In the next few week’s it’s going to be hard to avoid the fact that it has been 40 years since the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival tracked its muddy footprints into history. I’ve been speculating that the 40th anniversary needed to be a big deal because it was likely that by the 50th, there would be no one left who was there. Personally, I didn’t make it to Woodstock. But the summer of 1969 was one of the most important in my life…so much so, that I’ve been considering trying to put it in a screenplay. But given that I have many other obligations, I may have to settle for this blog. (Hey Schamus, when do you find time to write?)
In the winter of 1968-69, I was in my sophomore year of high school and my parents announced to me that we were moving from Chicago, where I had spent my formative years, to New Jersey. I was devastated as I faced the prospect of making new friends in the middle of high school. Those first few months were difficult, but I managed to make a few friends. Mainly, I was homesick for the ones I had left behind. The one thing that cheered me up was that the Chicago Cubs, the team I grew up rooting for, had started the 1969 season playing better than they had in my lifetime. From the first day of the season they were in first place, and they stayed there. Day after day, I would listen to 1010 WINS to hear the scores. I subscribed to the Chicago Sun-Times and would get the papers in the mail as much as a week later. At least I could read the sports pages and keep up with the first place Cubs.
When school ended for the summer, my uncle, who was a judge in Ulster County, told me he could get me a job as a waiter in the Catskills. These jobs required that you be at least 18 years old and I was 16, but I guess that requirement disappeared when you were the nephew of the judge. Since the couple of friends I had were going away for the summer and I had nothing better to do, I said yes. I had no idea what I was in for.
My uncle drove me to the Granit Hotel and Country Club in Kerhonkson, NY. As we pulled up the driveway, I was dazzled by how big the place was and a little nervous about how I’d fit in as the only underage employee in the place. My uncle stopped the car and turned to me and said, “You nervous?” I said, “a little.” He said, “I have one piece of advice for you.” I leaned in as he paused. “There’s no such thing as a good girl.” And with that he opened the door to the car and led me to my summer adventure.
I was given a tour of the kitchen. The kitchen staff, mostly Puerto Ricans, were at that time referred to as “the bimmies.” I was too naive to realize this was a racist slur. I was told a few of the rules of the dining room, assigned a locker, shown where the waiters’ jackets were stored (red during the day and white at night), and then was told to go down the hill where I’d find where all the help was living. “Just go down and grab an empty room,” I was instructed.
I grabbed my bag and headed down the hill. At first I wasn’t sure I had found the right place. It was an abandoned bungalow colony and it was in pretty bad shape. I was soon to find out that there were no locks on the doors and that there was no hot water (and there wouldn’t be for the entire summer). I found a bungalow where there was a free bedroom with one bed in it and parked my stuff. I was home.
I was assigned to be the children’s waiter. In these Catkills resorts, all the food was included, and the guests would keep ordering until they felt they’d got their money’s worth. The children were shuffled into a separate dining room, supervised (barely) by counselors who were with them all day so their parents could play sports, relax at the pool and not have to deal with the kids. The kids would also take advantage of the all-you-can-eat deal. They would keep ordering until they were full, but then they’d keep ordering so they could build things out of the leftover food. That created quite a mess on the tables–which I was responsible for cleaning up. I made up my mind that I wanted to get promoted to the grown-up dining room as soon as I could, although the one perk of the children’s dining room was getting to know the counselors.
I did make a few friends. A kind of dorky waiter named Bruce took me under his wing. It became obvious after awhile that the other waiters didn’t like him much, so just the fact that I was nice to him made me his best friend. He took me to the hotel night club, where every night there was a jazz ensemble playing standards, and then a comedian. I was allowed to order drinks in spite of my age because everyone assumed I had to be older to work there. I got to know the cocktail waitresses, and they nicknamed me “tushy-face” because the skin on my face was so smooth (no beard yet). I ordered Black Russians and got drunk for the first time.
One night, after a Black Russian, I was about to head back to the bungalow, when suddenly all the lights in the hotel went out. There was a lot of commotion in the hallways, but I went into the kitchen and grabbed a candle so I could find my way down the hill. I lit it and cupped my hands around it to keep the wind from blowing it out, and I made my way down. I opened the door to my bungalow and stuck the candle inside, only to see a large naked female butt, completely lit up by the glow of my candle. This female, whose face I couldn’t see, was riding on top of one of the staff, and they were so deep into each other (so to speak), that they just kept on going, paying no regard to me passing through. Hmmm, maybe my uncle was right.
Once I got to my bedroom, I did what I had done almost every night since I arrived. I got out my little transistor radio and tuned it to 720, where I could get the Cubs games. WGN radio was what was called a clear channel station (not the corporation, which came much later). There were several designated stations, WGN being one of them, that had a frequency that no other station in the country was allowed to broadcast on. So late at night, even up in the Catskills, I could get the Cubs games. And as the summer went on, it got more exciting, because they were still in first place.