Billionaire Spermatozoa and Deadly Peking Ducks



25 Broadway, New York, NY 10004

Neighborhood: Financial District

I, along with the rest of the catering staff, had no idea that the party that evening was for a billionaire when we arrived at the loading dock of the old Cunard Shipping Building by Battery Park. All the details had been kept hush-hush until the last minute. Only when all 70 cater waiters and bartenders were gathered in the voluminous makeshift kitchen were we informed that we would be working the 50th Birthday Party for Edgar Bronfman Jr., the heir to the Seagram liquor fortune. Among other things one of the captains instructed us that “whatever you do, DO NOT touch any of the white furniture and avoid walking on the white carpet!” I decided not to ask if I could eat my crumbly brownie on one of the feather white sofas.

Another captain yanked me away in order to help retrieve the birthday cake from the baker woman’s station wagon. Six of us hustled outside to behold a monstrosity, seven differently sized boxes of cake covered in light blue and white frosting, topped off with silky ornate ribbons made of sugar. I imagined myself tripping over the curb and the $1000 cake sliding down into the gutter with me, box after sugarcoated box and decided to help hold open the doors.

Six men were necessary to carry the 100-pound cake up the marble steps of the foyer, through the bustling main area, past corridors covered in white and black draping to a table in the kitchen. The cake was cordoned off in a corner in order to make sure it remained hale during the preparations.

It was not until running around helping in other areas that I grasped the magnitude of this party. Earth, Wind and Fire rehearsed on a stage in the back. Before four soaring palm trees, a dance floor and the white-carpeted, tiered lounge area with white couches and chairs, a deejay and sound crew did sound checks.

There were two large dining lounges on either side of the main hall. Two long tables were set up on both sides of the Asian Room. One table had two manhole-sized woks for frying pancakes which wrapped freshly sliced Peking duck to create fajitas. Two carvers continually sliced a never-ending stream of baked ducks.

The other table had stacks of blue and white Chinese takeout cartons and chopsticks which customers filled with a wide array of Indonesian cuisine. The other lounge had two sofa-sized cold bars set up with a dozen 50-pound bags of fresh Blue Point and Wellfleet oysters, clams and shrimp chilling on ice. In keeping with the white theme both dining lounges were all white with purple flowers and blue lighting.

Here and there I would hear details.

“They had to saw ten feet off each of those four palm trees before they could be stuffed through a back window,” one waiter told me. “I heard if one fell down it’d kill somebody.” Note to self: If palm trees sway, run!

“This space in the building was boarded up for 17 years,” a bartender reported. “It was only opened and cleaned for this party.”

The building, built in 1919 by the owners of the Titanic, was just as grand as the one-trip wonder luxury liner. The Great Hall (the main space) is divided by Roman arches and vaults á la Baths of Caracalla in Rome. They crescendo to a magnificent cupola in the center, under which stood the quartet of palm trees. Intricate carvings and gilt motifs decorate the majestic arches and towering ceiling. There are bright colored murals of shipping and Roman scenes, gold, blue and raspberry red. This was a change from the last party I had attended, which was in a Brooklyn warehouse.

Back in the kitchen, where boxes and crates of Seagram brand liquor were flooding in, our uniforms for the night were handed out. Instead of grabbing a jacket, each person received a uniform with his or her name on it. Looking for a place to change, I passed a table of four waiters cutting huge boxes and buckets of fruit for the bar that night. An outside market in Guatemala came to mind.

Going upstairs to change clothes I realized how dilapidated this building must have been before the party renovation. The Beaux Arts grandeur downstairs melted into the mental ward of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest upstairs. The walls peeled with Third World 1950s lime green paint. The asbestos tiles were smeared with a thick layer of dirt and dust. And, although June 2nd, it was freezing because the windows were so old.

Not only did the top floor look like a mental institution, so did the waiters. I opened the door to a large empty room and found 20 waiters getting into their work threads. “Oh my God, you look like a mad scientist,” I said, pointing to one waiter, laughing hysterically about his uniform, not realizing that we were all wearing the same thing. The uniform was white. The pants were shapeless. It was like stepping into a pair of white drapes. The top was a smock, a double-buttoned, sous-chef number that was even baggier than the pants.

“They CANNOT be serious,” I growled. “They want us to work a party with cream of the crop New York society in uniforms issued by the Treblinka concentration camp?”

“I feel like one of those sperm in that Woody Allen movie getting ready to be ejaculated,” said Stephen Nachamy. A handsome theater producer, Stephen’s dark features looked even more swarthy in his virginal white ensemble.

“If you haven’t already gone over the dress code, please do so now,” the head captain informed us. “No jewelry or earrings, combed hair and all piercings removed.” 70 spermatozoa puddled around him as he dictated. The event organizer, Diane G, was dressed in a red pants suit.

“She looks like a drop of blood in the snow with all of us huddled around her,” I whispered to Stephen.

“Yeah, like a cardinal on a snowy mountain, or a marachino cherry on top a pile of Cool Whip,” he said.

“Or a new tampon that …”

“Don’t even go there.”

I was handed a tray that held small cones filled with tomato sorbet (sic) and topped with a rock shrimp. I got rid of a few cones but when they heard what I was serving people usually wrinkled their lip. The cones were beginning to melt and I couldn’t be bothered with trying to get rid of all them so I found a garbage can behind a curtain and discreetly unloaded my wares.

Luckily when I returned to the kitchen one of the four captains said they needed me to bus in the Asian Room.

It was a little disorienting to walk into the Asian Room from the Great Hall where the party was in full swing. After traversing a black corridor you opened up a flap and stepped into a space that was completely white – the tablecloths, chairs, light fixtures, insane asylum uniforms. The walls and high ceiling were made out of white canvas.

Heading out with a tray of denuded Peking ducks, Jody informed me, “I feel like I’m catering a gig in Heaven.” Jody is an actress with red hair and a contagious giggle.

Stephen was positioned behind the Indonesian table. “Welcome to The Womb,” he said.

Standing by the Indonesian serving table I had my first opportunity to get a gander at the crowd.

“Look at her,” Jody sneered, pointing out a blond confection with gravity-defying balloons stuffed in a slinky ivory below-the-knee gown with a finely beaded border. “I wouldn’t pay a dollar to look like her.”

The famous people started strolling by. There was Tommy Hilfiger trailed by a gaggle of keening groupies. Oh wait, I said famous. Sting was there, as was Dionne Warwick and Ralph Lauren. I bussed the champagne glass of Maria Bartiromo, the CNBC anchor, and almost stepped on the foot of Loren Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live. (He’s much funnier on TV.)

With so many guests and staff accidents were inevitable.

A group of the Mexican kitchen staff sat on the side of a folding table and the thing collapsed, food rolling all over the floor. One girl tried to put out a candle in the Raw Bar Room that was beginning to torch one of the canvas walls, and a cinder flew into her eye. Before a fellow cater waiter friend rushed her to the Emergency Room her swollen eye looked like a pink egg. Another girl was slugged in the face by a Peking duck. She happened to be walking in the kitchen area when a waiter named Todd, who was in charge of reloading the Peking duck platters, grabbed one of ducks from the hopper by the neck and began swinging it around like a lasso. They set the girl down on a folding chair and brought her a rag of ice to place on her bruised, whacked face.

There was almost an accident when two 9-year-old boys with Richie Rich haircuts and clothes started pointing to all the food on the Indonesian table and kept on asking Stephen, “What’s that?!” They stood there for ten minutes pointing at every dish. “Fried cockroach wings on a bed of sautéed Japanese maggots highlighted by a fresh kitty vomit sauce,” I muttered under my breath. My fingernails were beginning to dig into the skin of my clenched fists when they finally walked away. I discovered one of the boys was Bronfman’s son when I saw him and his other brothers and sisters onstage butchering “Happy Birthday.” I expected the ubiquitous secret service to do their duty and pick off those brats with their hidden revolvers. I mused, maybe we’d all be lucky and one of the palm trees would fall towards the stage.

Later Bronfman’s wife performed an ear-shattering song. “She’s not a professional and doesn’t even have a recording contract!” the tall, red-bearded Bronfman said, introducing her. The song wasn’t too bad. The word was that she was lip-synching to a recording she made in L.A.

The party was supposed to go until 4 AM, but a person can only stuff so many free oysters, clams, shrimp, hors d’oeurves, Mumm champagne, trays of mixed drinks (mojitos, marguerites, daiquiris), cake, dessert, and later hot chocolate down his or her gullet before the intestines start to bloat to unfashionable proportions. The staff sighed with relief when we heard that the party was officially breaking up at 1:30. As the non-stop blasting musicians and prancing dance skit performers disbanded, we broke down the bars and dining rooms.

“$6,000,000 is what this party cost I heard from a reliable source,” Rob, a waiter, informed me.

I helped a guy named Charlie carry a “slop bucket” – a large container where all extra, undrunk liquids are poured – to a place where we could empty it. We couldn’t find a janitor’s sink so I suggested the ladies’ room. He was reluctant. I knocked on the door. Nobody was inside.

“Hurry, let’s pour it into this toilet before someone walks in,” I said.

“We really should pour this in a big sink,” he balked.

“Don’t worry, Charlie, we’ll just be careful how we pour it.”

Famous last words. Half the liquid containing mostly hot chocolate gushed all over the floor. Charlie broke out into a raucous guffaw. So did I. The scene was something straight out of a Port Authority bathroom. The more we cleaned it up with paper towels the more he laughed. By the time we departed the ladies’ room tears streamed down our cheeks.

Pink hues already warmed the morning sky when I ushered forth from the subway after my long, long ride to Inwood. Walking towards my apartment one thought kept on looping through my mind: I wonder what happened to that girl who was slammed in the face with the Peking duck?

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