Servin' up summer in servitude style

May 02, 2002
 By Barry Lewis
 Times Herald-Record
 "Why don't you waiter this summer?"
My son shot me a look as if I had asked him to pay for a full tank of gas.
"Now, why would I want to do that?"
He's a teen-ager in the Catskills. A youth in search of money who I suggest should stop searching for it in my wallet. And he's wondering why he should be a hotel waiter?
Doesn't he know about traaadiiiitiiiion!
At his age I was bringing out mains and serving sides. My father once carried out mains and sides. His brother carried out mains and sides. Even my grandfather carried out mains and sides.
Didn't he know we had borscht in our blood and few spots on our white shirts?
But instead of pushing him to push the brisket, I started wondering if I really want him serving soup.
Does he have it in him to get it on him?
Can he be one of the few, the proud, the Catskill waiters?
Does he have what it takes to feed 40 folks in a matter of minutes, act as a human conveyer belt and bring out more food in one sitting than some Third World nations could see in a month?
Is he up to the task of serving baked, broiled or boiled meat and knowing more combinations for fruit salads then Houdini knew for locks?
Can he pick out Sanka in a sea of regular brewed?
Is he tough enough to bark out orders in an omelet line, have the dexterity to fish out a matzo ball at a moment's notice and the guile to pilfer onion rolls from another table without leaving a crumb?
Working the resorts was a teen's rite of passage.
You got your license. Got a car. Got a summer job at a hotel to pay for the gas for the car. Spent all summer working at the hotel. Only had enough time and energy to drive the car to and from the hotel.
The brave ones [or insane ones, take your pick] stayed at the hotel.
I should clarify that we stayed on grounds ... and not in the hotel.
I get a kick each time I catch "Dirty Dancing," the movie that's supposed to depict life in a Catskill resort.
Remember the staff quarters? A well-lit stone path that led to a row of cabins, each with a deck. Clean walls. Fresh-faced kids just wanting to dance.
My room at the old Shady Nook in Loch Sheldrake made the huts on "Survivor" look like the Ritz.
Guess they didn't have building or health codes in those days.
No heat, no hot water and no locks. Somewhat frightening considering that our fine "housemates" spent summers working at the hotel and winters at Rikers Island. These guys also wanted to do some dirty dancing.
We had no television. Entertainment was reading the lyrical prose and anatomically correct pictures that lined the walls. Now I understand why so many waiters later went into medicine.
We washed in the hotel pool because we didn't dare step foot in the showers. Not when the bugs were bigger than the soap. It was hard spotting the bugs between the greenery growing on the floor. You'd need either a botanist or a hazardous waste expert to identify the growing green stuff.
Since I'm talking about the green stuff, I reminded my son that the hotels feed you.
I'd be lying if I said I ate the "staff" food. Instead, we smuggled out meat, potatoes or anything else we deemed edible. You wouldn't believe the places you can hide prime rib.
Hey, since they charged us for room and board, I figured after that room, we were owed some board.
All that and not a single guarantee that the small yellow envelopes we were handed at the end of summer had enough cash to make the work worthwhile.
My son was stumped.
If the staff lived in fear, had to steal food to survive and worked long hours without guaranteed pay ... why did everyone want to work at the hotels?
Because they were here.


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