As Bill and I were dining out a few days ago, I watched the waitresses scurrying here and there, and I was suddenly transported back in time to my first job.
Sarah Mae and I had just turned eighteen and were attending business college. We were making good grades (even if I abhorred the idea of someday being a secretary!), making new friends, enjoying the attention of Paducah boys, going to parties.
There was only one problem. We were short on money.
We needed new cinch belts, flats, the latest lipsticks in shades of grape and violet. (And a tube of that white stuff, which was applied over the new shades to make them look frosted.) I also wanted some of the new brush rollers. And Nestles hair tint, which would give my auburn hair the brilliant red tones it so desperately needed.
Our parents were already paying for our schooling and books and rent. We couldn't expect them to shell out more money.
There was only one solution.
We spent the next few days applying for jobs at all the downtown stores: Woolworth's and Walgreen's, Paducah Dry Goods, Montgomery Ward's, Penney's. But they all turned us down. Lack of experience, they said.
We were ready to give up when we noticed a new diner going up on Broadway. We watched their progress on our way to and from school each day, and one day, as they were carrying in a new jukebox, we had an idea. Maybe we could get a job there before anyone else applied!
"Y'all had any experience?" the short, chubby owner said. He was smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke rings, gazing up at them as they dissipated above his bald head. He looked like a white Fats Domino.
"I worked at the Hut in Bardwell for a long time," Sarah Mae said. (A week.)
Fats blew another smoke ring and cast a suspicious look in my direction. "What about you?"
"Uh, well, yes" I said, "Yes, I have." (Liar, liar, pants on fire! )
"Alright, then, y'all come on in here Monday at three," he said, "You'll work until we close at nine. The pay is fifty cents an hour, plus tips."
We rushed toward the door before he had a chance to change his mind.
"Y'all are gonna have to have white uniforms and white shoes," he called, "At your own expense!"
As we left our apartment the following Monday afternoon, I was stepping high in my stiff, foam-soled shoes, a feeling of confidence washing over me as I gazed down at my crisp white uniform. I had a job; I felt all grown up, responsible.
The feeling didn't last long.
The restaurant was packed, waitresses rushing here and there, plates perched all the way up their arms. "Two blue-plate specials," one yelled, "Three hamburgers-through-the-garden and two orders of fries," yelled another.
Looming ahead was Fats. He was wearing a white coat and chef's hat, chubby arms wrapped around his barrel chest.
"Y'all go on back to the kitchen," he said, "Lila'll get you started."
Steam hit us in the face as we entered the kitchen where Lila was flipping burgers, tossing french fries into sizzling grease, gazing at orders through fogged-up glasses. Her face was crisscrossed with wrinkles and red as a beet.
She took off her glasses and wiped them with a dish towel. "I'm so tired I couldn't fart if I had the wind," she said.
We began giggling, but Lila never cracked a smile.
"One of you take them tables on the right," she said, putting her glasses back on, "The other one can take them tables on the left."
We looked at each other, eyes wide.
"We can do this," I whispered.
"We can," Sarah Mae said, "Sure we can!"
We threw back our shoulders, smoothed our new uniforms, and took off, with no idea of what awaited us.
Sarah Mae charged a man seventeen dollars and fifty cents for a blue-plate special and coffee. She apologized and corrected his bill ($1.75), but he gave her a dirty look and took back his tip. Then she took two orders to the wrong people. Their loud complaints brought Fats waddling from the kitchen.
"That better not happen again!" he yelled, "Ever!"
I dropped a plate of food in front of a table where two haughty women held court. And then I slipped in the mess and skidded all the way across the floor, stopping just before colliding with Fats.
"Straighten up!" he yelled.
After the diner closed and we were preparing to leave, Fats tossed two brooms at us. "Sweep up the place," he said, "It's part of your job."
He waddled over to the jukebox and put a quarter in. As we began sweeping, the strains Sea of Love filled the restaurant. After it played five times, he put another quarter in. The song was still playing when he locked the door behind us.
"I've never been as tired in my whole life," Sarah Mae said, as we trudged home, "But we can't quit."
"Oh, no," I said, trying not to limp. My new shoes had rubbed blisters on the backs of both feet. "No, we can't quit."
The next few nights were more of the same. I spilled soup on the knee of a man in a suit; Sarah Mae tripped and almost knocked Lila down as she was carrying a three-layer cake to the dessert table. (The cake was saved; Lila's nerves were shot.)
The following night, Fats put me behind the counter. All stools were filled, so customers kept me running from one end of the counter to the other. When a nice little man in a hat ordered a cup of coffee, I was so distracted that I began pouring the coffee into a saucer.
"What in the name of god are you doing?" yelled Fats.
I quickly corrected my mistake, but as I nervously set the coffee in front of the little man, the cup and saucer were rattling.
"Calm down, hon," he said, giving me a sympathetic smile, "You're doing fine."
Suddenly, everyone's attention was drawn to the other side of the restaurant, where Sarah Mae had dropped two baskets of dinner rolls.
Fats rushed to her side. "All them rolls ruined!" he squalled, shaking his head, "What a waste of money!"
That was quite a waste. For him. If customers didn't eat their rolls, he made us take them off the plates and serve them again. Really.
After we finished sweeping the restaurant that night (Sea of Love playing over and over, of course), Fats took us aside. "Here's your paychecks," said, "I'm not gonna be needing y'all anymore."
Sarah Mae and I were giddy on our way home.
"I'm kinda glad I'm going to business school, now," I said, dancing down the sidewalk, "I sure don't want to be like Lila and spend my whole life working in a place like that."
"Hey! We've got fifteen dollars apiece," Sarah Mae said, "We can buy those new lipsticks and a pair of capris and a cinch belt!"
"And some brush rollers and Nestles hair tint!" I said, "Thanks to Fats, Mr. Sea of Love!" I spun around, my hand a make-believe mic, "Come with me, my love, to the sea, the sea of love,"
"I wanna tell you," Sarah Mae chimed in, "How much I love you..."