Saturday, January 29, 2011

Summer in the Catskills

The Shebourne Hotel

All Jewish boys living in NY in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s who were of college age, tried to work summers in the Catskill Mountain Resorts in the Jewish Alps.

We worked for tips and very minimal salary. Lived under squalid conditions and had a great time doing it.  We all told the guests we were working our way through college to become lawyers and doctors.  This helped increase tips from the families who stayed there.

I was fortunate to work there for two full summers and part of a third.  I worked at a small hotel called the Shelbourne as a busboy and later as a waiter.

My experience there was not quite like that of Patrick Swayze but we had a lot of fun

I met two friends there who I continue to see.  One became my brother-in-law, and one became our business partner.  Both are still my very close friends.

I started working as a busboy since it was my first year, and Bob was the waiter I was paired with.  We had fun in and out of the dining room.

At the hotel, families would come for a week or more at a time.  Sometimes Grandmothers would come and bring their granddaughters.  Most of them young, like 13-15 year olds.

One of my friends Louie worked with us.  He had a penchant for falling in love with these girls.

Louie fell in love instantly.  In high school, you could always tell who Louie had a date with on Saturday, because she would be wearing his letter sweater on Monday.  I think he had a dozen of them to give out.

One afternoon as we were setting up for lunch, the owner came in and made a general announcement.

“The grandmothers are complaining some of you are taking their granddaughters over to the abandoned schoolhouse on the edge of the property and necking with them.  This has to stop.  Do you all understand?“

We all shook our heads, but wondered what he was talking about.

He then turned to Louie and said:

“Louie, do you understand?”

It made sense then.

Louie next turned his attention to a girl in the bungalow colony near the hotel. 

Bob, Louie and I took three of the girls to a drive in movie.  The next morning, Louie was in love.

The girl was going home to Brooklyn the next Monday and Louie took off to follow her.  He came back about a week later.  He had been wandering the streets of Brooklyn trying to see her.

Another time, Bob was dating this crazy girl guest.  A bunch of us went to a pizza joint in town.  We played a game called “pass the ice cube” which consists of passing an ice cube from one person to the next by kissing. 

The next morning the girl came down to breakfast with this purple dye on her mouth. We asked her what was going on.  She told us she had Trench Mouth.

We all went to the dentist that afternoon.  Fortunately she was kidding.

At one point we were all dating some girls from a bungalow colony.  Bob went out on a date with one of them and got into a car accident.  No serious damage to either one, but the car was smashed.  The father was not happy.

A few years later, Bob was working as a Maitre D’ at a temple catering hall and the bride from the party comes up to him.

She says: “Hi, do you remember me?  I’m the girl you were in the accident with.   I got this scar (barely discernable under her lip) and it’s paying for this wedding.  I wanted to thank you.”

Of the three of us, Bob, Mark and I, Mark is the craziest.

A family was bringing their daughters to the hotel to work for the summer.  The owner is showing them the staff quarters and telling them how safe it is and how protected their daughters would be.  At that moment, Mark walks by with a towel over his shoulder and nothing else, going to the shower.

Another time, we put food coloring in the water being served to the guests.  We matched it to the color of the plastic pitchers on the table.   I was careful to avoid yellow.  Not Mark.  When a guest complained that he thought the water had an odor, Mark dipped his finger in and said “delicious” I don’t think he got a tip from that guest.

I love cookies.  I was always sneaking into the bakery off the kitchen to steal some cookies.  The owner set out to trap me.

He put a case of noodles over the door to the bakery, so if I opened it, it would fall down and hit me.  He then hid in the shadows of the kitchen to wait.

I was out that evening, and as luck would have it, the chef, Margie came in and needed some flour and went to the bakery to get it.

Margie was a frightening woman.  She was big, mean, strong and probably in her 70’s.  She once tried to stab Bob in the hand because he never stopped moving when he was standing before her picking up orders.  She bragged she had thrown Jerry Lewis out of her kitchen when he was working in the mountains.  She was not someone to piss off.

Margie opens the door to the bakery and gets knocked down by the carton of noodles.  The owner rushes over to see if she’s hurt.

“Who did this?” shouts Margie.

The owner, also frightened of Margie says, “Arthur the chef must have done it”.

She wouldn’t feed him for the rest of the summer.  We had to sneak him food everyday.

After serving the dinner meal, we would all go to the track for the last 2 races.  They would let us in for free for the last 2.

At the track was a food vendor called “Artie Subway” He was called “Subway”, because if you left change on his counter top he would quickly scoop it into his tip cup and yell “Subway”

He was also a tout.  People would come up to him and say  “Artie, who you got in this race?”

Artie would make a big show of consulting his book (probably nothing written in it) and say, “The number 2, can’t lose” or something to that affect.  The next guy would get the number 3 horse and so on.  Somebody would win and Artie would get a generous tip.

Monticello Raceway was known as the crookedest track in racing.  We would watch, as drivers (this was trotters) would hold back their horses to let the other horse win.  Once we saw one driver waving on the other driver to pass him.

Every week, the milkman or egg man would come to the hotel and tell us of a sure thing.  Everyone seemed to win but us.  We decided to start our own rumor.

We went to the track and in loud whispers walked around saying, “Thursday, 4th race, 5th horse, can’t lose, the fix is in”

Sure enough, Thursday morning the egg man and milkman both told us:” Tonight, 4th race, 5th horse, can’t lose.”  We laughed about it until the horse won that night.  We were the only ones who didn’t bet.

Bob, Marvin Murray, the owner’s son, who we were friendly with, and I decide to drive to Queens and see some girls.

After serving dinner, we headed out in Marvin’s car.  It takes about 3 hours to drive to Queens where the girls are waiting.  We had a nice time and headed back to the hotel.

Marvin, who doesn’t have to work the next day, is designated to drive.  He pulls into a gas station to get gas and coffee.  Bob and I are trying to sleep in the car.  Marvin is gone a long time.   We get out to see what’s going on.  He’s negotiating for an old Studebaker at 3 AM.  We drag him away.

We get back to the hotel in time to see the baker getting ready to make rolls and bread.  He asks what are we doing up so early.  The truth is we aren’t up early, we just got in late. 

We often stayed up all night and slept between meals.  We had what was known as a “Dining Room Tan”, meaning no tan at all, since we slept while the sun was up.

One time, I was sleeping in my room when Mark and Bob wanted to see if I was there.  There was a hole in the wall between our rooms, so Mark stuck a lit match through the hole to see if he could see me.

What he didn’t count on was a serape hanging over the hole, left there by Louie who was in Brooklyn at the time following some girl around.

The serape caught fire and nearly burned the room and the building down.  We managed to get it out without alerting the owner of the hotel.

We also frequented a restaurant in Loch Sheldrake called Herbie’s Chinese, American Italian Restaurant.  It specialized in a sandwich which consisted of Chinese roast pork on garlic bread.  We were there almost every night after going to the track.  I once got thrown out because the place was crowded and I thought it would be helpful if I went in and ordered my own food.  They didn’t seem to think that was a good idea.

We should have come home with a lot of money.  We averaged about $250 a week in tips.   The only problem was we were spending about $275 between the track, restaurants and shows we went to see at the various hotels.  I did wind up with about $800 at the end of the summer.  That was a lot of money back then.

Unfortunately the Catskill Resorts weren't doing well in the mid 60's.  Many of the smaller hotels were closing as their guests chose to travel instead of going to the hotels.  This was the result of airfares and cruise fares becoming more affordable.

While driving home after Labor Day, the traditional end to the season, there would be fires on either side of the Quickway (main route into the resort area).  These were hotels that were hit by "Monticello Lightning".  The hotel owner would collect the insurance and retire or relocate to Miami Beach.  

Once the insurance agents caught on, they changed the policies to say the pools had to be destroyed in order to collect.  Some owners managed that too.

Mark continued to be a crazy guy.

He went to some quasi-legitimate college in Fort Lauderdale, Florida one year.  While there, he continued his usual habits of smoking, drinking and goofing off.

One night he called me at home at about 10:30 PM.

“Shell, I need you to send me $1000 right away”.

“What?  What are you talking about?  Are you in jail?” I asked

“No, no, I’m down on AIA (the main hangout street on the beach) and some guy wants me to buy his new Corvette.  He needs the money and he’ll take a quick thousand.” Mark explained.

“Mark, are you nuts?  Where am I going to get a thousand at this time of night?  Why would the guy sell a new Corvette for a grand?  Where are you?” I asked.

“I’m in a phone booth in front of the Elbow Room (see “Where the Boys Are” with Connie Francis for reference), just send the money” Mark replied. “It’s a great deal.”

I started to offer reasons why I didn’t think this was a good idea when Mark suddenly interrupted.

“Wait a minute, something is happening. The guy’s getting back in the car, police have pulled up.  Uh oh, I think he’s being arrested.  Don’t send the money, looks like the car was stolen.  I better get out of here. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

One last story about Mark and Bob from those days. 

Mark and Bob are in a car driven by Bob’s brother Jack.  They are driving up a street in Queens near Woodhaven Blvd. 

Suddenly they are rear ended by another car.

Bob yells out “Quick, pretend you are hurt”.

They both open the door and pretend to be thrown out of the car and are now lying in the street on either side of the car.

The man in the car that hit them approaches.  They are writhing around, moaning, pretending to be hurt.

“Get up you idiots. You can’t sue me, I own both cars.” He shouts at them.

It’s the Buzzard, Bob’s father and the worst driver in the world.  He was the driver of the car that rear-ended them.

Their hopes of litigious riches dashed, everyone drives home.

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