Sulgrave Road, 2003
Between years of college I was a waiter at a convention hotel. The base pay was miserable, but if you had a big group your share of the tip made up for it. There was a law of diminishing returns, though, that guaranteed that you’d never get rich doing this kind of work. The old pros knew the name of the game was to serve the largest number of people with the fewest servers.
The job was hard and messy. The hours were long and late. At the end of the night you smelled like stale cigarettes and whatever meat or fish had been the main course. I watched and learned what I could from the old timers, including how to juggle eight or nine prime rib dinners on my arms and how to spirit away unused liquor before the food & beverage manager showed up to count the bottles; skills that served me well when I returned to college.
One of the servers I worked with was a guy who’d bounced around the beach for years. You’d find Del working the front desk at one hotel one month and at another the next. I never quite understood how Del supported his wife and two kids. But after I’d worked a few convention dinners with him I at least understood why he moved around so much from job to job.
Del was a nice guy, but he was lazy, perhaps the laziest person I ever worked with. Lazy people don’t do well as convention servers. While the others of us were out on the floor doing all the heavy lifting, Del would be back in the pantry smoking cigarettes and talking about all the big deals he had brewing. Needless to say, nobody wanted to work with Del.
But he did tell a good story. When he was in college, Del worked as a lifeguard at the oceanfront. Toward the end of one summer Del took up with a pretty girl from Richmond. When it came time for her to go back home, she accepted Del’s offer to drive her to Richmond.
Del knew the girl was from a well-to-do family. He had no idea how well to do until he drove through the gates and down the long drive of her family’s home, a fully restored 1700s brick plantation estate overlooking the James River. If he’d been from Richmond himself, Del would have know that the girl’s father was a media baron and member of one of the city’s oldest and most prominent families.
Being a kid from a working class family in Norfolk, however, Del knew nothing of this and probably wouldn’t have cared if he had. He parked his beat up old Chevrolet at the front door of the house and, dressed in little more than a bathing suit, t-shirt and flip-flops, walked proudly into the mansion when the butler opened the door.
The girl’s mother greeted them and welcomed them to go downstairs to the playroom. But first, the girl’s mother asked Del if he wouldn’t mind moving his car around to the service entrance. Del didn’t know enough to be offended by this and moved the car out of sight.
When he returned indoors, he found the girl downstairs in a lushly furnished playroom, watching television and talking to her younger sister. A silver tray of fruit, cheese and crackers was on an ottoman in front of the couch. When they got thirsty, another butler in a white jacket somehow knew it was time to come in and serve them Cokes in crystal glasses from a silver tray.
Del didn’t last long as a convention server. The last I heard he was selling water softeners door-to-door.