In 1955 in Hartford, Conn., in the middle of a raging recession, I took a sip of my last straw. I had applied for housekeeping positions at four different motels and was told I needed experience. I was 15. My mother was 44, and my father had just died of a heart attack in a minute right in front of me. There were no jobs to be had, and my mother had barely scraped together enough money to bury her husband. I needed to work. There was one more possibility at IHOP. When I got there, the manager looked up and down at my 6-foot frame weighing in at 195 and said, “You won’t fit into the uniforms for a waitress, but i need a hostess so try this one on.” He handed me the little orange-and-turquoise rayon outfit, and showed me to a door that led up a dark, rickety staircase. Behind a makeshift dressing room just as I had taken off my clothes, the curtain burst open and the manager said “Let’s see how that one fits.” I don’t remember now how I got dressed so fast and raced down the steps without falling, but I do remember wishing I had a daddy who could come and punch out this guy’s lights.
I had heard about jobs at fancy resorts in the Catskill Mountains, and that hiring took place in a hotel in New York City. My mother was in no shape to say, “You’re going where, for what?” I took a train, found the address, filled out an application, and stood in line with all the “other” college kids, and to my shock and terror, I was hired on the spot. Of course I had lied about my age and my experience, but I figured, How hard could waitressing be?
The day before I took a Greyhound bus to Monticello, N.Y., to meet the shuttle that would take me to Swan Lake, where I would walk one mile to the President Hotel, my new home until Labor Day. My two best friends and I were lazing around the pool at their very exclusive country club. We had just had cheeseburgers, French fries, and root beer floats. I watched with envy as they signed their parents’ membership numbers. What I remember most about that gorgeous, sunny, beginning-of-summer day was how both of them told me how lucky I was that my mother was “letting” me go away and actually have a job.
I arrived and found the shack for the help. The season hadn’t actually started. I was hired to work a bar mitzvah. Setting up my two tables, I watched the boy at the tables next to me. When he lifted each goblet, rotated it to the light, looked intently and then placed it carefully to the right of the dinner plate I lifted my goblets to the light, rotated, looked intently (even though I didn’t know what i was looking for), and then placed it to the right of the dinner plate. When he folded his linen napkins in large triangles and then placed them just so to the left, I folded my napkins just so. At some point he knew he had become my trainer and came over, looked at the enormous silver tray we both had been given, and said, “Don’t forget your side towel.” My confusion was palpable, so he added, “Dampen one of the napkins and place it on the tray. That way nothing will slide.”
Grateful and terrified, I stood in line in the kitchen, where the chef was ladling matzo ball soup into very small bowls. Somehow he managed to fit 24 of them on my tray, which for me was impossible to lift. My “trainer” put his tray down and placed the heavy tray on my shoulder, and continuing my culinary education, I copied the guy in front of me, placing one hand on the lip of the tray and the other flat under and just above my shoulder. When I got to the swinging door I was shaking so much and trying so hard to keep the tray balanced I could feel the hot liquid sloshing down my neck onto my white uniform which now was turning a pale yellow with specks of green parsley. I swung the tray onto my side table and to my dismay the matzoh balls were no longer floating. There was no liquid left in the little bowls. I looked behind me at the joyous family laughing and singing and, thank God, oblivious to my plight. Maybe not a good waitress but a quick thinker, I took all the bowls and put them on the shelves underneath my side table. I sopped up the soup with my side towel, wrung out just enough liquid to lift the balls so if you weren’t paying attention you would just start eating and not notice that it was gone in no time.
That was just dinner.
Breakfast the next day was an Olympic event, and I wasn’t even a close contender for the gold. Lunch, I was beginning to get the hang of it, but then at dinner I slid backward to beginner status. I dropped a main dish. I cleaned the mashed potato flakes from the mink stole where the perfect scoop had slipped, and exhaled when all my beautiful guests left, thanking me for a fabulous evening. My mentor came over while we were setting our tables for the next morning. “You’re getting it,” he said. “And they love you. So stop worrying.”
Maybe because I let my guard down and started to feel a little confident, when after breakfast I was shaking out my tablecloths, crumbs flying everywhere, feeling proud, channeling my mother who loved to feed birds, that at least I knew how to do that, when I heard a scream: “Get her out of here. NOW!” It was the maitre d’ and apparently he was taking a sip of his laststraw. I suppose I should have known the circular driveway with the Cadillacs pulling up was the check-in area, not the back of the hotel.
I found out getting fired was de rigueur up there in the rarefied air of the Catskill Mountains. I learned the routine. You hitched a ride back to Monticello, where you paid five dollars at Harold’s Dependable Agency, and he sent you to another hotel and you did this as many times as it took until you became a pro. I never became a pro, but I made all my college money for the next four years, helped my mother grieve, and got the answer to my innocent rhetorical question of how hard waitressing could be.
But the best part? I realized my two best friends were right. I was so lucky my mother “let” me go away and actually have a job (or two or three or …).