Originally published Dec. 14, 2008
Barbara Jackson has spent every night for the past 18 years at the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton.
Her head has never hit the pillow.
She arrives by MARTA after dark, about the time the bar crowd settles into the cozy lobby lounge for cocktails. Before most of the overnight guests awake and slide their feet into the hotel’s crested slippers, she is napping on the train ride home. But a part of her remains, she says, each time a teaspoon stirs a businessman’s coffee, each time a fork dives into a socialite’s salad.
Five nights a week, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Jackson works in a small room below the hotel’s banquet space — sorting, cleaning, drying and polishing the hotel’s silver. The gleam she leaves behind is her message to guests she never meets. “This is the way I communicate, ” she said.
The Thanksiving-through-New Year’s stretch is typically a hopping time for the Ritz-Carlton. The troubled economy meant advance bookings were down some this year, but the hotel is hosting more last-minute holiday gatherings. That makes for long, busy nights for its silver room attendant, but Jackson isn’t complaining.
“In these days and times, I appreciate having a job, ” she said.
Born in Atlanta into a family with seven children, Jackson recalls everyone busily helping her mother, a homemaker, keep things going while her truck-driver father was on the road. Her designated chore then was ironing, which she dislikes to this day.
She did not grow up using silver, and unlike the brides who book six-figure receptions at the Ritz-Carlton, she didn’t register for a pattern when she married her now ex-husband.
“I wasn’t very wealthy, ” said Jackson, 58. “I had my kids young. I never could afford anything like that. But I’ve never missed what I didn’t have.”
Music passes the time
A graduate of the old H.M. Turner High School, she was working on the housekeeping staff at another hotel when she applied at the Ritz-Carlton in 1990. A weekday job would have conflicted with her worship schedule as a Seventh-day Adventist, so she opted for an opening with overnight hours. She began cleaning espresso machine equipment and moved into the silver room when a job opened there.
The meal she enjoyed with colleagues at a new-employee luncheon remains the only time she’s eaten at the hotel where she works. “It was so elegant, ” she said.
The mother of six adult children and grandmother of 11, Jackson might crack the 5-foot mark standing in her thick-soled work shoes. She’s on her size-6 feet most of the night, so she needs to wear something comfortable.
She hums hymns to herself sometimes to make the nights go by. “My Lord, don’t move my mountain, ” she said, speaking the verse to a favorite old-time spiritual. “But give me the strength to climb.”
‘It’s her baby’
On a recent night, she began her shift as usual by climbing a narrow flight of stairs to the kitchen and taking a service elevator down to the silver room, pushing a tray loaded with flatware and service pieces. She doesn’t have much time for idle chitchat.
“I’m here for the silver, ” she announced to kitchen staffers. Otherwise, conversation with colleagues was limited to pleasantries in the hall on trips to or from the kitchen.
“She takes a lot of pride in her silverware, ” said executive silver steward Woquita Scandrick. “Whenever I ask if she needs help she’ll say, ‘No, I’ve got it.’ It’s her baby.”
The Ritz’s silver collection is a big baby. The banquet inventory includes 35,000 pieces of flatware, along with 25 chafing dishes, 25 coffee urns, 30 punch bowls, 75 butter dishes, 50 bread pans and 70 number stands that are placed on tables so gala patrons know where to sit.
The dining room uses 1,000 more pieces of flatware, plus sugar bowls, demitasse spoons and butter knives.
While a few serving pieces are sterling, the vast majority are silverplate, which is sturdier and less expensive. Ritz-Carlton standards call for every piece to be cleaned and polished every time it’s used.
“It’s a hard job, ” Jackson said as she filled the large silver-room sink with water, preparing to dunk a coffee urn in a silver-cleaning solution. The room has no windows, but three fans help keep the temperature down and make sure the pieces dry quickly — no sense risking water marks. “I can do it through Christ, who strengthens me, ” Jackson said, quoting Scripture.
‘My place is here’
Few of those for whom the silver belle toils are aware of her; even Ritz-Carlton regulars were surprised to learn the hotel had someone polishing silver while most of Atlanta sleeps.
“I know the Ritz is the epitome of old-world class and glamour, but this exceeds my expectations, ” said Mo Akbar, who recently co-chaired the Meal to Remember gala for Meals on Wheels Atlanta.
Pam Murphy chairs an Epilepsy Foundation gala every January at which a crowd of 550 or so goes through plenty of silverware. She never imagined someone was up polishing it in the middle of the night. “I had no idea, ” said Murphy, who said she’ll look for Jackson as her event nears. “I’d love to meet her.”
Food and lifestyle brand consultant Chadwick Boyd, on the other hand, is familiar with the ways of high-end hotels. He’s been attending functions at the Ritz-Carlton for years and salutes the hard work of unseen hands.
“It’s like the Christmas elves, ” he said. “People take it for granted and appreciate it at the same time.”
Jackson’s workday ends just as most people’s begins. She gets home to her two-bedroom townhouse in Clarkston sometime after 7:30 a.m. In her free time she likes to walk around Lenox Square, not necessarily to shop, but to be around people. She often eats in the food court and doesn’t mind cutting her food with plastic forks and knives.
“You can throw it away and keep moving, ” she said.
At work, though, she is enamored of her role in what she calls the Ritz mystique. She smiles as she imagines diners sitting down to the place settings she’s polished, or buffet guests passing the chafing dishes she has left gleaming. “I make sure the silver on that table is something I would want to have on my table, ” she said. “When you come in for a wedding or reception, that might be the first thing you see.”
Would she like to trade places with those who admire her handiwork each day?
“No, I don’t think on it on those terms, ” she said. “I have a place. My place is here.”