The Coat Room Revolution

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THE PLANK JANUARY 19, 2009

The Coat Room Revolution

There's been no shortage of high spirits at D.C.'s many social events this week (even besieged hotel employees and embittered Clinton supporters are feeling the cheer), but inaugural balls aren't always all smiles, and sometimes things can go disastrously wrong.

In this 1997 article, "Cloaks and Daggers," TNR editor Jonathan Chait recounts his experience working as a coat checker for the Caribbean, New Jersey, and Gay & Lesbian balls. Things begin somewhat ominously, as underpaid, overworked coat checkers fail to properly organize the coats. But somewhere between the attendee's realizations that many coats are missing, and Chait's attempt to spontaneously unionize the staff, everything goes wrong, and a near-riot develops:

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.

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posted in: the plank, business, labor, law, person career, jonathan chait

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