My first paying job, when I was still a little girl, was babysitting. I started that when I was 10; I got paid 50¢ an hour. A saved all my money in an tin Johnson&Johnson band-aid box, inside my private box that Grandpa made me. That box had a lock, but I never locked it because everyone knew that was private, the same as a diary or a woman’s pocket-book, or a man’s wallet: Off limits, unless invited, and even then, tentatively. When I got to 16, and had a real job at The Grill, as a carhop, I got paid $1.25 an hour, one meal, anything I wanted except shrimp, and all the tips if I was a good waitress.
I worked evening; Brenda worked days. Brenda was in her third summer at The Grill, so she got to pick the shift she wanted. I liked evenings, it was always busy. If I had any down-time, I washed wire trays that hooked over the car windows, or raked the yard and picked up trash, or washed the windows. The Grill had a lot of windows. At change over, Brenda cashed out and I cashed in. Delores, the inside waitress, handed me $25 in bills and change, I tied on my apron, with the money in the left pocket and the order pad in the right. Lots of times, Brenda gave me the tight-lipped-angry-mother look when I got there. I never knew what made her mad at me, but she was gone in a few minutes, and she never said anything outright. So, I let it go.
Delores and Hazel, taught me waitress shorthand: put all the drinks and cold items at the bottom of the page, and the hot food, up top for Hazel. “Choc-S” was a chocolate shake; “Choc-M” was a Chocolate Malted, that went on the bottom for Delores to fill. “BLTT” meant Bacon Lettuce and Tomato Toasted, and “FF” meant French Fries. All the abbreviations allowed me to write fast, kinda like Mom with her shorthand, only using real letters instead of code-squigles. It’s important to be fast, when you are a carhop, because people don’t even have time to get out of their car and go inside, that’s how much of a hurry they are in. Sometimes, guys like Animal and Bulldog and Killer, got in too much of hurry to even get out to buy their own cigarette, so they gave me a dollar to go inside and get their Kools, or Lucky-Strikes, or Marlboros. It was the only time I was allowed in The Grill. Sometimes I got to keep the change. That was a huuuge tip for just walking in the door and pulling a lever. Most the time they said, “Do you want a tip? Don’t take any wooden nickles,” They laughed like they were as funny as Johnny Carson.
Sometimes I got a quarter or 50¢ for a tip. Once I got a brand-new Lovin’ Spoonful album.
“Who gave this to you?” Deanna wanted to know. He never told me his name.
“He must like you,” she said. “That album cost $4.99.” Deanna spent a lot of money on albums. I just listened to the radio. How could he like me? He didn’t even know me, except that I could remember he liked a hamburger basket, with everything but onion, “Hmb E-O, FF,” and a coke; and I got it to his car hot enough that the FF sometimes burnt his tongue. Customers liked that. I was getting rich on tips, taking home way more money that I made in wages.
I got to be good friends with Ed, who drove an old, old car kinda like Mom’s. One day he offered me a ride home, and of course I said yes. Delores stretched the phone cord out the slide-down window so I could call Mom and tell her never-mind, she didn’t need to come and get me, because I had a ride. Ed’s car smelled like English Leather and some other kind of sour smell that I reminded me a bit of Mom’s Uncle Charlie. He walked me to the door, just to meet Mom and Dad; that’s the polite thing to do, and Ed was polite as all get out. Ed was super-big too. He reminded me a little of Hoss from Bonanza. Hoss was my favorite because he was huge and gentle at the same time. I liked Ed. He just stayed long enough to say hello, that’s the polite thing, when it’s late and you’re not invited.
“What were you thinking?” Dad’s eyes flashed like blue flames. “Take a tip from me: never take a ride from someone who’s been drinking.”
“He was drinking?” How was I supposed to know.
“I could smell beer from a mile away,” Mom chimed in.
Maybe it was all that grease and cigarettes and summer sweat from working at The Grill, I never put the way Ed smelled together with beer.
After I proved myself as a steady, reliable worker, Delores let me come inside to make my own change. Sometimes my tips got so heavy in my pocket, I changed them in for dollars, or fives. Making change was Delores’s job, but sometimes she was crazy-busy inside, and it was a big inconvenience. Sometimes, Hazel came out of the kitchen and made change for me or worked the till for customers. Delores was the only waitress inside and I was the only carhop, and we never knew where it would be busiest. Delores wasn’t as old as Mom and Dad, but she had three little kids at home. She showed me a picture her son drew of a robin, “Look,” she laughed, pointing to two red circles with dots in the middle of the robin’s chest. “Bobby says it’s a robin red-breast.” Delores wore white waitress dresses that let her boobs drop half-way out the front and wore red lipstick, which she said was why the place was so crowded and that’s how she made her tips, so it was great when Hazel and I could lend a hand.
I bragged to Dad how my responsibilities were growing at The Grill, and how I got to help out at the till and make my own change.
“Don’t you ever, ever make your own change, or work the till,” his eyes flashed that blue steel again, like when Ed brought me home. “If the till comes up short, you could get accused of theft.”
“Big hairy deal,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I would never steal. Neither would anyone else at The Grill.” Dad took all the pride right out of me, but I kept my chest pumped up, like what he said didn’t matter. Still, I did what he said, and asked Delores or Hazel to change out my coins, no matter how busy they got, which embarrassed the heck out of me.
Three weeks later, Hazel got fired. She was dipping into the till, taking a dollar here, a dollar there, thinking no one would notice. She did it for weeks before Mabel figured it out. Hazel worked at The Grill for longer than I was alive. When I asked Mabel about Hazel, she just shook her head and looked at the floor, “She’s not working here anymore,” was all she offered. Delores filled me in on the details, her eyes sparkling like Christmas morning.
I got a lot of tips working at The Grill. Some sentimental and kind, some generous and friendly, and some downright difficult to pocket. I’d like to say I learned a lot, but it’s possible I failed on that account. I still tend to believe people are good intentioned, even when they are a little off-based; I still choose to trust people until they prove untrustworthy. Still, I keep some things locked up and protected. Some people never learned, or perhaps they forgot, that some things are private, not theirs, off limits until invited, and even then, go with care.