The Pink Palace
Suzanne S. Baker
Writer’s comment: The time that I spent at the Pink Palace was four long summers ago and this essay has been brewing in my head ever since. The people I met and the resort itself are far too interesting not to immortalize, and I’m thankful that I wrote about it before the entire experience declined into a faded memory. The funny thing is, I remember the summer as a good time, but when I sat down at my computer, disgust and cynicism seemed to predominate. Admittedly, I focused on the negative aspects to make a point, but the entire account is true. I simply couldn’t fit all the details into the piece. The Pink Palace is even more bizarre and surrealistic than I let on in this essay. The things I left out are unprintable, almost unthinkable.
Jayne Walker helped me tremendously in realizing the potential of this essay.
—Suzanne S. Baker
Instructor’s comment: My first major assignment in English 101 (Advanced Composition) challenges the students to write a first-person report that brings to life a social “world” unfamiliar to their readers. This “world” can be as close to home as their workplace or the neighborhood where they grew up or as exotic as Suzanne Baker’s “The Pink Palace.” Challenged to “show,” not simply to “tell,” Suzanne combined powerful descriptions of a sordid reality with a mature reflective style that tranforms this very raw material of experience into art.
With this piece, Suzanne has also shown that she possesses, in abundance, the talent to fulfill her dream of becoming a travel writer.
—Jayne Walker, English Department
It is the lawlessness of Greece that attracts both travelers and outcasts. They arrive on ferry boats with the eagerness of immigrants, drunk with notions of escape and pleasure. This hedonistic lure of the Greek islands is far removed from the academic splendor of mainland Europe. In myth, Greece is a land ruled by the selfish whimsy of the gods, and this climate of self-indulgence blows across the Ionian island of Corfu like a frolicking wind.
Teetering, as it does, on the far edge of western civilization, Corfu presents itself as a haven or a refuge, depending on one’s orientation as traveler or derelict. Here, travelers can live out their adolescent fantasies and outcasts can be gods. The playground of these gods, the Mount Olympus of debauchery, spills down the steep east coast of Corfu like a glob of Pepto Bismol—the Pink Palace.
I came to the Pink Palace in late May, one of a steady trickle of off-season travelers who had arrived just in time to enjoy the last of the cool nights before the torrent of peak season vacationers, drawn by the summer heat, filled the island to capacity. The last leg of a nine-month solo expedition through Europe, the Pink Palace was my last indulgence in freedom before I flew home to start college. On paper, the resort looked like Paradise—the very brochure seemed saturated with ambrosia. Pictures of gleeful scuba divers, vast cliffs that fell into the Ionian Sea and sunny rooms lured me from the mainland. But the brochure’s utopian promise—”Ideally situated on the sands of Agios Gordios beach, the Palace assures a stay that you’ll never forget”—turned out to be, at best, a euphemistic appraisal of the jarring reality that awaited me.
* * * * * *
The Pink Palace was a glaring twentieth-century smear on an otherwise primitive landscape. At night, the profusion of light and music that came from the resort was as obnoxious and out of place as the sickly pink stucco structure that scarred the green hillside. Self-indulgence came in liquid form at the Pink Palace, with names like Ouzo, Blowjobs, B-52s, Kamikazes, and Alabama Slammers. Having dutifully saturated themselves with the culture of the mainland, my fellow guests now allowed themselves the corporeal pleasure of drunken oblivion. By day, aerobicised girls whizzed through the streets on rented candy-pink mopeds, their bikini strings flapping behind them. I could have been in Fort Lauderdale, except for the fact that the Palace was surrounded by a network of narrow dirt roads, trudging donkeys, and dim, chaotic general stores run by swarthy merchants.
The young foreigners who lived and worked within those pink walls were the real tourist attraction. They had a preternatural glow that eclipsed even the knobby rock formations of Agios Gordios beach. This incandescence manifested itself in a curious lack of the deference that usually defines patron/employee relationships. In fact, the staff seemed peeved that they had to stop drinking long enough to feed us or clean our rooms. They attended to our needs with the lassitude of gods who have been grudgingly assigned to day-care duty at Mount Olympus.
Tan and blasé, the staff sauntered through sunbathing guests like top-billed stars weaving through insignificant movie extras on a Hollywood set. We forgave this offense. As that infectious langour particular to Greece dripped from the sun into our pores and settled in our veins, awe replaced insult and we began to regard the staff as human incarnations of this honeyed lethargy. It didn’t matter that our omelettes were either burned or running off the plate—after all, why should such deities of leisure know how to cook eggs?
Whether claiming a watery omelette from a cursing, scornful kitchen worker or ordering a screwdriver from the haughty bartender in the disco, I approached staff members with giddy trepidation. The first time I bought cigarettes from Lucinda Barfoot-Saunt, the strolling cigarette vendor, was no exception. “Wouldja like regular assholes or Lights?” she asked me, bastardizing the brand name Assos with characteristic staff crudeness. As Lucinda handed me a pack of Assos Lights, her eyes returned again and again to my nose ring. I could sense her unshakeable disdain faltering as she coolly asked me where I had gotten my nose pierced. As I answered her questions, her attitude toward me warmed perceptibly. A candid curiosity replaced her previous condescension. In fact, Lucinda looked more like Benny Hill than Mighty Aphrodite, her complexion closer to ruddy oatmeal than classic alabaster. And when she told me in choppy Cockney, “You can call me Barfie, everyone does,” the pedestal that I had placed her on fell to rubble at her feet.
Comforted by her abrupt fall from grace and encouraged by her friendliness, I asked Barfie how she had come to the Pink Palace. It turned out she was merely seventeen—a runaway from Gloucester, England, whose father had kicked her out of the house when she was arrested “for stealing a bloody ‘airdryer, right?” With typical teenage bravado, Barfie informed me that she “couldn’t be bothered with school,” so she drifted the European runaway circuit down to southern France, where she made a decent living washing windshields at stoplights in Nice. But when she heard that the Pink Palace “was the place to laze in the sun and get shitty,” Barfie hopped on the first available ferry bound for the Ionian Islands.
Hardly a past befitting a god, Barfie’s sordid history provided the initial hairline crack in my illusions of the mythic self-confidence of the staff. This fissure split ever wider when Barfie introduced me to Ross and Dave, the resident moped mechanics. My curiosity piqued, I asked these two the same question I had posed to Barfie. Ross’s voice drawled smooth as a nighttime disc jockey, but he sucked down cigarettes with nervous ferocity, lighting a string of fresh smokes from butts that became little more than frayed, fibrous lumps rolling between his anxious fingers. Ross told me that not even in Corfu did he feel safe from the threat of his father, who had vowed to kill him upon his release from a British prison in August. Dave, one of the few Swedes on staff, was reserved and far less confiding than Barfie and Ross. He kept his Nordic distance as he shyly told me that he used to live with his girlfriend in Stockholm. One night in April, he went around the corner to buy smokes and “somehow” ended up a third of the way to the equator, at the Pink Palace. Dave was friendly enough, but he seemed so skittish that I felt it wrong to ask him to elaborate on this tantalizingly incomplete story.
Once the disdainful facades of Barfie, Ross, and Dave had been punctured, I began to suspect an ugly truth behind the godly mystique of the entire staff. Rather than being repelled by this disillusionment, the decidedly human angst of my new acquaintances both intrigued and strangely comforted me. I felt more allied with their jaded cynicism than with the insipid frivolity of the guests. In fact, a desperate anxiety gripped me at the thought of leaving that never-never land at the end of the week. Ahead of me lay plane flights and customs, cities and parents, and looming behind it all, college. So, at the urging of Barfie and Ross, I decided to hole up at the Pink Palace for the summer and asked to be put on staff.
My request for a job couldn’t have come at a better time. With the frenzied tourist season threatening, the owner, George, began recruiting guests at the rate of two or three a day. So I cleared out of my sparkling beachside room, strapped on my backpack, and began to climb the steep hill from the beach to the staff quarters. Wheezing and coughing, I arrived at my new home as “Welcome to the Jungle” was pounding out of a second-story bathroom window. Axl Rose’s shrieking falsetto was the last sound I heard before I began a spiraling descent from paradise to the netherworld.
* * * * * * *
The bubble-gum pink stucco of the resort, so airy and frivolous in the pristine guest areas, was a garish backdrop to the tenement house atmosphere of the staff quarters. Two leaky pipes trailed rusty streaks down the pink walls. Sculptural heaps of beer, wine, and soda bottles, overflowing ashtrays and lopsided chaise longues littered the patio. Makeshift clotheslines strung densely with bikini tops, panties, T-shirts, and boxer shorts made gaudy festoons between crusty windows. And the staff crammed into tiny rooms like the most impoverished of immigrants. My dingy room barely held two bunkbeds, a twin bed, two wardrobes, and a representative cast of misfits—my roommates.
The bunk above me belonged to Debi. The night watchmen would regularly lay her out in a drunken stupor. Although the same age as I was, Debi seemed much older than her nineteen years, probably because of her crotchety disposition and tenacious drinking habits. Debi worked in check-ins, serving shots of pink-tinted ouzo to groups of raucous backpackers that began arriving at 6:30 a.m. By 8:30 breakfast, she had invariably sampled more ouzo than she had poured. Each night Debi faded out under the influence of numerous Freight Trains—a toxic shot of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.
Murphy and Hayden, the maintenance men, shared the other bunk. Murphy was a Scotsman with childlike eyes and a diabolical smile. He typically wore jean shorts cut just below the butt and a black cut-off T-shirt featuring a cow’s head and the pronouncement “Cool as Fuck.” Retsina, a Greek wine aged in pine barrels, was Murphy’s drink of choice, since it was rumored to be hallucinogenic in large quantities. “I miss me drugs, love,” he used to tell me between burps after he had guzzled an entire bottle. Having just finished a three-year prison sentence, Murphy looked forward to each night in the disco with giddy anticipation. To watch his ritualistic grooming for this event was amusement in itself. Standing before our bathroom mirror, Murphy would grease his thinning hair into a limp ponytail, step back and pivot—back and forth, right foot forward, now left—winking and pointing at every turn. “Lookin’ hot tonight, yes sirrah,” he would announce to his reflection in his syrupy brogue. “Goin’ to get lucky tonight, yes, sirrah.” Finally, a last wink in the mirror, one tossed to me like a quarter’s tip to a shoeshine boy, and he was out the door with a jaunty sidestep.
His bunkmate, Hayden, had slipped out of the hands of the British police and fled to the Pink Palace to avoid a charge of robbery and assault. Psychotically attractive, Hayden was perpetually “on the wagon,” meaning that he wasn’t allowed to drink. George meted out this punishment when he discovered someone who was too drunk on the job (too drunk usually meant unable to stand up). In an atmosphere where drinking served as a solace, an escape, and a social crutch, being put on the wagon equaled solitary confinement, especially to an admitted alcoholic like Hayden. As a result of his “dry” status, Hayden was always edgily energetic—he had a habit of raking nicotine-stained fingers through a startled shock of hair that looked as if it had been deep-fried in peroxide. Barechested and chainsmoking, he swung through the resort with manic energy, skidding to an occasional stop in order to introduce him self to shapely female guests.
Dino occupied the twin bed. His uncanny resemblance to Fabio, as well as his high-profile job as bartender, garnered him high status on the staff celebrity scale. Each day, Dino spent his two-hour lunch break tanning and chatting with “select ladies.” Apparently nonchalant, such shmoozing was actually a well-planned means to an end—Dino’s lunchtime flirtations were designed to ensure that he would get laid at the end of each long night.
Dino’s sexual designs invariably worked, and Hayden and Murphy fared just as well. Neither alcohol nor moral qualms could dampen the libido of my male roommates. It was an off night when Dino, Murphy, and Hayden didn’t reap the sexual harvest that their celebrity status afforded them, and I woke countless nights to the squeaking and bumping of three mattresses, each producing its own coital rhythm.
Needless to say, by mid-June, the godly veneer of the staff that had dazzled me in May had been exposed as hollow bravado. My co-workers were cowering refugees rather than Olympian figures. Vindictive and afraid, they had descended on the Pink Palace from Liverpool, Toronto, Stockholm, Melbourne, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, as if drawn to a point of convergence by a sinister common thread—the thread that runs through every derelict who has a chance to become a god. Variously insulted by their homelands, these outlaws found the exotic third-world naiveté of Corfu the ideal place to rise from their own ashes. It’s not a far escape, from the fringe of society to the edge of civilization.
* * * * * * *
Along with the horrific realization that I had badly miscast myself as a Pink Palace staff member came the discovery that the nauseating pink stucco served as a candy-coating of a workplace that was more dictatorship than resort. It wasn’t long after I made that damning leap from guest to staff member that I realized we were in the clutches of a madman. A poster of George that hung behind the bar in the disco had seemed harmless when I noticed it as a guest. It showed George, triumphant (and maniacal to the discerning eye), pointing at his audience in a facsimile of Uncle Sam. Underneath it read, “Dr. George wants you . . . to enjoy a sensational stay at the Pink Palace.” This cheesy allusion to freedom and democracy transformed into a cruel and grotesque irony once I realized that George spent more energy instilling fear in the staff than he did catering to the guests. He ruled as the fiercest of dictators.
Like Hitler and Franco before him, George ruled by creating a climate of fear. Like so much propaganda, an irrational but stringent set of rules was relayed by his henchman, the manager Rick. The first rule was, as George so delicately phrased it, “No staff fucking staff.” Designed to steer us clear from any romantic dramas that might distract us from our duties, this rule instead spurred the passions of amorous staff members, exciting them with notions of forbidden lust.
George’s erratic temper gave us good cause for fear. Reports on George’s moods ran like a furtive current through all staff interactions. There were three factors that determined his mood: how drunk he was, how well the guests were behaving, and how well-fucked he had been by his wife Wendy. We all prayed for Wendy’s horniness.
Of the three, the drunkenness scale was the hardest to gauge. George a little drunk was friendly and affectionate, and we were quick to ask for afternoons off or a cash advance before he downed a few more Jack Daniels shots. We all planned to get drunk ourselves when George, anesthetized and harmless, reached the “fairly liquored” stage. But George blind drunk incited a terror that I’d never known. He flew into violent rages, throwing busboys down stairs if they had a rip in their staff shirts. Veteran staff told me that George had once blown a guest’s kneecap off for starting a brawl in the disco. So much for “the customer’s always right” theory.
One morning I woke at dawn with a start, as one wakes to an earthquake. Fragments of frantic whispers bounced off the walls of my dim room. “Get up . . . don’t be . . . George is . . . go out the back . . . late . . . really drunk . . . go to your own bed!” Dino and Murphy, bleary-eyed and throbbing with hangovers, scrambled around the room, looking for clothes that had been discarded not too many hours before in fits of drunken passion. Still flattened by those notorious Freight Trains, Debi lay comatose in bed. Hayden, who had uncharacteristically slept with a staff member the night before rather than with a groupie, rushed in from an adjoining room through the bathroom and was aimlessly smoothing a musty sheet across his mattress when Rick burst through the door. “No staff fucking in here, right?” Receiving only baleful looks in reply, he nodded absently and charged through the bathroom to continue his reign of terror in the next room. George, belligerently drunk, swayed at the top of the stairs outside, berating anyone who was foolish enough to go out the front door and aiming crooked blows at any male staff who were unfortunately still drunk and late to work. The hubbub had flushed groupies out of every doorway and some windows—trailing bedsheets and last night’s dresses, they scurried down the hill in a hysterical clump.
* * * * * * *
Mercifully, my job in the laundry offered a refuge from such bedlam. Under the direction of George’s mother, I washed, hung, and folded all the sheets. Because I was “Mama’s Little Helper” George left me alone, as long as I did a good job and Mama spoke well of me, which she did. This protection was essential to my peace of mind because I lived in fear of his hunkering frame. Even when his shadow did darken the laundry, I found that he conceded to the authority of his mother and was shyly congenial to me.
“Mama” ran the laundry and was, as Murphy characterized her, “one loony bitch.” I forgave her this—she was a peasant woman, transplanted into an obscene display of capitalism. Gravity had been unkind to Mama: her whole body—chin, shoulders, breasts and hips—sagged towards the ground and even her legs bowed as if to meet the earth. Attired in a calico dress, apron and slippers, with a handkerchief knotted under her whiskery chin, Mama patrolled the laundry with a shuffling gait.
The laundry was the uppermost portion of the Pink Palace grounds, 300 feet above sea level, behind the building where the group check-ins took place five or six times a day. The Greek and Armenian maids plodded a half mile up the hill from the beachfront rooms—the bags of laundry that they balanced on their heads were approximate in shape and size to their squat frames. What scared me were the smaller bags that often dangled from their hands. These meant that some inebriated guest had lost control of his or her body functions and that the sheet was disgustingly and sufficiently soiled as to deserve its own bag. “How many of those assholes shit themselves last night?” the night watchman Pete asked me daily. I was used to this kind of greeting. Since I was the most solitary staff member, both in duties and in temperament, few on the staff had any idea what to talk to me about, and soiled sheets provided a lively topic to ease this social awkwardness. Embarrassing as it was to be known as “the shit-soaker,” I considered myself lucky to be soaking sheets for ten hours every day under Mama’s supervision rather than slaving for twelve to fourteen hours a day under George’s manic eye, like the rest.
The patio where I hung and folded the sheets surveyed the entire cove of Agios Gordios beach, from pine-clad hills above me down to the knobby sandstone towers that punctuated the beach far below. As I draped the airy pink sheets, Mama shambled through the billowing maze, muttering. When she found that I had done something wrong, such as not lining up the corners of the folded sheets precisely, the muttering would crescendo into a shrill rasp of “Suzannah! Putana! Ella!” which, loosely translated, means, “Suzanne, you whore, come here.” Mama had a soft spot for me, putana or not. She would squint up at me with her benevolent blue eyes, touch my nose ring lightly with her bony finger, and croon, “Putana,” in her raspy voice, then erupt into cackling laughter. Sometimes she would offer me some chicken noodle soup, which usually had ants in it, or bread, or maybe some thick, sugary coffee. These nutritional windfalls were a welcome supplement to my steady diet of ouzo, retsina, and cigarettes.
My last day at the Pink Palace, I asked Mama if I could take a picture of her. She shrieked incredulously and shuffled into her kitchen, muttering frantically. I imagined that I had somehow offended her, but she returned to the patio five minutes later, smiling like a toothless debutante. She had taken off her apron and wound a fresh handkerchief around her head, ready to pose for me. Sitting at a table piled with folded sheets, Mama assumed a dignified stance, staring unsmilingly at the camera as I snapped two shots. “There’s a goddess,” I thought as I took the pictures.
I came to the Pink Palace a traveler and left in early September feeling like an outlaw. Of course, if I had truly been an outlaw, I would have stayed with the Pink Palace staff, joining them in their nomadic freedom instead of returning home to start college. The staff was splitting up, beginning their seasonal migration. Ross and Barfie implored me to come with them to Israel, where they intended to find work on a kibbutz. Other staff members planned to meet in Switzerland, to look for jobs in ski resorts. I still dreaded college, but I knew that I was too young to commit myself to a nomadic life.
The frenzy of the tourist season had subsided and the ferry back to Italy was sparsely populated by off-season travelers—a more somber bunch than the hormone-heady summer vacationers. Although I had earned almost 1000 dollars that summer, $700 had gone to my bar tab. The previous night, in his office above the disco, George had counted out fifteen twenty-dollar bills—American currency—and told me with a smile that his mama liked me very much. As I sat on the deck of the ferry, I went over my earnings in my head: $300, a pack-a-day smoking habit, a groaning liver, a malnourished body, a frazzled psyche, and countless phone numbers and addresses of people who never planned to stop running—a roster of misfits. I had not found the Greece of myths—the ambrosia had rotted my liver, the gods and goddesses were drunks, and Zeus himself was a sadistic psychopath with delusions of grandeur.