I am standing on St. Charles Avenue, uptown New Orleans, a few months out of college and a few weeks into summer. It’s already extremely hot in the full sun. Which is where I have to stand: in the sun. Next to the valet box. All day.
I took a valet-parking job at Copeland’s restaurant to shake off my college-loan laziness, to climb out of the educational womb and stand on my own two feet as a moneymaking, career-pursuing adult. Educated in the useless and inapplicable field of philosophy, I quickly deduced that my degree looked slightly comical on my already light-on-the-work-experience résumé. Perhaps it was even off-putting. To a certain eye, hell, it probably made me look like a prick. But I had to start somewhere. So I started at the bottom.
This job is not good enough. Why not? First of all, I’m parking cars. Second, we have to turn in all our tips. I imagined I’d get off the first night with a pocketful of ones to take to the French Quarter, not that you need much money in New Orleans. As it turned out, however, attached to the valet box that houses the car keys, like a wooden tumor, is a separate slot for us to jimmy in our folded tips. All of them. Attached to that box, like a human tumor, is the shift boss, back in the shade at a vacant umbrella table, sipping a noontime drink that most definitely contains alcohol. It also has chipped ice and is sweating in his hand, sweating in a much different way than I am sweating.
A lunch customer hands me his ticket. I find his keys easily in the box and take off at an impressive run. His car is not easy to find: the valet company has not rented a nearby lot to service the restaurant, and so we, certainly unbeknownst to the clients, just drive around the area and try to parallel park the vehicles as close to Copeland’s as possible. Once the vehicle has been parked, it’s up to the valet to draw a silly treasure map on the back of the ticket so another valet can locate it. My co-worker Chip draws every treasure map like this: #*. Every single one. And finding the car is never easy. But I bring it back and slide up to the curb, holding the door open, the car’s AC pouring like ice water on my feet, and receive a neatly folded bill from the customer.
“It’s damn hot out here, son. This is for you running like that.”
It’s a twenty-dollar bill. Chip, now back and posted by the valet box, holds a salute against his brow, trying like hell to make out the bill. I walk up to the tip tumor and start to wiggle it in when Chip says, “No. No! What are you doing, Tommy? Don’t you keep a dollar handy to swap it out with? Please don’t put that twenty in there. Please. It’s for you. That dude told you it was for you.”
“Actually, it’s for Copeland’s Valet Parking Corporation,” the human tumor says, setting his drink down wet on the valet box.
“Are you seriously drinking a mudslide?” Chip asks.
I use a car key from the box to vanish the bill completely and post up next to Chip. Back in the sun. The shift boss sinks back into the shade.
“I am way too old for this. Sharing tips? Forty percent to management leaves 60 percent of the tips to us, divided over twenty runners, on a check, with taxes taken out, and guess who’s running the math, guess who’s counting up the tips? A grown man drinking a goddamn mudslide.” He must have been talking to himself previously because now Chip turned to me: “You think he’s gonna turn in that twenty? Or just keep it for himself? We never get good tips out here. You know what I heard? There’s a new hotel opening up downtown. You heard that? It’s supposed to be luxury.” He said the word as if it were mystical and perhaps too good for his own tongue: “luxury.” “And they’re looking for parkers. Copeland’s customers don’t tip for shit.”
Chip, with a wide smile, accepts a claim check from an emerging lunch customer and locates the keys in the box. “It’s a fucking Mazda, dude,” he says quietly to me. And then to the customer: “You won’t be long in this heat, sir! I will run for your vehicle!” Then he takes off sprinting: it’s almost vaudevillian how he tears ass around the corner, his body at full tilt.
Chip cruises the Mazda back in record time, gliding up to the curb. “AC running and classic rock on low for you, sir.”
The customer drops something into his cupped palm. Something that makes Chip’s face contort.
Chip stands upright, essentially blocking the customer from entering his own vehicle, and spreads open his palm to let the two-quarter tip flash in the sun.
With a voice strained and tight, as if he were suffering intense physical pain, he says, “Why, thank you so very much, sir.”
Then he pivots slightly and extends his hand, palm flat, quarters in the sun again.
Then he drop-kicks both coins. Kicks the shit out of them into the street.
They arc over the road and land on the rough grass of the neutral ground, settling in before a streetcar rocks by.
I can see the shock on the customer’s face—the confusion, the horror. Chip just walks off with determination, crossing St. Charles and onto the neutral ground. After picking the quarters out of the grass, he crosses the tracks to the far side of the street and starts bearing down Napoleon Avenue, toward Mid-City: the job, the restaurant, the shift boss, me, all of us in his rearview mirror.
I finished my shift. Then I took his advice about the hotel job.
Whether I knew it yet or not, it was one hell of an important moment for me, watching Chip snap at what seemed like such a minor affront, seeing that much emotion applied to a single low-quality tip. And then watching him bend down, fish the quarters out of the dirt, and take them with him. I didn’t understand any of it. Not yet.
Here we go.
Hotel orientation. Human resources pretty much hired everyone. Everyone who passed the drug test.
I passed, thank you.
Chip did not.
The River Hotel, connected to a brand known for luxury, known for being out of almost everyone’s price range, was being built right there on Chartres Street, in downtown New Orleans. It was three weeks from opening and still under construction. Yet they hired us all, tailored our uniforms, and started paying us. A week ago I was earning money and giving it to an idiot who pounds mudslides. Now I wasn’t even working, but I was collecting a check. A good check. And no one had even said the word “valet” yet.
Not that our new managers weren’t saying any words. Honestly, they couldn’t stop saying some words: “Service.” “Luxury.” “Honesty.” “Loyalty.” “Opulence.” And mid-length phrases such as “Customer Feedback” and “Anticipating Needs.” And then longer, million-dollar phrases like “Fifteen-Hundred-Thread-Count Egyptian Linen Duvet Covers.”
Management ran classes every day on service, administered in the completed conference rooms, the tables draped with what we assumed to be Egyptian fabric and adorned with iced carafes of water, which we poured into crystal goblets to wash down the huge piles of pastries they fed us. They were hell-bent on teaching us how to identify something called “a guest’s unmentioned needs.”
“A man needs his car, he don’t need to speak a word. Get that claim check out. Get that dollar out, feel me?”
That came from the back of class. I turned my head to get a look at who I assumed were to be my co-workers: three black guys not really adhering to the “business casual” mandate for these orientation classes.
“Tommy, can you give me an example of a guest’s unmentioned need?”
I wasn’t even wearing a name badge: these hospitality maniacs had actually learned everyone’s name.
“You can call me Trish. I’m the front office manager.”
“Well, ah, Trish . . .” That got a low laugh from the back of class. “Maybe they pull in a car, it’s dirty from the drive, and we could get it washed?”
“Wait up. You want I should drive the car back to my driveway in the Ninth Ward to wash it? Or bring in quarters from home?”
“Perry. You come to me anytime, and I’ll give you hotel money to wash a car, change a tire, or buy them a CD you know they’d like for the drive home. Anything you think of, you can come to me.”
The day before the grand opening the hotel closed off a block of Chartres Street (pronounced “Chart-ers,” by the way, completely disregarding the obvious Frenchness of the word; we also pronounce the street Calliope like “Cal-e-ope”; Burgundy comes out not like the color but “Ber-GUN-dy,” and just try to stutter out Tchoupitoulas Street or Natchitoches even close to correctly). We were collected into parade groups, our new managers holding up large, well-made signs indicating our departments. Front desk. Valet. Laundry. Sales and marketing. Bellmen. Doormen. Food and beverage. And housekeeping of course, by far the largest group, about 150 black ladies dressed as if they were going to a club. The valets hung together in a small clot, not saying much to each other, looking up at the finished, renovated hotel.
The vibe was celebratory and overwhelmingly positive. We were let in, one department after the other, and we hustled up a stairwell lined with managers clapping and cheering as if we were the goddamn New Orleans Saints. They threw confetti, smacked us on the back, and screamed in an orgy of goodwill and excitement. By the time we crested the third floor and poured into the grand banquet hall, every single one of us had huge, marvelously sincere smiles stuck hard on our faces. And we held those smiles as we took turns shaking the general manager’s hand, who, no shit, wore a crown of laurel leaves. As a joke, I suppose.
“I’m Charles Daniels. Please, call me Chuck.”
“All right, then, Chuck,” Perry said in front of me and waited while Mr. Daniels located the gold-plated name tag that read “Perry” from the banquet table beside him.
Mr. Daniels didn’t go so far as to pin on the name tag, anoint us, as it were. But we were in such a rapturous state during the event I believe we would have readily kneeled before him and let him pin it to our naked flesh.
And then there was an open bar. Not sure where they shipped in this opening team from; they certainly weren’t locals. Neither was I, but I’d spent my young life traveling, moving so often I’d learned the skill (and believe me it is an incredibly useful skill) of assimilating into any new culture, whatever that culture may be. I am a shape-shifter in that way. And as I approached my four-year anniversary in Louisiana, just about my longest stretch anywhere, New Orleans had already become the closest thing to a home I’d ever had. And the open bar was a nod to this town, a town that runs on alcohol, and much appreciated. This is a city where you can find drink specials on Christmas morning. Not that you could find me on Bourbon Street Christmas morning; I didn’t drink at the time. I stayed sober all through college while pursuing my degree and hadn’t had a drop since I was fifteen and used to take shots of Jack Daniel’s in my basement during school lunch. But an open bar in New Orleans? People got tore up. Housekeeping got tore up.
Now that it was revealed which department we fell into, we tended to group up for the party, getting to know each other.
“Dig this general manager. He look like a slave owner with that headpiece,” Walter said.
“Nah,” Perry said. “Chuck a cool motherfucker. You just enjoy that free drink you got,” and then he took a long finishing pull from his own bottle of Heineken.
Everyone was smiling. Everyone was friendly. Everyone had a name tag on. It was like a big crazy family, and we opened tomorrow. We were all in this together, and everyone in that banquet hall, after two weeks of service training, two full paychecks for nothing, couldn’t wait to unleash their skills on a real guest. The managers had whipped us into such a frenzy that if any actual guests had wandered into that party, we would have serviced them to death, mauled them, like ravenous service jackals.
Already the hotel had created the possibility of a home for me, a future. It seemed so glamorous, all the linens and chandeliers and sticky pastries. The hotel was beautiful, and I was honored to be a member of the opening team. It was at this very point I realized my life of constant relocation had led me to this nexus of relocation, this palace of the temporal where I could now stand still, the world moving around me, and, conversely, feel grounded. I studied Mr. Daniels as he circulated the party, all conversation politely cutting off when he unobtrusively joined a group. That was the position I wanted. That was a life I could own. And I distinctly felt, because this is exactly what they told us during orientation, that if I performed with dedication and dignity, took the tenets of luxury service to heart, hospitality would open herself up to me and I could find my life within the industry. I wanted to be king. It was possible to be king. I swore that day I’d be the general manager of my very own property.
This excitement carried over and crashed like a wave on the following day, the day the hotel opened. But before we were able to molest our first guest, we had to sit through the opening ceremony.
One thing about hotels: once they open, they never close.
I don’t mean they never go out of business; certainly they do. But the fact that a hotel could fail to be profitable astounds me. Why? The average cost to turn over a room, keep it operational per day, is between thirty and forty dollars. If you’re paying less than thirty dollars a night at a hotel/motel, I’d wager the cost to flip that room runs close to five dollars. Which makes me want to take a shower. At home. That forty-dollar turnover cost includes cleaning supplies, electricity, and hourly wage for housekeepers, minibar attendants, front desk agents (and all other employees needed to operate a room), as well as the cost of laundering the sheets. Everything. Compare that with an average room rate, and you can see why it’s a profitable business, one with a long history, going back to Mary and Joseph running up against a sold-out situation at the inn, forcing him to bed his pregnant wife in a dirty-ass manger.
The word “hotel” itself was appropriated from the French around 1765. Across the ocean, a hotel, or hôtel, referred not to public lodging but instead to a large government building, the house of a nobleman, or any such place where people gathered but no nightly accommodation was offered. America, at the time, was filled with grimy little inns and taverns, which provided beds for travelers and also functioned as a town’s shitty dive bar. Having a monopoly on the alcohol game was a boon, one given to tavern keepers in gratitude for putting up travelers, something no one wanted any part of. It wasn’t until George Washington decided to embark on the first presidential tour of his new kingdom that spotlights began to shine on these public houses of grossness. In order to present himself as a man of the people, he turned down offers to stay with associates and wealthy friends, instead lodging himself in tavern after tavern, sniffing at room after room, frowning at bed after bed. For the first time in American history, townships were ashamed of their manner of accommodating travelers. The country was unified and expanding. Something had to be done about our system of lodging.
So, in 1794, someone, some asshole, built the very first “hotel” in New York City: a 137-room job on Broadway, right there in lower Manhattan. It was the first structure built with the intention of being a “hotel,” a word that was quickly replacing the terms “inn” and “tavern,” even if it only meant that swarthy innkeepers were painting the word “Hotel” onto their crappy signs but still sloshing out the booze and making travelers sleep right next to each other in bug-ridden squalor. The first big hotels failed monetarily or burned to the ground or both. It wasn’t until railroad lines were getting stitched across America’s expanding fabric that hotels, big and small, began to prosper and offer people like me jobs.
So, profitability aside, what I am referring to here is not the fact that once a hotel opens it will never close (or be burned to the ground!) but that once we cut the ribbon on the hotel, once we opened the lobby doors, they never closed again. In fact, they unchained them because they were built without locks, as almost all hotel lobby doors are. Three o’clock in the morning—open. Christmas Eve, 3:00 a.m.—open. Blackout—open. World War Whatever—open (with a price hike).
The mayor was kind enough to attend the opening ceremony, going down the line of sharp-dressed employees and shaking hands (or giving elaborate daps, depending on ethnicity). And then in came the public, and there we stood, smiling, proud, ready. The locals poured into the Bistro Lounge, strolled through the lobby as if it were a museum of classical art, put handprints on fresh glass doors, and began to scuff, mark, and mar the pristine landscape, putting their asses in chairs, creasing and bending the leather, scraping and marking the cutlery as they bit down hard on steak-tipped forks.
For a long while at the valet stand, well, we didn’t have shit to do. We stood those first few hours, feet spread and planted at shoulder width, arms behind our backs with our hands clasped, as we were taught to stand. Then we began to shift on our feet. Then we began to talk quietly out of the sides of our mouths. Then to turn our heads and talk openly at a normal volume. Then to go to the back office to check our cell phones. Not Perry, though: he remained at his post, and the most he did was shake his head when everyone started to get restless.