Let's Eat in the Grill

by LOUISE PIERSON

1

MY FIRST two attempts to land a job through the classified section of the New York Times were a little discouraging. I was almost ready to give up when I saw the ad for a woman “40 to 45, manage bar grill large midtown hotel, salary $25.” The fact that it didn’t say “bust 34, waist 26, hips 34, will. to travel, enc. photo nonreturnable” revived my courage. True, my management of our own bar and grill, on Cape Cod, had resulted in our losing or working away our entire capital of $12,000. But $12,000 would probably be only a drop in the bucket to a large midtown hotel.

My letter of application, which hinted modestly that I combined all the better features of Ralph Hitz and the Ramos brothers (of fizz fame), brought an enthusiastic demand for an interview. I figured the job was practically in the bag, if I kept my courage up and my trap buttoned.

When I crossed the marble threshold of the large midtown hotel, I thought I had stumbled mistakenly into the Grand Central Station. ‘Way over in the east corner where the train was supposed to leave for Peekskill a little band of uniformed bellboys was marching smartly around for inspection. I crept up to a gorgeous creature clad in spotless white behind the desk and asked him where the grill was.

The grill was not so imposing. I thought for a moment it must be the help’s dining room. However, when my eyes got used to the dim light I was able to make out a soda fountain across one side and a tiny bar in one corner. The chairs and tables looked as if they’d been built by the bellboys in spare moments. There was a steady roar which I finally identified as the “air conditioner.” The grill was evidently a stepsister of the hotel proper. I was a little disappointed, but it gave me courage for my interview with Mr. Cameron, the manager. If I couldn’t manage this gloomy little eatery, I couldn’t manage anything.

I had no sooner stepped into Mr. Cameron’s office than I was hired. Mr. Cameron, a red-faced, white-haired man with gold-rimmed spectacles, looked at me searchingly.

“Hell, you look honest,” he said. “I’ll take you.”

Most of the other applicants, I gathered, were either bent double with arthritis or no spik English. Damn it, said Mr. Cameron, he liked New Englanders. Born in Maine himself. And proud of it.

“Just one other thing,” said Mr. Cameron. “I can’t see your hair under that hat you’re wearing. What color is it?”

“It’s white,” I said. “‘Nor grew it white In a single night, As men’s have grown. ...”

“The hell you say!” said Mr. Cameron, thrown completely off base by this gratuitous bit of information. “Well, damned if I don’t think a woman looks better with her hair white than she does with all this dyed stuff. I wouldn’t take you for a day over forty if I hadn’t read your application.”

However, the subversive little crew of twentyfour which manned the bar and grill, where I went to have lunch with Mrs. Dietz, the head housekeeper, at Mr. Cameron’s suggestion, apparently did not share his enthusiasm.

“Where did they dig up that old battle-axe?” a waitress asked the bartender, nodding in my direction.

“ Probably some old dame who wanted to get in under the wire with old-age assistance,” the bartender answered.

“The chicken livers are very nice today,” suggested Mrs. Dietz hastily. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.”

The chicken livers, which weren’t very nice, were followed by a little meeting in the steward’s office.

The steward, a short, fat man almost as broad as he was long, and also a New Englander, had summoned the grill help to give the new manager the once-over and pledge their allegiance.

“Now, Mrs. Pierson is no pushover like that Miss Burks from Cornell you ganged up on,” said the steward warningly. “You better watch your step or you’ll land in the gutter right on your fannies.”

After a few ferocious scowls to give weight to his words, the steward asked me if I would like to say anything, but I said no. All I could think of to say was, “Hello, Mom, it was a great fight and the best man won.”

“You’ll have to look out for Artie,” said the steward after they’d gone. “He’s working his way through Columbia. He’s a damn Red like all those college fellers.”

2

NEXT morning I reported in fear and trembling. Mildred, the blonde waitress, took me in hand.

“You’re supposed to go downstairs and look in the grill icebox and see what’s left,” she said. “Then you and Ella, the head cook, make up the menu. You have to get it to Alf, the hotel printer, by ten or he raises hell. Any stuff you need that you haven’t got, you requisition from the hotel kitchen. They’ll give you all the wilted lettuce and meat that’s gone by, and charge you a war price for it.”

She stopped to wait on a customer.

“I wouldn’t order the bacon this morning, Mrs. Blitzstein,” she said cordially. “It’s terrible.”

She explained that all the people who had big, expensive apartments in the hotel ate in the grill to save money. As the steward’s job depended on cutting down the $30,000 a year the hotel dining room was losing, this made him furious. The grill was really a thorn in his side. “He’ll do anything he can to knife you,” said Mildred firmly.

“I feel we ought to be loyal to the hotel management,” I said with dignity.

“You’ll get a whole lot further,” said Mildred, “if you side with the customers.”

I found the kitchen was equipped with an old warped coal stove heated by an oil burner. The icebox was one discarded from the hotel kitchen.

“It leaks,” said Ella, the cook. “Look out for that puddle of water. There’s no way to drain it. When the Health Department Inspector comes around you’ll have to slip him five dollars.”

The grill kitchen was connected with the hotel by a long, dark underground passage. Supplies moved through this on a little wagon with wheels. This wagon was drawn by a boy named Griswold. Gris-

wold’s day ended, unfortunately, about two hours before we served dinner.

I was gliding around seating people about seven o’clock that night when I got an SOS from Ella. We’d run out of broilers. Ella and Annie, her assistant, were up to their ears in orders. I shot through the passage like a greyhound to the hotel kitchen. There I came up against a bottleneck named Marie. Marie, a striking peroxide blonde with a twentyfour-inch waist, forty-two-inch bust, and seven charm bracelets, sat on a high stool guarding the narrow entrance to the kitchen. Everybody and everything that passed in or out of the kitchen had to be checked by Marie. She was a stickler for strict order of precedence. I had to wait while five waiters had their trays checked.

“You damn froggy, trying to sneak over an order of Melba,” said Marie to the last waiter. As he handed her his check she bit him on the wrist. “I oughta kill you,” she continued, adding the Melba to his check.

The telephone rang. “Lord Duveen?” said Marie in dulcet tones. “Good evening, Lord Duveen. Yes, I’m well, thank you. And you? Dinner in your room. Yes. May I suggest a filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, potatoes an gratin, and asparagus hollandaise?” Marie put her hand over the mouthpiece. “Be with you in a sec when this old buzzard gets through drooling.”

In a moment she hung up. “What can I do for you, Countess?” she said brightly.

She O.K.’d my requisition.

“I don’t give broilers,” said the butcher, waving a huge razor-sharp cleaver. “We got no customers in the hotel dining room where we serve food, and not garbage, like you do. If we got none, you bet you got none. Why you want with these broilers? Aou sell stuff on the side?”

The hotel kitchen employees were all grill haters and ardent dining-room fans. I had to threaten to push him into the icebox and lock him in before he could be persuaded to part with the five broilers. I raced back through the long, dark passage, dumped them into Ella’s outstretched arms, assumed a false and wooden smile, and went back to my hostessing.

I found running out of things was an old grill custom. We were not allowed to requisition a snip more than the steward figured we needed. Invariably during dinner we ran short of half a dozen items.

All this was very tiring and sometimes led to my being a little gruff with the customers. When some woman said she thought eighty-five cents was highway robbery for a little mess of Hungarian goulash made out of horse meat and wallpaper paste, and she could get fresh lobster at Schrafft’s for $1.25, I was likely to give her the impression that the best thing she could do was beat it down to Schrafft’s and get her old lobster. And it would be too soon for me if I never saw her again.

The employees, although proud of my independent and dauntless spirit, felt I was playing the wrong horse.

“Why don’t you tell the customer you know it’s horse meat,” said Artie, the Red, who ran the fountain, “but you have to work here to support your old mother? She’ll give you a dollar tip and think you’re wonderful.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” I said. “And I’ve told you children to stop it. I think we all ought to be loyal.”

“Loyal, hell,” said Artie. “Who wants to be loyal to a place that employs spotters?”

A spotter was a spy paid by the insurance company that owned the hotel — in 1935 all hotels seemed to be owned by insurance companies — to be more insulting to the help than the customers were. He then reported back to the owners the help’s reactions. I felt I could spot a spotter instantly. No regular customer could be half so insulting. After one of these brushes I would just retire to my office behind the bar and discuss the depravity of human nature with Ed, the bartender.

Mr. Cameron expressed himself as annoyed because I could not get the countermen to clear the dirty dishes off the counter faster and onto the dumbwaiter. The little dumbwaiter, which worked on a rope, was supposed to whisk the dirty dishes down to Tony, the dishwasher. The truth, which Mr, Cameron didn’t care to face, was that the dumbwaiter was of a medieval type and was usually busted and in no condition to do any whisking. Nor would the hotel engineer fix it. “ Who do you think you are—the Almighty?” he replied brusquely when I asked him. I didn’t like to toll Mr. Cameron this because he liked to think of the staff as just one big family.

We had meetings every Thursday morning in Mr. Cameron’s office to stress the family angle. These had originally been planned to allow the department managers of the hotel to talk over their problems with Mr. Cameron. But as years had passed they had developed into a half-hour bawling out by Mr. Cameron, during which the staff sat stunned and dormant.

“Look here, Lyons,” Mr. Cameron would say to the first assistant manager, “The housekeeper tells me she sends up five clean towels a day to your apartment. What the hell’s the matter with your wife, anyway? I use one clean towel every three days, and if you think I’m dirty you’re crazy. Then, I noticed Mrs. Pierson down in the housekeeper’s department watching the teletype. What the hell business of yours is it who goes in and out of this hotel?”

“I only wanted to find out if any large parties were expected, so that we could be ready,” I said meekly.

“It’s your business always to be ready,” said Mr. Cameron. “And 1 don’t like to be interrupted when I’m talking. Another thing, where did you get those Parker House rolls you served last night?”

“I made them,” I answered.

“What do you want to do, wreck the hotel dining room? Well, get to work everybody. Remember we’re in the hotel business to make money. There’s no sense giving anything away. This is not an eleemosynary institution.”

I was so provoked about the Parker House rolls that I joined Marie, the bottleneck, in taking rhumba lessons from Tony, the dishwasher. During slack time in the afternoon Tony would hitch up his dirty white ducks, brush the crumbs off his hairy chest, rough up his black curly hair, and stick a carrot over his ear. Ella and Annie, the cooks, would beat time on the pots and pans with mixing spoons. Marie and I and Tony would sneak around the dishwashing machine after each other, taking care not to slip on the water from the leaky ice chest. When Air. Cameron caught us at it he almost had a stroke. This was one of the situations against which he thought white hair was insurance. But I had to do something to keep up my courage.

3

I WENT at my job at the grill hammer and tongs. I got the steward to let me put filet mignon on the dollar dinner. I made minuten Fleisch for Mrs. Blitzstein. I finagled a roll-warmer away from the hotel kitchen. Things prospered. All was quiet on the managerial front. The month the grill cleared a thousand dollars I even made good old New England red-flannel hash for Mr. Cameron.

I think Mr. Cameron realized that I was becoming almost too lighthearted. He enjoyed seeing people dutifully depressed. He paid me back for my airy attitude by not warning me about the bridge tournament. The lady experts snowed us under. At one o’clock the dumbwaiter quit entirely and couldn’t be fixed. This was fatal because the dumbwaiter not only whisked dirty dishes down but whisked hot orders up — any orders too fancy to be kept hot in the tepid water of our homemade bain-marie, or steam table. And the orders of the ladies from the bridge tournament were plenty fancy.

By 1.15 my ankles began to swell. The waitresses and I staggered down the crooked little stairway to the kitchen with great trays of dirty dishes. A second later we staggered up again with heaping trays of broiled chicken and stuffed tomatoes. By 1.30 the place was a pandemonium. I was so dizzy I carried down three trays of dirty dishes, forgot to set them down, and carried them right up again. One lady claimed she burned her hand on a dish of ice cream. She probably did. We ran so short of china that a dish would go into the dishwashing machine and be thrust red-hot right into circulation.

At three o’clock the holocaust was over. I called the help into my office to bind up their wounds and thank them for not dropping dead on me. Our little mutual-admiration meeting was interrupted by a bellboy bearing a salver with a message on it for me from Mr. Cameron.

“‘As I walked through the grill at 1.35,’” I read aloud, “’I noticed a number of dirty dishes on the counter. Another instance of your utter disregard of my instructions.’”

By the time dinner was to be served I was in no mood for trifling. Otherwise I might not have replied to the man in the tweed suit, who asked me what I was doing after eight o’clock that night, that unless he had something more dynamic to propose I planned to drink up all the wrong drinks Ed, the bartender, was saving for me, and go upstairs and kill Mr. Cameron. Nor, if I had not been tired as a dog, would I have allowed the help to play their favorite and forbidden game of state capitals. This game consisted in a waitress’s saying to a counterman, “One chicken patty, rolls on the side, coflee, Colorado,” to which the counterman would reply, “One chicken patty, rolls on the side, coffee coming up, Denver.” I had forbidden them to play it because the customers often joined in. I didn’t think the insurance company would like it.

I might have stopped them, tired as I was, if I hadn’t had something else to distract me. A man at the bar began pulling out another man’s necktie and a good fight was in the making.

“See if you can get this drunk out of here,” hissed Ed, the bartender.

I knew it was no use to appeal to an assistant manager. “You sold it to him —it’s your problem,” would be the answer.

I approached the drunk warily.

“Don’t you think—” I began.

“My God,” he said, falling on one knee and stretching out his arms supplicatinglv. “Those green eyes, that white hair. If it isn’t my old mother!”

A dead hush descended on our swank little beanery. Old ladies paused with their forks halfway to their mouths. Waitresses stood with trays transfixed. Fountain men held lire with chocolate malteds as our little drama unfolded.

“Please,” I said firmly.

Tiie drunk looked at me.

“I’ll go if you’ll shake hands,” he said suddenly.

I extended one hand cautiously. Seizing it in a viselike grip, he whirled me round and round past tables of gaping diners. Past the cashier we whirled right through the revolving door across the sidewalk into the gutter. As I started to get up, he yanked me to my feet, threw both arms around me, and kissed me.

“Night, Toots,” he said as he signaled to a passing taxi. “ I wasn’t as drunk as you thought I was, was I?”

I brushed off my dress, took a long breath, squared my shoulders, and marched resolutely into my office past the accusing eyes of the horrified customers.

“Say,” Ed, the bartender, called to me, “that guy in the tweed suit you told off at dinner watched the whole business. Then he beat it. The housekeeper’s department just phoned up he beefed like hell about a towel with a hole in it in his room. When Mildred waited on him he asked her if she didn’t feel her love-life had been neglected. We think he’s a spotter.”

“My God, isn’t that just dandy?” I said wearily.

“Psst!” said Ed. “Here comes Mr. Cameron!”

Mr. Cameron came in and sat down at a table by the window. He glanced out, then stared fascinated.

“Maybeyour friend the drunk’s back,” whispered Ed.

I walked as nonchalantly as I could to the window. It wasn’t the drunk. It was my husband and daughter and son, waiting for me in the re-repossessed Stutz. Louise had evidently come home unexpectedly and they’d decided to surprise me. They succeeded.

Louise was wearing a peasant costume of bright red and yellow with puff sleeves and billowing skirt, evidently constructed in secret during her long convalescence. She had topped this Yugoslavian dream of heaven with a matching bandana. She looked more like a peasant than any peasant I had ever seen. Deprived of cigarettes at the hospital, she was now smoking one in a long holder Dr. Nickerson had given her. As she exhaled luxuriously, long curls of smoke issued dragon-like from her nose. Frankie, his eyes shining expectantly, had on a torn sweater and an old aviator’s helmet with the ear muffs hanging down. Harold was slumped down in the driver’s seat, reading the evening paper and racing the motor absent-mindedly. Clouds of black smoke issued from the exhaust.

Mr. Cameron tore his eyes reluctantly from the window and met my startled gaze. “ Who in God’s name are those crazy people?” he demanded. “Gypsies? And why should they park here?”

“I’m just getting ready to go home,” I said hastily. “I’ll find out.”

I told Harold to drive around the corner. Then I jumped in.

“I bet you were never so surprised in your life!” said Frankie.

I laughed. “I bet I never was!”

Next morning I got word from Mr. Cameron to report to his office immediately.

“I have here —” he began as I entered. I didn’t even bother to listen. I knew what he had here. It was the report of the spotter.

Count by count he read off the indictment. Each time he looked up at me for confirmation, I nodded.

“And did you,” went on Mr. Cameron, “when the occupant of room 106 complained that you had sent up champagne without champagne glasses, say, ‘You can drink it out of your hat for all I care and I hope it chokes you’?”

“I might have,” I said evasively. But I felt better. Room 106 was occupied, as I suspected, by the spotter.

“Well, don’t hesitate to call on me for a reference. It was too bad things had to end this way,” said Mr. Cameron in conclusion.

As I stood shaking hands with Mr, Cameron, my eye caught the final paragraph of the report, which Mr. Cameron hadn’t included: —

“She served cream of lettuce, a useless sort of soup,” it said. “And,” had been added in pencil, “I hope it chokes her.”