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.     

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