I’m standing in front of the mirror in a tux, adjusting my clip-on bowtie before I waiter my first dinner at the Palmer House. When I decide I look good enough, I use the few minutes remaining to text my friend Victor. “About to waiter at the Palmer House! Thanks again.” I write. He was the guy who got me the job. He worked there last year, and after graduating, he handed the position to me. As I’m walking over, I get a response.
“Don’t wear a tux.” He writes. When I ask why not, he just says, “You’ll feel like a Princetonian douchebag. The rest of the workers are locals. They wear what they can afford.”
It never occurred to me that I could feel over-dressed at the Palmer House. After all, the Palmer House is a bit of a big deal. And it is. The building itself dates back to 1823, and it got its name from Mrs. Zilph Palmer, the woman whose husband donated Palmer Square to the township. Princeton has owned it since 1968, and in essence, it functions as a small hotel for guests of the university. Lecturers stay there, and academic departments hold dinners and events on the main floor. With only eight bedrooms, it takes no reservations; the Palmer House has to invite you to sleep there. And with its barely off-campus location, it’s exclusive even by Princetonian standards.
When I show up for work, there’s still an hour before the reception starts. Koko, the old Japanese manager, takes me on a tour around the house. Rather, on of all the lamps and chandeliers and light fixtures I have to dim upon closing. First she shows me the Solarium, which is just a dining room with a skylight cut out of the roof. Then she brings me around to the dining room, where a long, imposing table sits, through the bar and into the library, where half-empty bottles of whiskey sit on a shelf, unguarded. “We hide those during events,” she says, referring not to the liquor but to a nearby bowl of mints. “They are only for the hotel guests.” I nod. I understand.
Our tour of the light fixtures leads us to the base of the stairs. They’re covered in bright red carpeting and split into two hallways at the top, so upon looking up from the bottom, you can’t see in either direction. I start up the staircase, but Koko stops me.
“Workers don’t go up there. When you show a guest their room, stop here and give them directions.”
Though I didn’t go upstairs that day, on account of curiosity and guest demands for new soap, I have explored it since. I had expected intrigue, so I was surprised to find plain rooms and more red hallways. But in spite of looking ordinary, these rooms are anything but. Every suite has both a name and accompanying ambience: you can ensconce yourself in the quaint New England, or the exotic China Room, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll land a spot in the haughty Ivy Queen, which, in spite of the name, sports a queen bed no more regal than the ones at the Marriott. When you wake up in the morning, you may not get breakfast in bed, but a meal awaits you in in the Solarium. That is, if you wake up between 7:30 and 9:00. After that you’ll be lucky to find old apples and Kashi bars. But as every Princeton student knows, everything tastes better when it’s free and…well…you’re just so happy that the university likes you.
After the tour Koko scampers off, and I find my coworkers are drinking sodas on the porch. One is a scraggly guy in his forties, the other a Caribbean Mrs. Butterworth of sorts. Neither wears a complete tux, but both have parts of tuxes—maybe the jacket but not the shirt, or black slacks with scruffy shoes. I join them outside, but they don’t notice me. Derrick, the scraggly one who turns out to be an ex-con from Rahway State Prison, is busy acting out a story for Paulina, the Caribbean woman. He brags about the time he beat up a guy so big that he didn’t get arrested.
“When the cops came, they asked the guy what kind of weapon I used, and he said ‘he didn’t use no weapon, he just used his fists’ and the cops couldn’t believe that such a skinny guy could do so much damage so they just laughed their asses off until the guy was so embarrassed he didn’t wanna press charges no more.”
Paulina lets out a full laugh. “You’re a lucky man,” she says. When she’s done, I introduce myself. Then I linger on the porch in silence until my soda is gone.
I wonder what they think of me, selectively mute in my nice clothes. Maybe they hate me. If I were them, I’d hate me.
I hover in the waiting room with Koko. She tells me the reception tonight is for the Program of Latin American Studies. She asks me if I speak Spanish, and I say yes. Then she vanishes, only to come back leading another worker, Elba, by the arm. “Elba speaks Spanish,” she says. But when Elba approaches, I introduce myself in English.
As Professors and PLAS certificate students trickle into the reception room, the cooks remove trays of hors d’oeuvres from an industrial oven. The food looks like it could have been made in an easy bake—tiny crab cakes and little cups of mushroom mousse. Things that look like desserts but aren’t. It is my job to offer these to the guests. Finally, when the reception room has filled, I’m given the green light, Paulina and I race off, balancing plates of two-bite chicken and apricot tarts on our palms. Hungry professors swarm the approaching tray. They grab them between pinched fingers, and comment amongst themselves about the taste. Some speak in Spanish, most don’t. “Delightful,” they say, mindful not to grab another. When the plate is empty I return to the kitchen where a guy in rubber gloves plates them by the handful, before arranging them in a spiral.
Back in the reception room, I spot a few of my professors. My old Portuguese professor is there, and my Spanish Literature professor is talking to her. This is a relief, and I am quick to make myself known. We say hi in three languages and make small talk, and I do my best to humor them with broken Portuguese. As we chat, I look around the room, hoping as many people as possible realize I’m a student. When I offer them mushroom mousse, they take many helpings. We chat some more, and I stumble through Spanish and Portuguese to win some points, but once the appetizers are gone, when the conversation lulls, and I realize that no matter how insightful or witty I am, I’m still the kitchen boy, and I have nothing left to offer.
I barely have one foot into the kitchen before Koko hands me a string of paper towels and puts me to task. “Polish these silverwares” she says, pointing to a massive blue crate full of steaming utensils. “Like this,” she says, running the fork through the towel and placing it in a plastic organizer. “Here.” She gives me the towel and, like her, I take a fork and swaddle it in the towel, then toss it in its place.” She shakes her head. “No, no, that’s a medium fork,” she says. “You put it with the large forks.” She fishes it out from the pile and places it in a separate cluster. “Medium forks go here.” I nod to show I understand. This time I grab a large fork and dry it off, eager to show my competence following directions. But before I can deposit it with the others, she stops me. “This fork is from Prospect House. It’s different.” In size, they look identical, but she points to the handle. The prospect one is slightly flatter and longer. “You see?” she asks. I see, hoping spoons hand knives haven’t also grown so complicated.
As I polish knives, Derrick assumes a spot across from me. While I work slowly, he races through, polishing by the fours and fives. “You’re messing with the champ,” he says. I look up, but he’s not looking at me. He’s looking at the cutlery. “Don’t mess with me, man, I’m the boss around here I’m the champ.” The utensils clink together as he sorts them out. I’m not sure whether to laugh, but he doesn’t give me time. “That’s right I run this place, I’m the big guy, I’m the champ. Don’t mess with me I’ve got a knife. I’ve got five knives.” His voice trails off. Paulina laughs from the other end of the kitchen. I look over at him, and right there, sitting on the paper towel, are five silver butter knives, waiting to be polished.
A plate of crab cakes is assembled, and I abandon the pile of cutlery to make another appetizer run. I see my Spanish professor again, and we give each other friendly looks, but he doesn’t want my food, and he has people more important to talk to than the skittish student/waiter. So I bother the other crowds. “Care for a crab cake? Crab cake? ¿Torta de cangrejo?” A few still bother to try them, but after several rounds of appetizers, the appetite of the room has died down. So rather than bringing little gifts, I find myself looming on the outsides of circles, circles of students and professors alike, careful not to interrupt conversations that I have the education to keep up with.
Hors d’oeuvres are made faster than the guests can eat them, so I find myself darting from room to room—my demeanor changing as fast as the environment. In the kitchen, I play the silent worker, and with the professors in the reception I am precocious student worker. In both rooms—in neither room—I am a Princetonian. With the professors, it is my ticket in: into their conversation, their language, their general respect. In the kitchen, it is what leaves me out—the reason I don’t speak Spanish to the workers, because I am afraid. Instead, I stand silently apart and wait for further instruction. Aimless, I wonder whether they think I’m judging them. Maybe they think I’m watching their behavior to write an article about them later.
A platter of shrimp skewers sends me back to the reception. My professor takes two. With the rest, I approach a circle talking Borges. They’re conversation is academic but forgettable. I decide this is my chance to jump in. “Shrimp skewer? Care for a shrimp skewer? No? No? Brocheta de camarón?” I return to the kitchen with holding the still half-full plate of shrimp. Inside is Derrick, still attacking the mound of utensils, shining a steak knife and mumbling to himself. “Man, I like it when the guests come over. Yeah, I like ‘em, I do. They’re so nice, they always smile so big. Keep ‘em coming, bring ‘em out. I love the university folk, I just love it when they come.”
• • •
In my full tux and bowtie, exhausted after serving and clearing a 50-guest Woodrow Wilson dinner, I stand holding my plate, eyeing trays of leftovers—filet mignon, pan-seared duck breast, roasted beets, sautéed spinach and mushroom ravioli—not daring to be the first to attack with fork and knife. Next to me is Koko, poised and ready with Tupperware and plastic bags. She takes everything home, down to the last drop of tomato sauce and stalk of baby asparagus. She even puts salad in plastic bags. Elba keeps on polishing forks, not paying attention. She’s in her young twenties but she’s worked so long at the Palmer House the leftovers no longer hold the same charm. Giant metal cooking sheets packed with fillets no longer captivate her. But Koko and I are on the same wavelength: hungered, waiting.
Finally Paulina bursts through the kitchen door, holding the lasts of the plates and utensils she cleared from that night’s reception. She drops some forks in the sink, and as they clank she throws her hands up and in her thick, Caribbean accent cries “Let’s eat!” commencing the wait staff feast. At once, we charge the baking sheets, stabbing steaks and asparagus with our forks and hastily pouring gravy. Plates full, we retreat to our corners of the room and eat standing up—Koko by the sink in the back, Paulina and Elba by the central island, and me, standing with my shoulders hunched and head down resting my plate on top of the ice freezer, cutting pieces of meat with more fervor than I’d shown at work all day. We looked ridiculous, but we were too hungry to realize. A frizzy-haired group of diners. Carnivores with shined shoes and little bowties.
I cut my steak into quarters before giving up and stabbing a chunk. I eat it like a corndog, biting evenly around the edges. Paulina looks over and laughs. “The steak is good?” she asks, knowing it is and eating her own, and I nod because my mouth is busy chewing. “We charge them forty dollars!” she says, her chest inflated with satisfaction. “Are you serious?” I ask, looking at the half-gone, disrespected piece of meat on my plate. She smiles. “And Derrick, he feeds them to his dog!” We share a laugh at this, feeling somehow superior to the guests in the dining room, those who pay to savor what we throw around.
We’ve cheated the system. All of us—the Caribbean lady and the Japanese woman and the Ecuadorian girl and the Princeton sophomore and the ex-con—we’re the weird lot that won. Even if we don’t speak the same language.
• • •
I’m back at work the next day for a Math Department event. When I get there, Koko greets me in her usual, hurried way, and standing next to her is a woman I haven’t seen. Her name is Merci—no French accent taken. She was sent over from at Prospect House. She has big cheeks and talks like a cartoon character. I never asked, but from what I could tell she is her late twenties or so, from some country that isn’t here.
“You’re a student at Princeton?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say, my body turned away from hers at a modest angle, as if to suggest humility. I wait for the disdainful remark, or the face of disgust, but it doesn’t come.
“Tell me how you got here,” she says. “I have a son.”
I laugh, but I don’t tell her.
As the night went on, I shadowed Koko and Merci as they gave me a crash-course in upscale waiting. Always serve a plate from the left and clear from the right. Don’t clear the little bread plate and the roll until the dessert has come out. Serve the guest at the head of the table first, and make your way around in a circle. Don’t serve the main entrée to the woman in with the short hair and the glasses because she’s a gluten-free vegetarian and she’s requested to have a special meal.
Taking their lead, I served meals to the guests and took their plates. First the salad course—a whirl of lightly oiled leaves with grilled pears and gorgonzola—and after they were finished, with the plates I stole their outer fork and knife. Then came the dinner—chicken of some sort with whipped potatoes, and pasta with ratatouille for the woman in the glasses—followed by lemon raspberry tarts and rounds of coffee. Before we clear the last round, we wait until the last guest filters out. This is our time to eat.
Back in the kitchen, Koko ladles mashed potatoes into bags while Merci grabs grilled pears off the tray and I stand over my usual ice-freezer, gorging myself with roasted chicken. Merci gives me a look of amusement as I eat. She holds pear slices in each hand.
“You like the food here?” she asks, smiling.
“It’s really good,” I say.
“I know,” she says, “I gained fourteen pounds from last year.”
“I’m on that track. Last night, they had filet mignon.”
But as soon as I say that, something about her demeanor changes. She stops smiling. Her shoulders creep up towards her neck. She wrinkles up her face and rolls her eyes.
“Ugh,” she says, disgusted. “Every night is filet mignon at Prospect House.”