My son got me thinking about my first real job last night when he stood ready at my side, plastic fisher-price tea tray in hand, to take each person's plate to the table one by one.
"I'm the waiter." He told me matter-of-factly.
"You know, Mahone, waiters don't get to sit down and eat on the job. And if they do eat on the job, they don't get to eat at the tables with their family and friends...."
He didn't care enough to even listen to me finish the sentence, and he was off doing the next silly thing.
Still, MY mind lingered.
When I was 16 years old, I got a waitressing job for the summer (one that continued through the next 2 years of school until I graduated and moved off to college...where I became a waitress for ANOTHER restaurant.)
It was a place my family frequented on a regular basis called "Golden Seas". It had excellent Chinese cuisine, and one day, we walked in, my mom handed me an application, I filled it out, and without an interview, they put me to work.
The uniform was simple. Black slacks, white shirt, black apron.
Most people complain about their jobs. I loved my job. It quickly became my home-away-from-home.
Some of the other waiters and waitresses were Chinese and from the same family that owned it. Wei and Lily were both cousins of Ben, the cook, who was the brother of Suzanne, my boss and the manager. She had a son whose name escapes me now, but who came to the restaurant every day after school. Their father, Sung Ye, owned the restaurant. Ben's wife, Monica, was the hostess on Sundays. They were childless, and Monica worked at the University of Utah. In China, she had been an OB/GYN.
There were 2 other constant waiter/waitresses, Cody and Angie who were siblings. Cody mostly delivered takeout. Other waitresses, Kendra (a punky short haired girl who constantly left while she still had tables and usually left me cleaning up after her), Stephanie (A 17 year old emancipated minor who had married a soldier who was away at boot camp, and she was newly pregnant.) Cherice, (a sweet, beautiful girl with dark hair and eyes and complexion who had recently lost her mother to breast cancer.) came and went every so often.
Like I said, the place was sort of a home-away-from-home for me. I was a chatty, bubbly, giggly, smiley, and rather upbeat teenager. I was also stinking adorable back then. It was a job I was extremely good at.
Over the years, I collected multiple phone numbers from guys who I never once called. I had a man who worked at Hale Centre Theatre and his wife come in weekly for 4 months and beg me to audition for plays he was directing, to which I always genuinely promised I would, would be all excited about it thinking it was my "big break", prepare an audition piece, and then chicken out before I made it to the audition.
There was a man who came in every Sunday and always wanted to talk hockey, which I knew nothing about. But he was lonely, I think, and my listening and nodding was mostly what he needed.
A woman named Joan came in with her husband at random days of the week, but at least once in a 7 day period. Her husband never said a single word, but she made her way around the place, touching the shoulders of all the workers, chatting with Suzanne, and shaking hands with the owner. She was a dark, bent over, wrinkly little thing with shiny black eyes and a short mop of gray hair. When she came in, we immediately readied her jasmine tea with double the normal tea bags and loads of cream. Near the end of my stay at Golden Seas, her husband suffered a stroke, and she stopped coming in. Somehow, she heard through the grape vine when I quit, and came in to hug me on my last day and wish me luck at college. She was on oxygen then.
Occasionally, an elderly couple would come in, followed by a very tall, very broad shouldered and very handsome middle aged man. He was their son, and he had autism. Once again, the man was very quiet, and so was the mother, but she was also very polite, and ready with a smile. Their son had the mental capacity of a 4 year old. But he was also a ham. He loved Sprite to drink, and whenever his glass was empty, he would tell me that there was a hole in the bottom of his cup, and his Sprite had run out of the hole. To which, I would reply that, OMG, he was RIGHT!!! I had better get him a new glass! Again, near the end of my stay, the mother passed away. I didn't see the men again.
No one ever wanted to wait for an older Hispanic couple that came in every Sunday. They sat in the same booth no matter who their waitress was, which made things difficult for us. Each week, they ordered prime rib, which came with a side salad and rolls. Of course, we always brought the rolls out when we brought their coffee, which we did before we even 'took their order' because the man would chew us a brand spanking new butt hole if we didn't bring his "bread". The woman always wanted blue cheese dressing on her salad, and the man always wanted Catalina dressing (which, in my opinion, tastes like vomit.) Their tip was always 2 brand new, shiny....quarters.
Once, I was carrying a tray full of 12 cups of egg drop soup...yes, I was over confident. I would have pulled it off too, if, when rounding the corner, I had remembered to lift my elbow. Instead, my arm hit the wall and stopped moving, but the tray kept on going, and splattered all over the table on the other side of the wall. I was SO LUCKY no one was sitting there!!! The people at my tables must have felt sorry for me. When the 3 left, I had over 50.00 in tips just from them.
I remember too many conversations with the family that owned the restaurant to talk about them all, but perhaps I can relay my fondest memories, the ones that made me laugh, or the ones that I just remember because for some reason, no matter their unimportance, tattooed themselves across my memory.
Ben was the cook at Golden Seas. He was a little, thin man, and he looked mean, but he was actually very sweet. His wife, Monica, was just gorgeous. A tall, slim woman with soft, thick hair, She was soft spoken and gentle, and Ben was gentle with HER. Their love story was obvious from a mile away.
Once, the other waiters and I were sitting around during a weekend lul in business, eating saltine crackers dipped in ranch dressing (as was our favorite snack at the time) and Ben came into the room, carrying his broom. In a voice that sounded angry, though we had all already learned that it wasn't, he asked "How does I find 'prod-uss'?"
Perplexed, we all looked around at each other. "Prada?"
We chewed our lips. We scratched our heads. We stared blankly at the wall....
"NO!!! Prod-uss! Like, at store!!!"
Then, wisely, someone asked, "Ben, can you expand your instructions? What exactly are you looking for?"
"You know, carrot. Cabbage. Tomato. This! See? Prod-uss!!!"
All at once: "Ohhhh! PRODUCE!!!!!"
Ben cracked me up on a regular basis that way. He was a good man.
Suzanne, Ben's sister, scared the living daylights out of me, though. She called me "Bres" (like, breath with an 's' instead of a 'th' sound). Well, they ALL called me that, but she's the one I remember, with her shrill witchy voice screeching over the faint sound of the music playing at closing time.
Suzanne wore a solid jade bangall bracelet that had no seams. It was carved from a single piece of jade and her husband had given it to her as a gift when they were just kids. It didn't fit over her hand anymore, and so it was stuck there permanently. Often, her husband would cook in the kitchen with Ben.
Once, I was in the freezer, digging lettuce into a bucket to refill the salad bowl. Suzanne entered the kitchen while I was doing this and I heard her say "Where is the salad?"
Quickly, I stuck my head out the freezer door and said "It's right here- I'm getting more to refill the bowl right now." Everyone in the kitchen stopped what they were doing and stared at me. Confused, I shrugged my shoulder's and quietly muttered, "What?"
Suzanne broke into a wide grin. "You understand?"
I nodded slowly....did I mistake what she said? I was so confused. Everyone else laughed under their breath.
"I talk in Cantonese!" Suzanne squealed, slapping her skinny knee. Somehow, my subconscious was picking up on their language, but if she had said it again, in Cantonese, I wouldn't have recognised it.
Sung Ye, though, was my most favorite. He was the father of the family, an adorably old little man with a bald head, a sweet, kind face, and he never laughed at me. In fact, he would slice up oranges for me, and bring them to me when I came into the kitchen. On a regular basis, the family cooked their own dinners there in the restaurant- the really good authentic Chinese kind, not the kind they served to the customers that, while delicious, was nothing like anything they actually ate. Sung-ye always packed up a to-go box full of their food for me to take home with me as well. He never did that for any of the other waiters or waitresses.
He also fed my ego daily. Each time I entered the kitchen, scooping up ladles full of egg drop soup or drizzling sweet and sour sauce over sliced chicken, Sung Ye, who spoke almost no English, would demand with squinty dark eyes and a wide grin, "Sing, Bres! Sing!"
So I sang. It wasn't long before it became a habit to just break into song whenever I entered the kitchen and not to quit until I left. It didn't matter if I was picking up an order, or mopping the floor. I sang. And I sang everything from Big Bad Voodoo Daddies to show tunes, to whatever was popular on the radio. No one ever told me not to, and after awhile, they all just went about their business, unless, as sometimes happened, they joined in to sing too- sometimes in Cantonese, which never quite fit.
On more than one occasion, though, Sung Ye would make me stand in the center of the kitchen and sing a song of his request (He had a hankering for Frank Sinatra...but that didn't bother me because so do I) at which point, most of the workers would stop what they were doing, watch and listen, and then clap generously as I reached my final note.
I quit my job to go to college just after I turned 18. I cried. We've been there a few times since, and they always recognise me, and ask after my parents. It's still delicious. Sung Ye isn't around anymore though, but I can't help but smile when I think of him.
And sometimes, on facebook, I play "Diner Dash" out of sentimentality for the days when I always smelled like sweet and sour pork.