“I need to talk to you, in private,” she says. I hate that sentence.
“Have a seat,” I say, trying my best to pretend she hasn’t been crying. “So what’s going on?”
She is my daughter’s age and the best editor in the department. At the moment, though, she’s been blindsided by how hard it is to work here. Maybe hearing “good job!” too often when she was little set her up for feeling defeated this morning after a conference call that didn’t go our way. I think my generation forgot to tell our kids that jobs are hard. And there are no trophies.
After laying out everything that’s wrong with our company and throwing in a few suggestions about how I could improve things, she goes to the ladies’ room to splash some cold water on her face. Knowing the resilience of these young people I’ve hired, ten minutes will probably do it. I get my pep talk in place. I’ll compliment her terrific work ethic. I’ll talk about dealing with the pressures of our industry, which seem to mount with every merger. But it’s not what I really want to say.
What I really want to say is: “You think this job is hard? Try being a waitress for a week.”
I spent two summers as a waitress at the Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach in the late sixties. All these years later, I still have the same response every time a server says, “Hi, I’m ____, and I’ll be taking care of you.” I picture the 19-year-old me, poured into my snug-fitting uniform, smiling anxiously, hoping customers would be kind, and petrified that I’d spill coffee on small children.
As soon as summer began, Josie, our boss, had only a few days to get the new crop of college girls up to speed on everything from clearing dishes to up-selling, and she didn’t waste a minute. She dressed only in black — blouse, skirt, stockings, shoes. She walked/ran at a pace that made me think the building was on fire every time she passed. And then to fully overwhelm me, Josie gave directions in a German accent so Germanic that I could understand only half of her terrifying messages. The rest I got from her body language, equally terrifying.
Let’s face it. The only thing the Boardwalk Restaurant had going for it was its location. Most times, if the fish was cold or the drink watered down, reminding people to take in the white sand and mighty surf right outside the wall of windows did the trick. It worked best with people who hadn’t been out of Queens or Brooklyn in a very long time.
In early August one of the dishwashers showed us a newspaper ad for a music festival upstate. For lots of Long Island kids, upstate was a place about as far north as Nova Scotia, but I went to college at Cortland, so I knew that New York state actually extended beyond Westchester. Bethel was only about 2½ hours away. The buzz increased as days went on, and my waitress friends and I began making plans. We knew if we didn’t, we’d be the only people alive under 21 who hadn’t made it to Woodstock.
We would call in sick on the morning we were leaving, but all with different symptoms so Josie wouldn’t catch on. I chose a mysterious, perhaps deadly, high fever. Then once we got to Woodstock — if it was any good — we’d find a pay phone and keep calling in sick for as many days as we needed to. Justine’s car held five people. We’d chip in for gas. We’d stop at the 7-Eleven for snacks on the way. As far as plans hatched in 1969 went, this one was ironclad.
Though it was true Josie had left her sense of humor back in Stuttgart, she did read the newspaper every morning. And she’d recently been rumored to be hiding in a stall in the women’s room with her feet up, picking up word of impending mutinies where she could.
She called an impromptu waitress meeting and said to the 30 of us who were by now all practicing our sick telephone voices, “Anyone who calls in sick tomorrow, I know you’re going to Woodcock, and you will be fired. No Woodcock! That is it.”
When we all showed up for our shift the next day, Josie refused to trust the time card machine. Holding a clipboard at the door, she checked off each name with a triumphant little snort. She was 30-for-30 at keeping her staff at work that weekend, which was, I believe, the North American record. We found solace where we could, getting a lot of mileage out of passing each other and saying under our breath, “No Woodcock!”
Being a waitress meant there were nights, half an hour before closing, when I was so tired I wanted to cry. And then a party of eight might come in and be seated in my section. They would already be drunk, but it wouldn’t keep them from ordering a round of complicated cocktails. And the bartender would be in a bad mood because his girlfriend had just broken up with him and tell me to garnish them myself. And that would lead me to put a maraschino cherry, a lemon slice, and some orange rind in a gin and tonic because I didn’t know any better. I thought a more colorful drink would be a nice touch. And even the drunk person knew that wasn’t right and would call me on it, loudly.
In bed at midnight, with my feet still throbbing, I’d be unable to stop replaying all the ridiculous conversations of my day.
“Are you sure this is decaf?” and the stupid little response we all gave with a forced smile, “I promise. Tell you what? I’ll give you my phone number, just in case it’s not.”
Or “These shrimp were caught today, right?” In my almost dreamy state I always answered, “These shrimp are probably older than you are,” and that would make me smile and get some rest.
I was sad to hear that the Boardwalk Restaurant was demolished in 2004 and that in the decade since, only an empty space marks the spot where it once stood at the Central Mall. It bothers me that it met such an ignoble end, I guess because I learned a few life lessons there.
I learned I had a knack for making grumpy diners less grumpy with a clever turn of phrase. I learned the customer is always right. And your first job is always hard. I learned how to stay on Josie’s good side and hoped she would never stop mentioning “Woodcock” because it helped me feel less tormented about not making it to the greatest cultural event of my generation.
The young editor is back now, slowly regaining some composure. She asks, “How would you feel if I just took the rest of the day off to regroup?” She gives me her reasons. She’s embarrassed. She’s tired. She just doesn’t see how she can keep up this pace.
Part of me thinks I should let her go home early. But I tell her, “No,” and I have my reasons, too. The dinner rush is just starting. I want her to learn to collect herself after she’s dropped a tray of drinks. I want her to know how great it feels to avoid spilling coffee on toddlers.
And, hey, I missed Woodstock.