I automatically winced every time I heard that reference. It was usually uttered, a bit too exuberantly, sometimes punctuated by a guffaw, by a middle-aged gentleman — and it is always a man –as he glides a crumpled bill into the cigar box that serves as my tip jar, affixed haphazardly with Velcro to the ledge of the dutch door leading to the cramped confines of the coat room. Everyone in his party would chuckle fondly at the memory of the teevee show, as I stood there, a forced, tight-lipped smile on my face, and waited for them to exit before I fished out the money and added it to my bankroll. I was only at the midway point of working a season in the coat check of a midtown steakhouse and it already like purgatory.
The coat check, independent of the chain restaurant in which it resided, was run by two of my friends. They rented the space from the steak house, and in turn manage and staff it. Since it was its own entity, the take was off the books. The managers, we’ll call the Michelle and Casey, split the more lucrative dinner shifts, while I signed on to cover half the weekday lunches, plus every other Sunday. Except for a brief stint working the cafe of an independent bookstore while in high school, which only required me to make the odd cappuccino or toast the occasional bagel, I had avoided the cliche of working in food service even though I claimed to be an actor (at least on my taxes). I’d bucked that stereotype, only to serve in the salt mines of retail. (When I first moved to New York I slaved in a theatrical gift shop in Times Square, selling XXL Phantom of the Opera sweatshirts to passels of braying, fanny-packed Midwesterners.) The coat check season ran from November through the end of April. There was an agreed upon formula for the shifts: $50 was the base for lunch, $100 dinner; we’d tip out ten percent over the base towards rent. A monthly schedule was taped to the back of the door, and we were left to democratically pick our own shifts.
For the lunch shift I’d arrive at a quarter to noon, usually with a newspaper, my coffee and something to eat for lunch. Since we weren’t employees, we didn’t get shift meals, but occasionally the hostesses would take pity and send me back to the kitchen to get a baked potato, or salad, or bowl of pasta. I’d start by tidying up the narrow, rectangular room, picking up the stray plastic tags, seeing them scattered on the floor triggering my OCD, and then make sure the hangars were in numerical order, before sitting down to read until the doors opened. To save space, when coats came in we’d try to put two to a hanger, though the small puffy kids coats could send any careful arrangement sliding onto the floor. Furs were never doubled. And furs were checked. At times, there were so many crammed in the coat room it resembled a trapper’s lodge. The goal was to keep as many items as possible on the lower bar, rather than scale the rickety ladder to hang coats on the second tier like a deranged spider monkey, a necessity during dinner shifts and parties.
There was a strained, yet symbiotic, relationship between the coat check closet and the hostess stand. The hostesses held our fates as they were the ones who steered diners towards us while they waited to be seated. But if we left early, they’d take care of the remaining coats and pocket a few extra bucks themselves. I endeared myself to the management by being something of an anomaly: showing up on time, being efficient and quiet, and staying out of the drama that is the restaurant industry. Most of the servers were also actors or dancers, and being both servers and actors, inveterate drunks and night owls. Not that I’m casting aspersions, I just know the smell of my own. Though the coat check was our territory, or annexed land, our fiefdom, the servers often stored their belongings there (contrary to the restaurant’s edict), using our hangers and our nooks for storage. Not to mention the constant coming in and out to change the muzak CDs — a war of attrition between the more opinionated waiters on what constituted better mood music for dining. Management being management, they could not help but try to make sure our little dominion was orderly. One, we’ll call him Gary, diminutive and authoritative, would peer over the dutch door, pointing his stubby fingers at things for me to straighten up. One time, around the holidays, he offhandedly told me I wasn’t doing my job, whether he was joking I couldn’t tell. I felt my face burn. I thought to myself, “I’m not on your payroll, why don’t you micromanage the two giggling girls twirling their hair at the hostess station.” It seems I’d forgotten to plug in the cord that illuminated the Christmas lights around the lobby. I jammed the prong into the socket and went about making busy work for myself to avoid him. He continued to needle me with his little asides about tidiness until the one time he was standing outside the door and farted, audibly, though neither of us acknowledged it. From that moment on his little Napoleon schtick held no sway with me.
It was only after a week working there that I began to teeter towards full scale misanthropy, rather than just skate around its edge like I usually did. It took all of a month before everyone milling about in the lobby looked like they had bright, cartoony dollar signs floating over their heads Being located at a nexus of Times Square, Radio City, and a slew of midtown office buildings and hotels, our customer base was a melange older locals, business men at lunch meetings toting briefcases and overcoats, and tourists, most with children, laden with overstuffed bags from the Christmas Spectacular or the Build-A-Bear workshop.
It was standard procedure to periodically empty the till, as to appear less fortunate on good days, just as one of the first thing to do on arrival was to sweeten the pot by adding a lone dollar, an enticement of sorts. It was imperative to remove all fives, tens and twenties on the rare occasion they landed the jar, lest a greedy patron filch one, which I was told was a distinct possibility. It was amusing to watch the uncertainty of some of the tourists, wide-eyed Southern moms usually, who would get nervous when the hostess suggested they check their coat, unaccustomed as they were to even wearing one, much less surrendering it to a stranger in a dimly lit hole. Others, usually stingy, brittle ladies of a certain age with lacquered hair, would complain of a chill and, clutching their lapels closed, opt to wear theirs to their table. The unspoken but universally understood fee was a dollar per item. Items which could consists of any of the following: coats, hats, strollers, wheelchairs, umbrellas, laptops, briefcases, backpacks, and American Girl dolls. If someone wanted to check a prosthetic limb I wouldn’t have blinked, but if they didn’t tip I’d curse them under my breath for the rest of the day. You just can’t expect someone to hold a plastic leg without recompense. Then there were those who wouldn’t tip no matter what, who would dig in their pockets or purses, fanning their wallets, enacting an elaborate pantomime before shrugging and apologizing. Or worse, they’d wave a twenty or fifty in my face and say the didn’t have change, blithely skipping off with their camel hair coat. Never mind I could usually break the bill myself or get change from the bar. I began to spot these patrons the way a card sharp can read the tells of novice poker players — I could make a cheap skate the moment they flopped their winter wear into my waiting arms.
The coat check staff kept a “vent book,” a journal to air our grievances, hastily scribbled rants or if time permitted, miniature essays cataloging the slights and injustices of the diners. The lone penny taped to one of the pages — the actual full tip someone had the gall to toss into the jar — articulated a frustrated disbelief that words alone could not express.
Holidays are a miserable time to work in the service industry — the forced merriment, underscored by Christmas Carols playing on an endless loop. I took the New Year’s Eve shift that year, working from the mid-afternoon until well after 1AM, when the last drunk was ejected out into the cold. I ended up walking out with over 500 dollars in tips. I then rushed to a friend’s apt. in Hell’s Kitchen and drank myself blind until the wee hours of the morning.
Compounding my growing bitterness at my station, my shift partner, Lisa, we’ll say, was having a rough time through no fault of her own. She was plagued by illness, the death of her elderly dog, and other outside impediments, meaning I picked up a fair amount of her shifts. And except for a few swings who filled in when needed, I was the only guy. I think it created a dissonance to see me there, with these boozy businessman acting as if they were straight out of 1950s, sporting a paunchy midriff and a stained tie, living somewhere upstate or in the hinterlands of New Jersey, sauntering over after too many scotches on account at lunch, ready to flirt, to make the girl work for the dollar, perhaps pinch her cheek like he was a high roller at the Stork Club, only to be confronted by me, with my short, cropped hair and maybe a hint of stubble. What was once the provenance of plucky young lasses, living in women’s hotels and trying make their way in the Big Apple, was now equal opportunity. There is a myth that surrounds the actress Gretchen Mol, that she was working coat check when she was plucked from obscurity by an agent who proclaimed her the Next Big Thing. It was untrue of course, but the machinery needs to concoct these tales, to perpetuate the idea of the hand of fate interceding, taking a pert young dreamer from anonymity to stardom. I had no such illusions. This was not Schwab’s Drug Store and the industry folk who may have dined at the restaurant were there only for the steak, not to give an aspiring thespian a break. (Tyne Daly was ever so polite, Patti LuPone loved her cocktails, and Matthew Broderick checked a ratty old JanSport backpack.) Besides I’d pretty much given up acting by this point. This job was supposed to be a placeholder until I figured out my next move. Whatever that might be.
Towards the end of February, the panic attacks started. I didn’t know what was happening at first. I’d start to have trouble breathing if I had to stay later than my allotted time. I’d feel my throat begin to close up and I’d have to get up and pace, counting the remaining items over and over, touching each coat like an obsessive compulsive garmento. I looked at the clock constantly. We had to stay until relief from what was the Holiday Season, Thanksgiving through New Year’s, but after that we could leave providing there were less than say, five coats. The hostesses would cover those. It was turning out to be a mild winter with very few snowstorms. Warmer temps and less snow and rain meant less accoutrement, which meant less tips. I was more dependent on the weather than a farmer. I thought briefly I should pick up an almanac and use it to divine which shifts would be the coldest or wettest.
With the first blush of spring the temperatures were up and I was barely pulling in thirty bucks a lunch, and the rest of the staff were less than eager to relinquish dinner shifts or call in back up for parties. I was now finishing the entire New York Times in one shift, even the sections I had no interest in, like Business. By the end of the season, I felt like I had “stripper face” — the gaunt, pursed visage and the beady eyes that come from knowing your livelihood is dependent on grubby cash from strangers for services rendered. If temperatures were predicted to be above sixty degrees, we had the option to call in and check with management to see if we’d be needed. It was both a relief and a disappointment: I had that day free, but without revenue. The panic attacks had lessened, replaced by an existential ennui. I spent my free moments there pondering the economics of self-worth. I thought about seeing shrink but I was broke. I fantasized about walking away, but I had given my word I’d work until the end of the season. So I rode it out, until, finally, there were no more afternoons spent doling out numbered tags with the expectation of remuneration. But then, I had to find another gig.