Queen of the Plaza

by

03/17/2012

Neighborhood: Featured, Midtown

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St. Patrick’s Day promised to be another disaster for the Retail Collection of the Plaza Hotel. Hordes of green-clad spectators streamed down the escalator into the basement. Their eyes averted the luxury goods on offer, as their destination was the hotel’s public bathroom. Within the first hour I had given directions to the toilet over a hundred times. Most said ‘thank you’.

“Why don’t you just print out directions?” My co-worker pulled off her glasses and put down People magazine. Her eyes were out of focus like someone waiting to be informed by a doctor that they were blind. Most people with reading glasses had that look.

“Firstly because Americans can’t read maps and secondly we might get lucky.” I was wearing a leprechaun tie and a forest green Donegal Tweed. Maybe one of the passers-by might give our shop a shot.

“Lucky how?” Janet refocused her eyes on the parade-goers.

“Someone might buy something.” I was half-Irish. My mother’s mother was born in the Year of the Crow. She came to America at the age of 12. Nana said she was lucky. I might not play cards or gamble in casinos, but I believed in survival of the luckiest over the fittest every day of the year. Today was no exception.

“Buy what?” Janet put down People. A bus commuter had left the magazine on the subway. She would take most of the week to read it. “We have no crosses, no NYC charms, no Claddad rings. That’s all these people buy besides beer and something green.” Janet came from Brownsville. People from that Brooklyn neighborhood understood the needs of other people. It had been mixed in the 50s.

“Nothing wrong with drinking beer.” My grandmother had brewed beer in her Jamaica Plains cellar during the Prohibition. I celebrated Beermas at least once a week. Guinness was good for pregnant moms.

“My father said whiskey was invented to keep the Irish from ruling the world.” Her prejudice against Spirits was distorted by her tribe’s love of God. I knew only a few Jewish drunks.

“We ruled the world before your Yahweh wrote 10 Commandments of Don’t.” Moses’ tablets had created a land of No. I preferred more of a yes world and told Janet, “Stop being so negative.”

“Not so negative? Our store is in a basement. Only three things function in a basement. A bar, a brothel or a boiler.” Janet’s morning Valium was wearing off faster than mascara on a crying whore. Her hands shook with desperation, as she pointed a long fingernail to the bathroom for the benefit of an older lady in distress. “Plus our merchandise is dreck. Who staying at the Plaza would buy this crap?”

“A blind man might.” My friend Richie Boy had partnered up with two losers. One a thief and the other broke. We hadn’t made a sale this month and only two in February, but I had a shot at selling a million-dollar ruby and had two emerald rings put away in the safe for a Texas oilman. Selling one would pay off my debts. “We might get lucky.”

“2009 is not a year for luck.” Janet had been blown-dried too many times, so that her coif resembled a thatched peasant hut. One session at the upstairs beauty salon would have repaired the damage. Last year she grossed $200,000. This year she’d be lucky to hit 50K. 2009 was no 2005.

“It could be worse.” Rain was the norm for most St. Patrick’s Day. The Neponset River in Boston had flooded its bank on Evacuation Day 1968. In Lower Mills Station only the tops of the trolley cars were visible. Today was blue skies and fleecy clouds. It was a good day to be Irish.

“That’s what’s scaring me.” Janet plucked a Valium from within her purse. A doctor friend had put her on the suicide watch. I made sure she only ate one. Within ten minutes she achieved her desired level of apathy, her eyes fixed on People’s photos, as if the young girls in pretty clothes mirrored her past.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I left the store, signaling to a security guard to keep an eye on Janet. There might not be customers, however the previous week two thieves had clipped three shops with bad credit cards.

I had a coffee at the Austrian pastry shop and then visited the other stores. Not a single one of the day’s walk-ins had purchased a gift from the luxury stores. No musk-ox sweater, no Sea Island cotton shirts, no imported alpaca blankets. St. Patrick’s day was shaping up to be another goose egg and I returned to our store infected by Janet’s pessimism,

“It’s your friend, Richard.” Janet handed over the phone and buried her face in the magazine.

“How’s it going?” Richie Boy was in his store on 47th Street.

“Lots of green going for a pee.” It was as if someone was handing out flyers on 5th Avenue advertising PEE IN THE PLAZA.

“Any sign of that Arab?” St. Patrick’s Day on 47th Street was as dead as the Plaza.

“None.”

Several hundred Saudis had been staying at the Plaza for over a month. Yesterday one came down to the Retail Collection. He looked at an emerald ring. It belonged to Richie Boy’s partner. The color was off and the cracks had been filled with resin. The price was ridiculous and I had told the Saudi to come back tomorrow. The two emerald rings in the safe were hued by the Columbian jungle. “Come-backs’ were rare at the Plaza and I was already planning on returning the rings to the Afghani dealer later this afternoon.

“Is anything ever going to happen there?” Richie Boy was losing sleep over this store.

“I’d like to say yes.” It had taken 400 years for Ireland to free most of the island from the British. The struggle had sometimes seemed hopeless, but the Retail Collection was worst. The Plaza had been a destination for over 100 years, however the new Israeli new owners had trashed the legend to sell condos and had invested nothing in advertising for the Retail Collection. Even worse the sound system was stuck on same nine insipid world songs. Sometimes working here felt like Guantanamo Bay Lite and I said to Richie Boy, “This place is a lost cause.”

“I’m going to give it another couple of weeks and then pull the plug.” Richie Boy’s father had been against the deal from the start. Closing would prove him right and the old man never liked being in the wrong. “Just keep my partners from ripping me off.”

“You got it.” I hung up the phone. Janet’s eyes were stuck on the same page. Many bosses would have fired someone in her condition. Her mental condition was our secret. Victor McLaughlin’s stunning performance of betrayal in THE INFORMER had forever prejudiced me against snitches.

The five hours to closing threatened to stretch their length beyond three-hundred minutes, until an elegant woman in her early 40s descended on the escalator. Cherry-red hair framed a face white as an equinal moon. Her slender body had never borne an extra ounce of weight. Her sophistication was not derived from designer clothing, but life itself. The woman stepped off the escalator. The salespeople snapped to attention, as her stiletto heels clicked on the tiled floor.

Janet put down her magazine, took off her reading glasses, and rose from her chair. Years of experience had honed her radar for a potential customer. Her eager smile was a masterpiece of Park Avenue dentistry and I hated telling her, “Janet, she’s coming to see me.”

“You?” Disappointment tremored her face.

“She’s an old friend.” I walked to the store entrance and embraced Dove. Her taut body was a testament to good living. We were only about a year apart, but her face was that of a thirty year-old except for the grey world-weary eyes. Her youth had nothing to do with plastic surgery. The injections of her Swiss rejuvenation clinics bordered on magic.

I released Dove and introduced the two.

“You two are friends?” Janet couldn’t believe that someone so ‘fabulous’ could be my friend.

“We know each other since CBGBs.” Dove and I had met at the bar. The Ramones had been on stage.” Dove had been a rail-thin blonde desperate to become the 2nd coming of Nico. Several punk groups promoted Dove as tomorrow’s darling. She lived too much for today to be anyone’s tomorrow and opted for a career as a Senator’s mistress. She had been a woman so long, that few people knew her as Dave. “Over thirty years ago. I once saved his life.”

Dove’s husky voice recounted her taking revenge on a thug from New Jersey who had beaten me with a baseball bat outside of a Paloma Picasso party. He had acquired a permanent squint after she stuck a cigarette in his eye. Janet listened to our conversation while pretending to read her magazine, while Dove surveyed the jewelry under glass.

“If you see anything you like, I’ll be happy to show it to you.” Janet had a tendency to step on other salespeople’s toes. This practice was considered bad form and I admired her lack of shame. I wasn’t much better at starving my fellow workers.

“When your friend Richie Boy told me that he had opened a store in the Plaza, I had expected South Sea pearls, Burma rubies, and pink diamonds.” Dove wrinkled the delicate cartilage of her nose with displeasure. Her taste ran toward Madison Avenue and Place Vendome.

“Pretty crappy stuff.” Richie Boy’s busted partner had loaded the cases with second-hand merchandise and out-of-style closeouts from bankrupt jewelers. Subsequently our inventory was an unavoidable embarrassment, but I had two aces in the hole.

“I have something in the safe that might interest you. Emerald green for St. Patrick’s Day.”

One emerald cost about $200,000, but the other was in her price range. I held up a 5-carat Sea-Green Emerald surrounded by a micro-pavee of diamonds in an 18K gold and platinum ring. The stone evoked the slopes of the Connemara Hills after an afternoon rain. I had spent a wet autumn within sight of the Seven Pins.

“Nothing greener than Ireland where it’s either rained,  raining, or about to rain. Wetter than a bucket of beer.” Dove had been out of the country a long time. Me too. Neither of us had stayed in touch during our years of exile. Hearing her laugh made me realize how much I missed her, although not enough to give her the ring for free. We haggled on the price like two old nuns over the baptismal name of an abandoned baby.

“$32,000 and not a dollar more.” Dove dipped into her pocketbook and withdrew a clutch of c-notes. “Green good?”

“Even better on St. Patricks’ Day.” I eyed Janet. This was 100% my sale. She had seen the Jewish version of THE INFORMER and was no yenta. I called the owner of the emerald and beat him down an extra $1000, insuring Richie Boy would get his bone. His partners would get nothing. I counted out the money. It was about an inch thick. My commission would fit in my wallet without changing the cut of my trousers.

“So now that’s out of the way.” Dove glanced at her delicate Audemar-Picat watch. I had seen an identical model on 47th street for $120,000. Dove was living well beyond my means. “I think it’s time for a drink.”

“Drink?” I liked drinking, although mostly a little later in the afternoon into the dusk. The bars were empty during those hours and the drinks were usually half-priced.

“It’s St. Patrick’s Day. You’re Irish. I’m Irish.” Dove turned to Janet. “You don’t mind if I steal your partner for a few minutes. We have a little catching up to do. How’s the Oak Bar these days?”

“It isn’t what it used to be.” Janet had stuck her head in the famed bar once. $16 glasses of wine were beyond her means. Mine too, but $9 Stellas were affordable. We went upstairs. The bar was packed, but we found two stools at the bar. The bartender remembered Dove. She was fairly unforgettable. She ordered two Jamesons.

“A little heavy for the early afternoon.” I stayed away from whiskey on most occasions.

“It’s St. Patrick’s Day. It’s never too early.” Dove clinked my glass. She held her drink like a woman, but drank like a man. Some masculine traits were harder to camouflage than others.

“Never too late either.” We hadn’t seen each other in eight years. That span of time was bridged in a second by her holding my hand. Her life revolved around the fashion seasons in Paris. I amused her with my tales of Thailand. Two wives. Two kids. An arrest for copyright infringement. Coming back to take care of a crazed dog in Palm Beach and finally opening the store in the Plaza. “I thought the Plaza. Big sales. I’d work four years and retire again. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We’ll be lucky to last out the month.”»

Queen of the Plaza
photo by Susan Simon

“Could be worst.” Dove eyed a table of politicians in the corner. One nodded to her with respect. She had been the mistress of a US senator. He had been dead for more than twenty years, but his power remained on her skin. “You could be back in Ballyconneeley.”

“That wasn’t so bad.” My mother’s death wish had been for me to visit Ireland.

“Your mother wanted you to find someone like your aunts and sisters to marry, so you rent a house from Sir Robert Guinness. Not cheap either for off-season and you end up in a haunted cottage.”

“It used to be a schoolhouse.” The cold house was situated on the edge of the bogs. They dated back to the Ice Age. The walls were wrapped by the winds off that primitive plain. I did hear voices from time to time.

“Ghosts of the beaten boys.” Dove signaled Orlando for two more Jamesons. “And the only women you found out there were knocked-up teenagers and lesbians.”

“I’m glad you find it so humorous.” I had thought at the time that my mother didn’t approve of my lifestyle from her perch in Heaven.

"No one really laughs at their successes. Failures alone are funny.” The bar was getting crowded. Several men eyed Dove with interest. Rich men. Young and old. The veneer of elegance slid off her skin with the third whiskey. She laughed with the haughtiness of a whore regaining the best corner in Manhattan. “I like being here.”

“You’re staying at the Plaza?”

“Not a chance.” She admired the emerald in the early afternoon light filtering through the Oak Bar’s wide windows. “I’m strictly a St. Regis girl.”

“I like the King Cole Bar.” I hadn’t had anything to eat today. The whiskey was rotting in my belly. I slid off the stool. “Dove I have to get back to work.”

“Not before you see some of the parade.” Dove hooked her arm over my elbow. She was taller and stronger than me. Maintaining her figure required hours in the gym. “You worried that that girl working with you is going to steal the store?”

“No, more like she’ll have a nervous breakdown.” My co-worker lost her money with Bernie Madoff. The 60 year-old Jerseyite had no idea how to make her next Botox payment, but Janet was no thief.

“Janet will be fine. The diamond on her finger is worth $50,000. She’ll survive without you for another 30 minutes.” Dove had just bought an expensive ring and the customer was always right. “You’re seeing the parade whether you like it or not.”

“I don’t like the parade.”

“Everyone loves a parade.” Dove led us down the marbled hallway to the foyer.

The muted drums muttered louder with every step. A high school band was performing Michael Jackson’s BEAT IT. The playlist had expanded during my absence, but I had other reasons for shunning the parade than music.

“I’m from Boston. The parade has nothing to do with me.” The parade through Southie had been a riot waiting to catch fire at the end of Broadway. Marchers congregated at the dozen bars in that odd intersection. By mid-afternoon the orderly procession had evolved into a milling donnybrook. Fisticuffs were the rule. A plastic shillelagh filled with sand finished most fights. Broken noses and black eyes, marks of honor for the following days. That martial mirth soured after the Bussing Riots of 1975. Hate became synonymous with South Boston and I left my hometown for good.

“You’ve been living in New York over 30 years.” Dove checked our reflection in the mirror. Other eyes were on us. The security man at the hotel entrance studied my partner. He sensed something amiss with her, but the doubt in his eyes revealed that he couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with the picture. Dove passed for a woman, because she had been just that. For most of her life.

“Are you talking about gay people not being allowed to march?” Dove ignored the guard’s scrutiny. There was nothing left of the boy from Queens. She was 100% upper-class and a lady to boot.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” I pushed my way through the revolving door. The high school band was in front of the Sherry-Netherlands. 5th Avenue was packed twenty deep. The sky was blue to heaven and the temperature balmy for March.

“Are you coming out of the closet?” Dove stood on the steps. Her mouth softened to a smile. Twenty years in Europe would never change her being a New Yorker.

“I’m straight, but I don’t like exclusion in the Land of the Free.” Gays and Lesbians have fought for the right to express their Gaelic spirit without success.

“Land of the Freaked more like it and especially with our brethren. Sex is a taboo subject. No one talks about knocked-up teenage girls or predatory priests. I don’t understand why anyone gay would want to associate themselves with this crowd.”

“Because we’re all Irish.” My younger brother had crusaded for acceptance by the straight world. His radio show 1-in-10 had been a big hit for Boston gays. He died of AIDS without the battle won. I carried on his struggle in my own way.

“Most gays think everyone is gay.” The crowd was applauding a troupe of prancing Irish dancers. We walked off the steps. The senior doorman greeted Dove. She had been a guest at the Plaza many times with the Senator.

“They’re not 100% wrong.” I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t bi. Outlaws had no sexual designation.

“Except with you.” Dove had attempted to seduce me many times. She almost succeeded the night she stuck the cigarette in my attacker’s eye. Too much cocaine had protected us from becoming more than friends. “I wanted you so much. Still do.”

“I’m an old man.” I was flattered by her desire, but I was faithful to both my Thai wives. “Set in my ways.”

“The parade is over a hundred years old. It’s set in its way too.” No woman liked ‘no’ for an answer and she walked a little faster into the crowd.

“It’s the only parade to march up 5th Avenue. The others head downtown.” I held Dove’s hand. Her fingers and palm were teenage soft. I regretted my stubborn ways, for I hadn’t been with a woman for months.

“And that too will never change.” Her words sounded hard.

“And neither will I or how I feel toward you.” I pulled her closer. We made a nice couple. I could tell that by the admiring looks from the crowd. They actually envied us. I peered over their heads at the marchers. The mayor was waving to his constituents. A few drunks cursed him for tearing down Yankee Stadium. Coming from Boston I was glad to see the House that Ruth Built in ruins.

His eyes swung in our direction, then narrowed, as if he recognized Dove. She knew a lot of people thanks to the Senator. He waved to her, as the parade halted for another of his photo-op on 5th Avenue.” You want me to ask him about including gays in the parade?”

“He’s looking for a 3rd term not political suicide.” He was a mayor of the rich and the champagne years were gone for the moment. “There’ll never be a gay contingent in this parade. The Ancient Order of Hibernians are scared if they let in the gays and lesbians that there’ll be a float dedicated to Ireland’s most famous homosexual, Oscar Wilde.”

“Or banners honoring Roger Casement.” The revolutionary had been martyred by the British for his politics, not his homosexuality.

“Or bands playing songs of Sinead O’Connor.”

“That might be too much to ask.” The singer had told the Pope to fuck off on TV. That statement had branded her as dangerous to the Church. There were greater dangers to the young than a shaved-headed pop star.

“Although I wouldn’t mind hearing JUMP AROUND by House of Pain.”

That music video had featured New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Bands, politicians, majorettes, the crowds. Cops, drunks, and fights. The latter was another reason to avoid the parade. The brawls could turn very ugly and the cops rarely interfere before someone got hurt.

“It could be arranged. After all, I know people.”

Female parade-goers gazed at her forest green Armani suit cut two inches over her knees with envy. The outfit cost more than most of them earned in a year. I could live off the price of her high heels for a month. Several pedestrians whispered to each other. They thought she was famous without realizing the source of that fame. Dove was one of a kind.

“I think they want your autograph.” In my clothes I looked like her driver.

“I’m not famous.” Dove posed for her admirers. She could have been an aging French actress or a retired ballerina. Her poise had been perfected after years of practice.

“You were always famous for me.”

“More infamous than famous.”

“Less of either than you could imagine. Paris is such a small town for the wicked. Same faces. Same stories. All the time thinking of New York.”

“You could have stayed here.” Her senator died in her arms during sex. His senator’s family didn’t contest the will to avoid a scandal. The deal had been for Dove to stay out of the limelight.

“Things would have been bad for me here. Too much money and too many bad friends.” She basked in the detoured memory of that path. “It would have been glorious, but it’s not too late for gays to march in their memory.”

She pulled me forward to the police barricade. Two officers turned to stop her forward progress. Dove whispered to one. He glanced over his shoulder to a distinguished-looking man in his 70s. The man motioned to the policeman to let Dove over the barrier.

“You want to come?” This was her show, but it was nice of her to ask.

“No, I’ll be going back to work.” I pointed to her ring finger. The stack of hundreds filled my jacket pocket. Some of it would go to my wives. “Thanks for everything.”

“My pleasure.” She held up her hand. The emerald shone in the afternoon sun like a pagan god’s eye. It was that good. “Call me at the St. Regis tomorrow. We’ll have drinks.”

“Consider it a date.”

She blew a kiss and strode up to the man. He greeted Dove with a kiss on the cheek and linked his arm with hers. He was her yes-man for the day, but I wasn’t jealous. They made a nice couple too. Dove had that effect on most men.

I would close the shop, send Janet home, pay the dealer for the emerald ring, pass by 47th Street to drop off Richie Boy’s share, and then go to drink in the East Village. Some friends were at a small Irish bar. I’d buy a few rounds. We’d tell stories about haunted schoolhouses and kissing Catholic girls. Most of them would be true.

The parade resumed its uptown progress and Dove disappeared from sight. I smiled to myself thinking that there were gays in the parade. Not just Dove, but men and women from all walks of life. All Irish or wanting to be, because on St. Patrick’s Day everyone loved the Irish.

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