For the past three years, I worked as a bellhop and valet at one of Seattle's smallest boutique hotels, shuttling cars and hoofing bags. The hotel enjoyed a steady stream of celebrity clientele, which meant that at least once a month I would have some kind of tangential brush with fame. I'd show up to work expecting to park a few Hyundais for folks hitting happy hour in the lobby bar only to be casually informed that Slayer was arriving in 30 minutes.
I shouldered a standoffish Trent Reznor's black duffel bag, heard Jerry Seinfeld's unmistakable voice before turning around to find him asking about breakfast spots, and once delivered luggage to a room from which the head and arm of a very polite, presumably naked Kings of Leon guitarist motioned me to pass his suitcase through the barely opened door.
As fun as it sometimes was to be able to regale friends and family with stories of, say, watching Cyndi Lauper dry her hair, the novelty wore off after a while. I held the job as long as I did because its flexibility suited my student schedule, I had a great boss, and the tips weren't bad. As a side note, if you've ever wondered if it's okay not to tip the valet when he brings your car around, the answer's no. Even a dollar is fine. Anything. I'm looking at you, Bill Gates.
Certain shifts were more reliably lucrative than others, but a good chunk of what you made was dictated by blind luck. You'd bust your ass parking 200 Maseratis for a corporate party and make 50 bucks. Then you'd have a night that was dead except for a random jackpot moment, like the time a Saudi prince gave one of my buddies a $100 bill for delivering a bottle of water to his room. That interaction took about five seconds, during which my friend was earning $72,000 an hour.
Sometimes you would have the rare opportunity to bask in the presence of a childhood idol or inexplicable crush. One night, I was taking some bags up to a room when my elevator stopped prematurely. The doors opened to reveal a quiet woman with a small black case under her arm.
"Going up, ma'am?" I asked.
She startled and then smiled, stepping backward.
"Oh, no. I'm heading down."
It wasn't until the doors were almost closed that she brushed the hair from her forehead. At that same moment, I recognized the shape of the black violin case and put two and two together. As the elevator sealed itself, I said, out loud to myself, "That was Alison Krauss!"
Then there were the guests who were just so high-voltage that a palpable current of electricity surrounded their arrival, their departure, and every request they made in between. Some of these über-celebrities were bundled in through the unmarked entrance in the back alley, hustled past the tiny Filipino women in the laundry room and the gamey rows of employee lockers. John Popper of Blues Traveler fame came in the front door like everybody else. Elton John? The back. The B-52s? The front. Tom Cruise? Definitely the back. And then there was Britney.
A crowd of maybe 100 people gathered on the sidewalk on the afternoon that Britney Spears checked out: autograph seekers, celebrity parasites, tourists who just happened to be walking by and caught a whiff of drama. The entire hotel staff came out front to form what was ostensibly a protective corridor from the door of the hotel to the steps of Britney's tour bus. In reality, it was just a gauntlet of a different kind. The staffs of luxury hotels aren't immune to the cult of celebrity. They might be more tactful than the average bear, but they're still prone to rubbernecking.
As I stood there on the sidewalk, random strangers were reading my name tag and calling out for a scrap of information, a position closer to the bus, anything they could get. Then, at the penultimate moment, right before she came down, I got called away to retrieve a car. When Britney finally breezed through the revolving door in her giant sunglasses, I was down in the garage idling in a 1993 Accord that reeked of cigarettes. It was the ultimate nonevent—which, in hindsight, sums up the afternoon perfectly.
Sometimes I wouldn't see the celebrity even once during his or her entire stay. I'd just interact with Nick Cannon's assistants when they showed up with a shrink-wrapped ironing board. Or I'd accept $20 from Vampire Weekend's inebriated handler to watch his suitcase while he walked 10 feet away to smoke a cigarette. Or I'd find out after the fact about the Secret Service agents who set bomb-sniffing dogs loose in the garage when Cindy McCain stayed with us.
Finally, there were interactions that broke the mold by virtue of being bizarre or hilarious. Case in point: the surprise birthday party for one of the Seahawks. An hour before the guest of honor was scheduled to arrive, I was up near the loading dock when a growling hot rod pulled into the alley and up to the garage door. Out front of the hotel, we were at the guests' beck and call. In the garage, though, we valets were the masters of our own little kingdom. It was like the horn of Somalia down there—no oversight and tons of valuable property forced to pass through a very small area. We were suspicious of anyone who entered what was normally our sovereign territory.
One of my fellow valets approached the muscle car. The driver, a young man with biceps the size of cantaloupes, asked good-naturedly if we could hook him up. Normally my coworker would have said no, but he seemed to recognize this guy. Having no idea who he was, I turned to leave. The last thing I heard was, "Yeah man, no problem, we'll just have you back in here and—"
These instructions were cut short by the unmistakable sound of a car forcefully hitting something—a sound followed immediately by my buddy yelling, "Oh shit!"
Turning, I saw the guy backing his car with considerable violence into the receiving office and blowing part of the door frame clean off. Our manager came out to talk with him about the damages. He was shooting dice in the lobby 10 minutes later. He didn't seem too worried about it.
As time passes, I don't find myself reflecting on the famous faces or breathless moments as much as the occasional unforgettable stranger punctuating the interminable stretches of boredom. Some were predictable, like the traffic cop who drove by every afternoon before rush hour with his window down, blasting the Cops theme song while giving us an ironic glare. Some weren't, like the sweaty guest who returned to the hotel one night with 12 gallons of milk and four boxes of Lucky Charms.
I helped him cart everything upstairs. He lined the milk jugs along the tub. I nervously envisioned the scene the housekeeping staff would wade into the following morning. Maybe I should have tried to stop the guy. Called somebody. Done something.
Then I noticed a half-clothed woman lying on the bed. I asked if they needed anything further.
The woman, pulling on jeans, said, "Hungry?"
"No, thanks," I replied. "I'm a Cheerios man, myself."