Embezzlement was something of a running theme throughout my fourth grade experience. Ten years old with two working parents, a bagged lunch was out of the question for me. Unless I mustered up the ambition to craft my own tuna fish social suicide sandwich each and every morning, I had to settle for whatever the two dollar bills left out on the kitchen counter would afford me. A standard hot lunch costing $1.65 at Errickson Elementary, the meals were made up of the typical kindercuisine one would expect from a pre-Whole-Foods-ethos suburban New Jersey school. Beige offerings in various shapes and sizes that live on in my memory more strongly as sights than tastes. I never ate. Not because I deemed my palate superior to starch. I never ate because there was money to be made.
“Alright, Brian, a little birdy has been telling me some things,” my teacher, Mrs. DiStefano, said at the end of one school day, holding me aside as my peers flew for the door. “What’s this about you not eating anything at lunch?”
What my ploy possessed in moxie, it lacked in subtlety. Initially, it was just the compatriots at my cafeteria table of misfit preadolescents who questioned my non-diet, curious as to why I went hungry when my parents regularly provided me with the daily necessary funds. Morons, I’d scoff, returning my attention to whatever Wally Lamb book I’d stolen from my mother’s beach bag. But eventually news began to spread about the fag on a fast, potential eating disorder seeds sewn far enough that Mrs. DiStefano herself got wind of them.
“I’m just not all that hungry,” I said, casting down my gaze and trying with might to silence the sounds roaring from my midsection. “And besides, Dr. Oz was on Oprah last week and he was saying that cafeteria food in America’s schools is a disgrace. I believe him.”
By the time Oprah aired that afternoon, my parents got a call from Mrs. DiStefano.
“Brian, are you trying to get me thrown in prison?” my mother shrieked, reclaiming She’s Come Undone from my backpack along with about $300 in singles.
Considering the damage of Mrs. DiStefano thinking I was either starved or raised in the kind of household that fostered such homegrown theft was already done, my mother let me keep the money and started packing my lunch. Cream cheese on raisin bread, if I was lucky. Crystal Light and a clementine, if she was running late. Though I was sad to see my BrownBag Madoff days coming to an end, there was really no need for me to have money of my own at 10 years old. Even if I had friends at the time, there was nothing I would have done with them that required cash. I stockpiled that lunch money for no other reason than to have it. Stacks of singles I’d fan out on my bed, counted and recounted and counted again, nothing they could have bought fulfilling me quite as much as leaving them unspent.
My pennies remain pinched. Purple-nurpled, arguably. It’s just that the methods of my cheapness have gotten a little more banal. Walking into the Longwood Avenue entrance of Trader Joe’s to grab several samples before immediately leaving out of the Beacon Street exit. Applying any and all colognes left out on the bathroom vanity by the owners of dogs I walk. Hiding a Clif bar in the palm of my hand while buying a coffee from the Starbucks-cum-Shaw’s Supermarket. Petty theft and shameless opportunism, yes, but fraudulent offshore lunch-money banking, alas, it is not.
“It’s organic,” I justified to my roommates, looking on in horror as I spooned into a bowl what some would describe as canned chili and others the most fiery retribution they’ve ever inflicted on a toilet. “The same list of ingredients I would have used to make it from scratch. At $2.49 a can! Try!”
Necessity hasn’t been the mother of this invented life of poverty for me. I’ve always been one to keep a low overhead. With a work ethic described most acutely as “questionable,” my occupational mentality has always been as such: the less I spend, the more I save, the less I have to work. It’s a mantra held near and dear to my willfully underemployed heart, allowing me to save as much money now as I hoarded then. I just have to pay for my own lunch these days.
“I’m not answering that.”
Like an amputee, I seem to always be hearing the hotel’s phone ring. So when a call legitimately comes through, it’s not so much a surprise as a gratification-delayed climax. Without anything fun about it. Hardly five minutes into my overnight shift, my fellow front desk worker had already devoted her daily quota of emotional intelligence to this guest on the line. It was my turn.
“Thank you for calling the front desk, this is Brian speaking, how may I help you?” I said, tightening my rectum in anticipation.
“Kevin Sullivan, 223, pool-view room,” bullet-pointed the guest, a proclamation of a dream away from bursting into his own rousing musical number. “I don’t know what kinda operation you’re runnin’ around here, buddy, but I’m dealin’ with some real bullshit in this clusterfuck of a room. I’m spendin’ my money on a hotel that was supposed to be one of the best in Boston and I can’t even get my motherfuckin’ TV to work and I’m pretty fuckin’ fired up right about now.”
Figuring it was safe to return the receiver back to my ear, I replied, “So, I’m not totally sure what I can help you with, sir.”
The outlets along one wall of his room weren’t working. The one wall that had a television, Keurig machine, record player, iron and standing lamp dependent upon them. The only working amenity, at that point, being the bed. My coworker hauling ass out of the hotel as soon as she possibly could, the cheese now stood alone. Making the sign of the cross, I headed in the direction of Rosemary’s grown baby.
“Who in the actual hell put me in charge?” I said to myself, opening up the electrical panel to find that not a single breaker was flipped, my most confident stab at fixing the problem foiled, suddenly hyper-aware that I was the one and only person running this entire establishment for the next seven hours.
“Front desk,” I said through gritted teeth, knocking on room 223.
“I’m not happy,” greeted Kevin, retreating into his room, opening the door with his back somehow already faced to me. “Look at me. Look. I’m in my fuckin’ underwear. My wife’s lyin’ in bed. It’s twelve o’clock at fuckin’ night and all we want is to watch a little TV before we go to sleep. But maybe that’s just too much to ask from this dinky fuckin’ hotel?”
Barely decent in just about every context, Kevin was indeed wearing his fuckin’ underwear. Pale gray boxer briefs, simultaneously loose and tight in all the proper areas to make me question psychosexual decisions I’d made decades ago. Darting my eyes towards the bed, I saw Billy-Idol-blond hair strands sprouting from under the duvet. I hadn’t been in such close proximity to a scantily clad heterosexual couple since my conception. And I was feeling no less preverbal.
“It sounds silly but sometimes turning the light-switch by the door actually gets the outlets to work,” I spitballed, knowing before I even tried that a solution so simple would not be presenting itself to me this night.
“A light switch, a fuckin’ light switch,” he guffawed, picking up the TV remote from the top of the dresser. “Ya know, Ryan, your name is Ryan, right? Ryan, I’m a top executive for a Fortune-500 company but, here, how about you try turnin’ on this TV? Maybe it’s just over my head.”
Finally understanding how Naomi Campbell’s assistants must have always felt, I took the remote out of Kevin’s hand and tried in vain to get their television set to work. Over futile odds, I dirged to myself, the screen remaining decidedly black, and laughed at by the gods. Distorting my face into the profusely-apologetic kabuki mask I’d practiced til perfect in the mirror, I commenced my self-flagellation script.
“Sir, I promise this is a total anomaly,” I winced, my thoughts disassociating to the Warm French Lentils a la Barefoot Contessa I’d brought as my 3 a.m. dinner. “We pride ourselves in providing the most comfortable accommodations for our guests possible and I think it’d be more than reasonable to take 20% off your stay for this inconvenience.”
Never in my life had a joke landed so magnificently. My offer of a markdown sent both Kevin and the comforter troll into an immediate fit of hysterics, the income of a top executive at a Fortune-500 company seemingly less expendable than I would have theretofore imagined. Trying to gauge whether it was my tears they’d wanted all along or what, I feigned a world-weary head shake and, again, apologized.
“Oh, there better be somethin’ good for me at the end of all this,” Kevin said, leading me towards his door. “Someone like me stayin’ at a place like this with somethin’ bad to say. You don’t want that, let me tell you, you don’t want that. Not a place like this. And not from a person with my fuckin’ clout.”
Wondering if I’d just provided the foreplay for some Eyes Wide Shut humiliation-coitus, I stared in mild shock at their closed door for some time after it had been shut in my face. Maybe it’s because all my rage is directed inwards but I’ve never understood the whole be-merciless-until-you-get-what-you-want impulse. Time and time again, I’ve been on the receiving end of a guest’s steaming pile of malcontent scat. At first, I would interrupt their diatribes—chiming in with offers of a discount, complimentary breakfast, or vicious sacrifice of their service worker of choice. Uh uh. Too easy. It’s not a solution these people are looking for.
“Clout,” I scoffed to myself, returning to my perch at the front desk, making sure no one had stolen from the cash drawer while I was off being shamed. “Clout.”
As my prepubescent Ponzi scheme would suggest, I’ve always had some understanding of capital. But while I’m not self-loathing enough to have any Kevin Sullivans in my own life, I have been privy to more “I am so blessed to announce…” statuses than I would have expected. Less-than-humble brags from Facebook friends who fell into 40-hours-a-week jobs with pet insurance and gym memberships and casual Fridays straight out of the undergrad gate. Skirting full-time employment was, for me, the goal—so my grapes aren’t exactly sour. I just didn’t realize that people would so quickly, and so willingly, be offer letter taxonomized.
I guess I just figured that the post-grad purgatory of returning to high school retail jobs was going to be much more common of a sentence than it’s been. That the dreaded push of keeping up with Connecticut-bred daughters who landed a receptionist job with a salary in the low $50s would take a few years after graduating to begin manifesting. That by the time all the slack-jawed lacrosse players I’d gone to college with traded in their NCAA medals for carbohydrate-face and jobs in finance, I wouldn’t still be in the position of making, maybe, $17,000 total this year.
“I don’t think I can make brunch after all,” I’ve said many a Sunday morning, rescinding my drunken Saturday night promise to friends of meeting up for $21 eggs benedict. “I feel like shit.”
Wrongly presuming I had dealt with all the issues that night shift would hurtle my way, I’d resigned to my usual mid-shift regimen of old Diane Sawyer interviews when the front desk phone rang. As can be easily gleaned, nothing good comes from a ringing phone at three in the morning. I read who was calling on our telephone’s monitor. Room 223. Kevin Sullivan. Oy gevalt.
“You got any carrots and celery?”
Pinching myself to test whether sleep-deprived psychosis was settling in earlier than usual, I replied, “Um, I’m sorry, Kevin but we don’t—we don’t have that.”
“Well, that’s too fuckin’ bad, cause all I’m missin’ right now is some carrots and some celery to go along with the cooked rabbit this room is roastin’ me into,” Kevin said. “What’s the fuckin’ deal with the air conditionin’? Why am I lyin’ awake in my bed right now with my underwear on and the windows open and feelin’ like a cooked fuckin’ rabbit?”
Ignoring the sadistic undertones of equating oneself with a meat as unorthodox as rabbit, I explained to Kevin that our air system blew out either warm or cold air and that, since it was October, it had been switched over to heat for the season. Asinine, yes. My fault, no. Warm enough to roast Thumper, I don’t care to know.
“Warm or cold but not both,” he stewed. “Am I bein’ fuckin’ Punk’d?”
Not to my knowledge, I told Kevin.
“The kind of money I make,” he humbly reiterated. “The kind of person I am. What I do for a livin’. I don’t deserve this. I coulda stayed at a Motel 6 for a quarter of this price and, you know what, Ryan, I coulda watched TV in my fuckin’ room.”
He had every right to be pissed. He had spent his money, his hard-earned money, on a stuffy hotel room with outlets that didn’t work and a concierge who had nothing to offer beyond some half-assed promises about a director of reservations showing up later this morning. Half-naked in the middle of the night on a bed in room 223, Kevin was counting and recounting my same stacks of coveted cash. Dollar bills that, in a bizarro set of circumstances, I might be just as reluctant to lose.
“Kevin, I totally agree with you,” I replied, falling into an empathic stride that, despite myself, felt genuine. “This air system is archaic, honestly. There’s really no excuse that you should be as uncomfortable as you are right now. I think it’s only fair you not be charged for the room when you check out later today. Does that sound good?”
Silence on the line, the rabbit had been served.
“That sounds great,” Kevin said. “I know all this stuff is out of your hands. Thanks for bein’ on top of it, boss.”
I hung up the phone. With three hours left of the shift, most of my overnight duties were already done. The financial reports archived, the arrivals for the following day pre-charged, the emails to departed guests urging them to visit again at a generous rate already sent. I could spend my remaining time as I pleased, earning $15 an hour to journal or read or claim iPhone chargers long forsaken in the lost and found as my own. Almost forgetting I hadn’t eaten yet, I grabbed the tupperware of lentils from my backpack and, the front desk my dinner table, dug in. I’d made them right before my shift but didn’t account for how quickly they’d cool. Appetizing when hot, and only barely so, I put the lid back on after my second or third bite. I could have heated them up, the microwave in the manager’s office maybe 20 strides away, but it didn’t seem worth it. I wasn’t that hungry.