When it comes to a Jewish Christmas dance, people seem just as eager to leave as they were to get in.
My adventure in the coat-room a few years ago really began when the party ended, providing me with lessons in dance management, as well as in the human condition. It was entertaining to watch, even if I felt like the return counter at Nordstrom.
A few hours of thumping music, smoky air and overpriced drinks erased much of the optimism and many of the smiles partygoers brought to the evening. A handful of happy couples left together. Either they met the right person — or the right person for that night.
At the coat check, Manny, a 60-something "Jack of all trades," took the check ticket, then gave it to me. One of three runners retrieved the coats.
One guy gave back his coat, saying, "Man, that ain't mine."
"This is your ticket. This is the hanger. This is your coat," I said.
"If you say so, dude," he said.
"I hope you're not driving," I said.
A 30-something woman looked at her coat, asking, "This is what I wore tonight?"
"Must be," I said.
I gave a rather rude, intoxicated girl her leather jacket with fur collar asking, "How many dogs died for this coat?"
She glared back.
"You look surprised?" I said to a couple of confused-looking women. "Is that yours?"
"I think so."
"I hope you like it; it's yours."
One girl got hostile when her coat got mixed up on the rack. "Did you give it to someone else, or did someone steal it?" she demanded.
"Nobody stole your coat. It's back here somewhere," I said, inviting her behind the counter. It was there — two hangers away from where it should have been.
Conversely, plenty of people did say "please" and "thank you."
Some even smiled, and the tip jar filled up.
The bar manager and the bartender pestered us to pick up the pace, clean up and leave. Tickets and stubs covered the floor, along with a two-foot pile of hangers.
What to Do?
By 2:15, there was one coat and one guy left.
Ben, a balding guy in his 30s, handed me his ticket.
"You must be the proud owner of this," I said, turning over a black Columbia jacket.
"Thanks," he said, with one arm in a sleeve. "This isn't mine."
"It's the only one left; it has to be yours," I replied back.
We searched the club — every room, under the tables, behind the doors and on the floors. Nothing turned up.
"Whose coat is this then?" asked the manager.
"Probably some drunk's," I said.
"Everybody else got their jackets. We even returned a bag of stuff to some girl. It has to be a drunk's. Only a drunk could go out in 20 degrees without a coat."
"What should I do with it?" he said."Under Hamurabbi's Code, it's 'an eye for an eye, and a coat for a coat.' Let's give it to Ben and call it even," I said, only partly facetiously.
More seriously, I continued: "I don't know what to do. Somehow, somebody mistakenly got his coat, and either didn't realize it or liked it better."
"Write your name down, and I'll keep an eye out for it if somebody comes back with it," said Charlie, the dance's organizer, barely masking a lack of sympathy.
Despite the prospect of losing his coat and walking into sub-freezing temperatures in only a plaid, cotton button-down, Ben was in pretty good spirits.
"Just out of curiosity, how much did you drink tonight," I asked.
"Five or six beers, but I'm not even drunk anymore," he said.
"Are you even sure you had a jacket?" I said.
"I know I had a jacket. What am I going to do? It's freezing, and I just missed the last Metro."
So, Charlie offered him a ride, waiting for Ben to visit the men's room before we left.
I lingered with Charlie, who suddenly became grateful. "I really appreciate your help tonight. I know things got a little hectic, and I yelled and all, but thanks."
In return, I asked: "I'm wondering what happened to the jar of tips from the coat check?"
"Oh, that will be put into the general fund for donations. Why, did you want it? I could give you $20."
His framing of the issue and meager offering put me in an awkward spot. If I said "yes," I was greedy. If I said "no," then I was a fool who spent the night volunteering for a hot-headed ingrate. A portion of the tip jar probably found its way into Manny's pocket.
"Never mind," I said. "I just wanted to make sure that the big box of cash got into the right hands. Not that I don't trust anyone around here, but … "
I guess I was a fool. Then, Ben emerged from the men's room, grinning ear to ear, clutching a black winter jacket. (And for the record, the condition of the men's room was no laughing matter.)
"I found it. It was on the back of the door in the men's room," he said, displaying his prize.
"What was it doing in there?" I said.
"Are you sure it's yours?"
"How did it get there?" Charlie asked me.
"How the hell should I know?" I said.
"This is pretty weird," Ben said as he zipped it up.
"Ben, this is your Christmas miracle, just like a Frank Capra movie!" I announced.
But I was the only one laughing. After all, it was late.
I learned a lot that night — not the least of which how some things magically disappear, only to turn up in another place.
Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer. To contact him, visit: www.Lrev.com.