The first two weeks I worked at The Alma Mater Dance Studio, I was not allowed into the daily 5:00 o’clock meetings Mister Charles held in his office. Instead, for the hour or so that the meeting was held, I practiced, alone on the dance floor in front of a mirror. Every day prior to these meetings Mister Charles told me,
“If anyone comes in while we’re in the meeting, go out to the front desk, greet them, and come and get me. Do not say or do anything else. Do you understand?”
Everyday for entertainment, though I never said anything to him, I thought up new replies to his childish declaration.
“What do I do if I have to use the can?”
“If I’m good will you take me for ice cream?”
I could visualize myself running out to the waiting area, greeting a visitor,
Then running back to the office, breathless like a child playing in the yard and shouting at the top of my lungs in front of his office door.
“Hey! Mister Charles, there’s somebody at the front desk.”
One evening, as the meeting was ready to start and I was heading for the dance floor, Mister Charles beckoned me to the door of his office. With his nonchalant but reverential manner he said,
“You’ll join us in the meeting now.”
Oh my hell, I had made the cut and was invited into the sanctum. I mentally genuflected as I walked through the door, bowed my head, and with reverence in my voice, asked where to sit. Mister Yong was ordered to bring in an extra folding chair for me.
Upon entering the room, I could see that everyone had a place to sit relative to the pecking order of the staff; I of course being new sat near the door. Even Miss Glans, who was Mister Charles’ current bedmate held a lesser position here than in his bed, a somewhat uncomfortable arrangement for her I was certain. In matters of money, Mister Charles’ antics in bed were less important than that of his business.
Mister Charles opened the meeting by pointing out all the mistakes the staff had made in the last 24 hours; I thought this would fairly well wrap things up because of the inordinate amount of time he spent ranting. He was always looking at me as he spoke.
“You have to start putting the music away after you’re finished with a lesson.”
“But I haven’t yet taught a lesson.” I said.”
Miss Geraldi chimed in with a naughty laugh,
“Oh, he’s not talking to you. You just happen to be sitting in the chair where he looks when he talks.”
Ah, so they had pulled a joke on me. This was great; I had begun to think that humor was grounds for dismissal; this was the first genuine laughter I had heard from anyone. I smiled at Miss Geraldi.
“Maybe I should move?”
Mister Yong spoke.
“Nowhere else to sit. Looks like you’re stuck with the hot seat.”
“Let’s move along now”, Mister Charles said. “She’s right, I’m not just speaking to you; I’m speaking to everyone.”
Aside from the daily ravings and fault finding by Mister Charles, the decisions concerning who would do what, who had lessons, how to sell more lessons, the Friday night parties, and any petty problems, were common topics. Mister Charles continued to stare at me every time he made a sour comment, a situation that was becoming uncomfortable for me, even though it was supposed to be a joke.
“Tapes and CDs are scattered all over the shelves and are not being put away after lessons.”
“I haven’t touched any of the music”, I said.
“I’m not talking to you.”
“You’re looking at me when you talk.”
“We’ve already been through this. You are sitting in the wrong place and when I talk, it’s not to anyone in particular unless I say so.”
“But, you’re still looking at me when you talk and that makes me think, as anyone would, that you’re talking to me.”
“Are you listening to me? I said you’re sitting in the wrong place.”
I stood, picked up my chair, looked about for a new place, but with the room so small there was only a tiny piece of floor directly behind his chair. Without hesitating, I moved my chair to that spot, knowing that he would have to completely turn in his chair to see me or speak to me.
“What are you doing? I can’t see you if you’re behind me.”
“You said you weren’t speaking to me so what does it matter?”
“This is getting ridiculous, Mister Brown.”
“That was my thought as well.”
He rolled his eyes and went on with the meeting, often glancing over his shoulder with a look of disgust to see that I hadn’t done anything which might not meet his approval. Mister Charles despised having anyone behind his back. My imagination ran wild. I wanted to skew my face or hold up two fingers over his head as he spoke. The pretentiousness that pervaded the studio had been gnawing at me from the day I started, and it was more and more difficult to keep myself out of mischief.
While I worked at The Alma Mater Dance Studio for Mister Charles, if there was one battle that I might have won, one change that I might have been instrumental in bringing about for the betterment of the staff, it was the removal of the hot seat.
An issue that often came up during these meetings was interaction with the students. Fraternizing with students was the most wicked, distressing breach of contract that a staff member could commit, and without a doubt grounds for immediate dismissal. The employment contract (a document designed and implemented by the company at the national level) that I signed devoted an entire page of tiny print to this matter.
In a twisted and contradictory manner teachers were expected to be friends with the students, while at the same time maintaining a professional distance. Through contorted and euphemistic, but never directly spoken “sales lessons”, we were to make them happy and propagate just enough sexual interest to keep them hoping they might have a chance to have an affair with the teacher. Locked away in a vault somewhere, perhaps along with the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, is the formula for selling dance lessons, and in that formula is the magic word that elucidates how this is done. The word is sex and therein lies the rub (pun intended). No written set of rules exists that prescribes exactly what is appropriate, although the contract states that any form of fraternization is illegal. That of course is impossible if one is to dangle a carrot in front of the student and instill the desire to buy more lessons.
During one of our evening meetings Mister Charles spoke, this time turning around and glaring at me.
“One other thing that you probably don’t know, I was propositioned by Miss Arlos a couple of days ago. She asked me to go out with her.”
Of course we all had heard about this incident and the gossip had even spread beyond the studio, more than likely on the nightly news in Anchorage. Knowing Liz Arlos I didn’t believe it, although she did have a crush on him.
“You know you’re never supposed to fraternize with a student.”
“I know”, I said.
“I know that you and Miss Arlos are friends, Mister Brown. Have you been fraternizing with Miss Arlos?”
“No”, I lied.
In fact, Liz Arlos and I were friends long before I took this job and that meant more to me than the silliness of this vague fraternization rule. We continued to be nothing more than friends long after I left.
“Did you take her up on the offer?” I asked.
His face turned from eerie pale to pink, then red.
“Of course I didn’t,” he gasped.
He turned to address the rest of the group.
“Has anyone else been fraternizing with Miss Arlos?”
An all around shaking of heads indicated that everyone was innocent. With obvious anger he turned back to me.
“Are you sure, Mister Brown, that you haven’t been out with her?”
I smiled and answered,
“Okay, I’ll fess up, I boinked her in the back seat of my car out in the alley last night.”
The laughter that followed served to lessen the gravity of the subject and even Mister Charles smiled at the ludicrous notion of Liz Arlos and me in coital ecstasy just outside the studio. The irony of this was, Mister Charles employed Liz Arlos as a part time secretary, bookkeeper, and she was compensated with dance lessons, so in fact she was both employee and student at the same time. I often wondered if he would fire her if she were caught hanging out with herself.
Sometimes during the meetings a staff member or Mister Charles would say,
“I hear someone coming up the stairs!”
This was the cue for everyone to scatter, look busy, and do something, while Mister Charles casually strolled to the front desk to see who had come in. One of his rules was, whenever a student is in the studio, make sure music is playing, and everyone is working, so the studio looks busy. The effect was something like the Keystone Cops; if a noise was heard we all jumped up, fell over the folding chairs, and burst through the door ready for action. More than once when this happened the building must have been creaking because no one was there and on these occasions Mister Charles would say,
“Well, I guess the meeting is over.”
It occurred to me to try and rig a contraption of some sort that would make a sound like someone coming through the door, perhaps a recording, in order to shorten the meetings.
Mister Charles’ paranoia extended to the telephone as well. At least once during our meetings the phone would ring, and no matter what the conversation, even if someone had said a tornado was headed toward the city, whenever the phone rang everyone fell dead silent. He always let the phone ring two times before answering, and when he picked up the receiver, he had a standard line that he used.
“Good evening, this is the The Alma Mater Dance Studio, a great place to meet new friends and learn to dance, how may I help you?”
I always thought of a fast food drive-thru when he did this.
“Good evening, welcome to The Alma Mater Dance Studio, would you like to try our new Mambo Special with fries and a large Coke?”
If I were to make a list of the ten most ludicrous ideas that Mister Charles conceived while I was one of his employees, the manners proposal that he made in one of our meetings would be the pinnacle of his managerial thinking and thank the Gods of dance that I was there to hear it. At this particular meeting the discussion was about an upcoming event, a quarterly ball complete with dinner and pseudo competitions for the students. The talk turned to eating manners, then the art of graciousness in general. Mister Charles wanted his studio to be a classy establishment with a sophisticated staff, a place for fine ladies and gentlemen to come and be with their own kind.
“Last Saturday evening”, he said, “Miss Glanns and I went to one of the better restaurants for dinner. She had never eaten lobster, so I ordered it for her, as well as myself.”
Before he went on, he paused, glanced sideways at Miss Glanns, smirked and laughed out loud.
“I had to show her how to eat lobster,” he finally managed to say.
Embarrassed and angry, Miss Glanns said,
“I would have figured it out.”
Rarely did Mister Charles talk disparagingly about her, especially when his sleeping arrangement with Miss Glanns might be in jeopardy. Everyone in the tiny little office was looking down, pretending something of importance had distracted their thought. A dark cloud of embarrassment hung over the room. Sensing this he stopped laughing.
“This got me to thinking, all of you could use a little training with table manners and proper etiquette. I have in mind to send everyone to a lady I know for social skills and instruction.”
At first everyone stared at him as if he had just returned from the restroom with his fly undone. After a moment we all began to glance at each other, snicker, and Miss Geraldi rolled her eyes as if he had just been released from prison.
“Mister Charles, I know how to eat and I’m not going to some damned old woman to learn manners”, she said.”
I could contain myself no longer.
“Are you serious, you want to send us to charm school?”
As if on cue the entire staff fell to gut-wrenching laughter.
Miss Jones said,
“Can’t we just buy a book or something, you know, maybe something by Miss Manners?”
“I can bring in the paper with Ann Lander’s column,” Mister Yong said.
The chatter began to float around the room.
“No, no, he doesn’t want heartbreak stories, he wants etiquette.”
“I already know these things and I can teach…”
“You don’t know how to eat chicken with a spoon.”
“Will we have to wear white gloves?”
“Is she a student here, the manners lady, is she a student?”
Mister Charles arose from his chair and held up his hands to stop the noise. “This meeting is over. Get out and get to work. I make the decisions around…”
“Someone is coming up the stairs,” Miss Geraldi shouted.
In a heartbeat everyone was out of the room, running, fiddling with music CDs, pretending work. I looked back at the tiny room, the command center that was Mister Charles’ office, and watched as he put his elbows on his desk, rested his chin in his hands, and stared at the wall and the overturned chairs, where only moments earlier he had dominated his empire.Photo courtesy Patries71