Eastland Park Hotel
(For those of you wondering why this is here: I worked at the Eastland Park Hotel for 3 wonderful years. One day my dad sent me this story after I had worked there for 2 of those years. He never once told me that he had worked there back in 1965. A friend of my dad's wrote this story. What's amazing is that this story could have been written exactly the same in 2008 or in 1965. The service elevator is still old, people still steal candles and food. There is still left over banquet food. This is a great story that has nothing to do with my collages. I put it up here so I could print it out for all the great people that have worked there. You know who you are. )
I was fifteen in the summer of 1965 when I began a series of bad jobs that would stretch into the next decade. By my parents' estimation, this was overdue. They had been working from a younger age and had grown up in the Depression and learned the value of a dollar, mister. Et cetera. In my daydreams, I was waxing my board at Malibu, or traverse picking at a coffee house on Bleeker Street.
In fact, I was bagging groceries at a supermarket off Exit 8 of the Maine Turnpike. The store manager was an irritable Italian, named Ray, who hated Beatle haircuts, mine in particular. Bagging groceries is a boring job which requires your complete attention. The minute I began to daydream, I was piling cans on top of someone's Wonder Bread, and Ray would be jumping up and down and snarling, "I thought I told you to get a haircut!" The other employees were scared of Ray so they shunned me. I ate my lunch on the loading dock with George, the shopping cart boy. Later in life, I imagine that George became "a person with mental retardation". In the summer of 1965, he was still "a frigging retard." One day, Ray found George on the loading dock stabbing a long-dead cat with his jack-knife, over and over again.
"George, you frigging retard!" he hollered, "What the fuck are you doing?"
"I'm pretending it's my father," said George, quite unselfconsciously.
After that, of course, I was eating lunch alone. It was plain to see that I could not last at bagging groceries for Ray. There was too much malice in the air.
My fortunes changed with a call from my friend, Steve. The Eastland Hotel was hiring bus boys. We walked the two miles in our version of smart casual: high-water chinos, button-down shirts, white socks (with two stripes) and black penny loafers. We filled out applications in the hotel business office and were hired on the spot. There was a required uniform, but, being aspiring hoodlums, we already had the black pants and white shirts. The rest was provided. This amounted to a monkey-suit with a black cummerbund, bow tie, and a mustard-colored jacket. We had a tour of the restaurant and kitchen. The Eastland was the closest thing in Portland to a grand hotel. The Egyptian Court was the hotel dining room. It was a spacious, high-ceilinged, poorly-lit affair with gilt and red velvet accents. The walls were painted with murals of pyramids, camels, and the like. There were some potted palms to make this more three-dimensional. The tables had white linen cloths and candles in glass holders. In the center of the room, stood a long buffet table. There were bus stands around the sides of the room, and our tour guide took time to acquaint us with their contents, the tools of the bus boy trade. Our job would be to get the tables set up before the dining room opened, keep the bus stands stocked, clear and reset the tables after the diners had departed, and run errands for the waitresses. Other, random, duties might be assigned, like vacuuming up the debris left in the hotel bar from the night before, setting up and clearing the buffet, running racks of glasses through the dishwasher, and so forth. Being fifteen, this all sounded interesting to me, despite the fact that it placed the job of bus boy squarely at the bottom of the restaurant chain of command.
I had the essential job duties mastered quickly. The workplace dynamics took a few days. Putting our heads together, Steve and I were able to figure out that, since everyone was our boss in some domain, no one was ever fully in charge of us. If no one had us in their high beams at a particular moment, we were on our own. The key to remaining unsupervised was to keep the waitresses happy, then appear to be busy with some errand. This left us free to explore uncharted hotel territory. Like the service elevator.
The service elevator was old and dangerous-looking. The doors could be opened from the inside at any time and the rise and fall were controlled by a lever. Thus, the car could be stopped between floors, and the door opened, allowing one's partner in crime to step onto the roof and ride up and down the elevator shaft among the pulleys and cables. Steve confirmed the rumor that the fourth floor Coke machine could be defeated by fingers just long enough to hold back a spring-loaded bar. This permitted the dispensing of many bottles of Coke for the price of one. We then discovered that the empty bottles made a wonderful assortment of eerie sounds when dropped down the service elevator shaft from a hundred feet up. Even these attractions were short-lived as we moved on to new depravities. Like accessorizing The Den.
The Den of Iniquity had been an unused, brick-walled, storage room in the basement of our friend David's big house on Pleasant Avenue. We commandeered it, with our gang of friends, shortly after David moved in. The basement stairs were in a foyer between the barn and the kitchen, giving us a private entrance. The Den was painted and furnished with the basics in record time. This solidified our claim to the space, but our industry was really driven by the fact that girls were actually, finally, willing to make out with us. No time to waste. Rugs, mattresses, and throw pillows were easy to find in our garages and attics. A dry sink, upside down on a two-by-four frame, made a good flat surface for a record player and stacks of folky vinyl. A iron bathtub, from a nearby demolition site, painted chrome yellow and filled with cushions, provided a touch of dissonance and great spot for a grope. Steve stole his bed sheets and we stretched them on huge wooden frames. These, we painted in abstract designs, a-la Paul Klee. But where to get those final whimsical decorating touches that can really pull a room together? The tables in the hotel bar each had a candle in a tall red smoky glass holder. How perfect for a setting in which lighting was rudimentary by design. And what to our wondering eyes should appear, in the labyrinth hotel basement, but a yellow fallout shelter sign just like the one on the cover of Bringin' It All Back Home. How could anyone say 'no' to that?
One of the several hotel doors opened into an alley. We stashed our treasures in the alley until after work. This often included food, like fruit, cheese, and pie from the buffet. It was hit or miss because winos also used the alley and could liberate our food pretty fast. One night, with our best Mission Impossible teamwork, we actually got an unopened bottle of wine from the walk-in cooler out of the hotel. Steve had it wrapped up in his jacket. Neither one of us drank, so the actual plan was vague. On the street, at midnight, we met some punk kids who had a beef with Steve. He decided that the punk-in-chief would benefit from being pummeled. He passed me his jacket in preparation for this, but I fumbled the handoff. The bottle of wine hit the sidewalk. We took a cursing fit, and the punks took a laughing fit. There was verbal unpleasantness of the 'your mother' variety, but no punches were thrown. Like every other night, we took the rest of our haul to Deering Oaks Park, smoked Larks and Tarrytons, and reviewed the events of the day.
The events of the day included what the other employees had been up to. We fumed over the firing of Jack, the cook. Later in life, Jack probably became "a gay man", but, in 1965, he was still "a frigging homo". Jack made no bones about being gay. He would give me a salacious grin and stroke the palm of my hand when I reached over the counter to take a plate from him. Jack was fired when he was discovered by management to be engaged in some homosexual activity. "So what if he's a frigging homo," we ranted. "If the manager caught him banging one of the chambermaids, do you think he would have been fired?" On the evolutionary chart, our sense of social justice was at least walking on dry land.
Betty was a dining room hostess from South Portland who faked a British accent. She was a poseur, but not a stupid one. Betty was on to us and made it a project to get us in trouble. We kept an eye on her. We noticed, for example, that when she came to work, she changed shoes and put her street shoes under the bus stand closest to the kitchen doors. Steve found a boiled carrot in the kitchen and pushed it neatly up into the toe of one of Betty's street shoes. We watched from our stations at opposite sides of the dining room as Betty jammed her feet into the street shoes and walked out at the end of the evening without noticing anything amiss.
The waitresses were older than us and made it plain that we had no chance with them. But, they shared their tips with us when we worked hard. Their sense of humor was more evolved than ours. They understood irony, for example, where we understood the Three Stooges. Alice, our favorite waitress, was old enough to be our grandmother. Like everyone else at the Egyptian Court, she kept a pack of cigarettes in the kitchen. Steve shook one out of her pack and replaced the tobacco with match heads. I signaled him when she took her break so we could watch the fireworks. She lit it up and the cigarette exploded in a shower of flaming debris. This was clearly a prank gone wrong, and we waited for our comeuppance. Alice ground out the butt, muttering, "Goddamn cheap cigarettes!"
The hotel also boasted a small Hawaiian-themed restaurant and its kitchen was directly below the kitchen for the Egyptian Court. They were connected by a spiral staircase. The Hawaiian restaurant chef was Sonny, a vicious Japanese, rumored to chase people out of his kitchen with knives. Naturally, we had to check this out. There was no sound from the bottom of the spiral stairs, as I started down, Steve close behind. I was nearly at the bottom, and could see that the coast was clear, when, out of nowhere, Sonny appeared, cleaver in hand. We were caught in his horrible, inscrutable, stare. "Hah!" he cried, "I know you! You-a Steve. No, you-a Art. You come-a here! I'm a chop-a you up!" Luckily, Steve was a track star, so I didn't have to run over him.
The clientele of the Egyptian Court tended to be middle-aged and unremarkable, but every shift brought at least one party to be remembered. One night, a large bald man with a Texas accent began bellowing for "sauce". He had ordered a steak. Steve brought him the A-1 Steak Sauce, which was not what the man wanted. Surprised, Steve offered to get the cocktail waitress. This only set off a new wave of bawling. "You go talk to him," said Steve. "I can't understand anything he says." I cautiously approached the table to find the man bug-eyed and defeated. He fixed me with his crazy stare, managing only to bleat, "Boy, ain't you got no sauce?" I sent Hugh, the tall, spidery, Jamaican maitre d', and fled the scene.
"Look at this," said Steve one night. "He's been sitting like that for an hour." A man in a business suit, completely drunk, had lurched into the Egyptian Court from the hotel bar and ordered a Maine lobster dinner with all the fixings. The sight of it paralyzed him. After sitting immobile for an hour and a half, he paid the check and lurched out. I pounced. I'd only had two jobs in my life, but I knew that free lobster dinners were a rare employment benefit.
There were a number of old ladies who lived at the hotel and took meals in the Egyptian Court. One evening, my waitress asked me to get a finger bowl for one of the old lady customers. I had no idea. I asked Steve. "Get one of those heavy glass dishes down under the counter, fill it with hot water, and put a lemon wedge on the side," he said. I found the dish and the lemon. Where to get the water? Of course, the tea water urn. I delivered the finger bowl and was on my way back to the kitchen when I heard the yowls of pain. I kept moving.
My waitress had asked me to pull a champagne cork. I had no idea about that, either, but I was determined to be helpful. I put my thumbs under the rim of the cork and gave a mighty push. It worked. With a bang, the cork rocketed up and off the vaulted ceiling, then down with terrible velocity directly onto the dinner plate of an unsuspecting diner on the other side of the room. I retrieved the cork with apologies. Luckily, it was not a party of mean drunks.
Late one night, the Egyptian Court hosted a medium-popular British Invasion band. They were quiet and polite and talked business. Steve and I were assigned to guard the dining room doors against love-struck girls hoping for a glimpse. For an hour, we had the best job on the planet. The band made its getaway and I cleared the table, saving the empty wine bottle for my younger sister who hadn't gone to the show.
But, our favorite customer was the mouse that haunted the Egyptian Court. Mouse sightings were always popular with us, not so much with the management. The dining room was dark and this emboldened the rodent, who scampered about with impunity. Miraculously, it escaped the notice of customers. We hatched a dumb-ass plan. If the mouse came out into the open when we were at our bus stands, we would converge from opposite sides of the dining room and catch it bare handed. We didn't have to wait long. From my side of the room, I spied the little beast streaking toward the long skirts of the buffet table. "There he goes!" cried Steve. To the mounting alarm of the diners, we dove under the buffet table rooting about on hands and knees until the horrified maitre d' appeared, hissing, "What are you two doing? Get up, get up!" The maitre d' seemed strangely affected by this incident although, surprisingly, we weren't fired. "That dick," said Steve as we ate our after-work snacks in the park. "We could have had him. We were this close."
In the summers that followed, I worked in fish plants, scraped paint, and pounded nails. It would be nice if I could recite some useful wisdom extracted from my first jobs, but that would be pushing it. The real power of dead-end work, for me, was the way it made college look like a better and better idea. Although being a bagger, or bus boy, or fish mucker, had its own peculiar worldly charms, the charm was due entirely to the fact that I would soon be moving on. Once, when it got around my labor crew that I might go to college, my nasty co-worker, Alvin, just couldn't help himself. "Years from now," he snarled, "when you drive your big car past some work site on your way to a good job, you just think of me, asshole. I'll still be here." I'd rather forget about Alvin, but, to this day, at every construction site I pass, there he is. And there are all the others, at every hotel, restaurant, factory, and store. I like to think they're heisting food from the buffet, and decorating their dens with candle holders, and dropping bottles down the elevator shaft. I hope that, just like me, they're moving on.