Chapter Five: Changing Times
This is the true story of a little piece of American history.
It is the story of a private, but exclusive, members-only club that was inspired by wealthy men and their love of horse racing. It is a true story about a club that is one of the least talked about, yet one of the most prestigious clubs in the world. So prestigious, not just anyone could walk through these gates. It’s a private dwelling that hosts some of the wealthiest people in the country, let alone the entire world.
Last, but not least, it is a true story about a small group of black men and women thriving and surviving in a rich white man’s world. It’s a behind-the- scenes story of the workers who were the heart and soul of establishing the Saratoga Reading Room as one of the most historic and best kept secrets in Saratoga Race Course history.
Let the story continue…
The second person I need to mention was a young man named Nate Lewis. Nate was a smaller man in stature, but what he lacked in size he made up for in speed. Nate was an excellent basketball player, who we used to call “Nate the Skate” after the great NBA player, Nate Archibald. He was just so fast with the ball. He was like a blur. He would join us on the porch as a server. Nate was very personable, and it didn’t take long for him to be a hit with the members. To this day, some of us reminisce of Nate spilling that Bloody Mary on a member’s white suit. Maybe not at the time it happened, but later, we had a lot of laughs about it. Nowadays, Nate lives in Atlanta with his wife Andrea. He was like a little brother to us. I can still hear that crazy laugh he had. He used to call me S White and James, J White.
During the 80s, things were continuing to change. The Reading Room not only had female servers for the first time, but we also brought in a white person for the first time to be a server. She was a redhead named Jo Ann Walczak, whose family and ours were extremely close. That was the first time the tradition of having an all-black staff was altered. She worked the tables inside the Reading Room. Jo Ann fit right in and did a really good job. I believe she worked for a period of two years.
So now there were Sandy, Nate, Gina, and me on the front porch. Sonny and JoAnn were on the inside and J White, Fred, and Tom worked in the yard. We all helped each other out. We would go where we were needed. That made up the serving staff at the Reading Room. The staff in the kitchen included Helen from the old guard, Lou, who had come on board taking Lucille’s place, and Buster. Let me talk a little about Buster. As I had mentioned, we were a very athletic group. Buster was 6’ 2” and was also known for his basketball abilities. Boy, could he shoot. Buster and Sonny graduated the same year and the combination of them together on the court was one of the best around. Buster went on to play at Fulton Montgomery Community College. One year, they were the nation’s top Juco defensive team in the country. Buster would move from being a dishwasher to becoming the primary food prep in the kitchen. He lasted well in the 2000s at that same position. He actually was the last of our group of black folks who worked at the Reading Room. That means a lot to him even to this day!! Buster now works as an employee for Global Foundries, a processor chip plant for IBM in Malta, NY.
We also brought on a tiny young man from Ecuador by the name of Helanio Hernandez, who reminded us of the character from the hit show Fantasy Island named Tattoo. He looked just like him - so that is what we called him. He was a great addition as well. He was a good worker and we became and still are, great friends. I thought he was black when we first met. Tattoo lives in NYC with his wife, Annaly. We also brought in a kid named Mike Settles to help in the kitchen. Mike did it all and he fit right in with the rest of us. On May 24, 2015, Mike unexpectedly and sadly passed away at the age of 47 years old. We went through a couple of dishwashers during the 80s.
I had the privilege to also bring my mother, Mary White, aboard as a person who helped prepare and prep food in the kitchen. My mother was a hard-working mom of three boys and having the opportunity to get her a position in the Reading Room was great. Everyone was paid handsomely, and it was nice to give her a chance to make some of it. Her fondest memory was having a chance to meet Frank Perdue, owner of Perdue Chicken. She always used his chicken and was thrilled at the opportunity to meet him. Of all the prestigious people who came there, it was Mr. Perdue who got her most excited. Unfortunately, Ma White passed away in August of 2018 at the age of 88 years old. I try to keep her memory alive every chance I can. I miss her dearly.
We were also able to hire a couple of young athletic black teenage boys to be our busboys. Scott Walczak, who was a high school senior and had a great high school football career at Saratoga High School, and Tim Parker, who went on to become Saratoga’s all-time leading scorer in basketball, surpassing Sonny, would at different times be added to our staff. When Scott left to pursue a career in electronics, Timmy took his place. Timmy would receive a full scholarship to take his basketball talents to Providence College. They both did great jobs and we noticed they took pride in their work. They enjoyed being part of the team and they loved the money they were making.
In the 80s, Sonny took a job at GE (General Electric), so his spot opened up. I started working in the school system at the Vo Tech Center. I became the middleman between students and administration. I handled daily discipline, attendance, and many other student affairs. The great thing for me was I continued to have my summers free and could continue at the Reading Room. Sonny wasn’t as fortunate. He had a full-time job and even though he made appearances to help when needed, an opportunity was given to another close friend of ours by the name of Alvin Watson, or better known to us as Mutt.
Mutt didn’t have a lot of experience as a server. The fact was that he was our friend and we wanted to give him a chance. Mutt picked things up quickly and soon was a very valuable part of our hard-working team. Mutt brought the fun level even higher. He was amazed at the clientele who walked through the gates.
When we first started in the 70s, the servers made their own drinks for the members. During the 80s, an older gentleman named Al Beard started helping at the bar, making drinks for the servers. Al was a character. He used to love to laugh and joke. We loved Al. Eventually he would take over as our supervisor at the Reading Room. He would make sure the members were well taken care of and as always, did everything he could to make sure they were happy. One thing about Al was that he would really take care of his staff. He was known for putting aside cases of beer for us. He would say, “Those two cases of that beer right there, that’s for you and the fellas.”
So there it is, the Black Folk, that throughout the years, made up the working staff at the Reading Room. The cast of characters that made up this unique bunch were a combination of the old and the new. One thing we all had in common was the realization that we were carrying on decades of tradition of the black worker at the Saratoga Reading Room. We were very mindful of that. We were hard workers who loved our jobs, loved working and hanging together, while providing elite service at this prestigious club. We would need all that togetherness, because just when we started getting comfortable as a team, here it comes: Sales Week!!
Click here for Chapter Six: Sales Week
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