Carl at the Harvard Club

Carl was many things, among them an actor and a political and labor activist. He was also a person who took particular pleasure in challenging the people around him while simultaneously involving them in his schemes. My husband is Native American and in his culture the coyote is the trickster. Carl was a playful and joyous trickster. A story from years ago encapsulates many of the elements that made Carl the coyote we remember and love.

Workers at Manhattan’s Harvard Club were striking in the mid-1990s to protest downgrades in wages, vacation time and benefits. Union Local #6 was leading pickets in front of the fancy club while numerous employees there were canned. Of course, as not to inconvenience their membership, the Harvard Club hired a bunch of scabs to cross the picket line–among them, one undercover labor activist we know as Carl who had to endure the daily taunts of angry union members as he crossed their picket line to work. At his clandestine job, Carl discovered that at the Maître D’s desk at the dining room entrance there was a fat book listing all the names of the Harvard Club membership–every due-paying alum who Carl felt really should have been made aware of the unfair labor practices at the Harvard Club.

This membership book is what film director Alfred Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin–it’s what drives the plot. But how to smuggle this MacGuffin out of the building?

To prevent silverware theft or whatever, Harvard Club workers like Carl had their bags searched as they left their shifts. The thinking at Local 6 was that if only they had this book they could do such a great, informative mailing to the Harvard Club membership about the unfair labor practices occurring there.

This is when Carl set his sights on gullible me. He gave me a new name: Jim Sherman, and a membership number.

I was to arrive late in the afternoon lunch shift, approximately 1:30, and request to be seated near the windows where Carl was serving as a waiter. Of course I had to clean up in a good suit and tie. I’m fessing up to the fact that in 1994 some random guy Jim Sherman bought me and my beautiful date Christine a wonderful lunch that afternoon at the Harvard Club. But the food really wasn’t the main event. For me, one of the most purely entertaining parts of this drama was my role as a Harvard Club jerk while Carl took on the thankless part of a relentlessly cheerful and unflappable waiter–no matter how many times I told him I needed my water glass refilled or whined about other lapses in the not-up-to-par service. Carl seemed to enjoy every one of my rude complaints and was invariably cheerful. “Your very welcome, sir!”

After dessert, the dining room had pretty much emptied out. When Christine and I departed, I left my leather briefcase under the table. We hung out on a couch in a seating area for barely a minute before jovial waiter Carl rushed from the dining room with my bag. Inside was the MacGuffin: the fat book with the membership list.

“You left this behind, sir!”

“Thank you, boy!” 

The list made its way to Local 6, it was xeroxed and returned later that afternoon to the Maitre D’s desk, and no one with a Harvard degree was any the wiser.

Knowing Carl was taking part in an adventure. He fought for justice while having a good time. It’s like the Emma Goldman line, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!”

***

After Carl’s memorial years later, union official Lynn informed me that our caper had actually worked: the mailing to the Harvard Club membership had resulted in the strike being settled. How great is that?  

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