Sheer panic has overtaken me. Every pore is leaking, drenching my shirt. Pungent stress sweat wafts from my armpits. Even though the ceremony is over, there are five hours left of this wedding. Plenty of time for disaster. Twenty minutes behind schedule might as well be twenty days. Two hundred and eighty-one wedding guests are migrating at the speed of icebergs in winter from the third floor to the twenty-first. Even with my tersely polite suggestions to “take the elevators upstairs,” they won’t move any faster. Dressed in thousand-dollar haute couture, the bejeweled Louboutin-ed wedding guests refuse to squeeze in together. Most guests are out-of-towners—obvious from their personal space requirements and refuse to ascend in groups of more than four. With minimal guests ascending in the slow elevators of this hundred-year-old hotel, everything is in slow motion, except my racing heart.
If the tension caused by the turtle-like speed of the guests isn’t enough to have me on the path to a migraine, a non-stop stream of text messages will be. Question after question just keeps coming. And there is nothing I can do or say to make any of it better. The stress level is so high today, you’d think the president was attending. I feel helpless as I stand near the elevator bank trying to move the immovable.
No matter what you see in movies, or even when you attend them, events are smoke and mirrors. Hidden behind the glamour is manic precision and tension. Weddings are large emotional parties filled with buttercream and over
obsession. In New York, the scale of these events is massive. Most of the time, the bride or the “hostess” has never hosted a party of this scale in her life, and yet her family is throwing thousands if not millions of dollars into making it amazing. Which is why wedding planners exist. To make everything beautiful, breathtaking and memorable. And of course, every good planner has an even better assistant.
Enter: me. My job is to solve any problem without showing panic… and I mean any problem. I feel like I get extra points on each event if I can make everything seem easy and as if it were a joy to execute. Imagine me as a beauty queen crossed with a firefighter. I literally smile, wave, and look pretty while I put out various fires. I’m not joking. Thrice in the last five minutes glass, water, and lit candles have gone flying. The grandeur created by the candle-filled hurricane vases lining the St. Regis marble hallway keep getting kicked by champagne-sipping guests crossing down through the Louis suites. Each time another clank-crash of glass sounds I stifle a sarcastic yell of L’chaim! Instead, I refrain and only point another staff member toward the pool of wax, broken glass, and water.
When people ask me about my job they assume it’s full of enchantment and romance. At this point in my career, nothing is glamorous. Especially after dealing with event attendees who think that they can do anything they want at any time during the event. Nowadays, I envision the guests as a herd of well-fed geriatric cats with an aversion to movement. Although truth be told, I wouldn’t want to move if I were being fed shrimp that are each the size of an infant's fist, black sparkling caviar that was one hundred and forty dollars a pound, hundred-dollar imported French champagne, and unlimited top-shelf liquor.
With a deep breath, I channel calm in this sea of unmoving wingtips, stilettos, and silk, and never-ending text messages from the panicked wedding planner, and her other assistant, Sarah. We are currently brainstorming how to work through running late. The overtime rates on this venue could purchase a fully loaded luxury car with leather interior and all the bells and whistles. Including a personal driver. Sarah is in her test run as Event Manager and is feeling the heat. I have managed over fifty weddings, and have gotten to the point where I can see places we could gain time back in an instant. That confidence took a long time for me to build, but I can make a split-second decision on anything at a wedding these days. Sarah isn’t there yet. She needs to figure it out on her own while the pressure is piling up and tension is running high. It sounds mean, but honestly, there is no other way to learn the skill. You can’t win in dodgeball if you don’t face the firing squad. Sarah is currently in the hot seat.
Our upcoming season has several double-booked weekends which means our small team will need to divide and conquer. Sarah is to manage some, and I will run others. If today’s test run goes well for her, I get to be in charge of events on my own. Something I’ve been waiting for as long as I’ve had this job. But before I get ahead of myself, today I was to “observe” her and give feedback later on ways she can improve.
Today’s plan is failing. In the operatic miserable way. So far today is running as if Sarah has never worked a wedding at all. In the past week I had coached her through everything for today. And she has the experience of ten weddings under her belt. But even with experience and preparation, she was terrified. I believed in her, however she didn’t believe in herself. On our final prep call last night, I told her whenever she was second-guessing herself to text me. That was a mistake. Around seven this morning texts started coming at me every forty-five seconds from Sarah panicking. Mixed with unnecessary reminder texts from Zella, as she keeps asking about things that I have either already taken care of or they’re on my radar, the buzz of my phone every ninety seconds has made my jaw so tense I could give the Tin Man a run for his money. It’s an intense pressure. I’m used to it, but Sarah is not.
Sarah’s sheer terror stems from working for our boss. Ahem. Sorry, I mean the founder and CEO of Tremaine Events. “Madame” as she is called behind her back, who dubiously signs my paychecks, while complaining she pays me too much. Gizella Tremaine, or “Zella” as she prefers to be called, would burn anyone with death rays from her eyes if they called her “boss,” or “ma’am.” It’s true. I’ve witnessed this many times. Zella is one of the most sought after event planners in New York City, or so she tells every client who calls her to plan their big day. At first, I drank the Kool-aid and thought Tremaine Events was the best event company in town. Don’t get me wrong, Tremaine Events is a highly sought-after, premier company in the five boroughs – even if Zella will really only work in two, and sometimes in Connecticut or New Jersey if the fee or client profile is high enough. But don’t tell anyone I said that—Zella to any potential client or referral saccharinely “always considers every client and wants to make sure that the chemistry is the best before a contract is on the table.” Chemistry. Ha. More like logistics and economics. But I digress.
Where were we? Ah yes. Zella micromanaging via text from whereabouts unknown; Sarah panicking up on the twenty-first floor with the bandleader and head waiter putting pressure on her about when to start the music and serve the first course; and me sweating like a nun in a cucumber field, while trying to herd the guests upstairs. Oh, how I want a calm moment to breathe right now. “Breathing is for Mondays,” Zella always replies when I say I need a breath. I roll my eyes to this exchange in my head. Mondays after events are supposed to be our days off, but they rarely are. Planning is never-ending. Especially between March and October, otherwise known as “Wedding Season.” I step around the corner, close my eyes, and partially to spite Zella and partly to calm myself, and I take a deep breath.
Then genius strikes. I now know how to clear the room. Jumping into action, I dash over to the jazz quartet and tell them to cut the music. Then I wiggle my way through twenty people to cross ten feet to the bar and tell the bartenders they are closed and to refer anyone requesting a drink to head upstairs. Then I have the waiters stealthily remove the shrimp and caviar. All without guests noticing. All while answering the continual barrage of texts.
In a record seven minutes I got every guest up to the ballroom. Meanwhile Sarah got wine service and dancing music started. Zella, who had only been an omnipotent presence via text for the last hour, resurfaced laughing with the bride and groom. They came toward the third-floor elevators. She must have been schmoozing, excuse me, “seeing to their needs before going upstairs, giving them a calm moment before being congratulated on looking magnificent and being newly wedded.” She says this so often, I have it memorized. The woman is a better actress than most Broadway actors I know who have had long term contracts. Her whole song and dance is a well plotted play. I honestly don’t know if she likes the planning so much as she likes the pageantry.
To be fair, she has trained me well to be a supporting actor for this performance. In fact, a wedding is a pop-up one-day show that I have become incredibly good at. Long hours of planning and replanning help to lay the groundwork for our twelve to fourteen hours onsite. Anything can go wrong at any time, and it usually does. The trick is to fix it or smooth it over so the bride and groom never see it and have the best day of their lives. A meticulous eye and a cool head are required. A flower petal out of place or a mispositioning of a name card could derail perfection. It sounds dramatic, but I can’t tell you how many times one person noticed, told the bride, and then she’s upset about it for the entire evening. Extravagance like this has to also be perfection. Once I rearranged the escort cards fourteen times because of incorrect spacing. Three hundred cards readjusted fourteen times. I still have nightmares.
I know you’re thinking most of the weddings you have been to the details weren’t that important, they were beautiful and that you would notice if things went wrong. But that wasn’t the case. Like a duck on the water, you saw only the smooth sailing, but under the water the legs of the duck kept paddling. In the background, we don’t stop moving either. Good events are well oiled machines with things like the cake delivered to the venue just at the right time so it doesn’t have to go in the refrigerator, but also can sit out for five hours before it's cut—this way the icing doesn’t melt, the cake doesn’t get dry and it’s delicious. Placement of the final flower two minutes before the guests walk into the room, all while the lighting designer is figuring out how to wash the room in a romantic light to highlight the work of the decor team.
Oh, while I’m talking about light, candles are a terrible idea. Sure, they look nice, but they have to be lit at the very last minute and very carefully because they melt quickly and tend to blow out. Try lighting two hundred candles as fast as you can, I’ve gotten it down to five minutes.
Basically, for everything to look like it's easy and no work at all, a pre-established wedding itinerary timed down to the minute, that took weeks to prepare will ensure perfection and precision in everything in the hour’s guests are present. Sheer choreography of everyone on site is required so the day runs as smooth as possible.
Speaking of running smoothly, the twenty-two minutes we are now behind have me sweat soaked and hands tied. In order for everything to stay smooth tonight we need to get that time back. And there are twenty-two unread texts from Sarah, one for each minute we are behind. The band wanted to start the first dance, but the bride and groom were missing.
During cocktail hour the bride and groom had disappeared, which Zella had been texting about. Zella had finally found the couple in the back room doing shots with the best man and the maid of honor. Ben, the photographer from Precision Studios, had also found them and snapped photos of the drinking. Zella vehemently commanded through more texting that I would need to email Ben on Monday to request those shots not go into the online photo album. The groom’s parents are both sober, and the bride’s mother is a devout Presbyterian. To put out this fire, I have already started to compose the email to Ben while I’ve been waiting.
“Putting out fires” should be a special skill on my resume. Actually, I don’t just put them out, I anticipate them, run and throw myself on them, preventing the flare up the moment a spark happens. Many brides after their wedding have said something like, “Wow, this was an easy night for you, my wedding went so smoothly.” I will always smile and agree even though I managed to solve or deflect dozens of issues during their party.
My current fire is the photographer, not only for taking the alcohol dousing photos, but absorbing all the time to get the iconic photo: the couple alone in the candle lit hallway sharing an intimate glance. Or a kiss. Very romantic. Very hard to get during cocktail hour while it is crowded, the iconic shot is taken after the guests leave cocktail hour before the décor crew dismantle all of it. Now is the time. I take another deep breath while channeling as much patience as I can muster.
I text Zella that the hallway is clear, as I hide in the elevator alcove. She texts back that they’re coming, so I can’t move. There isn’t a better place for me to go, as if I step out, I will be in the hallway, and in the picture.
My annoyance was rising. With one hand I smacked the button to keep the elevator in the bank. The St. Regis is after all a working hotel, and we are not the only ones requesting elevators. With the other hand I keep texting Sarah who is now dealing with guests playing with the sword that the St. Regis brought out to cut the cake. She also is getting complaints from guests that they weren’t getting photobooth prints. It is all I can do to hold back my quippy text covering both the swordplay and the photobooth of “Avast me hearty! Sing to them in a princess voice that ‘someday their prints will come.’”
As I pace the six-foot square space of the elevator alcove, my shoes squeaking on the marble, I feel imprisoned. Every click of the camera feels like one more brick of anxiety piling up on my shoulders. I check my watch. We are now almost thirty minutes behind. If we have any hope of getting back on schedule: the kitchen has to serve dinner before the best man can do his twenty-minute speech complete with slides and a flash mob. I needed to get the bride and groom upstairs to start their first dance. This would calm Sarah, and would hopefully curtail her stress filled texts, chirping every thirty seconds asking the ETA of the bride and groom.
I text Zella:
ZT we need to get the B&G upstairs.
We use shorthand as much as possible. “ZT” being Zella Tremaine and “B&G” being bride and groom. We’ve used shorthand so much, autocorrect does it for me. BUZZ. Sarah to me:
Photobooth operator says they only purchased the digital package. But guests don’t want to just email pictures to themselves.
BUZZ Sarah again:
But he says that if they agree, he brought the printer. BUZZ Sarah again:
But it will cost an additional $300.
DING. Elevator. I hit the button.
BUZZ. Zella to me:
Zella operates in a life of such intensity that everything is all caps.
BUZZ. Sarah to me:
WHAT DO I DO?
Great. Now Sarah is in all caps. She WAS learning something from Zella. I rolled my eyes.
BUZZ. Sarah to both Zella and me:
Bandleader wants to know when the bride and groom are coming?
BUZZ. Sarah to both:
Do we go into a new dance set?
BUZZ. Sarah to both:
They’re playing with the sword again.
BUZZ. Sarah to both:
BUZZ. Sarah to both:
Not the band. The band doesn’t have the sword. BUZZ. Sarah to both:
Any word on the ok for the extra charge for the photobooth?
See what I mean? Sarah needed to chill. I was just about to text her that when:
BUZZ. Zella to both:
Natalie, why aren’t you handling this?
Zella had probably forgotten that I wasn’t running things and didn’t realize I was in the elevator alcove waiting. BUZZ. Sarah to both:
It’s ok ZT. I’ll figure it out.
BUZZ. Sarah to just me:
DING. Elevator again. I hit the button.
Squaring my shoulders, I decide to take the reins. Sarah was ready, but the girl needed to breathe.
Me to Sarah:
STOP. One problem at a time. Have the Maitre ‘D take the sword back to the kitchen until the cake cutting at 10:30. Tell the band it will be ten more minutes and to play another dance set. I’ll confirm on the printer, but it’s probably a yes. Take care of the band and sword. By the time you’re done, I’ll have an answer.
BUZZ. Sarah to just me:
BUZZ. Sarah to just me:
Me to Sarah:
Breathe. You’ve got this. I believe in you.
Me to both:
ZT can we get a firm yes on $300 more for photo booth prints?
Why is it when you need an answer it takes an eternity to get one. Ellipsis from Zella. Those rippling three dots indicating a text is on its way are probably the most irritating things in the world. My impatience is spurred on even more with the irritating click of the camera and the ding of the elevator. So I do the unthinkable. I peek my head out.
“GET OUT!” The loud hiss is flung in my direction from a doorway across from my hiding place. I shrink back into the elevator alcove as my phone buzzes in my hand. BUZZ. Zella to both:
I really hated it when she wasn’t specific. From experience, I knew that if I screwed up or read into a text she had sent, it would be my fault later. Luckily, I had learned to ask a precise question, so I could show her the proof later. My text asked for a firm yes, and she gave one to both Sarah and me. I take a screenshot, for good measure. Then I text Sarah:
[Thumbs up emoji] photo booth prints. I’ll try to get B&G upstairs in 5 min or less.
BUZZ. Sarah to just me:
BUZZ. Sarah to just me:
How do you do this each time? The pressure is killing me!! I’m sweating like I’m wearing a puffy coat on a humid summer day!!!
I smirk to myself.
Me to Sarah:
Magic deodorant. And DEEP BREATHS.
More silence. Irritated that the photographer was still snapping, I really wanted to hurry things along. I wonder if I should peek my head out again?
DING. The elevator again. With all the irritation I am feeling, I smack the button.
In an effort to be productive while I am a glorified elevator operator, my head spins through how to get the schedule back on track. Over the last three months, I had spent many grueling hours going back and forth over today’s schedule with care and precision. Normally I would use my amazingly timed, comprehensive outline Zella and I had perfected. So many venues and vendors complimented us on our schedule.
Even though we rarely strayed from our wedding equation, Zella always wanted to edit my work. We had built a good skeleton that allowed for cushion time for delays such as this photography moment, missing bridal party members who are supposed to give a toast, or a serve out of a course that took too long.
Unfortunately, this bride’s favorite hobby was micromanaging. She wanted the timing of the evening to be tighter, with a long dance set at the end of the night after the cake is cut. Big mistake. Huge. Once the cake is cut, everyone leaves. It’s the cue to depart. Insider tip: if you want people to stay all night, wait as long as possible to cut the cake. Now we have no choice; we will just have to push back the cake cutting.
I smile to myself and relish being right. Last week this bride screamed through her cell phone at me, in one of many bridezilla moments I’d dealt with. She insisted I kept screwing up her wedding schedule. So, I was not about to tell her that we were behind schedule right now. If we had just stuck to my original plan, we would be fine. If the bride asks, I will let Zella tell her. Usually in the moment, everyone gives complete trust to Zella and “her timing.” Or really, my timing.
If I just could get them all on the elevator and upstairs, I could coach Sarah how to get this all fixed. I said a silent prayer that they would come through the door in the next sixty seconds before Sarah texted me again.
DING. I pressed the button for the elevator.
Barely nudging my head out of the alcove door my voice comes out in a sing-song tension, “I’m holding the elevator, just let me know when you're ready.”
“GET. OUT. OF. THE. SHOT.” Irritation spewed from Zella with the brutality of Attila the Hun. This tone means there might be a beheading soon. Morbidly curious, I peek out with my head again. A waiter scurried down the hall in the opposite direction.
BUZZ. Sarah to me:
It’s been ten minutes. Extend the dance set again? Just as I was about to send my reply, the photographer burst through the elevator alcove doors towards me. With militaristic precision Ben whipped the camera lens toward the bride and groom with paparazzi-like nonstop snapping pictures.
Plastering a beauty pageant-worthy smile on my face, I punched the button for the elevator again and the doors open immediately. Thank goodness for the little things. Gazelle like Ben jumps into the awaiting elevator. Immediately followed by the groom with hair as slick and shiny as his shoes. A crimson-colored pocket square to match the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses and the invitations, blossoms from his chest. Complaining about his tie not being straight.
To myself I think the tie is straight—the man wearing it is questionable. That later discovery would be for his gym bunny bride, currently clinging to his arm and tottering behind him in her four-inch Jimmy Choo’s. Surprisingly she is calm and unfussy for the first time in six months and is beaming in her white lace and silk twenty-five-thousand dollar Monique Lhuillier that came complete with its letter of authenticity. Years in the industry and I’m still confused about what one is supposed to do with a certificate of authenticity for a wedding dress. Does it get framed and put on the wall next to a college diploma?
Speaking of confused, the willfully blind couple, solely focused on appearance, hops into the elevator. Oblivious that they are still the center of attention, she yanks up the bodice of her dress while he fixes her flyaway hair. Camera clicking continues catching it all including the couple simultaneously baring their teeth to check for food. This Discovery Channel primate documentary moment is one we see in some form at every wedding. It never ceases to make me bubble with happiness. I have a small collection of what I called “documentary wedding pictures” in an album in The Cloud saved for when I needed uplifting. This would be an addition.
My phone buzzes again. I don’t even have to look to know it is Sarah. “Um, Zella?” I say with a strained smile and a nervous titter, “The band is wondering if they should start another dance set, or if we are on our way?”
“Yes. We should go,” Zella coos with authority as if the brilliant idea had just come to her. Those four words spoken in her origin-less haughty accent is enough to urge the most stubborn to move. She glides onto the elevator as if she is one of the most important guests. In her mind, I guess she always is. Stepping back, I don’t get in the elevator. I know Zella loathes it when we both are on the elevator with the client at the same time. She always says too many crew is overwhelming, although I know differently. Besides the capacity of the elevator is six people, and the wedding dress takes up space for two. I am happy to wait.
As if I am a ride host for a children’s theme park, I smile and wave. “I’ll see you all up there!” I say feeling like I am almost in the clear as the elevator doors close.
Just then Mick Anders, the head of the St. Regis Event department, in his freshly tanned, million-dollar smiling way, eases past me and onto the elevator. Mick immediately hits the door open button, and the doors retreat to their casings.
“There’s enough room,” his voice like a delicious cognac flirtatiously wafts through the air. “Join us.” He beams at me.
“Nah, it’s okay,” I say, “I’ll get the next one,” blushing a bit as I step backwards. Although it is a tiny glint, I catch Zella's approval. But then the unthinkable happens: the bride and the groom cheerfully shift to make more room.
“There absolutely is room,” the groom joyfully expresses, as if my presence in the elevator would make everything more perfect.
Confused, I wait for an objection from Zella. Everyone keeps smiling at me through the open door. Time ticks on. I will the elevator doors shut so I won’t have to make the choice. No objection comes. Mick then hits the doors open button. I wince a smile and step toward the threshold.
Suddenly, “NOOO!!” vehemently echoes through the air.
Everything goes into slow motion. As my foot crosses into the car, a hand comes toward my chest. Zella's eyes are crimson with angry disapproval. Then THWACK. Her hand strikes me squarely in the sternum. My breath and balance are knocked away. Adrenaline and survival mode kick in. The marble floor of the St. Regis was not something I wanted to fall on. Heaving myself upright, I try to regain my balance. I overcorrected and start to fall into the bride. Her face of terror sears my brain.
To avoid falling into the dress, I twist and try to veer left to fall on the wall of the elevator. But I gauged the distance incorrectly and wobble toward the groom. With no other choice, I topple out of the elevator.
During my human pinball routine, a barking cackle echoes through the vestibule. Zella's famous laugh makes me panic more, but also seems incredibly wrong for this situation as my knees and hands slap onto the marble floor.
Pain sears through my body, and not wanting to register any of it because I don’t want to ruin the bride’s day, I shake my head to get rid of the laughter and the pain, hoping it is just in my mind. But I doubt it is.
Stupefied, but trained both by Zella and my theater education I know the show must go on. My phone buzzes impatiently with yet another text from Sarah, unable to refrain from having a massive anxiety attack seventeen floors above. I crawl on my knees to clear my feet from the elevator, trying to say as undramatically as possible over my shoulder, “I’m fine, just go on without me!” Plastering on a smile, holding back tears, I reassure, “I’m totally fine!”
The barking laughter had stopped, and Zella says with a dismissive wave, “She’s fine. Let’s go.” And she smacks the door close button.
My knees throb. The doors ding shut. The elevator ascends. Taking a deep breath as I lean back on my feet, I gather my wits and assess for injury. I slowly stand up and regain my stability. The fall replays in my mind. Zella’s cackle echoes through my head. She was regularly hurtful and insensitive, but this was a new level. My phone irritatingly buzzes again with a text from Sarah. I do the unthinkable: I ignore it.
For three years, I had been available 24/7, obedient under impossible circumstances. I had walked out of dinners and parties to answer her calls; I had given up weekends; I had even ordered photo albums from airplanes when I was heading on vacation. I put up with being yelled at, ignored, and thrown under the bus to brides and vendors by this woman. But being literally thrown to the ground was a new level of abuse. Sure, this job seemed glamorous, but I had given everything to a woman who just shoved me out an elevator and laughed as if I were entertainment. But what could I do about it? I had been saying for months under my breath that I needed to walk away from this job. This was after years of feeling daily like I was going to be fired.
But I was done. This was the last straw. I couldn’t just quit in the middle of a wedding, could I?