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29th July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 29, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Robert Klein,the comedian,has a new book out, a biography of his early years, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” (Touchstone, $24.95).This book is of interest to me because I grew up in a neighborhood in the Bronx less than a mile away from that of Mr. Klein, who faithfully paints a vivid picture of the Bronx of the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. Klein jokes about New York’s numbered schools and their school songs, like this one from his junior high,“‘80 … dear 80 your name will rise above.’ I can’t remember what 80 was supposed to rise above, but I assume 79.”
This hits home for me, Mr. Klein — I am a proud graduate of 79, which I assure you was a better school than 80.

When Mr. Klein was a college student, he spent summers working in the dining rooms of the Jewish resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains, earning money to help finance his education. Armies of young people from the Jewish neighborhoods of the Bronx and elsewhere headed to the Catskills each summer working as waiters, or in Mr. Klein’s case, as an “amorous busboy.”

It occurs to me that nobody demeaned these teens for taking a “dead-end” job. They worked hard, hustled for tips, and learned the connection between good service and a fat wallet. I suspect that few of Mr. Klein’s colleagues are still working as waiters and busboys today. I know that many of them went on to careers in commerce, the professions, or even show business.

The hotels of the Catskills are long gone.The introduction of jet airplane travel made it possible to journey to Florida in much the same time as driving to the Borscht Belt.Travel to Europe, once a marathon endeavor either by ocean liner or propeller plane,now could be accomplished in just hours. These choices doomed New York State’s mountain resorts. The type of vacation that my parents’ generation thought was luxurious lost favor, and the hotels, even the best of them, Grossinger’s and the Concord, closed one by one.

Today’s all-American vacation is increasingly taken at sea.This is contrary to my own preference, which is to fly into an airport, rent a car and drive from town to town. But soaring European prices, compounded by an awful exchange rate for the euro,made this strategy less attractive this year. When an offer came to me for a Mediterranean cruise on one on the new superliners — at an attractive price — we grabbed it. That’s how I found myself recently cruising the Mediterranean on the Brilliance of the Seas, sailing from Barcelona.

This ship is a floating Grossinger’s reborn, a generation after the last guests left the legendary hotel in the Catskills.While the famous “tummler” Lou Goldstein wasn’t there to lead “Simon Says” by the swimming pool, there were more modern descendants playing similar games with the passengers when the ship was at sea between ports of call.

Like the famous Borscht Belt hotels, the food keeps coming in prodigious amounts. And like the Catskill hotels, the ship features a veritable army of presumably amorous busboys (now termed “assistant waiters”) and other serving staff. Like Robert Klein and others of his generation, they are hardworking hustlers looking for tips to give them a leg up on their dreams.

But these are not Jewish teens from the Bronx. I couldn’t find a single American among those who served the 13,000 meals that were daily provided on board. Most of the staff — and they were all relatively young — came from the Southeast Asia, the subcontinent, eastern Europe, Turkey, the Caribbean, and South America. The absence of Americans isn’t because the pay is bad. My calculations show that a waiter could well earn in excess of $100 a day in tips, plus a modest salary and free room and board.Onboard,they live in conditions that are a far cry from the miserable accommodations young Robert Klein endured when he bussed tables in the Catskills.Why did Mr. Klein work under these conditions? Because as he paraphrases Willie Sutton, “The dining room is where the money is.”

Mr. Klein’s dining room was land-bound in a decaying resort past its prime, while the dining room on the Brilliance of the Seas moves between glamorous European cities during the summer and beautiful Caribbean ports during the winter.This seems to me to be not such a bad deal.

That’s why it seems so odd that there aren’t more Americans among the shipboard staff. Certainly there are plenty of young people in need of jobs, and I see no evidence that the Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Line prevents Americans from applying.

All this makes me wonder whether the motivation of Mr. Klein and his contemporaries is somehow missing today. Is there a message in this as we move to a global economy? In the debate about reforming our schools, maybe we should also consider how to restore the kind of work ethic that made Mr. Klein not just the amorous but the ambitious busboy of Decatur Avenue.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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