back part of the business was a Jungle motif nightclub that operated from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., under the supervision of Clyde, who sang Broadway show tunes as he played the piano. Because he owned the place, Clyde didn’t have to worry too much about success or failure or even the quality of the entertainment. He was the only act the club had to offer, unless Bobby Van stopped in. As far as Clyde was concerned about himself, one could either take him or leave him.
Nevertheless, the nightclub was a great success as he filled it every night. This may have been not only because there was little or no other live adult entertainment in the area, but also due to the fact of Clyde’s volatile and unpredictably psychotic outbursts.
Getting soused every night, then in between light comedy routines, he was known to scream, yell, toss drinks and bounce any customers who did not applaud enough or who talked too much while he was singing. Clyde’s temper tantrums were part of the entertainment. Homosexuals out of the closet were a rarity in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, but Stan and Clyde made no efforts to hide the fact of living together.
The only down side to being employed at The Act IV then, was that because except for Midge, the middle aged female day manager, only young college boys were hired to work there; making the logical conclusion that ran through the local rumor mill being that we were all gay as well. Otherwise why would we be working for those “queers?” If A= B and B=C, then intuitively A=C.
It was something assumed but never known for sure, so we all decided to play it to the hilt: Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Let them believe what they wanted to because ultimately it was good for business or tips and just another part of Clyde’s circus sideshow. It also led to a few random dates with some young women who were on a crusade to “save” us from ourselves in a tortured life of misdirected sexuality.
- Help. Help. I really do want to be normal. So please Miss, show me how to become straight again.
Midge had her own rumors circulating because although no one could really figure out if there was any relationship between her and the two men, the clientele could not help inventing stories about the probability of sordid three-way sex orgies.
Her true story was quite a bit simpler. Because the business was seasonal, with Stan and Clyde working their asses off all summer so that they could relax and do nothing in their Florida Condo in the winter, Midge had figured out the phenomenon of seasonal unemployment. She worked for twenty-six weeks, and then becoming officially laid off; collected unemployment checks for the next twenty-six. Then, if she happened to get an off the books cash job in the winter, so much the better: tax free income along with a little green government check.
None of this really affected me directly but the entire experience did open my eyes to a new world: Gay humor: quick, unpredictable, cynically sarcastic and universally insightful.
The other great thing about working for Stan and Clyde is that it was the only business establishment I have ever known where the overarching service mantra was that “The customer is always wrong.”
Stan was the principle cook who worked in a kitchen directly attached to the dining room. He pushed the food platters out through a narrow slotted counter that looked like a gun sight in a bunker. That way he could keep an eye on things, but no one could see him very well in return. Having little love for children, whom he thought to be noisy nuisances, he would peruse a table of little brats sitting with their parents, then turn to me saying:
- Now isn’t that cute. And you know what I always say. The family that eats together probably sleeps together, too.
I was too naïve to understand the implications.
If any of the waiters brought back a food item with a complaint, he would flippantly say:” You stepped in what?” then made a small meaningless correction as he sent it back out again.
Complaints about how a burger was cooked set him into a rage because he always cooked it correctly as ordered. It was the customer who was stupid because he obviously did not know what he really wanted. The burger was then usually recycled as ‘well-done.’
- He can have it like that and he can like it that way, or he can leave.
He told me that his customers were lucky. Some Master Chefs he had known would spit on gourmet returns before turning them around, which prompted me as an adult to think twice before returning food to any restaurant kitchen.
I once waited on a woman who always ordered the chicken soup only to then predictably complain about it. The soup was a menu mainstay, happened to be excellent and hardly varied in its day-to-day quality.
- Oh Boy, bring me some soup.
This would invariably be followed by nasal New York Jewish intonation:
- Boy. This soup is too hot. This soup is too cold. This soup has too many noodles. There aren’t enough noodles. There is too much chicken. There isn’t enough chicken. There are too many vegetables. There aren’t enough vegetables……. and I wanna bigger spoon.
Stan, in tiring of us having to repeatedly swill through the pot to get it exactly right for Miss Goldilocks, finally threw her out one day and banned her from ever coming back.
- Madam, you have your own opinion about my food and I have my own opinion about you. The food here is good but you are too fat and ugly to eat it.
Sometimes the game would be even better. If someone “wanted to see the manager” then Stan, playing Clyde as the shill, would say he was asleep, and “come back later.” Anyone who then had to face the late rising, perpetually hung-over Clyde would be sorry they had ever complained because he was even more intolerant of petulant complaints. He would usually tell any whiner to “go over to the Greek Diner and eat their shit.” I only once saw Clyde in a pre-noon good mood when he chased Midge around the kitchen with a cucumber covered in a pink condom, telling her she was such a prude that the cucumber was the best fuck she could ever hope for that entire summer. A few forks could be heard to drop.
On another occasion, Clyde decided to pitch in on a short handed night and made some Ice cream sundaes himself. The Act IV prided itself on its ice cream sundae menu, each of which was named after a Broadway Show, but Clyde having been out of practice for a while, got a woman’s order wrong, or did not make it to menu specs, so she predictably complained. We happened to top all the sundaes off with fresh whipped cream that was shot out of whippet propelled aluminum cans.
When Clyde got the complaint that the woman’s sundae was made wrong and did not have enough whipped cream on it, he promptly went to her spot on the counter where he unloaded the whipped creamer, first all over her sundae and then into her face.
- Well then, see if that’s enough whipped cream for you; you silly cunt
Then he ran her out the front door and down the street, spraying whipped cream into the air until both the canister, as well as Clyde were both exhausted. The woman was lucky that Clyde was an out of shape smoker who couldn’t catch her. It was said that Clyde could be even more brutal with his antics in the nightclub, but I never had enough money to attend as a first hand witness, knowing well he would never let me in anyway. That would be the taboo of mixing business with business.
Being thrown out of The Act IV or the art-deco Jungle lounge piano bar became a local social stigma. And many unsuspecting customers who did not know the business service mantra of The Act IV paid the price of not only being part of the show, but of also being cursed by a lifetime ban from the best soda fountain in the northeast.
Occasionally someone would lodge a formal complaint; but since the only thing that really got bruised tended to be an ego, little would ever come of it. This was not at all withstanding the fact that “the price discounted” Steak burgers were the favorite daily take-out item of the local Village Police.
Curtain going up!
John Sebastian: Personal photo
|Comedy and Tragedy||Torfaen Theatre Club|