September 18, 2011

Diners Part 2, or, My Life As A Diner Waitress

Food service came naturally to me. Background in an esoteric liberal arts major? Check. Love of food? Check. Desire to help people? Check. Ability to multitask? Check. It was September after my graduation from college, and my deadline for being removed from the family teat loomed. A friend took me to the diner.

I started my training the next day.

It wasn't too far off from the scenes in Mildred Pierce in which she learned how to order: "two bugs on a raft!" or whatever. In the case of my diner, there was a system in which ingredients were asssigned numeric values. For the kitchen, it went like this:

1. Swiss cheese
2. American
3. Ham
6. Tuna

If you put parens around your ingredients when writing down your order, it meant something was grilled. No parens meant cold.


23/ Mac = Ham and cheese sandwich with a side of mac
(23)/ Pot = Grilled ham and cheese with a side of potato salad.

Drinks were also numbered. 33 was Coke, 44 was root beer. 1 was milk, and J was coffee (Joe is slang for coffee).

The head waitress was a woman named Grace, who ran a really tight ship. She'd worked at the restaurant for over 30 years by the time she and I were acquainted. She wore her hair in an Ann Miller style bouffant flip and she'd regale us with the stories of working at the diner in the 1940's when the restaurant was a more formal place in a more formal time. Ladies wore gloves and the waitress uniform included platform shoes.

When I worked there, however, the diner was in transition, as was that part of the city. It was frequented by many elderly people, some of whom had been dining there since the days when Grace wore platform shoes. After school we served kids from the high school. In the afternoons and evenings we served a lot of college students, including the library students who I idolized. We also served a lot of street people. We turned nobody away. This had its upside and its downside. I felt like this was the right thing to do, but if anything ever went wrong on one of those crazy night shifts nobody backed us up. On the odd occasion when a guy was being chased through the restaurant by another guy with a gun, Jimmy the cashier would pretend he didn't see anything.

The waitresses who raised me, Grace, Margene, Lulu and the young one whose name I can't recall (!) were a resilient bunch of characters, all with their own charms. Lulu was the most timid, had a sweet voice and had been a dancer. She wore her hair in a bouffant and was round but light on her feet. Margene talked like a truck driver, and out of the side of her mouth. My two favorite Margene-isms are "You make a better door than you do a window" (when you were blocking her view) or "I'll give you a nickel if you do x." The nickel was not actually forthcoming, but I'd do the task anyway. The young kid was a hard-working single mother who lived in worry that her own child would be pregnant at sixteen, and she was. That lady could scold with a look that brought me searing shame without her saying a word. But usually there were words too and I'd be reduced to tears for affronts such as taking her toast by mistake. Only now do I fully understand that every piece of toast got her closer to providing for her family, and that's why she was occasionally so harsh.

Enough for now.  On another day I'll go into more depth on the customers, and why it is that when I go to the Greek Festival I look for the boss' name in the departed benefactors' wall and finger the letters, happy that he's gone.

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