Summer Accommodations: A Novel

BOOK: Summer Accommodations: A Novel
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SUMMER
ACCOMMODATIONS

A Novel

SIDNEY HART

Copyright © 2005 by Sidney Hart

ISBN: 0-9764340-0-8

LCCN: 2004116664

Cover photo by Sidney Hart

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Printed in the United States of America

For Madeline Jared and Alexandra

Author's Note

I
have been asked if this book is a memoir or a work of fiction. Most writers will tell you they use elements of their lives and experience to create their stories and characters. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike and John Irving, for example, have had to address this question frequently, Mr. Roth endlessly.

This book is primarily a work of fiction. It conflates the six summers of my experiences working and living in a variety of resort settings into a single summer. If you are left wondering what becomes of certain characters it is because the lack of resolution of individual stories is a phenomenon of that summer experience. One arrives at a hotel and meets other staff members who will share living quarters and work space. Gradually owners, social staff, tennis pros, lifeguards, bellhops and even housekeepers become part of your world. And then the guests come and go. Some relationships are intensely positive, some unhappily negative, but almost all of them end with the same parting words: “Have a good life.”

This interruption of the relationship to others is much more common in real life than in the neatly resolved plots of a fictionalized world. It is also very like the experience of the practice of psychiatry; people come for assistance, reveal the intimate details of their personal lives and emotions, and then leave, their life stories still unfinished. Such is life as it is actually lived.

Prologue

I
n those days the bumper stickers read “Visit Howe Caverns” or “Santa's Workshop,” not—“Shit Happens.” Back then men wore jackets and ties to baseball games and hats almost everywhere; in recollection it seems an idyllic time. The Korean War had ended, Joseph Stalin was dead and the other evil Joe, Senator McCarthy, was in disrepute. Jonas Salk had devised a polio vaccine, air raid drills had become a thing of the past, America's economy was booming and economic growth seemed as natural and good for us as spring water. We were filled with excitement and hope about the future. We were in love with Lucy and mesmerized by the images the skeletal forest of rooftop antennae plucked from the sky and deposited in our living rooms— family rooms didn't exist in the Bronx. There was a parking space available curbside for your family's two-toned, whitewall tired, chrome encrusted American car. There were no Japanese cars and “Made in Japan” was a euphemism for “cheap junk.” In that summer of 1956 Ike was in the White House, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, Marilyn Monroe was in Hollywood, and I was in the Catskills.

The Catskills. The worn and tired hills of lower New York State west of the Hudson, south of Albany, a few meager hours from the city that never sleeps and the shores where most of Europe's wretched refuse yearning to be free washed up in hopeful, frightened bewilderment. It was for them that these unmajestic hills became “the mountains,” the “Jewish Alps.” By the time I arrived, most of those wandering Jews had died and their offspring peopled the resorts. And many of the people I worked with in that hotel dining room, the children of the immigrants' children, swore they would as soon have returned to the ghettos of Europe as register as guests in these palaces of excess and ethnic insularity. In our arrogance we believed ourselves better than all of them, the guests, the owners, the regular staff. Our embarrassment at their coarseness, their gluttony, their buffoonery, their garish taste in clothes was transmuted into mocking humor amongst our selves and well disguised condescension toward the others. We could not assimilate into mainstream America fast enough and the money we would earn those summers in the mountains would buy our tickets of admission to the American dream.

Chapter One

I
am the youngest of three brothers. My older brothers, Jerry and Steve, were born a year apart and I came along seven years later. This gap had been discussed with me in so many different ways by each of the four other members of my family I am convinced my birth was an accident or, to put it more bluntly, a mistake but I'm very glad to be here and bear my parents no resentment for their romantic folly. Steve took particular pleasure in taunting me with his “you are a mistake” interpretation but Jerry, in soft reassuring tones, would say Steve's jealousy of my father's affection for me made him unkind. That will give you a sense of how different they are, or were when I was growing up. While Jerry had a dreamy, kind, almost romantic nature, Steve was an edgy, street-smart fast talker who was always on the look out for an angle. My mother called him “an operator” but she said it with affection and a hint of admiration.

In my last year of high school as I was preparing my college applications, Steve sat me down to give me a lecture about life. I remember little of that talk, most of it being about girls and sex in a crude and smirking style, but one thing he said has always remained clear in my memory because it seems to have been proven true over and over again: “The good things in life you have to seek out and reach for; the shit will always find you.”

That message was still fresh in my mind when I applied to the Hotel Braverman for a job that summer of 1956. I was just eighteen years old, younger than the usual age hired as dining room staff but, because my older brothers had been so popular and reliable, an exception had been made allowing me to work there. I had already been waiting tables for two years, one year in a summer camp, and one year in the outer Catskills, the German section of Fleischmanns New York, so I was in no way a novice; this was to be big time, borscht belt, dining room money; this was to be the golden opportunity to bring home the gold.

Arriving that first day at The Hotel Braverman, known simply as Braverman's, I was met by my headwaiter, Sammy, the man I was to work for. He was always just “Sammy” like a rock star with only one name. Being Sammy's busboy was to be an honor of a sort but, more important, it meant I was likely to make more money than any other busboy in the dining room and as much as some waiters set off in the rear corners near the windowless walls.

“Melvin!” he shouted in greeting while I stood right in front of him. He was an ebullient man of around fifty, trim and covered with hair, hair everywhere except on the top of his head; wiry, curly body hair peeking out of his ears, raining from his nose, creeping up his back to his neck, on every digit of every finger. “How's the boy? How're Jerry and Steve? How're your folks?” He didn't wait for my answers. “Come on, I'll show you to the waiters' quarters.”

I knew where the waiters' quarters were because my parents had vacationed at the hotel part of every summer to be closer to my brothers when they worked there.

“So what are Jerry and Steve up to?” They were always referred to as Jerry and Steve, like Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello, and I was glad to be so much younger and to have an identity all to myself.

“Jerry is graduating medical school this month, and Steve has another year to go at NYU dental school.” I was pretty sure Sammy knew this already, but I was a polite and accommodating boy.

“And you, Melvin, what are you going to be?”

“I'm just waiting to hear from the college I want to go to. First things first.”

“Don't tell that to the guests at my station. They'll tip you better for wanting to be a doctor. Tell them you want to be a doctor like your brother Jerry because some of them will remember who he is and tip you just for being his brother.”

We had passed most of the main hotel building and had reached the kitchen area in the rear. The smells that emanate from a resort kitchen are always recognizable if unidentifiable, the smell of something baking the prevailing odor, but always intermingled with that of other foods cooking.

“You'll be bunking with Ron Alter, a junior at City College, and Harlan Hawthorne, a senior at Harvard.” Knowing Sammy, I assumed that Harlan Hawthorne was a comic invention meant to trap me. The notion that any Harvard man would be working in the Catskills was completely preposterous to me.

“Aren't you going to ask me anything about them?”

“What do you think I should know?” Having two older brothers had made me cagey and not easily led into traps.

“For Chrissakes Melvin, doesn't Harlan of Harvard pique your curiosity, stimulate your stilted imagination, engender interrogatories?”

“What's that smell, Sammy? Everywhere I've been where there's a large kitchen—camp, hotels—I smell that smell but I don't know what it is.”

“Melvin, if you are going to work for me you are going to have to listen to me. I ask you a question about Harlan of Harvard and you ask me about smells?” His voice became loud from his confusion and frustration. I affected a well rehearsed look of contrition and muttered some self-effacing banalities. Sammy rejected my effort to reconcile with an impatient wave of dismissal signaling that I had missed my chance.

“Here we are,” he said as we reached the long barracks-like waiters' quarters. “You're in room G.” We entered through the screened door into a narrow corridor with just enough room to stretch out your arms from your sides.

“Single file,” I said mordantly trying to ingratiate myself with Sammy, but he would have none of it. He was teaching me a lesson. I was to give him what he wanted when he wanted it, not on my timetable.

“You have to be in the dining room at five-thirty to eat and set up for dinner which is at seven. In the morning I expect you in at six. Breakfast is served from seven-fifteen until ten and then you have to be back in again at eleven-thirty. Some days you won't get to leave the dining room from the time you come on until three-thirty, but usually you're out by two, two-thirty.” I must have looked sick because his manner softened and he said, very reassuringly, “Don't worry, we have a good time, it isn't all scut work.”

When we came to room G Sammy knocked once and pushed the door open before his knock was answered.

“Thanks for coming,” a sarcastic voice said from the lower level of a double decker bed. I couldn't see the speaker because he had pulled his sheet completely over his head.

“Alter, meet Melvin White, your new roommate. Where's Hawthorne?”

“Hello Mel,” the voice said. Ron Alter had not moved a muscle. He lay flat on his back, his arms at his sides, the covering sheet pulled tight from his head to his toes, like an interred Egyptian king. Against the wall opposite the double decker was a single cot, its linens stretched tightly across the mattress, the blanket folded into a neat square and laid carefully at the foot of the bed.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, and looking at Sammy I added “hope this is a good summer for us.” Sammy looked away.

“Which is Harlan's bed?” Sammy demanded.

“The one that gets an A in geometry. Yours is up here on top Mel,” Ron said, and his left hand came out from under the sheet and tapped the frame of the bunk above him.

Sammy sighed. “Where the hell is Hawthorne anyway?”

“Probably over at Heidi Braverman's getting laid.”

“Everybody's a comedian, goddamn bunch of wise guys I have working for me.”

“I thought I was working for me, Sammy, and Harlan is shtupping Heidi Braverman, take my word for it, it's no goddamn joke.” With that Ron Alter pulled the sheet from his face and sat up in his bed. He was solidly built with muscular arms and a thick chest. His dirty blond hair was tightly curled and clung to his head like a wool watch cap. In his right hand was a pair of wire rimmed glasses he balanced by resting the nose pieces on either side of his thumb. He put his glasses on and looked at me. “Young.”

“Ron, are you really serious about Harlan and Heidi, because if you are you'd better get him the hell away from her before Ben finds out and …”

“Hey! I'm not Harlan's bodyguard, big brother, bosom buddy or anything else. You've got a problem with him screwing Heidi, you do something about it. Leave me out of it.” Then looking at me he said, “Big bad Ben is believed to have gotten pissed off at one of the wino dishwashers once and kicked him to death in the parking lot behind the kitchen. Sammy is afraid that if Ben finds out about Harlan he'll be a waiter short this weekend.”

“Button it Alter. Ronald over here has a problem with working and playing with others,” Sammy said to me in the language of an elementary school report card. I smiled weakly and kept still. The last thing I wanted was to be sandwiched in the quarrel between my waiter and roommate on my first day.

“Do you need any help with your stuff?” Ron asked, changing the subject and abandoning Sammy's agenda.

“Yeah, go get your things. The parking lot for the staff is over there,” Sammy said, waving in the direction of the single window between the beds. “See you at five-thirty.”

My brother Jerry had let me borrow his car, a ‘51 Stude-baker, to bring my things up to Braverman's; Steve would drive him up during the week to retrieve it. They had both encouraged me to work at Braverman's because I would earn a lot of money. My two previous waiting jobs had been more instructive than lucrative. Waiting tables in a summer camp had taught me about the workings of a large kitchen and, more importantly, how to be nimble toting a heavy tray load of dishes. The next summer I took a job in Fleischmanns, New York at a hotel that in later years would be struck by Jewish Lightning, the insurance industry's term for the abundant arsons that took place in the bankrupt resort hotels. The Royale was the dumpiest of the dumps catering to a clientele of poor German Jews who, despite the horrors of the holocaust, still spoke the cacophonous tongue of their former homeland. “You cum to Fleischmanz und you don speak Cherman?” they would inquire. I quickly learned to just smile and shrug. It would not have enhanced my economic outlook to berate them for their misguided sentimentality. The job was an apprenticeship in which I learned to pour soup from metal cups without splashing it over the rim of the flat soup dish and to take verbal insult stoically. I made $1200 that summer and counted the days until I could flee back to New York City. Now I was ready for the big time, even if it meant being downgraded to the position of busboy.

“So, where will you be going to school next year?” Ron asked as we headed out of the waiters' quarters to my car.

“Well, I've been accepted at a few places, but I'm waiting to hear from Columbia. That's where I really want to go.”

“A few places. You mean City and NYU, don't you?” he said with undisguised annoyance. “Let me set you straight right now. Don't be coy and secretive in this place. You eat, sleep, shit and jerk-off with everybody else in the waiters' quarters. If you don't burn your mail after you read it its contents will be common knowledge within 24 hours. That's just the way it is here. So, am I right about NYU and City?”

“Yes.” Ron smiled at my answer, somewhat smugly I thought.

“It isn't hard to figure out Melvin. If you were going to go away to an out of town college you'd be working in a summer camp or your father's office. The only guys here who aren't at school in the city are the basketball players and the tennis pros.”

From what my brothers had told me I knew this was true. Most of the waiter corps in the mountains was made up of boys from the outer boroughs of New York City on the make for money for college and then graduate school and the prestige and income of a professional career. And that was why the notion of a Harvard man, a Harlan Hawthorne, waiting tables at Braverman's was so perplexing and so deliciously tantalizing. What was he doing in the borscht belt? Was it just the money he'd come for, like the rest of us, or was there something else he was looking for. And what could that be? Sex with Jews? Sociological research for Harvard? I was immediately fascinated by the possibilities, the mystery.

“That's my car over there,” I said when the Studebaker came into view. My wash and wear Dacron shirts were hanging in the window and I had clipped bow ties to the collars of two of them.

“How many shirts did you bring?”

“Four. For the dining room I mean. My brothers said that would be enough.” I knew from past experience what I needed, but I always thought Steve and Jerry's authority to be more compelling. One brought four shirts to be prepared for an accident or an unpleasant body odor that would limit a shirt's usage to a single meal. That meant you could use up three shirts in one day, and with the extra one, you could wash the soiled shirts at bedtime and still have a clean shirt for breakfast. The wash and wear shirts would be ready to use by lunch, and so it went. “And three pairs of black slacks. And one pair of black Navy surplus shoes.” He hadn't asked me, but I felt it necessary to describe the inventory of work clothes I had brought with me. His irritation had made me defensive. In a matter of hours it seemed as if I was on the wrong side of Sammy and Ron and I hadn't even worked my first meal yet. “So what's this guy Harlan like?” I asked, hoping to deflect Ron's bad mood.

“You'll find out soon enough. Take the shirts, I'll carry the suitcases.”

“How long have you been up here?” I asked, looking for another entry into civility. I had just graduated from high school, but the vacationers had started arriving at the hotels in the area in mid-June so some staffers had to be there ready to serve them.

“Couple of weeks. Sammy's been talking about you the whole time like you were his long lost son. Do you know him?”

“Not really. Well, I know who he is, I've met him before, but I was just a kid then and we didn't talk to each other or anything.” I felt it best to minimize my knowledge of Sammy and let Ron tell me what he thought I should know. Actually, I knew a great deal about Sammy from my brothers. I knew that Sammy had never been married, that he worked the resorts in Miami Beach in the winter and the Catskills in the summer, though Braverman's was the draw not the other Catskill hotels, that he had a loyal following of guests who would only sit at his station and be served by him, and that he was extremely self-conscious about his lack of formal education and diligently studied dictionaries in an effort to compensate.

BOOK: Summer Accommodations: A Novel
4.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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