Monday, December 26, 2016

"Chair Wars"

Due to behavior too shameful to reveal while retaining any semblance of your respect, our family is not visiting Hawaii this holiday season as we traditionally do.  We are vacationing instead in Palm Springs, to some a “Consolation Prize”, to others… “This sure isn’t Hawaii.”

Because we are not there this year, the following previously published “Three-Parter” takes on a nostalgic nuance it did not previously possess.  Because of our absence, the complaint now becomes wistful. This was never a wistful narrative before.  I kind of miss feeling manipulated.

Anyway, here it is.  And once again, I am fully aware of how spoiled I am going to sound.

(Note:  If you have read this story before, remember, when I republish something, I inevitably make it better.)

Hubris – a man over-steps.  The throbbing center of many a classic story.  And also this one.


Virtually every Christmas for the past thirty-plus years, my family and I have traveled to Hawaii, where we spend a week at a very comfortable – okay, luxury hotel.  I tried to sneak that by, because my wife insists that nobody cares about people staying in luxury hotels.  If she’s right, then I have already lost you.  Too bad.  You’d have enjoyed my humiliating comeuppance.

Assuming somebody’s left, I’ll keep going.  Hawaii’s a great place to do nothing.  You want to be active, go to New York, or ski down a hill someplace cold.  Hawaii’s for baking in the sun and cooling in the ocean. 

Actually, that’s not true.  There are tons of things to do in Hawaii.  But after thirty-plus visits, we’ve done them all.  Now, we commit our entire vacation to tanning and napping.  (Affluent and lazy.  What an admirable family!)

Anyway, here’s our daily routine.  After breakfast, I head to the Beach Attendants’ Kiosk to arrange for our beach chairs.  Actually, they’re not chairs, they’re chaises, but it’s too pretentious to say chaises, so I’ll say chairs, but you’ll know what I mean.

A cheerful attendant wheels our chairs to the spot I point out on the beach, drapes towels over the mattresses and leaves with a tip.  At least that’s how it worked on our previous trips, and how it started to work on this one. 

And then things changed.

For years, I’d sensed an unspoken hierarchy in the way the guests were treated on the beach.  Some enjoyed canopy-draped cabanas, others had “reserves” on hard-to-get inflatable rafts.  I also noticed that some guests had their chairs set up and waiting for them when they came out.  No lining up like supplicants at the Beach Attendants’ Kiosk, no waiting for chairs to be dragged out, no guarantee of getting your favorite spot.  People just showed up and began tanning. 

On previous visits, I had never given this unequal treatment a moment’s thought.  Well, maybe a moment’s.  Two moments, tops.  Mostly, I was just happy to be there.  But this year, I found myself looking with envy at those preset chairs and thinking, “I wonder how that works?” – which is the less shameful way of thinking, “I want that!”

Suddenly, I was dissatisfied with my formerly adequate level of service.  I suppose, like an addict whose habit inevitably requires a boost in dosage, I had, after many visits, developed an insatiable need for an upgrade in pampering.

All of which explains why, on the second morning of our stay, I found myself talking to Jane, Queen of the Beach Attendants, wondering, “How does it work that some people have their chairs already out?”  I was frankly surprised by the level of confidence in my voice.  Inside, I felt the nervous apprehension of a “Who do you think you are?”

In a business-like demeanor belying her green shorts, Polo shirt and sequined sneakers, Jane explained to me that some guests liked to take care of the beach attendants, setting “The Arrangement” in motion. 

Nodding understandingly, in a tone I’d heard used in Casablanca when inquiring about “Exit Visas”, I mentioned that I’d be interested in such an arrangement.  After which I casually ambled away.  Was the matter settled, not settled?  I had no idea.  All I knew was our conversation drove me to an alternate location, to breathe.  

Why was this so difficult?  For one thing, to me, dealings of this nature embedded me deeply into “Grown-up Country”, and although I am officially old, I perceive myself, especially in adult-type negotiations, to be significantly younger.  Most troubling was what I was told was required to set the beach chair arrangement in motion.  I mean, I had tipped people all my life.  But to that point, I had never taken care of anybody.

Of course, I’m no stranger to the concept.  Taking care of people”, a maneuver popularized in the glitzy showrooms of Vegas, involves the handing over of unspecified sums of money in exchange for exceptional service, like a ringside table at “Nudes on Ice.” 

Basically, it’s a bribe.

Having spent minimal time cruising the Underworld, the whole idea of taking care of people” triggers instantaneous discomfort.  And it’s not just the money.  Though that’s part of it.  Okay, a big part of it.  What sets off waves of anxiety in these quid pro quo arrangements is the complete lack of clarity in the transaction.  It’s all under the table.  Nothing’s nailed down.  And there’s no “Better Business Bureau” to turn to if things go horribly awry. 

In this heady world of “Sky’s-the-Limit” high rollers, men with elaborate jewelry peel bills of considerable denominations off giant wads, in exchange for getting exactly what they want, with the implicit understanding that if they don’t get what they want, somebody’s going to get hurt.  (I threw that part in, but I think it’s true.)  This is not at all my world.  I am not a high roller.  I don’t hurt people.  This world makes me uncomfortably disoriented, bordering on nauseous. 

And now, I was in it. 


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