Friday, September 7, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs . . . Down, Down Down the Stairs

Days without a car in the country went on. I woke up and played Scrabble or Words with Friends on Facebook, listening to music. Drank a few cups of coffee. Walked the dogs. Tried to read but mostly wrote. Then I drank beer or wine to drown out the silence, the total lack of human connection and to numb out the distance forming between me and my parents.

Huck and I resumed our on-line/text flirtation. Obviously, it didn’t pan out with his one night stand, so he was back to sending me texts, declaring he was “a little bit in love” with me, missed me, sharing music, sharing writing . . . he was the first lover to read my blogs and respect me more for it.

“You are very good. I think you have a voice,” he wrote. “I know,” I responded. It sounds cocky, as though I am brushing off compliments, but I just don’t know how to accept them. I still carry those words around with me. I have to, in order to feed me. I might for the rest of my life.



Huck was the sunshine in my day, “I miss you child,” he wrote after reading part of a memoir I wrote. I put my hand on the phone and felt the warmth of technology, a battery and sunlight- mistaking it for friendship. Later, while walking the dogs alone, I listened to “I Miss You” by the Stones and got the connection. I smiled.

My parents tried to connect with me, but their disinterest in my thoughts and conversation, the nervous scratching and rubbing of dry skin to fill the silence and the management, “You drink too much coffee”, “You drink too much”, “You are eating a lot, you are sitting like a pregnant woman” “You snack too much”, etc. etc. destroyed any possibility to talk.

I pulled away from them, and spent more and more time in my room until the only time I left my small room was to use the toilet or walk the dogs. A depression was falling around me, but I was saved by two things, the friendship with Huck and a job at the local Hotel as a Banquet Server.

The head of Banquet services was our next door neighbor, a kind, 44-year-old woman named Amber. She was shorter than me, a little heavier but not much. The mother of three boys and one girl, I remember her from the last 15 years as my parents’ next door neighbor. Mostly, my parents complained that she and her family never properly take care of their dogs and cats, but Amber was overwhelmed- she worked two jobs, raised her kids, took care of the animals and still mowed the lawn on days off. Her husband was a big kid and we only ever saw him playing volleyball or jumping on the trampoline while Amber wrangled the dogs and cleaned up.

“You are going to be bored at this job, there is really nothing to it,” she said, “Listening to you talk, I know you are going to be way ahead of everyone else there.”



“I like being bored,” I said. As a writer, I need time to reflect. What other educated people might find banal and mind-numbing, like polishing silverware or folding napkins, gave me time to plot out the structure of what I would write, remind myself of details to include in the story and reflect on what I read. I need all that time and space in my brain to organize other things, and polishing the water stains out of forks was perfect (not to mention, the pay is the exact same as what I was making at most jobs in LA).

The first day on the job, I was “pulling plates” (aka bussing) a golf tournament dinner. My co-workers are in three groups, the kids who just graduated high school and don’t know what to do with their lives, the adults in their 30s with kids to support and the folks over 50 who have been working at the Hotel since it was established 20 years ago.

“The [Hotel] was part of a grant. The state paid for it to bring jobs to the county and its worked. It kept the economy going out here, when nothing else would,” my Father said. He was right, since I moved here in late June, most of the people I have met have worked at the Hotel or did at one time.

I should take a moment to define Banquet Service, not to be confused with The Dining Room or In-Room Service, Banquets are privately hosted parties- often companies, like well-known Corporations or the Army will have conferences or retreats at the Hotel. It is a four-star Hotel equipped with a big golf course, spa, and phenomenal views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood. It is a resort for rich people or rich companies with upper-middle class employees. They will come to the Hotel for a few days on business, and we provide a “Break Station” (coffee, tea and soda), a “Buffet” (food lined up in a private room so they can help themselves) or a “Plated Meal” (where we serve them each course of an expensive, but rather bland, meal). Banquet Services sets up the room, serves the food and clears the plates (serving and bussing) all the meals and guests affiliated by event.



What I love about the job is the hour or two of urgency to pull together an event, coordinate with the kitchen and the “Housemen”, who bring in all the necessary tables and chairs before the guests arrive. I love how everything comes together in the final minutes only to watch guests calmly glide through our fancy service, ask the same bullshit questions, and take their time while we stand frozen in time, cooling off from the hectic energy in the kitchen or back hall for a few minutes just before escaping outside for a smoke, or gossip and criticize the guests while standing on the far end of the room.

“That girl’s band-aide is about to come off of the back of her ankle,” one Server would say.

“Yep, its coming off,” another said.

“How much you want to bet it comes off in the next two minutes?” We all stood staring, timing its peeling descent to the cheap carpet.

The Guests are often rich people, and though they are from the Northwest which usually constitutes a down-to-Earth personality, they still don’t thank us, don’t acknowledge us, and rarely, if ever, tip us.

The highlight is the occasional drunk who shouts at me from across the room, “Help! Help!”

I swiftly cross, “Yes?”

“I need a Barcadi and Coke!”

The middle-aged woman who chases me down the hall to ask, “Do you know if we are getting chocolate cookies on our next break?”

“I don’t know, I can check. Or do you want to be surprised?” I ask.

“I will wait to be surprised.”

Or the young men, wealthy or European, who gaze into my eyes when I collect their plates and share whatever that magical, delightful look that is men offer without words, letting you know they see your beauty, despite the sloppy ponytail and dark lines around your eyes. They look at you, say “Thank You” and smile without curling their lips. That moment makes even a 5am shift whimsical and can carry me to the afternoon.



Most of the men, strike that, all of the men that work at the Hotel are in relationships. Most are married or living with single moms, and none of them made eye contact with me the first month I worked there. They would carry whole conversations with their eyes on the wall next to them or someone else entirely. Some of the “wives” of “girlfriends” show up to smoke with us outside, sometimes because they saw a car similar to their man’s crashed up on the side of the freeway, or just because they used to work there and miss the company. They all look weathered by time, children and too many cigarettes.

“Shueman” is a Houseman who is barely 20. He is tall, Scandinavian looking, and quite striking. His girlfriend’s mother started a rumor that they were getting married, so the big joke is to ask him “When is the wedding?” He is fairly straight-faced and will usually mutter a “never”. From the looks of his girlfriend, I understand. He is quite beautiful though, and he will share an occasional smile with me that creates just the flicker of want in my polyester pants.

When all the guests have grazed, consumed, asked for more and thrown away even more, we close off the rooms, radio the Tech Dept and the “Housemen” to ask for their assistance in whatever Banquet room we are in, only so we can shut and lock the doors then eat whatever food remains. This has to be Top Secret since it is against company policy.  We eat, relive the worst moments of service “Did you see how they didn’t even say please and thank you?” Gina will say, “Everyone should have to do this job for two years just so they know what fucking assholes they are.”

We eat the food, then throw the rest away and kill time until the next service, which is lunch or dinner. The frantic hour buried in a few, mellow hours of “not much” suit me. I enjoy chatting with the other servers, spying on guests or hiding in the closets to eat fresh pineapple or pour leftover, flat champagne in my orange juice. The longer you are there, the more liberties you take. You learn how to get lost when the moment is right and never punch out for a lunch. You learn how to work with the people you like, and avoid the ones you don’t. What I like most about working at the Hotel is the tolerance and patience for newcomers. No one can stay there because the work is seasonal. You can pull off 35 or more hours a week during the summer, but in the winter, when the snow and rain come hard, they cut your work week and the regulars quit. So when you are new, there is no Los Angeles psychosis about the need for perfection, the screaming when you break a glass (or several)- each mistake is met with a shrug of the shoulders. There is always someone there who is more of a fuck up than you, and the worse they get is minimal hours. Only once in a blue moon is someone fired. Compared to LA, it’s a cakewalk.  If you try no one yells at you ...  except maybe one of the bitter Servers who has been there over 5 years and feels her reality closing in on her.



The Day Crew are mostly single Moms who are grouchy, crawling in at 6am with a chip on their shoulder. They are around my age, but all have kids in their early twenties and are providing for their kids with little to no support.

Monica is a heavy woman, proportionately large with big blue eyes, a greasy brown pony tail and a slight hunch on her back. When I met her, I immediately thought she was a lesbian. She has a 5-year-old by a guy who dodges child support payments by gaining odd jobs that pay under the table. Twice, a Family Court has found him guilty of cheating his legal obligations. Now, Monica is in a platonic relationship with her most recent ex-boyfriend, who helps her with her son and takes her dirt bike riding. He still brings cold medicine to her at work and they go camping together, but are no longer a couple.

She is often angry and will bark at anyone who happens to be in her way an hour or two after her shift. She has even thrown glasses in anger from the smallest bump in service.

Gina is almost my physical equal, big brown eyes, brown hair, almost plain until you see her walk, and you see her glide those hips from side to side. You can’t help but stare at her heart shaped ass gracefully move like a snake from her legs, making her steel loop belt dance. She moved from Connecticut with her daughter. Her “Baby Daddy” saw his daughter twice, once after she was born, and the second time for 45 seconds through a car window. He pays $40 a month in child support.

Her car payment is over $300 a month, and she has over three years left of payments. She is so bogged down with cost of living, she alternates what bills she pays every month so she can avoid the power being shut off or having her assets repossessed. One afternoon, she took me through her bills and I felt so overwhelmed, I ended the conversation with “I used to hate my life, but listening to your problems makes me feel better.”

Trixie is also my age, but with five children. Her “Babies’ Daddy” pays about $200 a month in child support for four of her children, the fifth is with Trixie’s new husband. Her “Babies’ Daddy” is now with a “Piece of shit white trash” with a mentally retarded son who was molested by her previous boyfriend and he, himself, has now molested other children. Trixie is currently fighting for sole custody of her four children because during visitations this summer her children were sleeping on the floor of a trailer during a spider infestation- the nest being right underneath her 6-year-old son’s pillow.



She, however, has the best sense of humor: Waiter, “Have you seen a rag?” “What did you call me?” Trixie will ask, deadpan. She has no qualms about saving her bathroom breaks for when she is back on the clock, or taking a slow walk back to her Banquet service. She is in no rush and owes no one any favors.

Terry is a 53-year-old woman with missing teeth, and quickly sweats through her short hair. All of her children are grown, but she is in a loveless marriage with a man who doesn’t speak to her, and hasn’t for nine years. They are too poor to move apart, so she chain-smokes, gets drunk on days off. “I am just gonna go home, pour myself some vodka and talk to my cats. Nothing else for me to do, anyway,” she says. “We have so much in common,” I say, so she can smile, brightening those freckles and revealing the one crooked front tooth.

“You have freckles,” I say, “I love freckles.” “I hate them. My mother said they were kisses from God, that is the only reason I tolerate them now,” she mumbles through her Camel lights. Terry smokes so much, there are grey ashes in her eyebrows and hair.

The morning crew is kind of a bummer.

There is a 58-year-old guy named Martin, silver haired and slowly shrinking in old age. What keeps the sparkle in his eye is his need for perfection. He takes great pride in his job. He has been a waiter for most of his life and knows every trick in the book- he offers tips on how to carry a tray, how to move a cart without spilling the ice water, which side of the table the salt should be on, where the plate should be and how to keep your uniform pressed and presentable. I like Martin, a lot. He is married to an ER nurse and has three grown sons of his own, all who still live with him due to the economy. He is hoping to sell his house so he can retire to Hawaii soon. Whenever he speaks of Hawaii, you can see the hair on his balding head stand up and the blue of his eyes puncture the air.

Most people don’t like Martin because he is an advice dispenser, when ever someone spills something, complains about something, doesn’t work hard enough or is overwhelmed from working too much, he is always there with a grain of wisdom. He will straighten your collar, or follow a Hotel guest reciting state health laws if they insist on returning to the buffet line with a used plate. “Do you know how many people die of food borne illnesses every year?” Everyone rolls their eyes. I smile. I like his spirit.

“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” he says, handing a teenager a broom before clocking out exactly on his eighth hour.

He was the one I chose to flirt with because he was the most harmless. He and his wife have been dating since elementary school, and though I get the sense that the spark is long gone, his respect for her as a partner is undeniable.

While trying to figure out how to work something, I asked the group, “Do I stick this in from the front or the back?” Martin giggled and I offered a “That’s what she said?” From there on out, if he touched my hip to push me out of the way, I said, “You just want to touch me.”

If he said, “You have some white stuff on your pants . . .” I would respond with, “Are you looking at my ass again?” He blushed and soon enough spent more and more time with me, helping me with my “sets” (a buffet line or beverage break station where guests can help themselves to coffee and soda). Not long after, we started going out for drinks after work. He asked for my phone number and had me program it in his iPhone, since I was younger and more technically savvy. “Which ringtone should I pick? I know ‘Summer Lovin’!” I said, punching in my digits. He blushed, “My wife never picks up this phone, you know?”

I will look at a cart with our names on it, as we are often assigned the same service and say, “I just like seeing our names together.” He will turn his head down, smile and walk away.

He has never hit on me, but I enjoy the mellow flirtation. He is smart and laughs at my jokes. “You made this wrong?” he would say. “Hang on for a second while I cry about it,” I respond.

“You don’t really mean that,” he mumbles.

“I can work up some tears if you like. I am an actress . . . and prone to depression.”

He erupts in laughter, “That’s FUNNY!” I love Martin.

When bussing tables, he will crawl back to the bussing station with plates, “Do you know how many people leave a resort with a foodborne disease? 3%.” Or over beers, “People who bring their dirty plates back to the buffet line make me want to  . . . get a gun and shoot them.”



Though the single moms are miserable and grouchy, rolling their eyes during all my mistakes, they care about doing a good job. The Night Crew is a totally different mentality. Originally, I trained with the night crew.

I should start with the QuarterBack. Ha ha . . . he is an 18-year-old athlete who wants to major in Pole Vault. I know, adorable. Being that he is the son of Amber, my boss, I remember him as a child growing up. He was 6-years-old, shy and cute with red hair, covered in ginger freckles. Now he is taller than me, with broad shoulders and a thin waist. When he walks in his black pants and tucked in uniform shirt, I often think he looks like a Bull Fighter. There is a subtle, graceful swagger. He is confident. “QB” is what I have come to call him with close friends because being that he is the star of this small town, the high-school Quarter Back with a reputation for a hot temper on the field, he kind of fulfills that John Cougar Mellancamp stereotype. He isn’t beefy or stupid or even dreamy- he is a kid but he is confident and growing into a man.

When we saw each other for the first time in about ten years, his conversation was relayed in a very deadpan, dry tone. He spoke about smoking weed, drinking and fucking. It was jarring. As a kid he sported a boy scout smile. He always tried to help my parents. He wouldn’t make eye contact. Even now, when we first met we wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

“Ok, what should I do?” I asked at the beginning of a night shift. Martin was wrapping up, he never works night shifts unless there is a big wedding. “Go do whatever [QB] wants you to do,” he said. I walked up to the tall, very very young boy and said, “Ok, I am here to do whatever you want me to do,” I said, smiling. He looked down, blushing, “Um, can you take this cart out and help them set up.”

The girls gravitate to QB, though, initially I didn’t know why. The Hotel, surprisingly, is stocked full of breathtaking young men. Coming from France, I can tell you I don’t use that term lightly. Young men in the Kitchen and Dining Room are tall with big eyes and pouty lips. They have dramatic features that force you to stop and stare at them for a second. Yes, you are in the middle of nowhere, and that young man is breathtaking. When spending time with them outside in what we call the “Smoking Shack”, I suffered through some menial conversations about their criminal history and how much they hated the Hotel. That doesn’t change the moment you share an uncomfortable gaze eased by a knowing smile. I love those moments.

QB was still a boy, though muscular in his upper body, he seemed small to me. This would change as his personality surfaced.

***

Chad was one of the few night shift boys who was forced to train me, though I was told up front, they would rather have anyone else train me but him. I don’t know if he is Hispanic, or Eskimo or Native American, he is short and he is brown. He is also a total slacker. Even he couldn’t believe he was training me, “They give me shit all the time and now they have me training someone, crazy,” he said. Chad likes to get blazed in his car during breaks. I am not even sure if his breaks count as breaks because during shifts, he is rarely seen. Mostly, you just assume he is hiding in a closet or smoking a joint somewhere.



“Its not that I hate this job,” he said, leading me out to a break to clean and change for the morning crew, “it’s just that I would rather be home doing nothing.”

“Who wouldn’t?” I said. “A job is a job.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said, “I just wish they wouldn’t give me so much shit about all the bathroom breaks I take.” He scrubbed out a small coffee spill on a table.

“Look at you going the extra mile,” I said.

I would hate Chad because I have been stuck on parties that were hard, bussing more tables than I was allotted because he would rather hide than carry his weight. When my cart smashed on the curb outside and I broke a few plates, an old housekeeper came to my aid while he sat there, mesmerized, smoking outside the Shack. “Fucking Chad,” you say, but then he makes you laugh, and his personality tricks you into forgiving him for being completely useless.

“What are you working on, Chad?” I ask. “Working on going home,” he says, drinking a Pepsi in the middle of a bustling back hall.

While struggling with a tray of water glasses, “Hey, Chad, can you take a smoke break for me?” I ask.

“Sure thing,” he says, just before bolting towards the back door and escaping to the Smoke Shack, not missing a beat.

“I am gettin’ a bag tonight, [StarFire]”, he says.

“A bag, like what? Weed?” I ask. He nods. “What are you, asking me out on a date?” I finish. With red eyes and a big head, all 5’6 of him shakes in a quiet laugh. You forgive him.

***
There is Gary, a 6’5 brown guy, not sure what race he is either, but he lives with a single mom of three kids. He has been there a long time, but it also totally useless.

When teaching me how to make Iced Tea with the brewing machine, he said, “This container won’t fit all 3 gallons. One of us could either stand here and switch out the containers when it gets full, or we could just wait for it to overflow and say we didn’t know.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good idea,” I said as he shrugged his shoulders. Gary needs the hours but hates the responsibility.

“Hey, I was switching out the hot water on all the floors during the Server meeting for dinner. What did I miss?” I asked. He stood still for a moment, “I was there, but I wasn’t really paying attention,” he answered.

I rolled my eyes and worked around him, but Gary has a way about him too. When you vent, he always listens, polishing the silverware and concluding it with a heartfelt, “That sucks.” He also said I was one of the “best servers” and “smelled gorgeous”, so I will pretty much forgive anything here on out.

***

Lilith is a middle-aged painter who moved here with her husband, thinking she would be inspired. She only works night shifts and is always surly.

“Did we make enough coffee for the dinner?” someone would ask. A teenage girl would say, “We did, I remember . . .”

Lilith will cut her off and say, “Please, just stay out of the conversation.”

I love how surly she is, because I always laugh. She hates the job.

Living in a house with her husband, she paints most days and only works 3 nights over the weekend. She always mentions the afternoon cocktails waiting for her on her porch after work. “I feel like you have the ideal life, a loving husband, painting, a porch with cocktails . . .” I said.

“I do, its pretty much perfect, except for this job,” she says, dryly, squinting from the sunlight as we set an outdoor buffet. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“Well, I spent the last 12 years in LA, then I was in France for a month, now I am here, kind of grounding myself.”

“This must be like some twisted nightmare for you,” she said. I laughed. She never laughs. Then she told me no one in this part of the state appreciates her paintings. They are shown at galleries but often she hears criticisms like, “ . . . but the colors don’t match” or “the lines are blurry”.

She watched my tray drop on a tray jack because I put all my plates on one end. I am still learning this job, and make the loudest mistakes of anyone over 21. She stood, watched the tray collapse, and plates smash. “I saw that happening a mile away. Rule of physics, just in case you wanted to know.” I chuckle  but the younger girls take it personally.



***

Yes, the most important and most impairing element of the night staff is the young girls, ranging from 18-24 years old. Many of them have their first child already, many are ignorant, plump, wear too much make-up and pick their nose before stuffing their fingers in a platter of leftover food kept for the servers to snack on between services.

“Hey, use a spoon, man,” I say.

“It sucks, anyway,” they will answer.

These girls are the only part of the job I truly dislike. For some reason, they think they have to prove themselves by asserting dominance over me. I really don’t know what it is, the young men will ask me for advice or direction, the older women will ask for my assistance and offer advice, but the young women will try to bark orders at me, they will refuse to invite me in conversations and will be complete brats during service.

I don’t wear make-up, I often have quick comebacks that make the boys laugh and, more than often, the boys their age will flirt with me. I understand. I just wish they would carry their own weight. Work, God Damnit!

They slack. They disappear. They will leave me with 8 tables of 8 people each to bus and serve by myself so they can chain-smoke, gossip and flirt in the back hall. I can’t stand it. They simply don’t have the personality to compensate.

They will give me orders, and I will overrule or turn my gaze onto my supervisor and completely ignore them. They can fight for this territory, that is fine, I am outta here by the end of summer. It is all theirs! I just wish they would get that so they would leave me the fuck alone.



***
There is the Head Chef, who looks remarkably like a blonde pig and refuses to acknowledge my presence.

The Kitchen is split between apathetic white people and hard-working Hispanics.

There are the boys of the Dish Pit, looked down upon by every other department but work the hardest. I sneak them desserts as compensation.

One is an Ultimate Fighter who reads quietly outside on his breaks. Everyone jokes that he is afraid of women, so I fondly call him my “boyfriend”. He never looked at me until today, and I got him to smile- which was a big landmark for me.

There is the 20 year-old who just became a father.

“I thought I was having a heart attack the other day, but I just strained a muscle in my arm,” he said.

“A young man of your age probably wouldn’t have a heart attack unless he was doing copious amounts of methamphetamines,” I said.

“Copious . . . good word,” he said. Someone walked by and he said, almost immediately, “Have a copious day.”

“Wrong context,” I said.

“I don’t care,” he took a drag from his cigarette.

“So you just became a father?” I asked.

“Yes, but the mother is a crazy bitch. She kept texting me and accusing me and just turned into a crazy fucking psycho,” he said.

“Well, thats typical of a young girl, or maybe its just because she is pregnant,” I said. He shook his head.

 “How old is she, 24?” I asked.

He turned his thumb down.

“20?” I asked. Thumb down. “Yikes.”

“18,” he said smiling.

“Well, lucky girl.”

“She was a crazy bitch before she was pregnant, its just her,” he said.

“And before she got pregnant and after you discovered she was a ‘crazy bitch’, I am assuming you had protected sex . . . ?” I asked.

He swung his head back and forth in confusion, holding his cigarette up. “Did you use a condom?” I asked.
“What the fuck is a condom?” he asked.

Terry walked up, “Hey guys, what are you talking about?”

“The birds and the bees,” I said, finishing my cigarette and putting it out in an empty coffee can left for us to ash in.



To you, whoever you are reading this, I am sure the place sounds like an illiterate hell, but to me it became home. Not only home, it became my salvation.

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