Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sunshine, Cigar Boxes, And Semi-Automatics

The first thing I noticed about this country was the abundance of neon that sprouted along her streets. There wasn't a big Welcome To The Land of Opportunity sign on the wall in the Customs and Immigration enclosure at Miami International Airport, but once we headed into the city (today, it's more likely someone would head through Miami on his way to one of its supersprawled suburbs, neighborhoods, or sub-cities), I couldn't take my eyes off the vivid garden of commerce that grew all around, its long-stemmed offers of hamburgers and pizza and twenty-eight flavors all reaching toward the searing sunlight.

I tasted this new place America through a car window, with my eyes. We would live here now, here in this very bright hothouse with its asphalt floors and headache colors. I would eat and sleep here; one day, I would be all grown up and work here. It was at once thrilling and terrifying.

While in high school (population: 4,500), I was no different than most immigrants--or, for that matter, most high school students, native-born and otherwise--in that I held a number of part-time jobs. I babysat, of course. I sold nail polish and lipstick at a tiny discount drug store on U.S. 1. I rang up piles of forty-nine-cent undies and two-dollar plastic bracelets at one of the many department stores that stood along the same highway, competing for the same customers.

I continued to work at these Miami-based McJobs, as they'd appropriately be termed today, even after I started college at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The aforementioned department store was kind enough to hire me for the duration of my two-week Christmas break, putting me behind the gift-wrap desk with a pair of scissors and several hubcap-sized rolls of ribbon.

As for the rewards for my labor, I spent the most obvious ones--all those light-blue or green paychecks with their attached breakdowns of what was deducted and why--within weeks (and sometimes days) of having earned them. But the long-lasting remunerations, the real gold I'd still have my hands on all these years later, were the exposure to, and immersion in, the real, unvarnished modi operandi of free enterprise. And nowhere was that immersion technique more intensely, colorfully, or memorably realized than at my first serious (read: moneymaking) job in America: as a server at The Uprising (not its real name), a members-only nightclub that in a few years would be widely rumored to be the inspiration behind the Champagne-soaked, bullet-strewn playground of Scarface fame, The Babylon.

I was halfway through my junior year and tired of living in a tiny dorm room; if I earned enough money while living at home in Miami for a semester, I reasoned, I could afford my share of a real, honest-to-goodness apartment when I returned to Gainesville later that spring. I applied at The Uprising one rainy afternoon.

"And you are how old?" asked Freddie, one of the club's two evening managers.

"Nineteen," I replied.

"Why do you want to work here? I mean, you don't have to lie and say you want to make a career out of serving dinner. I know you won't be here in ten years," he said. "I just like to hear what's in people's heads."

I felt a little thrown, as I'd already prepared a pat statement in my head, something to the effect of, I see myself eventually moving from food and liquor service to marketing, helping The Uprising become one of Miami's premier hotspots...which, of course, it already was.

"I'm a student. I'd like to live in a nicer place when I'm in school, and I'm here because I understand that if I work hard, I can make a lot of money," I said. When in doubt, dazzle them with honesty.

"You will need to take a lie-detector test," said Freddie. "If that comes back okay, you can start next Monday night."

-----

It was raining again when I drove to an office park in north Miami and parked my apple-green Volkswagen in front of a neon sign that read Miami Security Associates, Inc. in loopy script. There were no windows in the building, only an enormous metal door that hurt my knuckles when I knocked on it. A blond man in a white oxford shirt and jeans led me in and offered me a seat next to the contraption that, for the next hour, would judge my truthfulness.

"I'm Kevin. Ever taken one of these?" he asked. "It's kind of fun, really. Doesn't hurt." He began winding cables around my waist and taping wires to my fingertips. "I'll ask you some routine stuff to establish your reactions, and then we'll go through the stuff that The Uprising wants, and then you'll go home. Okay?"

Kevin started by asking for my name. The machine reminded me of a seismograph, with its chugging paper-tape and hovering pens. Apparently, my own name made me nervous, as the simple act of saying it out loud while tethered to a machine resulted in wild ink zig-zags.

"It's cool, it's cool," he mumbled. There were more questions, lots of boring ones. Where was I born, how old was I, what was my middle name, what was my favorite ice-cream? And, had I ever stolen anything?

I replied with a question: "Do you mean from a person?" I was stalling, in a sense, because I hadn't ever stolen anything from a store, not even the proverbial pack of gum, but I might have, at some point in my past, inadvertently brought home the gym clothes of another classmate; this would technically be stealing. And I wanted to acknowledge this, lest the machine unleash its deep insight into my thieving self, its red zig-zags proclaiming me a liar on the spot.

"Not stolen from a store, no, and never stolen anything from anyone on purpose," I added. "I'm really honest. Really."

"Don't worry, I can tell," said Kevin, and we both laughed. "Ever take drugs?"

"Um..." I stalled again.

"Okay, not booze or pot, I mean hard stuff like heroin, coke..."

"No," I answered, as relieved to be moving past that question as most college students would be. "No, no."

"What about firearms--do you own one?"

"No," I said, wondering what firearms could possibly have to do with the serving of cocktails and lobster to wealthy Miamians.

"Ever smuggled anything into the country?"

"No."

"Ever got a speeding ticket?"

"No."

"What is your favorite kind of candy?"

-----

Servers at The Uprising, all of whom were female, were expected to show up for work in semi-formal evening attire with some sort of dress hat pinned to their heads so as to distinguish them from the club's similarly-dressed guests. And since it was 1980, "evening attire" often meant some variation of disco-wear, like the sparkly black spandex jeans and purple-feathered chapeau worn by Lena, my mentor for the first week. Lena showed me around the little work area where some of the girls were already chopping lemons, pouring cream into tiny pitchers, and constructing cherry-and-pineapple garnishes for the night's cocktails.

"When you get here, you can start in on anything that needs doing," she said. "Once the guests start arriving, there's never any time, so we try to get it out of the way now."

Lena showed me around the club. It was smaller and cozier than I'd imagined, more like a dark living room than a restaurant. Certainly its leather-flanked nooks and caves were considerably more low-key than the descriptions I'd heard, all of which entailed blinding lights, deafening disco music, and money flowing as freely and sweetly as twenty-one-year-old Scotch--a place where a good waitress or bartender can make serious money in no time flat. I looked around for a moment and wondered about that: was it all just rumor and hyperbole, as was so often the case with so much in Miami?

By seven that evening, though, the club had found its vibe, as it would, and did, every night of the week. Couples began to pour in, lights dimmed, and corks popped. Soon the music started, and within minutes, the Plexiglas dance floor that was wedged into the room's northeast corner came alive with color, its neon arteries flashing beneath and keeping time. Lena led me to one of the larger nooks, where one of her regular customers was being seated.

"That's Alberto," she said. "We will take very good care of him."

Alberto was a heavy-set Cuban man with a dark beard; he was accompanied by three giggling, short-skirted women and a serious-faced male friend. Lena kissed everyone hello and pulled a fourth chair over from a nearby table, offering it to one of the women. Alberto's friend stood back, positioning himself against the wall; he would not sit down for the rest of the evening. His name was Jorge, apparently. He would not make eye contact with, nor speak to, anyone other than his boss.

With Lena's help, I opened and poured bottle after bottle of Dom Pérignon; I served Ceasar salads and filets mignon and enormous Maine lobsters erupting crabmeat and brandied cream; and I brought several glasses of Johnny Walker Black on the rocks from the bar, where I'd already made friends with Sam, an art student at Florida International and a fellow Monty Python wonk.

"Alberto's here again, huh?" he said when I requested the third such cocktail. "Though pretty much everyone drinks this, you'll find. But it's Monday, and there aren't too many people who can put away this much Scotch on a weeknight." He drained the bottle and slipped its nozzle onto a new, full one. "You'll have fun here. You'll make good money."

So I had heard. But thus far, Lena and I had waited on exactly one party.

By three in the morning, though, I'd served a few other tables and opened another half-dozen bottles of Champagne. Alberto and his crew were beginning to look restless, but they hadn't asked for the check. I was certain it would be outrageous, well into the hundreds of dollars; Lena informed me that the two grand Alberto spent that night was nothing compared to some of his weekend expenditures, indeed, nothing compared to the bankrolls through which some of the club's other guests regularly burned.

"Now we take care of everyone," she said, dividing up the piles of bills we'd been stashing in a cigar box all night. We tipped Sam, because he always made our guests' drinks first, even when there were a dozen young bucks standing at the bar, wanting their Scotch. We slipped a few dollars to Ernie, the souffle chef. We took care of Joe, our busboy.

"Gracias, ladies. You okay? You look tired," he said.

"Oh yes, very tired, thank you. My feet..."

"Foot rubs tomorrow, then," said Joe. I wasn't sure if I'd be back tomorrow; I was, however, fairly certain that my parents wouldn't approve of my new, late-night schedule.

-----

It wasn't hard to find interesting headwear if you knew where to look; like several of my college friends, I was pretty adept at combing local thrift stores and estate sales and coming up with things of interest, in this case, little cocktail hats to wear to work. The evening outfits themselves were problematic, though. They had to meet a certain subjective standard of allure and sexiness as set forth by the club's assistant manager (and style arbiter) Michelle, but they also had to be demure enough that I could walk out to my car without causing my father to demand Where on earth, What on earth? thus necessitating high-heel removals, makeup-scrubbings, cleavage-coverups, and other time-consuming wardrobe revisions.

January blew into February, by which point I had figured out where all the cash was coming from. Certainly I knew where it was going, at least, I knew where my small fraction of it was going. I had my own cigar box, now, given to me by Rafael The Wine Guy at the end of my third night.

"Para las propinas," he said. For the tips. I had just given him his propina. Later I'd see Sam, then Joe.

On an average night, my propinas added up to about $250 (the purchasing power of which, in '06 dollars, is roughly $600). But there weren't too many average nights at The Uprising. More often than not, the club was a scene in every sense of the word.

"You own a gun?" said Tommy, the bouncer who came in on Friday and Satuday nights. It seemed everyone wanted to know if I was armed, though I've yet to arrive at a definitive reason as to why people asked me that so often, preferring to pass it off as small-talk, Miami style, since talking about the ever-steamy, always-blistering heat had probably fallen out of fashion decades ago.

"No. Do you?"

"Don't need one," he said, moving his eyes leftward to alert me to yet another bodyguard walking in ahead of his employer.

"I guess not. Do you ever have to, you know, get tough with anyone?"

"Sure. Oh, sure. Not too often, but it happens."

-----

Miami being Miami, its strange treatment of time being something else altogether, the weekend dinner hour extended past midnight, overlapping the disco hour that had started around nine. This meant you had be good at weaving nimbly through the twisting crush of tightly-packed suits and spandex dresses, holding trays of food aloft and warning people in as loud a voice as you could muster:

"HOT food! Caliente, caliente, coming through!"

One night, I attempted to carry two heavy platters of Fettucine Alfredo across the room, stretching both arms overhead--a determined lady Atlas in a black velvet beret. One of the rowdier guests, a wobblingly drunk young man, decided to challenge my efforts.

"¡Que tetas mas ricas!" he said, groping at the fitted black bodysuit that had somehow escaped parental notice when I left home earlier, grabbing hold of my chest like a toddler trying to steady himself. What nice tits! I suppose I could have resorted to the time-honored self-defense move of kicking him in the groin. But I didn't: my reflexes called my hands into action first, despite the twin Vesuviuses of pasta they currently held. Pasta that was abundant and sticky--at once face-framing and suit-ruining--but thankfully not scalding hot. In a moment, Tommy was there, lifting the man by his armpits and hauling him over to the staircase, where he would begin his rolling, bumping descent toward the ground floor lobby, trailing bits of fettucine as he went.

I would have to explain to my table that their entrees were slightly delayed. But everything would be okay: I'd been tutoring Joe in Spanish, and he was friends with the pasta chef, who'd see to it that my re-order was done immediately. And I'd throw a few bucks at the dessert chef, who'd slip me a couple of chocolate mousses off-ticket, A little something from me to make up for the delay, Sir. Would you and Madame care for some bubbly to enjoy with the mousse? I highly recommend the Perrier Jouët...

The Uprising's guests were fascinating, some of them almost indescribably so. There were the big bosses like Alberto, obviously--they always had their bodyguards with them and usually traveled with at least two female companions (and usually more). There were the party-girls, cocaine-fueled and thus chatty and fidgety, more interested in dancing and running to the ladies' rooms than having conversations with their dates, who may or may not have been their boyfriends, at least not every night. There were older Miami couples decked out in the finery of another era; they'd been dining at sunset, ordering Negronis and Manhattans beforehand and Sanka afterwards, long before the new waves of riches washed into Miami (and they usually left before the thumping din of Michael Jackson started up and obliterated conversation). And standing around everywhere were the bodyguards themselves, young men of generally sound mind and body, invariably armed (perhaps the big bumps on their lower backs made sitting down uncomfortable).

Then there were the performers. There were interpretive dancers, a handsome French couple who performed on Saturday nights. She was usually topless; he was usually accompanied by a large python. And there was a petite and impressively dexterous gentleman known only as Flaming Coffee: if your guests wanted something extra-special for dessert, you'd have the hostess call him down (he lived in the hotel above the club), and Mr. Coffee would arrive, wearing four-inch-long rhinestone earrings and one of the many lamé djellabahs he owned. He'd set up a little gilt table and proceed to pour hot streams of coffee and liquor back and forth between two cups, eventually igniting them and creating an indoor fireworks display that would probably be illegal today (and, like much else at the club, probably was then).

-----

I put off resigning from my job at The Uprising until the last possible moment, mainly because I felt guilty for leaving when I'd been given such a high-paying opportunity despite my youth and inexperience (and clean polygraph). Furthermore, in just three months, this job had granted me experience, the range and magnitude and usefulness of which would only begin to sink in years later. I had learned how to multi-task and work in a noisy, pressurized environment; I had learned how to make souffle from Ernie, the lovely elderly African chef; I'd learned that not all wines were sickly-sweet, and indeed, that most of the good ones were anything but; I could mix every cocktail under the sun; I'd mastered the art of eavesdropping in English while speaking in Spanish; I'd sung Feliz Cumpleaños often enough to have deep-sixed my persistent stage fright once and for all; I'd learned the value of reciprocal back-scratching, both in the literal and figurative sense.

"You are going back to school?" Alberto was holding one of my hands in two of his. "I'm so sad! You must come back!"

"I might, I might...I have to take classes through the summer and fall, but maybe I'll be back this time next year," I said, knowing that this was most likely untrue, and that I probably wouldn't see him again.

"I like you, I always like you, my friend," said Alberto. "Here, my number at home and at the office. You keep, and you ever need help--any reason, anything--you call me. Okay?"

I took Alberto's card and put it in my pocket.

(Also at Ezra's place.)

2 comments:

  1. Fine storytelling, Deborah.

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