On Super Bowl Eve, I tended bar until close in East County, rushed home and crawled into bed for a few jittery hours of sleep.
"Leave an hour early on Super Bowl Sunday," I had been cautioned. "The roads are going to be a nightmare."
They may have been a nightmare, but it was one of those creepy postmodern nightmares where you wake up to find yourself alone in the world-or in this case, the only car on 805 South at 8 a.m.
In the parking garage, attendants outnumbered vehicles 10 to 1, and each one stopped me. "I'm supposed to park in back, down the ramp," I said over and over, flashing my parking pass.
"You can't park here."
"That'll be 10 dollars."
"Are you an employee?"
"I need you to park somewhere else."
Finally, a valet whistled and ran across the garage, waving his hands.
"You working the party at the Doubletree?"
I flashed my pass again and nodded.
"Yeah. Park in back, down the ramp," he said, authoritatively.
The Doubletree at Hazard Center had held a cattle call two weeks before, hiring several dozen bartenders, servers and bussers on the spot. After a couple hours of rushed interviews and lengthy paperwork-and an impromptu drug test to ensure no one assigned the delicate task of handing out booze to drunk football fans had smoked pot within the last year-we were told to come back the following Monday for a paid orientation. About 50 of us returned on Monday for a hotel tour. We were issued temporary employee badges, time cards and that authoritative parking pass.
Sunday morning, I slipped into the hotel, my badge tucked in my pocket. The punch clock ominously rejected my time card. I ambled into the kitchen and poured some bad coffee in a greasy plastic cafeteria cup. The housekeepers and kitchen workers bantered around me in Spanish. No one looked familiar, and no one gave me a second glance. I began to wonder if I had slept through Super Bowl Sunday and accidentally showed up on Monday morning, instead.
The plan, according to the orientation, was to have a half-dozen or so massive party areas, each with full bars and food. One area would play reggae, one R&B, one jazz and so on. Celebrities would be attending in droves; a manager named Amy mentioned that the Raiders would be staying at the hotel (although it was widely reported that both teams were staying in Torrey Pines hotels).
Nonetheless, we all congratulated each other on having found the primo moneymaking opportunity of the weekend, if not our lifetimes. Many of the new hires were assigned to work Friday-Saturday-Sunday, but I was Sunday only, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., which was more than enough time, I thought, to profit in some small way from the Super Bowl bonanza coming to San Diego.
I wandered around, groggy, in the bowels of the hotel, until I found the party room to which I had been assigned. There I met Sal the bartender, a tall, skinny, bronzed guy with a permanent gap-toothed smile and too much to say.
"I worked Friday from 4 to midnight," Sal said by way of introduction. "I didn't sell one beer." I pieced together the story as we headed back to the kitchen for more coffee. He said a crowd had gathered, all Doubletree regulars. The promoter's clever plan for drawing the crowds was to charge $50 a head to get in the door. About two-dozen partygoers paid begrudgingly, too stupid to realize that an enormous free party was waiting just minutes away in the Gaslamp. The hotel, for its part, charged excessively for miniscule drinks. Raiders players showed up for five minutes, laughed, and headed downtown.
Two other Sunday-only temps came in. Stories were rehashed and exaggerated. Security had scared everyone away. P. Diddy was supposed to perform, but the city would not approve the stage. We passed around glossy party announcements depicting girls in bikinis and random lists of musical and sports celebrities and folded them nervously.
One guy admitted that he had turned down shifts at another bar to work this party. Another had given up his regular weekend delivery route. Another Sunday-only murmured, "I really need the money." It was clear that none of us were here at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday for the fun of it.
The chef came out of the kitchen, eyes rheumy from a cold and a lack of sleep, and adjusted the punch clock. We finally clocked in at 9:05. More waiting. We ate tuna salad from the generous employee buffet and watched jealously as the morning news showed the giant crowds queuing up downtown.
Finally, at 9:30, Amy the manager walked in, looking about a hundred years older than she did at orientation. She seemed surprised to see the three temps and quickly took us aside.
"Here's the deal. The promoter really dropped the ball," she confided, indignant. "The cover charge was the promoter's idea. They guaranteed us $160,000 in sales. We'll own their company after this weekend." And so on.
I can't blame her. Everyone felt resentful and silly; we were all clumsy kids caught with our hands in an empty cookie jar. The hotel wanted to edge in on the Super Bowl economy. And surely people paying a few thousand dollars for a last-second ticket to the Super Bowl wouldn't blink at a $50 cover charge, or so thought the promoter. The parking garage wanted to gouge their share from each carload of revelers, despite the fact that there is free parking everywhere in Mission Valley. And hey, I wasn't there to volunteer my time for charity.
"Anyway, I thought we called off all the new hires. But if you didn't get a message, I'm sure we need you," Amy said unsurely.
Today could be different. This was game day. There was no cover, and there were only a few of us on duty. Maybe we wouldn't get rich, but there might be a chance to make a couple dollars while we watched the game. The night before, one anonymous ex-Raider had found his way out to East County and left me a $5 tip on one glass of Courvoisier. If a little Super Bowl wealth can make it all the way out to Spring Valley, surely Mission Valley would not be shut out entirely?
So we forged on into the supply closet, where bottles of liquor, cases of wine and kegs of beer were stacked to the sky. We wheeled some booze down to the ballroom and started setting up the bar. Amy stepped aside for a quick, whispered conversation with another manager. The following is pure conjecture-and almost certainly completely accurate.
"What are they doing here?"
"No one called them," Amy said frantically. "I thought we might need them."
He shook his head.
Amy pasted on a giant corporate smile and walked back into the room, as hotel workers with drills disassembled the dance floor. "I'm soooo sorry, guys..."
By the time we walked back to the time clock, it was 10:04. We punched out and turned in our cards and badges. Amy assured us that we would be paid for the day. Furthermore, she showed us an outdated list of job openings and said we had passed our drug test, and were pre-approved, should we ever want to apply to Doubletree in the future.
I wanted to ask if I could get credit for the full hour. Instead, I asked if the hotel needed any bartenders.
"No," was all she said.