Working with the working woman

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The people in our dining room were like the people in every dining room: some were sociable and talked to their neighbors, some were not sociable at all. There was no regular way of seating. Some meals you found yourself at a table where all was laughter and conversation. The next meal, among the same number of people, not one word would be spoken. "Pass the salt" would grow to sound warm and chummy.

Half an hour was the time allowed everyone for meals. With a friendly crowd at the table that half hour flew. Otherwise, there was no way of using up half an hour just eating. And then what?

After a couple of days, some one mentioned the recreation room. Indeed, what's in a name? Chairs were there, two or three settees, a piano, a victrola, a Christy picture, a map of South America, the dying soldier's prayer, and three different sad and colored pictures of Christ. Under one of these was pinned a slip of paper, and in homemade printing the worthy admonition:

"No cursing no stealing when tempted look on his kindly face."

There were all these things, but no girls. Once in a while a forlorn bunch of age would sit humped in a chair, now and then a victrola record sang forth its worn contents, twice the piano was heard. After some ten days my large fat friend from the help's pantry informed me that she and I weren't supposed to be there--the recreation room was only for chambermaids and like as not any day we'd find the door locked. Sure enough, my last day at the hotel I sneaked around in the middle of the afternoon, as usual, to see what gossip I could pick up, and the door was locked. But I made the recreation room pay for itself as far as I was concerned. Every day I managed to pick up choice morsels of gossip there that was grist to my mill.

After my first supper I could find nothing to do or no one to talk to, so back I went to work--feeling a good deal like teacher's pet. About four o'clock it was my business to tell Schmitz what supplies we were out of and what and how much we'd need for supper. When I got back from supper there were always trays of food to be put in the ice chest, salads to be fixed, blackberries to dish out, celery to wash, and the like. By the time that was done supper was on in our café. That is, for some it was supper; for others, judging by the looks of the trays which passed hurriedly by my compartment, stopping only long enough for sliced lemon for the ice tea, it was surely dinner. Dinner de luxe now and then! Such delectable dishes! How did anybody ever know their names enough to order them?

From 6 to 7.30 was the height of the supper rush. What a variable thing our patrons made of it! Some evenings there would be a regular run on celery salads, then for four nights not a single order. Camembert cheese would reign supreme three nights in succession--not another order for the rest of the week. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole of creation sat without, panting for sliced tomatoes. The next night stocked up in advance so as to keep no one waiting--not a human being looked at a tomato.

At eight o'clock only stragglers remained to be fed, and my job was to clear out the ice chest of all but two of each dish, send it upstairs to the main kitchen, and then start scrubbing house. Schmitz let it be known that one of the failings of her whose place I was now filling, the one who was asked to leave the Friday night before the Monday morning I appeared, was that she was not clean enough. At first, a year and a half ago, she was cleanly and upright--that is, he spoke of such uprightness as invariably follows cleanliness. But as time wore on her habits of cleanliness wore off, and there were undoubtedly corners in the ice box where her waning-in-enthusiasm fingers failed to reach. But on a night when the New York thermometer ranges up toward the nineties it is a pure and unadulterated joy to labor inside an ice box. I scrubbed and rinsed and wiped until Schmitz almost looked approving. Only it was congenital with Schmitz that he never really showed approval of anything or anybody. Schmitz was the kind (poor Mrs. Schmitz with her three months only of freedom) who always had to change everything just a little. There would echo down the line an order, "One Swiss cheese, little one" (that referred to me, not the cheese). Schmitz would stroll over from where he was trying to keep busy watching everyone at once, enter the very confines of my compartment, and stand over me while I sliced that Swiss cheese. It was always either too big, in which case he took the knife from my hands and sliced off one-sixteenth of an inch on one end; or too small, in which case Schmitz would endeavor to slice a new piece altogether. The chances were it would end in being even smaller than the slice I cut. In that case, Schmitz would say, "Led it go, anyway." And then, because he would always be very fair, he stood and explained at length why the piece was too big, if it were too big, or too small, if too small. "You know, it's dis vay--" My Gawd! not once, but every night. There was always one slice too many or too few on the sliced-tomato order. Schmitz would say, "There must be five slices." The next time I put on five slices Schmitz stuck that nose of his around the waiter's shoulder.

"Hey, vhat's dat? Only five slices? De guests won't stand for dat, you know. Dey pay good money here. Put anoder slice on."

I was wont to get fearfully exasperated at times.

"But," I remonstrated, "last time I had on six and you told me to put on five!"

"Yes, yes, but I expect you to use your common sense!"

That was his invariable comeback. And always followed by his patient:

"You see, it's dis vay--If you put on too much the hotel, vhy, dey lose money, and of course you see it's dis vay: naturally" (that was a pet word of Schmitz's), "naturally the hotel don't vant to lose money--you can see dat for yourself. Now on the odder hand if you don't put on enough, vhy of course you see it's dis vay, naturally a guest vants to get his money's vorth, you can see dat for yourself--you've just got to use your common sense, you can see dat for yourself." Not once, but day after day, night after night. Poor, poor Mrs. Schmitz! Verily there are worse things than first-degree murder and intoxication.

But for all that Schmitz deigned not to allow it to be known that my scrubbings found favor in his sight, my own soul approved of me. The shelves and the sink I scrubbed. Then every perishable article in my ice chest or elsewhere got placed upon trays to go upstairs. By this time it was two minutes to nine. Schmitz, always with his hands clasped behind him, except when he was doing over everything I did, said, "You can go now."

Upstairs among the lockers on the third floor the temperature was like that of a live volcano, only nothing showed any signs of exploding. Fat women who could speak little or no English were here and there puffily dismantling, exchanging the hotel work-uniform for street garments. Everyone was kindly and affectionate. One old Irishwoman came up while I was changing my clothes.

"Well, dearie, and how did it go?"

"Sure it went swell."

"That's good. The Lord bless ye. But there's one bit of advice I must be giving ye. There's one thing you must take care of now. I'm tellin' ye, dearie, you must guard your personality! I'm tellin' ye, there 're the men y' know, but guard y' personality!"

I thanked her from the bottom of my heart and said I'd guard it, surest thing she knew.

"Oh, the good Lord and the Virgin Mary bless ye, child!" And she patted me affectionately on the back.

Indeed, I had been getting affectionate pats most of the time, though the majority of them were from the male help. The composite impression of that first day as I took my way home on the sticky Subway was that the world was a very affectionate place, nor was I quite sure just what to do about it.

The second morning I was given a glimpse of what can be done about it. As I was waiting for the elevator on the service floor to be taken down to work, a very attractive girl came along and immediately we became chummy. She had been at the hotel three weeks; her job was to cut fruit. Had she done this sort of work long? Not in this country, but in Europe. Just one year had she been in America. At that moment two youths passed. I saw nothing, but quick as a flash my new friend flared up, "You fresh guy--keep your hands to yourself!" So evidently that's the way it's done. I practiced it mentally. "Lots o' fresh guys round here," I sniffed. "You said it," muttered the still ruffled fruit cutter.

Downstairs, Kelly was waiting with a welcoming nod--Kelly, the unpernickety steward. Everyone was as friendly as if we had been feeding humanity side by side these many years. During the rush the waiters called out as they sped by: "Hi there, little one!" "There's the girlie!" "Ah there, sweetheart!" Verily the world is an affectionate place. If a waiter had an order to give he passed the time of day as he gave it and as he collected his order.

"And how's the little girl to-day?"

"Tiptop--and yourself?"

"A little low in spirits I was to-day until I seen you'd come--an' then. You love me as much as you did yesterday?"

"Move on there. W'at y' a-doin' talkin' to my girl! Now, honey, I'm tellin' you this here guy is too fresh for any lady. I'd like one order of romaine lettuce, bless your sweet heart, if it won't be tirin' your fingers too much. That's the dearie--I'm back in a moment."

Across the way, arms resting on the counter, head ducked under the upper shelf, leaned a burly redheaded helper to the Greek.

Every time the pantry girl looked his way he beamed and nodded and nodded and beamed. "How you lak?" "Fine!" More beams and nods. Soon a waiter slipped a glass of ice coffee, rich in cream and sugar, under my counter. Beams and nods fit to burst from the assistant coffee man across the way. Beams and nods from the pantry girl. Thus every day. Our sole conversation was, "How you lak?" "Fine!" He said the rest with coffee.

With the lunch rush over, Kelly sneaked around my entrance and jerked his head sidewise. That meant, naturally, that I was to approach and harken unto what he had to say. When Kelly imparted secrets--and much of what Kelly had to impart was that sort of information where he felt called upon to gaze about furtively to make sure no one was over-hearing--when he had matters of weight then to impart he talked down in his boots and a bit out of the corner of his mouth.

"Say, kid"--Kelly jerked his head--"want to tell you about this eatin' business. Y'know, ain't no one supposed to eat nothin' on this floor. If the boss catches ya, it's good-by dolly. Sign up over the door sayin' you'll be dismissed at once if you eat anything--see? But I'm givin' ya a little tip--see? I don't care how much ya eat--it's nothin' to me. I say eat all ya got a mind to. Only for Gawd's sake don't let the Big Boss catch ya." (The Big Boss was the little chief steward, who drew down a fabulous salary and had the whole place scared to death.) "See--pull a cracker box out so and put what ya got to eat behind it this way, then ya can sit down and sorta take your time at it. If the boss does come by--it's behind the cracker box and you should worry! Have a cup of coffee?"

I was full up of coffee from my gentleman friend across the way, so declined Kelly's assistance in obtaining more. Every day, about 2.30, Kelly got in a certain more or less secluded corner of my compartment and ate a bit himself. "Been almost fired a couple of times for doin' this--this place is full o' squealers--gotta watch out all the time. Hell of a life I say when a fella has to sneak around to eat a bit of food."

That second afternoon, Kelly stopped in the middle of a gulp of coffee.

"Say, w'at t' hell's a girl like you workin' for, anyhow? Say, don't you know you could get married easy as--my Gawd! too easy. Say, you could pick up with one of these waiters just like that! They're good steady fellas, make decent pay. You could do much worse than marry a waiter. I'm tellin' ya there's no sense to a girl like you workin'."

That was an obsession with Kelly. He drilled it into me daily. Kelly himself was a settled married man. Of his state we talked often. I asked Kelly the very first day if he ever went to Coney Island.

"Ustta--'ain't been for ten years."

"Why not for ten years?"

Kelly looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. "Got married ten years ago."

"Well, and w'at of it? Don't you have no more fun?"

"You said it! I'm tellin' ya there's no more fun. Gee! I sure don't know myself these ten years. I was the kind of a fella"--here Kelly was moved in sheer admiration to do a bit of heavy cursing--"I was the kind of fella that did everything--I'm tellin' ya, everything. Bet there ain't a thing in this world I 'ain't done at least once, and most of 'em a whole lot more 'n that. An' now--look at me now! Get up at four every mornin', but Sundays, get down here at six" (Kelly was a suburbanite), "work till three, git home, monkey with my tools a bit or play with the kids, eat dinner, sit around a spell, go to bed."

A long pause. "Ain't that a hell of a life, I'm askin' ya?"

Another pause in which Kelly mentally reviewed his glowing past. He shook his head and smiled a sad smile. "If you could 'a' seen me ten years ago!"

Kelly told me the story of his life more or less in detail some days later. I say advisedly "more or less." Considering the reputation he had given himself, I am relieved to be able to note that he must have left some bits out, though goodness knows he put enough in. But Kelly's matrimonial romance must be told.

Kelly went with a peach of a girl in the years gone by--swellest little kid--gee! he respected that girl--never laid hands on her. She wanted to go back to the old country for a visit, so he paid her way there and back--one hundred and sixty-five dollars it had cost him. Coming home from a ball where Kelly had been manager--this at 4 A.M.--a remark of the girl's led Kelly to suspect she was not the stainless bit of perfection his love had pictured. So after three years of constant devotion Kelly felt that he had been sold out. He turned around and said then and there to his fair one, "You go to hell!" He never laid eyes on her again.

A few years later Kelly met an American girl. He went with her three years, was making seventy-five dollars a month, had saved eight hundred and seventy-six dollars, and in addition possessed one hundred and ten dollars in life insurance. So he asked the lady to marry him. Y' know w'at she said to Kelly? Kelly leaned his shaggy mop of hair my way. She said, "I won't marry nobody on seventy-five dollars a month!" Again Kelly's manhood asserted itself. Do you know w'at Kelly said to her? He says, says he, once more, "You go to hell!" He quit.

Whereupon Kelly drew out every cent he possessed and sailed for Europe. When he landed again in New York City, d' y'know how much money Kelly had in his pocket? Thirty-five cents. Then he went West for seven or eight years, and tore up the country considerable, Kelly did. He came back to New York again, again minus cash. A few days after his return the girl of eight years before met him by appointment at the Grand Central Station. What d' y'know? She asked Kelly to marry her--just like that. Heck! by that time Kelly didn't give a darn one way or the other. She bought the ring, she hired the minister, she did the whole business. Kelly married her--that's the wife he's got right now.

One of Kelly's steady, dependable waiters approached about 5 P.M. "Say, girl, I like you!" Of course, the comeback for that now, as always, was, "Aw go-an!"

"Sure, I like you. Say, how about goin' out this evening with me? We'll sure do the old town!"

"I say, you sound like as if you got all of twenty-five cents in your pocket!"

He leaned way over my counter.

"I got twenty-five dollars, and it's yours any time you say the word!"

It's words like that which sometimes don't get said.

For supper that night I sat at a table with a housekeeper, a parlor maid, and a seamstress, and listened to much talk. Mainly, it was a discussion of where the most desirable jobs were to be had in their respective lines. There was complete unanimity of opinion. Clubs headed the list, and the cream of cream were men's clubs. The housekeeper and parlor maid together painted a picture which would lead one to conclude that the happiest women in all New York City were the housekeepers in men's clubs. The work was light, they were well treated--it was a job for anyone to strive for. The type of men or women in clubs, they remarked, was ahead of what you'd draw in any hotel.

The parlor maid, an attractive, gray-haired woman--indeed, all three were gray-haired--was very pleased with her job at our hotel. She slept there and loved it. The rooms were so clean--your towels were changed daily just as for the guests. Sure she was very contented. If her mother were only alive--she died two years ago--she'd be the happiest woman in the world, she just knew it. But every single morning she woke up with an empty feeling in her heart for the longings after her mother.

* * * * *

My diary of Thursday of that first week starts: "The best day since I've been trying jobs--Glory be, it was rich!" And pages follow as to the wonders of that one day--wonders to me, who was after what the workers themselves think about the universe in general.

When I found how hard the Spanish woman I relieved at 1.30 had to work, how much more rushed she was from 6 to 1.30 than ever I was from 1.30 to 9, and when I learned, in addition, that she received no more pay for all her extra labors, I told her I would come early every day and help her during the rush. This is all good psychology and I give it for what it is worth. The first few days, this Thursday being one of them, she was very grateful--spoke often of how much it helped to have me there early. My last morning during my two weeks of the hotel job I was so rushed with final errands to do before leaving New York that it was impossible for me to arrive at work before 1.30, my regular and appointed time. The Spanish woman knew it was my last day. But she was so put out to think I had not arrived early that she whisked out of that compartment the second I arrived, only taking time to give me one fearful and unmistakable glare. Kelly caught the remnants of it as she swung by him. He sauntered over to my counter. "Say, the nerve of some people!"

That Thursday noon, I ate with the workers in the help's kitchen. So much talk! First there was a row on fit to rend the rafters. One of the Irish girls plumped herself down to eat and raved on about Lizzie, an Armenian girl, and something or other Lizzie had done or hadn't done with the silverware. Everyone was frank as to what each thought about Lizzie. Armenian stock was very low that day. Just then Lizzie appeared, a very attractive, neat girl who had been friendly and kind to me. I had no idea it was she about whose character such blusterous words were being spoken. With Lizzie and the Irish girl face to face--Heaven help us! I expected to see them at each other's throats. Such talk! Finally another Irish girl turned to the Armenian. "Why t'hell do you get so mad over it all, now?" Lizzie stopped, gave the second Irish girl a quizzical look. Slowly a smile spread over her face. She gave a little chuckle. "Ho! Why t'hell?" We all laughed and laughed, and the fight was off.

It seems Lizzie was known far and wide for her temper. She had been fired from waiting on the chefs because she let it loose in their dining room one night. Now they were trying her out up at our end of the service floor. Minnie, the oldest Irish woman at our table and in a decidedly ruffled mood that day, claimed it was the Armenian in her. "They're all like that. Shure, I got a Armenian helper--that kid over there. Wait till he says one word more to me. I'll bust a plate on his head and kick his prostrate form into the gutter. It'll be a happy day in my life!"

They all asked me about my work and how I liked it. Evidently mine was a job high in favor. "Shure you're left alone and no one to be under your feet or botherin' with y' every minute of the day. You're yo'r own boss."

The talk got around to the strike at the Hotel McAlpin of a few years ago. It was for more pay. The strike was lost. I asked why. "Shure, they deserved to lose it. Nobody hung together."

We discussed domestic service. Every day at that hotel I wondered why any girl took work in a private home if she could possibly get a hotel job. Here was what could be considered by comparison with other jobs, good pay, plus three nourishing meals a day, decent hours, and before and after those hours freedom. In many cases, also, it meant a place to sleep. There was a chance for talk and companionship with one's kind during the day. Every chance I got I asked a girl if she liked working in a private home, or would change her hotel job if she got a chance. The only person who was not loud in decrying private service was Minnie during this special Thursday lunch. But Minnie was so sore on the world that day. I do believe she would have objected to the Virgin Mary, had the subject come up. Minnie had worked years in private families and only six years in hotels. She wished she'd never seen the inside of a hotel.

That same night at the supper table the subject came up again before an entirely different crowd. Three at the table had tried domestic service. Never again! Why? Always the answer was the same. "Aw, it's the feeling of freedom ya never get there, and ya do get it in a hotel." One sweet gray-haired woman told of how she had worked some years as cook in a swell family where they kept lots of servants. She got grand wages, and naïvely she added, you get a chance to make lots on the side, o' course. I asked her if she meant tips from guests. Oh no! She meant what you made off tradespeople. Don't you see, if you got the butcher bill up so high, you got so much off the butcher, and the same with the grocer and the rest. She had a sister not cooking long who made over one hundred dollars a month, counting what she got off tradespeople. It is a perfectly accepted way of doing, mentioned with no concern.

But on the whole, that supper table agreed that domestic service was a good deal like matrimony. If you got a good family, all right; but how many good families were there in the world? One woman spoke of working where they'd made a door mat of her. Barely did she have food enough to eat. There were four in the family. When they had chops the lady of the house ordered just four, which meant she who cooked the chops got none.

After lunch this full Thursday I rushed to assist Mary. I loved going down the stairs into our hot scurry of excitement. Indeed, it was seeing behind the scenes. And always the friendly nods from everyone, even though the waiters especially looked ready to expire in pools of perspiration. At Monsieur Le Bon Chef's counter some sticky waiter had ordered a roast-beef sandwich. The heat had made him skeptical. "Call that beef?" The waiter next him glared at him with a chuckle. "An' must we then always lead in the cow for you to see?" A large Irishman breezed up to my Bon Chef. "Two beef à la modes. Make it snappy, chief. Party's in a hurry. Has to catch the five-thirty train"--this at one o'clock. Everyone good-natured, and the perspiration literally rolling off them.

Most of the waiters were Irish. One of them was a regular dude--such immaculateness never was. He was the funny man of the place, and showed off for my special benefit, for I made no bones of the fact that he amused me highly. He was a very chippy-looking waiter--pug nose, long upper lip. When he ordered ice coffee he sneaked up on the Greek à la Bill Hart, ready to pull a gun on him. He had two names at his disposal and used one or the other with every order, no matter who the chef was. In a very deep tone of voice, it was either, "James, custard pie!" or, "Dinsmore, one veal cutlet." But to me it was always: "Ah there, little one! Toast, I say toast. Dry, little one. Ah yes! There be them who out of force of habit inflicted upon them take even their toast dry. You get me, little one?"

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