Saturday, December 09, 2006

It's Over - I'm Free to Tell You What Happened

I guess tonight was a big deal because it's after 3 o'clock and I can't sleep. Oh hell, I know it was a big deal, but I'm actually feeling at peace and a little bit giddy. Tonight I worked my last banquet at the Portland Hilton after starting there in the late 70s and only leaving briefly once before for a band-related move to Spokane back in 1985. We're talking decades here, but it's over - I'm done.

I wanted tonight to have it all, and it really did. The hotel was packed with great Holiday Parties. It looked cozy and beautiful. Of course, when I got home, I could barely walk which is how it's been for the last few years. A friend who works at the Convention Center told me he can't go more than 9 days off without getting out of banquet shape. It's really very physical work, folks, and dropping in every two months to keep your seniority just doesn't cut it anymore. You literally end up in the doctor's office with your back muscles going into a corkscrew. I don't have any game left. I have outgrown my ability to kick ass, and it's a damn shame.

Okay, obviously, the thing I'm proudest of is that I managed to make a whole bunch of great friends down there. I am not a particularly socially outgoing person. In fact, I have that social anxiety, but if you put me to work with a bunch of people in banquets, we will end up being very close. Long before I was a professional comedy writer, I was trying to be fun for the crew. I went around to many of them tonight, and told them individually that it was over, and we launched into some serious reminiscing on the spot. I mean things that happened in years like 1982. I will never have that again with any group of people, in that way. For one thing, I was in my early 20s and wild when this started, and you can only do that once. I also took a few moments to walk around the building one last time as an employee. The third floor was not in use - all the parties were bigger downstairs, so I tripped out for awhile up there. Wait till you read some of those stories.

Here's something from tonight that jarred a memory: The head of the party gave everybody 50 bucks before it even started. Banquets work on an included basis so it is very rare that the guests tip on top of that, and never at the beginning. I was a captain for many years and I enjoyed giving the crew a pep talk - using humor and a million other things to put them in the A-mood. I made a few comments about the rarity of such an event as this tip, and how it behooved us to reward the host by making this party happen in a big way. These comments were my ode to my 3-different stints as banquet captain, when I'd sometimes have to fire up 40 waiters and a crew.

The memory the 50 bucks brought back, came right after my earliest days on the night crew as a houseman. We often worked from 4:30 p.m. till 6 the next morning and it was true drudgery. One day the boss asked me to be the day crew supervisor and I jumped at it - anything to get back to more normal hours. The very first week of the new job, we had a visit from the President of the United States - Jimmy Carter. He had a press conference at the hotel and then spent the night with a Portland family.

When the President walks through an area it is a big deal, especially behind the scenes. You really have to be there to feel the power. It's not like TV. You realize it's live and your imagination is fully engaged. Anything could go really wrong and become huge news. At the absolute worst - of course - is the Ambassador Hotel level. By the way, I knew someone who worked at the Washington Hilton hotel Reagan was leaving when he got shot.

But the President could also just slip on some water on the floor and break his leg. You worry about stuff like this when it's real life, and you're partly responsible for an area. Moving the President around is a huge undertaking. Huge. You should see the relief after they safely leave.

President Carter was going to come down one of our 3 service elevators, and the crew spent the day before, making sure any graffiti was removed. Of course, at the last minute, they switched elevators and he rode down in one with several choice messages on the walls aimed at the ruthless banquet manager we had back then. I remember one read simply, "Fuck you, Mr. Eng." Whoops.

The Secret Service kicked everybody out of the immediate hall by the banquet desk, but I asked an agent if I could please stay there. I was into the excitement. He looked at me and sized me up. He said, "You're not going to jump out at him, are you?" He was an African American man and I can still see his face as he said that - he was dead serious. I said, "No, I just want to stand here."

The excited crowd out in the foyer was a distant rumble but it was quiet in our area, except for the agents talking on radios. When it was about to happen, it suddenly got really tense and very, very quiet. The elevator door opened, and a couple of agents walked out. Then the President of the United States came out with more agents. Behind them was the military man carrying the famous "football" - the suitcase with the nuclear launch codes. The feeling of excitement and power that suddenly filled the room was unbelievable. It wasn't the man - it was the office. This was the leader of the Free World.

President Carter looked great - most of these politicians have a good appearance. They have to be able to stand out in a group or they wouldn't be senators, etc...The President walked by me and reached out his hand and we shook hands. I said what would become my standard greeting for all big-shots, "Thanks for coming to Portland."

The cool part was that the intense quiet lasted a few more seconds till the door to the hallway opened and the crowd around the corner went nuts. I could see the President waving and flashbulbs going off. The banquet ballroom next to the conference was being used by a convention of iron workers, or boilermakers - that sort of thing. I had been working with the head guy several days, and he was very pleased to be one room over from the President. I had to see him about one last check, and he gave me a crisp 50 dollar bill. See how that reminded me of tonight?

I signed out - it had been a long few days setting up this visit. You'd go into rooms and there would be advance groups of Secret Service agents playing cards and everyone was packing. The suit jackets were designed not to show it, but they were all armed with some serious weaponry. Of course it was nothing like the security I saw later on other presidential visits. Heck, President Carter's limo just pulled up on Broadway and he got out on the sidewalk in full view of the crowd. That sort of thing doesn't happen now.

I left, tired but thrilled. Remember Peter's Inn, the legendary bar? It was right down the street from the hotel, and I actually made it there and ordered a rum and coke before the introductions were finished. Then President Carter hit the podium on the stage risers I had personally put in place: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States." By the way, I got to check out the presidential podium and there must be a lot going on with that. I also had a look through the windows of one of the limos once, as it sat - guarded of course - in the parking garage downstairs. This was days before a president arrived - when they're actually in the building, the limo is always ready to roll.

So we were watching President Carter's press conference on the bar's TV - it was a big deal in town - and I was telling the patrons about how I shook hands with the Prez. Plus I had 50 bucks to wind down with - what a blast. And that was my first week as Day Crew Supervisor at the hotel.


At 8:59 AM, Anonymous az said...

Great post! You made it over the wall.


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