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Valet Parkers Hold All the Important Keys in the City

February 28, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ No man is a hero to his parking valet, especially if he’s a congressman.

″Politicians are the worst tippers,″ says Adam Greenberg, an American University student who earns living expenses as a parking valet for black-tie galas and Georgetown dinner parties several nights every week.

″They drive up and say, ‘I’m a congressman - park it close.’ They go to five parties a night, stay for 15 minutes and leave. I guess they only have so much money to go around for tips,″ he says.

Greenberg is one of about 170 part-time employees - most of them college students - who hustle cars for Atlantic Valet Parking, which handles more than 1,000 Washington social events to the tune of $1 million each year.

It’s tough work, waiting outside for hours in rain, snow and numbing winds, only to be stiffed by an abusive drunk whose Mercedes wasn’t purring at the front door the moment he staggers out.

″Then surprise - along comes an old Chevy Nova who pulls out a ten-spot,″ says Marty Janis, the company’s 26-year-old executive director and part owner, who got his start as a valet parker during his senior year at Georgetown University six years ago.

Finding a safe, nearby place to park in a hurry isn’t the valet’s only worry, Janis said.

Although car keys are kept on a locator board at big parties to avoid mishaps, an occasional key is lost or misplaced in the rush. It becomes a nightmare when the missing keys belong to a VIP, which happened to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

″It was very late, and McNamara wasn’t at all happy,″ Janis said. ″We drove him home, got his spare keys and went back. When our guys finally delivered his car, he thanked them and gave them a big tip.″ Janis gets headaches from limousine chauffeurs who block traffic, and high anxiety from little fender scrapes.

″It’s always a lawyer’s car, and they’ll kill you,″ he says. ″They’ll sue for everything, including mental strain.″

Atlantic, the biggest valet parking company in Washington, handles everything from glitzy charity balls for 3,000 guests to one dinner party where the hosts invited another couple and, eager to impress, hired a valet to park their car.

Greenberg, a two-year veteran who works as many as four parties a week, receives a $5 hourly wage and averages $10 in tips for a night’s work.

Valet parkers are instructed to obey parking regulations at all times. Joyriding is forbidden. So is shoving out a hand for a tip. They are coached to respond to cursing with a courteous smile and an apology. And they must run - never walk - to retrieve a car.

″They’re trained to drive slow and run fast,″ Janis says.

For all its drawbacks, says Greenberg, ″it’s a great job - flexible hours, good exercise, good money and plenty of entertainment.″

They might glimpse Prince Charles or Brooke Shields at a black-tie banquet. Or watch well-heeled, well-oiled couples fighting over the keys to drive home. Or shake hands with a tipsy Tip O’Neill, the former House speaker who once rolled out of a party and grandly introduced himself to every parking valet on the sidewalk.

One of their favorites is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who hires them for parties at his suburban Virginia home overlooking the Potomac River.

″Sen. Kennedy always talks to us if he can, and he makes sure we get a bite to eat while we’re waiting outside,″ Greenberg said. ″He’s one of the best hosts in town.″

Janis recalls one woman who arrived without an escort for an elegant bash, and left her car with a valet.

″The guy was looking for a parking space on the street when the car phone rang. He picked it up and said, ‘Hello,’ and a man’s voice said, ‘Who’s this?’ He answered, ‘The valet parker.’ The man said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’ Then CLICK.″

″When we told the lady who owned the car, she laughed,″ Janis said. ″She said, ’Oh, that must have been my husband. I came alone because we just had a big fight.‴

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