Saturday, July 30, 2011

For Medicinal Reasons

I was given a nice bottle of port this week.  St. Clair Winery here in New Mexico bottles an excellent port.  Normally a little out of my price range, but free is always affordable.  Port is one of those contemplative drinks.  You stare deep into a glass of the wine, the color of pigeon’s blood rubies, and remember who and what and when.  Tonight it reminds me of my first glass of port.

Many years ago, I was working my way through college on the night shift at a hotel in Houston.  It was a rather small and very expensive hotel in an exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by museums, art galleries, and upscale restaurants.  About half the hotel’s rooms were rented out permanently to elderly, and very rich, people who enjoyed the excellent service and security the hotel offered.

I had a unique job: I did a little of everything.  Part desk clerk, part security guard, full-time flunkey and all around gopher, I was the guy who did whatever was needed and not normally assigned to someone else.  Whatever was not someone else’s job was by definition my job.

This was a great gig for a student: I had lots of time to study, there were cute waitresses in the bar to flirt with, and friendly cooks worked in the restaurant who understood the needs of an always hungry teenager.  The hotel attracted an endless parade of interesting people. Louis L’Amour, the western writer, stayed in the hotel for several days so he could interview an aging and retired former chief of police who, in his earlier days, had been a deputy of Wyatt Earp.  Famous artists came frequently for shows at the museums.

The best part of the job, however, was the year round residents of the hotel.  Most of these self-made millionaires came from the early days of wildcatting oil or the last great days of ranching.  Perhaps my love of history started by talking to these guests. I can still remember vividly some of the stories they told me about Texas in the 1920’s and 1930’s.    These residents were generous to a fault; I quickly learned that small services were rewarded by lavish tips.  Especially Mrs. Hutchings from the sixth floor, (rumored to be the wealthiest resident in the hotel).  She would tip $5 if you brought her mail to her door.  I confess that on the infrequent days she had received two letters, I would hold one back to ensure she had mail the next day.  Since she had outlived most of her family, I considered, but eventually rejected, the idea of writing her a few letters myself.

About two thirds of these special residents of the hotel were widowed women.  They formed a rather exclusive and eccentric club.  They would travel as a group to art shows, new restaurant openings, and to church, but I think their favorite outing was going to the doctor.  Collectively, they were as healthy as draft horses, but individually, each would privately confide (to all who would listen) how they were suffering from a life threatening collection of ailments ranging from the galloping galontis to the creeping crud. 

Somehow, most of the doctors they visited could not confirm these ailments by modern medical testing, but this lapse in their medical training didn’t matter since the ladies would not visit the same doctor long enough for any medical treatment to be effective.  Within a month or two, one of the ever hopeful patients would discover a new doctor, usually young, and they would all troop off to seek the advice of the new physician.

Eventually, one of these doctors hit pay dirt by prescribing the previously proscribed: a glass of port wine every night before sleep, supposedly for the benefit of the heart.  I have always wondered if this doctor knew that telling a group of Baptist women to drink wine was giving them a perfect alibi to indulge in a little secret sin.  The only caution was that the doctor told each of the ladies not to drink alone.

This was a problem, for none of the women could possibly drink with any of the other ladies.  After several women went privately to discuss the problem with the hotel manager, a solution was found: every evening about sundown, I would discretely make the rounds of the ladies’ rooms carrying two small crystal glasses of port wine on a silver tray.  I was actually tipped for drinking to the ladies’ health.  By the time I got to Mrs. Hutchings on the top floor, my level of inebriation was somewhere between witty and invisible.  I would usually end the evening sleeping in my office behind the front desk.  Unfortunately, this medical experiment ended about a month after it started.  This was just as well--while the tips were excellent, my grades were suffering.

The St. Clair port is an excellent wine.  It is a shame I cannot be paid to drink it.  I asked, but my wife refused to tip me.

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