Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Concierge Stories: The Nigger Game

Rewind the clocks back to November 22, 2009 - my first day working in the hotel industry. As I've said in many blogs before, it was for a company that ran over fifty concierge desks in Manhattan and Brooklyn, so I bounced around in many places. My training day would take place at a hotel that is directly across the street from the one I'm at right now. 

My trainer was Robyn, a sweet but feisty old black woman from Newark, NJ that was a dead-ringer of Lynne Thigpen. Any kid that grew up on Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?  can surely appreciate that. She was a treat to be around, because she never took shit from anyone - especially the clientele. One time, she was selling theatre tickets to a guest, when a woman waiting on line chimed in and told them that they could get them cheaper at TKTS, the discount ticket booth in Times Square. This blew her commission, so after bidding the guest adieu, she addressed the woman by saying "Thank you for that, is there any more money you'd like to remove from my pocket?" before throwing her off the line. 


Everyone tries to be a star on their first day. In this industry, it's a different beast. You have to prove that you're competent enough to do the work while having the patience to deal with the guests. Many are overwhelmed when they're presented with an endless pot-luck of drooling tourists who can barely put together a sentence and are offended when you can't decipher their guttural verbal outbursts. This didn't happen with me, because I worked in special education on and off for four years after I graduated college. If college taught me to act and write and express myself, then working as a teacher for the developmentally disabled was my masters program for working in hospitality. 

She was impressed by my saint-like patience, and we got to talking before the early-evening rush. She had a nephew that was recently diagnosed with autism, so we shared an instant connection. I offered up whatever advice I could. Having someone ask you for advice in this situation can be delicate, because you never want to contradict an expert that they've already put their trust into. She listened and was appreciative of everything I had to offer, which honestly wasn't much. 

After that, Robyn eased up on her gruffness a bit, which helped me relax a little on my first day. The early-evening rush came, and she trusted me to work on my own computer. I plowed through my first influx of redundant dinner and theatre questions: "EHHHHH where is to find King Lion?" "We're looking for a good place to eat, not too expensive with really great food. Not too fancy, but nice." "What time is TKTS open till?" 

I knew my shit when it came to restaurants and theatre in mid-town, so I was able to get through that rush without bothering her once. I was her new favorite trainee. 

Robyn- "I'm getting paid trainer's salary and I'm not doing any training! You sure you've never done this before?" 

We bantered a little more before the next wave of idiots came our way. The hours of 6pm-8pm are the busiest for a concierge desk, because everyone is trying to get last-minute dinner reservations and event tickets. Things tend to get loud and chaotic very quickly. 

Out of the woodwork came a Brazilian woman in a long fur coat:

Fur Coat Woman- "Ehhhh, excuse me. An information please." 

She was one of the polite ones. 

Doorman- "Yes, ma'am? What can I do for you?"

Fur Coat Woman- "Do you book the hell tours?" 

Doorman- "Excuse me?" 

Fur Coat Woman- "The hell tours. For you see New York?" 

I dunno. Apparently she wants to see New York and has to get the devil involved. I leaned over to Robyn, who was busy with a guest of her own. 

Doorman- "Hell tours?"

Robyn- "Give her a helicopter tour brochure." 

Oh ok, that makes sense. See? It never hurts to ask the veteran. 

I show her a pamphlet for the helicopter tour, and she's ecstatic.

Fur Coat Woman- "Ah, obrigado!" 

As she opens up the pamphlet, I prepare to take on the next guest. Just as I make eye contact with the man behind her, Fur Coat Woman jolts back as if she has forgotten something. She runs back and nearly tramples the man that was waiting patiently for help. 

Fur Coat Woman- "Excuse me, one more small information!" 

I looked to the man waiting, who gave the "it's okay, I'll wait" nod. I indulged her. 

Doorman- "Yes, ma'am?" 

Fur Coat Woman- "Do you have tickets for the nigger game?" 

You know when someone says something so boldly and outlandishly racist, that you feel like  you're going to get punched in the face simply because it landed in your ears? That's what I felt. The guy behind her looked at me, looked at her, and looked at Robyn. I saw the excitement in his eyes. He was about to witness his first big New York moment. 

I looked in the corner of my eye. Robyn hadn't heard.

Doorman- "Excuse me?"

She spoke up.

Fur Coat Woman- "EHHHH Do you have tickets for the nigger show tonight?" 

Doorman- "SHHHH!!! Are you crazy?!?"

She was offended, as if I were being rude for "shushing" her mid-sentence. Just past her, I could see the blurry image of the man behind her giggling. I looked to Robyn. She was making a big theatre ticket sale and hadn't heard anything.

Doorman- "I don't know what you want, ma'am, but you need to stop using that word." 

Fur Coat Woman- "I am sorry. Do you know the nigger boxer show?" 

Doorman- "STOP SAYING THAT!" 

That was loud enough for Robyn to hear. 

Robyn- "What's the matter, Doorman?" 

Doorman- "Nothing!"

Fur Coat woman turned to Robyn. She was done with my incompetence and seeking out the senior staff member. 

Doorman- "NO!" 

Robyn- "Where do you want to go, ma'am?" 

Oh, shit. The man behind her looks like his head is about to explode with excitement. 

Fur Coat Woman- "Ehhh... Madison Garden." 

Robyn- "And what would you like to see?" 

All I could muster was a faint "wait...". 

Fur Coat Woman- "The nigger boxers." 

Time stopped. I fully anticipated having to prevent a violent rumble between an old black woman and an equally old Brazilian lady in a fur coat. Not what I expected on my first day. Robyn turned to me. The man behind the Fur Coat Woman has his teeth clamped down on his index finger. 

Robyn- "She wants to go to the Knick game." 

Wait... what? 

Doorman- "Huh?" 

Robyn- "The Knickerbockers. I thought you grew up here.

Fur Coat Woman- "Ah, yes! The niggerboxers! Obrigado!" 

The full name for the New York Knicks is the Knickerbockers. 

Robyn- "Just call up the broker and see if he has any tickets. The number is taped to the desk next to the mousepad." 

She just went about her work, completely unfazed. The man behind the woman disappeared. I guess he was disappointed. 

Doorman- "Oh, ok. Thanks, Robyn."

Robyn- "Anytime." 

I got her two sweet tickets to the game, but the Knicks sucked at the time, so it wasn't difficult. 

But what the fuck? Was I just hearing things? Were my white guilt ears just sensitive to anything that remotely sounded like a slur because I was standing next to a black woman? Maybe Robyn had heard that mistake before, and was used to it? But the other guy heard it, right?!? 

I obviously didn't ask. What was I going to say? "Hey, Robyn, did you think she was saying 'nigger'? Cause I totally did!!!" 

No, I left it alone. The Knicks lost to Boston 107-105 in OT that evening despite 30 points from Al Harrington. (Remember THAT era, Knick fans?)

Eventually, I was moved from the hotel after my training, but would visit Robyn whenever I passed by. 



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