IN VIRGIN TERRITORY

 

I admit I was a bit of a slow starter.  I headed to law school in 1978 at the age of twenty-one with as much experience with the opposite sex as a typical thirteen-year-old.  Nowadays, the level of knowledge I had at that time might match that of an eleven-year-old.  While I could try to blame this situation on a variety of circumstances and other people, it was largely of my own making, owing to a mix of traits, interests and hang-ups that I did not understand at the time.  Still, an opportunity of sorts managed to arise.

Following college graduation, I found myself at home for one last summer.  My parents would have supported me, regardless, but I reluctantly agreed it was necessary to engage in some sort of employment, even though previous summers of misery had included alphabetizing in a library, typing for the U.S. Corps of Engineers (the “Corpse”) and umpiring adult softball (early lessons in the misery of humanity).  These experiences were so tedious and unpleasant that my expectations for meaningful and useful work were nil.  When a friend advised of an opening for an assistant to the manager at a nearby dinner theatre, I thought to myself:  “That might not be too bad; I can learn something about business and see some shows while I’m at it.”

After several phone calls, I scheduled an interview with a man named Robert, whose family owned the Suburban Dinner Theatre and a variety of businesses throughout the Philadelphia area.    Dressed as I was, in a blue blazer and tie over grey slacks, I was surprised to note that he was only a year or two older than I, and accessorized his all-jeans outfit with an earring and ponytail.  On his feet were clogs.  It was quite an ensemble.  We took the measure of each other, as follows:

“I manage this place and I can use you two or three days a week,” he said.  He spread out his arms expansively, indicating the theatre, the buffet and dining rooms, the offices and the vast lobby.  The décor was faux Roman, with hollow plaster gladiators glowering from every corner.

“Okay,” I replied, relieved not to work full-time.

“I don’t know what you’ll be doing, but my friggin’ brother at the theatre downtown has an assistant, so I’m gonna have one, too,” said Robert.

“Okay,” I said, feeling a bit more commoditized than I’d expected.

“I don’t understand why dad gives him the big theatre and I’m stuck out here,” he said, apparently talking to himself. “Can you drive?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Come in tomorrow at ten and I’ll figure out something.  I’ll pay you six dollars an hour and, ah, lose the jacket and tie.”

“Will I have anything to do with the shows?” I asked, hopeful.

“Nah,” he replied.  “This’ll just be daytime crap.”

Thus began my entry to the business world and to the concept of “make-work.”  I’d already learned from my summer of government employment that it is important to “look busy” while trudging through a pile of letters.  And I’d learned from the library that a low-intensity job sometimes affords the opportunity to read a magazine “on the clock,” while seeming to be involved in filing.  But the idea of completely making up things to do was new.   To his credit, Robert was initially resourceful at finding tasks for completion where none were readily apparent.

During the first morning on the job, I drove a van to three far-flung hardware stores in search of the components necessary to install a chain in front of a side entrance to prevent illegal parking.  One store had the proper gauge of chain, another the hue of silver paint that Robert deemed most visible,  another the piece of metal on which I would write “No Entry” and the type of marker that could write permanently upon a piece of painted metal.

The afternoon project involved vacuuming ceiling vents in the dining room deemed too difficult to access by the janitorial staff.  Only in retrospect did I realize how dangerous it was for me, inexperienced and unprotected by any safety measures whatsoever, to be reaching to the ceiling with a dust-buster from the top of a rickety ladder.

“Here’s a good project for you,” Robert announced on my second day.  “We need some additional feathers for the Showboat production.  See where you can find six ostrich feathers, four eagle feathers and eight striped feathers.  I don’t care what kind of bird.”

I looked at him and determined he was serious.

“You can use that phone,” he said, pointing across his office to an empty desk, and handing me a thick book called “The Yellow Pages.”  It may be difficult for a youthful current-day reader to believe, but “The Yellow Pages” and a telephone were the go-to research tools in the late 1970’s.

While I pored over “theatrical costumes” and “decorator’s accessories” sections, Robert resumed his phone conversation:

“Yeah, I’m sorta working this afternoon…. Haha, I have an assistant now, what a riot….  Okay, baby, I’ll pick you up later.  Love ya.”  Turning his attention back to me, Robert said:

“Man, my lady-friends are driving me crazy.  I have to juggle several; it’s stressful.  I have to go get a massage to relax.   Anyway, after you get the feathers, leave ‘em in my office and call it a day.  See ya.”

I located the requisite feathers after an hour of calling.  Before I left his office, I noticed that Robert’s desk was filled with photographs of himself with a variety of attractive women.   Driving the van downtown to gather the feathers, I pondered unhappily how cavalierly virtuosic Robert was with the vagaries of social life while I, confident of superior intellect and eventual professional prospects, was essentially learning disabled.   It was as though he were winning a race while I was still at the starting line.

Robert greeted me the next workday with a broad smile.  I should have been suspicious.  “I’m running out of important projects for daytime work, but I’ve found you a position in show biz,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said, “it’s an evening position, during the show.  You can do what my dad had me do as my first job outta college.  You’ll be the liquor checker.”

I doubtless looked perplexed while he continued:  “We have a service bar that makes the drinks for the audience.  We suspect the bartender and some of the girls are rippin’ us off by providing some drinks on the side.  So you just gotta match up the drinks on their tray with the drinks listed on the check.  If the table buys six drinks, make sure there ain’t eight going out.  And if the bill says it’s a standard cocktail, make sure the glass isn’t filled with ‘top shelf.’”

“How do you tell the difference?” I asked.

“’Top shelf’ is the good stuff.  Customers gotta pay extra for it.”

“Doesn’t it look the same in the glass?” I asked.

“That doesn’t matter.  You just have to act like you know the difference,” he said, delivering to me an important real-life lesson.  So many times in my eventual career as a lawyer, it was at least as necessary to project knowledge, as it was to actually have knowledge.

Robert walked with me to the liquor bar located adjacent to the buffet.  He explained the routine: patrons arrived before the show for a buffet dinner.  During dinner and intermission, they could obtain soft drinks for no additional charge, but alcoholic drinks were ordered from the waitresses who circulated through the dining room during the show.  On a good night, there were two to three hundred patrons spread around twenty to thirty tables of ten.  The staff consisted of eight-twelve women, depending on the anticipated size of the crowd, and one or two bartenders.

There were three double-edged “perks” of employment in the service bar.  Foremost on employees’ minds were that, after intermission, we were effectively “done” for the evening and were free to attack the buffet.  Unfortunately, the menu never changed, so one gorged on the same rolls, chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf and salad every night, topped off with Sarah Lee cheesecake.

The second “perk” was that one could hear the music from the show.  However, since the show for the entire summer was Showboat, one’s enthusiasm quickly flagged on a nightly diet of “Captain Andy, Captain Andy, he makes the world seem like a bowl of candy.”

The third perk, for me, at least, was the concentrated opportunity to study female anatomy.  The set-up of the service bar was that the waitresses entered through a swinging door at the far end of the room, obtained their drinks from the bartender there, presented payment to a cashier in the middle of the room, and passed out a swinging door directly in front of me after I perused the contents of their trays.

Like an adolescent boy, my evaluation of female beauty had been based almost entirely on faces up to that point, with only an emerging interest in parts below.  This job, however, promoted appreciation not only of the front, but also legs and rears.  The staff did not have a fixed uniform, just a black and white color scheme.  Most of the women found it profitable, tip-wise, and perhaps, more comfortable in the bustle of work, to wear the shortest of shorts and the skimpiest of tee-shirts.  All of the women were in their early twenties except for one middle-aged woman named Trudy, who was trim, but chose to wear slacks.

The drawbacks of the job were also clear.  First, most of my co-workers smoked.  And the nightly race to sell drinks and earn tips, with contests and bonuses among them, created a casino-type atmosphere of tension that encouraged their habit.  Not only did they light up constantly, but they left their butts smoldering in ash trays while they circulated through the dining room.   The resulting stench in the service bar was akin to Dante’s most hellish levels.  Second, and impossible to overcome, was that my position was to act as management’s spy.   The honest waitresses hated my snooping and the dishonest simply hated me.

The middle-aged bartenders, both of whom looked indistinguishable from Tony Orlando, complete with smarmy moustaches, regarded me with supreme disinterest.

“So kid,” one said shortly after I began there, “you think you’re gonna get laid this summer?”

“Um, I hadn’t really planned one way or the other,” I said, trying to convey that I had a choice in the matter.

“It’s like shootin’ ducks in a barrel,” he said.  “For me, at least.”

Luckily, the summer passed quickly.   My mind was preoccupied with starting law school and the job did not require deep concentration.   Either there was less corruption than Robert thought, or I was really bad at uncovering it, but I never had to “rat out” one of the girls.  Gradually, a rapport developed with several so that conversations were, at least, civil.  While some never spoke to me beyond what was necessary, most accepted that I was “simply doing my job,” and had not chosen to treat them like criminals for fun.  I recognized most of them were headed towards lives of lower-middle-class struggle while I was in a position to achieve upper-middle-class comfort, and I made certain never to gloat.

Even among the waitresses who spoke to me without an edge, there was absolutely no flirtation.  Though they were more aware than anyone that my eyes would doubtless be following their movement, particularly after the drinks were counted, when they passed out the door in front of me, they rarely established eye contact.  Their manner of speech, laced with profanity and “dems” and “dozes,” combined with tawdry hairdos and tattoos, (before tattoos somehow became fashionable) indicated a huge gulf in our respective backgrounds.  One or two attended community college or beauty school, but they flaunted their bodies as their main assets.

It was as though these women/girls were saying:  “We know you have an education and will have a nice car and a nice house and probably there’s a prissy little school teacher out there for you somewhere, but what you can’t have is this – our bodies are great and you’ll never touch anything as good.”  At the time, I would have completely agreed with that assessment.  In fact, I would have been relieved to know the little teacher was out there somewhere for me.

Every Saturday night, after the show, the staff went to a local bar for drinks.  I was never invited to join them and, for that, I was relieved.   I had no interest in socializing with them, breathing more of their smoke, and staying out past midnight discussing soap opera plots or their real-life awful boyfriends.  But in honor of my last night of employment, one of the girls graciously said: “for a company dick, you ain’t so bad,” and invited me to join them after work.  “We’ll treat,” she said.

We went to the Muddy Duck, a hole-in-the-wall bar near the St. Joseph’s College campus.  At first, the evening proceeded as I’d expected.  I nursed a beer as slowly as possible while my surrounding co-workers drank themselves silly.  Any landscaper or gas station attendant who walked in thought I was the luckiest man alive.  We all sat at a large, oval table.  I was next to Trudy, who alternately talked about living with her cancer-stricken mother, chain-smoked, and consumed pints.  Compared to all the twenty-two-year-olds in hot pants, Trudy had never caught my attention.  When a man is twenty-one, women over forty who are not relatives, rarely enter consciousness.

So it was particularly surprising when I turned towards Trudy at one point and found her open mouth bearing down upon mine.  I sensed an uproar of laughter and cheers around me as Trudy landed upon me on the bench and surrounded me with a noxious cocktail of cheap perfume, nicotine and beer.

“I’ll take you to the restroom and give you a real treat,” she rasped over the commotion.  “You should have something to remember from the summer.”

I felt embarrassment and panic that nearly made me faint.  My mind internally ran through a litany of jumbled moral babble:  “We are not dating; we are not even friends; this will be immediately regretted by both of us; somewhere my future wife will be cheated, etc.”   I must admit, I doubt if any of these objections would have overcome an offer from one of the younger girls.

“I can’t,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I mean, I’d like to….”

Trudy leaned back and regarded me with deep hurt in her eyes.  I felt terrible.   She may not have been sober enough to fully consider the ramifications, but she was offering something that would have constituted a landmark in my life.  Fortunately, most of the girls around the table had turned their attention away from us, but I was still reeling.

“I understand,” said Trudy, after a moment.  “It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated.

It wasn’t long before the gathering began to break up.  Everyone wished me “good luck,” and I was free to go.  I remember taking a deep breath in the parking lot before entering my car.  Nearly all the memories of that summer submerged instantaneously and completely; now that they have bubbled back to the surface for examination, I believe I made the right decision.

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