Sunday, July 16, 2006

summer breeze, makes me feel fine

I wrote this entry on Sunday, on my way home from Dirty Dancing. Holy crap, what did we do before computers? I filled up like twenty pages of hotel stationery and my hand was killing me. But it passed the time during a five hour drive and gave me a chance to finally write something of length about a place that's been important to me for a long time.

My parents and I first went to Dirty Dancing, a resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that rhymes with Palsams and starts with a B, when I was seven. It ended up being one of those vacations that suited all of us... my dad played golf all day, my mom flitted around making friends, and I became a permanent fixture in the kids' program. Normally my parents wouldn't have been the kind to tell me to run along and play so that they could enjoy their vacation in peace, but one day I went to check out the options for those three feet tall and under. I made a bunch of little friends and swam and played kickball and enjoyed it all so much that I hardly resurfaced for the rest of the week. I didn't even eat meals with my parents; I did everything with the kids' program. Rumor has it that I was so sad to leave that I cried in the car on the way home.

Talking about it now, I'm a little concerned that this ominous-sounding "program" may have been some kind of mid-80s kiddie mind control experiment. But who cares, they had ice cream and pool toys!

Anyway, Dirty Dancing turned out to be a lovely place with built-in babysitting that you couldn't pry me away from, which made it a very appealing vacation for my parents, as it would for any young parents, I would imagine. And then it turned into the sort of thing where the same families came back the same week every year, and everyone became friends. My dad would end up golfing with another family's dad, my mom would hit it off with some other mom, and I'd run around wreaking havoc with whomever was close to me in age, and then we'd write letters back and forth during the rest of the year, wishing that we could drink virgin strawberry daiquiris in a pool in our regular lives.

When I got a little older, DD was less about tackle freeze tag and paddleboat races and more about tennis lessons (of course, I never picked up a racket at home) and trying not to break any bones while maneuvering mountain bikes through the cross country ski trails in the woods. When I finished high school I assumed that there would come a time that I wouldn't be able to continue going, for one reason or another, but none of my summer job bosses minded losing me for a week, so I continued going with my family every July throughout college. Same with after college; I always had the vacation time. The only year that I couldn't go was one summer when I was in grad school. This summer when I checked in at the front desk, they gave me a framed picture of the place inscribed with a thank you for my twenty years of regard for the hotel. I can only assume that in that context, "regard" is synonymous with "spending a crapload of your dad's money for the past two decades."

It's hard to describe DD. The whole place is basically a throwback to the 30s or 40s. Big, old, beautiful hotel that's impeccably maintained but still retains much of its architecture and design from, well, the days of yore, so God only knows exactly when. At the risk of sounding completely corny, you really do walk in and feel like you've gone back in time. There are no TVs in the guest rooms and it's so far north and removed from civilization that hardly any radio stations come in. There's no air conditioning, so it's all open windows and soft breezes and blowing curtains. It all just adds to the experience... it would cheapen it, somehow, if I could put on VH1 before I went to bed or listen to crappy dance mixes on Hot 105.2 or if the AC was cranked and everyone's windows were closed. It creates an ambiance that's hard to put into words but is quite palpable. It's like you're completely cut off from the real world, aside from the newspapers in the lobby. The only music that I listen to, besides what's on my iPod, is the sound of the five-piece band practicing, because my room is right above the ballroom.

During the day, it's a cheery, sparkling place filled with swimming, golfing, hiking, or QT with a book and an adirondack chair. Around six everyone retreats to their rooms to shower and dress for dinner, and that's what I think really sets DD apart from any other place I've been. It's sort of the perfect day, in a sense... running around doing whatever you do during the day, and then a shift to a dreamy, opulent summer evening, where even the little boys are in suits. There are pianists, the sun setting over the mountains and then stars on top of stars, five course dinner, dancing, conversation, connections. Honestly, I can't explain it, because if I'd never been and it was described to me, I'd probably automatically think, "Eh, not my scene; dressing up EVERY NIGHT?" But I absolutely love it, I think because it's such a departure from reality for me. Even when I was a kid, I could feel and appreciate the way a night there had a way of heightening your senses and making everything a little bit exciting and romantic. And it's not pretentious, in case it was sounding that way; obviously I wouldn't gravitate toward it at all if it had a snooty vibe. They have a pretty high service standard so it seems very formal, but once you crack the surface, you've never met such warm, kind, funny, and interesting people in one place, whether they're staff or guests.

Incidentally, back in the day Stephen King was a waiter at DD, and rumor has it that it inspired him to eventually write The Shining. My Google search results tell a different story, but who knows? They originally wanted to shoot the movie at the hotel, but were turned down because it would have required closing down for awhile and management didn't want to do that. And can I just say, thank GOD. I never could have gone back for as many years as I have if the freakin' movie had been shot there. It's bad enough that every time I go back to my room at night, I'm convinced that I'm going to round the corner and see two little girls asking me to come play with them forever and ever and ever.

Anyway, it was during my college summers that I started to be friends with some of the waiters (never crossed paths with Stephen King, though, sorry to disappoint). Moreso the waiters than the waitresses, because for whatever reason the dining room staff has always seemed to be about 85% male. Many of them are college students from all over the world who come to work for the summer and live in the dorms next to the hotel. Some of them grew up and still live in the next town over, so they work there all year long, surrounded by their siblings, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, and former high school classmates. It's pretty much the only place to work for miles that isn't a rundown gas station or pizza place, so I can understand the preference for employment at DD by comparison.

But it's still a bit of a trap, the perfect example of "nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there." There's total desolation in the winter, a two-hour drive to something as culturally edifying as Wal-Mart, and a sort of entrapment in the social hierarchy leftover from high school. Off the top of my head I can think of five or six guys that I've known for years that I'd let stay in my guest room at home indefinitely if it meant they'd get out of there and do something else and meet new people. Not that I'd ever bring it up, because it's their life and who am I? But if they ever mentioned something to me about leaving, I'd make the offer right away.

Since the hotel was acquired by a managing company, there have been a lot of changes and "restructuring," if you want to get politically correct about it, and as a result some of the longtime employees have been driven out, and others compelled to leave out of loyalty to those that have been screwed over. When I was there this year, the housecount was low, something like 150, when July and August are supposed to be their busiest months. So obviously it could (gulp) eventually result in the place closing altogether. The concept of an over-the-top resort supporting the residents of a small town that marinates in poverty is sickening on many levels (said the girl who has done nothing but perpetuate that off-balance relationship over the years). It's not like they all work at the Four Seasons and can just walk down the block and get a new job at the Westin. The impact on that community of DD closing could be devastating or liberating or a bittersweet combination of both. In short, it's a Vanity Fair article waiting to happen.

Okay, I have to stop myself before I start working in something about the socioeconomic ramifications of the blah mcblahness. I certainly didn't mean to skip over the waiters so quickly.

Before I was friends with any of them, I was younger and had crushes on them. The college boys seemed so indescribably sophisticated, with their eccentric and endlessly fascinating proclivities. When I was in college, I realized they were frat boys who knew how to groom themselves well for work. Once that image was shattered, I naturally gravitated toward the homegrown waiters, the local kids.

You know how you have some friends that, when you hear they're dating someone or that they want to introduce you to their other friend, you just know you'll like them? It's always like that with all of those guys. Maybe it's the mountain air or something, but the majority of them are such decent, nice, goodhearted people, and loads of fun besides that.

And every so often, being away from home is an opportune time for a fling of sorts. I mean, I just described this place, right? Basically, a girl doesn't stand a chance in a setting like that. In real life, it's the guy that you're attracted to. At DD, the place itself is its own damn aphrodisiac, and it can be way too easy to let things happen that might not happen in your regular life.

Part of it is just the fact that it's not allowed. I'm technically not supposed to be hanging out with any of the people who work there. When I was 17 I went for a bike ride with a guy who ran the old-fashioned elevator they used to have. He was also 17, and he almost got fired for it. Since then it's been an exercise in discretion. The rules say something to the effect of, "Members of the staff are strictly forbidden from interacting with guests except during approved hotel-run activities." Dear God, what are they trying to do to me? Didn't they read Romeo and Juliet? See Titanic? Thornbirds? Any woman will tell you that in that context, the words "strictly forbidden" loosely translate to "my sole purpose."

They've become a little more lenient over the years and understanding of the fact that many times staff and guests form entirely platonic friendships, and "strictly forbidding" this only makes it into a big deal that it doesn't usually need to be. So the management will allow a waiter, or another staff member, to go with you to the ballroom for that night's show if your family invites them. And they need to change into a suit (that isn't their waiter uniform) and carry a note with them that they had their boss write out that basically says, "Dave has my permission to join the Red family tonight in the ballroom," and then their manager needs to sign it. It's pretty horrific to me and I hate that they have to carry around this note like they're in kindergarten and they need a permission slip to go to the zoo, but it doesn't seem to bother the people who work there.

After the show at the ballroom, everyone goes to the tavern (the youngish people, anyway), which is basically the bar that I wish I could find in Boston. It's beautiful, all buttery leather and gleaming wood and candlelight. It's one of the few bars that I feel like I could stop into even if I was by myself because I've known the bartender for a million years and she used to work for the kids' program, or I could look around and know most of the guests occupying any of the tables because they're people that I've known for most of my life. The tavern is supposed to be a place for guests, but I sort of get around that by bringing one of my waiter friends with me as my guest, and then the rest of them show up and by then the people who run the hotel have gone home, so it kind of works out.

The tavern! You can imagine how nights there can end up going, depending on the crowd gathered. I've always been really careful not to become a hotel ho in any way, shape or form. I've just seen way too many people let it happen, even married people, and it's such a shame, because the person just embarrasses themselves and becomes a joke. On any given night, you can look around and the air is thick with either good fun or impending bad decisions. This time around I tried to casually deter an acquaintance of mine, a guest who is, shall we say, more than a stone's throw from the age of consent, from getting into it with a guy who is old enough that he should've known better, and she immediately told me that she could handle herself, and suddenly I felt like the shrill sister in the actual Dirty Dancing movie: "He's not any good for you, Baby!" I watched her leave and was mentally wringing my hands, and one of my friends said to me, "You can't derail that kind of train." Point taken, but it's such a bummer to observe. Misguided girls seem to get such a heartbreakingly early start.

If they're never planning to come back, I suppose it doesn't matter much what they do up there, but that's never been the case with me. DD is a place that I've been going to every summer for three-quarters of my life. It's a place where almost every employee knows me, knows my family, knows what rug I threw up on when I was nine. And in a place like that, flings can be good, but only when flung properly. (And when you're old enough, for the love of God! Otherwise I WILL do my best to try to knock your train off its track.)

Usually such things can be rationalized, to some extent: You're only young once! You have to suck the marrow out of life! You can sleep when you're dead! And then, when you're done silencing your inner nun with fortune cookie-worthy metaphors, come the more specific excuses: Someday you'll be spending all your vacations tethered to screaming kids who refuse to eat anything but chicken nuggets, and then they'll be sullen teenagers who think that everything you do or say is lame and wrong, so you must, you MUST have your fun now.

What is it about vacation? When a friend of mine (who will, ahem, remain nameless) and I went away together a couple years ago and she hooked up with the water sports guy (I've already made all the tactless jokes) IN the water sports hut, I was endlessly amused for many reasons, one of which was the fact that it was the equivalent of her meeting some random guy just in town for a few days and then bringing him to her office late at night. Only when you work at a resort are you able to reap the benefits of guests who check their inhibitions along with their luggage, and you can do so in the very same place that you collect a paycheck. If the CEO of your company ever caught you and a brand new friend in your cubicle, there'd be hell to pay and a 401k to think of. But if you live on an island and work at a resort and your water sports boss catches you with a cocktailed vacationer, what does he do, demote you to calypso band duty for a few days? And more importantly, if everyone had the opportunity for no strings attached sex at work, would anyone ever call in sick?

Let me go on record with this now because if there ever comes a time in the distant future that I have a son, I'll deny ever having said it: Young men of the world, forget backpacking across Europe or moving right to Manhattan after graduation to embark on a respectable career. Go work at a resort, any damn resort, for a few months, because people who vacation there are in a state of mind that usually takes two and a half drinks and a Swedish massage to get to. After your tenure you will have had enough crazy experiences to write a book that I'd be interested in reading, or at least buying a ticket to when the movie comes out starring Colin Farrell as you, and then you can go about the rest of your life and settle down with a nice girl, secure in the knowledge that you didn't deprive yourself of anything during your days of being single. Well, now I have part of a commencement address prepared, should I ever need it.

Ahh, I'm mostly kidding. The thing that cracks me up is the stories about guests trying to seduce employees like they learned pick-up strategies from Danielle Steel novels. I'm talking moves like pushing the room key across the table in the dining room and saying something like, "You know, my wife is at the spa all day." It's just so ridiculous and insulting that a guest thinks this is going to be such an opportunity for an employee. Would they ever walk up to a stranger and think they could get away with saying something like that? A friend of mine brought a bottle of champagne to a woman's room after she ordered it and requested that he deliver it. He obliged even though he doesn't do room service. He was cracking me up describing it: " then I opened the bottle and it makes that really satisfying pop, you know?" She basically took off her clothes and asked him to stay, or, no wait, "she kept taking stuff off." He didn't stay. Or at least he told me that he left. I seriously hope I didn't get an edited version of that story, because I require all dirty details. So I guess another point to make about vacation flings is that they must be flung in a way that doesn't make someone feel like they're an inadvertent star in a highbrow porn.

Before this year, I'd, well, flung with two guys at DD, in all my time there. In case that sounds like something worth noting, it's not. There are other guests who have flung with two guys per night every time they're there. As you might imagine, it's the sort of place where everyone knows everything about everyone else, and anything that happened the night before is common knowledge by breakfast the next morning. The concierge, who is actually my mom's age, actually said to me this year, out of nowhere, that she was surprised I hadn't "dated" more during my time there. "You know so many of the waiters, and they're all so cute," she said. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her violently, and yell, "YOU THINK?"

But it's worth it, obviously. I enjoy my time with my friends up there so much and I wouldn't want anything to negatively impact it. I'm typically pretty discriminating in my real life and see no reason not to be when I'm there.

I love Dirty Dancing, and it's always hard to leave but also good to be home. I'm a simple girl who easily misses her friends and her bed, you know? I wasn't too far away, but with how removed I felt from the civilization that I'm used to, it may as well have been a million miles. Also, I love going away to visit a place and people that I love, only to return to the place and people that I love for the rest of the year. So I came home on Saturday, threw my suitcases in my front hall, hit up the Cherry Tree with Jen, blissfully caught up on the Sox, and drank Wachusett blueberry, brewed locally and at its best in and around Boston, kinda like me.

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