JOSEPH WECHSBERG, who has written many books and articles about travel and good living, is a frequent contributor to these pages.
by JOSEPH WECHSBERG
FOR the past three years I’ve been living in Europe, depending on visiting firemen, a couple of magazines, and the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune to keep me posted on the fast-changing American scene. I thought I was well informed on prosperity, $7.50 steaks, juvenile delinquency, the stock market, My Fair Lady, television, and The Power of Positive Thinking. So it was with a shock that I discovered, when I returned to America a while ago, that I must have been listening to the wrong people and reading the wrong journals.
The changes were there but it was not always easy to define them. Conformity is spreading. All men in New York wear similar single-breasted suits, similar shirts, and write with similar pens. What happened to all the double-breasted suits I saw three years ago? To the fountain pens that wrote dry with wet ink? Even the automobiles have become alike. Only experts and small boys are able to distinguish them.
In New York City, where I spent my first week, the overpowering first impression was a blend of haste, noise, traffic, vigor, new buildings going up at incredible speed, the bright mayonnaise color of dresses, cars, pencils, and boundless confidence. There was a new display of wealth.
The $7.50 steaks which the visiting firemen always talk about to illustrate the high cost of living in America are not typical. How many people can afford that kind of steak anyway? What is typical is the fact that up in Connecticut, where we live in a middle-class community, the butcher has to ration steak because so many people now buy expensive cuts.
By most European standards, America is no longer an expensive country. Food prices are about the same, and utilities, clothes, shoes, durable goods, are cheaper in the United States. Only personal services are more expensive. Dentists are better. You still find servants in Europe, though this may come to an end too.
Real luxury now seems to set a new standard of living. American visitors in Europe often talk about the elegant women of Paris and Rome — meaning, of course, the few they see around the Avenue George V and the Via Veneto. I assure you Europe has nothing to offer like a walk on Fifth Avenue. Nowhere else on earth have I seen such a casual display of $50 shoes, mink in the morning, and the sort of jewelry — $168,300 bracelets, federal tax included — that I thought existed only in advertisements (“Mail Inquiries Receive Prompt Attention”). I discovered that people really buy these bracelets, maybe even by mail.
I suppose that’s part of our prosperity. It’s not the sort of prosperity I remember when I was an itinerant fiddler on decrepit French Line boats in the carefree twenties. Even our double-bass player owned stocks and made money, and you know how unbusinesslike those fellows are. It was hard not to make extra money. We musicians made it by turning our staterooms into a speakeasy while the boat was at the pier, and by selling the table wines which the line offers free with all meals and which we stored under our beds.
But this is the prosperity of the fifties, which no historian will ever call carefree. All my prosperous friends in New York talk about their high taxes and high blood pressure. They don’t seem to be making conspicuously more money than they did three years ago, but all seem to be working a little harder, to be running a little faster, to be spending a little more than they ought to.
I don’t think they are getting fair value in return. Seeing these fastworking, fast-drinking people in the noisy luncheon places of Manhattan, I can’t help thinking of the relaxed workers in northern Italy who spend about 30 cents for their lunch (spaghetti and a glass of wine, with bread, sunshine, and music-from-somewhere provided free of charge) and who seem much happier than my friends, the executives, who are so busy now they eat a sandwich at their desks before they take their pills. One, who leads a luxurious expense-account life from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., told me he was getting into debt.
“You’ve got to take your clients to these fancy places, and after a while you find yourself going there at your own expense,” he says. “You’re becoming used to it and you’ve got to take your wife out. She’s getting tired of being told about these fancy places while she sits at home washing the dishes. Sometimes the tips which I have to give at noon would pay for the dinner which she cooks at night. It’s crazy. Everybody is spending too much too fast. That’s prosperity.”
One trouble with prosperity is that it seems to do away with the last vestiges of civilized living in this country. My wife and I stayed in New York at a hotel overlooking Central Park, a staid institution known for its “Continental” flavor, possibly owing to its thick walls, antiquated bathtubs, and palm-tree lobby with a small orchestra playing schmalzy waltzes. During the war, when I happened to be stationed in a basic-training camp in Maryland, I would come here once in a while on a two-day pass. The management allowed servicemen a 50 per cent reduction on the room rate.
The moment I stepped into the lobby, I had the warm feeling of being in a nice, civilized home. Everybody tried to make me feel comfortable. The doormen and porters and elevator operators and maids always had a friendly word. I didn’t have the feeling of being in a hotel — which is the best thing one can say about a hotel. After days of K.P. or latrine duty it was bliss to soak in the bathtub and to enjoy the abundance of fresh towels. I would go back refreshed on Sunday night to take up my K.P. duties, convinced that there were Things Worth Fighting For.
A few years ago, I read that the hotel had been taken over by a chain and now forms a gem in the investment tiara of a celebrated hotelman. He is said to be working hard for his stockholders. He’s certainly not working for his guests. Our room this time was 50 per cent more expensive than in my K.P. days, and the service was at least 50 per cent worse. After paying my bill, I felt I owed them nothing any more for the patriotic reduction they allowed me fourteen years ago.
When our cab drove up in front of the hotel, the doorman faked an attempt to take out the smallest piece of baggage. At that point I made the mistake of giving him a dollar bill. He dropped the baggage and us in obvious disgust and turned his attention to a ten-gallon hat, 25 per cent capital gains tax character who had a ten-dollar bill folded between forefinger and middle finger. No one came to help us, and my wife and I had to struggle with the pile of luggage, while the cab driver cursed and other drivers behind him honked their horns. When I found the head porter at last, he ignored me pointedly until I backed up my request with hard cash, and then he delegated two smart-alecky young men in colorful liveries to take care of our luggage.
Dollar bills changed hands faster than in a bank teller’s window.
The reservation manager, operating from behind a partition, seemed distressed that we had showed up (the reservation had been made three weeks earlier), and informed us curtly to come back at 3:30 P.M., when a room would be ready. At 3:30 a sullen woman gave me a key and, without saying a word, pointed toward the elevator. We found our room at last with the help of a sympathetic elevator operator, and the luggage was sent up by two men only half an hour after I’d phoned. By the time I had all the baggage in our room, I had spent almost $10 on it.
The room was made up, but a dirty pair of socks was still in the wastebasket and one of the towels in the bathroom had been used. We soon found out that everything was streamlined and commercialized now. If you wanted anything done — say, to have the room made up quickly, or a tray with glasses taken away — you had to tip for it, in advance. (The room rate, incidentally, was $25 a day.) No one gave us a smile or said good morning; reticence was clearly a house policy. Believe me, it doesn’t take long to run down a fine hotel. I suppose no one cares any more about old-fashioned hospitality as long as there are new rugs, new lights, and new flowers in the lobby. Moral: never go back to a place because it was heaven after K.P. in the army.
I do not expect a first-rate run for my money in a second-rate place, but I didn’t get anything like courteous, civilized service even in the expensive hotels, restaurants, and stores. Everywhere, I noticed that the customer was always wrong and that he didn’t seem to mind the rough treatment.
A friend who came back on an American ship in first class told me that when he rang the bell, his cabin steward sometimes came in smoking a cigarette, and that two deck stewards asked the passengers to wait until they had finished their deck tennis game. It sounded incredible until I went to an expensive restaurant in Manhattan where I ordered, among other things, a baked potato. When the waiter brought me mashed potatoes and I complained, he gave me a hard stare and said, “Look, I’m not going to change that order and get hell in the kitchen. You want these mashed potatoes or don’t you?”
The same customers who would protest violently in Paris or Rome if they were treated that way don’t dare to speak up here. They know that a dozen other customers are waiting to get their table. One must hand out money nowadays to get any table. The brazen demand for tips in advance of petty service is a complete defeat for the customer and ultimately leads to a breakdown of all service. A Swiss-hotel owner who knows the meaning of civilized hospitality told me that he likes difficult guests who demand a lot. “They help the management to keep up the standards of our hotel,” he said.
There are people who give large tips for no service rendered because they are generous, because tipping bolsters their ego, or because they like to impress the lady they take out for dinner. Let them do it. But why should a tuxedoed, arrogant man behind a velvet rope expect a tip to give you a bad table near the telephone where you have the privilege of being overlooked by bilious bus boys and the honor of being disregarded by waspish waiters? (The rope itself is not exactly a symbol of hospitality.)
A captain appears with pad and pencil, looks around impatiently elsewhere while taking your order, refuses to make suggestions or to advise you, and seems to hate the very food itself. No wonder Americans in Europe, where so much depends on giving the right order in a good restaurant, get nervous at the sight of the captain and order the first thing that comes to their mind — probably steak and French fries — by-passing all the wonderful spécialités de la maison which he is ready to offer.
Everywhere I noticed that more emphasis was put on pretense than on quality. In one of the currently fashionable, highly overrated Manhattan midtown restaurants my tomato salad was served elaborately, surrounded by a small glacier of crushed ice. With all that ice work, no wonder they hadn’t found time in the kitchen to peel the tomatoes. In another place, I was brought a magnificentlooking crab-meat salad, but plenty of shell bits had been left in the crab meat.
Everywhere too much food is heaped up on the plate. Meat, gravy, potatoes, vegetables are lumped together in a hash-like still life. In a fine restaurant where the saucier had worked hard and successfully to make a good béarnaise, a stoical waiter dumped a pound of string beans right into the sauce on my plate.
No wonder the guest loses his appetite. At any rate, that seems to be one of the reasons why the well-fed people in the most expensive restaurants leave so much food on their plates. For anyone coming back from less prosperous countries it is a shock to see how much is wasted in this country. People wouldn’t do it in their own homes; why do they permit it in restaurants? Abroad, the waiter serves part of a portion, leaves the rest on a hot plate, and asks you whether you wish some more. A famous restaurant owner in Manhattan who learned his business in Europe, and really knows it, explained to me that à part service is impossible here because the waiters have not been trained to do it.
I asked him, How about serving smaller portions and charging less? He raised his hands in horrified gesture. “Word would spread at once that I was trying to chisel. In order to stay in this highly competitive business, I’ve got to give patrons more and charge more, and see more wasted. Prosperity, you know.”