Walter sidles up behind me and slips his fingers inside my cummerbund. “Would you like to have breakfast later?”
It is 4:00 am. in early July.
“Maybe,” I reply warily. “First, I’ve got to seat this table.” I feel his hand slide from the band and brush my hips as he saunters away from my station.
Walter, 21, a first-generation Russian immigrant, is a waiter at the Corncuopia Room at Steve Wynn’s Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City and I am the hostess. Dining establishments in casinos are almost always designed around a particular theme---a time and place in history—and this one is no exception. I am dressed as a Gibson Girl, long skirt, six-inch cuffs, puffy sleeves, jabot, and the waist-cinching cummerbund. Walter wears a white shirt with a garter over his sleeve and a satin vest. We are costumed in a Gay 90's theme, to recall a time when ladies and gents frolicked on bicycles built for two, listened to the harmonies of a barbershop quartet and sipped root beer floats.
I wonder if the patrons of The Golden Nugget really notice anything about this place, especially at this hour. The red-haired woman waiting for a booth wearing a Rolling Rock baseball cap and rhinestone studded sweatshirt doesn’t seem to care. “Just lost my disability checks at the friggin’ slot machines,” she croaks to no one in particular.
Walter and I are more than half way through the graveyard shift.
A flamingo-colored sky smothers the night outside. The wide window bank beyond the Cornucopia exposes the dawn and the stone sea gives the new morning an unsteady floor. The tentative day is a sight the whole crew waits for. But it is not the beginning for us, not a brand new morning. Instead, it is the end of dishes smeared with Boston Cream Pie, the end of requests for extra plates to split the Salisbury steak entree, doggie bags, and ashtrays. It is the end of “Hey hons” from stout men in velour jogging suits and the loud emphysematous laughs from the pin-thin woman fresh out of nickels.
The shift starts at 11pm and ends at 7am; the casinos close at 3pm and re-open at 7am. While the hardcore gamblers wait for the games to begin again, they while their time having a meal at The Cornucopia. The hours never bother me. I feel energized by the atmosphere, mirrors, glass, money, the red squiggly designs, like giant viruses, on the carpets.
The end of each shift brings me one day closer to law school. I am trying to make as much money as I can before September toward tuition, books and transportation. As hostess, my command of influence in the dining area reigns supreme. Who sits where determines which wait staff earns the most tips. I quickly learn how to size up diners and determine their tip potential.
Two men in open neck stretch nylon shirts and gold crosses will, for example, leave up to a 50% gratuity for a female waitress. Macho men with sexy dates leave good tips for either male or females. But the riders from the "roach coach" casino buses either leave no tip or one so small it is almost humiliating to accept it.
I try to be fair—spread it around as much as possible, but my objectivity is compromised by Walter’s attentions. When I spot high rollers delirious from a win, I take them out of a long line of waiting customers and seat them in Walter’s area. I also score at $10 tip for myself.
“Do not seat me another table from a roach coach,” Dee, a dark-haired waitress breathes down my neck, referring to the casino bus crowd.
They disembark from the casino bus holding crumpled coupons redeemable for a free buffet. They drag plastic shopping bags bulging with newspapers and banana peels. There seems to be a collective assumption among them that the tip is somehow included in the coupon.
Duly threatened, I gently lead a group of bus exiles toward the back of the restaurant out of Dee’s station.
As I return to my station, I hear, “Don’t wear that nail polish again.” It is assistant manager Jeff McGuire. Apparently, Gibson Girls did not sport chipped neon orange nails. Ever since Jeffrey found out that I was going to law school in September, he’s been picking on me.
“What are you doing in the kitchen, Miss College Girl?” he yells.
“That table’s not cleaned. You can’t seat people there yet, Brainy,” he chides, pressing his fingers against his sparse blonde moustache.
To escape his scrutiny, I sneak into the kitchen, open the giant stainless freezer door, dig a spoon into a vat of rum raisin ice cream and cram it in my mouth. Out of nowhere, I hear his whiny voice. “What are you doing? Are you eating ice cream? There are people waiting to be seated! I should fire you right here.”
I can’t reply. My soft palate is pulsing with a surge of cold and sugar that freezes my brain and momentarily compromises my vision and impairs my ability to speak. Gulping down the ice cream, I return to my station.
A phalanx of people are lined up for their four am strip steak and baked potato, extra butter. I wipe a clot of ice cream off my cheek with a laced cuff. At the back of the line, I see Marie Pecora’s son Bernard---Viet Nam vet, drug addict, unemployed--standing with two compatriots. I walk towards the crowd, past the tattooed biceps, ringed pinkies, burning cigarettes; past the scent of Brut aftershave and penciled eyebrows raised in indignation.
“Hi Bernard. Right this way.” One tooth missing, the remaining ones in good shape, his smile warms the last bits of my frozen throat. Bernard had left for Viet Nam 15 years before, sane, slim and sound. During his tour of duty, he was stationed near the Mekong Delta, loading river boats. Whatever happened there, changed him, mind, body and spirit. His eyes burn a blue-green fire, scorched with memories of his days in the war that gnawed his brain and left him lost
“Hey, Patrish,” he says, sounding just like his mother Marie calling from her front porch when she saw me walking home from grade school.
“I’ve got a table for your and your friends,” I say, touching his broad shoulder.
“Really? But look at the line,” he sputters.
“Follow me,” I motion with my oversized menus.
Bernard looks around, grins and pulls his shoulders back as I escort him in front of the throng, no waiting, and seated him at a booth near the potted plants. It’s the least I could do considering what he sacrificed for our country in a war everyone wished never happened.
Jeffrey is furious and Dee almost slugs me when she realizes they are in her station, but I consider it a small act of civil disobedience in tribute to my past and with a nod toward the future.
I don’t care about Jeff’s threats. The summer is whizzing by and there are not enough days left to fire me and hire a replacement.
I’m not afraid of being fired and I’m not afraid of the workload at law school. The idea of it is as sweet and irresistible as the rum raisin ice cream. I am leaving when the summer ends and Jeffrey and Dee are staying behind.
Close to 5:30 am, I find Walter sitting on an Abbott’s milk crate smoking a Raleigh and reading what looks like a 600-page book in Russian. War and Peace?
He looks up at me, as I chomp down on an ice cube. His hairline starts low and thick on his forehead and flows back like a muddy river. In his yellow eyes, pulled back at the sides in a Sino-Soviet slant, I think I see the ghost of Ghengis Kahn.
“My feet are fucking killing me," he says, wincing.
“Oh, Walter,” I say, crouching to his level. “I’m going to miss you when I go.”
“You’re already gone,” he answers and digs his black boot into the cigarette he flicks to the floor.