What I’ve Learned: Men away from home at trade conventions…are awful. I thought about making that sentence less definitive, like saying “can be awful,” but no. I said it right. They are awful.
In college, I was a cocktail waitress at the Blue Max lounge in the basement of the Hyatt in Nashville, Tennessee. I thought nothing about applying for the job. I had been waiting tables since I was about 14. First, along with about every other Bishop Mac high schooler (shout out to Peach and all sixty-eleven Devine sisters), at the illustrious, excellent and sadly now-defunct Redwood Inn off highway 57 in Kankakee, Illinois (best food ever). Then at what we called The Dearborn Diner in Dearborn Square in K3.
So I had the experience and never thought about any obstacles, but apparently it was a big deal, my working there. It wasn’t codified into law, certainly, but at the time, the Hyatt had only one other black waitress. Another Fiskite who worked in the spinning restaurant at the top of the hotel. I can’t remember her name, but I do remember she was beautiful. I wanted to work there in the spinning restaurant.
I got the job in The Blue Max. The Hyatt was strict about its rules. You couldn’t come to work dressed in uniform. You had to change in the locker rooms hidden away in the bowels of the building, and you had to take a special elevator so that it seemed you appeared solely to service the patrons of the hotel. You couldn’t utilize the restaurants or bars, even on your time off. You punched a time clock and if you were late more than three times, you were given a come-to-Jesus talking-to by the General Manager OF THE HOTEL!!!! and the fourth time, you were dismissed. You had to be at work an hour early for setup for which you did not get paid and the day was cut up into two four-hour shifts separated by a three-hour “lunch.” I didn’t tell my mom that last part because as a Union Woman ‘Til I DIE, she’d have called the TN Labor Commission.
It was a big-time money-making job. The first night, I made $120. Big big money in 1976. I made more than my share of the rent in one night, even after tipping the busboys and bartender. Long before Demi had her indecent proposal, I came home, threw the money on the bed and rolled around in it.
The manager of The Blue Max was this cocktail lounge pimp named Luigi Fonseca. He was short, dictatorial, wore cheap three-piece suits, had usual suspect friends who lurked about, and an annoying habit of pinching the waitresses’ cheeks. The lounge didn’t have a bar to sit at; only one back bar. The floor was expansive and since I told Luigi that if he reached up and pinched my cheek one more time, I was going to tell management, my section was usually at the far end. Meh. No matter. I was in good shape. Glaring at that little troll was worth it.
The Blue Max had an assortment of musical acts that were various incarnations of The Fabulous Baker Boys Featuring Susie Diamond. Solid bands not going much further. Every once and again, though, there’d be someone special. I could swear I saw Oleta Adams there but Wikipedia says she didn’t begin in earnest until the 80s. I never made big money the nights Someone Special was there because people were listening instead of drinking. And drinking people macking to Jack Jones knockoffs spend money.
The Blue Max uniform was this low-cut bustier short skirted thingy open in the back to show the petticoat of ruffles barely covering your butt. I have to say this again. One hundred and twenty dollars my first night.
The other waitresses were from all walks. Single mothers, Vanderbilt coeds slumming. But by God, they were a fun and vile group. There’s nothing like a bunch of women at the back bar thinking up profane names for drinks. I still have to think before ordering a Penis Colossus.
During the week, The Blue Max patrons were usually couples, people out on dates, individuals traveling on business. But hooo boy, the weekends. The weekends were filled with men at professional and trade organizations’ conventions bustin’ loose from the old ball and chain, emboldened by their equally liberated compatriots and old school expense account liquor. So many drunken hands exploring the origins of the ruffles. Drunken insinuations.
“My God, you’re beautiful for a…what are you calling yourself now…? Colored…? Negro…? Black girl?” Room keys.
And here’s the sweeping generalization of the premise of my What I’ve learned.
The plumbers, particularly the ones from Boston, were more demonstrative than the accountants, but there’s nothing more profane than an accountant tryna get laid with a weak rap. The lawyers were smoother than the electricians, but the electricians wasted absolutely no time with veiled come-ons preferring to look you in the eye stating their desires…which, though easily parried, was strangely appreciated. The doctors just assumed that a blow job came along with the Glenlivet, that’s why they were leaning back in their chairs, and had great difficulty understanding, “No thank you.” I got cornered in a hallway outside The Blue Max by an insistent OB/GYN asserting that he…ummm…knew me better than I knew myself. I was barely rescued by that pimp Luigi. Barely, because it seemed that if Luigi had his way, it would have been okay as long as he could watch. I despised Luigi. Still do.
So yeah, the behavior of men believing they are safe and righteous in their awfulness is…awful.
But then again, $120 my first night.
My uncle Conrad (not really an uncle, but a lifelong friend of my mom’s) was an investor in Playboy from the beginning and one of its first key holders. I cannot for the life of me remember how Uncle Conrad managed to get two little girls into The Playboy Club for music, drinks and dinner, but he did. Part of it was that back in ’63, the culture wasn’t so concerned that debauchery and vice would scar children for life.
Hell, back then, if you were a kid, it was survival of the fittest, pal. It was concrete playgrounds, riding your bike and skates unencumbered by helmets and knee pads, dabs of mercurochrome hours after the skinned knee, measles, chicken pox, and mumps. You better suck it up, junior, if you want to live. And hey! I was there and I’m not scarred [she says as she sits alone writing at 5:00 in the morning…manless…childless…mildly distrusting of anything anyone says, particularly if it’s got a penis…but without a drinking or drug problem, so there’s that]. (Ed. note: That’s pretty good.)
So, I can’t remember how we got into the Playboy Club but I do remember what I was wearing: my red dress with the soft crinoline petticoat that made the skirt stand out just a bit and swish a lot when I walked, with the black velvet suspenders that had embroidery on them, my black patent leather Mary Janes, new white socks with the really pretty lace around the edges, white gloves and my headband hat and black patent-leather handbag. Yeah. I was decked. The memory starts there, sitting at a semi-circular banquette, my sister and I in the interior and my mom and Uncle Conrad on the ends facing each other. The place was packed. Jazz was playing. My mom and Uncle Conrad were snapping their fingers. Smoke curled from the cigarettes that EVERYONE had, ladies daintily and men closing one eye as the smoke snaked toward their face. And everyone was sipping on a cocktail.
It was loud in the way that a flock of geese is loud. One big conversation; nothing individual. What I imagine Twitter would be if all those quips were given voice. And then…out of the crowd of people crushing to connect to the person next to them in some semi-meaningful way, strode this Amazon in a shiny bunny suit. The famous ears were molded in a configuration that could only be read as “What? Me? Sexy?” Her hair was long and wet-set within an inch of its life, huge strands curling over her décolletage in an incredibly demure fashion.
As she stood at our table, her tray perched on her fingertips cantilevered by her elbow on her hip, every tooth showing in a huge smile, she said just the right thing. “Oh, my goodness. What lovely little girls!”
My mom ordered her Johnnie Walker. Uncle Conrad the same. And she asked my sister and me what we would like. I wanted a Johnnie Walker so I could be part of this huge swing going on, but settled for a Shirley Temple.
And she walked away, bunny tail switching. My Uncle Conrad, one of those 1960s bachelors whose raison d’etre was to beat his last high score, sucked in his breath with “aww sookie sookie now” as he watched the tail bounce away. My mom, whose narrow frame would have never filled the space between her flesh and that boned and structured exoskeleton the bunny rocked, was amused and they started cracking on each other in the way old friends do.
But me? I listened and understood about half of what they were talking about. I looked around and felt the vibe of excitement and abandon. I listened to the music and recognized the piece, something by Ramsey Lewis, maybe. Or Cannonball Adderley. Knowing because of the music in our house. I swung my legs under the table because it was really all too awesome.
In the movie An Education there’s a scene where the heroine is at a club with her bounder of a boyfriend and his friends. It’s her first time out as a grown-up. The excitement of it all and what her future could be fills her in some way. That’s how I felt.
And when the bunny came back with our drinks and later, our dinner, and did the infamous “Bunny Dip” to put it all before us, I wanted to be part of this party.
Sometimes, writing my early morning WILs (“What I’ve Learneds”), I get lost in reverie about how sexual politics works. Not so much now (though I do have a minute or two left–when a 29-year-old tells you, at 56, that you have a beautiful body, dammit, you believe him…but that’s another story), but when I was younger, I felt the power of setting all of my considerable amount of woman at someone and the world, really, and watch the reaction…not to the actual me. It’s a heady feeling. Yet demoralizing. And empowering. And empty. And I wonder if it started there. At the Chicago Playboy Club in the 60s. When I knew that all I wanted to be when I grew up…was her.