Thursday, January 04, 2007

One Sweet Parting Shot

(Click to enlarge.)
Being a successful comedy writer means you're always one joke away from the unemployment line. Actually, since I'm an independent contractor I couldn't even do that in the event of a sudden job loss. And if you think I'm exaggerating about how easy it is to get in trouble with a botched joke, just ask John Kerry. So for my own peace of mind, I had to have an instant backup plan in place. And for me, that meant keeping my banquet waiter job at the downtown Hilton.

One of the classic examples of the system working was when I was a columnist for the Portland Tribune. I was asked to write some material for a Hacks versus Flacks Roast, and invited to sit at the Trib's table with most of their management. The event was at the Hilton and the waiters - many of whom I had known for over 10 years - were tickled to have me show up in a suit and tie. I told them that I had written much of the Trib's presentation so please laugh at the jokes or I'd be back there waiting tables by the next week.

As fate would have it, I was fired from the Trib 8 days later, and I was back there waiting tables the next week after that, just as I had foretold.

I first latched onto a banquet houseman job when I was a struggling musician way back in the 70s. This began a meteoric rise to day crew supervisor, night crew supervisor, captain, waiter, captain, waiter, captain, and finally peaking once again as waiter. In fact, back in the day, when we were short of people, I had the whole band in there with me waiting tables. When my sister or brother came through town - wham! They were instant banquet waiters or housemen.

This went on to be a big part of my life. It was the ideal job for a musician because you could schedule yourself and survive on something like 28 hours a week. I always wanted two things from life: Freedom and time. I wasn't interested in the corporate trip - I just wanted to be some kind of creative person - an artist. One other key fact in the survival mode: The Hilton fed me, and fed me well.

Of course, that 28 hour average did include some really labor intensive stretches followed by slow summers, etc.. I did plenty of 16 hour days and 70-plus hour work weeks, believe me. We're talking about a really physical job here at times and you know what? That was good for me. Somewhere along the line I had avoided learning how to work. I mean it. This job is where I learned how to work. It became much more than just a way to keep alive while the band project went on.

Unfortunately, all my attempts at music, etc... fizzled and eventually I turned to joke writing. Against all odds, that really took off. The first joke I ever sold to anybody was to Jay Leno and so I'm eternally grateful to him. He's called me several times, and he gives me a yearly bonus, but mainly he's just been fair. It was like he set out to defy everything you hear about show business sleaziness. He's always been genuine to me, and I consider this one woman who works for him to be one of the most together, decent people I've ever known.

Ten years ago I added a job writing for a radio company and that has turned out beyond great. I think we had maybe two yearly contracts and then we just went with a phone call agreement ever since. Although Leno had broken me into the biz, this radio gig was an actual salaried job, with sensational hours and no commute. I used to get up really early and knock it out, so by quarter to 9 in the morning, I was done. Now I do it at around 11 to 12:30 so it's virtually like being paid to be free. Oh, one other thing: When I'm done working everyday I have a sense of euphoria - the post-creative buzz. So life is good.

Although I felt I was really getting somewhere there was no way I could abandon my hard-earned seniority as a banquet waiter - what if something happened? However, as I related in previous posts, I finally realized it was time to go. When you just work the minimum 4 and later 6 banquets a year to keep your seniority, the muscles required start fading. My banquet chops were seriously diminished and I was becoming somewhat of a liability for the crew. That's what really did it. I couldn't stand the waiter I was becoming. So when I felt financially secure enough to walk away, I left.

The last night was emotional, saying good-bye to the troops. Returning to give human resources a written letter of resignation was also pretty intense. I didn't want to go back there yet again, but I had one more check to pick up. I called my old boss on the last day of 2006 and asked him to mail it to me. The check arrived today...along with this picture. This photo moves me. My mother's main message while I was growing up was "Make them glad you came." The people you meet in life can either be happy you came along or not. She would have LOVED the group picture.
My favorite sign: "Does this mean I gain a spot on the seniority list?"


At 10:20 PM, Blogger Frank Dufay said...

That's really cool.

Y'know I worked up at the Canlis when it was atop the Hilton as their wine steward back in 79-81. Maybe we crossed paths in the employee elevators. That job lost interest for me when the Hilton booted the Canlis out, made it a Hilton restaurant, and we lost our customers.

At 9:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best wishes to a sharp creative mind!

John Erickson, K103


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