New York's '21' Club Loses a Key Player
"Now, then, my handsome young man," said The Reverend in his warm, deep voice, "we've got to get you back out into the dining room before all those beautiful women you came in with begin to cry." Then he handed me a towel — cloth, not paper — to dry my hands and brushed a few flecks of lint off my blazer with a little whiskbroom. "There you are, young man," he said, "all ready to go out and break more hearts."
The Reverend, whose real name was Lorenzo Marshall Robinson, was a legend in the upscale New York restaurant world. He was not a chef or a restaurateur; he wasn't a wine director or an in-house forager. He was the men's room attendant at the venerable "21" Club on Manhattan's West 52nd Street. And he probably knew more important people — and certainly saw them in more unguarded moments — than any maître d'hôtel in town.
Until the latter years of the 20th century, most white tablecloth restaurants around the country had restroom attendants. These were typically slightly older men or women (this was the era before unisex facilities), often black, sometimes Hispanic. Some of them were quiet, even surly, while others were real characters, developing a patter, flattering their charges, earning themselves handsome tips. The old guard functioned as a kind of temporary valets, turning on water taps to a perfect warm, sometimes squirting soap into hands, proffering towels, whisking away lint, straightening neckties (or whatever the equivalent would be in the ladies' room), even dispensing a mist of expensive cologne for those who wanted it. For their trouble, they'd earn anything from an embarrassed smile to a $20 bill (a dollar or two was the standard tip).
Donna Summer co-wrote and performed her 1983 mega-hit "She Works Hard for the Money" as a tribute to Onetta Johnson, who was the ladies' room attendant at Chasen's, the famous West Hollywood celebrity hangout. As far as I know, nobody ever recorded a musical tribute to The Reverend, but if they had, it wouldn't have had a disco beat. It would have been something smooth and warm, something by Smokey Robinson, or maybe Boz Scaggs. He handed towels to at least five presidents, and when he insisted on turning on the water for Ronald Reagan one evening, Reagan responded by taking off his cufflinks, with the Presidential seal, and presenting them to The Reverend in appreciation.
The Reverend was in fact an ordained Baptist minister with a divinity school degree from Shaw University in North Carolina. There were 39 Baptist ministers in his family, he liked to say, including a great-great-grandfather who built four churches in Florida. He ended up at "21" accidentally. His uncle, Otis Coles — also a minister, known as The Deacon — went to work in the men's room there in 1949. When Coles died in 1989, Robinson called the restaurant to give them the news. Jerry Berns, the restaurant's longtime co-proprietor, got on the phone and said (Robinson once told The New York Times), "Listen, Rev, you've got to come and give us a hand." He did, and ended up liking the job well enough that he stayed on. It was an honor to work at "21," he later said.
Turning on taps for the well-heeled was hardly The Reverend's only pursuit. He was a prominent citizen of Stamford, Conn., where he chaired the local chapter of the NAACP and the Stamford Fair Rent Commission and served for a time as pastor of the Greater Faith Church. For about a decade, he sponsored a bus trip for local high school students down to Shaw University, where he was a trustee, so that they could consider it for college.
In his bailiwick at "21," The Reverend welcomed the rich and famous with equanimity. He handed towels to at least five presidents, and when he insisted on turning on the water for Ronald Reagan one evening, Reagan responded by taking off his cufflinks, bearing the Presidential seal, and presenting them to The Reverend in appreciation. He doubtless wore them well. Even at work, he was a spiffy dresser, in a blindingly white coat stitched with a "21" Club logo over a crisp white shirt with a black necktie; his black shoes were always shined to a high gloss, and he liked to tell his charges, especially the younger ones, that a pair of good, well-shined shoes were one of the most important components of a successful man's wardrobe.
The Reverend had a preacher's authority when he talked, which he did almost constantly, telling stories with a raconteur's flair and flattering his "clients" (as he called them) so extravagantly that they knew he was jiving — "Now, I've heard, young man, that Mr. Brad Pitt will not enter the room if you're already there, because he is cognizant of the fact that all eyes will be on you" — but liked him all the more for it. He could be serious, too, keeping up on the latest news by reading The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and probably several other newspapers on the train in from Stamford every morning — he worked daily from noon until the restaurant closed — and he seemed to recognize almost everybody, even if it was only from a brief stop they'd made in the men's room a year earlier. You always had the feeling that you came away from a brief encounter with him knowing more than you did when you went through his door, or at least feeling a little better about the world. Beyond all that, The Reverend was a genuinely nice guy.
For years, The Reverend assured restaurant patrons that he was going to retire at the age of 65, and maybe move to Delaware, or back to North Carolina where he'd gone to school. He was working still at "21," though, when he died late last week at the age of 71 (no cause has been given) in Stamford. The family's death notice for Robinson, published in the Stamford Advocate, outlined his many community accomplishments, but made no mention of his tenure at "21." It was as if they were ashamed of his nighttime job. I'm pretty sure he wasn't.