Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Trays for Days: The Banquet Years

This could be my best post ever or I could wimp out. You know, it's so funny to me how I used to whine about the Portland Tribune, and not being able to write what I really thought was going on in my column. I used to talk about the corporate filters that kept me from being real, so now here I am with this blog. You'd think I could write exactly what I wanted, wouldn't you? I mean, who'd stop me? But there are other reasons why we don't always reveal what's going on in our lives - good reasons and bad. So I'm at a crossroads of sorts. I either reveal more of the truth or watch this blog slip further away. It's like when the space shuttle undocks from the space station. Slowly the orbits drift apart till something you were completely attached to, is now just a speck.

It's like the letters my father wrote home during World War 2. There were pages and pages of carefully typed out letters to the family, and they could have been a great book except for one thing: Every last one of them was designed to cheer his folks up. After a while reading them, it gets frustrating. You just wish he would communicate what was really going on, but it's all through a filter. It's as distant as a missed opportunity. Of course, the reasons were completely understandable, especially in that case. He was writing for his folks, so he couldn't be completely truthful. In comedy terms, we are all playing to the room.

Well, I don't want this blog to be too much like that, so here's a more honest version of what happened to me: I moved to Portland in a band. That's how I got here. Along the way, I took a job in banquets to survive. This is like the late 70s - I'm 52 now. The band eventually blew apart with our drummer landing in prison.

Before that, I had grown up in another adventure - a kind of jet-setting life over in Arabia. I was educated in good schools, and frankly, I had a lot going on mentally. The professors used to beg me to go into math or physics, but all I wanted to do was have adventures and play rock and roll.

One big leap came when I graduated from prep school a semester early. On my 18th birthday, I headed out hitchhiking and I eventually hitched over 25,000 miles. Even when I had been living in Portland for a while, working in banquets, I would sometimes revert to my hitchhiking days. Once when my Dad was being honored in New York by the Catholic Church, I hitchhiked across the country and surprised him. So I went from camping out under freeway bridges to a suite at the Waldorf Astoria.

Damn, I've got to get to the real point here. I could go on and on about those years, but let me just say it: The band crashed and burned and I went on working in banquets. It was perfect in that I controlled my schedule and I could survive on around 20 hours a week. The rest of the time I was a musician. One day back in the early 90s, I sent Jay Leno a few jokes and that led to a comedy writing career. 10 years ago this month, I started writing for a radio network. 6 years ago I was in negotiations to become a columnist for the Tribune. I've also sold the options to a few scripts. In short, I am now a writer, and the waiter identity is pretty well gone. In fact, my banquet skills are quite diminished, which bothers me a lot.

I never intended to minimize this side of the story, but here's why I can't be more forthcoming: I used the banquet job to write a column for the Portland Tribune and all hell broke loose. See, as a banquet waiter you get to meet these famous people which is how I ended up chatting with the Dalai Lama. The column infuriated his local supporters - they thought I had acted as a waiter impostor to get access, which doesn't say much about my level of service. Many meetings were held and I offered to resign from my banquet job. They accepted the apology and I continued on. Part of the settlement with my employer was that I could not write about what went on there, without seeking permission first.

The comedy career blossomed so I would only work the minimum at banquets to keep my seniority. I figured I was always one bad joke from being unemployed. At the time, I only had to do a banquet once every 3 months. That's not bad to have a job in reserve, is it? They've since made it once every 2 months, and that's still okay. It's great checking in on the old gang. As always, I try to use it to have great encounters with the high and mighty who drift through town. I love that part of it, and I'd love to blog about it. However, I'm not supposed to do that anymore.

The result is that I feel a little bit phony, like I have something to hide. I don't - it's a corporate filter that extends even to the freedom of the blog. Incidentally, I read the remarks about waiters in this city and I know a lot of them as my friends. I want to say that I have worked in the corporate structure of a local paper, so I have been around professional career-types. Frankly, the banquet waiters I have known are a better class of people. Sure, waiters can be a little competitive and envious of each other's gratuity, but there's nothing like watching the 6-figure set go after each other. Oh my God! They stick the knives all the way in.

Frankly, when the condescending remarks come in about waiters or other workers, from the various professionals here in town, I think they sound a little snobby, pretentious, and stuffy. Yes, there is a whole class of musicians, artists, misfits, poets, intellectuals, rebels, basic laborers, and various other descriptions that are currently out there making a living in the food and beverage industry, and trust me, many of them are a lot more interesting than you think. You may not notice them, but they'll be waiting on you at your corporate holiday parties this month. And guess what? I respect them more than the Portland City Council or the District Attorney or the PDC, and on and on. It's not how much you make; it's how much you have to sell out to make it.

There is a basic honesty in banquets that is particularly refreshing after my stint in the corporate world.

So what's bothering me? I am now in a position where I can quit the job I've worked in since the late 70s. I feel confident about my joke writing - Leno opened the show last night with two of mine including, "You can tell it's Christmas. A Russian agent just died of eggnog poisoning." I find myself at a good place financially - at least for me. I think a lot about quitting my banquet job. For one thing, I'm just too damn old to do it right. I was a houseman, waiter, and captain, and I used to really attack. Those days are gone.

Plus, if I quit I could finally write about all the amazing stories I have. Meeting Presidents, etc...All the politicians in Portland since 1978. You don't know me but I know you. Actually, I'd talk with some of them so often that they did know me, at least back then. I could give you stories about the Oregon governors for example. I was in the halls or elevator with some of them right after they won. Musicians? Sports stars? I've got a lot to say, but the current filters prevent me.

So what's the problem? Okay, here's the classic part. It's time to quit my old job, that I've barely done for years, but when I think about making the break, it becomes very emotional. This is a bond here with a bunch of friends, many of whom I go back with decades. Plus, it's a bond with the place where I worked. I admit that. You're not supposed to have sentimental feelings about jobs like these but I guess I do. Don't get me wrong. I can occasionally feel embarrassed about not being higher up in our society, but it's just a twinge. It passes. I feel like that's a character flaw, foisted on me by my immersion in our status-oriented society. I don't feel it down deep, which is why I wrote about being a banquet waiter in the Tribune. Now that I can walk away, it turns out to be much harder than I thought. I was in banquets so long, it sort of became sacred to me.


At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Juanita said...

So stick with the occasional banquet. Consider it research and revel in the moment(s).

At 8:12 PM, Anonymous ellie said...

I don't think that there is anything wrong with becoming attached to a job -- to the people you work with, the environment, and the familiarity of it all. It's nice that you don't have to rely on it anymore financially, but if it brings you joy then why not continue? You could always start a blog under a pseudonym to share your stories. *wink, wink*

Also, I share your disgust with people who behave as if service professionals (yes, some of them are "professional") are some sub-class of humanity, unworthy of respect.

At 10:01 PM, Anonymous butch said...

Bill, in my opinion this is your best, heartfelt post yet. No conspiracies, no vitriol, just human emotion that everyone encounters no matter what their "ilk" or who their "cronies" may be. Good work.

I have left two jobs where I was very emotionally connected to my co-workers. Fortunately, the second time I was leaving my new friends to re-join my old friends from my first experience (did that make any sense?). In any event, I still keep in touch with my 'ex-coworkers' on a weekly basis and have maintained those friendships....easy to do in this e-mail age.

Leaving the banquet business should not be about severing friendships/ can keep those going. If it is about getting good stories for your blog/column, is that really why you were in it to begin with? Your blog is an excellent forum even with the restrictions that were put on you. Keep it up.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Thanks, Butch, Juanita, and Ellie.

At 12:15 AM, Anonymous Tenskwatawa said...

I didn't sense in your post, Bill, yet it appears in your quick comment response, that, what?, you need an answer by the morning? I am a poor one to ask, but ...

I choose the people. If you like to waiter, then waiter. Buyer of your services, beware.

Overall, there's no choice anyway, it all turns out sort of pre-ordained. Which is fairly unbelievable. Until it all turns out.

The rule is don't make friends at work -- the 'corporate rule,' that is. So I choose making work with friends, although they are slow paying. But I'm slow producing. Now I'm 'reduced' to accepting a place to sleep, a hot meal, using someone's computer for an hour (in which I might print fifty of their pages with their ink on their printer). Small payments, maybe for organizing, (organickizing?), their life bearing -- I do this planet thing, see, kind of a niche nostrum -- and it feels like I am 'reduced' to the richest I've ever been. Rich must be just ease of mind. (I feel sorry for those who put a dollar sign in front of their ease. That dollar sign is a death wish.)

I don't know. I don't seem to have any shortage of bumping into your so-called high and mighty. That makes it hard to imagine your banquets are going to be your only meetings with the type. Hell, when I want to meet them I just go meet them, and if I want an anecdote or a telling juicy tidbit from them to feature publicizing or in a blog, I just ask them for one and admit I'm going to exploit it. Me at my worst exploiting about amounts to asking someone, 'what's your birthday?'

That's enough for me. Since I am more likely to believe what I see in them from that, than I am to believe they are who they say they are. Because we all lie to each other. Birthdays don't lie.

People lie about their birthdays; I've seen that. That's really bad. Dis-eased minds, I tell you. A couple examples I get such a big tickle out of: Karl Rove, lies that his nativity is Dec. 25. Funny, the other one is Howard Hughes who claims two -- Sept. 25 and Dec. 25. Someone born on Sept. 25 would claim two; someone born on Dec. 25 wouldn't.

Usually, the choice is easy between sticking with friends or sticking with income. But there is a line between them where sometimes it is hard to choose a side. In that area, life-or-death analysis often settles it, like: Which would I choose if I knew I was going to die tomorrow.

And there, it can get down to asking yourself who is going to bury you, carry out your funeral wishes. Jay Leno? Or banquet buddies?

Somehow, it all works out in the end, kinda pre-ordained.

I think you should just blog what does your heart feel tonight? Look, I'm here. Now we're alone and I am writing this song to you. I mean, what if you are going to die tomorrow?

At 12:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, Bill, I thought of some material you may like to pass along to Jay. It's okay if I call him Jay, isn't it? (I saw his act when he was starting out in Boston. And he was emceeing or annoucing at some gig we were at taping a documentary thingie.) Send him this?

My joke writers quit cause they realize dying for lying is not funny.

At 2:07 AM, Blogger Jack Bog said...

Keep the banquets until you're sure it's time to quit. You've got a good chemistry going right now. Why screw around and maybe wreck it?

At 12:03 PM, Blogger TR said...

Bill we are the same age, back in the fall of 76'I was in need of a job so I took a seasonal waiter job at Portlands University Club and my first waiting experiences were at banquets. I was just thinking about that place the other day and looking back fondly upon my couple of months there where I made some very good friends and developed my total contempt/envy for the rich. I never saw anyone famous though but I did see an incredible talent once. A young man who performed for a Father and Son banquet dressed in a cowboy suit, doing amazing rope and juggling tricks and had TRAINED CATS that would jump through hoops. He was paid in cash and given a meal that he wolfed down in the kitchen with the rest of the house slaves. An amazing guy he should have been on Johnny Carson.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Patry Francis said...

This is my story! I worked in banquets for many years while pursuing my dream to become a published novelist. When my novel sold last year, I was finally able to quit my job. But like you, I miss it. Not everything about it, of course, but the people, the motion, the way every group, every function was different. And just imagine the stories I have to tell! A thousand novels could not contain them all.

Best of luck with all your dreams.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Cliff said...


Many of my fond memories are shared with you. Please don't loose touch with you Hilton family.

Thanks for the memories,


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