Cloaks and Daggers

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POLITICS FEBRUARY 10, 1997

Cloaks and Daggers

I showed up at the Omni Shoreham Hotel at 4:00 in the afternoon to work as a coat-checker for the Caribbean, New Jersey and Gay & Lesbian Inaugural Balls. Coat-checking allows you to experience all the inaugural's glamour and pageantry--dressing up, occupying the same building as the president--except that instead of shelling out $150 you get paid $6 an hour plus tips. Also, you don't get the food or the drinks or the dancing or the opportunity to interact with anybody except other coat-checkers. And in the end, as it turns out, you get attacked by a mob screaming for your blood, and you get roughed up by large policemen.

The afternoon begins inauspiciously. My friend Rob (who agreed to join me) and I make it into the ballroom without facing any security precautions--background checks, metal detectors, etc.--whatsoever. The company that hired us, McM, had promised a staff of fifty to handle the more than 5,000 expected customers, but only twenty coat-checkers arrive. My co-workers, who had all worked for McM before, confide that the company takes half the tip pool for itself, in apparent violation of our contract. And before any guests even show up, Rob manages to misplace his own coat. "A bad sign," he notes, "considering that this is now my profession."

The coat-check room is a banquet hall approximately two-thirds the size of a football field. The staff divides up into taggers, who take the coats and affix numbered tags to them, and runners, who store the coats. In lieu of hangers or racks, we lay out the coats on long tables in stacks of three, arrayed numerically according to their coat-check number. Unfortunately (and this is of critical importance in understanding why, eventually, our well-heeled customers rose up against us) the tags do not come back to the runners in numerical order, which makes it hard to keep track of which coat is where.

8:15: The tables fill up. The coats pour in faster and faster. Unable to group them sequentially, runners toss them on the floor in piles. The line of customers seeking to check coats builds. As I wander off to the restroom I notice, down the hall, a "VIP Coatroom." A cheerful attendant relaxes in front of roughly five coats that occupy a tiny corner of one among many rows of empty tables.

9:15: The coatroom closes down in order to regroup. Earlier I had approached Rob with a plan: our labor was worth far more than $6 an hour to McM, which had invited crisis by skimping on staff. If we walked out, catastrophe would ensue, and McM would never check coats in this town again. I suggested that we use our leverage to bargain for higher wages, and he agreed. We now took advantage of the respite to propagandize the rank and file. Our technique was for me to sidle up to an unsuspecting colleague toiling away over a coat table and casually mention that McM was making a killing at our expense. Rob, just happening to wander by, would chime in his support using angry populist language--"You're getting shafted!"--of the sort usually frowned upon at the conservative economic think tank where he works as a research assistant. "I'm not trying to extract rents," he explains to me later. "I'm just trying to get my marginal product." Our agitation successfully riles up most of the runners. Alas, the taggers, who view themselves as a skilled elite, still identify more strongly with management than with the runners and hence remain difficult to radicalize.

9:30: As janitors march in to set up auxiliary coat tables, the throng around the door grows larger and more ornery. Before we can finish setting up the new tables, a Democratic National Committee staffer orders the coat room reopened. Ball-hopping customers begin demanding their garments. But because they aren't stored sequentially, locating them takes five to fifteen minutes. For every customer we help, ten more appear at the door. The situation grows exponentially more hopeless. With every minute that passes, we seem to be another five minutes behind. Customers demand to enter the coat room and recover their property personally. DNC staffers form a barrier at the door.

10:30: Any semblance of a line has disappeared. Hundreds of black-tied Democrats press up against the barricade, waving claim checks and cash and loudly threatening revenge at the hands of the lawyers and politicians to whom they have access. Some successfully talk their way into the back room, only to discover in horror that their fur coats are misplaced.

10:50: A customer at the door snaps a photograph of the sea of coats behind me. "Evidence?" I ask. She nods. The runners now take orders from walkie-talkie-toting DNC staffers, who are even less competent at coat-checking than McM. But, by now, there's probably nothing the DNC can do. The only way to avert total chaos is to distribute the coats about ten times faster. And the only way to do that would be to let customers in to find the coats themselves, which would invite anarchy. The system teeters on collapse.

11:50: The mob storms the barricades. Half a dozen customers shove their way past security before reinforcements plug the gaps. Movement in or out of the coatroom is no longer possible, a setback for staffers who need to use the restroom.

11:55: "You're about to have a coat riot here," warns a customer. This is a real threat. Coat riots, I had been told, are an enduring feature of inaugural balls. Police officers replace DNC staffers at the barricade. They bring a different perspective. The DNC considered the failure of guests to receive their garments the main problem, and the huge crowd a symptom. To the police, the crowd is the problem. Their solution is to order the crowd, via megaphone, to retreat--to which it shouts back, in unison, "No!"--and to force the door shut. The mob outside, unappeased by this solution, begins chanting, "We want our coats NOW!" The New Jerseyans and lesbians have patched up their differences in the face of a common foe. The police open the door again so they can megaphone more instructions. Cops begin screaming at runners not to give out any more coats. We defiantly toss the coats over the barricades to their owners. The crowd, now firmly siding with the runners against the police, cheers every successful completion.

12:45: The police crack down on coat smuggling. A customer tries to argue:

"Sir, it's just going to get worse," he pleads.

"No, it's not," an officer replies implausibly.

"It's gonna escalate."

"No it ain't."

1:00: Many of the taggers have fled. The DNC tries to round up the remaining staff. "Everyone on staff in the corner, now!" shouts one DNCer over and over. We gather in the corner. I hear cheers from the crowd, and look over to see more customers bursting through the police line. This distracts the police and the DNC, leaving the staff alone in the corner. Rob and I seize our chance to organize a strike. We don't have much to lose, anyway: the tip rate has plummeted. After a few minutes of debate, the runners authorize Rob and me to demand $20 an hour for everyone or else we walk. The manager sounds sympathetic, but has to discuss it with the owner, and his cellular phone is dead.

2:45: The police try a new method. A cop with a megaphone holds up one of the several thousand remaining coats and describes it, as if he's running an auction. The crowd laughs. He reads the claim number, only to be drowned out by more shouting and chanting. The police decide to let in customers ten at a time to find their own garments. Our leverage collapses as the job is outsourced to the customers, who have less coat-checking experience but work for free. The Democratic Party has broken our union. Some runners help look through the piles, while others rest in the corner. An McM staffer informs us that we have to stay until the end--which looks to be several hours away--or else we don't get a share of the tip jar, which she controls. We haven't had a break in close to ten hours.

3:25: I have alternated interviewing customers about the conditions outside--the wait ranges from one to two hours--and helping them search. In front of the barricade appears a TNR colleague. "Are you going to write about this?" she shouts to me. The cops take notice of my notepad and ask if I'm a journalist. Yes, I reply, but I also work here. "Out," insists a cop. My boss will confirm that I work for McM, I maintain, but he doesn't care. He grabs my arm, twists it behind my back and forces me out the door. I tell him that I don't get a share of the tips if I leave early. He ignores me, so I repeat it several times. He shoves me into the hallway and threatens that if I try to get back in, "I'm gonna knock you on your ass."

Rob returns to the hotel the next day to reclaim a scarf he left behind in the confusion. One man negotiating for his garment angrily recounts that he left his keys in his coat pocket and had to spend the night at a friend's house, forcing him to miss a meeting the next morning. More than a hundred coats remain.

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posted in: politics, ball, caribbean, new jersey

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