In These Times has partnered with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) to amplify the stories and struggles of ordinary people, including workers in the United States. This piece, part of an ongoing biweekly series, originally appeared in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, published by NWA. Find more stories and voices at the NWA’s blog.
I needed work. I was in New York City. I needed money for…everything. I called a friend and he suggested an agency that gets people temporary jobs. Temp. Temporary. I was hungry. I owed money to people. I walked 23 blocks from 49th Street to 72nd Street to the office of this employment agency. I was received warmly and asked to fill out a brief application and was told I could work the very next day if I wanted to. Wanted to? My knees nearly buckled and I almost fell on the carpet with hope and anticipation. And what to wear? She gave me the address and I said, “Thank you,” too many times as I bounced out of their office. I had work! I would receive money. Worth. Value. Some tangible, actual cash to spend.
I looked at the address on the piece of paper the lady gave me. The address looked kind of familiar. Holy smokes! It was the Dakota, on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. Lord Almighty, I was going to work for one full day in or at the Dakota! I walked by the place on my way back to the apartment I was staying in.
The next day I reported to the doorman at the Dakota. The Dakota looked like a fortress and had several buildings, so I asked for directions to this specific address. He looked at a list of names on a sheet, made a phone call, and gave me directions. I was not given the name of the people I was to be working for, just the address and the directions. I got there, was let into the residence, and immediately felt like I was on the set of a film production. For a split second the thought flashed through my mind that I was not awake. I was awake. To my left I saw a room with bookcases, fireplaces, leather chairs, leather sofas, and chandeliers, and I recognized immediately a Calder hanging from the ceiling. Just a three million dollar Calder between two chandeliers. Son-of-a-bitch!
The guy who had let me in said to follow him to the kitchen. Or Grand Central Station, I’m not sure! There were so many people and tables and stoves and refrigerators and cupboards, the place looked like a store that sold kitchen appliances. I was told to start working with these two other men at this large table stacked with silver objects. There was silver polish, rags, polishing cloth, and three stools around this table. We three men sat there and polished silver, by hand, for eight full hours with one half-hour lunch break. Three men for eight hours is 24 man-hours of labor, on just the polishing of silver. You keep your mouth very shut in a place like this. You keep your ears very wide open. You keep your head slightly bowed. I polished silver on this sculpted fish that was about four feet long, three feet wide, and two feet deep. The fish was opened up in the center and was hollowed out. I was a bit puzzled by it, and one of the guys said to me, “They put ice on the bottom and then they fill it with caviar.”
Who are these people who own this place? What kind of wealth is this? Well, the wife was quite attractive. Quiet. Cold. The husband was a famous film director who also owned the famous restaurant in Central Park called Tavern On the Green. We never saw him. I heard bits and pieces of this and that all day long. These people owned thoroughbred horses for racing. They had ranches in South America and banking interests in Switzerland and in Los Angeles. And as I was rubbing and polishing, perspiring and dreaming, I was thankful that I was working, even for only one day. I had book value at least for these eight and one-half hours. My assets were larger than my liabilities. I was so in awe of this magnitude of wealth that I was not even envious. Or jealous. It was just so unimaginably overwhelming. It was beyond me. I did not care. I could not relate to any of it.
By the end of seven and one-half hours of hard hand-polishing silver, my hands were making memories to remind me in days to come that this was not the way to go. One must make a plan, a plan to earn one’s way in some easier method, if at all possible. If I never see a silver serving tray again in my lifetime, it will be too soon! No, thank you, pal. If God wanted silver to shine brightly, I am very comfortably ensconced in the belief that God is capable of making that damn stuff shine by itself. It needs not me.