Saturday, October 12, 2013
Minor Threat, "Salad Days"
One night while working at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, I saw Flavor Flav through the front window, decked out in his clock and viking helmet, pushing a baby in a carriage down 42nd Street while smoking a cigarette. Had he stopped by that night, he would not have been the strangest person in the building. Maybe not even in the top five.
B.B. King's is a chotchke-hocking venue that pays the real B.B. King to put his name on it. The result is something like the Hard Rock Cafe pretending to be the House of Blues. The summer I started working there, so I could pretend I was in the music business, the owners were in court for paying employees below minimum wage. None of us lower-level employees got lunch breaks, and at least one of us got fired once a week, usually for eating on the job. My job was in the merch department.
The merch department was invented by the main owner, a Napoleonic guy named Hiram, so the club owners could justify keeping a third of the bands' ticket and merch sales profits for themselves. Rather than let the bands bring their own merch guy, the owners insisted that their club representative take the bands' CDs and t-shirts and sell them himself. That was me. I apologized to every band manager for the inconvenience, fretted over keeping t-shirts from getting stolen and spent most of my time talking to the doormen.
There were usually about six or seven doormen, with a turnover rate that made Destiny's Child look like ZZ Top. There was Carl, a hulking devout Christian who refused to work any shows that he thought looked Satanic. There was William, who dreamed of singing "I Got a Woman" on American Idol. There was Darryl, the earnest high schooler who would get positively giddy when describing a girl's butt. There was Anton, whose scheme for ripping off Dave and Buster's across the street eventually got him kicked out and banned from the arcade. There was Steve, the bald, profusely-sweating cokehead who constantly asked for money to buy Red Bulls, sang "Chocolate Rain" loudly and once had his jaw broken in Las Vegas. "It was my fault," he explained, after I had expressed sympathy. "I called these black guys a bunch of niggers."
There was Laurence, who made up an extensive boxing career that could have been disproven with one Google search, yet was sweet enough for everyone to indulge him. I couldn't tell if I was the only one who cared enough about Bob Foster to find out that Laurence never really fought him, or if everyone else knew and didn't care because we all loved his stories. Whatever the case, I would beg Laurence to tell my friends his stories when they visited me at work.
"I was pretty good about not letting other fighters' talk get under my skin," Laurence would say. "But Richie Kates said some personal stuff about my family. In the fourth round, I hit him so hard that his mouthpiece went flying out. When they picked it up, it had four of his teeth in it."
There was never anything for us to do during the show, and hundreds of fans for us to appease directly before and after. The good doormen would usher folks in and out during the evening, and the bad ones would stand outside talking about girls while the crowds rabidly descended on the merch table.
"See that girl over there?" Carl said. "She's a total goldfish. Can't take her out, go for walks, play catch, cuddle with her or anything. Only thing she's good for is looking at her."
"Fucking William is such a fucking fag," Steve contributed.
Most of the door guys hated each other, and they probably would not have been able to get along at all had they not all bonded in their fear of Courtney.
Courtney was a general manager at B.B. King's who took her job way too seriously. She looked just like the one girl Nazi who appears in every movie about World War II-era Germany--a tall, statuesque blonde with a perfected glower and her hair in a tight bun. She could have been anywhere between 25 and 50. She never went more than ten minutes without a cigarette. There was a hieroglyphic tattoo on her wrist that I could never figure out. People would hush up whenever she entered a room and shudder whenever she left.
Each day, she would come upstairs and chew out the doormen for not doing their job well enough. I tried not to listen, but she'd bring me into it as well.
"Ben, are you watching Darryl? Is he flyering?"
Courtney leaned in on me, scowling. It was summer, but I could have sworn her breath started to condensate.
"You don't have to say that just because he's your friend. You can tell me. Is he flyering?"
She would grumble and go down the stairs. I'd see her sporadically until 2am, when I'd cash out and she'd count my drawer, snap at me if she thought something had been stolen and tell me to have a good night.
One day, Courtney came to work with her hair down and her glasses removed. She didn't yell at anyone all day.
"Courtney must have gotten a boyfriend," said Darryl. "She was in a good mood today!"
"Just wait," said Carl. "Next week she'll break up with him and she'll be worse than ever."
The next week, her bun and glasses were back, and she was worse than ever. I made the mistake of accepting a free chicken stick from the vendor outside.
"Ben, there is no eating on the job! You know that. Throw that away right now, if I see you with it again--" Courtney's jaw hit the floor.
I turned around and saw that William had just walked in, licking an ice cream cone. Courtney caught his eye and he stopped. He modestly held out the cone to her.
"You want some?"
He was fired that week.
I decided to have some fun with Courtney. Rather than cower or argue, I set out to answer each of her actions with as much cheerfulness as I could muster. I figured I would at least diffuse her and at most infuriate her. What could go wrong?
"Ben! Are you keeping an eye on these lighters? The display case is unlocked, someone could steal these!"
"I'm on it, Courtney!" I said. "Let me know if you need anything else."
I sang her name whenever she approached me, offered unrequited high fives and skipped in and out of her office. Any time I went into the dining area, I asked her if she wanted anything. I told her stories about the Penguin, the squat, grunting human who came by himself to at least four shows a week. I found that the more I tried to bother Courtney, the more I started to enjoy work. Giving myself a distinct reason to be jovial at work started to make me actually happy.
"Courtney! Hey Courtney, how awesome would it be if we got Metallica to play here? I bet they'd totally do it if you asked." I pulled out an air guitar and did my best James Hetfield impression. She didn't laugh. She never laughed. But once or twice I saw a smile almost make it all the way to her mouth.
Later that night, Courtney counted out my drawer. I watched her seethe while I made cracks about a few things that didn't matter.
She stopped counting. "Ben, how old are you?" She asked.
Her eyebrows relaxed. I had no idea what to do.
"It gets better." She told me.
I hadn't told her that I didn't like working there. Didn't mention that I hadn't gotten the radio job I'd been interning for, or that the girl who had just broken up with me already had a new boyfriend. I couldn't even think of a time, after the first few weeks, when I wasn't smiling in her presence. I never knew what made Courtney say that. I also never told her that it was the most important thing that anyone said to me that summer.
A few days later, I arrived at B.B. King's for my 10am Saturday morning shift, about seven hours after they had sent me home the night before. When I got to the merch table, the head manager's niece was working in my usual spot. She looked at me uneasily and told me to see her uncle, my boss.
The manager told me he had changed my schedule without telling me, and that he didn't need me now, but I was to come back at 5pm to start a Saturday night shift. I told him I'd be back at 5pm, but I knew I'd spend every hour until then applying for new jobs. Finally I found one, and I gave B.B. King's my two weeks notice.
On my second to last night, Courtney counted my drawer.
"Why are you leaving?" She asked.
"I have a new job."
"You will come back, right?"
"Have a good night, Ben." She hugged me back.
The next time I came to B.B. King's, Courtney had been fired. Darryl told me she ran out the door in tears.