Monday, February 22, 2010
All right, even though I’ve had many more day jobs than three, I’ve been spotlighting only those that deserved a spotlight. And by “deserved a spotlight,” I mean, “scarred me so badly that even now, all these years later, I feel a need to vent.” I also had some good jobs and good bosses; I’ve mentioned those before. But those make for boring blogs.
So, the worst of all my day jobs gets highlighted today.
It was short-lived. I only went out twice for this particular day job. It was during my time at NYU. I needed some income that I wouldn’t have to pay back; I was living off my loans. I had classes during the day and needed something flexible, at night, and hopefully something that wouldn’t keep me sitting any more than I already was, with classes and the writing. I decided to think out of the box, be creative, try something new and unusual and fun.
I went into catering.
I’m not sure what I thought this job would be; but it really did sound fun. I didn’t think of the practical side: carrying plates, glasses, serving people, cleaning up. I don’t know, I guess I just thought of parties and food.
I signed up with a temp agency that staffed catered affairs. They gave me instructions: call in when you’re available for work, it’ll be evening positions, and you have to buy a tuxedo.
Seriously. A tuxedo.
I went to the uniforms place to pick up my tuxedo. It was the kind of place that has an outfit for every occasion; great for Halloween. They had bellboy outfits, maid uniforms (none sexy, though), doorman uniforms. Tuxedos. For men and women.
It wasn’t expensive: the pants, jacket, bowtie (bowtie! I had to wear a bowtie! In anything other than a real tuxedo, worn for a formal occasion, they can be pulled off only by the most extraordinary man; women should not be subjected to them! A bowtie!!), and two shirts—one with fancy black buttons, one with regular white ones—cost about $60. I was promised I would pay for the tuxedo with one gig. I tried this thing on, looked in the mirror, and flushed red. I looked stupid. Oh, so stupid. I had fairly short hair at the time—not man-short, but collar-length—and somehow the whole combination just did not work. I looked so stupid. Have I mentioned, I looked stupid? And yet I thought this job might be fun, might be some good extra money, so I bought the tuxedo and took it home in a blue plastic bag, still feeling a faint tinge of embarrassment.
My first gig was at a Lehman Brothers (RIP) Christmas party. It was a gigantic open dining area that overlooked the Hudson, quite a nice space. We were instructed to wear the tux pants and shirt, but no jacket. Mercifully, at the venue, they gave us blue smocks to put over the dumb tux. I was relieved. I wore silver hoop earrings, which somehow made the ensemble a little nicer, and was told I had to remove them. “Earrings can’t extend below the earlobe.” Okay.
We were told not to speak to anyone unless spoken to. We were not to speak to each other, even if we were standing next to each other. Even if we were manning the same station, serving roast beef and chicken. Even if we were bussing the same tables. Unless we were speaking about portion sizes or cleanup, we were not to speak to each other. “You will be sent home immediately and not paid for your time,” they said. Somehow the image of two lowly catering personnel CHATTING ABOUT SOMETHING was so awful to them, so unprofessional—speaking about something other than food, while serving people!!—it was a firable offense. Okay. (Now, I do shop at Fairway, where the checkers are so busy chatting to each other in Spanish that they can’t even bother to tell the customer how much the total is. It is annoying to be ignored by someone who’s supposed to be attending to you because s/he is too busy having a personal conversation. But still: “We’ll fire you if we see you talking”? Really?)
My first station was standing as a greeter, holding a tray of glasses of white wine, with an inviting and welcoming smile. “Welcome to the party. White wine?” That was my line. So I stationed myself accordingly, held out the tray, and quickly realized THIS BLOODY TRAY IS INCREDIBLY HEAVY. And a moment later, IF I HAVE TO HOLD IT FOR MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES I’M GOING TO DROP IT. A moment after that, I HAVE MATCHSTICK ARMS AND OH MY GOODNESS THIS TRAY IS HEAVY. So bankers drifted in, happy to have gotten off work early, and I smiled pleasantly and said, “Care for some white wine?” or “Would you like a glass of white wine?” “Welcome to the party. White wine?”
People either acknowledged me or didn’t, and most of them walked past… without …taking … a glass of white wine. My pleasant smile grew strained and I shifted to try to balance it on my hip. It didn’t work, and I went back to holding it out in front of me. “White wine?” I said. JUST TAKE A GLASS OF THIS BLOODY WINE BECAUSE OMG IT’S HEAVY! “Welcome to the party. Care for a glass of white wine?” THROW IT OUT, DUMP IT IN THE PLANT, I DON’T CARE, JUST TAKE IT FROM ME! “Hello, happy holidays! Would you like a glass of white wine?” FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE TAKE A F***ING GLASS OF WHITE WINE.
At last my tray was empty. I deposited it in the kitchen and went to my cleanup station. For a long time, as people got their food and ate, I just stood there. Fellow catering temps were friendly; they smiled and tried to chat. Remembering the firing threat, as soon as they asked what I did, why I had to have a day job, I smiled and fled.
After an hour of standing around, we had to start cleaning up. I was in the least crowded area, thankfully, and I took people’s glasses and plates right to the kitchen. I didn’t have to fight people to get through. More and more people finished dinner and then went to the dance floor (not in my station!) to shake it loose. Picture drunk bankers shaking it, I dare you. (and the poor saps stationed in that area, loading up trays full of very breakable glassware and trying to navigate through them to the kitchen.) I dutifully cleaned their glasses and plates and silverware, and then began cleaning up the tables with the food, skirting the friendly conversation of fellow catering temps.
This is all exhausting. You wouldn’t think it would be; you would think, hey, you’re just taking plates and glasses and silverware across the hall to the kitchen. But you would be wrong. All the standing, all the walking back and forth, all the transporting; within an hour, I was ready to go home. I didn’t want to, of course, because we got paid by the hour, but physically I was ready. I knew it for sure when I spilled a glass of beer. It was half full, and the banker said he didn’t want any more, so I had picked it up and set it on the tray, and then when I picked up the tray I didn’t do it fast or decisively enough, and my matchstick arms, already fatigued from holding a tray of white wine, tipped the tray forward. I dumped the beer. Into the banker’s lap.
Profuse apologies all around, of course. And he was drunk, so he didn’t seem to care. I escaped to the bathroom for a little while to shake. I knew, had someone dumped half a glass of beer into my lap, I’d be pretty darn pissed. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d yelled at me, but he hadn’t. But I was shaken. And very tired. And the evening was about half done.
Everyone finished shaking their booty things and drifted off into the night. I felt that emotional easing as the room emptied out, feeling (against logic) that it was time for me to go home, too. But no, it was time to clean up! I dropped two more glasses in the next hour. None into anyone’s lap, but both shattered.
I started to think maybe I wasn’t cut out for this catering thing.
I had paid for my tuxedo (and did I mention how utterly horrible and stupid I looked, wearing the tuxedo?) with my night’s job. But I needed at least one more. And oh, what a doozy that was.
I got a call to be at the Park Avenue Armory at seven p.m. This is quite late for a regular catering gig; usually you’re supposed to come in at three, because they’re, you know, dinner. But this one was special. We were told to wear our full tux outfits. I put mine on and stared at myself in the full-length mirror, wincing. Can I say it again? I LOOKED STUPID.
We arrived at seven and waited around until eight (this is where I learned that you ought to bring a book to catering gigs; several people had them). I was informed that I would be on coat check duty, and there were hundreds (I mean, hundreds) of coat hangers set up on racks. Hmm.
I began wandering around the place, waiting for the shift to begin. It was fascinating. The Park Avenue Armory is a big, empty floor that you can make into whatever you want to make it into. There was a lagoon set up in a corner, with a real waterfall and pool and tropical plants. Another one in the other corner. There was the food setup area. There were tables set up, though not many. And … there was a bar.
Plastered to the wall behind the bar there were at least a hundred Playboy centerfolds. In their full glory.
I stared at this backdrop dispassionately for some time, pretty much reaffirming my heterosexual status. But I found it very, uh, interesting that it was up in the first place.
“What is this party?” I finally asked.
“It’s the Playboy anniversary party,” they said.
People began arriving. Young women, mostly, all pretty nondescript. They took off their coats and gave them to us, and we handed them their little tag for eventual retrieval. We were right in front of the door, and it was December and pretty soon my toes were freezing. The young women went downstairs, and emerged half an hour later. Dressed exactly alike. Dressed like Playboy models.
Now, they didn’t’ have the regular bunny outfit on. No, I guess this was passé by that time. They wore:
A black shoulder-length wig with blunt bangs;
A black strapless shelf bra
Black tight boy shorts
Black fishnet stockings;
Black knee-length boots
Lots of pink makeup, too.
Wow. It was pretty impressive. I glanced down at my (STUPID, AWFUL, UGLY) tux and was nevertheless glad I was wearing it rather than what the waitresses were wearing.
Guests began arriving. I wondered who they were, exactly; who gets invitations to the Playboy birthday party? I couldn’t tell by looking at them. They were businessmen, women; young and old. Maybe more horny young men, though.
And I spent my night behind the counter at the coat check, greeting people in a stupid tux, taking their coats and exchanging them for a little tag. I watched Pamela Anderson come in (who could be a more appropriate guest?); she was going to jump out of the cake. I watched a young singer whose name escapes me (Ashanti? Maybe) and her enormous entourage; she was going to sing happy birthday to Hef. And I watched Hef come in, too, with five skank blondes. He’s about my height (five-five) and very thin. A small man, whose life has been the mother of all overcompensations. They had his voice on a loop, talking about the inception of Playboy, where he was saying he started it for guys to “have a little fun.” Sigh.
I took a bathroom break midway through. One of the (scantily) black-clad waitresses was sitting in the bathroom, in the corner, in a huff. “All of these men here keep looking at me!” she snitted.
She went on: “They don’t know, I’m not these clothes! I’d rather be at home in my sweats right now!”
Yeah, sweetheart, but you’re not.
Maybe I was in an overcompensation of my own, feeling so very dowdy to begin with, but even more so in this STUPID UGLY TUX next to this girl in a black shelf-bra and boy shorts with a taut stomach. She was very cute, and… I was not.
So the evening begins its windup. People begin claiming the coats we have stashed in the hundreds of hangers on the dozens of coat racks. They try to tip us, a couple of dollars or five. Or twenty. And the captain has us under strict instructions: we are NOT to accept a tip of any kind. We are to say, “Hef is taking care of us.”
The thing is, Hef was most definitely NOT taking care of us. Saying “Hef is taking care of us” implied, somehow, that there’s a big tip waiting at the end, and no, we were earning an hourly salary and that was all. There would be no pajamaed Hef coming around and pressing hundred dollar bills on us in a state of boozy generosity. I watched a parade of drunk people get out higher-denomination bills than sober people would, and I had to turn them down. I was not able to make myself say, “Hef is taking care of us,” so instead I said the next-best thing: “I’m not allowed to take tips.” This angered the captain, who repeated, “You’re not supposed to say that! You have to say, ‘Hef is taking care of us!’” The next man came with a $10 for me, and the captain eyed me as I said, “No, I’m not allowed.” She didn’t fire me, but she did get mad.
One drunk guy came with his friend. The friend was pretty sober, and the drunk guy had lost his coat tag. He was so drunk, he practically had bubbles coming out of his ears. He stood there, half asleep, with a little grin on his face (the centerfolds behind the bar? The waitresses?), swaying back and forth, as his friend begged us to find the guy’s coat. We had no idea what it was, and drunk guy was not coherent enough to tell us what it looked like, other than “It’s black.” Sigh. Semi-sober friend was dying to get him home, but they had to wait a good hour before there were few enough coats that drunk guy could pick his out.
So the party trickles out. It’s after midnight, and now we have to clean up. Cups on the floor, napkins in the oasis pool. Chairs get put away, dishes get done, coat racks get taken three flights down to storage. On and on. It’s now one-thirty, and I’m ready to drop. I caught a glimpse in a mirror, and my hair was flat, my makeup smeared, and I looked tired in addition to STUPID IN MY TUX.
I walked by a man who was probably in his fifties, very unattractive and with Michael Landon hair. He did a giant, over-obvious double-take and said, “You look HOT in that tux.”
I laughed my loudest cackle-laugh and kept going. Methinks someone saw too much of the centerfolds behind the bar, and wanted to go home with someone. And maybe he did. Just not with me.
The Playboy party was my last catering affair. I just hated it too much—and I would have even if I hadn’t staffed the Playboy party. I went back to assistant-type work, sitting at desks and working on computers. Yes, I get injuries from sitting (tendinitis! Stiff back! Bad shoulders! Sore legs!) but they’re better than venereal disease.
The tux hangs still in its blue plastic bag in my closet, a reminder of an earlier time.