The day hostess at the Washington, DC Smith & Wollensky was a former Playboy Playmate named Elaine. Well into her 60s, her waist still curved in suggestively. Her breasts were high-set and firm (whether by push-up bra or genetics, I don’t know, though I’m guessing a mixture of both). When I was hired as the evening hostess, she eyed me with a look of both contempt and intimacy - she hated me, she hated herself, etc.
“How long have you been working here?” I asked.
“Since my last husband,” she said. There was no indication of how much time had elapsed within the word “since”, no clue as to whether he was dead or simply no longer her husband.
I took the job at Smith & Wollensky the summer I graduated as a stop-gap between college and my “dream job.” I stayed well into winter, even after I procured the 9-to-5 at a small publishing house on Capitol Hill. Having not worked in food service since I was 16, adult restaurant life was an ongoing sitcom of sex and late nights and making fun of people who made more in a day than most of us made in a year.
Though I never consciously entertained the thought, I know I believed I’d find a rich husband working there. It was one of the fanciest, most storied steakhouses in Washington, DC - just off the main drag of powerful law firms and NGOs on K Street. Evenings saw a regular patronage of attorneys, chiefs-of-staff, senators. A German prince dined there every time he was stateside, wearing a floor-length fur coat even in warm weather. Once, Governor Mitt Romney came in with his detail, a cast of muscled young Boston men straight out of Good Will Hunting. There was also a glut of pharmaceutical executives, newly wealthy and almost always slimy, hosting over-the-top parties in our event rooms. I was regularly tipped for no reason or given a bottle of expensive champagne with a wink from some some sweaty, tie-loosened bro on his way out the door.
My powerfully feminist ideals were dulled by the starched glamour of the Smith & Wollensky clientele. This, coupled with the reality of being on my own for the first time. I had just moved in with my boyfriend, who was still an undergraduate, and felt that sudden rush of post-grad loneliness. He still had the structure of school, the promise of a future that academics offers. I was angry with him, regularly, for living a reasonable life.
I also developed a crush on one of the waiters. His name was Joshua - not Josh, but Joshua. He was a struggling writer (of course), working there only until he finished his novel. He had a dog named Sundown. Unlike most of the other waiters, who were gassy and brash and had accepted a life of high-end servitude, Joshua and I were still young and bright. We were in on the joke, not the butt of it.
“Did you hear Elaine used to be a Playboy Playmate?” he asked me one night.
“I know ,” I whispered, flashing him my brightest eyes. “I’d love to write her story.”
“I also heard she poisoned her last husband!” he added.
“What?” I said.
Soon enough, I started to become a little slimy myself. Drinking all night, leaning into the attention of men who saw me as nothing more than what I was - there to serve them. What did I think I had to look down on from my drunken perch, treating champagne like a reasonable meal? Champagne I procured by chance, no less?
The men I worked with also stopped treating me like a lady. They shared their bathroom exploits with me, tales of cheating on their wives, and all manner of repulsive blonde jokes. Joshua quit for an editing job. The German prince stopped coming by. My life became late, and later than that. I was dragging myself out of bed at 9:30, squeaking into the office at 10am. (I’m lying to you even now - I was sleeping until 11 or later. It was not the ugliest, laziest thing in the world, but it was close.) My job at the publishing house - not to mention my relationship with my boyfriend - was in jeopardy. I was slowly, deliberately giving up a great job and a great love for a nothing job and the shady promise of a millionaire husband. A husband I didn’t even want.
One afternoon, during our shift change, I got up the nerve to ask Elaine about all the rumors. I was too hungover to be hesitant.
“Yes, I was a Playmate,” she answered without looking at me. “And I worked at the first Playboy Club in Chicago.”
“Wow,” I said. “That must have been fascinating.”
She shook her blonde head.
“It was the same as here. Just a big game of grab-ass.”
“No,” I said. “This is a steakhouse...it’s so...different….”
“Okay, honey,” she laughed. “Just because the outfit’s different doesn’t mean the job is.”
“Well did you poison your husband?” I blurted.
“Which one?” she smiled, pulling on her coat to go.
I’d like to say I quit that very same day, but that would’ve been too smart of me. I stayed for a few more months, weaning myself off the late nights and trying to do a better job at my better job. As far as I know, Elaine is still the day hostess there, foxy as hell at 75 and teaching foolish younger blondes how to move on with their lives.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.