Drooling on the Pillow

Thursday, April 06, 2006

When I Smell a Cigar, I Think of the St. Moritz 

As a young actor I did my share of waiting tables. You have to. The money's good, the hours are flexible and the labor pool is constantly churning.

Unfortunately, I wasn't very good at it. I wasn't a nightmare waiter. I didn't add unauthorized fluids to low tippers' coffee and I never (deliberately) humiliated anyone in front of their wives. (Both of these I've seen done numerous times. Just saying.) As long as things stayed fairly calm I was pleasant and nervously efficient. But you make your money when things get crazy and when three tables walked into my section at once, everything would go white. I just never learned to organize my brain to keep more than two or three balls in the air at once. Consequently, I never lasted too long anywhere.

That left two ways to make money: temping, which I hated, and desk clerking in hotels, which I loved.

I worked the midnight desk at a number of mid-town hotels, but my first job was my favorite -- midnight to eight at the St. Moritz on Central Park South.

The St. Moritz (now the Ritz-Carlton) was the "bargain" hotel on the street, but it was a very expensive street and we got quite a few of your scruffier celebrities. It wasn't a hard job. Check a few people in, check a few people out, call the engineers for minor problems, wake up the superintendent for major problems, sell a few souvenirs, set up the desk for the day shift, hand out keys and mail. I ran a switchboard that was very much like the one to the right, but everything that I had to do could be done in a couple hours. The rest of the time I listened to the brand new country station in New York, I studied my lines if I was in a show, I wrote, I read, I shot the shit with whoever wandered in off the street. I'd help myself to a Macanudo from the cigar vault every once in awhile. Pretty sweet. I was one of the first people in the world to read the New York papers and it was there that I saw on the front page of the Times that the girl from high school who took me all the way for the first time in the back seat of a Rambler had grown up to be a terrorist who had bombed the Bank of America. Who knew? The last I saw her she was heading off to Bennington.

All security matters were handled by the house dick, an ex-NYPD detective named Ruby. By which I mean that Ruby had understandings with the local entrepreneurs and girls could only go upstairs with his approval. He would sit in the coffee shop across the lobby and if a young woman came in saying she was here to see Mr. So-and-so, he would either fold his paper and slap his thigh or he wouldn't. How I dealt with disappointed applicants was up to me, but it was Ruby's responsibility to see to it that the St. Moritz didn't turn into the 9th Avenue Holiday Inn while not unreasonably inconveniencing the clientele.

The other two people working those hours were the night auditor and the cashier, a damp young man who kept showing me his wedding ring. I can't remember the night auditor's name, but he was a concentration camp survivor, very old, but funny, waspish. Not very forthcoming, though. If you asked him any question at all not directly related to work his answer was always the same: "My name is Rabbit. I know nothing."

Harry Helmsley lived upstairs and I gave him his mail every morning. Never saw Leona, though. Sam Levine, the original Nathan Detroit, lived there and would roll in around two most mornings and sit in the coffee shop with Ruby smoking cigars. They were sometimes joined by Erroll Garner, a regular.

Probably the most dramatic night was when I checked in Diana Ross and her husband, some guy named Silberstein who was a music producer, I think, in one suite and John Cassavetes with his whole posse in an adjoining suite. Things got pretty merry up there and I started getting complaints and had to call up several times to ask them to keep it down. Then Mr. Helmsley called down and I had to get more insistent. The next thing I know there's a very drunken Cassevetes downstairs waiving a cigar in my face and trying to climb over the desk at me. He's being held back by Peter Falk who eventually drags him back across the lobby to the elevator. Things apparently quiet down upstairs and half an hour later Falk calls down to apologize to me. I thought that was pretty nice. Years later The Goddess did a show with him and her opinion is that he's a very nice guy, but every bit as strange and wiley as he appeared in Columbo.

I left to do a show in Kentucky, came back for a couple months, but when I left to do another show in North Carolina they told me I wouldn't have a job when I got back. I wasn't too worried. There's never a shortage of hotels in New York and they're all open all night.
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