by Jules Trachten
I am always a generous tipper in restaurants. Always. No exceptions. If the food is wafted magically from the kitchen directly onto my taste buds, I tip 20%. If the busboy accidentally dribbles pepper down my neck, I tip 20%. Even when everyone else at my table petitions the owner to fire the waiter, I still tip 20%. I really sympathize with dining room workers.
It all goes back to 1958 and my first job in the Catskill Mountains. I was 17, a 125 pound college freshman in need of some adventure and summer income. In those days hundreds of Catskill resort hotels attracted tens of thousands of mostly Jewish, middle-class vacationers from New York City. The need for cheap, tip-hungry labor opened summer employment to generations of eager college kids. I wanted to join them.
My parents had no objections to my spending another idle summer at home. They recognized that my only discernable talents were reading and talking. My work background was uncluttered by any gainful employment. At that time my major interests were reading novels and looking for a girl who resembled Natalie Wood in Marjorie Morningstar. I knew that my parents were a bit alarmed about my work plans, but I heard them consoling each other.
“Is he really going to try this ?”
“Don’t worry. Who would hire him? He’s so skinny. And near-sighted. And how long could he last? A job reading novels would be perfect for him.”
“You’re right, Jack. He’ll soon be back on the sofa with a book.”
They thought I was impractical, but they were wrong. I knew how to do research. I already knew where to go to find out about getting a lucrative hotel job. My cousin Maury, of course! Two years my elder, Maury had already worked his way up from bellhop to first station busboy at Shloime’s Play-Rest Hotel in Loch Sheldrake. While even I realized this was no world-class resort, it had supplied Maury with three seasons of high income and many afternoons of respectful audiences for his tales of seduction, gambling and other high life far away from home. I was especially impressed at his gentlemanly reluctance to be more than elliptical in identifying the sex-crazed matrons who regularly left room keys for him under their dessert plates. ( It was true that many of the vacationing wives were joined by their working husbands only during the weekend. It is also extremely doubtful that any were sex-crazed at any time of any week).
Maury, ever generous and optimistic, gave me much good advice. He described the lay-out, routines and personalities I would encounter. We reviewed language and manner necessary to simulate a credible work history. I bought the relevant wardrobe–black pants and shoes, and several short-sleeved white shirts.
Unfortunately, Maury could not offer a personal recommendation on my behalf. That is, it would be altogether better for me if he and I pretended to be complete strangers. Last year he had brought with him a college classmate who openly mocked the surly, sarcastic head waiter. Sure to be fired after the early summer rush he created a memorable climax to the Fourth of July midnight supper by serving the hotel owner a sandwich containing a dead bat. Guilt by association nearly ended Maury’s service right then. I would have to find another way to get inside.
We developed a plan. I would never be hired before the beginning of the season; my fake job resume could not survive any kind of serious examination. However, once the season began no one had time to check credentials. Replacements would be needed after the obvious incompetents were weeded out in mid-July. That would be my opportunity.
“Be ready for my phone call. Come immediately, stay over at some cheap rooming house and register at the employment agency in Monticello. When the head waiter drives in for a busboy or two, you’ll be sitting there–an experienced busboy. Everyone knows we don’t get the most extravagant tippers in the world, so you shouldn’t have much competition for the job. You’ll be all set.”
“Sounds great, Maury. I’ll be there. Is that really true about all those women?”
“A stud like you. No problem. They’ll be all over you. But remember, only during the week. It gets complicated when the husbands arrive.”
Now I was becoming really interested.
Everything worked according to our design. I waited cooly in the waiting room of the Dependable Employment Agency. I felt as if I had the enemy’s codes and plans, and could outmaneuver him at will. When Don Bloom pretended to copy the names of my supposed previous employers, I knew–KNEW! he was on a short work break and absolutely needed a busboy for that night’s full-house Friday dinner. He could hardly disguise his impatience.
He hurriedly scanned my application form. “Leonard? Jesus Christ, what are we getting nowadays? Talk to me, Lenny. Where did you work before? Who’s the head waiter there? Where else did you work? What’s a main? A monkey dish? Are you really l9?” Then, slyly, he asked, “Did you use buckets or trays?”
“What do you mean, buckets? We always used trays.” I feigned contempt for the deep rectangular buckets favored by wino dishwashers in cheap restaurants. I had never touched a bus tray. Soon, those flat, rounded carriers loaded with dinner plates, glassware and cutlery would bring me regularly to heart-stopping terror as the contents shifted and swayed on my perspiring shoulder. One poorly loaded dish could crash the entire structure.
I was prepared. My book-laden duffle bag lay ready at my feet. I gave him names of hotels and head waiters known to be demanding employers. Memorized bits of hotel jargon and arcane kitchen shorthand rolled comfortably from my lying tongue.
“O.K., let’s go.”
I was hired. My salary would be $30 per month plus tips ( hopefully $300-$400 per month ). The agency took $25 from me for its invisible function. I was to be bottom station busboy. Perfect.
Bloom outlined my priorities during the short drive to the hotel. I was expected to please him, the owner, the chef, my waiter and the guests, in that order. The penalty for misconduct or ineptitude was instant dismissal. Did I understand? I nodded.
A few other items. No use of hotel facilities when guests were using them. No stealing of food. And absolutely no socializing with women guests.
This last stirred me. Was he recognizing me as a potential sexual threat to the hotel? A delightful thought. I never been taken so seriously before. Never mind Natalie Wood. I was now hunting for Madame Bovary.
Maury welcomed me to the sagging pile, suspiciously similar to a chicken coop, that would become my summer home. Lounging busboys and waiters corroborated Bloom’s version of the power hierarchy, but assured me of their own mutual cooperation and solidarity. Unless, of course, a tip was at stake. Thus, even before I met my first Republican, I began to learn the essentials of basic capitalism.
At six o’clock busboys reported to the immense, high-ceilinged dining room to prepare supplies and condiments for the hundreds of guests due at seven. Waiters sauntered in to survey our preparations, and the tables began to fill. I stood nervously to the side as the head waiter introduced me. “He’s a college boy. He’s learning the business from the bottom. Soon he’ll be my boss. Give him plenty to do.” The patrons smiled at my discomfort. I nodded uncomfortably.
The tempo in the room accelerated. I raced into the truck-size refrigeration area to seek out pickles, fresh fruit and extra desserts. I begged passing busboys for the locations of mustard, tomato juice, rye bread and all types of off-menu items. The chef cursed my ignorance and clumsiness. I dreaded the flat bus trays, dangerously overloaded and unbalanced , awaiting regular frequent removal to the dishwasher The loads shifted ominously on my shoulder like a crateful of hand grenades. One misstep would crash everything. The owner prowled the dining room, occasionally glaring at me disgustedly as I lurched past him. Disaster hovered.
Eventually the meal ended. Gasping, exhausted, I watched the room empty. Cleaning up and setting up for breakfast still remained to be done. Maury came over to help me.
“I saw. You did fine. Friday night is the hardest. We already put away some good stuff for later.”
“Food. We order extra main dishes and desserts near the end of the meal, and we hide them on the chairs of the people who have already left. Nobody can live on what they feed us.”
That was surely true. Our supper, meat gristle and kool-aid, had been close to inedible. We were owed room and board, but neither seemed to be above the standards of the county poorhouse. Maury’s enthusiasm had blurred several harsh truths. The food. The living quarters. Greedy, demanding guests. Fatiguing work. No days off.
No matter. That night we sat on the dusty floor of our unheated shack and feasted on roast chicken, apple pie and kosher wine. My new colleagues gossiped and speculated about the new guests. A few planned to sneak into a near-by hotel reportedly filled with sexy Bronx girls. A poker game was being planned for Sunday after dinner. Some families were expected to leave the hotel on Sunday afternoon, and I could expect some early tip income from them.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought so many books.
I had little leisure to reflect on my opening success. The frenetic rhythms of the kitchen and dining room filled my waking life and exhausted me. I slept deeply and cared not at all for the outside world. Marines in boot camp have reported similar experiences.
My oblivion ended each morning before dawn. Busboys stumbled through the wet grass into the still-darkened kitchen to set up for breakfast. The four story wooden building with its large, sagging kitchen extension and pantry squatted 50 yards from our dormitory. Architecturally featureless except for a wide porch filled with a variety of mismatched chairs and card tables, Shloime’s Play-Rest Hotel had long attracted a clientele early to rise, eager to eat and avid for healthy air, kibitzing and pinochle.
Running, still shivering in the dark coolness, I filled large jugs of water from the spigots at the outdoor well behind the kitchen. As the early sun began to attract a few strollers onto the grounds, I juggled mounds of plates, saucers and coffee cups from the stacks arranged on the room-long shelves by the late-working, often hungover dishwashers. Seniority was important. Veteran busboys used the most accessible shelves, hoarded the best dishes and glasses, and kept private caches of condiments for their own tables.
The lordly waiters ambled in to inspect the preparation, sipping coffee as they eyed the table settings and checked the morning’s menu. As the undisputed “low station busboy” I had to learn the etiquette of the unentitled. Everything worthwhile was already spoken for. I would have to manage with what I could find.
Working breakfast was easier than doing dinner. The dining room usually emptied by ten and cleaning up was a relatively quick job. Of course I was due back by eleven-thirty to set up for lunch, but that opened up the vista of one-and-a-half free hours before dinner preparation.
The nonstop work demands of my new occupation emphasized my ignorance and clumsiness with sometimes cartoonish clarity. My responsibilities included bringing out “seconds,” additional and special items ordered at my tables. Torn between the arcane food demands of some guests and the brusquely dismissive responses hurled my way by fast- moving busboys and sweating, grunting cooks I lurched helplessly back and forth through the swinging doors between the kitchen and dining room. Sometimes I just stopped, internally translating kitchen jargon into English or, worse, working up the courage to transmit the nuances of some bizarre egg-fish combination to a murderously impatient Ukranian cook shuffling six skillets over high flames.
Ronny, my waiter, muttered rebukes and demanded refills, specials and substitutes as we passed each other. “Hey college boy, they’re waiting for pear juice at table 10.” Pear juice? Isn’t that what I just brought out? Did I leave it on the wrong table? Who had just asked me for more coffee? (Remember never to pour coffee into a cup being held in the air. That was a serious offense, leading inevitably to scalding of the person and his clothing, ruin of the hotel by a million dollar lawsuit and, of course, immediate dismissal of the pourer). Someone asked for mango in his cereal. What’s a mango? The baker had already screamed at me twice this morning; now one of my tables wanted “darker” rolls. Used dishes piled up. Shloime, the ageless and grim-faced owner, frowned heavily at me as he walked by.
Bit by bit I learned enough to survive. Sunday lunch was very important to the hotel and to us. Guests usually checked out on Sunday afternoon. Would they be leaving with fond memories of their stay? More urgently, what about the size of our tips?
Steak was normally the main offering for Sunday lunch. Waiters vied to obtain the choicest meat for their tables at this crucial time. Pleas for “extra medium rare” and “well but not too” echoed through the kitchen. My duties included the sensitive task of bringing out second helpings to the hearty eaters about to hit Route 17 for the three-hour drive back to New York City. Ronny told me how to handle it. “Take the orders very carefully, memorize them, run into the kitchen, pick up the first steaks you can get, and put them carefully in front of the guests as you repeat the order to them. Don’t worry about what you’re actually giving them. If they don’t like it blame the cooks and go back and get another one. Most people won’t know the difference.”
After Sunday lunch, waiter and busboy teams loitered at their stations, awaiting the amiable farewells, the expressions of good wishes and, finally, the open wallets. Occasionally we experienced the dreaded “stiff”—the guest who disappeared without tipping. Stinginess was routine. Unexpected generosity sometimes poured in from unlikely personalities. I learned much about human nature that summer.
Tips were our only job benefit. We waited for signs of the husband (always the husband) standing and reaching for his wallet. The higher table stations were assigned regulars, steady customers of reasonably generous tipping history. We were given dubious first timers or known cheapskates.
Ironically, most of us didn’t treasure tip money once we got it, probably because we had so little opportunity to spend it. Dollar bills lay carelessly in dresser drawers or even on open shelves. Considerable quantities of loose change were swept up and pocketed by whichever busboy was assigned to the occasional sweeping of our dusty, clothes-littered floors. (Anything smaller than a handkerchief could legitimately be thrown out without question). Dimes and quarters from the ongoing poker games found permanent homes in floor cracks and under beds. “Fuck it. Deal,” muttered the card players. Nerdlike, I exchanged my crumpled bills with the hotel cashier for checks and mailed them home to my astonished parents.
Maury, master of practical psychology in so many areas, counseled me. “You gotta adapt. This is not the Harvard Faculty Dining Room. Being intellectually superior is bad enough around here; showing it will kill you. You want these people to see you as the polite, hard-working son they wish they had, HAPPY for this opportunity to make money you desperately need. You can’t be a snotty kid who talks like a professor. If they think you look down at them you’ll finish the summer with nothing”.
Impressed, I adapted and prospered. Maury, my personal mentor, would eventually attend three different colleges and two graduate schools until he squeezed out a psychology degree and turned to giving advice as a paid profession. He was only marginally successful; his earthy manner and too-obvious impatience with stupidity put off too many patients. Two affairs with colleagues’ wives didn’t help him with referrals either. He could have become a great head-waiter.
Gradually the primary feelings of those first days-anxiety, exhaustion and ineptitude-fell back and higher stages of development arose in me. I became curious about the lives and backgrounds of my fellow workers. Shreds and bits of personality woke up in me. And where were those women with hot eyes and neglected bodies I was destined for?
Legends and rumors filled our conversations. We all believed Shloime had spies planted in the bunkhouse. The only verified one, Jerry the hotel cashier, was Shloime’s nephew and a known snitch. We believed there were others. Too much was known about our attitudes and food hiding places. One of the Ukrainian cooks, a vile-tempered giant, was said to have been a concentration camp guard in his happier days. We wondered about Harry, a skilled waiter who gabbed easily with the guests and spoke not all to anyone else. Someone claimed that he had been thrown out of rabbinical school. No one could say why. We formulated and surmised. The possibilities of human nature grew in my imagination. A dozen unread books still bulged inside my duffle bag.
“A girl just checked in with her parents. They’re in the re-done part of the hotel, one of the rooms with window fans and new beds”. So reported Bernie, the combination bellhop, tea-room waiter and emergency busboy. Bernie had the instincts and interests of a gossip columnist. Years later I met him ordering expensive belly lox at Zabars’ fish counter. He had become a successful Manhattan real estate broker. Bernie always had a good nose.
“Is she good-looking?”
“Not bad. A hotel beauty. You know, like in the war they said, ‘Island beauty.’ It means she’s a beauty compared to what else is here. Someplace else she wouldn’t be special. But she’s o.k. I think she’s just out of high school. She’s wearing a new graduation ring. Her name is Alice Nathanson. She brought a lot of books. Her father owns a bakery in Brooklyn. They were here two years ago”.
I perked up. A girl my age. Not bad looking. Forbidden on pain of dismissal. Chaperoned by in-house parents. A book person. A girl book person. Could I reach her? The rewards could be astounding. Images of reciting poetry while removing each other’s clothing moved me beyond the erotic into areas heretofore touched only by the blessed. Perhaps D.H. Lawrence had actually written about such an encounter. I must check when I get home.
I worked Bernie for more information. Actually, I worked for him. Twice. I helped him clear up the afternoon tea-room dishes after the snack binges of the famished guests stranded during the foodless hours between lunch and dinner. The hotel also furnished this service for two hours after dinner. Honest.
She had an older brother at N.Y.U. She was to begin Hunter College In September. She read a lot and wrote postcards. She had good luggage. She didn’t eat meat. She seemed to get along well with her parents. She drank coffee. She never even smiled at any of Bernie’s tasteless innuendos.
I hadn’t yet met her, but I already understood her. Alice was tall, with darkish blond-almost frizzy-hair. She wore the longish belted skirts and dark blouses suitable for the daughter of Catskill hotel vacationers. Two hundred pairs of middle-aged Jewish eyes were judging the parents by the decorum of the child. How stifling for her. How promising for me.
How could I best approach her? Carefully describing myself as “interested,” I approached Maury. While he personally considered her too flat-chested and humorless to be worth pursuit, he nonetheless offered some provocative suggestions.
“Get her into the boathouse. Maybe canoes get her excited”.
“C’mon, Maury. This is a serious young girl. And her parents are here”.
“O.K. I forgot who I was talking to. Mr. Sensitivity. Why not explain the new psychological studies proving-PROVING-that sex is absolutely necessary for straight hair and a great chest”.
I was on my own.
A small lake and a dilapidated shed, grandiously labeled “boathouse” in the hotel brochure, lay a few hundred yards down the road. Alice sat on a beach chair and read there every day after lunch. On the following day, casually carrying my copy of Catcher in the Rye , I approached as she sat with Marjorie Morningstar
No wartime spy spotting his contact wearing the designated flower could have spotted the other with greater certainty. She remembered me from the dining room. We sat on the grass. We discussed our most obvious mutual interests: the lonely individual confronting the crass materialism of society, the paradox inherent in trying to live morally in a decadent world, the near-impossibility of finding love or even true friendship among our peers. It was a wonderful afternoon.
“Do you come here every day?”
“So far. We’ll be staying until Sunday.”
It was Wednesday.
“I’ll come back tomorrow as soon as I finish clearing up. O.K.?”
I lived in a buzz of pleasurable stimulation, waiting for the next afternoons. We related our histories, compared families and described schools. We sat closer. We touched lightly, always incidentally. We moved closer. We added to our reading lists. We quoted. We paraphrased.
Dinner always ran late on Friday. Many of the guests were Orthodox and the hotel planned no entertainment on the Sabbath. People dawdled over their chicken and sipped glassfuls of tea. As darkness fell I was still carrying in desserts.
Our work wasn’t completed until almost ten. It was too late to go anywhere and too early to go to sleep. I suggested to Maury that we go for a walk until the usual bunkhouse commotion quieted. We grabbed flashlights and headed for the unilluminated, hard-dirt roadway that led eventually to Route 52.
Discreetly, unemotionally, I described my meetings with Alice. “That’s what you do? You talk about books?” “Mostly”. “And she’s leaving on Sunday? Will you see her in the City?” “Of course,” I blurted. “Hey, good luck, man”. We turned back towards the hotel, our footsteps the only sound in the night. Suddenly we saw light in the grimy window of the boathouse. A flashlight. We stopped, voyeurs in the darkness. The boathouse was the mythical setting for many hotel tryst legends. Who was getting lucky tonight?
The door opened. Jerry the cashier, flashlight in hand, held the door and waited politely as Alice buttoned up the front of her blouse. He flicked some grass from her hair; she squeezed his arm. They walked down the road.
Maury and I stood there silently for several minutes. I couldn’t have walked anyway. My glasses clouded. My head pounded. I could barely breathe. My senses were blank.
Maury guided me back to the bunkhouse. He muttered sympathetic phrases as we walked along, enough to blanket my inability to speak. Alone, I might have remained rooted to that spot on the road for the entire night. Weeks later, when I had recovered enough to endure a conversational reference to that night, I could still not manage the requisite macho claim of “no big deal.”
I avoided her for the rest of the weekend and for the rest of my life. I had her phone number, but, of course, I was too humiliated to call. Alice and I were really looking for the same thing — experience in the world. She was more daring, more prepared to take chances than I. When I got over the worst of it I became able to remember our time together with a soft regret that I wasn’t yet ready for her that summer. I still cringe when I think of her with that vile Jerry, but it is sort of funny to consider what a variety of quality time Alice spent around that boathouse.
It was the afternoon of Labor Day. Almost everyone had already checked out. I walked down to the lake. Don Bloom had offered me a job for next summer-bottom station waiter. A promotion. Shloime came over to shake hands as I waited in line for Jerry the cashier to hand me the modest salary check. Maury was working the lobby, trying to get us a ride to the Monticello bus station. It was time to go home.
Jules Trachten went to the University Heights College of N.Y.U. and then N.Y.U. downtown for a Masters degree in English. He taught English at Thomas Jefferson H.S. and Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn for 35 years, and retired in 1996. He currently teaches literature to retired teachers for the U.F.T. He is married, the father of two daughters and the grandfather of eight (including those of his three stepchildren). He reads a lot, writes a little, plays a bit of tennis and jogs in Prospect Park.