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"Help": an excerpt from Operatic Divas and Naked Irishmen
I found my first assistant on the streets of "Old Louisville" She was in front of one of those huge, gorgeous Victorian houses a couple of streets over from me loading up her car. I almost drove right past her, but slammed on the brakes just in time to catch her before she drove away.
“Excuse me” I yelled out the window of my car. She was busy putting her cleaning supplies into the truck of her car and didn’t hear me.
“Excuse me “
She turned , hesitated, then walked over to the window.
“I noticed you putting away your cleaning supplies. Do you do house keeping?
“ Yes ma'am.” She flashed a broad, friendly smile.
“Are you working full time?”
“No, just whenever I can pick up a few days here and there."
“Would you be interested in working at a bed and breakfast?”
I'd been in business almost three years and was up to 45% occupancy, high for a bed and breakfast. But I needed a lot more help. The first year, my occupancy rate had been around 17% and I could still do everything on my own. The second year, when it went up to 28%, I could handle the cooking and baking, but needed someone to come in occasionally to do the cleaning. Now, at 45% I was desperate.
“I sure would.”
I pulled the car over to the curb, jumped out and walked up to her. She smiled that charming smile again.
“I’m Margie.” She reached out her hand.
“I’m Nancy. I own the Aleksander House Bed and Breakfast on First Street
Margie was a tall, healthy looking redhead with freckles that nearly covered her face. Curly hair was pulled back and fastened at the nape of her neck. Her cargo pants and white T-shirt peeked through the dark blue work apron she had tied in a bow at her waist in the middle of her back.
“When can you start working?” I asked.
Thinking back on it, I can't believe I was ready to just hire someone off the street without knowing a thing about them. But, as I said, I was desperate.
“Any time. How many days a week do you need someone?”
I'd never had an assistant before, so I had no idea how many days or hours I would need her or what the going rate for housekeepers was in Louisville. I'd just moved here from Chicago a couple of years ago and knew they made pretty good money there. But I'd actually be hiring an assistant to do more than just housekeeping. And I knew it would be more than one day a week.
“Can you come tomorrow? You can see what the situation is like and we can discuss days, hours, and salary.”
“Sounds good to me. What time? And......what’s the address?
Margie came the next day and worked for a few hours. She obviously knew what she was doing 'cause she brought all her own cleaning supplies, including rags. She was familiar with all the best cleaning products, knew how to get spots out of anything, and was accomplished at ironing. I took a chance and hired her on the spot without an interview or references. It turned out great for the first year and a half.
One week-end, I left her in charge of the Inn for three days. I had gradually started taking a little time off after three years of not being able to go anywhere overnight. By this time, I trusted Margie completely.
When I returned everything appeared to be in tip top shape and my guests had left glowing comments about Margie in the guest book. But soon after that I noticed her behavior becoming somewhat erratic. Over the nest couple of weeks, she began having mood swings and started showing up to work late, then eventually not at all.
In the meantime, I had done a routine review of my checking accounts and found I was $500 short. I went through my check book over and over and finally discovered the very last check in the book was missing. Margie was the only one with a key to my office. I called my bank and was told that the check had been cashed at the Kroger grocery store near me. The bank sent me a copy and I saw that Margie has forged my signature. Fortunately, the bank took responsibility and put the $500 back into my account immediately. Kroger confronted her and she admitted she forged the check.
I fired Margie and found out later that she had been on crack cocaine for months. She had stolen food and other items from two other Innkeepers, whom she worked for part-time, and eventually ended up in jail. It was such a shame because she was a nice girl who had gotten mixed up with the wrong people. And, even worse, she had two little children.
By the time I fired Margie, my occupancy rate was up to 55%. I limped along without anyone for a while, occasionally borrowing a housekeeper or helper from one of the other innkeepers.Then I sent out emails to everyone I knew, letting them know I needed someone on a regular basis. After three weeks or so, a friend of mine who lived not far from me called and said she knew someone who was looking for work.
When the doorbell rang, I rushed to open it. Bryan, a 26-year-old African-American, gay, male, ex Ballet dancer, introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Bryan. Jean Huxley said you might need some help.”
“I sure do, Bryan, come on in." After introducing myself, I led him into the parlor.
We sat across from each other, him on the settee in front of the windows and me on my favorite blue wing-back chair. This time, I decided I would do an interview and ask for references.
“Have you ever worked in a hotel or bed and breakfast before?”
“I worked at the Hilton, the Marriott, and downtown at the Sealbach Hotel.”
He couldn't have said anything that pleased me more. "Waiting tables, cleaning rooms?" I asked.
“Mostly large banquets.”
“You waited tables?”
“Did you ever do any house-keeping?”
“No, but I like to clean. It's therapeutic.”
Bryan passed the interview with flying colors. He also had really good references. He'd even brought a resume with him. He was articulate, personable, and friendly. And so he got the job.
Bryan stayed with me for the next six years. He didn't cook, but he was very helpful in the kitchen and with the guests, especially the ones who were "high maintenance", and he could really clean. He was slightly OCD and would spend hours and hours cleaning toilets and polishing up the handles on everything. He loved doing it and the bathrooms glistened.
Although the percentage of high-maintenance (as we call them in the business) guests we had was pretty low, there were several who required extra special attention. Bryan was unusually gifted at dealing with them.
One of the most memorable was an eccentric opera singer from New York. Even her clothing was flamboyant and outlandish. I kept thinking she spent a lot of time on stage because, in addition to her colorful costumes, her daily entrances into the dining room were theatrically breath-taking. Each morning she would wake and sing a couple of choruses of Musetta’s Waltz, from Verdi’s "La Traviata", before breakfast.
On the day she arrived, I opened the door to what looked like a delegation. I had no idea who they could be, since I was expecting only one single lady to check-in that evening.
"I am Madame Rosalina Capriani!" the woman announced "and these are my suitcases".
I scanned the four men accompanying her and, sure enough, each one was carrying a suitcase. She stood still while one of the men walked around her, through the front door, and planted a suitcase at the foot of the stairs. He turned toward Madame Capriani and beckoned her inside. She extended a long, well rounded arm covered in silky, red, purple and green. It jutted out from beneath a flowing cape encircled with bright magenta fringe. I stood there in with my mouth open as she glided through the doorway and motioned to her walking suitcases to follow.
"Excuse me a moment" , I said. "Let me get my housekeeper to help you to your room"
I hurried to the kitchen. I knew I couldn't handle this one on my own and thanked God on the way Bryan was there to take over. I had a suspicion this was going to be a very "high maintenance" situation, Bryan had been working for me for several years by that time and knew the ropes. He was great with the guests and, if it looked like they were going to be a problem, I would turn them over to him.
Madam Capriani's four henchmen left her over-sized suitcases for Bryan to carry up to her room and retreated. I never found out who they were, nor did I ever see them again. As she and Bryan climbed the long staircase together, she was giving him a litany of instructions concerning what she would need during her week's stay at my Inn. The requests were so over the top that I decided to let Bryan be the one to break the news to her that this was not the New York Hilton hotel. This was a simple little bed and breakfast in Kentucky with no room service and no concierge.
“And when you make my tea," I could hear her say, " use a small teapot, make sure the water is boiling. put the teabag in first, then let it steep until it’s the color of mahogony.”
"Oh my God...good luck, Bryan."
“And just a touch of milk. Do you have China teacups and silver spoons? and maybe a little tray. And, Bryan, can you bring me an extra pillow? I prefer Down.”
Madam Capriani was a little too much drama for me. Every negative thing I knew or had heard about artistic personalities and divas applied in her case. First of all, she was almost totally helpless.
“ Bryan the TV isn’t working right. Can you come up and fix it for me?”
She would call down to the kitchen and interrupt whatever he was trying to do. It was always an emergency.
“Bryan, I have no idea how to work the VCR or the DVD players. What kind of movies do you have? Can you just sit a while and watch this movie with me?
Bryan was beside himself. He couldn’t get any work done; she continued to call
him all day long.
“Bryan," I said to him, "sorry, but you did agree to be at her beck and call. Good thing, 'cause I’m afraid I'd end up insulting her,“.
“But she wouldn’t come back then," he said.
“Exactly,” I countered.
A loud crash interrupted our conversation. It came from the direction of Mrs. Capriati’s room.
“Oh my God, what now?”
Bryan jumped up and flew up the stairs. I just sat in the parlor waiting for the bad news.
Minutes later he came back holding the remains of my precious little blue teapot; the one I kept on the shelf in the moonshaped window next to the registration desk.
“Oh no. How did that happen?”
“She said she was trying to fix the phone and her elbow knocked it off of the coffee table.
“What was wrong with the phone?”
“Nothing. It was unplugged from the jack.”
“She had brought it over to the coffee table and it wouldn’t reach without unplugging it.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“ I know. She said she forgot to plug it back in.”
“I know,” Bryan shrugged his shoulders and threw his arms in the air slapping his forehead with his palms.
“How much longer is she staying?” he asked.
“Three more days.”
The phone next to where I was sitting rang suddenly, causing me to jump halfway out of my seat.
“Answer that, please Bryan. It might be her.”
“ Hello. Yes, this is Bryan.” Bryan nodded his head to indicate that it was indeed our soon to be named worse nightmare.
“Yes Mrs. Capriani. Yes. The spigot in the shower? Are you in the shower now? No of course not. You’re in your room. In your robe. Yes, of course, I’ll run up to your bathroom right now and try to figure out why it’s not working.”
Bryan handed me the phone.
“She can’t figure out how to take a shower.”
“Oh for God’s sake. What is wrong with this woman?” I slammed down the phone.
“I think she just wants attention,” I went on. “No healthy person could be that helpless. She can’t do anything for herself.”
A loud shriek came from the second floor. Bryan streaked up the stairs again.
In five minutes he was back down in the parlor.
“What the hell happened this time?”
“You won’t believe this,” he said
“She went back to the bathroom to try the shower again. She climbed into the tub and started yanking hard on the shower handle and it came off in her hand” Bryan was trying to catch his breath from running up and down the stairs.
“ A huge gush of water came out strong, like out of a fireman’s hose” he went on. “and threw her to the back of the tub completely engulfing her in ice cold water.” Bryan fell back onto the settee and took a deep breath, trying to suck back in the belly laugh that was dying to get out.
“When I came into the bathroom, she was flat of her back still in her robe gurgling through the heavy stream. She was sopping wet from head to toe.”
“Oh my God. Is she alright now?”
Bryan started laughing. He covered his mouth and bent other to squelch the sounds of his laughter. I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing too. We both ended up reviewing the whole scene, me secretly thinking she deserved it. And Bryan probably thinking the same thing.
"Yeah, she's fine...just sopping wet and befuddled.
As the days went by, I retreated further into my own little world and let Bryan take care of the diva. He brought her tea, fixed her TV and cleaned her room every day. A couple of times I heard her practicing Musetta's Waltz, but for the most part, she was pretty quiet after almost drowning in the tub. As it turned out, I came more and more to depend on Bryan whenever there was a guest who was a little difficult for me to handle. I hate to say this about a guest, but I was never so happy to see anyone leave in my life.