Babysitter to the Stars

by

10/17/2021

Neighborhood: Manhattan

I arrive in New York City in 1970 right after graduating from Carnegie Mellon Drama Department. I pray I’ll hit the big time, but in between auditions I look for flexible jobs to supplement my income. I leaf through the phone book and come to a page titled “Child Care.” One ad stands out “Babysitter’s Guild—the oldest and most-trusted agency in New York.” I dial.

After many rings, an out-of-breath woman picks up, “Hold please.” I do and listen to a recorded voice coo, “Babysitter’s Guild has been in business for over thirty years. All our sitters are personally interviewed, safety trained, detective investigated, fully bonded.” I’m getting lulled into a reverie, when I’m jolted back to reality.

“May I help you?”

“Uhhh…I’m calling to register…”

“How fast can you get to the Dixie Hotel?”

I throw on my coat and hot foot it down to West 43rd Street. So much for those personal interviews and detective investigations.

I make my way through a lobby of scruffy-looking types drinking out of paper bags and spend the evening sitting in a darkened room with mildewed furniture keeping an eye on two toddlers from Texas. I make twenty-five dollars for four hours, which to me is a small fortune.

The next day I call Babysitter’s Guild. I haven’t even given them my name or found out how to pay them their commission. I’m told to come to their office across from Grand Central Station.

It’s pouring rain, but I trundle down there and arrive soaked to the skin. I stand outside the door wringing out my bellbottoms when out comes an elderly woman who looks like Eleanor Roosevelt on a bad day.

“Oh hello, dear. Are you one of our sitters?”

“I think so. I had my first job last night.”

“Well, I’m the owner. Mother Johnson. I’m just on my way to the ladies room. Go right in and my daughter Betty will register you.”

She holds the door open to reveal a room about the size of my bathroom. Two desks face opposite walls leaving a tiny opening in between. On the desks are stacks of overflowing folders and several phones. When the phones stop ringing for a minute, I approach a woman who is smoking a cigarillo and gulping her coffee.

“Yes sir, 7 PM, 905 West End Avenue at 104th Street, Apartment 4G.  That will be five dollars an hour and five dollars cab fare. It’s a pleasure to serve you sir.”

I’m about to introduce myself when the phone rings again. It’s obviously a sitter because Betty barks, “905 West End, 4G, 7 PM. Don’t be late!” and hangs up. She turns to me,      

“What do you want?”

“I worked for you last night. I want to register and I have your money.”

“Send me a check at the end of the month,” she shoves a form at me, “Fill this…” The phone rings. Betty’s voice suddenly goes up an octave, and she almost seems to chirp.  “Babysitter’s Guild. Oh yes, ma’am, 795 Park Ave for four hours.”

I’m starting to fill in the blanks when Betty finishes her call. She snatches the form from my hand and shoves a paper at me,“Tomorrow. 8 PM.” She stares at my dripping clothing, “And clean up your act. This job is for one of the finest families in the Social Register.”

The next day, I set my hair, take my grandmother’s ring out of my safe deposit box and don a Laura Ashley dress I got for Christmas. Floating over to Park Avenue on the cross-town bus, I dream of hobnobbing with Astors and Rockefellers.

After being announced, I take the elevator to the top floor and ring the bell. I get no response, so I ring again. Slowly, the door opens. A man who looks like Robert Redford plus fifty pounds and a lot less hair stands before me.

“Hello, I’m Mr. Sheridan.” He is completely naked.

He ushers me into the living room as if nothing was wrong. I try to fix my gaze on the oil paintings, Tiffany lamps and Victorian furniture, and not on his tiny but erect penis. Then I notice a naked women with a bouffant pageboy stretched out on a velvet ottoman smoking a hash pipe.

He leads me down a long hallway with brocade wallpaper. I gaze at the oil paintings of Revolutionary War scenes and photos of the Sheridans with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, with their clothes on. Mr. Sheridan leads the way. “We’re having a party. We just need you to keep the kids out of our hair.” He runs his hand across his balding head and laughs, “So to speak.”

He opens a door to reveal a room that looks like a birthday party from hell. The floor is an obstacle course of Legos, blocks, and doll body parts. A five year-old boy is hitting his stenciled dresser with a wooden mallet, while his younger sister’s full diaper leaks onto the oriental rug.

Mr. Sheridan seems not to notice, “Wooster and James, say good evening to your sitter.”

He points to a table littered with Fig Newtons, Twinkies, and Devil Dogs. “Help yourself.”  Then he shuts the door and locks it.

On cue the children start to howl. They keep it up for the next several hours. In spite of my efforts to feed them every bit of junk food in the room, they fight and bite each other and me until there’s not much left of any of us. Finally, mercifully, they drift off to sleep in their trundle beds.

I press my ear to the door and can hear whooping, hollering and panting.

I finish off the pack of Fig Newtons and collapse in a corner, leaning my head against a hobbyhorse. I wake up to someone shaking me and see Mr. Sheridan’s flaccid penis staring me in the face. “The party’s over.” He hands me a wad of money. Even though I planned to pocket the five dollars taxi fare and take the subway home, I don’t even think of it. I let the doorman tuck me into a yellow cab and speed toward home.

I want to think of myself as the babysitter to the stars, but months go by where I find myself changing diapers and burping babies of the not-so rich and famous. The only noteworthy client is a red-haired boy who I’m sure gave me poison ivy.

Then, Mother Johnson phones me three days in advance of a job.

“Dear, I have a job on Saturday night for a Miss Jennifer. I believe she’s a famous movie actress.”

Then she tells me that Jennifer has two children and has requested two babysitters. I recommend my friend Peg who’s also a babysitter with the Guild. We plan what we’re going to say all week. Peg is a member of the Actor’s Studio and declares Jennifer is a lightweight in the acting department. Still, since we’re both aspiring actresses, we brainstorm about how to ask her for help with our floundering careers. Peg wants to ask her to recommend us to her agent. I favor a more subtle approach which combines flattery and playing on her sympathy.

When Saturday rolls around, Peg and I take the bus to Park Avenue. We are announced by the white-gloved doorman and given permission to go upstairs.

The great lady herself answers the door. She’s wearing a gossamer dress that clings to her size two body.  Her highlighted hair falls in tendrils around her glowing face.

“Hello girls, call me Jen. Let me take your coats.”  I suddenly question the wisdom of wearing the beaver jacket I got at Goodwill. What’s underneath is worse, a granny dress I made myself and, because snow is forecast, galoshes. Jen doesn’t seem to notice. She leads us into a bedroom where two girls are tucked away into an antique feather Sleigh bed. It contains more toys and stuffed animals than F.A.O. Schwartz during the Christmas holidays. The girls are watching a TV, which takes up half the wall.

Jen introduces us, “This is my daughter Aimee,” she points to a small girl almost buried under a pile of pillows. Another small head pokes out from under the covers. “And that is Sarah; she’s my boyfriend Craig’s daughter.” Jen explains. “We hired two sitters so they each can get enough attention.”

At the moment, both girls are immersed in Chico and the Man. So Jen gives us a tour of her sumptuous pad. It’s going to be tough returning to my fourth-floor walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen tonight. First she shows us every babysitter’s favorite room, the kitchen. It is painted delft blue. Hand-painted tiles encircle the ceiling. The sunflowers and cacti on them match the Mexican plates displayed in the glass cabinets that line the walls.

Jen throws open the industrial-sized refrigerator. “Are you girls hungry?”

Need she ask? Peg’s on Weight Watchers, but in honor of this assignment she’s taking a weekend pass. I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, and peering into Jen’s refrigerator, I know I made the right decision. “I just got a delivery from Balducci’s. Help yourself.” She hands us each a Mexican plate. Not wanting to seem like a glutton, I take a small piece of pate de foie gras, a chocolate raspberry croissant, and a hunk of St. Andre goat cheese.

As she loads up on steak tartare and lyonnaise potatoes, Peg sucks up big time, “I can’t believe you eat this stuff, Jen. You’re so thin.”

Jen tosses her curls, “I don’t. I bought this for my guests. Like you.” She leads us into a room with a chandelier dripping crystal and seats us on a down couch that feels like it’s covered in cashmere. Then she goes to the bar, “Want a—?”

“I’ll have a scotch.” Peg hops onto a stool by the bar before Jen even finishes her sentence.

I trail behind her. “Do you have any white wine?”

“Of course.” She hands me a pink fluted goblet that looks like something I saw in the Metropolitan Museum a couple of months ago. Then she pours herself a glass. “It’s from France. Aimee’s father’s got French blood. That’s why I spell her name. A-i-m-e-e..”

“Peg downs her Scotch and helps herself to another. “I’m part French too,” she lies, even though she’s got the map of Ireland written all over her face.

Jen sips her wine. “Her dad and I are divorced. He was jealous of my career. Now I’m dating Craig who’s this wonderful investment banker. But he’s very conservative. He cuts the gold buckles off his shoes because he says they’re too flashy. He’s very wealthy. And handsome. You’ll see. He’ll be here soon. But I just don’t know if I love him.”

I nod, “Yeah, relationships can be so confusing,” as if I knew what I was talking about.

“Oh you’re so right. I’m just so addicted to love. I meet a man and if he’s nice to me, I end up wanting to marry him.”

Peg cuts her off, “I loved you in Winter in August, Jen.”* Her fake smile makes my stomach turn, but I jump on the bandwagon.

“You were great.”

“Thanks.” She refills our glasses.

Peg belts down her scotch, “Got anything else coming up?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I have a film coming up that’s set in a manor house in Italy.”

Peg pounces, “I speak Italian.” Right, Peg, and Sophia Loren’s your first cousin. “And I’m in the Actor’s…”

Just then the doorbell rings. Jen floats over to the front door. A dark-haired man in a tuxedo enters. Jen throws her arms around him and gushes, “Oh darling, I’m so thrilled you’re here.” She pulls him into the living room and shows him off to us. “This is Craig, girls.” She kisses his neck. Then she goes to the closet and throws on a sable coat. Clutching Craig’s arm, she trills, “Have the kids go to sleep by nine. And help yourself to anything you want.” With that, the golden couple floats out the door.

We peek at the girls, and seeing they are still mesmerized, we nearly knock each other over to get to the kitchen. After an hour, we’re so stuffed, I have to take Pepto Bismol.  Peg unbuttons her jeans. We check on the girls one more time and find them sound asleep.

Peg grabs my arm, “Let’s go exploring.” We pass the study, the playroom and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi. Then, we arrive at a huge room with an armoire with gold leaf, which takes up an entire wall.

Peg flings it open. “Oh my God, Look at these.” She starts pulling out armfuls of designer frocks and holding them up to herself in the mirror. But Peg is a size 16, so she turns to me, “Try one on.”

“What if she comes back early?”

“Would you relax? She just left.” She roots through the pile of dresses and pulls out a slinky black beaded gown, “Oh my God. I think I saw Jen wear this at the Academy Awards.” she thrusts it at me. “Try it on, it’ll fit you.”

It might have if I hadn’t just spent the past hour eating everything that wasn’t nailed down. I step into the gown and try to pull it over my hips, but it’s too small. So I slip it on over my head and start to tug. It glides over the top half of me with no problem. When it reaches my stomach, it hits a roadblock.

“Suck it in,” Peg coaches me.

I hold my breath and pull the dress all the way down. I catch sight of myself in the mirror. My stomach pooches out and my hair looks like it died on my head.

Even though I’m wrapped up tighter than a mummy, I try twirling around the room.

Peg gets into the act. “Jen, can I have your autograph.”

“Of course, dahling.” I reach out to sign my name and feel something rip.

I look in the mirror. There’s a two-inch tear under the armpit.

“Oh my God,” I mouth a scream so I don’t wake the children. Then I peel off the dress and run around the room in my underwear praying for a needle and thread. God is with me. I find one in Jen’s night table. All those Home Economics classes are about to pay off. I sit on Jen’s four-poster canopy bed making tiny blind stitches. My hands are shaking as I desperately try to repair the tear. Meanwhile, Peg is roaming around the room rooting through drawers. She sashshays over to an antique writing desk with a pastoral scene painted on the front. She opens the drawer and starts rifling through the contents, until she unearths Jen’s diary. Then she plops down on Jen’s chaise lounge and reads a loud,

Nov. 13 -I love Bill, but then I go back to Craig when Bill leaves town because he is just so rich. But then Craig is so wrapped up in his work that when Bill comes back I just run into his arms. Oh why am I such a yo-yo?

We both burst out laughing.

Peg scans Jen’s diary, “Maybe we can find something to sell to the National Enquirer.”

“You’re terrible.” I finish sewing the dress and hide it in the very back of her closet. We put everything back just as we found it. Jen and Craig come in very late, give us a huge tip and have their limousine driver take us home. For this night, and this night only, I really am a baby sitter to the stars.

* The name of the actual movie for which this sultry actor is most famous has been changed.

***

Prudence Wright Holmes is an actor, author, monologue detective, acting coach, playwright, seeker, Mom, Sister Goddess, and former resident of Bexley, OH. Find out more about her and her work at: prudencewrightholmes.com

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§ One Response to “Babysitter to the Stars”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    wow; this brought back in a painful rush my endless days babysitting. not in NYC, thank god; i was on the other end a few years after i hit the city, soon looking for a babysitter. such a terrific portrait of another world–the uptown world–and so funny. also, your descriptions are so ripely visual. great stuff!

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