Tenement Talk: 6 Questions with Rev Jen About Museum Departure
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[Photo: Jamie NYC]We broke news before the holiday that the Tenement Museum is embroiled in drama, reportedly axing more than 10 longtime employees in a short timeframe. One of the unfortunate, Rev Jen, was kind enough to answer a few questions on the matter. The Lower East Sider discuses her next steps, the “Troll Stroll,” and community response to what’s been happening.
BOWERY BOOGIE: What are you up to now that you’re no longer working at the Tenement Museum?
REV JEN: The museum left me with 18 dollars in the bank, but as Gloria Gaynor said “I will survive”! Today I’m shooting the last scene in the first feature film I’ve ever written – a horror comedy called “Satan, Hold My Hand.” Meanwhile, looking for a job, painting and writing articles for Penthouse. Go out and buy a copy “for the articles.” And, on June 1 I will be initiating a new project – “Rev. Jen’s Troll Stroll” wherein I will take friends on a stroll through the Lower East Side and eventually up to my psychedelic apartment, which houses more than 400 hundred troll dolls and is therefore “The Lower East Side Troll Museum.” There will be history, candy cigarettes, trolls and no dress code enforcement whatsoever. Meet at 3PM, on the southeast corner of Orchard and Delancey!
BB: We’ve heard from several sources of sexual activity inside the museum at 97 Orchard Street. A simple “yes” or “no” is fine, but anything to add?
RJ: I (thankfully) wasn’t a fly on the wall, but I heard stories. Personally I never needed to use the museum as my love motel because I live across the street. I think of all the offenses the museum has committed, a little sexual activity would hardly be the worst. Refusing to unionize and treating hard-working part-timers terribly is far worse.
BB: The museum pretty much denies everything in your missive describing the course of events last week. On the surface this could easily be dismissed as a disgruntled former employee creating drama. What’s your response to this argument?
RJ: The last thing needed in my life is drama. All I wanted was to keep my job, which I was good at. Yesterday, at B&B (my fave 99-cent plus store on Ludlow) I ran into a museum member. He was shocked that I had been fired and without my prompting, said he would write a letter. He also said, “Oh, is it because you were now making too much an hour?” I think he nailed it and frankly, I’m not disgruntled. If the human beings who are now in management are the people I would be working for, I’m glad to move on. They understand the Lower East Side about as well as an ant understands an automobile. But, I’ve spoken out because I’ve seen too many wonderful coworkers get fired in the same callous manner as me and also, because, as a writer, speaking out is kinda what I’m supposed to do.
BB: Does the recent workplace drama affect the museum’s reputation? If so, how?
RJ: I think the museum worrying so much about it’s “reputation” will affect its reputation. Earlier this year, we were all given “employee handbooks” as if we were 15-year olds working at McDonald’s. One page was devoted to “dress code” wherein we were disallowed visible tattoos and skirts more than 4 inches above the knee. I have lived in a 6-floor walkup for 18 years. They could actually benefit from me wearing skirts more than 4 inches above the knee. Tim Gunn needs to get on this.
BB: Any other crazy stories you feel must be told?
RJ: I have many fond memories of working there and too many crazy stories for one interview. Problem is, there are no more crazy stories, no more personality, heart or soul. I did throw some good parties for the staff. When Karolina Zaniesienko (herself a Polish immigrant) was unjustly fired, it was so surreal that I held a “Surrealism Night” party in her honor. I dressed as a Magritte painting and others dressed as either surrealist painters or surreal paintings. A band played music in my bathtub (which is in the kitchen just like the Baldizzi apartment on the tour!) and former coworkers (who mostly now have been let go or bullied out of their jobs) read surrealist poetry. Being surreal is insubordination, I guess.
On a more sentimental note, the Tenement Museum is where I got to meet three of my favorite authors – Kevin Baker, Pete Hamill and the late Frank McCourt. The “Tenement Talks” series was a highlight of my time there. Getting to read from my own memoir, Elf Girl, during a talk was a tremendous moment.
BB: What do you see as the future for the Tenement Museum?
RJ: I don’t rely heavily on astrology. (Just kidding. I’m obsessed with it.) And I didn’t even ask for his opinion, but an astrologer friend just told me he thinks they are headed downhill. Personally, I can’t see into the future, but if I was “in charge” and wanted my business to stay afloat, I would take a look at management – those who make the most money and do the least work and I would fire them. Then, I would double staff who deal directly with visitors. If you look at a “pie chart” of how the museum operates, you’d notice that most of the income comes directly from bookstore sales and tours, not development. Hence it’s the tour guides and bookstore staff who keep the place running. And, they are the least appreciated employees.
Do you know what my “Christmas Bonus” was? A 10-dollar gift certificate to the bookstore. I complained until they upped it to 20 so I could maybe afford a couple Christmas presents for my family. Not crying the poorhouse because unlike a lot of the world, I can still eat. People have asked me why I stayed there so long when I was mistreated. I stayed because this is not the kind of economy where you can just up and leave a job. Again, I don’t know what the future holds but common sense would tell me that if I were a trustee, it might be time to let go of some of the bigwigs, unionize the staff and actually take care of your employees. If they are so worried about their reputation, I’d say giving the staff adequate benefits might be a little more important than telling them to cover their tattoos.