Working in a restaurant waiting tables is not a job. It’s an adventure. But I didn’t realize — going in — that I needed basic training at Paris Island before setting foot on the dining room floor. I entered those frantic halls as a wide-eyed, timid 20-year-old, and still wholly innocent of the way of the world. Though I had encountered really mean people by that tender age, I still viewed the world through eyes that had watched too many musicals. I wasn’t prepared to deal with chic housewife thieves, or having to personally challenge a Wilt Chamberlain wannabe known for being a great cook and a homicidal maniac, the order of which depended on whether it was management speaking or the hapless victims.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Most people, customers and fellow employees alike, were open and nice, and this constantly changing social setting was the best thing for me at that time. Most customers were friendly, voluble, and tipped fairly well . . . but . . . what to do with the dangerous ones, and not all of them past first grade.
I started out like a lot of waitresses still do. I found myself minus one disastrous marriage and plus one tiny dependent. I could do secretarial work but that didn’t pay enough to keep a bug alive, much less a young woman with a baby. Not in Birmingham, Alabama.
It was 1968 and my life seemed an endless loop of riding city buses, pounding sidewalks, and filling in countless, fruitless forms. One day, tired and discouraged, I stopped in for coffee at the corner of 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue. Shoney’s Big Boy seemed friendly enough from his perch atop the building, beckoning me in with a smile and a big double-decker burger. I saw smart, quick waitresses whirling around in colorful uniforms with cute little aprons and little orange caps. But what really attracted my attention was the gorgeous green gratuity sprouting from the busy tables.
With fear and trembling I asked if they were hiring.
What kind of experience?
That’s good. We like to train our people our way.
There followed a couple of weeks of intensive training, which most restaurants don’t do anymore. Management now just throws a new girl at a customer and hopes it will be a match made in heaven. I was taught how to serve properly, how to present myself, how to make an art form of a simple salad that looked good enough to . . . well, good enough to eat, and how to carry a tray on my fingertips high above my head and out of hair’s way.
It wasn’t long before management realized I was fast and had a knack for carrying trays. I could whirl it down from its perch above my head with a twist of my wrist, still on my fingertips, and loaded with drinks or salads, or those luscious desserts Shoney’s is famous for. One of my later managers said I gave her heart failure doing that, but I never missed. There was only one time there was a tray incident on my watch and I was bombed from above by a falling body. Let me tell you about it.
Everyone knows that waitresses are busy people if they serve at a busy restaurant. And Shoney’s in the 1960’s and early ’70s was hopping. I was one of the fast ones and one evening I came rushing out of the bull pen loaded down with hot coffee and cold drinks. I was just sweeping my tray up when suddenly something very heavy landed on me from the flowered ledge above, knocking me to the floor.
Screaming and pandemonium broke out. Stunned, it took me a moment to realize I was tangled up with a terrified little boy whose mother was frantic and screaming in my face. Hot coffee had splashed over both the child and me. When the smoke cleared it turned out that the Ritalin-deprived child had climbed up on the ledge and jumped off into my tray and onto me just as I passed beneath him.
When the manager arrived, the mother started in about how the whole incident was my fault. But other customers had seen what had happened and several got into the fray. One man got so angry at the delusional mother that he got into a verbal altercation with her about disciplining her demon child. And the disciplines he advocated would make a Spanish Inquisitor blanch. He was really mad. But, miraculously, no real damage was done and I doubt the mother/child duo ever came back. Nobody complained about that.
I had been waitressing a couple of years — now at a different location and no longer timid, but not exactly assertive, either — when a man beckoned me over from another waitress’s station. He was sitting across from my table where three well-dressed ladies had just sat down looking over the menus I had brought. When I got to the table he motioned for me to bend down so he could tell me something privately. As I bent my head toward him he told me in a whisper that those three ladies had stolen my tip from my previous customers. I thanked him, and though I was upset, I didn’t know what to do about it. So I went to my savvy manager, Jo. Jo was a tall, attractive woman who never had to yell to get someone’s attention. If she was displeased, you knew it, and trembled. When I told her what the women had done, her face became a study in weather patterns. A tornado lurked behind her eyes, and between her teeth these words seethed out — “NObody does my waitresses like that!”
Heck. She scared ME. No Marine in full battle gear could have marched any more imposingly across that dining room. She stopped abruptly at the edge of the offending table and shoved that hand out, at first not saying a word. When the ladies looked up with startled expressions, Jo said in a voice that could have chilled an Eskimo and carried across the room, “I want that money you stole from my waitress”. One look and those women knew they were busted, and a denial was pointless. One woman opened her purse and pulled out cash and change without a word spoken. Jo knew our money was hard-earned and much needed, and she allowed no one to take advantage of us. But even Jo could do nothing about wives who sneaked back to the table to pocket the tip their husbands had left. Yes. That happened. Too often.
At some point I was working at a Shoney’s where there were a couple of college boys. They were very nice, polite guys, and loved to talk literature with me. One had a crush and bought me a book, “Little Richard’s Almanac”, in which he wrote, “May Mohammed keep the tigers from your door”. I liked him and he was sweet, but all of them were younger than me in years and in miles. I also wasn’t in a dating mood during that period of my life. I was too busy making ends meet.
There were problems at this location with a cook who was just plain mean. He liked hitting people. He was a bully who enjoyed making young men bleed when he punched them in the face. And he was too big for any of the guys to take him on one on one. He bragged he was the exact same height as Wilt Chamberlain (7′ 1″), and he wasn’t skinny. I wondered why nobody sued. But the young men were embarrassed as well as hurt and nothing more came of it. Most just quietly quit. But to management the Wilt Chamberlain wannabe was indispensable. He was their best cook and talented cooks were gold
This made me so angry I wanted to climb a ladder and punch the guy out myself. But I was also rational and did no such thing. One day, one of my college-boy friends came running down the aisle with his hand to his face, his nose spouting blood. His eyes met mine and skittered away in shame. I never saw him again. By this time I was livid. Why didn’t somebody do something?
It also happened at this time I had gotten my younger brother Paul, still just a teenager, a job as a busboy. He had only been there a couple of weeks and I would kind of watch over him — you know, like big sisters do. One day when I came in for my shift I looked for Paul and couldn’t find him. I asked around and nobody seemed to know where he was. I finally found someone who told me he had not shown up for work at all, but wouldn’t tell me why. I knew then something was wrong. Finally, a waitress told me Mr. 7’1″ (I can’t remember his name), had hit Paul in the back so hard the day before that Paul left and didn’t come back. At that moment I felt a coldness sweep over me that left me with one block of icy emotion. Somebody was going to pay, and I knew exactly who that somebody was. He was going down if I had to chop him down inch by inch from the bottom up.
There was no rationale anymore. I was moving on pure adrenalin, and I was moving fast. I found Mr. Wilt in the break room, which was about the size of a walk-in closet with a wooden ledge across the long end. There was never enough room for more than two people at one time — three if they were skinny. A waitress was eating her lunch. I came through the door with both barrels open, but still so icy cold I could barely get my voice above a hiss. But as the suppressed rage came boiling out, I came at him without thought of consequence. The waitress ran.
The manager at that time was a little Greek named Angelo who was no bigger than me. I’m five-foot-two in shoes, and at that time weighed 110 lbs. Angelo and me together wouldn’t have made one good average man. Even if I was sane enough to think about help, Angelo wouldn’t have been high on my list in the way of aide. But I didn’t care. I had Mr. 7’1″ backed into a corner. I’ll never remember all the screaming vitriol that finally burst from me, but he was stunned, slightly crouching, with eyes narrowed to slits, because he could see I was one nerve-ending away from ramming him with every pound on me and clawing his eyes out. All I could really hope for in such a case was that he would be arrested for assault or murder. Mine.
But all of a sudden Angelo materialized in the doorway holding a gun that looked as big as he was. His voice shook, but his hand did not. “Out!” he said, pointing the gun at the big guy. “Get out, and don’t come back. You’re fired.”
Then the guy said the most incongruous thing. Like a little kid, he pointed at me and said, “But, but, SHE started it. I didn’t do NOTHIN’.”
But he did leave and I had to explain to several managers in the hierarchical chain of command why such an altercation happened in the first place. And I was still mad enough that I told them what I thought of them and their policy of good cooks at all costs. In the final round-up, I wasn’t fired. But would you believe they hired him back over Angelo’s objections? I’m serious. The only thing management changed was to make sure they didn’t put HIM on the same schedule as me, and that our paths never crossed again. I wonder if they realized just how close that “situation” could have become tragic but for the grace of God. But I also never heard of another young man having to go home shamed and broken. And that’s something worth fighting for.
Now, all these many years and jobs later, I never leave a restaurant without laying down a decent tip. I know from personal experience that a lot of these waitresses (and waiters) are either down on their luck and having a hard time making a living, or they are college kids trying to earn their education by working hard. And no matter the argument that they should be paid a decent wage — it ain’t gonna happen.
If you go to a restaurant, never go without counting the cost of a good tip into your budget. They’re not slaves. I’ll never forget a state senator I waited on once at the old Tiki restaurant called The Luau. He would not allow a tip percentage to be added to his bill. He acted insulted. “I know how to tip,” he huffed. He tied up my table all evening with his upper-crust friends and left a three dollar tip on the table. Now THAT’s insulting.