It’s March 2010, and the Trump SoHo hotel, a sleek phallus of blue steel thrusting forty-six stories into the air from the western end of Spring Street, is just weeks from opening. Press releases have promised heretofore-unseen views of Manhattan, guest rooms furnished by Fendi Casa, sexy Italian dining, and a luxury spa where you can lie naked on a marble slab and get pummeled with tree branches. Because this hotel is in a “young and hip” area and needs a “young and hip” image, Trump’s three eldest children are the faces of the venture: Don Jr. and Eric, the big-game-hunting enthusiasts, and Ivanka, whose fashion advice is “dress modestly.”
I am living in a minuscule walk-up on Avenue B, where I eat dollar pizza slices on the dining table of my frayed duvet cover, dye my hair black, make fun of things, and attempt to write screenplays. Bartending in casual spots has kept me afloat. That is, until I quit my bar gig in a fit of burnout, figuring I’ll find something better. I don’t find something better. I don’t find anything at all. Then rent is due, and there’s this job post on Craigslist about Trump SoHo.
It should be noted that the Trump SoHo hotel is not actually in SoHo, but just west of SoHo in the no-man’s-land of Hudson Square. And that the Trump SoHo hotel is not a hotel, but a “condotel,” which allows it to get around the zoning laws created to keep places like it from existing. And that the Trump SoHo hotel does not exactly belong to Donald Trump. The Hair hasn’t invested any of his own cash in the project, though he has received a nice chunk of equity in the place in exchange for the use of his name.
I try to think of the glass as half full. The place may at least be amusing.
At an ungodly hour (by bartenders’ standards) on a Monday morning, I enter the brand-new hotel’s schmancy function room and join the milling crowd of freshly hired staff. A number of very excited suits dart among the plebes, urging us to find seats. The round tables are draped in fresh white linens and immaculately appointed with full silver place settings. After we’re seated, the suits go around pouring coffee from silver pots, bowing their heads with conspicuous humility.
The lights dim. A hush falls. Two women in snug corporate dresses ascend to the podium and fiddle with it until Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” blares from the speakers. As Gaga bemoans the destructive nature of her romantic impulses, the two women dance awkwardly and pump their arms, trying to get us to do something. Cheer? I grin widely, teeth clenched.
A parade of men in slightly ill-fitting suits and women in better-fitting ones tell us the same things in cosmetically different ways. Hundreds of people applied for our positions. The group in this room is the crème de la crème. We deserve a round of applause. We give ourselves one! Then they get serious: It is a privilege to be here. We must be very well behaved so they don’t regret giving us that privilege. It seems to boil down to “with great power comes great responsibility,” but unfortunately, nobody directly quotes Spider-Man.
I’m more intrigued by their explanation of the whole “condotel” deal. You can buy one of the hotel’s 391 rooms, but you aren’t allowed to stay in it for more than about a third of the year. The hotel rents it out the rest of the time, splitting proceeds with the owner. It sounds a bit like an illegal sublet, the kind of thing that would get my landlord all in a tizzy. Yet here are these suits, referring to it as an investment opportunity.
One suit makes a speech intended to “provide us with tools” to make the hotel sound not-evil to people from the neighborhood. This may be a hard sell. No one around here wanted this monument to corporate greed blighting the skyline, with which I totally empathize.
At this point I’m not yet aware of these two facts:
—During the hotel’s negligently overseen construction, a piece of faulty formwork collapsed, decapitating a worker as he fell forty-two stories to the ground.
—Hundreds of human bones from the 1800s were discovered while digging the hotel’s foundation, which turned out to be on top of a burial vault belonging to a former abolitionist church. The Trump Organization pledged to rebury the remains, but never did. Indeed, the whereabouts of the remains is unclear.
At the end of the day, those of us assigned to the hotel’s restaurant, Quattro, get a tour of our new workplace. It gives me high-end-chain-restaurant-in-Florida-strip-mall vibes. Shelves of booze stretch up to the ceiling, and there’s a rickety silver ladder you have to ascend in order to reach half the bottles, which tells me whoever designed the place has never bartended.
The managers stress that we must never, ever refuse our customers anything. We’re just supposed to make it happen. This kind of policy is common enough in higher-end service jobs, but the enthusiasm and solemnity with which they repeat the directive feels alarming.
Cocktail training reveals Quattro’s booze program to be a dozen years behind the times. The rest of Manhattan is serving speakeasy classics with imaginative updates: herbaceous gin cocktails, smoky Scotch ones, or anything with a dash of bitter, yellow-black Fernet-Branca. Quattro mostly offers inoffensive fruity concoctions made with vodka. But I suppose if the Trump guys can get away with charging sixteen dollars for middle-of-the-road vodka mixed with frozen passion fruit puree (a “Ruski Passion”), then more power to them—er, to us.
My fellow barfolk range from slightly older with unflappable, I’ve-seen-it-all-before-honey demeanors to baby-faced and fresh off the turnip truck. One of the latter variety, a creamily midwestern aspiring actor, is so over the moon to have landed this dream job that he won’t hear a critical word about the place. The jaded among us try to keep our bitchy gripes on the DL.
Our gripes are plentiful. We don’t have half the bar supplies we need for opening, and no one in power seems to have the faintest idea how we can get them. They tell us we can “requisition” supplies by checking off boxes on a printed list and giving it to the purchasing department, but the things we need are not on the list. For instance, we need half a dozen straight pint glasses for shaking cocktails. Not on the list. In any other bar, you’d take cash from the register, buy the glasses, and submit the receipt with your paperwork at the end of the night. When I suggest this, the managers say, “No, just requisition them.” When I tell them purchasing told us they can’t get the pint glasses, they quiz me on the hotel’s three tenets of service, which I can never remember, because they are so abstract as to be useless. Even when we requisition items that are on the list, it’s as though purchasing has never seen a bar. We requisition cocktail stirrers and come in the next day to find they have left us boxes of rock candy swizzle sticks in pastel colors. There’s nothing to do except eat them.
Then soft opening is upon us, and we begin serving invited guests—graying men with expensive watches and slim, shrewd-eyed women in white pants and silky patterned tops. With actual guests staying in the hotel, we plebes are now forbidden to enter the restaurant through the front door. Our entrance is around back, a hidden rectangle in the butt of the building where we must pass through a fingerprint scanner to gain entry. On the way out at the end of our shifts, security guards search our bags—in case, I guess, we decide to start stealing silverware, which management has repeatedly informed us costs ten dollars a piece. While it would ordinarily never occur to me to steal silverware, now that they’ve got security guards rifling through my purse every night, pretending not to see my tampons, I want to steal silverware. I fondle the heavy forks as I set bar diners up for their truffle risotto, watch tiny, perfect spoons gleam temptingly next to espresso cups. But how? Big Brother is watching from every angle.
My barback is a skinny, freckled hipster kid from Tucson, a part-time model and full-time acerbic wit. He and I have regular “staff meetings” in the one corner of the bar the cameras can’t reach, taking sneaky shots of Jameson and planning silverware heists. It becomes clear that my survival mechanism for working at Quattro will be the moments when he drags me into this corner and says, with maximum drama, “Have I got a story for you!”
“At lunch, there was this old dude who ordered three mojitos at, seriously, noon. I figured there were people coming to meet him but no, he pounded them all in five minutes. Then he was like, ‘I guess I’m not getting on my flight! Can I see the wine list?’ He ordered a $350 bottle of champagne, told me to chill another one, and went and hit on these two women at a table. They drank both bottles of champagne, and then he said, ‘I’m going to take you ladies on a crazy shopping spree!’ So they went outside, where, like, his driver was waiting. They came back with so many shopping bags, wasted, and they all went up to his room.”
My uniform consists of a white button-down, a pinstriped vest, a shiny black necktie, and too-big black slacks. Despite the fact that this get-up makes me look like a middle schooler playing best man at her dad’s wedding, the suits ask me to represent my bartending brethren in the hotel’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony.
I feel honored by this, which I resent.
The ceremony brings me back once more to the function room, where Trump, his progeny, and the money guys stand in front of a white paper step-and-repeat of the Trump SoHo logo. After a few unremarkable remarks to the press, one of the managers gives me a frantic wave and I find myself leading a procession of variously uniformed hotel plebes down the aisle. Each of us is holding a gigantic pair of scissors. When I reach my designated suit, wealthy developer Alex Sapir, I hand him his scissors with maximum solemnity, like a ring bearer at a Republican polygamist wedding.
A gray ribbon rises into the air in front of the suits, hoisted by two plebes. It hangs there, in front of nothing and connected to nothing. Perhaps it would have looked nice stretched across the hotel’s imposing front door, or up on the roof before the jaw-dropping view of Manhattan. But here, hanging in the stale conference room air, it reminds me of a piece of dental floss stuck to someone’s bathrobe.
Flashbulbs pop. The fat cats’ grins oscillate. The phrase I have wasted my life runs unbidden through my head.
“Have I got a story for you! Quentin Tarantino came in last night. He had seven Long Island Iced Teas and tried to get one of the waitresses to go for drinks with him. I think he offered her a part in his next movie. The last thing he said was, ‘Thanks for the heavy hand.’”
All Quattro bartenders are required to work several lunch shifts per week, to “earn” the right to work nights. Three bar customers is a booming lunch crowd. I am not happy about spending entire days lugging crates of booze, polishing glasses, and juicing fruit to set others up for the night shift, while making a serving wage of five dollars an hour. We complain to management. Why not hire a lunch bartender and pay them a living wage? They assure us our concerns “have been noted.”
But then something strange happens. All that lugging and polishing and complaining has made me feel invested in the place. When the bar manager finally comes in one evening with those precious straight pint glasses, holding them over his head like a champion prizefighter, I let out an actual whoop.
A month or so in, on a night shift, I encounter the first customer who seems like someone I might want to hang out with, and who might give me the time of day in real life: a screenwriter, in town from LA for a meeting. He’s not wearing a baseball cap, but might as well be. It’s slow, so we get chatting, and I admit I’m working on a screenplay. He seems to dig my pitch. “Send it along!” he says, handing me his card. “Maybe I know the right producer.” This feels like a gargantuan win, possibly worth this entire painful job—if he leaves after the first or second martini. Because we all know how these things go.
Six martinis later, he’s slurring about how artists like us shouldn’t have to conform to societal norms, how his girlfriend and my newly invented boyfriend have nothing to do with the energy between us, how I should come up to his room and do what comes naturally. I’ve already said no to this offer half a dozen times. But very, very politely. Because although I’m realizing this guy is not going to send my screenplay to anyone, we at Trump SoHo never refuse the customer anything. While I don’t think this extends to my body, I still feel a soupçon of guilt.
“Have I got a story for you! Some Real Housewife came in last night . . . How should I know which one? I don’t watch that shit. This guy three tables down sent her a Sex on the Beach. She was really flattered, but then before she could drink it, another one arrived, and then another one. The guy who sent them was waving at her and cracking up. He just kept sending them to her, like, to make fun of her.”
One evening, a skinny man in paint-spattered jeans wanders through the front door and installs himself at the corner of the bar. He’s not our usual clientele—there’s dirt on his hands—but it’s more than that. His gait is jerky, his demeanor vague. He looks around the room, but his eyes don’t seem to land on anything.
I exchange a look with my fellow bartender, who is new—three months in, staff are dropping like flies. We’d both rather this guy wasn’t here, but we’re not about to Pretty Woman him. Über-rich hotel guests come in looking like crap all the time, and it’s not acceptable to mistake some stringy-haired starlet in sweat pants for a heroin addict and refuse to make her a Ruski Passion.
The man looks in the general direction of the new girl’s face and jabs his finger at a bottle of Macallan—but not the ubiquitous bottle you’d find in any bar. The Macallan Sherry Oak 30 Years Old.
“The Macallan 30 is two hundred dollars,” says the new girl, which makes me wince, but for which I am grateful. He makes an affirmative sound. So she climbs up the ladder for the bottle, measures the drink carefully with a jigger, and presents it with a flourish. Half of it disappears down his throat in one gulp. “Are you sure that’s what he wanted?” I hiss at her, backseat driving after the car accident.
“I told him the price!”
“Well, at least get a card for a tab.”
She quirks her eyebrow at me. Taking the hint, I approach him and say, “Hello sir, would you like to start a tab?” After a few more asks, he jams his hand into his jeans, producing a battered red debit card. I swipe to pre-authorize and it goes through, which means there’s at least a hundred bucks in his account.
When I turn back around, his glass is empty. He’s gesturing at the new girl for another drink, and she’s back up on the ladder. I say things like, um, hold on, do you think that’s a good idea? To appease me, she shoves the bottle in his face and says, “This costs two hundred dollars for one drink!” He doesn’t look at the bottle, just keeps gazing past it in the general direction of the wall of booze, but he does make the affirmative sound.
He sips this second drink, which relaxes me slightly. Perhaps he’s some wealthy, eccentric artist, working on a cutting-edge installation in the medium of dirt.
Then he slumps forward onto the bar, jaw slack. For the first time, it’s clear that he’s wasted. Uneasy, I ask the new girl to keep an eye on him while I find a manager, because I don’t know what to do. He probably doesn’t realize what he ordered, and he definitely shouldn’t drink any more. And while I’ve cut people off at every other job I’ve had, I’m not sure you can do that at Trump SoHo. When I return with a manager in tow, the man has a third glass of Macallan 30 in front of him. I give the other bartender a look designed to freeze lava.
She throws her hands up. “He asked for it! What was I supposed to do?”
It’s a fair question, what with the whole no-refusal thing. I serve the man a glass of water, which he ignores. “Did he pay his tab?” the manager asks. Right, because priorities.
His card goes through. In a way it is a relief—I certainly don’t want to be on the hook for his tab—and yet. Did we just steal six hundred bucks from an alcoholic construction worker and stick it in a billionaire’s pocket? I place the credit card slip in front of him and say my best six-hundred-dollar thank-you. I can see in his eyes that he wants another drink. That it’s all he wants. “I need you to sign your check, sir,” I say inanely. Eventually, he grasps the pen like a toddler with a paintbrush and scribbles at the top of the receipt.
“You have to tip us,” says the new girl. I cringe, but I’m also glad she said it. An appropriate tip—twenty percent, $120—will signify that the man understands what he ordered. He reaches into his pocket and fishes out a crumpled, disintegrating lump that may once have been a five-dollar bill.
The bar manager and the GM appear behind the man. “Come on, buddy,” chirps one of them. The man is drooling onto his T-shirt. They try to pull him off his stool, but he hunches his shoulders and refuses to go. One of the more hulking waiters joins in. As the three necktied men drag the man in jeans across the floor, he begins to vibrate his body from head to toe in protest. Violently. I’ve never seen anything like it. At first, diners crane their necks and stare, but the performance soon becomes part of the fabric of the restaurant.
I get distracted by serving other customers; diners go back to eating and chatting. Then I notice that the hulking waiter is back to refilling waters, and the bar manager to flirting with the hostess, and the GM to clearing empty champagne glasses.
“Did you get him in a cab?” I ask the GM.
“You just left him on the street? He couldn’t even walk.”
“He could walk. He took off.”
I find this difficult to believe, so I cross the room, push open the not-for-staff-use-under-any-circumstances front door, and run down the block, first in one direction, then the other, but there’s no sign of him.
I tell my barback about it when he comes in later, going for gallows humor, maybe looking for absolution. His interest wanes quickly. There’s too much other intrigue to discuss: cops showing up to arrest one of the new bartenders for stealing a customer’s Amex, our favorite manager getting fired for no apparent reason, a three-thousand-dollar bottle of cognac disappearing without a trace. I decide I’m overreacting.
Still, back in my tiny apartment, I can’t sleep. I try to tell myself the man probably was an eccentric millionaire artist. I picture him putting his battered red debit card into an ATM, only to see the words Insufficient Funds scroll across the screen. I picture him OD’ing on Sixth Avenue.
The next morning, I spread peanut butter on my toast using my new silver knife, a knife I didn’t pay for, but told myself I’d earned in a million little ways as I slipped it behind the lining of my purse. I thought having that knife would make me feel better, that tiny act of sticking it to the man, but it doesn’t. Reflected in this heavy silver knife, this shiny thing, I see the distorted face of someone I don’t entirely recognize.
*In December 2017, the Trump Organization dropped the struggling Trump SoHo. It is now called the Dominick Hotel.
Emily Flouton is a writer from the Northeast who lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.