Magazine article The New Yorker

Please Hold

Magazine article The New Yorker

Please Hold

Article excerpt


If you think that Friday and Saturday nights at the Metropolitan Museum are ladies' nights, you may have met Walter Martin. In 1994, when Martin was nineteen, he worked at the Met as a visitor-services assistant. He sold tickets and helped operate the switchboard. He had spent a year in college in Colorado and had come back East--he is from D.C.--to play in a band called Jonathan Fire*Eater, and later in a band called the Walkmen, which made seven records between 2002 and 2012, then, according to its Web site, went on hiatus in 2013, but is probably broken up, Martin says.

Martin is tall, with a narrow face and hair like a field that has been battered by the wind. He has a new record, called "Arts & Leisure," which has songs about art and artists and museums. There is no song about selling tickets at the Met on weekend nights, when, if Martin was bored, he would let women in for free and tell them that it was ladies' night. There is a song with a verse about working at the switchboard, though. "It was a big switchboard, with square buttons you punched," Martin said recently, in the Met's lobby. "Callers would ask for someone rudely, and I'd send them to the wrong person, or just hang up. There was no way for them to know it wasn't a mistake."

Having grown up making prank calls, Martin found that being seated in front of a switchboard "was thrilling." After about a week, he realized that he could connect callers to outside lines. "People would ask for Philippe de Montebello. I didn't really know who he was--I knew he was the director--but I thought, Anybody who wants to talk to him is not going to call the nineteen-year-old at the switchboard. They would have a more direct number."

In Martin's song "Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous," Philippe de Montebello rhymes with "unsuspecting fellow." The five members of Jonathan Fire*Eater lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side. The singer was named Stewart Lupton. "Stewart was always asleep," Martin said. "I would say, 'Please hold,' then I'd call the apartment and hit the clunky button. Unfortunately, I had to imagine the rest, since I couldn't hear the calls. That was the heartbreaking part."

Under the terms of his job, Martin had fifteen minutes to move between tasks, which was more than he needed. …

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