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A former Hostess Helper dishes on the upper crust


Published November 20, 2002 at 3:46 p.m.

All I really need to know I learned as a Hostess Helper. That's the job I worked one or two evenings a month when I was in high school. While other kids were mowing lawns or baby sitting, I was a certified member of the entertainment industry, part of a specialized squad of teens who'd been carefully trained to properly replenish potato chips and safely store leftover dip. By the time I was 16, I was peddling my skills for $4 an hour - an impressive rate for a kid in those days. More valuable than the money, though, my service as a party operative also left me with enough life lessons to cover a sizeable buffet table.

As far as I know, the term "Hostess Helper" was coined by some clever member of the Montclair Junior League, noblesse oblige Republicans in lipstick and white gloves who were, in those days, the bread and butter - crustless, white and unsalted - of society in my New Jersey town. Word was that aspiring Junior Leaguers had to carry a cup full of tea across a room without spilling a drop. At home, we suspected that membership in that group mostly had to do with pedigree: having been born into the right ethnic group, attending the right church and voting for the right candidates. My Russian-Jewish, staunchly Democratic mother would have been disqualified on all three counts. But she knew a good deal when she saw one. So when the Junior League launched its Youth Employment Service - a job agency for underage workers - she enrolled my sister and me in the Y.E.S. Hostess Helper Class.

There we heard handy employment hints, like settling hours and wages in advance, arriving on time, following orders and maintaining a "professional demeanor" - e.g., resisting urges to call the boss a bigoted asshole and refraining from sneaking booze out the back door to our friends. Our perky instructors also revealed the secrets of successful at-home hospitality. We learned to place knives with their blades point in, handles lined up an inch from the table edge. In the dishwashing unit, we were taught that nothing that's ever been alive, like wooden salad bowls and bone-handled steak knives, belongs in the dishwasher. When serving at formal dinner parties, we were told, one must always remove from the right, leave from the left. This last law in particular undoubtedly would have proved priceless if I weren't chronically confused about the difference between "right" and "left" in spatial terms. That distinction has never come as naturally to me as the words' ideological implications.

At our final session, a special guest lecturer demonstrated recipes for quick and tasty hors d'oeuvres, most of which seemed to involve Ritz crackers topped with some creative combination of cocktail onions, ketchup and peanut butter. Back home, these recipes got a big laugh from my mother, who took pride in her cooking, even though her favorite party snacks included one in which she wrapped floppy pink slices of Hebrew National salami around sweet gherkin pickles and impaled them with frilly toothpicks. Her own culinary transgressions notwithstanding, the implication of my mother's laugh was, Those people don't know from food.

But maybe they did, after all: toiling in the kitchens of Montclair's Cadillac-and-martini set opened my eyes to how the other half lives - and my mouth to an epicurean universe I'd never encountered at home. The very first thing my first employer did was hand me a pair of tongs and tell me to fry bacon for spinach salad. She might as well have shown me a scalpel and told me to perform a lobotomy. I had never cooked bacon, never heard of salad that wasn't built around iceburg lettuce, and had never ever seen spinach that had not started out as a solid, black-green, frozen brick.

Just as I was beginning to get the knack of the tongs, my employer mentioned that the menu would also include ham served with red-eye gravy. "My grandfather's secret recipe," she allowed. "He was from the South." Whatever "red-eye gravy" might be, I could tell by way she sidled over and winked when she said it that I ought to be impressed. And I was. Clearly, this hostess, with her Breck hair and pearls, was something special. And so was her husband, in his spiffy Montclair Golf Club blazer.

They both also obviously didn't inhabit the same planet my family did. My brother had worked as a caddie at the golf club to which these employers, and most of my later ones, belonged. But that association didn't have members with names like Horowitz.

I had never felt particularly like an outsider in my hometown. On the job, I found out how it feels to be treated as if I were invisible. "Where did you get her?" someone would ask the host as I stood right there, cringing behind with my platter of rumaki. I also discovered that not everyone in the world held the same liberal views I'd been raised with. "Here's to Richard Nixon," someone would toast at dinner - blasphemy where I came from.

I stored up all these incidents, committing them to memory as conscientiously as I kept track of the oven temperature and which bowl was slated for the beans. Just as my employers hired me so that they could enjoy their own parties, my parents hoped I would help them enjoy those parties, too. After each job, my parents would pump me for information. Their fascination was part gossip, part voyeurism. But mostly, I think, they simply loved stories. And I loved supplying them. Knowing that a rapt audience awaited me, I learned to pay attention and pick out telling details.

As it happened, my most alienating Hostess-Helper experience occurred just two doors down from our house. The "Thompsons" had been vivid characters in our family lore ever since Mrs. Thompson complained to the mailman that she'd seen my mother hanging out clothes on a Sunday. We knew she was heiress to a fortune. A local college bore her maiden name. But we'd rarely laid eyes on her or her husband. On Halloween, they kept their lights off. The only person we ever saw outside their house was the elderly black man who tidied their lawn. Naturally, when the Y.E.S. lady asked if I could work the Thompsons' formal Christmas dinner, I was terrified. My parents were delighted.

When I arrived on the job, Mrs. Thompson - ancient, unsmiling and decked out in shiny baubles, like a tree - ushered me through rooms of sparkling seasonal tchochkes and into a crowded kitchen where an old black woman in a maid's uniform scowled at the stove. "Mary will tell you what to do," Mrs. Thompson said, and left me there. "She wants you to wear this," Mary muttered, holding up a formal white uniform you might see on a nurse or a nun. I couldn't tell what was making her so sour. Was it because I was too scrawny for the dress, or the fact that I was invading her territory? It didn't occur to me that she probably couldn't have cared less about me, but resented spending the holiday in the Thompsons' kitchen.

My job mainly consisted of carrying food back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. When she wanted me at the table, Mrs. Thompson would touch her toe to a pedal under her chair, activating a buzzer in the kitchen. At our house, we also had a pedal in the dining room - but there was no uniformed maid in the kitchen waiting to answer the call.

I never understood why my mother was such a poor sport about our propensity to push that pedal until I found myself at the other end of one. "There she goes again," Mary would grumble. Once, I clearly heard her add under her breath, "Old bitch."

The Thompsons' table was set with special Christmas china and delicate crystal in berry red and holly green. I admired the colors as I stood hefting the turkey platter and wondering why Mrs. Thompson's antediluvian guest kept refusing to take her portion. Then Mrs. Thompson cleared her throat. When I looked her way, she jerked her head almost imperceptibly to the side, her eyes darting in the same direction. Remove from the right, leave from the left, I suddenly remembered, mortified. I shuffled over, the lady swiveled in her seat and speared a slice of white meat, and the meal continued.

That felt like the low point, but it wasn't. Cleaning up after the guests had gone, I took one of the fancy red glasses, stuck my dishtowel in the cup and snapped it from the stem. "You better go right now and show her what you done," Mary ordered. So I did. As I walked through the empty rooms in search of my employer, formulating the words I would say, a surprising calm came over me. I would not only confess my sin, but also offer to have the price of the glass deducted from my pay. I had hoped to earn $9 for the three-hour job. But if my carelessness cost me three or even four bucks, so be it.

I felt honest and magnanimous as I bravely delivered my prepared speech. Then I waited for Mrs. Thompson to pronounce my punishment and set me free. For a good long moment, she didn't respond. When she did, she informed me, "Those glasses are priceless. A family heirloom." Then she announced that she had indigestion and would be going straight to bed. "Before you show yourself out, leave a pitcher of water outside my room," she instructed. "I'll send the boy around with your pay in the morning."

By "boy," I assumed she meant the elderly black man who worked in her yard. But the next morning came and went and no one, old or young, brought me my money. I gladly would have let the matter drop - anything to avoid confronting Mrs. Thompson - but that afternoon, my mother made me go and collect my wages, sending my sister along for protection.

The precaution proved unnecessary. It was Mr. Thompson who came to the door, and he was unaccountably jolly as he handed me a bundle of folded bills. Stuffing the wad in my pocket, I muttered a quick thank-you and turned to go. "Thank you," said Mr. Thompson. "You were wonderful. Do you think you'd like to work for us again?"

"Actually," I replied, "I'm not going to be hostess-helping anymore." I thought I meant it when I said it. But when we got back to our own kitchen and I counted my take, I reconsidered. Rather than docking me for destroying his wife's heirloom glass, Mr. Thompson had paid me the entire sum I was owed, plus a bonus worth an extra hour's pay. I felt as if I'd gotten away with murder.

But my bad catering karma returned the next time I got a chance to break some glass. The extended family whose gathering I was working didn't seem nearly as foreign as my typical employers. For one thing, I hadn't gotten the job through Y.E.S. but through friends of friends. What's more, they were good old ethnic Democrats - just like us.

I had a sink full of wine flutes and an hour-and-a-half remaining on the job when one of the hostess's grown daughters asked me to prepare some tea. I turned to the stove, where I'd been keeping the kettle warm for at least an hour. They had one of those enamel teapots whose handle curved over an opening in the top. Discover-ing that it had boiled dry, I removed the lid and held the pot under the faucet.

The instant the water hit the kettle's super-heated bottom, it vaporized, engulfing my right hand in a cloud of steam. The pain was so intense I nearly dropped the kettle. But that would have meant breaking not just one but at least a dozen glasses, and I wasn't about to repeat that mistake. Grabbing the kettle with my left hand, I held it under the faucet just long enough to scald that hand, as well.

Then I returned to my dishes. But my fingers hurt so much I could hardly move them. When I glanced down, they looked like melted wax. My knuckles, in particular, weren't where they should have been. The skin seemed to have expanded and slid forward, like gloves that had been slipped part-way off. When the hostess' daughter returned for her tea, I showed her my hands.

Riding in her car to the emergency room, my wounded hands buried in a bag of melting ice, I felt comforted by the knowledge that I would at least be compensated for my pain. If the WASP-y, Repub-lican Thompsons had tipped me $3 for destroying their property, shouldn't these social allies of ours shell out even more to me for sacrificing my own body? Maybe. But they didn't seem to think so.

When she handed me over to my parents at the hospital, the hostess' daughter paid me precisely what I'd earned up until the moment I was injured, and not a penny more.

In the end, however, even that disastrous job yielded an unexpected bonus. After my bandages came off, the doctor ordered me to wear white cotton gloves while my raw new skin finished healing. For nearly a month, I got to pretend I belonged to the Junior League. And to this day, in the summer when my hands get tan, the pale patch of scar that appears on my left ring finger helps me remember which side is which.

But it doesn't help me see beyond the stark us-and-them mindset I brought with me from home when I went to my first Y.E.S. class. I'm still trying to unlearn that childhood lesson. Family recipes carry a certain comfort, even when they don't leave the best taste in your mouth.

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