QUEEN OF THE PLAZA by Peter Nolan Smith

St. Patrick’s Day promised to be another disaster for the Retail Collection of the Plaza Hotel. Hordes of green-clad spectators streamed down the escalator into the basement. Their eyes averted the luxury goods on offer, as their destination was the hotel’s public bathroom. Within the first hour I had given directions to the toilet over a hundred times.

Most of the visitors said ‘thank you’.

“Why don’t you just print out directions?”

My co-worker pulled off her glasses. Janet’s eyes were out of focus like someone waiting to be informed by a doctor that they were blind. Most people with reading glasses had that look.

“Firstly, because Americans can’t read maps and secondly we might get lucky.” I was wearing a leprechaun tie and a forest-green Donegal Tweed suit jacket.

“Lucky how?” Janet refocused her eyes on the parade-goers.

“Someone might buy something.” My mother’s Irish mother came to America at the age of 14. Nana said that she was lucky and I bet on the survival of the luckiest over the fittest every day of the year.

Today was no exception.

“Buy what?” Janet put down her People magazine. She would take most of the week to read it. “We have no crosses, no NYC charms, no Claddad rings. That’s all these people buy besides beer and something green.”

“Nothing wrong with drinking beer.” My grandmother had brewed beer in her Jamaica Plains cellar during the Prohibition. I celebrated Beermas at least once a week and Guinness was good for pregnant moms.

“My father said whiskey was invented to keep the Irish from ruling the world.” Her prejudice against Spirits was distorted by her tribe’s love of God. Jews weren’t known for being shitzkah.

“We ruled the world long before your Yahweh wrote the Ten Commandments of Don’t.” Moses’ tablets had created a land of No and I lived in more of a yes world. “Stop being so negative, Janet.”

“Not so negative? Our store is in a basement. Only three things function in a basement; bar, a brothel or a boiler.” Janet’s morning Valium was wearing off faster than mascara on a crying whore. Her hands shook with desperation, as she pointed a long fingernail to the bathroom for the benefit of an older lady in distress. “Plus our merchandise is dreck. Who staying at the Plaza would buy this crap?”

“A blind man might.” My friend Richie Boy had partnered up with two losers. One was a thief and the other was broke. Janet and I hadn’t made a sale this month and only two in February, but I had a shot at selling a million-dollar ruby to a Texas oilman. The commish would pay off my debts and buy a plane ticket to Thailand, so I could see my kids. “We might get lucky.”

“2009 is not a year for luck.” Janet’s hair had been blown-dried so many times that her coif resembled a thatched peasant hut. One session at the upstairs beauty salon to repair the damage was out of her price range.

Last year she grossed $200,000. This year she’d be lucky to hit 50K. 2009 was not 2005.

“It could be worse.” Rain was the norm for most St. Patrick’s Day. The Neponset River in Boston had flooded its bank on Evacuation Day 1968. In Lower Mills Station only the tops of the trolley cars had been visible. Today’s forecast was blue skies and fleecy clouds. It was a good day to be Irish.

“That’s what’s scaring me.” Janet plucked a Valium from within her purse. A doctor friend had put her on the suicide watch. I made sure she only ate one.

Within ten minutes she achieved her desired level of apathy and stared at People’s photos, as if the young girls in pretty clothes mirrored her past.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I left the store and signaled the security guard to keep an eye on Janet, because while there might not be customers, however the previous week two thieves had clipped three store with bad credit cards.

I had a coffee at the Austrian pastry shop and then made the rounds of the Retail Collection.

Every salesperson had the same story. Not a single one of the day’s walk-ins had purchased a gift from the luxury stores.

No musk-ox sweater, no Sea Island cotton shirts, no imported alpaca blankets.

St. Patrick’s day was shaping up to be another goose egg and I returned to our store infected by Janet’s pessimism,

“It’s your friend, Richard.” Janet handed over the phone and buried her face in the magazine.

“How’s it going?” Richie Boy was in his store on 47th Street.

“Lots of green going for a pee.” It was as if someone was handing out flyers on 5th Avenue advertising PEE IN THE PLAZA.

“Any sign of Arabs?” St. Patrick’s Day on 47th Street was as dead as the Plaza.


Several hundred Saudis were encamped at the Plaza.

Yesterday one came down to the Retail Collection and looked at an emerald ring belonging to Richie Boy’s partner. The asking price was way off base for a stone filled with resin. I had gotten two exquisite emeralds from an Afghani color stone dealer. Both were gems and locked in our safe.

“Maybe he’ll show in the afternoon.”

“I’ll be waiting.” Come-backs’ were rare at the Plaza.

“Is anything ever going to happen there?” Richie Boy was losing sleep over this store.

“I’d like to say yes.” It had taken 400 years for Ireland to free most of the island from the British, but the prospects for Retail Collection were worst.

“It is the Plaza.”

The Plaza had been a destination for over 100 years, however the new Israeli new owners had trashed the legendary hotel to sell condos and they had invested nothing in advertising for the Retail Collection, plus the sound system was stuck on same nine insipid world songs. Sometimes I felt like working here was like being subjected to monotony torture at Guantanamo Bay Lite and I said to Richie Boy, “This place is a lost cause.”

“I’m going to give it another couple of weeks and then pull the plug.” Richie Boy’s father had been against the deal from the start. Closing would prove him right and the old man never liked being in the wrong.

“Just keep my partners from ripping me off.”

“You got it.” I hung up the phone.

Janet’s eyes were stuck on the same page. Many bosses would have fired someone in her condition.

Victor McLaughlin’s stunning performance of betrayal in THE INFORMER had forever prejudiced me against snitches.

Her mental condition was our secret.

The five hours to closing threatened to stretch their length beyond three-hundred minutes, until an elegant woman in her early 40s descended on the escalator.

Cherry-red hair framed a face as white as an equinox moon. Her slender body had never borne an extra ounce of weight and her sophistication was derived from life and not designer clothing. The woman stepped off the escalator and the salespeople snapped to attention, as her stiletto heels clicked on the tiled floor.

Janet put down her magazine, took off her reading glasses, and rose from her chair. Years of experience had honed her radar for a potential customer. Her eager smile was a masterpiece of Park Avenue dentistry and I hated telling her, “Janet, she’s coming to see me.”

“You?” Disappointment tremored on her face.

“Dove’s an old friend.”

I left the store to embrace the redhead. Her taut body was a testament to good living and her face retained the youngfulness of a thirty year-old, except for the grey world-weary eyes. The injections of her Swiss rejuvenation clinics bordered on magic.

I released Dove and introduced her to Janet.

“You two are friends?” Janet couldn’t believe that someone so ‘fabulous’ could be my friend.

“We’ve known each other since CBGBs.” Dove and I had met at the bar during a Ramones concert. She had been a rail-thin blonde desperate to become the 2nd coming of Nico. Several punk groups promoted her as tomorrow’s darling.

Back then Dove lived too much for today to be anyone’s tomorrow and opted for a career as a Senator’s mistress. She had been a woman so long, that most people had forgotten she had begun her life as Dave.

“Over thirty years ago. I once saved his life.”

Dove’s husky voice recounted her revenge on a thug from New Jersey who had beaten me with a baseball bat outside of a Paloma Picasso party. He had acquired a permanent squint after she stuck a cigarette in his eye. Janet watched intently, as Dove surveyed the jewelry under glass.

“If you see anything you like, I’ll be happy to show it to you.” Janet had a tendency to step other salespeople’s toes. This practice was considered bad form and I admired her lack of shame. I wasn’t much better at starving my fellow workers.

“When your friend Richie Boy told me that he had opened a store in the Plaza, I had expected South Sea pearls, Burma rubies, and pink diamonds.” Dove wrinkled the delicate cartilage of her nose. Her taste ran toward Madison Avenue and Place Vendome.

“We have some pretty crappy stuff.” Richie Boy’s busted partner had loaded the cases with second-hand merchandise and out-of-style closeouts from bankrupt jewelers. Subsequently our inventory was an unavoidable embarrassment, but I had two aces in the hole.

“I have something in the safe that might interest you. Emerald green for St. Patrick’s Day.”

One emerald cost about $200,000, but the other was in her price range and I held up a 5-carat Sea-Green Emerald surrounded by a micro-pavee of diamonds in an 18K gold and platinum ring.

“Very nice.” I slipped it onto her finger. She was a size 6 same as the ring.

“The color reminds me of the Connemara Hills after an afternoon rain.” I had spent a wet autumn within sight of the Seven Pins.

“Nothing greener than Ireland where it’s either raining, stopped raining, or about to rain. Wetter than a bucket of beer.”

Hearing Dove laugh made me realize how much I missed her, although not enough to give her the ring for free.

We haggled on the price like two old nuns over the baptismal name of an abandoned baby.

“$32,000 and not a dollar more.” I whispered into her ear. This was my sale.

“I love it when you play tough.” Dove dipped into her pocketbook and withdrew a clutch of c-notes. “Green good?”

“Even better on St. Patricks’ Day.” I eyed Janet. This was 100% my sale, but I would give her a bone.

I called the emerald’s owner and beat him down an extra $1000, insuring Richie Boy would get his cut. His partners would get nothing and at the end of the day I’d have enough to get out of town.

I counted out the money. It was about an inch thick and stuck $4000 in my pocket.

“So now that’s out of the way.” Dove glanced at her delicate Audemar-Picat watch. I had seen an identical model on 47th street for $120,000. “I think it’s time for a drink.”


“You haven’t stopped?”

“I’m no quitter.” I liked drinking in the afternoon. The bars were empty then.

“It’s St. Patrick’s Day. You’re Irish. I’m Irish.” Dove turned to Janet. “You don’t mind if I steal your partner for a few minutes. We have a little catching up to do. How’s the Oak Bar these days?”

“It isn’t what it used to be.” Janet had stuck her head in the famed bar once.

$16 glasses of wine were beyond her means.

Mine too, but $9 Stellas were affordable and we went upstairs. The Oak Room was packed with businessmen at table. We sat at two stools at the bar. The bartender remembered Dove from long ago. She ordered two Jamesons from Orlando.

“A little heavy for the early afternoon.” I stayed away from whiskey on most occasions.

“It’s St. Patrick’s Day. It’s never too early.” Dove clinked my glass.

She held her drink like a woman, but drank like a man. Some masculine traits were harder to camouflage than others.

“Never too late either.” We hadn’t seen each other in eight years. That chasm of time was bridged by her holding my hand. Her life revolved around the fashion seasons in Paris. I amused her with my tales of Thailand, my two wives, four children, an arrest for copyright infringement, coming back to take care of a crazed dog in Palm Beach and finally opening the store in the Plaza.

“I thought the Plaza would generate big sales. I’d work four years and retire again. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We’ll be lucky to last out the month.”

“These are tough times bound to get tougher.” Dove eyed a table of politicians in the corner. One nodded to her with respect. Her US senator had been dead for more than twenty years, but his power remained on her skin. “You could go back in Ballyconneely.”

“That wasn’t so bad.” My mother’s death wish had been for me to visit Ireland.

“Your mother wanted you to find someone like your aunts and sisters to marry, so you rent a house from Sir Robert Guinness. Not cheap either for off-season and you end up in a haunted cottage.”

“It used to be a schoolhouse.” The cold house was situated on edge of the Ice Age bogs. The winds off that primitive plain wrapped the walls with dying voices. “There was something there.”

“The ghosts of the beaten boys.” Dove signaled Orlando for two more Jamesons. “And the only women you found out there were knocked-up teenagers and lesbians.”

“I’m glad you find it so humorous.”

“No one really laughs at their successes. Failures alone are funny.”

The veneer of elegance slid off her skin after the third whiskey and she laughed with the haughtiness of a whore regaining the best corner in Manhattan.

“Are you staying at the Plaza?”

“Not a chance.” She admired the emerald in the early afternoon light filtering through the Oak Bar’s wide windows. “I’m strictly a St. Regis girl.”

“I like the King Cole Bar.” I hadn’t had anything to eat today and the whiskey was rotting my belly. I slid off the stool. “Dove I have to get back to work.”

“Not before we see some of the parade.” Dove hooked her arm over my elbow. She had always been stronger than me. “You worried that that girl working with you is going to steal the store?”

“No, more like she’ll have a nervous breakdown. Janet lost her money with Bernie Madoff.” The sixty year-old Jerseyite had no idea how to make her next Botox payment, but Janet was no thief.

“She’s not the only one.”


“I don’t travel in that circle. Now don’t worry about Janet. She’ll survive without you for another thirty minutes.” Dove had just bought an expensive ring and the customer was always right. “You’re seeing the parade whether you like it or not.”

“I don’t like the parade.”

“Everyone loves a parade.” Dove led us down the marbled hallway to the foyer.

Muted drums muttered louder with every step. A high school band was performing Michael Jackson’s BEAT IT. The playlist had expanded during my absence from America, but I had other reasons for shunning the parade than music.

“I’m from Boston. This parade has nothing to do with me.” The march through Southie had been a riot waiting to catch fire at the end of Broadway. Marchers had congregated at the dozen bars in that odd intersection. By mid-afternoon the orderly procession had devolved into a milling donnybrook. Fisticuffs had been the rule and a plastic shillelagh filled with sand had finished most fights. Broken noses and black eyes had marked a man’s honor for days, but that pugilistic mirth had soured after the Bussing Riots of 1975 and I had left my hometown for New York in 1976.

“Are you talking about gay people not being allowed to march?” Dove checked our reflection in the mirror.

Other eyes were on us.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about?”

The security man at the hotel entrance sensed something amiss with my partner, but Dove passed for a woman, because she had been just that for most of her life.

“Hard changing the way the Church tells people to think.” Dove ignored the guard’s scrutiny. There was nothing left of the boy from Queens. She was 100% upper-class and a lady to boot.

“Don’t I know it.” I pushed my way through the revolving door. A high school band was stalled in front of the Sherry-Netherlands. 5th Avenue was packed twenty deep. The sky was blue to heaven and the temperature was a balmy 50 for March.

“Are you coming out of the closet?”

Standing on the steps, Dove’s mouth softened to a smile. Twenty years in Europe would never change her being a New Yorker.

“I’m straight, but I don’t like exclusion in the Land of the Free.” Gays and Lesbians have fought for the right to express their Gaelic spirit without success.

“Land of the Freaked is more like it and especially with our brethren.”

“Yes, Sex is a taboo subject. No one talks about knocked-up teenage girls or predatory priests.”

“Because we’re all Irish.”

“I’m half.”

“You love touting that thin Yankee blood, but you’re as green as a four-leaf clover.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to support the ban on gays or lesbians marching in the parade.” My younger brother’s radio show in Boston had crusaded for acceptance by the straight world. He died of AIDS without the battle won and I carried on his struggle in my own way.

I don’t understand why anyone gay would want to associate themselves with this crowd?”

“Because you’re straight.”

“Most gays think everyone is gay.” The crowd was applauding a troupe of prancing Irish dancers. We walked off the steps. The senior doorman greeted Dove. She had been a guest at the Plaza many times with the Senator.

“They’re not 100% wrong. You’re a little twisted in your own way.”

“Not really.” I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t bi. Outlaws had no sexual designation.


“Except with you.”

Dove had attempted to seduce me many times and she almost succeeded the night she stuck the cigarette in my attacker’s eye.

“I wanted you so much. Still do.”

“I’m an old man now.” I was flattered by her desire, but I was faithful to my Thai wife. “And I’m set in my ways.”

“The parade is over a hundred years old. It’s set in its way too.”

No woman liked ‘no’ for an answer and she strode into the crowd.

“It’s the only parade to march up 5th Avenue. The others head downtown.” I held Dove’s hand. Her fingers and palm were teenage soft. I regretted my stubborn ways, for I hadn’t been with a woman for months.

“And that too will never change.” Her words rang hard. She could be a mean drunk.

“And neither will I or how I feel toward you.” I pulled her closer.

I could tell that we made a good couple by the admiring looks from the crowd. They actually envied us. I peered over their heads at the marchers. The mayor was waving to his constituents. A few drunks cursed him for tearing down Yankee Stadium. Coming from Boston I was glad to see the House that Ruth Built in ruins.

The older man next to him swung his eyes in our direction, then narrowed, as if he recognized Dove. He waved to her, as the parade halted for another of his photo-op on 5th Avenue.

”You want me to ask the mayor about including gays in the parade?”

“He’s looking for a 3rd term not political suicide.” He was a mayor of the rich. “There’ll never be a gay contingent in this parade. The Ancient Order of Hibernians are scared if they let in the gays and lesbians that there’ll be a float dedicated to Ireland’s most famous homosexual, Oscar Wilde.”

“Or banners honoring Roger Casement.” The revolutionary had been martyred for his politics by the British not his homosexuality.

“Or bands playing songs of Sinead O’Connor.”

“That might be too much to ask.” The singer had told the Pope to fuck off on TV and her statement had branded her as dangerous to the Church, but they were a greater threat to the young than a shaved-head pop star, who had suffered from the abuse of the nuns at a laundry school of Dublin. “Although I wouldn’t mind hearing JUMP AROUND by House of Pain.”

The video had featured New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Bands, politicians, majorettes, the crowds.

Cops, drunks, and fights.

The latter was another reason to avoid the parade. The brawls turned very ugly fast and the cops rarely intervened before someone got bloodied.

“It could be arranged. After all I know people.”

Female parade-goers gazed at her forest green Armani suit cut two inches over her knees with envy.

The outfit cost more than most of them earned in a year. I could live off the price of her high heels for a month. Several pedestrians whispered to each other, thinking that she was famous without realizing the source of that fame.

“I think they want your autograph.” In my clothes I looked like her driver.

“I’m not famous.” Dove posed for her admirers, as if she were a French actress or a retired ballerina. Her poise had been perfected after years of practice.

“You were always famous for me.”

“More infamous than famous.”

“Less of either than you could imagine. Paris is such a small town for the wicked; same faces, same stories. All the time thinking of New York.”

“You could have stayed here.” Her senator died in her arms during sex. His family hadn’t contested the will to avoid a scandal. The deal had been for Dove to stay out of the limelight. The dead man had had to raise money for build a memorial library in the Deep South.

“Things would have been bad for me here. Too much money and too many bad friends.” She basked in the detoured memory of that path. “It would have been glorious.”

She pulled me forward to the police barricade. Two officers turned to stop her forward progress. Dove whispered to one. The young cop glanced over his shoulder to the distinguished-looking man in his 70s. The man motioned the policeman to open the barrier for Dove.

“You want to come?” This was her show, but it was nice of her to ask.

“No, I’m going back to work.” I pointed to her ring finger. The stack of hundreds filled my jacket pocket. Some of it would go to my wife. “Thanks for everything.”

“My pleasure.” She held up her hand. The emerald shone in the afternoon sun like a pagan god’s eye. It was that good.

“Call me at the St. Regis tomorrow. We’ll have drinks.”

“Consider it a date.”

She blew a kiss and approached the older man, who greeted Dove with a kiss on the cheek and linked his arm with hers. He was her yes-man for the day. They made a nice couple too.

I returned to the Plaza, planning to close the shop, send Janet home, pay the dealer for the emerald ring, pass by 47th Street to drop off Richie Boy’s share, and then go to drink in the East Village with friends at a small Irish bar. I’d buy a few rounds and we’d tell stories about haunted schoolhouses and kissing Catholic girls. Most of them would be true.

I stopped at the top of the steps of the Plaza.

The parade had resumed its uptown progress and Dove had disappeared from sight.

I smiled to myself thinking that there were gays in the parade. Not just Dove, but men and women from all walks of life. We were all Irish or wanting to be, because on St. Patrick’s Day everyone loved the Irish.

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