Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Holiday Inn: flies & lounge lizards

In spite of all the latitude we were allowed while working at the Inn I was pretty conscientious about doing my job well.  Washing dishes was monkey work and all we had to focus on was cleaning stuff and putting it away, the only challenge was managing volume. Aside from the dining room traffic there were meetings, banquets and receptions. Sometimes sizable, and more than a few at once, so I made a game out of seeing how fast and efficiently I could get everything done. It made the time pass quickly.

But when it was dead slow, and there wasn't any extra work to do, we had other ways to kill time.  Someone might suggest a game of 'Blind Creamer', we'd fill our apron pockets with Half n Halfs and push through into the large banquet room next door.  With the lights off it was pitch dark in there, except for a sliver of light coming in from the kitchen area.  We'd take sides of the room and try pelting each other with creamers which, if slightly peeled open before throwing, burst like squibs on impact.  It was like paintball in the dark, the drawback of course being that we'd have to clean up all the misses.  Usually it was worth it.
Then there was the baseball field right next to the Inn that we'd take advantage of when not in use by the local leagues. It even had lights for night games, and sometimes we'd bring lawn chairs up on the roof, drink beer, and watch the league teams play.  It was a short climb up a drain pipe to the flat gravel roof, no one could see us, and the view was perfect.
Or if Billy and Pat were working they'd entertain each other (and consequently everyone in the kitchen) by cursing at each other in Donald Duck voices.  Who knew?  Even back then it was a dying skill, but these 2 had it down, and would go at it like a couple of drunken sailors.

But the kitchen sport that clearly dominated that Summer season was 'Fly Vigilante', a game that evolved naturally from having so many flies in the kitchen area.  Pest strips didn't do enough, and we weren't allowed bug spray because there was food all around, so we found some cheap swatters and carried them in our belts like weapons. And when things were quiet we'd go on a 'crusade'.  It was about speed and technique (the in-flight kill, the cluster), and for a goofy time-killer it didn't go unappreciated by the waitstaff who were as annoyed by the flies as we were.
But pretty quickly the challenge turned to catching them by hand.  Like white-trash ninjas, it became a discipline of heightened stealth and efficiency.  Snatch from the side, a tight squeeze, and drop.  A 2-grab was not uncommon, and occasionally I'd score one in-flight, (..which probably would've been called a 'Brundle', if only..).  That's when the industrial bug-zapper came into play.  It had been there all along, located over the exit door to the loading dock, and apparently functioned fine.  But it didn't seem to attract enough of the flies, so we started disposing of our catches by manually pitching them into its electrified maws.   For one thing, sometimes that squeeze wasn't tight enough, and there were those that got away.  The zapper ensured a crispy death with its satisfying spark and snap.
I actually stopped squeezing, sadistically pitching them in while still alive.

If there was a live act in the lounge we might watch a set from the back, which promised entertainment.  Disco and yacht rock were still riding their crest so the music was delightfully awful, plus in (what was then) the era of 'Murph & The Magic Tones'  a Holiday Inn lounge was thee venue for genuine schmaltz.  No question; that Blues Brothers' scene was frighteningly accurate.
The performer that still looms large in my memory was an acoustic troubadour who called himself; Chuck Mann.  Chuck was a Gordon Lightfoot wannabe in the worst way, to the point of self-parody;  quaffed helmet hair, sideburns, mustache, tight jeans and rayon shirt (too open, of course). He seemed sincere, and he actually could sing and play pretty competently, he was just hilariously derivative and unoriginal.  No great sin, unless one took issue with how much of a player he was with the ladies. Clearly Chuck was one to sow his seeds of music and love before ramblin' on to the next town, and he was always trying to seduce some woman in the bar.  Not the Inn waitresses though, they were hip to his ways and thought he was creepy. 
Mostly we thought Chuck was funny, but unintentionally so.  One late evening after work my pal Terry and I were talking by the pool when Chuck came out of the bar and sat with us.  He had finished his last set and invited us both to share a joint with him.   There was no one around so he just sparked up and we started chatting.  Most of his talking had to do with the women he was interested in (bedding), or his travel itinerary. Chuck would typically play a 6 week run, then drive to the next motel lounge on his schedule, always staying in a guest room.  Terry and I nodded politely as we'd toke and pass.  It actually seemed like a smart gig.   When Chuck divulged that he was considering changing his name Terry and I perked up.
"..Yeah, you know 'Chuck Mann' sounds a little too obvious.  ..I'm thinking about the name 'Austin'."
"..Yeah, 'Chuck Austin' sounds kinda cool." we both agreed in mock approval.   "No," he corrected;  "Austin Mann."   I had to cover my outburst of laughter by coughing on a hit. Terry managed to stay composed, ..but we agreed later that the only way to top that would be if he also changed his middle name to; 'Six-Million-Dollar'.
..Or would that be too obvious?

For the most part it was a pretty great Summer, and I'm just skimming on some specific memories, but thinking back now; I never thought I was having that much fun fighting boredom. As far as I knew, all of us were making the best of where we were at the time.  I knew that a lot of what we did to pass the time was stupid shit, irresponsible and sometimes dangerous. We weren't looking for trouble, we didn't even prank on each other, which would have been par in other similar situations.  Guys that age love breaking each others balls for fun.  At worst, we were happy to enjoy a cheap laugh at the folly of others, and I'll end this post by offering an incident involving the bug zapper as a classic example;
On one slow evening early that Autumn, Scott (the porter on duty), made the casual observation that the thing had been up there forever, and looked like it had never been cleaned or even emptied.  He was probably right about that, it was a big old green beast and had an aged patina of airborne grease.  Looking up at the bottom panel, he figured on unscrewing the wing nuts that were holding it in place and began lowering the tray from above.  Yes, Scott was trying to be as careful as possible, dropping it evenly, but he didn't notice that one side of the tray was hooked and before he realized what was happening, thousands of dead bugs rained down directly onto his head, face and shoulders.
The involuntarily spastic, convulsive dance that it unleashed was worthy of the applause it garnered from us. 
It truly was a gift to witness, ..and yes; Scott was able to laugh about it too.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Holiday Inn: Cars in the Summer of '78

I started working at the Holiday Inn as a busboy in the restaurant, which was the first position available. It was a much more subdued and formal setting than 'Bogdan's'', quiet and dimly lit, with rustic touches, like a steakhouse. But they served a full menu from 6 am to 11 pm, and would do a tremendous amount of business on evenings and weekends.  The dining room was always kept cool and dry, which was a relief since busboys, waiters and porters had to work in black slacks, tie and shoes, and white dress shirt, we just came from church.  And it got warm back in the kitchen area.
But that gig didn't last long.  Busing tables while dressed for a funeral became a drag, pretty quickly. Especially spending almost the entire shift on my feet.  I didn't care about the nice tip cut from the servers, I didn't care about the air-conditioning.  I wanted to join the motley crew in the kitchen and as soon as there was an opening I switched to dish washing.

When I got out of the dining room things changed for the better.  I preferred working with the kitchen staff and there was no dress-code for dishwashers, just an optional stock white apron.  We could come to work in shorts, tank top, and sneakers, and I often did. The massive stainless steel dishwasher kicked out lots of steam, and by the middle of summer it got pretty hot back there. The workload could be grueling too. On weekend mornings it was common for them to serve over 400 for breakfast, and aside from the dining room dishes I'd have to scrub a mountain of pots and pans.  But I didn't care. I could listen to music while I worked, and I would finish my shift by cooling off in the pool right around the corner.  No changing, just kick off my Keds, drop my shirt and dive off the board.
Another thing that changed for the better was that I was no longer chained to the dining room.  And as long as all the work was caught up we could hang out back in the delivery lot, or even roam the grounds. That enabled us to get in on whatever was going on during that particular shift, and there was always something happening. I started making more friends at the Inn and saw more of my pal Terry, who was always working as porter (relegated to the more formal attire, but played smart with black sneakers).  On day shifts he'd park his 1971 Charger back near the maintenance shed, in the shade, where he could wash and polish it after work.  Its stereo would typically be pounding out the fresh releases of that Summer;  Heaven Tonight, Power Age, Some Girls, The Cars.

A lot of the guys that worked at the Inn had nice vehicles for the time.  It was the late 70s, and even though our jobs paid little we could still afford used American luxury and muscle.   Mostly early 70s Dodges, Chevys, and Pontiacs, ...all past their prime but presentable. Mike the bartender drove a sweet '61 Corvette, but that was the exception.  Some guys had beaters they were proud of.  Glen the dishwasher was a Ford Mustang freak, and didn't seem to mind that the '67 he owned was a bucket of bolts that barely ran.  It appeared to have leprosy and was dubbed the 'Rustang'. 
I went through a couple of troublesome cars (a '67 Cougar, then a '71 Monte Carlo) before settling on a 1975 Ford Elite.   A luxurious version of the Gran Torino, it offered a well-appointed interior of wood and velour, 351 engine, and a very cushy ride.  It was only a few years old and still a gorgeous car with a deep burgundy color, chrome trim, vinyl roof, and spoked wheel covers.

Working at the Inn enabled the car culture its perks.  We had the option of washing and waxing our rides by the maintenance shed, all the free towels we could use at our disposal, and a gigantic animated neon sign in front that would cast its glow over our buffed-out beauties.
The 'Great Sign' really was deserving of its name. The iconic beacon of affordable and reliable hospitality, as intended by Kemmons Wilson himself. That shining beast could be seen from a mile away and it bathed the entire front lot in luminous neon.
Even if we weren't pulling a work shift we might meet up there at one point during an evening.  Someone would have their car stereo blaring, there would be Frisbees flying, some smoking and drinking and general teenage (mis)behavior. A number of us were under age but kept coolers in our trunks that we'd stock with beer (next to the stacks of towels).
There was always someone of age willing to buy liquor for us, and there was always plenty of free ice from any number of complementary machines spread around the premises.

At the risk of sounding like Ray Liotta in 'Goodfellas', it really was a situation where we took advantage wherever we could and exploited every avenue possible.  The more creative, the better.  We weren't out to rob the place blind, we just saw all of these opportunities to make our time there a little easier or a lot less boring.  And it wasn't just us.  It was pervasive throughout the Inn because it had been going on for years, and anyone that knew didn't seem to mind.  Some of the waitresses had set themselves up with complete dinnerware settings, including napkins, tablecloths, silverware ..whatever they needed at home.  It was all tasteful stuff and there was so much of it in back stock, no one ever noticed.
But with all the petty pilfering about we still didn't see the Inn as a racket, as much as it was an orchard of fruits for the picking.  And plenty of it was ripe and low-hanging.     

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Holiday Inn: Hired

The second job I ever held was working at a Holiday Inn motel at Interstate 55 in Joliet, Il.    I started there at the beginning of June 1978, and worked there for about a year and a half. About the same length of time as my first job. But whenever I look back at my experience at Holiday Inn it always seems like I worked there much longer.
Partly because I ended up working so many different jobs, and also because so much happened while I was there.  Almost all of it fun. 

Let's face it, when you're a teenager growing up in the burbs ANY job you get is going to pay low wage.  Between paychecks, about enough for gas money and a trip to the record store. Maybe an Aerosmith concert.  So the attraction for any employment prospects to a 17 year old lie more in factors like;  "Is the work easy?", "Are the people cool?", "Is there a sweet employee discount?"  There HAVE to be some perks involved, however small.   
Sometimes those perks are inherent and obvious (Tasty Freeze job = free ice cream), sometimes they're less obvious and sublime. But when mined by creative and resourceful people, a seemingly boring place of business can become the gift that keeps on giving.

This particular place of business was a prime example of the latter.
To begin with, it had everything a major franchise motel could have.  The main building included an elegant full-menu restaurant with a fireplace, and an immense back kitchen that also catered to 3 banquet rooms for conventions and wedding receptions. A swanky bar lounge with a small stage and dance floor,  and a tastefully furnished lobby where guests would check in.  All of this, including the front desk and a handful of small offices, was laid out in a sprawling single-story building of stone, steel and glass.

All of the guest rooms were in 3 separate 2-story 'wings' that stood beyond the main building, framing a massive open courtyard with grassy lawns, manicured evergreens, and a patio area with heated pool and diving board.
All the rooms were outside access. And depending on which side of the wing you were staying on, your door opened to the parking lot (that ultimately surrounded the joint), or the center courtyard.  The end of one of these wings housed the laundry facilities, another held storage and maintenance.

Essentially, this was a full-service compound.  Everything needed to fully accommodate and entertain very large numbers of people.     

Another factor that played a part was that this Holiday Inn was old and used.
It was opened in the late 50s, and the mid-century style and decor reflected that.  It even had the classic neon 'Holiday Inn' sign, with the marquee that was changed by hand.  Now the place would be considered very retro and hip, but back in 1978 it was simply dated and showing signs of wear.  It had done tons of steady business over the past 20 years and was now a somewhat neglected workhorse in the chain. It looked a little weathered and faded, and could've used some remodeling.  But because of its convenient location it continued to endure the crowds.  Not only hosting road-weary vacationing families and truckers, but the restaurant, bar, and banquet rooms were frequently patronized by locals.

Holiday Inn at I55, Joliet Il. circa 1965

The management consisted of an 'Innkeeper', and day-managers for the restaurant/bar, banquet booking, grounds/maintenance, and housekeeping.  With few exceptions the entire place was run and operated by people in their teens and 20s. And as long as all the work was done those who were in any position of authority just turned a blind eye to any screwing off.   It wasn't that they didn't care about performance. They just understood these jobs paid shit, and sometimes it got slow and dull.  So as long as it didn't come back to bite them, whatever else was fine.  The bottom rule was;  keep the wheels greased and turning.  As long as the place looked clean, kept making a profit, and no guests complained, we stayed off corporate's radar.  Everybody wins.

Over the years this enabled a culture of mischief and debauchery that always rumbled beneath the surface. And everyone that worked there became complicit to some degree.  ..Everyone except the Innkeeper, who was hired by the corporate office. These poor company stiffs would get transferred from franchise to franchise, randomly like game pawns, and they were never around long enough to realize what was going on.
They couldn't be trusted, and had to be kept in the dark at all cost.

Of course I didn't know all of this when I applied for a job there. 
My pal Terry, who I worked with at Bogdan's, had a couple of friends who worked at the Inn.  ..Not that he knew much more than I, it just prompted the serendipitous visit that would affect both our destinies. 
We had been out riding around in Terry's car on an early evening in May, having had a few beers celebrating the end of the school term, and deciding to see my High School's graduation ceremony. A girl we worked with was getting her diploma, and we swung by to watch and say hi afterward.  We didn't have any plans beyond that, just driving around getting stoned and cranking some tunes, when he suggested dropping by the Inn. Just to see who was working that evening.
By the time we got there we were pretty baked, and I was feeling paranoid.  We both walked past the front desk and to the restaurant, where Terry knew the hostess; Kathy.  They chatted for a bit and he motioned for us both to go back into the kitchen area to see his friends, who were there washing dishes.

The first thing I noticed as we pushing through the doors was a cool mist swirling near the floor, rolling in from the back area.  Accompanying this was the sound of Black Sabbath's; Iron Man, that seemed to be echoing from a boombox. Terry and I round the corner to find his 2 friends standing around a floor drain, pouring a bucket of water over large chunks of dry ice.  There was thick fog everywhere back there,  as if they were trying to stage a rock show. 
The head cook made them stop short of turning off the lights and using flashlights as light-sabers.
But that was really enough for Terry and I and we both asked for job applications.
I remember both of us laughing uncontrollably for a moment while we filled them out.  After all, we already had fun jobs working at Bogdan's.  ..And we were both pretty trashed.  To top that, when Kathy handed us the applications, she could TELL we were both wasted.

But that's ultimately what sealed the deal, really.  Because when she asked us if we could start working there in a couple of weeks,  I realized she didn't care.
On some level, I knew Terry and I had just been invited to the party.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My First Job

I got my first paying job at age 16, busing tables and washing dishes at an independent family restaurant in Joliet, Il. called; Bogdan's Magic Palace.  The owners, in a father/son partnership, opened it to the public in 1977, and it was a combination diner/ice cream parlour & magic shop.  It was a pretty genius idea at the time.  People would come in for some tasty lunch or dinner, a malted shake or some other soda fountain creation, and stand the good chance of getting a little table magic entertainment by a professional magician.

Most of the interior was carpeted restaurant space, with vinyl-upholstered booths and diner tables. The wall decor featured old-fashioned sconce lights, and several large, framed promotional Magic posters from the early 20th century.  Houdini, Thurson, Harry Blackstone Sr.  Then there was a glass counter and display case near the front register where magic tricks were demonstrated and sold by Dave, the son and co-owner in this venture.  There were some shelves with larger stage effects on display, and though the magic shop only occupied a small fraction of the restaurant, the stuff Dave chose to stock was professional quality magic.  Always a couple of inexpensive Marshall Brodien type starter sets on hand for quick sale, but the bulk of his inventory was a selected cross-section of great card, coin, and close-up magic.

Also near the entrance was a colorfully painted upright player piano, that would occasionally be switched on to entertain the patrons.  The front of it had a large glass pane that allowed you to see its inner workings as it cranked away some Scott Joplin ragtime.  It did sound glorious.   
..And I would be remiss if I did not mention the centerpiece mascot of this family establishment;
a 6 1/2 foot tall animatronic clown that stood just inside the entrance, where it would slowly twist back and forth, raising its right arm each time in a dead robotic salute. As if to say;  "Come on in and join the fun!!"
It looked like a life-sized Zippy the pinhead, with a conical dunce hat, painted lifeless eyes and hideous fixed grin, like Gwynplaine.  It exemplified 'creepy clown', and on some dead rainy nights it was an unsettling presence.  After all, it was standing right by the door.  And if it, by some bizarre freak occurrence, ever came to life and went 'Pennywise'?  Well, the only other way out was through the back, which opened to a labyrinth of hallways with locked doors.
On those nights the clown's perpetual wave seemed to say; "..If I could grasp a butcher knife, this is how I would be stabbing you repeatedly."

But those slow nights could be fun too, and sometimes Dave would entertain us with some sleight of hand magic, or we'd play with some of the joke novelties that were sold (did you know that a whoopie cushion bursts with a really loud 'POW!' if you sit on it hard enough?).  One night I volunteered to break out of Dave's straight-jacket.  He had one on the premises that he used in his act, and he strapped me in pretty well.  It took me a good 8 minutes, but I put on my best Tony Curtis and wriggled out of it like Houdini.
Obviously, Bogdan's Magic Palace was especially popular for kids' birthday parties.  And this was not lost on the magician, who would routinely produce the birthday child's free hot fudge sundae via magic box.  This decorative rectangular box was mounted on a single pole stand, and it had an open front and a door on the back. There was a light that illuminated the inside, and kids would gape in wonderment as they'd watch the birthday dessert slowly fade into view, "right before their very eyes!"  Then Dave would open the back door and remove the sundae for the birthday child to eat.
Dave designed the illusion, which was an enhanced version of a classic mirror production box.
It was actually pretty cool the way it worked.  

Not long into the 18 months I worked there I earned enough to buy my first car, a 1967 Chevy Malibu.  It was a piece of shit for which I only paid $200, but it was all mine and it got me to and from work.
I also made a few friends while I worked there. One of the short-order cooks employed there was a guy named Dino.  Dino was a wiry black dude in his 40s who lived on the East side of Joliet, and he was a character to work with.  He'd sit and read Khalil Gibran during his break, and occasionally one of his many 'lady friends' would drop by for a brief visit. It didn't take long to realize either Dino was a serious hound or he did some pimping on the side (or both).
Dino also regularly came to work stocked with a couple of joints in his wallet, and would spark up in the walk-in freezer. I discovered this by walking in one night, and surprised him in mid-toke.  He then gained my confidence by getting me so high I could barely finish my work shift.
But the drive home sure was fun that night.

There were also some weird customer moments, the most memorable surrounding a family that came in about once a month, regularly.  The family was comprised of a mom and dad, 5 unruly kids, and their grandparents.  They appeared to be a farm family by the way they were dressed, the dad in bib overalls and flannel shirt, the mom in baggy jeans and flannel shirt.  All of them had bad haircuts. Even the girls.  The grandparents were the give-away though, and they all looked like members of the Joad family.  And for whatever reason, they ALWAYS came in on a Wednesday night and ALWAYS ordered the broasted chicken for dinner.  Without variation. It's like it was their ritual chicken dinner family night on the town.
Dino referred to them as; 'the chicken family', and the name stuck. 
I mentioned their kids were unruly, and that was the source of some weirder moments.  As soon as they were done eating their dessert they would all jump out of their chairs and start running around the restaurant, making a lot of racket in the process. And the parents and grandparents would just sit there talking, belching, and smoking cigarettes, while all this went on. They'd be in there for a good 2 hours for dinner and dessert, then leave a colossal mess behind. And they were lousy tippers to boot. 
On more than one occasion Dave had to ask them to reign in their little mongrels or they'd be asked to leave.  ..And on one evening? One of their kids pulled the giant mechanical clown over on top of himself.
The damned thing toppled like a tree, falling right onto this little 9 year old white-trash brat and pinning him to the floor.  ..Like it just had enough and was intent on squashing, or molesting, ..whatever it took to give this child horrific nightmares.
The kid wasn't physically injured.  But the look on his face was pretty priceless.