As a working class girl, I found waitressing more lucrative than being a department store clerk, which I also tried. You could get your working permit at fourteen, a thing my mother took me to do within days of that birthday. We had little money and I understood I had to start contributing. I worked in downtown stores the next two or three years, back when downtown Vero Beach, Florida was a vibrant place, and not the mostly vacant museum of the past it is now. But I applied at Howard Johnson’s as soon as I was old enough. The real money was in waitressing.
HoJos was on U.S. 1, the main north-south route before there were interstates. U.S. 1 went through town and was dotted with orange juice stands, reptile farms, shops featuring jewelry and lamps made from shells, gas stations (30 cents a gallon), motels and A &W drive-ins, where your root beer came in a heavy, iced glass mug with a foamy head. Howard Johnson’s restaurants were scattered along U.S. 1 from Miami to the New Jersey Turnpike.
I opened at HoJos the summer after high school. Dad got me up in the dark, dropped me off at 5:30. Kitchen crew was already there, the sizzle of bacon greeting me as I walked in. The parking lot spread behind and to the side of the long building with its orange roof and wall of windows. I worked the counter and spotted my morning regulars coming up the sidewalk. Here comes poached eggs and wheat toast. I put the order in, got a setup and coffee on the counter as the gentleman slid onto his stool. Those businessmen who had breakfast at my counter every weekday morning, always ordered the same thing, always sat at the same place, silently reading their newspapers, were a mainstay of my earnings. Some were routinely generous; others left precisely the correct percentage each time. I imagined them leaving home while their wives slept, savoring the hour of quiet before they slid a quarter onto the counter and went to work.
A quarter was a decent tip. Most egg dishes were a dollar or less. Those days tips were change. I came home with jingling pockets, began collecting Indian head/buffalo nickels, managed to fill most of a coin collection holder with them. They’d stopped making them in the late 1930s. They were already scarce. My collection was stolen years later. Remembering it now, I feel again the sting of its loss. I worked hard for those coins and had a particular attachment to the Indian profile that adorned them.
Waitresses were white, kitchen crew black. The breakfast cook already at the grill when I arrived was a small, lean man I thought of as old. Now I suppose he may have been in his 40s. He was a skilled short order cook who cracked eggs two at a time in his hand, never broke a yolk or dropped shell into them, and delivered them exactly as ordered. He did all that with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, the ash lengthening until I was certain it would fall into the over easy I was waiting for, but somehow never did. He flicked it into the glass HoJo ashtray he kept beside the grill just in time.
It didn’t occur to me to question the racial order of things. It was the early 60s and I’d graduated from a segregated high school. The downtown stores I’d worked in had colored and white water fountains. I didn’t truly ponder any of it until I moved away. Moving away often provides perspective.
At lunch I had counter customers, ice cream orders to fill as well as the cash register to run. The ice cream was in round tubs beneath the counter along with basins of syrups, bananas and bright cherries. Dining room waitresses brought me their ice cream orders: floats and shakes I poured into tall glasses, sundaes and scoops of butter crunch or mint chocolate chip in footed metal dishes. I usually worked a 9-hour shift, had ten-minute breaks once or twice, and a 30-minute lunch break. I often had the fried clams, a novelty in my normal diet. I was eighteen and making enough to buy my books for college and occasional groceries for home.
Between each ice cream order I dunked the scoop in the rinse water. My hand was always wet when I dug into the cold tubs. No one wore plastic gloves—did they even exist? The outside of my right index finger, the surface the scoop leaned against, began to crack. A series of short fissures developed along its length over months. After I stopped scooping ice cream, those gashes took a long time to heal. Scars of manual labor, they remained years after my last waitress job, reminders of work I was proud of and never wanted to do again.