Nostalgia, circa 1960’s

The Wikipedia tour guide spiel

It would be my time at the Beauty Pageant metropolis that summer. We start at the majestic Marlborough Blenheim Hotel at Nineteen Hundred Pacific Avenue and Boardwalk. Named after Blenheim, home of Winston Churchill’s grandfather (Duke of Marlborough), when it was built in 1906 “The Blenheim” was the largest reinforced concrete hotel in the world. Churchill would eventually sleep there. During World War II, American troops stationed there to protect the Jersey Shore from German submarine threats. The walls and ceilings of the grand hotel would provide a backdrop for Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, and Ellen Burstyn in The King of Marvin Gardens, and later for Hillary Whitney and CC. Bloom in the movie Beaches. Despite a brief preservationists’ stay-of-execution, the hotel ceased to be in 1978, cause of death: programmed demolition.

Position description and training

It was my privilege to provide room-service at the Marlborough Blenheim every morning from 6-11 AM and from 12-5 PM to see to it that towels and bathrobes and pool lounges were properly and courteously provided to the very guests I might have fed earlier those mornings. For a pimply 18-year-old, wearing a white coat, black bowtie, and black chinos was a distinguished distinction. I trained with Mr. Don Dewrran (name changed to protect the son-of-a–) on the finer points of becoming a five-star waiter. White coat and white shirt had to be spotless and wrinkleless. Black socks black shoes black tie, black pen. No mutton-chop sideburns, no hair below the neckline or over the ears. I mastered the Sterno food warmer and the rolling serving table. Extra cloth napkins were a must and all the silverware, serving plates, and glassware had to be pre-checked for water spots or food residue. Crosscheck that your order is complete. Make sure you got the right room number and the name of the guests… Two soft knocks about two thirds up on just centre of the guest’s door, with a crisply enunciated yet polite “Room service” pronouncement; count to 10, if no answer, knock again, repeat times two. If no answer, walk to end-of-hallway phone and call the room discreetly. Good morning, room service. I am here to serve your breakfast. Everything was by protocol.

 “Strive to be polite to the guests, but do not transcend butler modicum. These are not your friends. They are paying guests and you are here to serve them.” Don Dewrran was a master of discipline, appearance and execution. He wore an authoritative, dark blue suit and bowtie every day. Look people in the eye when you speak. The surgical precision with which he organized a table setting, how he spoke to hotel guests, his panache as he rolled the serving table into a guest room was like a masterful theatrical performance. I trust you will enjoy your meal, madam. Should you have any further need, we are but a call away. 

One day when I tried to pick up a water glass by the top rim, Dewrran swatted my hand in chastisement, in the presence of a guest. I felt like I really disappointed him. Although horribly embarrassed, I reasoned that he had probably devoted his life and soul to the art of being a professional waiter, and it was not my intention to follow in his footsteps or fervency, so I took no offense. He was the Head Waiter, after all.

What the Harr-Ass meant

When Mr. Don Dewrran would instruct me, he habitually planted the palm of his hand on my shoulder, fingers and thumb kneading me as he spoke. I didn’t think much of it until one day, several weeks later, he nonchalantly placed his hand on my buttock and squeezed, at which point the “mentoring process” became crisp and clear. This brought my apprenticeship to a hard halt. I was angry and wanted to stuff his damned bowtie up his nostrils. Yet he made me feel powerless. The reality was that the hotel paid us seventy cents an hour, expected servers to make up the rest in tips, and we were offered room (in the un-air conditioned fifth floor attic of an older section of the hotel, a row of twelve, four-bed rooms down a linoleum-lined hallway, one shower, two toilets) and board (powdered eggs, day-old Wonderbread, Tang, not orange juice…). Most other hotels had hired for the season, so trying to find a job elsewhere and affording room and board was not possible. I had assured my parents I was old enough to be off on my own and they reluctantly let me out of the nest for the summer. Packing up and quitting would have meant accepting defeat and I was not prepared to surrender. The sexual harassment rules back then consisted of: silence, suck it up – or leave. I kept the silence. I didn’t suck it up. And I didn’t leave.

I had to grow up in a hurry. I decided I wouldn’t allow Don Dewrran’s scummy predator hands within a yard of me for the remainder of the summer, and opted instead to apply the same emotional jiu-jitsu he so much preached: butlerd decorum with a splash of respectful avoidance and polite aloofness. It worked. He left me alone.

Windows on the world

Working room service afforded me a view into a marvellously unique slice of life. A successful room service waiter had to develop diplomacy, discreetness, and good listening skills. There was a fine line not to be crossed, however. They were the customers, not our friends. There were the New York executives nursing hangovers after a long “business” weekend. There were ménages-a-trois and sometimes a-quatre. There were lonely widows from Canada. Middle-aged paunchy guys in paisley silk pyjamas wearing toupees and escorted by young blondes. There was serving soft boiled eggs to Cyd Charisse just the way she wanted them. (I would not learn till twenty years later she was the actress with the sexy legs in Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly back when I was just a toddler!)  I met a “Major Kelso” whom, as I poured his morning coffee, told me about all the Unidentified Flying Object sightings he investigated while in the Air Force. Then there was Miss Kansas, staying courtesy of the Marlborough Blenheim for the Miss America Pageant. When she opened her door, she greeted me in a sheer mint-green nightgown…it was difficult to not transcend butler etiquette.   

Breathing in the salty breezes

The poolside and terrace coffee shop work were altogether different. No Mr. Dewrran to deal with. White Bermuda shorts, white tee-shirt, white sneakers, white visor, sunglasses, no butler etiquette. I mostly worked with college students who were off for the summer and came to Atlantic City to surf, smoke pot, and get laid. They also served hamburgers, BLTs, and vanilla shakes and handed out paper napkins and straws at the poolside terrace. Then there was Cindy the waitress with the sweet Georgia accent, for whom I translated poolside orders from a potpourri of intolerant New Yawkers and Joisy mobsters, desperate to figure out what she meant when she said “Y’all, yeller muster, po-boys”and “sody-pop.”

Necessity as the mother of invention

We ran out of suntan oil at the poolside concession almost every day. The pool supervisor, who was generally preoccupied by important administrative matters such as tanned buttocks, breasts, bikini bottoms, and preening his hair, kept “ordering it but the customers never heard “we’ve got that in stock.”  These are not your friends. They are paying customers. You are here to serve them. And serve we did. We ran the pool facility, cleaned the filters, arranged the chaise lounges and pool umbrellas, washed, dried and folded the beach towels. We hustled for tips. We scoured the beach at days’ end for empty C-tone flasks, washed and dried them, filled them with baby oil, put five drops of iodine in each flask, shook them, re-capped them, and re-stocked the pool concessionary. The home-made “suntan oil” sold like pizza-by-the-slice at De Palma’s, and the guests loved their almost instant copper sheen! The profits from these sales went to pay for the raw materials and for the labour involved in formulation, packaging, and presentation of the product. We split the profits to help defray after-hours entertainment. I was surprised that no one using the product ever remarked that some of their towels were stained. In retrospect, we were fortunate that none of the guests we served that summer were iodine-allergic!

You get what you need

One of the waiters at poolside was a rather good-looking, “neck-optional, six-pack-kind-of-guy” that all the prepubescent daughters, grand-daughters or “lady friends” of guests seemed to flock to. He was a cocky guy, a braggadocio about being a “Nittany Lion” but a lousy waiter. Consequently, guests complained about his service or lack thereof. One hears that in restaurants, when customers complain about the food, send it back to the kitchen, or diss the waiter, all kinds of putative retribution occurs on the part of the staff backstage. Our Nittany Lion was notorious for seeking vengeance on his aggrieved customers. The nature and despicability of his actions were such that they will not merit further description other than suffice to say, it happened. But we were all afraid to tell on him. He always tried to outhustle the rest of us. Because we pooled and split tips, his antics ultimately hurt our collective earnings.

So what did some of us do “backstage” to make it on seventy cents an hour, drinking Tang and eating powdered eggs for breakfast? We hustled and grovelled for tips whenever possible. We always served half a glass of the milkshake, leaving the rest in the metal container, or poured part of the bottle of sody-pop into the glass, hoping the customers might not consume the remainder, which is when the bus boy would cull the untouched food or drinks and we would have “walk-through” gorging sessions in the prep area in back. We also reclaimed unclaimed items in Lost and Found. Sunglasses with un-scratched lenses were washed, cleaned with window cleaner, wiped to a shine, and repurposed for special clearance at poolside.

Sophomoric interludes and other events of historical import

Atlantic City being the first place of being on my own was the beginning of what unbeknownst to me, would be a Duddy-Kravitz-apprenticeship type of prequel to adulthood. That summer, Brenda, one of my co-workers took me on a date on the Steel Pier to see a horse plunge forty feet into the Atlantic Ocean while a disbelieving crowd cheered on. I bought us burgers and fries. That night she showed me the dunes at Brigantine Bay. It was the summer of hearing the Temptations’ “My Girl” on WMID-AM and of never being able to let go of the infectious “talk about my girl…” refrain for the rest of the day. On another occasion, it was the one-in-a-million night a non-pugilist teenage bystander like me winding through the crowd would inadvertently bump into the chest of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on the Boardwalk, corner of Massachusetts, only to be immediately swarmed and pushed away by four impeccably bow-tied, suited and eyeglass-framed, tall black bodyguards. On weekends I pitched in for one of my buddies jockeying hotel guests’ cars to-and-fro the parking garage. I got to drive mostly black Jaguars, Cadillacs, Mercedes Benz’s and Lincoln Continentals. In some the aromas of cigar smoke, alcohol, or perfume still lingered in the leather upholstery. There were often cigarette ashes and napkins with lipstick on the floor, and calling cards on the dashboards. What stories these cars might have told if they could only speak…

Atlantic City was the place where the rise of “Casinopolis” from the ashes of Elizabeth Magie, Charles Darrow, and Parker Brothers’ Monopoly happened, where saltwater taffy first emerged. It was where Liberace’s candelabra flickered atop his piano during headliners packed with screaming middle aged-women. It would later be the macabre playground for the Eastbound Strangler, and the bullseye for Hurricane Sandy. These happenings might have been the stuff lysergic acid hallucinations are made of. But they weren’t hallucinations.

Who had the crystal ball?

Gamal, one of the last diving horses of the Steel Pier, was rescued by a kind soul and he spent the rest of his life in quiet green splendour in retirement till his death in 1989. Years later, some of us would go on to lobby for better wages for workers, others advocated for laws against sexual harassment at the workplace. Some carried the Olympic Torch into a stadium. Some went on to learn about the mechanisms of iodine allergy. Others were carried into federal prisons. Some died of AIDS. Others received academy awards or went platinum on the soul charts. Yet, others would fight for animal rights. The Boss would write and sing a song to tell the story of the place. Some would gamble for the presidency, hit the jackpot, and transform DC from swamp to lying-cheating-carpet-bagging wonderland. But for someone, like me, being content to just lay back and hear the lilting harmonies of “My Girl”,recalling the sting of sunburns, the washing down of powdered eggs with Tang, the smelling of the smell of burning marijuana in unanticipated places will do.

I still get chills and suffer angst every time I watch the video of my Marlborough Blenheim implode and crumble to dust online. I think about the lobby and the tapestries beneath the rubble. And I smell the Sterno. And I imagine the room numbers as I pushed my serving cart in the hallways. And, oh, Miss Kansas who didn’t win The Pageant that year, but left a lasting impression. List me as just another fool for nostalgia for a time when things seemed to move so fast and yet life felt so deliciously slow and inconsequential.

Ricardo Gonzalez-Rothi

An academic physician and scientific writer, Ricardo has had his fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry featured in the U.S. and in the U.K., in Acentos Review, The Real Story UK, Hispanic Culture Review, Biostories, Foliate Oak, Lunch Ticket, The Bellingham Review, Molotov Cocktail, Star 82 Review, Wingless Dreamer and others. Born and raised in Cuba, he came to the United States as a refugee in his teens and now resides in North Florida.

An academic physician and scientific writer, Ricardo has had his fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry featured in the U.S. and in the U.K., in Acentos Review, The Real Story UK, Hispanic Culture Review, Biostories, Foliate Oak, Lunch Ticket, The Bellingham Review, Molotov Cocktail, Star 82 Review, Wingless Dreamer and others. Born and raised in Cuba, he came to the United States as a refugee in his teens and now resides in North Florida.

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