By JILL ROSENFELD
The House of Blues was grooving its way through a Monday evening, when the situation in the ladies’ room suddenly turned dire.
A customer, dressed in a low-cut beige leotard and shawl skirt, had come hurrying into the bathroom and stood pressing her tan legs together urgently.
That’s when Margie Butler, the robust bathroom attendant, swung into action. She rapped her knuckles on one of the stalls. “Someone hurry up,” she said. “We got someone doing the pee dance out here.”
Customer service is a priority for Butler, whose income for the night depends solely on tips. Butler is on the roster at Stan’s Quick Grooming Agency, which sends attendants to clubs and catered events across Los Angeles County.
Summer is the height of Stan’s season, when tourists crowd clubs and restaurants (business also picks up around Christmas). On an average Friday night, Stan’s will have attendants in such places as the Universal CityWalk and the Conga Room. Stan’s also handles the Academy Awards, American Music Awards and the Grammys.
Stan Harrell started his business in 1988, and now runs it out of a Culver City office with two other employees. The fee is negotiable, Harrell said, but on average it may run $20 per person per six-hour shift.
He often partners with catering companies, providing bathroom attendants for private events.
Technically, Margie Butler and others like her are not employees. They wear smocks with nametags provided by the agency, post official-looking agency signs in the bathroom, and are trained (Butler apprenticed at the Hollywood Athletic Club) by the agency. But they are not paid by Stan’s, and they purchase their own supplies, although Stan’s carries liability insurance for the workers.
One of the advantages of the service is that attendants “discourage illegal substance abuse” in the bathrooms of establishments where they work, said Heike O’Donnell, general manager at Barfly, who described her experience with Stan’s as “wonderful.” Attendants make sure that only one person goes into a stall at a time, replace spent toilet paper rolls, and keep sink areas neat.
What sets his attendants apart? “We put personalities in the bathrooms,” Harrell said. “They are there to pamper the guests. Some places just have a few items out and a person cleaning up, but they don’t relate to the guests. We’re a different operation altogether.”
Butler, who presides over the tiny, boisterous upstairs bathroom at the House of Blues, is nothing if not a personality. Every night she burns incense “Butt Naked” is the name of the scent, in case anyone’s wondering and she keeps up a friendly banter with the women standing in line.
“I’d never seen so many boob jobs in my life before I started working in these clubs,” Butler said.
As guests exit the stalls and approach the wash basins, Butler offers them a squirt of soap from a bottle she carries, and a paper towel from a stack she keeps tucked under her arm. “Here you go, girlfriend,” she says, passing them a towel. They tip her in change or dollar bills, with the very occasional five-spot.
It’s not easy work, said William Scott, who works in the men’s room at the House of Blues. Scott supplements his Social Security check by working for Stan’s.
“Most of the people who do this business are older people who have to stand all night,” he said. “You’re walking on concrete and passing out towels and soap and trying to influence people to give you a tip. And you are just as tired the nights you make $12 as the nights you make $40.”
Butler, a former receptionist for the Church of God Pentecostal in Inglewood, got tired of the office politics and now works solely for Stan’s. “And I collect unemployment,” she added delightedly.
As she spoke, a blonde guest in a sleeveless dress finished washing up. “I am so sweaty,” she remarked, fanning herself.
“Honey, if you want a man, you can’t be smelling bad,” Butler said, and offered her a can of deodorant. “Men don’t want no smelly women.”
The blonde gave herself a spritz under each arm. “Great, now I’ve fixed myself up for a guy I don’t even like,” she said, and dropped a couple of bucks in the tip bowl.
Later, Butler explained her economic strategy. “You have to know how to make that money. You can’t sit here all quiet and reserved.” On one exceptional occasion, Butler made $400 in an evening. Most nights she averages under $100.
“The biggest tippers are ordinary people,” she said. “Celebrities are the cheapest.”
But not everyone is as sales-oriented or as energetic as Butler. The scene was much quieter (and less lucrative) downstairs, in a capacious bathroom on the House of Blues’ lowest level. There, Florence Popoola leaned against the wall at the far end of a long row of sinks; her Aquanet, Glow & Go nail polish, and Wild Country antiperspirant seemed to sit unnoticed. Guests whisked into stalls, and whisked out again, without a glance in her direction.
Popoola, who emigrated to Los Angeles 19 years ago from Nigeria, recently opened a shoe and handbag boutique in Hawthorne, and needs the extra income. She says she makes about $50 in tips per night.
A fresh-faced young woman came over and peered at Popoola’s candy bowl. “Can I take one?” she asked.
“Yeah,” said Popoola. The young woman plucked a mint from the bowl and then left, without leaving any money.
“Sometimes they use your stuff and don’t tip you,” Popoola said. “And you can’t say anything.” The products that the attendants bring are offered as a courtesy, strictly free of charge.
Alvin Ragland, meanwhile, was working the adjacent men’s room. He said he averages $60 per night, money he uses to supplement his income from an antique store he owns.
Ragland refused to divulge any men’s room secrets, however. “A bathroom attendant never breaks a confidence,” he said.