The 11:15 train from Brewster. Station, the Harlem Line express, would roar into Grand Central Terminal to deposit the long after rush hour crowd to the track at 1:40pm. Zigzagging through the terminal, stopping for smokes at a newsstand, I’d make my way out of the 44th Street Lexington exit, tennis shoes pounding down the street toward 48th. Passing the Lexington Hotel’s Doorman hailing cabs, I would give him and wave and he would nod back, not missing a beat swooping down to open a taxi door for a guest.
Around the corner where Lexington meets on 3rd Avenue is the employee entrance where a young man dressed in red bellman’s uniform would be drinking coffee and chatting with other employees about how the Police are musical Messiahs and that electronic music will someday “take over the world”. The Jamaican cook he was talking to countered that it was the use of steel drums and other island instruments that made the Police so cool. It was 1981 and being 22, it was the people at the Hotel Lexington in the heart of midtown that made working there worth the trip. That and the union pay scale and excellent tips. The bell captain, a handsome black man named Luscious (pronounced Loo Shus) would stroll by, plunk his time card in the stamp machine and give me a big smile. Luscious had the talent of smiling at everyone, from VIP guest to cart toting housekeeper as if he really cared about you—and the truth was that he did. He was the heart of the staff– the man you would go to if your boyfriend broke up with you, or a disgruntled guest told you off for something that wasn’t your fault.
After punching in, it was down, down, down the stairs, to get my waitress uniform from the laundry and go to the locker room to change. The laundry staff always had our uniforms looking crisp and fresh, which was no small trick considering the design. The dress was lime green that laced up the front with a hoop skirt with white puffy sleeves with matching pink and green embroidered apron. The theme of the hotel restaurant, The Huddle, was art deco meets old-fashioned bistro so looking like you just escaped from a photo shoot modeling for a St. Pauli Girl beer poster was not out of place. When you work in a Midtown Hotel, you take care changing from your street clothes to your uniform. Part of the job was looking good. Swooping my long blonde hair into a bun securing it with a pink butterfly clip, I was ready to slip on my white shoes and head upstairs.
The lobby was bathed jazz era modern rich red and black decor. The restaurant I worked at was part of the hotel, connected to the lobby, so guests would simply make a hard right and be greeted by a hostess. The hostess was an aspiring actress, so in her black skirt and white blouse, she commanded the stage as she escorted guests to their table. Her black hair, worn loose as she was not a food and beverage handler, swung in a sheet of shimmer down her back as she walked.
Just about every worker at “The Lex” had a dream that didn’t involve their day job. There were dancers flitting gracefully from the Concierge to the Front Desk, voice over actors from the switchboard making announcements in an appropriated fake accent. Everyone was asking New York City for something missing from their lives, and as the city sometimes made a nobody into a star, what was the harm in dreaming? When they were shooting a big movie in town, half the staff would be begging others to take their shifts so they could do “extra” work. I never had that conundrum. I was an aspiring writer, hungry for knowledge, compelled to pilfer paper napkins on which to compose bad poetry. To feed my literature addiction I often took the earlier train so I could spend time in the New York Public Library’s third-floor reading room before my shift. If I could make enough money, perhaps I could someday go to college. Every big tip I slid into my pocket moved me closer toward realizing that dream. If someone wanted their drink served in the lobby, I brought it. If someone wanted a pack of Dunhill Cigarettes from the Concierge or a specific perfume from the duty-free vendor upstairs, I fetched it. The most important thing was guest satisfaction, and I jumped at the chance to get off the cafe floor to visit other parts of the hotel.
Mark the bellman, a concert violinist, would sometimes poke his head in to ask me if I had an extra cigarette. I’d slip it to him, carefully. In 1981 you could basically smoke where you wanted, as long as no guest could ever set eyes on you doing it while in uniform. That meant downstairs or out the side door and half way down 3rd Avenue. Still, we were lucky, lucky we did not work at the Hemsley Palace, which was advertised as “The Only Hotel Where the Queen Stands Guard!” And stand she did—and fired folks for the smallest slip up. Never mind the Hotel and Motel Workers Union, after being personally reprimanded by Leona Hemsley, you left and didn’t want your job back, on any account, according to her staff.
As an international hotel, guests from all over the world stopped in for a cocktail and a bite to eat. One very distinguished customer from Japan came in and kept saying “Manhattan, Manhattan” and my co-worker was nearly in tears laughing telling him that he’s in Manhattan. He pointed to a glass and we finally deduced figured out he wanted a Manhattan. He became a regular as he traveled often for business, and was a great tipper to boot. There was no bar in the bistro, so I would take the drink order and rush out the door and up a runway to the service bartender, Marshall, who was an artist by profession, but he made a mean Martini. Only once did he slip up and accidentally plunked an olive in a Screwdriver. The customer looked quizzically at me and I explained that he’s an artist. Being a true New Yorker, she had a quip at the ready. “Must be of the Avante Garde Variety” she mused and proceeded to suck the pimento out of the olive and continued her conversation with her companion.
We always knew when a celebrity was “in the house”, not through the front desk, but through housekeeping, who got the word to ready the rooms before the guest even set foot through gold glit doorway. When we heard that legendary film star Dorothy Lamour was staying at the Lex, we were hoping she would stop in to see us. All I had glimpsed of her was the back of her head as she made her way through the lobby, so I was anxious to meet her. The only celebrity I had waited on was one of the cast of the TV show “Mama’s Family” and while pleasant, it wasn’t Vicki Lawrence, so it wasn’t so impressive. My wish was granted when Ms. Lamour sauntered into the Huddle, with a young man taking notes as if he were conducting an interview. Her trademark black hair was pinned up in sweep bun, and she hardly looked her age. Nature had been kind to her genetically, and despite my expectations of a 40s glamour girl, her makeup was minimal and tastefully applied.
Nearly knocking over my co-workers, I rushed up to the table for two. I mumbled something like“Good Evening Miss Lamour” and put my order pad in front of my face as I was blushing. She ordered a chicken sandwich and a pot of tea. I took the order to the cook and he put it together okay, but rather slapdash, so I took it apart, remade it and decorated the plate with doilies and colored toothpicks. I inspected the cup and saucer and made sure the water was piping hot. Only thing was I forgot to ask her what kind of tea she wanted, as we had several varieties. Was she an oolong girl, or an Earl Gray aficionado? I also forgot to ask if she wanted lemon or milk, so I brought both. I took a chance on plain old Lipton’s as she seemed so down to earth. I carefully asked “tea with….?” she replied “honey”, I put down the tiny pot, cup, saucer and sandwich and dashed back to get the honey. Too bad my dad worked several blocks away, down in the bowels of Grand Central Station, he would have loved to get a glimpse of her, as she was one of his favorite stars. He had met her during the war at a USO show and forty years later, I was serving her a sandwich.
It wasn’t all glitz and glamour with the guests. Several airlines had their pilots and attendants stay at the Lexington and often it was serving people who served others for a living. The British Airway crew always looked so incredibly put together, in crisp blue uniforms, the women wearing sky-high stilettos, with a spring in their step even after a long shift traveling across the pond. The El-Al crew was unique, in that they wore gray and the women all wore sensible stacked heels. Seeing as they were under constant terror threats, they were ready for action at a moment’s notice. The head of the airline at that time had rotating code names and you were never, ever, to address him by his real name in more than a whisper for security purposes. He was the kindest soul you would ever meet, and the newest staff would actually wait on him quite a few times before knowing his real identity. The takeaway lesson was that the more truly important the person, the kinder they treated those who served.
Of course, there were rock stars who gave housekeeping a headache, prostitutes who were summarily chased out of the piano bar on the other side of the lobby, VIPs from countries that I could not spell. War, peace, luxury, clandestine meetings, and plenty of excitement.
When rumor had it that Playboy was opening a club next to the hotel, things heated up at the Lex. The bellmen sported fantasies of Bunny tails and centerfold girls coming and going through the lobby like fairy goddesses. I waited on one of the executives and he said I should try out to be a server. I think the fact that I did my best impression of the famous “bunny dip” when I served him his coffee tipped him off that I might be interested. The money would be incredible! I could get an apartment in the city. Not a roachy, tiny hot box in Brooklyn where some of my co-workers rented, but a Breakfast at Tiffany’s style cool pad. My mom, a former model who believed in cashing in on your looks while you have them, was all for me going to the audition. My dad, on the other hand, the product of Slovakian immigrant stock was four square against such madness. So I stayed on staff at the Lexington until it was time to chase the world of academia to see what Western Connecticut State University had in store.
My last night as I punched out, there was a cake and present waiting for me from a handful of the crew. The timekeeper put in a cassette, blasting “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and we all danced like lunatics in the service entrance way, the door flung open, music spilling out into the street. They gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera as a going-away gift—but forgot to include film so I snapped no photos. No matter, some pictures in time stay forever in your memory regardless.
511 Lexington Avenue
@ 48th Street
New York, NY 10017