Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Butler Did It

I say, old boy. I've heard that the the job of butler is back in demand.

And this is no longer Jeeves making sure that Bertie Wooster's spats are buttoned.

No, the job, for at least one new age butler, according to a recent article in The Boston Globe, involves tasks like:

...tinkering with their [his employers'] house's wireless network, taking their silver Porsche Boxster out for its once-a-week spin....loading DVDs in the entertainment center. ..or running over to Charles Street to pick up a pizza at Upper Crust

Since these are all skills I have more or less mastered - especially running over to the Upper Crust on Charles and picking up a pizza (half State House/half sausage, ricotta, and roasted red peppers), butlering is perhaps a career option that I could look into.

But Michael Locke, one of the Boston butlers highlighted in The Globe article, also carries on the traditional butler duties:

"I get great satisfaction out of setting a great table," he says. "Proper linen, crystal, china, silverware, and candles; I use centerpieces, all types of things, all up to me. And when it looks good, it looks good."

Well, this would not be me. My "crystal" is the low-end, no crying if they break wineglasses from Crate and Barrel. My "silver" is the Oneida Paul Revere that my mother ordered for me with coupons off of Betty Crocker boxes 30 years ago. And my candles - which were all stored in a cabinet in our sunbaked kitchen - have all melted into yucky wax blobs.

Not that I can't appreciate it when I see it at someone else's house - I have friends and family who set some pretty fine tables - but it's not something that I'm naturally all that interested in. (There's no doubt a high correlation between hating to cook and having no interest in setting a nice table. I'll bet even Mr. Locke doesn't bring out the best china for Upper Crust pizza.)

It's not surprising to learn that U.S. butlers aren't fully in the frock-coated British tradition. According to Steven Ferrry, an authority on butlering and chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers,

"The American experience doesn't really extend to butlers that much, so they run the whole gamut from formal to completely informal, according to the employer's wishes."

Whether you're looking for formal or informal, the demand for butlers, a.k.a., household managers, is up along with the supply of ultra-rich - those with the inclination and money to hire someone to, say, load those DVD's in the home entertainment center. In fact,

Charles MacPherson, president of his own placement and consulting agency and former head of the International Guild of Professional Butlers, has declared a nationwide butler shortage.

The Guild is going to start a school "to help offset the lack of supply."

Let's hope the school can churn out a graduate in time to help one Beacon Hiller, a VC with two kids, who's looking for someone who can be:

...the center of our universe, coordinating things, paying the bills, and doing special projects, like organizing photos or making sure we buy gifts for the children if they have a birthday party to go to, things like that. It's been tricky finding the right person, because they not only have to be functional, but also have the right personality."

Well, center of the universe terminology aside - shouldn't the kids or your wife or your job be the center of your universe? - what this guy and his wife are looking for someone to offload these tasks onto so that they can spend more time with their kids. But aren't organizing photos and buying going to Toys 'R Us with your kids to pick up birthday presents the sort of things you can actually do with your kids? (This is, actually a question which I understand the answer "No" is truly the right one. Most parents of young kids that I know would be delighted to have someone go out and buy yet another g.d. kid's birthday gift for them. In the good old days, at least in my neighborhood, kids had one or two birthday parties in their lifetime. You invited a dozen of your friends who put on party dresses and came over and played Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs. Winners got prizes that probably cost fifteen cents at Woolworth's - Crayola 8-pack. Knock yourself out. All attendees got a tiny pink plastic basket with a few M&M's and a couple of sticks of gum in it. Cake was made by your mother who, if you were going to someone's birthday party, gave you a dollar and told you to go buy a present at Woolworth's. Today's birthday parties are both more elaborate and more frequent. And the ante is way up on gifts. No wonder there's no time to go buy all those birthday presents.)

In any case, these Beacon Hillers are willing and able to pay from $50k to $90K for someone to run their lives for them. If that isn't the beauty of supply and demand, I don't know what is. (Butlering, according to Ferry, can command up to $250K - plus fringes like a 401K, room and board, and a clothing allowance. Hey, I like shopping for presents for kids. I have a pretty good personality - maybe even the right personality. Is it too late for me to apply?

Maybe not. But maybe. Ferry says you need not only good managerial skills - mine are pretty sound - but familiarity "with high-quality houses, yachts, planes."

Alas, I don't think they're talking the U.S. Air Shuttle here.

Unlike the English version, who were groomed for the job in multi-servant households, most American butlers career-switched from a range of fields. They were chefs, retailers, worked in hotels - all of which makes sense. Another field mentioned is HR. Which I'd have to think about a bit.

Michael Locke, the Back Bay pizza-running, Boxster gunning, butler is, actually, a Brit. But he decidedly did not come up through the formal household ranks.

...Locke grew up in public housing, worked as a cloth finisher in a textile mill, drove trucks, served in the Royal Navy, and was a police officer for 10 years. A few years ago, he married an American woman and moved to the United States.

When he immigrated, he took stock of what he liked and what he was good at, and went to Ohio's Professional Domestic Institute for his credential.

Along with the other butlers/household managers interviewed, Locke really enjoys his work. Which is more than I can say for a lot of people I know who are slogging around in MBA-ish type jobs.

So the profession seems reasonably attractive.

Unfortunately, while I don't mind the idea of tootling around in a Porsche, schlepping out for birthday presents, or paying the bills, I don't actually care that much about the care and feeding of antiques, expensive carpets, fine china, or rich folks. And all the butling jobs seem to entail this.

Plus I'm not sure how much fun it would be taking orders from someone who's too self-consumed to put the DVD in the player. Doesn't it take just as much time to ask someone to do it for you as it does to do it for yourself? "Jeeves, if you could load up Remains of the Day and Atonement for me. I'll call you in later when I need you to hit the Play button."

I may just not be the servant kind. A running joke in our family was someone - I'm not sure whether it was me or my sister - asking one of our brothers whether he wanted a sandwich. When he answered, "Yes," she - or I - said, "Then make it yourself." If I had to put money down, I'd say it was Kath. The odds are somewhat against it being her in that she is an excellent, accomplished, and exceedingly accommodating hostess - while not overly formal, she is definitely among my "fine table" family and friends. But the odds are really stacked against me in that it is highly unlikely that I would have asked my brothers whether they wanted a sandwich to begin with.

If only my great-grandmother Margaret Joyce were still around! Recommendation from her parish priest in hand, she got off the boat from Ireland and took on work as a servant girl in the home of a well-to-do family. She never made it up in the household ranks - instead, she found a boy-o and got married. But I'm sure she could have told me a thing or two about the difference between upstairs and downstairs - and which end of the staircase you'd rather be on.

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