by Marc Charbonnet
When I first moved to New York from New Orleans, I used to go for very long walks, just to soak everything in. New York was different back then, but New York is almost always "different back then" when you're telling a story in the past tense. Perhaps it's just my youth talking, but I feel that it had more of a small town feel. People stopped and said hello to one another on the street, and frankly, they still do. The assumption is that the city is a place where no one ever says "hello" to one another is an incorrect cliché, that comforts others by making them believe Gotham is somehow inferior to where they live.
During one of my absorbing sojourns on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I stopped at the bustling intersection of Central Park West and Central Park South at the Maine Monument. It's one of New York's many "town squares"–pepper-colored flutters of pigeons, the honking traffic, hot dog vendor aromas, clopping horse carriages, Columbus Circle, the Edward Durell Stone "lollipop" building–all of it melding into the giant corner slice of deep green that is the southwest entrance to Central Park, and echoing off of the glittering row of hotels along 59th Street. Even in lousy weather the spot is magical. I sat down on a bench and looked at the paper. My eye fell on an advertisement for a clerk's position at John Rosella's at 72nd Street.
By Monday I had the job.
I was a bit of a pawn in the city back then. I had no connections, but I got the job because of my talent, thank you notes, and dirty jokes.
After my first few weeks on the job, Mr. Rosella claimed that I was "incorrigible" because of the way I presented myself on the job. Some New Yorkers have a way of mixing a compliment and an insult into a kind of potent cocktail that's an acquired taste for newbies. For some reason I had the "nerve" to show up at work outfitted in an old gray and navy blue Brooks Brother suit and bow tie, fresh from a full night's rest. All of his assistants and clerks before me would wear T-shirts and jeans, and lurch late into work every morning black-and-blue from being out all night on the town. Usually arriving late and asking to leave early, they spent the days coughing loudly through the shop because of too many smoke breaks as they sorted through valuable merchandise with blurry red eyes. I guess he wasn't used to someone with manners and style. Why shouldn't I present myself well and try my best? I was prompt. I took things seriously. I was very happy to do what I needed to do to make an impression on Mr. Rosella and his partner, Ferlo Latewood. It was my job, my career–why should I compromise?
As time went on, I eventually understood that he was thinking of letting me go because I guess he couldn't understand anything about me. Whatever you're used to, I suppose. Nevertheless I pressed on in the job.
One afternoon, on my scheduled lunch hour, I was headed over to one of my absolutely favorite local eateries at the time. Tony's was a family-run Italian restaurant on 2nd Avenue and 72nd Street. The walls of the place were decorated with endless clusters of kooky Elvis ephemera and campy relics, so dense in areas that they practically formed stalactites off the ceiling. The place could easily become anyone's favorite lunch spot in a heartbeat; the staff were great, the mood was always pleasantly hopping, plus they had an amazing jukebox. But Tony's was adored for one thing: its deep dish pizza. They made it in a pan that had already had garlic sautéing in olive oil, then layered it with their dough, a light spread of tomato paste, ricotta cheese, then mozzarella–baked bubbly and oozing with crispy edges. You could smell the aroma for blocks! The taste could literally take your breath away (and do a number on it as well). Tony's used lots of real garlic, whole chunks. I didn't realize that eating enough of it could cause one to smell like a garlic farm, radiating right out of your pores. In my upbringing in New Orleans, we were use to garlic being prepared for Creole cuisine (not to be confused with Cajun food) in a much milder blend, melded with the whole dish. New York Italian was not mild–it's pow, right in your face, but heavens, was it delicious!
That day my aromatic thoughts of Tony's were interrupted by the phone ringing, and a T-shirt armed flag-down from one of the other employees as he answered it. A woman had called requesting a particular pair of candlesticks to be delivered as a gift for someone she knew in Sun Valley, Idaho. I went to the back of the store to retrieve them. They weren't candlesticks exactly–the pieces were actually large bell jars, hurricane bell to be precise. They fit on top of silver plated candlesticks (which were knocked off in Greece by a stewardess who would fly them back and forth as a kind of aeronautical recherché she had going on the side, but that's a whole other high-flying tale).
I carefully wrapped the glass vessels up in paper and boxed them, heading towards the front of the store to make the delivery. All I knew about the customer was that she was named Anita Weed, and was currently staying at the Carlyle Hotel.
I was on my way out of the door, when to my right I saw Mr. Rosella suddenly stop what he was doing ask me "Where are you going?"
"To the Carlyle Hotel." I said.
"Why?" he inquired, looking at the box in my hand.
Before I could even finish the phrase "To make..." he dropped his arms from what he was doing and said bluntly "Didn't you know that we don't deliver?"
"Well, I was told this was important." I replied (deciding it would be unwise to add '...by one of your less incorrigible employees.')
"Well who is it for?" he said looking away and busily returning his hands to his task.
"A woman named Anita Weed." I said.
His face instantly popped wider, and his mood changed to a sort of automatic friendliness.
"Don't you know who that is?" he smiled.
"No." I said matter-of-factly, which was a bit of a mistake.
During the hurried stroll from 2nd Ave along 72nd Street, Mr. Rosella decided to accompany me, probably to make sure I didn't pass some random stranger on the sidewalks of New York and not realize they might be the Queen of England or the First Man Who Walked on the Moon.
"Anita Weed was a famous heiress!" He quietly berated in my ear as he jittering-ly hovered along my side. He was talking to me in hushed, screaming tones, like someone ecstatically telling you they'd discovered buried treasure somewhere, but were also concerned that someone might overhear what they were saying.
"One of her claims to notoriety was that she had been known for riding through her home on her horse as a youth!" he continued. As we trotted dutifully between Lexington and Park, I nodded at him coldly, because I was a tad miffed at the way he was treating me although, I found what he was telling me to be genuinely interesting.
I would learn years later, when I Googled her name, that she had a checkered ancestry between famous industrialist WASPs and Jews. She was also the descendant of one of the inventors of Zyklon gas, which was used in the concentration camps to exterminate Jews, political prisoners and homosexuals during the Holocaust.
I clutched the box of valuable bric-a-brac under my shoulder even tighter. By the time we hit Madison and turned up to 76th Street, I really did feel like a "penny waiting for change." We reached the hotel and walked in. I was still clutching the delivery in my left arm, and Mr. Rosella was to my right.
As we neared the concierge desk, a woman wearing a tweed suit, head scarf and big sunglasses turned and looked at me. She paused for a second, walked toward me, said "Hello," then smiled and exited the hotel lobby. I exchanged her greeting, and then headed up to the presidential suite. In the typical social rush that is daytime Manhattan, I only faintly recognized her. I figured she must have been visiting from New Orleans. Like I said, back then I was new to the city, and anyone who looked familiar must have been someone visiting from New Orleans.
I entered the elevator, and suddenly realized that Mr. Rosella wasn't with me anymore. As the elevator climbed, I thought to myself; "I really don't understand John Rosella."
I went to the woman's suite, and with a smile delivered her candlesticks, the mental pictures of everything Mr. Rosella had just told me about her history running madly through my mind. Well, she was just as charming as could be, and I'll admit my eyes scanned behind her for a split second as she thanked me (I thought I might spy a Welsh pony sipping tea on her couch). I then returned, sans Mr. Rosella, back to home base.
When I returned back to the shop, I was promptly halted in the back hallway by one of the other employees, who was leaning up from an air mattress on the floor (he had set up camp there because his salary had been depleted on drugs and drinks rather than rent, and had lost his apartment–this mattress in the back was used regularly for such accommodations). He told me that Mr. Rosella wanted to see me in the basement right away. What now? The basement was where we wrapped and shipped antiques and decorations, and it also doubled as a meeting spot for confidential talks. I simultaneously thanked and stepped over him, and proceeded down.
I was expecting a multiple choice pop quiz on the finer points of Anita Weed's genealogy, but instead after I entered and shut the door he looked at me calmly and said "How do you know Jacqueline Onassis?"
I'm sorry, what's happening?
I was confused at his inquiry, and since he didn't offer any follow-up questions and just kind sat there with a weird grin, we just sort of looked at each other. All of the sudden it struck me: the woman who had said hello to me in the hotel lobby (whom I thought I knew from New Orleans) was Jacqueline Onassis! After that realization sunk in, it also hit me that one of the most famous people in the world had just said hello to me in a New York hotel lobby and I had treated her greeting like a passing acquaintance. Hmm. I mulled all of this while Mr. Rosella grinned like the Cheshire Cat. It was a smart move on my part, of sorts. I think Mr. Rosella saw the whole thing as a gambit, but it was just fortunateness. So I played the part; I just tilted my head slightly back and shut my eyelids for a pause as I intoned; "Well John, I know a lot of people."
I celebrated at Tony's. Thinking back, I realized that in a way, Ms. Onassis had been someone visiting from my hometown.
It was the time of Mardi Gras, and I was still living in New Orleans. The annual Bacchus was underway, and as usual they had a well-known celebrity as the parade's monarch. In the past it had been people like Raymond Burr or Danny Kaye, usually pretty big names. That year it was Henry Winkler, who was at the peak of his fame as television's The Fonz (which should give you an idea of the culture and fashions of that moment).
My best friend had introduced me to his latest "trick," or should I say "acquaintance," named Corey Haze, who was in town for the festivities. I use those quotation marks intentionally, everyone did when referring to Corey. He wasn't liked enough to be a real friend, and certainly not disliked enough to be a nemesis. He was someone to be avoided, but because he was the type to always be in people's faces, and knew everyone because of that, everyone reluctantly referred to him as an "acquaintance." Today, I understand his career is actually quite cushy, but at the time he was a reporter for The Enquirer (which couldn't have been more perfect). Not only was he in town working Winkler's appearance at the festival but, as mentioned, he was also working my best friend who lived in the French quarter.
More importantly, Corey was covering the appearance of Caroline Kennedy, who was in town because one of her old high school friends was making her debut, and would be hailed as Queen of Comus, which was the most prestigious and old line of all the carnival Krewes.
The whole week was culminating in the meeting of the courts of Comus, Rex and the Krewes, which is the big closing ceremony of Mardi Gras. I had been invited to the event, and was looking forward to the ball which had a reputation for being a bore, but I always thought it was fun.
As I entered the main hall, looking through all the glittering lights and sequins, whom did I spy but Corey. I thought to myself, "How the hell did he get an invitation?" I think people are always saying that to themselves when they spot him at functions. That kind of trait can be a curse and a blessing. This wasn't a ticket event, it's invitation only, but he'd obviously worked an "in."
So we're all there, the good, the bad and the beautiful of New Orleans, mingling amongst the splendor. And before you know it Caroline Kennedy has swooshed in. She was wearing a very pretty gown made of white chiffon with big violet flowers, and had arrived with a young man and woman, and a handful of others. People acknowledged her, but no one was gawking. It was at that moment that I realized Corey had made his way in the crowd right next to me, and without even saying hello, he just loudly let me know that she was wearing her mother's Valentino gown, while simultaneously looking down and writing something in his notepad. Thanks, Corey.
But it would turn out that I also had an "in." As the evening unfolded for a few more moments, I realized that one of the young men in Miss Kennedy's party was someone I knew. It was around that moment that I and everyone else couldn't help but notice that Miss Kennedy was being very affectionate with her handsome date. This of course sprung Corey into action, who started buzzing around just dying to know the name of this man Miss Kennedy was being so brazenly lovey-dovey with.
Eventually they made their way near me, and I said hello to Gary, Miss Kennedy's date. We weren't even friends, but we knew each other. I didn't turn around to gauge Corey's reaction when this happened–I might have turned into a pillar of salt! Gary then asked me over to meet everyone, and as I did Corey scream-whispered in my direction "If you find out Miss C's date's name, I'll buy you a pair of Gucci loafers!" Good Christ! I just smiled at Corey and said, "Oh that's not important"–and fled.
I was referring to Miss C's handsome boy's name, but to this day I think Corey thinks I meant Gucci loafers weren't important.
I wound up being introduced to everyone–certainly a memorable Mardi Gras for me. After chatting, I told them I was happy to have met them all, and started to mingle with others as circles of groups began to meld with other circles of groups.
Just as I turned, I was stopped dead in my tracks by Corey, who's head popped out from behind a potted ficus, mere inches from my face. I almost gasped! With his notepad in hand he quietly blurted; "Are you shocked and appalled?"
I said "No!" eyeing behind him for an escape route. And then he said with affected discretion, almost hypnotically now that I recall, "Well, then just tell me you're shocked and appalled by Caroline Kennedy's behavior with her beau." And, him being an "acquaintance" and all, I just deadpanned "I'm shocked and appalled..." half-mockingly, mimicking him as I pussyfooted a retreat.
Weeks later in The Enquirer there was an article titled "Cream of Society Shocked and Appalled by Caroline Kennedy's Behavior." The byline? You know who. I may have had a lot of opinions about Corey, but at least I know he didn't fabricate his sources ...at least not technically. And it's nice to know where I stand in his eyes: "cream" that can be bribed with Gucci footwear.
To this day I still feel guilty whenever I think of that damn headline. And despite the fact that I was a bit of a muckraker when it came to her daughter, years later Jacqueline Onassis would return the favor by inadvertently saving my career.
It was many years later, after I had stopped working for John Rosella. I had just begun working for José Maligno. He had 125 employees at any given moment. I was there for three years and while the staff had remained at between 90 and 110 people, I counted 400 people who had eagerly walked in or sternly marched out of those doors during that time. Mr. Maligno could practically let employees slip through his fingers in his sleep.
The reason? Abuse, generally. Abuse from Mr. Maligno was considered nothing more than a tinker's damn by those that had worked there a long time, and were accustomed to it. But newer faces hadn't developed the mechanisms to properly process the stress internally, and many of them would just leave. In addition to that, sometimes he would actually terminate people at the three month mark, because if he did he wouldn't have to pay unemployment.
Needless to say working there was like walking on (Faberge) eggshells. You tried not to stick out, and could end up feeling pretty removed, and I think Mr. Maligno liked it this way. I find that it's hard to work in an environment surrounded by such politics, because it means that you can't survive by just doing a great job. You have to keep your nose to the grindstone, and somehow find time to place your ears to the ground (without bumping your nose on someone's ass).
I had been working there a while and had not really proven myself exactly. One day I found myself alone in the same room with Mr. Maligno. He was looking at some Joseph Hoffman garden urns that he was going to knock off. He happened to ask out loud into the air for anyone's opinion, "How much can I get for these?" I was standing right next to him, and he soon added "Do you think I could get $1200 dollars?" You have to remember this was 1989 and this was quite a lot of money for a garden urn made out of cement.
I looked at him and said, "Well you could get twice that because you're José Maligno." He kept his eyes on the urns during the entire exchange, but needless to say he cracked an instant smile, so that exchange saved me for a little bit I think.
Initially I'd been hired by Mr. Maligno's company shopper, Brian. Brian and Beverly (a real kicky debutante from New Orleans, whom I just loved) were pals at the office due to the fact that they had given their notice simultaneously. Since they were leaving the company, they were always partying and having a good time on the job. I tended to gravitate towards them because they knew what was really going on, and were very relaxed and a bit carefree, which was a smart mix for that place.
But the prevailing mood (one employee dubbed the office 'the Death Star') began to take its toll on even the friendliest of us.
One afternoon Brian was talking to me about how he and Beverly were about to leave the company, and were enjoying themselves at work more than ever. We were carefully packing up some historical artifacts, and then he turned to me with slight castigation and said, "It seems to me that despite the fact that you just started working here, you're acting as if you're leaving as well... and if you're not careful you will be."
Yikes! So despite resenting Brian a bit for his acrid tone, he actually did me a favor. I eventually learned through the grapevine that indeed José had put my name on the list of people to be let go. Apparently our moment next to the cement urns hadn't been quite as lasting as I thought. I had only put in two and a half months, and I was distressed because I knew that if I wanted to stay, something had to happen (and it wasn't going to be a compliment about urns). Lightening had to strike.
I believe that once Brian picked up on the vibes that I had entered "outsville," it caused our friendship to cool more and more. One day I took a message for him, and when he said, "Who called?" I replied, "The Vice Count." He stopped what he was doing, dropped his arms and deadpanned with humorless spite "That's Vis-count, not Vice."
One morning a few days later we were shopping, and he was showing me a few things and giving me tips about stuff. He was still interested in my welfare in the position he had hired me for at least, even if it was on uncertain ground. Needless to say, having just unearthed the news that I was soon to be let go from the company, along with the behavior of the person who had hired me, and was in many ways Mr. Maligno's right hand man, I was having a bit of a hard time.
But little did I know, Lady Fortuna had secretly entered my court. We were crossing a particularly sunny patch of street outside the 58th Street entrance at D & D, after a fruitful shopping trip seeking out different things for different clients. As we jay-walked across the street, a man and woman suddenly popped out of a restaurant. She was wearing off-white slacks, a navy blazer and a blue and white horizontal striped blouse. She had on big sunglasses, and just lifted them as she tapped her feet, smiled and said, "Hello." And just like years ago, I said. "Hi," and just kept going. She went her way and we went ours, as we both were crossing 3rd Avenue. Brian's jaw shut so fast you could practically hear his teeth disintegrating.
After a two minute break from Brian's mouth, he said with a completely altered inflection, "How do you know Jacqueline Onassis?" And I just smiled and said, "I know a lot of people."
Lighting had struck.
We returned to the office and as we went upstairs, Brian of course made a b-line straight for José's office. As he entered, Mr. Maligno looked up and I saw Brian's jaw flop wide open to say "Marc knows Jacqueline Onassis."
I faintly heard "No way José." come out of Mr. Maligno's mouth right as the office door slammed shut.
I worked there for three more years.
Thinking way, way back, I remember as a little boy walking with my father after lunch to Carrollton Avenue and seeing John Kennedy's limousine speed down the street. He was in New Orleans for some reason, and we watched his black car fly down the street. It was a covered car, not a convertible, but we knew he was in there. A very exciting thing for a young boy to see. He would die just a month or two later in Dallas.
But I feel that the later encounters were my real "brushes with Camelot," as it were. I'm sure many people have had them, but I can't help remembering mine as particularly angelic.
To this day, "I know a lot of people" has become one of my favorite lines. If you ask me a question, you might find it as my answer. Even though I may sound like I'm being a parvenu, I'm not. I'm thankfully counting my blessings.