After working all day as Principal Secretary for the Step Program at T.C. Williams, Casonja Lee goes to her home in Alexandria to change for her part-time job. For the past four years, Lee has served as one of the supervisors for Unipark, a company which has provided on-site valet and parking services for over 25 years.
Last Friday, she was at Arena Stage, where Unipark provides valet parking for their Opening Night performances. The show was "On the Jump" and Lee was "on the run." With a couple of hundred cars to park in a short time, Lee and her crew of seven attendants really have to hustle. Cars pull up to the front of Arena Stage on Sixth Street in D.C. and are cheerfully greeted by Lee who directs them to pull up and leave their keys.
It's no simple job keeping the cars at bay. With no defined entrance, cars come in from all directions, with many of them not understanding — or pretending not to understand — that the "line starts back there."
Lee is pleasant but firm, telling them that they must go and wait their turn while she keeps the cars moving as quickly as possible. Cars are parked a few blocks away at The Channel Inn Restaurant on Maine Avenue.
This particular evening was incident-free, but Lee remembers other nights that didn't go so smoothly. The incident that stands out most in her mind was the time the key board was picked up by the D.C. Trash Crew.
"The board was leaning against the trash can located in front of the theater and they came to pick up the trash, as they do every Friday night that we're there. We sat there and watched them never thinking that our board was going to be mistaken for trash. By the time we realized, it was too late," said Lee. Fortunately, there were only three sets of keys left on the board. One of the drivers had an extra set of keys, but the other two belonged to Arena Stage board members and had to be driven home to get other keys. Unipark covered the expense of making the coded keys for a Jaguar and a Mercedes.
Lee can laugh about the experience now and said that there really are very few problems. She has never had a stolen car on her watch, just a few fender benders and some keys locked in the car.
"The guys used to just carry Slim Jims, but now that doesn't work on a lot of cars so we have to call a locksmith. I always tell the guys to "remember to take the keys." Guys is used more than figuratively — attendants are typically male. While some women work as valet parkers, they usually don't last the winter. Sixteen is the minimum age for a valet parker, but most of them are college students who need the flexibility. Workers are able to select which jobs they want to do. During the holidays, of course, there is much more demand and they can have as many as 10 jobs in a weekend. Unipark provided the parking for Virginia Commerce Bank's Christmas party, which was held last December in Arlington.
Logistics is a valet parker's biggest headache, especially for large parties where the cars are scattered in various parking spots. If the location isn't properly marked, it can take forever to find the car.
For new jobs, Lee has to go out ahead of time to determine how many attendants they will need. One party that she supervised had as many as 30 attendants to park 500 cars. Another party was a challenge because the women said that all her neighbors hated her and didn't want any cars parked on her street; they had to find parking a few blocks away.
Lee has parked cars at many other facilities in the area, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and several embassies. Katherine Graham, former owner and publisher of the Washington Post, used Unipark's services, as have Ted Kennedy and Chuck Robb.
"I've met quite a few interesting people," said Lee.
The show begins and the cars are parked. Lee and her crew can relax and wait for it to start all over again when the performance ends and guests come looking for their cars. The departure is a little more staggered with some guests leaving immediately after the show and others staying for some part of the Opening Night reception. Lee and her crew are usually finished by midnight.
Inside another group from Alexandria, Splendid Fare Catering, is busy preparing the food for the reception. They are the official caterer for the 2001/2002 Opening Night Receptions. Event Consultant Jerome Javier was on hand to make sure that everything was running smoothly, as was owner Sandra McCloskey.
Caterers have been known to work in less than lavish quarters. At the Arena, they do their prep work in a small walk-through area. Surrounded by pipes, brooms and lighting panel, the crew isn't fazed; they set about doing their preparation professionally and efficiently. As soon as intermission is over and the lobby is cleared, they begin the process of setting up the tables that will serve the platters of delectable appetizers. Last week, they served Citrus and Spice Rubbed Chicken Skewers; Miniature Beef Wellington; Cheese and Paté; Vegetable Crudité; Empanadas; and Artichoke Cheesecake served with herbed pita toasts.
On another table, there were plenty of things for the sweet tooth, including Chocolate Truffle Brownies; Lemon Bars; Mocha Java Bars; Chocolate Cheesecake Squares; White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookies; Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and Chocolate Espresso Chews.
The show ends and the crowd descends, anxious to taste the goodies that are being offered. Javier and his staff ensure that platters are quickly replaced as they are depleted. This is no easy task with a limited space and hungry guests, but they manage to make it all seem effortless.
The speeches are given, food is eaten and it's time to go home. Lee and the staff from Splendid Fare will cross over the bridge to Alexandria knowing that they've completed another successful evening at Arena Stage.