Tuesday, 07 January 2020 14:59
By Stewart White | News
Saratoga’s Best Kept Secret: A Story of Thoroughbreds, Wealth, Relationships and The Black Men & Women Workers at The Saratoga Reading Room

This is the true story of a little piece of American history.

It is the story of a private, but exclusive, members-only club that was inspired by wealthy men and their love of horse racing. It is a true story about a club that is one of the least talked about, yet one of the most prestigious clubs in the world.  So prestigious, not just anyone could walk through these gates.  It’s a private dwelling that hosts some of the wealthiest people in the country, let alone the entire world.

Last, but not least, it is a true story about a small group of black men and women thriving and surviving in a rich white man’s world.It’s a behind-the- scenes story of the workers who were the heart and soul of establishing the Saratoga Reading Room as one of the most historic and best kept secrets in Saratoga Race Course history.

Let the story continue…

 SaratogasBestKeptSecret PhotoCollage

CHAPTER 5: CHANGING TIMES

During the early 80s, staff was continuing to transition. After the success my cousin Sonny and I displayed at being a servers, the staff continued to become younger.More of the old guard didn’t return and again they were replaced by our friends.
They were young local people who lived right here in Saratoga Springs.

Times were again changing at the Reading Room.  Over the years, with Mack, Bill, and Hick not returning, for the first time, we decided to give some of our female friends a chance to become servers at the Reading Room. 

Sandy Williams and Gina Webb, two very beautiful young black women, joined our wait staff.  Again, we were all friends. Sandy had a brother named Chip, who was a great athlete and a really good friend of ours. Sandy was like the sister I never had.  I looked out for her a lot.  I remember covering for her on days she may have been out dancing the night away and couldn’t wake up on time.  Gina was very tall.  She stood about 5’10” and was really good friends with my cousin Carol, and I had known her a long time. They both fit in perfectly. Well, almost perfectly. For some reason, Frankie Johnson, I noticed, gave Gina a hard time. I think she had to get used to the idea of young women being a part of the wait staff for the first time. The men seemed to enjoy them.  I’m not so sure about the women or the wives. Some of the younger male members would constantly vie for their attention. The ladies were asked on occasion to go out and maybe have a drink, or even to go out for dinner.There were three more additions to the wait staff that I have to mention, especially because they were mainstays during this time period at the Reading Room. 

First there was my younger brother James, or J. White, as he was known to all his friends.  James was a tall, 6’4,” very talented and athletic young man.  He was known in town for his basketball exploits and everyone marveled at his windmill slam dunks.He would take care of members seated in the backyard.James loved horse racing.  He particularly loved famous jockey Angel Cordero.  He loved the history of the Reading Room and loved the members he would serve.  He was so knowledgeable about the Reading Room.  He remembered who the members were, where they lived, and how they made their money.  He had built a lot of relationships with some of the members.A really nice lady named Mrs. Poutiatine, who was a Russian Princess, and her son Michael used to adore James.He was their guy when they were at the Reading Room. There was talk of James going to Charleston, SC, to continue working for her. He also had a very close relationship with Stanley Petter of Lexington, Kentucky, as well.They communicated for years after he left the Reading Room until his passing.James became good friends with his son Stanley Jr. too. Mr. Petter had encouraged both James and me for years to write down some of our Reading Room experiences and some of the relationships we had developed with some of the members over the years.  James passed away on March 3, 2016, just days before his 60th birthday.James put up a great fight for four years before, but the Lord didn’t want him to fight any longer and brought him on Home.I wish James was here to be part of this.I feel as if it’s his spirit that is inspiring me.  It’s in his memory that I write this story!!He is so dearly missed, but he will
always be in my heart.

The second person I need to mention was a young man named Nate Lewis. Nate was a smaller man in stature, but what he lacked in size he made up for in speed.Nate was an excellent basketball player, who we used to call “Nate the Skate” after the great NBA player, Nate Archibald.  He was just so fast with the ball.He was like a blur. He would join us on the porch as a server.  Nate was very personable, and it didn’t take long for him to be a hit with the members. To this day, some of us reminisce of Nate spilling that Bloody Mary on a member’s white suit.Maybe not at the time it happened, but later, we had a lot of laughs about it. Nowadays, Nate lives in Atlanta with his wife Andrea.He was like a little brother to us.I can still hear that crazy laugh he had.  He used to call me S White and James, J White. 

During the 80s, things were continuing to change. The Reading Room not only had female servers for the first time, but we also brought in a white person for the first time to be a server. She was a redhead named Jo Ann Walczak,  whose family and ours were extremely close. That was the first time the tradition of having an all-black staff was altered.  She worked the tables inside the Reading Room.  Jo Ann fit right in and did a really good job.  I believe she worked for a period of two years. 

So now there were Sandy, Nate, Gina, and me on the front porch.Sonny and JoAnn were on the inside and J White, Fred, and Tom worked in the yard.We all helped each other out.We would go where we were needed.That made up the serving staff at the Reading Room.The staff in the kitchen included Helen from the old guard, Lou, who had come on board taking Lucille’s place, and Buster.Let me talk a little about Buster.  As I had mentioned, we were a very athletic group.Buster was 6’ 2” and was also known for his basketball abilities.Boy, could he shoot.  Buster and Sonny graduated the same year and the combination of them together on the court was one of the best around.  Buster went on to play at Fulton Montgomery Community College.  One year, they were the nation’s top Juco defensive team in the country. Buster would move from being a dishwasher to becoming the primary food prep in the kitchen. He lasted well in the 2000s at that same position. He actually was the last of our group of black folks who worked at the Reading Room. That means a lot to him even to this day!! Buster now works as an employee for Global Foundries, a processor chip plant for IBM in Malta, NY.

We also brought on a tiny young man from Ecuador by the name of Helanio Hernandez, who reminded us of the character from the hit show Fantasy Island named Tattoo. He looked just like him - so that is what we called him. He was a great addition as well.He was a good worker and we became and still are, great friends. I thought he was black when we first met. Tattoo lives in NYC with his wife, Annaly.  We also brought in a kid named Mike Settles to help in the kitchen. Mike did it all and he fit right in with the rest of us. On May 24, 2015, Mike unexpectedly and sadly passed away at the age of 47 years old.We went through a couple of dishwashers during the 80s.

My man Dave Long, who was also like a brother to me, remained for a bunch of years. Dave was 6’5” with extremely bowed legs.  He was one of the best basketball players in Saratoga.  For a big man, he could really shoot.  Between him and his older brother Jimmy, they were a force on the basketball court. Mr. Petter used to call him “Skywalker.” Originally from New Rochelle, NY, our families became really close. He was a hard worker. We had my uncle Charles Dorsey, who also was part of our crew we hung out with. Charles, who we used to call NC, which was short for “Nigga Charlie” was best known for once putting Tide in the dishwasher instead of Cascade.  What a nightmare!  He had suds pouring out the bottom of the dishwasher. He never was able to live that down. Charlie was from downstate, Kingston, NY.  He stayed a couple of years and was replaced by another of our close friends by the name of Andy Sephas, or Squid, as we used to call him.  Don’t ask me where he got that nickname. Andy was also like a little brother to James and me.  We lived right next door to each other for many years.  Andy is currently happily married to his lovely wife Heather and has two beautiful children. We hired another young local black kid by the name of Russell Duffney as a food prep. We called him Duck. He fit right in with the crew and was a pleasant addition.

We were definitely not an “all work and no play” group. While the older staff was recovering from a long day at work, us youngsters were just getting started. After our shift was over, it was now time to party and party was what we did. There is nothing like Saratoga in the summer.  It was indeed the August Place To Be and we took full advantage of it.  We enjoyed being around each other, we did everything together. We were inseparable. We would go on our breaks together, party hard together, and I mean party hard.  It was nothing for us to get out of work, go hang out at our spot, the Golden Grill until 4-4:30am and be right back to work at 5am in the morning. We were all young and energetic.  That was our routine all summer.  One thing for sure, no matter how much we partied, we knew the importance of making sure we were on top of our games for work.  We had a lot of pride when it came to our jobs at the Reading Room.  We used to cover for each other.  When one person had a rough night, somebody would pick up the slack and cover for them.  We were like a family.  We felt that it was such a privilege to work at such an elite place. A lot of people were very envious of us. It was such a great paying job.  Sure, we would work our asses off, but it was so worth it.  We all had built relationships with some of the high-profile people who were members of the Reading Room, and that helped make it very profitable for all of us. 

I remember going down to the Breeder’s Cup in NYC in the late 80s.There was a busload of bartenders and waiters that were sent down by the Union. There was a huge cocktail party and I was supposed to take drink orders, as well as pick up hors d’oeuvres plates left on the tables. It was so crazy, that because of my affiliation with the Reading Room, all I did while there, was shake hands and converse with all my Reading Room people.I served one drink and mingled with people the entire cocktail party.  I constantly was being asked, “Stewart, what are you doing down here?” I knew so many people there.  It was because of my job as a server at the Reading Room.It was pretty cool that so many important people connected with me. 

During the early 80s a new position materialized.  They added a live-in valet.  He stayed upstairs and was there for whatever a person who stayed upstairs needed.  Larry Pender was a light skinned, smooth talking young man who had just returned from the military.  Larry used to do a multitude of things.  He would chauffeur members around in their cars, pick up dry cleaning, and run to the airport to pick up and drop off members. He was good at what he did. Larry was another one of the group, that was born and bred in Saratoga. He was a close friend who fit right in with the rest of us. 

Being that he was always there for the members, Larry developed an even closer relationship with a few members he cared for on a regular basis.  In the summer of 1985, Larry even had his wedding ceremony done inside the Reading Room.Judge Labelle, our local City Court Judge, who was also a Reading Room member, officiated the ceremony.I don’t know if they have since had weddings there, but I would bet that Larry was the first and only black person ever to have his wedding at the Reading Room. To tell you the truth, we couldn’t believe it was happening. I am sure some of the Reading Room forefathers were rolling in their graves!!  Larry currently is an addiction therapist and motivational speaker and consultant.  He lives in Westchester County.

I had the privilege to also bring my mother, Mary White, aboard as a person who helped prepare and prep food in the kitchen.  My mother was a hard-working mom of three boys and having the opportunity to get her a position in the Reading Room was great. Everyone was paid handsomely, and it was nice to give her a chance to make some of it.  Her fondest memory was having a chance to meet Frank Perdue, owner of Perdue Chicken.  She always used his chicken and was thrilled at the opportunity to meet him.  Of all the prestigious people who came there, it was Mr. Perdue who got her most excited. Unfortunately, Ma White passed away in August of 2018 at the age of 88 years old. I try to keep her memory alive every chance I can. I miss her dearly.

We were also able to hire a couple of young athletic black teenage boys to be our busboys.
Scott Walczak, who was a high school senior and had a great high school football career at Saratoga High School, and Tim Parker, who went on to become Saratoga’s all-time leading scorer in basketball, surpassing Sonny, would at different times be added to our staff.  When Scott left to pursue a career in electronics, Timmy took his place. Timmy would receive a full scholarship to take his basketball talents to Providence College. They both did great jobs and we noticed they took pride in their work. They enjoyed being part of the team and they loved the money they
were making. 

In the 80s, Sonny took a job at GE (General Electric), so his spot opened up. I started working in the school system at the Vo Tech Center.  I became the middleman between students and administration.I handled daily discipline, attendance, and many other student affairs. The great thing for me was I continued to have my summers free and could continue at the Reading Room. Sonny wasn’t as fortunate. He had a full-time job and even though he made appearances to help when needed, an opportunity was given to another close friend of ours by the name of Alvin Watson, or better known to us as Mutt.

Mutt didn’t have a lot of experience as a server. The fact was that he was our friend and we wanted to give him a chance. Mutt picked things up quickly and soon was a very valuable part of our hard-working team. Mutt brought the fun level even higher.He was amazed at the clientele who walked through the gates.

When we first started in the 70s, the servers made their own drinks for the members.  During the 80s, an older gentleman named Al Beard started helping at the bar, making drinks for the servers.  Al was a character.  He used to love to laugh and joke.We loved Al.  Eventually he would take over as our supervisor at the Reading Room. He would make sure the members were well taken care of and as always, did everything he could to make sure they were happy. One thing about Al was that he would really take care of his staff.  He was known for putting aside cases of beer for us.  He would say, “Those two cases of that beer right there, that’s for you and the fellas.”

So there it is, the Black Folk, that throughout the years, made up the working staff at the Reading Room. The cast of characters that made up this unique bunch were a combination of the old and the new.  One thing we all had in common was the realization that we were carrying on decades of tradition of the black worker at the Saratoga Reading Room.  We were very mindful of that.  We were hard workers who loved our jobs, loved working and hanging together, while providing elite service at this prestigious club. We would need all that togetherness, because just when we started getting comfortable as a team, here it comes: Sales Week!!

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