Christina said it was a bad idea, using
The Twenty % Tippers' mailing list to score a job, almost like begging.
But the other Tippers didn't mind, and you couldn't deny it was a killer
list. Over 500 names of people who'd called for a free cassette including
VIPs like Gordon Lish, the flamboyant senior editor at Alfred Knopf, Carolyn
Warmus, the Westchester schoolteacher who was doing time for shooting her
lover's wife, Troy Canty, one of the victims of subway vigilante Bernhard
Goetz, and Cindy Adams, the gossip columnist from the New York Post,
who even Fed-Exed us shrimp dumplings at Christmas. Absolutely killer.
On Saturday we took the mail to the post office and by Monday I got my first call.
"Is this Mr. Ken Sorkin?"
"Yes, this is Ken."
"My name is Walter Reckziegel. I'm a mechanical engineer. I've been getting your mailings for eight months. I'm very impressed with your organizational skills."
"Why thank you. Do you enjoy reading the stories?"
"I never read the stories, but I can extrapolate from the mailings that you have real organizational skills. You're looking for a job. I might be able to use a man like you."
He mentioned a job working with him inside Grand Central Station that paid $10 an hour. I agreed to meet him at seven the next morning in his office.
His office was down in the sub-basement, below the Oyster Bar. It was a dark little place that held a desk, a blackboard, several stacks of Water Supply Bureau Annual Reports and a slew of Detail Distribution Maps of Manhattan's water system. A very serious man, Walter had the slightest German accent and interesting weather-beaten hands, the fingernails coated with grime that probably never came out. He was an independent mechanical engineering consultant hired by the Grand Central Partnership. Apparently the job I was about to do was quite important.
We started at the beginning. Walter said it could be extrapolated that the first water main laid was back in 1455 and was used to carry water to the Dillenberg Castle in Siegerland, Germany. He even wrote this on the blackboard, scrunching his face up with concentration. He went through the entire history of the New York City water system, era by era, in the dullest engineer's monotone as I struggled to look interested. He talked in detail about flow problems, about cases where old city mains are too small to supply the peak demands of large buildings. Apparently gravity will cause pressure differences in vertical lines of .43 pounds per square inch per foot of height. Any remaining differences in readings taken will indicate the effect of frictional resistance to flow in pipes or the presence of closed valves or the action of pressure regulations. The work we were about to do sounded complicated and it seemed he was putting a great deal of trust in me.
Then he winked and asked if I was ready to get to work, assisting him in taking pressure tests. We locked up the office and went up to the main concourse at 7:45 as the rush hour crowd was starting to materialize. The next thing I knew he was taking me into the huge men's room and sitting me at a little desk in the middle of the floor, one of those desks from back in elementary school where the seat is attached. He gave me a red fireman's style hat to put on which prominently read URINAL TESTER and said my job was to count how many times the long row of urinals against the wall were used throughout high and low demand periods. I was supplied with a mechanical counter and a notebook, and my job was to click the counter every time someone stepped up to a urinal and each half hour to record the number into a column of the notebook. Walter said he would be on the floors above and below taking pressure gauge readings and would be back at lunchtime, when we would review our results over hoffenpfeffer sandwiches he had prepared earlier.
Then he left me alone at that little desk wearing that loud URINAL TESTER hat. As guys started coming in they would shoot me dirty looks over their shoulders as they unzipped their flies. Meanwhile I tried my best to look professional. Now and then I'd get cruised and have to explain that I was really on the job, working for the Grand Central Partnership, though somehow it didn't sound convincing. There was a homeless guy near the door begging for change and I must've heard his pitch about 500 times. Then a well-dressed tourist from Europe, thinking I was a concierge or something, came up and asked in broken English what restaurant I'd recommend for business, Il Nido or Griffone. I pondered this for a moment and then told him that Il Nido on 53rd Street had better ambience but that the food was better at Griffone because it was on 46th Street and most people could flush hard enough to reach Griffone but not hard enough to reach Il Nido.
At noon Walter came back and glanced at my notes. Looking at the results, his face quickly flushed and he said he could extrapolate from my numbers that I was sleeping on the job. He said there was no way my figures could correspond to the pressure gauge readings he had been taking on other floors. The guy was upset! Though I was prone to keeping things in, at this point I just lost it.
"Listen man, do you know how humiliating it is to sit here for four hours staring at guys in front of urinals? The only thing that's missing is the Handi-Wipes and the toothpicks. And then you've got the nerve to come in here and criticize my numbers. What kind of job is this?"
"Oh, your generation," said Walter, frowning with disgust. "You're all ungrateful. Do you know how many people got their start in this position? Do you know Billy Crystal did this same job way before he became a big star. His father used to own a record shop nearby on Lexington Avenue and he worked here with me."
"Yeah, what about David Caruso of NYPD Blue?"
"No, not him. But Billy Crystal worked here and also DJ Premiere from that rap group GangStar, he worked here for a couple of days."
I stood up, handed Walter his hat back and told him I was quitting. I should've waited til after the hoffenpfeffer sandwich but I couldn't be sure Walter had washed his hands before preparing it.
Walking out of the men's room after four hours, I quickly blended into the onrushing crowd of Grand Central Station, unemployed again after such a short spell. I decided to check my incoming messages on one of the pay phones and sure enough there was one call about a job. A guy from the mailing list named Eddie Smalls left a message about an assistant gamekeeper position up in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. I remembered seeing horses up there so I figured it involved that. Getting on the shuttle to Times Square, I transferred to the number 1 train and took it up to the last stop at 242nd Street. By one-thirty I was at the horse stables at Van Cortland Park.
There was a group of school kids taking rides on horseback around a fenced-in area with two instructors and back near the stable area I saw a wiry guy with long gray hair pulled back into a pony-tail.
"Are you Eddie Smalls?" I asked, walking up to him.
"Yeah. You Ken?" I nodded my head and he broke into a delighted smile.
"Alright! The Twenty % Tippers! I love you guys. Those stories crack me up, man. Like the one where you meet a talent scout from a big record company and it turns out to be your old rabbi. Did that really happen?"
"Well, sometimes we bend the truth a bit."
"Yeah man, I can dig that. Listen, there's a job open here with the Parks Department. I know they're making cuts down at City Hall and everything, but we're sort of like in our own little world up here. Like we have our own little zoo, just of couple of animals, but I don't think anybody even knows about it. Do you have a biology degree?"
"Um . . . ," I said stammering for a moment. ". . . I was an oral hygiene major."
A quick hint of disappointment flashed across Eddie's face. "Well, maybe we can stretch that. Listen, let me ask you something." He suddenly leaned into me. "Do you get high?"
I looked at him, not knowing what to say. "Tell me how mind-numbing the job is and I'll tell you if I get high."
He laughed at that. "Well after seventeen years it gets pretty mind-numbing. No man, you gotta take care of the elephant." He motioned me back to this lone decrepit building near the line of the woods and sure enough there was a damn elephant in there. An African bush elephant, it must have been two tons, just standing there.
"Jesus, does anybody know there's an elephant back here?"
"That's what I was telling you. Like they should do some serious advertising, right? Nobody ever comes back here. Now I'm the gamekeeper, so I really gotta take care of him, you know, prepare the diet, clean the enclosure, monitor his behavior. This guy eats 350 pounds of elephant grass a day, and drinks maybe forty gallons of water. But they made this one job provision about fifteen years ago when this big guy turned twenty-five. See, when a male elephant comes into maturity he enters this condition called musth. Really he's looking for a female. He starts secreting this junk from the temporal glands behind the eyes, he urinates a lot and he becomes very, very aggressive. I mean, what would you do if you were forcibly transported to another country with no females around for the rest of your life? So the Parks Department created this job, it sort of falls in between the cracks. You work a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the afternoon and, like, the rest of the day is your own. And when I saw that announcement with the last mailing, I said, 'I gotta get a Twenty % Tipper up here to hang out with me.' The two of us can get so high together, you'll be writing the stories of your career. Those are weird stories you write, man."
I looked over at a rack against the wall of the building and saw a collection of long weird-shaped brushes and a very old-fashioned football uniform complete with shoulder pads and helmet. The uniform had a big number nine on it. This sinking feeling came into my chest and I was afraid to ask anything else about the job. I only asked one question.
"Eddie . . . does the job involve those brushes?"
He smiled, relieved that I understood everything so quickly. "Yeah man, you gotta put on the football uniform and jerk the elephant off twice a day. The uniform's for protection. That was the old White Plains Hellcats of the old Inter-Regional League from the 1940s. Good old number nine. The job itself doesn't take more than an hour. And like I said, the rest of the day is your own. This is Van Cortland Park, man. It's beautiful up here. We can go back near the burial grounds during lunch and get all fucked up. I can tell you so many stories, things that happened to me back in the '60s, give you a lot of ideas, man."
"I gotta go, Eddie."
"Oh, don't be that way. It's a secure job. Department of Parks and Recreation. Lots of people got their start at this position. Do you know Geena Davis did this job before she became a big star. She was able to go on casting calls in between her morning and afternoon shifts."
"Yeah, what about Sally Jesse Raphael?"
"No, she never worked here, but Liz Holtzman did this job for a while a long time ago, before she got into politics."
"Thanks for thinking about me, Eddie," I said as I turned and walked away.
Another dead end. It was a trek across that long open field as I made my way back to Broadway and went into the coffee shop of the Van Cortland Park Motor Lodge. The place was a dump and I had one of the ten worst cups of coffee of my life. Definitely top ten. There was a woman at a nearby table dressed in a business suit with the want ad section of the Sunday Times folded on her table. She looked like she'd been walking around all day. There was also a business card on her table belonging to the old age home next door. Maybe she just had an interview there for some kind of manager's position.
"God, you look awful," I told her.
"Thanks," she replied. "I got laid off recently. The first time in ten years I've been without a job. The last thing I need is to be left alone with myself all day."
"Tell me about it." She looked into space for a while. Then she spoke again. "There must be a job out there that you can go to in the morning, come home from in the evening, and not feel like a total piece of shit."
I nodded my head and gave her a good look up and down. I liked her. I finished my coffee and wished her luck, heading back to the number 1 train to return to my neighborhood.
When I got home, feeling dejected, I found four incoming messages on the answering machine. I hit the playback button. The first call was from Eddie, the same one I had retrieved earlier. Absent-mindedly, I headed into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed with all my clothes on, immediately dozing off.
" . . . So come up here and check it out. The last stop on the number 1 train. Eddie Smalls. Just ask for me. OK, man."
"Hi Ken, this is Andrew Schwartz, I'm on the mailing list. I just wanted to call and say that the stories you guys send really make me laugh, even when I'm feeling down. And I'm sorry I don't have a job to offer you. And by the way, Schwartz is spelled SCH. You might want to check that."
"Hi Kenny, hi Christina, this is Sandra. Kenny, I'm sorry about your job. Listen, don't take this the wrong way, but, um, until you find something, I guess Jeff and I can stretch our paycheck four ways. OK, I just wanted to say that. I'll talk to you later. Give me a call."
"Hi Ken honey, it's Christina. You didn't call me at work all day. What happened? I'm going down to Chinatown now to buy some fresh chicken and some hong jo to build up your red blood cells. I'm going to make you a good soup. Please, don't be depressed. I love you. I'll see you later tonight. And don't lay down on the bed with your pants on, you haven't changed them for three weeks. You're such a filthy pig."
BEEP BEEP BEEP
-- sent out as announcement for 1/12/95 & 1/26/95 shows at the Continental