Cathy's son was in trouble. It was hard to say what kind. Even though she would bring him up, she would seem to think better of it and quickly change the subject by offering me the leftovers and mistakes: flaky pastries, thick slices of chocolate cake, buttery dinner rolls and once a collapsed cheese souffle. I graciously accepted whatever she gave me, but later, eating alone in my apartment, I would think about Cathy and her son and wonder what the problem could be—mental illness? drugs? general shiftlessness? And this lead to thinking about my life, the decisions I was making, my mother, and whether or not she might be having similar worries as Cathy--I was pursuing an MFA in creative writing, and I could tell that my mother worried about my future earning potential.
This was late at night, long after the wedding party had gone home, and we had helped carry gifts down to mother of the bride's Mercedes that noiselessly idled in the semi-circular drive, after we had cleared the wine glasses and coffee cups, blew out the candles, bunched up the table cloths, pulled the chairs away and brushed the crumbs from the seats, after we had tipped the large round tables on to their sides and rolled them across the wide and cavernous Art Deco ballroom to stack them in the storage closet; or, when the storage closet filled up, through the labyrinthine servants' hallways, onto the freight elevator, and then slowly, groaning, down into the sub-basement where the boiler, when it was on, knocked and thrummed.
It was scary to do this alone, which sometimes happened because my co-workers, all younger than me and still undergraduates, would skip out early to make it to last call at Hemingway's or trudge further up the hill in their heels to the fraternity parties that would just be getting underway. It was hard to say no because I needed the money and wanted to keep this job, and staying late to help get the club ready for Monday's bridge party or meeting of the Executive Board kept me in the good graces of Mrs. Turner, the manager, who, like Cathy, had a disappointing son, whose name happened to be David. David claimed that he was «self-employed», and would come in on the weekends to help set up tables, bartend, and clean up after weddings. It was clear he didn't like me. He wore black high tops instead of the required dress shoes that held a shine. His white tuxedo shirt was stained. He had a mullet and a sparse goatee.
It was hard to say no to Mrs. Turner, too, because my co-workers, mostly young co-eds, wore tight-bodiced French Maid-esque uniforms with black hose underneath. Most of them had piercings, some you could see--lots of tongues and noses--and some only alluded to, and they carried themselves in a vivacious, confident and open way that young women have when around older men. They spoke openly of the parties they would be going to when they got off and often invited me, though they probably knew that I wouldn't accept because I was now a teaching assistant at the University and didn't want to run the risk of bumping into one of my students. They spoke openly of inattentive boyfriends, getting drunk and hooking up, and wanted to know what I thought. Despite the temptation, I walked home to my apartment many nights past house parties in full swing carrying a sack full of Cathy's delicious leftovers thinking about Sarah or Monica or Lucy or Roxanne, or some combination of all of them together and what they were doing at that moment.
Arriving home, I would find several messages on my answering machine from friends telling me about the parties going on that night, (this was pre-cell phone), or calling me from a bar payphone to tell me that they had left one party and were heading to another. Sitting there eating the leftovers of a opulent wedding, bone tired, looking out the window at the bar across the street, watching the young people come and go, I would calculate in my head the number of days that week I had devoted to working at the Club and how many writing. Work was winning.
Unlike Hemingway's Paris in which he had to intricately plan his walking routes to avoid the aromatic cafes and bakeries, and carts of succulent fruits and vegetables he could not afford, the little corridor of Pittsburgh that I walked everyday from my apartment on Melwood Ave to the University and then later the Club, featured a gas station, a school for blind children, a Unitarian church, and a series of leafy streets whose lower reaches, where I walked, were sunny and urban, but become progressively steeper, shadier, and private as you walked up. It was on this hillside where Annie Dillard learned the n-word.
The women of the club--did I mention the Club was women-only--yes, it was the sister club, if you will, to the Duquesne Club, the all-male club where, Business Week has noted "the captains of industry have swaggered" since its opening in 1873—the women of the club would often ask me to please be careful when walking back and forth between home and the Club, as they all lived in the suburbs and had a general impression of Pittsburgh has a dirty, lawless place.
Its motto, "non nobis solum, sed toti mundo"—"not for ourselves, but for the whole world," reflects its continuing commitment to women’s intellectual and social well being and service. According to the original charter of the Club, its purpose is to create an "organized center for women’s work, thought and action and the advancement of her interests and the promotion of science, literature and art."
Mrs. Turner was forever firing and losing employees because it was tough to find students who could be counted on to dress sharply, who could remember to always serve from the left and clear from the right, set a table for a four course meal, fix cocktails appropriate for women over 60, and, lastly, if necessary, make small talk. I could do all of these things, especially the last two. I took great pride and pleasure in getting grandmotherly women dressed like Phyllis Diller completely blotto on Dewar's and soda.
This happened most often at the weekly Bridge parties, which consisted of a luncheon hosted by one of the members who was responsible for the menu and every other detail down to the color of the linens--the Club owned linens in dozens of colors—opening the linen closet I often thought of Daisy Buchanan weeping over Jay Gatsby's wardrobe full of shirts, but there was no one around for me to share that vision with.
At these parties I was paid to wait behind a black lacquered folding screen until I was beckoned with the curl of an old finger to freshen a drink or replenish the plate of petit fours that sat on the southwest corner of each table. The small talk happened in the aftermath of these parties while waiting with some of the more frail women for their car to be brought around or their husband to show up from his luncheon downtown. We waited near the library, which contained multiple copies of the latest best-sellers, as well as some of the necessary classics--Little Women, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird. Tipsy, the women became friendly and interested, all of sudden, in me, the help. "Are you a student?" They would usually begin, looking me up and down. "Yes," I would say, smiling, and then expand on what an MFA program was, which eventually lead to "And what do you write?" "Fiction." "Ah," they would say, "you know I was reading this book the other day it has an orange cover with a bird, I think..." I had recently spent a year and half working in a Barnes and Noble, so I was very good at this game of guessing the title of books based on their covers.
After a few of these conversations in as many weeks, I was approached by Mrs. Turner for a special assignment. I was to accompany a group of members on a tour of historical houses in Carnegie, a suburb of Pittsburgh, where my family lived in the 70s and where my mother's best friend still lives. The tour would end with a luncheon at one of the houses, and so my job was to unload, arrange and serve the food (finger sandwiches and a green salad), as well as mix cocktails and serve wine. The traveling bar consisted of multiple bottles of wine, scotch, vodka, gin, tonic and soda, as well as garnishments (olives, lemons and limes)--it was a sort of Gatsby party in a milk crate.
It was a beautiful day and I recall enjoying the work of serving for maybe the first (and last) time ever. I think it was because it was just me. I was in charge. I spread the table cloths and arranged the place settings, positioned multiple floral centerpieces, tossed the salad and mixed crisp and sparkling gin and tonics and wine spritzers. On our return to the Club, as we waited in traffic before entering the Fort Pitt tunnel, the president of the Club, a Mrs. Harrison, said aloud to everyone, "You know, David here is a writer." It was, strangely, a proud moment, for it may have been the first time since graduating from college that I was publicly introduced in that way. The women made over me like the doting grandmothers most of them were, and asked me to recommend books, and was I interested in a PhD, and "I have a niece who is a writer--you should meet her," or "you know I write in my spare time"--and on and like this all the way back to the club.
And yet I continued to be horrified by most aspects of the Club and its atmosphere. James, my supervisor and trainer, had been working as a waiter and bartender at the Club for ten years. He was black and bald and had a handsome Billy D. Williams mustache and suave way about him. He was a professional, a "lifer," as they are sometimes called. He carried himself with integrity without coming off as putting on airs, he knew the names of each member and her spouse, and often the names of grandchildren, nieces and nephews. He knew what each woman drank and in what proportions. He knew their food allergies, he knew where they vacationed, and he knew the mileage on their luxury cars, which he alone was allowed to drive around at the end of a luncheon or evening banquet.
He was the only black waiter at the Club--there were other black men and women who worked in the kitchen or the laundry--but he was the only black person who walked freely through every room of the Club, and he was the only person who ever received tips. I often carried out tasks that James would get tipped for, like carrying leftover food to waiting cars, but I was never offered a cent. "Where's James?" the women would say looking around as though James were a small boy separated from his mother in the supermarket. "Where's James? James knows what I like." Behind the scenes, in the back hallways of the vast Club, James walked with a very subtle strut and said, often, "I can't stand that Mrs so and so," or "She wants a strong drink, I'll give her a strong drink." I haven't thought about James in a long time, but what I'm remembering now is how bad I felt for him. I felt like he was constantly being put in his place, that this was the only way for these women to maintain the power they were accustomed to; that as long as he accepted their tips he was beholden to them.
I don't know where I got off feeling sorry for him. I mean, he was a grown man--he had kids, and, like all parents, he thought they were growing up too fast. Whenever the undergrads who worked at the club would complain about the long hours, he was unsympathetic because he had a family to feed, shoes to buy, school supplies, braces, a new dress for the winter dance. We sometimes talked about being a dad during our smoke breaks. Smoke breaks only happened during non-member weddings when Mrs. Turner let up on the reins a bit. There was a servants entrance at the street level where we smoked that lead to a dark narrow staircase which lead down into a corner of the grand ballroom behind a supporting column. So we could sneak out and return without being seen. The tall windows of the ballroom were blacked out with heavy drapes on this side where we smoked, but you could peek through a gap in the drapes and see down into the ball room, so that as we smoked we could see the elegant wedding party dancing and drinking.
James smoked menthols and never once did he light a new one. He always had one that he had started earlier but then crushed out and put back in the package for later. He would fish out this crooked little stump of a cigarette, relight it, take a puff, then check his watch, and exhale the smoke all in one smooth motion. I liked watching him smoke.
Having lunch yesterday with my friend John, a poet who also used to be a maker of high-end furniture, I told him about James and how bad I felt for him. I told him how good he was at his job, his amazing memory, his savvy for dealing with senile little old biddies. John said, "Why should you feel bad? He was advancing his craft."
This was a possibility I had never considered, that he prided himself on doing his job well, or that he was able to continue in this job because it sustained him in some other ways besides monetarily. He could have waited tables at any number of fine-dining restaurants in the city and pulled down four to five hunred a night, easy, but he chose to stay.
I am now able to recall how he could unfold a table cloth, snap it in the air and let it gently come to rest squarely on to the table in one smooth motion. I recall how carefully he arranged the paper packets of sugar and sugar substitute in their silver bowl; how he would often stop me before I pushed through the double-doors of the kitchen into the dining room to make sure the creamer pitcher rested on a doily, or that the dinner rolls were covered like baby Moses in their silver serving basket.
I just couldn't see (and to some extent will never be able to see) how it was possible for a black man to take pride in being ordered around by white women, but this my hang-up, my myopia brought on by growing up believing that I would some day be an artist, and believing that being an artist (where work is not in tension with leisure, where you are not «alienated» from your labor, as Marx says) was the most satisfying and consequential occupation one could take up.
I realize that despite my feelings otherwise, I have bought into the mythos of the artist as creator, as arbiter of taste, as prophet, as conscience of his people. There are consequences to swallowing this lure too greedily, and one of the most damaging and pitiful is believing that the working class lead lives of quiet desperation that can only be made more beautiful or purposeful by art. And while I do believe that leisure time is key to living a fulfilling life, I do not agree that that the reason for increased leisure is to afford the working class more time to spent in the company of a good book, or at a museum, or taking in a play. Nor do I think that leisure should be defined by only watching football (guilty), or drinking beer (guilty) or Googling ex-girlfriends on the internet (I'll plead the Fifth). We need to return to an older understanding of leisure one that Montaigne defined as time and space for reflection on life. Admittedly, Montainge, is not the best example for the essay I'm telling--an independently wealthy recluse whose essays are exhaustingly long.
The thing is that when I was working this job I thought sure I'm struggling in this shitty job but I'm me, I'm Dave Griffith, I'm a writer, I'm bound for bigger things. I carried around with me this outsized sense of import, this view that whatever terrible luck or misfortunes I ran aground on, I couldn't be touched. There was a part of me that I always held aloof that no one could get at. Did James have a similar sense of himself? Did he ever think I'm James and this job does not define me.
The great sickening thought I'm having now is that artists and those who fetishize them struggle to understand how others "do it," how they survive the daily grind. I mean where would I be without my books? I don't feel like myself when I don't write, or I'm not making art. Artists—some more than others, I should say—hold on to the this childish, narcissistic notion that they ARE different and that that difference is virtuous beyond all measure and meaning. (It's interesting to note that «virtue» is connected to joining or communing with «the real.») Artists carry with them in the brains these vast worlds and landscapes full of fictions over which they hold dominion—here are my people, I am their king.
That summer, needing to pick up more hours, Mrs. Turner sent me to the basement to help the handyman, Robert, re-upholster dining room chairs. The handyman, black too, but very different from James, was "back of the house" as the restaurant lingo goes, and so didn't have much interest in and very little contact with the club members. When he wasn't in his basement workshop he could usually be found in one of the many corridors or stairways of the club standing on a step-ladder changing light bulbs in ornate sconces or chandeliers.
My job was to pry the old brads from the underside of the chairs and remove the wiry, dessicated horsehair stuffing. Robert then re-stuffed them with a fluffy synthetic filler and reattached the seat with a staple gun. That was it. Day in, day out for three months. Over two hundred chairs. Making them more comfortable for the asses of rich women. We didn't talk much, but when we did it was about Robert's favorite subject: how men need to take better care of their business. Too many boys becoming men, or thinking they're men by having kids. Hell, anyone can get a women pregnant, and some of these girls asking for it. It was clear that Robert had some kind of first hand experience informing his views, but he never said what they were.
At lunch, we would take the freight elevator up to the kitchen and eat whatever the chef had prepared—usually just some cold-cuts and sliced cheese set out on a platter next to a cellophane bag of bread, and large pot of soup, which was homemade. During the school year, I would take my lunch and go into one of the empty dining rooms and eat with the other young wait staff, but it was the summer and the wait staff were living at home with parents, life-guarding, waiting tables in their hometowns, so I now ate with Robert and James and the other kitchen staff. Lunch with them was leisurely and could stretch on for an hour or more.
Spending all of that time underground getting dirty, working with my hands, was more pleasant than waiting on and making drinks for the club members. At the end of the day I felt like I had accomplished something. Every day before leaving I would count the number of chairs that we had mended. I actually found myself looking forward to going to work, of returning to the process that after a couple weeks had become second nature: slipping the cloven hoof of the staple remover under the brad and prying up—there was something satisfying about the feeling of the teeth coming unstuck from the wooden frame—and then reaching in with my hand and balling up the nasty stuffing which reminded me of big black gnarl of old surgery stitches. It felt like I was curing these chairs, removing some malignancy.
And yet when the first wedding of the summer came, and I put on my black pleated pants, my bleached-white tuxedo shirt, and bow tie, and stood behind the bar as the well-dressed and perfumed wedding party floated into the ballroom, I realized how much I had missed this white world of privilege. Even though my participation was merely vicarious—mixing drinks, not imbibing them; serving picturesque plates, not eating them—the time I spent down in the shop had made me hungry for the spectacle, the gleaming, milky whiteness of the women, the downy- whiteness of the wedding dresses, the silvery-whiteness of the patriarch and matriarch's hair, the almost blue iridescent white of bleached teeth.
Then it was fall, and with the members back from their vacation homes, the club was again busy with weekly meetings of the bridge club and the book club, as well as monthly guest lectures by authors, leaders of arts organizations, or a scientist from the University who were peppered with inane questions and then feted at a luncheon, not to mention monthly meetings of the executive board, which had an air of treacle self-importance.
This was my second year, so Mrs. Turner could say things to me like "set up for bridge" and I would understand what that meant and go off without question to arrange the tables and select the linens. She even trusted me with the key to the "booze bank," a walk-in closet lined with bottles of wine, liquor and cordials. James began saying things to me like, "now, you know how Mrs. Hubbard is, so make sure you get the salads out as soon as they arrive."
The highest vote of confidence I received was when Mrs. Turner chose me to serve the butternut squash soup in the buffet-style serving line at a members-only Fall Luncheon. I stood behind a long banquet table adorned with decorative squash and Indian corn manning the sterling silver soup tureen that was filled to the brim with piping hot squash soup. My job was to delicately dip the silver ladle into the tureen, pour the steaming orange soup into tiny, gold leaf-rimmed bowls. I recall the surge of pride I felt when the last guest in a line of fifty took her soup—I had not spilled one single drop.
She also selected me to oversee the set up and serving of cookies and punch to the ballroom dancing class, a class for the adolescent nieces, nephews and grandchildren of members. On the evenings when the class met, I would arrive just after the class started, go to the kitchen and load a silver service cart with several plastic pitchers of red punch and a few tins of butter cookies, then take the freight elevator down to the ballroom where I would set up the cookies and punch on banquet table behind a set of double doors in wings of the ballroom. Then I would stand there, munching cookies and watching the children through the crack between the two doors as they shuffled around the ballroom to waltzes and fox trots played on a black boombox. The boys wore blue blazers with brass buttons and the girls wore dark velvet dresses with bright sashes, and all of them wore white gloves and shiny leather shoes. From that distance, watching them through the thin space between the doors, as the grandchildren of the titans of industry awkwardly clasped white gloved hands, and stumbled over one another's feet I felt very kindly and even a little sorry for what they were being put through. The saddest part was that because they were all so preoccupied with counting their steps, they did not smile or talk to one another.
But when the instructor clapped his hands announcing the refreshment break, and I pushed open the double doors and moved the table forward, halfway into the ballroom, to my surprise they were always orderly and good mannered, which made me hate them even more. At least as teenagers some of the more self-possessed ones would probably introduce silly flourishes into their turns, or affect a patrician accent and walk around stiffly, making fun of their parents' and grandparents' lack of grace, lack of soul. At least teenagers have the temerity to be subversive, or, recognize how unlike they are from the people who originated these dances. I wished that they would look around them and see the absurdity of the situation, but they were just little kids, 4th and 5th graders, maybe. I wonder where those children are now--no doubt lawyers and doctors, hedge fund managers. I wonder how many of them have become artists?