Valets

by JAKE STOKES

 

I scratched my head and looked at the convertible and tried to decide if it was gray or silver. That was one thing I’d never learned during my training. Not that it was my business, but it didn’t seem like a great car for this weather. I suppose it wouldn’t cave in – the roof looked sturdy enough – but still. It was an older car, very well-maintained, a Mustang of some sort. I didn’t know a ton about cars, but you didn’t last long in my profession if you didn’t know the basic makes and models.

“I know Jim Bellthorne, you know,” the man was saying. He was old and a little paunchy, but his hands were manicured and his tan was enviable. “Jim and I knew each other from back in college. Still, play golf every other month or so, we do.”

Jim was the general manager, a man I rarely saw but whose name carried weight. I finished his car tag and went inside to check and see if he had a special parking pass. He did. I didn’t see him on our VIP list, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a Very Important Person. Sometimes the management just didn’t put names down because they’re worried the staff will text their friends about it. That was what happened with Gucci Mane and the guy from How I Met Your Mother.

I came back outside and the man had helped himself to a bell cart. He had a small shoulder bag and a rolling travel-bag, the type of bag that I knew from experience fit inside overhead compartments so that you could avoid checking one at the airport. A seasoned traveler on a short stay. I sighed. He wouldn’t tip. Another part of the business was knowing who would and wouldn’t tip, and I’d been tipped a dollar by old folks smiling like sharks and had younger kids apologize for tipping “only five” enough times to turn that old saying about millennials on its head.

The man had progressed to check-in, and I stayed behind to figure out his car.

 

It was what someone had tackily called a “teaching hotel,” which was a quaint way to say that it was almost 100% staffed by students from the college at minimum wage, often supplemented by fellowships and work studies that allowed the hotel to maintain fat margins. The parents liked it because the employees were young and cheerful, the employees liked it because the pay was good and the coffee machine was free, and the drunks liked it because the hotel bar was open late and they could watch the Giants play then stumble upstairs and get up at 8am to teach their guest lectures in the building next door. I liked it because it got me out of my dorm room and funded my Domino’s habit.

I was employed as a bellman, which meant that I parked cars when there were cars to park and when there weren’t, I was a fixture in the lobby, a Walmart-brand Buckingham Palace guard in my slacks and a red polo. That day I had a red hotel parka over the polo with my nametag pristinely pinned on its lapel.

The manager—an older man named Albert—was conducting a staff meeting. He had a pencil-mustache and constantly stopped to mop his brow. “We’ve got 100% occupancy, a billion check-ins, and the weather’s only getting worse.” His eyes looked a little crazy.

I looked over at our crack team. It was me, my buddy Chase, and two other guys I didn’t know. According to the schedule, they were James and Alec, the former training the latter. Four valets were a little much for a night shift, but someone had to shovel the snow.

Albert was still spiraling. “Mrs. Davidson—the lady with the dog—complained about a missing map. Apparently, she keeps a road atlas in her glovebox and it was gone when she went to check on Hogan this afternoon.” The itinerary in his hand was getting crumpled from all the hand-wringing. “I can’t imagine why anyone would do that, but if you had anything to do with that, just…don’t.”

Mrs. Davidson was an older white lady who loved her dog more than anything in the world. The hotel had a strict no-pet policy, so she paid good money to park her car in our long-term hold spot (right outside the hotel) and send valets to check on him every thirty minutes or so. It’d be just like her to make up a story about a map just to get attention from the front office. She was a nightmare, but her dog was adorable.

I looked around the room. Nobody was paying attention. Every minute that we were in the back office meant a minute that we were missing out on tips, however slim. The faster we got done with this, the better.

Albert looked over the paper. “That’s about it. Be careful out there.” He gave me a look. I’d gotten a concussion last winter slipping on ice while trying to turn a cool corner coming down the stairwell in our parking garage. I’d signed my name forsaking worker’s comp, but management is stingy and its memory is long.

 

I was parking a big pickup truck in the back of our lot when I saw Chase sleeping in the Mustang. With the big cars, you park in the back so that you don’t have to worry about dinging the ones that stick out while you drive to the front. It was practice to back the cars into their spots so that when you’re fetching them, you can drive directly to the hotel, and so that you don’t have to worry about backing up and clipping one of the cars next to you. Backing up with trucks is always a little tricky due to their turn radius.

I came up to the Mustang and looked in. It was comfy enough, all leather and whatnot. Chase was out cold. I tapped on the window. He stretched comically and rolled down the window.

“Hey,” he said, rubbing his eyes. I looked at him sympathetically. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t taken a nap in a car once or twice, and today was slow. We started walking back to the hotel.

“I heard there was an emir overnighting tonight. Any idea what an emir is?”

I shook my head. “Hope he tips.”

 

Bill Travis was staying at the hotel. He was an important-enough Republican from Tennessee, the exact type of guy that would be hated by hundreds of students on the liberal-leaning campus. The school’s Republican society was small and its Democratic one was large, but the former regularly scheduled speakers that were far more notable than the latter. The Republicans would taunt, the Democrats would protest, the speaker would leave, and the whole firestorm would recycle in a couple weeks.

Travis was staying in one of the top-floor suites, the nicest rooms in the hotel, and he was on the VIP list. His speech had ended an hour or so ago, and we could see his Cadillac motorcade in the circular drive, their windshield wipers protesting feebly as they idled. I could see the dark suits through the windows.

James was out front manning the drive. Alec must’ve been on break. I could see Chase inside at the desk. I walked over to James.

He pointed to the building across the street. “Couple of protesters over there.”

I looked. There were three people, two women, and a man. There wasn’t anything to identify them as protesters – no signs or anything – but I believed him. They looked unhappy, and nobody would be just waiting out in the snow otherwise. I walked over.

“What’s up?” I asked.

One of the girls looked at me, her eyes sharp. She looked like a sophomore or junior, about my age, with short hair and frown lines. “We’re here to protest Bill Travis.”

I nodded. “I figured as much. Why?”

Her words were rapid-fire like she was trying to punch Travis through her words to me. “He’s killing the environment. If we don’t come to some basic agreements on global climate initiatives, the world’s going to melt.”

I tried to be apolitical. “That may be true, but I can guarantee you that no climate change is happening tonight. You’ll freeze your butts off waiting for someone that isn’t going to show.”

She deflated. “I just wish we could do something.”

“You can,” I said. “You can go home, get some sleep, and then vote in about ten months.”

 

I went down to our kitchen and grabbed a couple coffees. I knew Chase would want one, and the other guys were off training but I’d leave one in the back in case they came back. The kitchen was tiny, but with a few button-presses, I could make myself a hot chocolate, an expresso, a mocha, pretty much any hot drink I could want. Except tea.

When I made it back up, I looked around for Chase and found him in our coatroom. Innocuously the coatroom was for storing bags, but most of our bags were from guests the day of their checkout who wanted to roam the campus, so the coatroom was empty. Chase was putting on coats.

“Why so many coats?” I said. He had on three puffy ones and was reaching for a fourth. He looked like a snowman.

“Shoffeling,” he said, muffled.

I got the drift. He’d been assigned to shovel the driveway so that the late guests got the best impression possible of the hotel upon arrival. It was just one of those things. I pulled down one of the boxes from the top shelf and gave him two of those little handwarmers. You couldn’t be too careful.

 

Our keybox was behind the bellstand and was the place where all of the guest’s keys were stored—or those who chose to valet, which was almost all of them in this weather. Sometimes I’d sit and look through it, looking for my favorite cars—the Audis, the Porsches, and of course any car whose color (indicated by circling one of several pre-ordained “car colors” on the car tag) was something other than black or white or silver/gray.

On this particular occasion, I was searching for our resident emir. I knew there was a chance that he’d be checking in late—I got off around midnight – but I figured it was worth a try. It was always good to know the high-rollers that were staying at the hotel at any point, so that if they came to your desk with a car tag you could dart to the back, clip it to your carabiner, and assure them that it would be fetched in moments. I’d been tipped nearly a hundred bucks by an Indian pharmaceutical tycoon once for that exact trick. It helps to be informed.

James and Alec were doing a quiz in the back. Alec was scrutinizing several car logos. He was biting the eraser of his pencil and looking at the Oldsmobile logo. We got a dozen Teslas for every Oldsmobile, but the logo quiz was old, an establishment. After a minute he sloppily wrote “Mazda.”

“How’s it going?” I said to James, who was taking the break to charge his phone away from the eyes of the management.

He pulled out a wad of bills. I knew that the size of your wad didn’t mean anything, it was whether or not some kind soul had decided to give you a ten or twenty. He shook it loosely in his palm. “Pretty good.”

“Want to make a bet?”

James liked bets. We’d bet on whether the next car through the circle was a man or a woman, old or young, whatever.

“Sure,” he said.

Because I had instigated the bet, I got to go first. We walked out to the circle and waited for the headlights.

“I’m saying the next one’s a man.” He nodded and held up a dollar. The car’s lights brightened and came around the circle, and an older man with thick glasses parked his BMW neatly in front of the hotel. I grinned and took the dollar before walking over to greet him.

James’s turn. “Student,” he said.

We had to wait a minute, but the next car to come by was an older Honda, and this time a woman got out who was clearly a parent. James frowned, passing me another dollar.

I put my fingers to my head in mock concentration. “I’m seeing…a college-aged boy, athletic, with his girlfriend—a fine piece, mind you—in the passenger seat.” James grinned. A terrible bet.

And so it went for the next hour or so. I think I finished two bucks up.

 

Chase came back in a little before ten to warm up. He grabbed a few more handwarmers and sat with us in the back, the door strategically cracked so that we could see the driveway if anyone were to pull up. This was the witching hour.

He had a hot chocolate with extra milk. He pulled off all of his overcoats and sat down on the stairs that led up to the hotel restaurant. I noticed something.

“Snowball?” I asked.

He looked at his shirt, where his employee nametag read “Snowball.” He smiled as if he’d forgotten. “Got a new nametag from HR.”

“How’d you pull that one off?” I asked. I’d love a nametag that said something cool if only to prevent the old folks who checked in from saying my name in that careful, practiced tone that people reserved for waitstaff and young children.

He gave me a conspiratorial look. “I told them it was my legal middle name. I just shrugged and acted like my parents were idiots.”

 

I was sitting outside watching the circle when I saw some movement by our van. I walked over and saw a very fogged-up window in our hold spot. Hogan.

I got the keys to the car and sat in the passenger seat. The dog put its paws on the dash and looked at me.

“I know,” I said, looking at it. It gave me a sad whimper.

I watched as James stood with his arms crossed in the driveway. It was neatly cleaned, and he wore a branded headband in addition to his hotel jacket. His spot was no accident. There was a small blind-spot in the cameras, and the managers couldn’t see him if he stood opposite the automatic doors by the ashtrays and designated smoking area. It made a good text spot, or if you were really good you could wear headphones and listen to music. I couldn’t tell which he was doing. The dog stepped on my lap as if trying to get a better look himself. It barked, and I patted it on the head. Good company was a rare thing in a place like this.

 

There was a guest arriving on the 11:31 flight from Philadelphia. Our airport was tiny—it only fielded three airlines, flying from three cities – so the hotel could afford to staff their bellmen as shuttle drivers as well. Doing a shuttle run was something of a luxury during night shifts: you could hook your phone up and play your own music, bring a drink from the coffee machine, and get out of the circle for a bit. Once the night had settled in, it could be very boring.

I pulled rank to get the assignment, grabbed the sheet—the guest’s name was Antoun—and got the keys. It was an old turtle-top van, a graying shade of white, and very sturdy. It officially seated eleven.

I booted it up around ten past and headed to the airport. It was about fifteen minutes away, but I could sit at the airport for a few extra minutes and do whatever while I waited for the guest to arrive. The ride there was uneventful. I sat in arrivals with a few crabby cabbies – rideshares were illegalized due to the zeal of the cab lobbyists – and looked up the flight on my phone. On time. The snow picked up.

A dozen or so people stumbled out of the automatic doors, some trying to shield their belongings from the gales. I jumped out and stood by the passenger door. A man ambled over, looking at the hotel logo.

“Mr. Antoun?” I asked. He nodded. I loaded his bags into the trunk and we were off.

I made it about a mile before I had to pull over. The roads were always bad—maintenance was hard even when the weather behaved—but they were brutal now. The road that led back to campus – and by extension, the hotel—had a thin layer of snow over the asphalt and the tires on the old van were worn bare. I knew that speediness was important, but surviving was (marginally) more important.

I was prepared to ask him one or two of my stock “guaranteed to warm the passenger up to me so that I can get a nice tip” questions, but he beat me to the punch.

“Why here?”

I understood that he didn’t mean “why this stretch of road?” but rather meant “why this town, this place?” It was a question I’d gotten a million times, one I had a practiced answer for. “Because it’s out of my comfort zone. I’ve never- “

He cut me off. “I don’t believe that. Tell me it’s the prestige, tell me it’s the brand name, tell me it’s the fucking colors, I don’t care. Don’t tell me it’s because you wanted to be uncomfortable.”

He had me. I tried again. “My folks—”

“I don’t care about your folks.”

I fiddled with the wipers, uncomfortable. Every so often, you got a guest that didn’t care about the polished image of the hotel or the prestige of the institution. Those were usually the yellers. I never knew quite how to deal with those.

He continued. “I worked at a hotel very much like yours a long time ago in a country very unlike this one. I wasn’t well-trained, wasn’t particularly smart, wasn’t good at knowing who to suck up to. All I knew was what I wanted to do, which was make a lot of money and drive fast cars.”

I nodded. He was speaking my language.

“That job was the start of a grand trajectory. I was fired and hired, made a lot of money and then blew it, married twice, divorced twice, bought a hotel and then sold it for a cool profit. Do you know my secret?”

I tried to be funny. “Always double down?”

He fixed me in the rearview. His eyes were steely. “Always chase the next adventure.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“What do you want to do?” he asked, ignoring my banality.

“I don’t know yet. I’ve got plenty of time to decide, and I’m worried about picking the wrong thing.” I had this vision of myself five years down the line stuck in a recidivistic loop of unhappiness due to my commitment towards a career that I didn’t care about, and it terrified me.

He didn’t waste a moment. “What makes you happy?”

I had to think a minute. “I’m not sure.”

“Find it, follow it, chase it,” he said. I pretended to look through the glove compartment to avoid the sting of his eyes.

We shared an uncomfortable silence, looking at the fluffy cotton-ball road as the wipers kept our field of view sharp and stark.

“What brings you to town?” I asked. I knew as soon as it came out that it sounded dumb but anything to break the silence.

“I’m giving a bullshit talk about how real estate is everything and buying land is the road to a fortune, but none of that is really the truth. All you gotta remember is to always keep chasing.” With each of these last three words, he emphatically smacked the passenger-side headrest. “The money will come, the fame will come, the women will sure-as-hell come, just keep your eyes ahead and know where to head next.”

I watched the road and sure enough, headlights were appearing in my rearview. It was a snow plow, and it quickly plowed a neat path ahead. I turned off my flashers and cautiously returned to the road. I could feel eyes piercing me from the mirror the whole drive back.

When we got back to the hotel, I got out and grabbed the bags from the trunk and brought them around to Mr. Antoun. He shook my hand, and I could feel him put something in my hand. He gave me one last look and walked through the automatic doors into check-in. I looked down. It was $20 and a compass.

 

I clocked out about thirty minutes past midnight. As I left, I saw James and Alec polishing carts. There wasn’t much to do late at night. I saw that James had slipped a Windex wipe under his towel so that he didn’t get the fumes from the brass polish on the carts. It cleaned just as well, but management liked the uniformity.

I left my jacket in the closet, my nametag by the time clock, and left my red polo with laundry on the ground floor. As I walked out, I saw that Chase had made a large snowman out of the plowed snow. The bottom snowball was far too large, ironically. It cast a somber shadow over the circle drive.

 

Years after I quit the job at the hotel, I was getting lunch with Chase. He picked me up in his old CRV and we headed out to get food. We didn’t see much of each other, Chase and I. He was a year older and had graduated, I wasn’t particularly involved on campus. He’d worked all four years, I only worked for about fifteen months, through two particularly devastating winters.

Chase was fiddling with his windshield wipers—trying to figure out the right setting for the current light flurry—and I was on music duty. My phone battery was low, so I opened his middle console for a charger. Then I saw them.

“Maps?” I asked him, puzzled. I remembered that Albert had mentioned maps on a few occasions, but it still seemed so strange. There were hundreds of them in his console. It was packed to the brim.

“Yep,” he said, still focused on the wipers.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” he said. “You never know when you need to know where you’re going.”

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