I found a Howard Johnson’s waitress uniform from the 1970s for sale on EBay and it looks eerily like the one I wore in 1978-1980. Regrettably, there are no pictures of me wearing my HoJos uniform, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was smoking hot in it. That’s a lie. Sorry, I made that up. My uniform was rusty orange-ish brown polyester with a button-on front panel that was rusty brown, orange and turquoise in a plaid pattern. It came down right to my knees. I wore it with shoes that were a little bit like nurse shoes. I had long, red hair down to my butt that could have looked good in a That ‘70s Show kind of way, but I wore it pulled back and in a giant bun.
The uniform, in all its glory, just about sums up my experience as a waitress. I worked there during the summers and all holiday breaks from college starting the summer after my freshman year. (The previous summer I worked as a cook at King’s Inn, which was a restaurant/hotel-for-people-having-affairs. That’s another blog altogether. King’s Inn was where I was introduced to all that is sordid in life and since I started out a nice Hubbard girl, it was a busy summer. I also saw my first dead person not in a casket there, when two stealthy lovers were crossing Route 422 late one night and got hit by a car and were killed, right in front of the restaurant. The whole kitchen staff went out and looked at them lying there in the road. So much for parking across the street to avoid being seen out having an affair. I felt I had stepped up a few rungs in working at HoJos on Belmont Avenue, because the sleazeometer went way down.)
I hope after reading this you’ll understand why former waitresses leave huge tips even when the service blows and the food is inedible. Being a waitress is a sucky job. Not because of the people you wait on. Mostly because of the bosses, the above-mentioned uniforms, the hours, and the actual work. Delivering food to people at tables and treating them like little babies who can’t wipe their own mouths, asking them again and again if they need anything – you’d think you were a nurse in the quadriplegic ward or something.
My boss was Mr. Hurley, who acted like he was a top executive in a Fortune 500 company, but who – and I had to keep reminding myself of this - was a restaurant manager. First, we had to call him Mr. Hurley and not Don or Bill or whatever his first name was. He strutted around in his short-sleeved shirt and tie, being all managerial. He was having an affair with the assistant manager and everyone knew it (except maybe Mrs. Hurley) and the assistant manager was always sashaying around being assistant-managerial with everyone. You people are managing a restaurant, I wanted to say. But I needed the job, at least until I got my bachelor’s degree, so I kept my mouth shut. I actually didn’t start hating Mr. Hurley until someone told me that if I took a job application from a black person that I should fold down the upper left corner as a code so that Mr. Hurley wouldn’t waste his time interviewing her or him. I am proud to say I never folded down a corner, and ashamed more than anything in my entire 50 years of life that I didn’t call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and send them all to the wolves. I still have a lot of civil liberties activism to log before I’m off the hook on that one.
We had training sessions, for which we did not get paid, but which were mandatory. “People Pleasing People” was our motto and we spent hours listening to Mr. Hurley tell us how we could be people-pleasing people by encouraging our customers to buy the menu items that had the highest profit margin, and putting lots of ice in the glasses before filling them with pop. We would be pleasing one person and that would be Mr. Hurley, was the way I figured it.
The people that I waited on were the best part of the job. Even the crabby, mean ones. Even the ones who tried to dine and dash. Even the bad tippers. Waitressing is like People-Watching-at-the-Mall Xtreme. Because you don’t just watch them, you get to interact with them a little bit.
When I worked 7-3, I waited on mostly truck drivers and Mafia guys (and Barney Bean once.) If I worked the 3-11 shift, I waited on mostly people on dates and families on vacation.
Here’s a handy chart of my customers:
➵ Families on road trips hardly ever stopped at Howard Johnson’s for breakfast or lunch. I think they had a week’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the car/RV/conversion van, but felt obligated to stop and let the kids out for dinner. Twice, while I worked there, a family in an RV left one of their kids standing in the front of the restaurant and drove away, forgetting him. I’m certain those two kids are still in therapy. The parents almost always had deep crevasses in their foreheads. They had managed to pull off a major vacation but probably didn’t realize how much it was going to cost to stop at a roadside chain restaurant for dinner for five. They used to pick over the menu and ask a million questions and then tip badly. Not because they were stingy, but because I would never see them again.
☑ Truck drivers were my favorite. They would leave a $5 tip for a $1.50 cup of coffee if you were just nice to them. You didn’t have to go out on the dates they asked you for; you didn’t even have to flirt back. You just had to be nice and you got paid well. Truck drivers are the most straight-forward people from my past.
♒ People staying in the HoJos hotel were our regulars. That’s where I met Frank, who became a family friend. He lived in the hotel an entire summer and half the fall, while putting a new roof on the middle school. I felt sorry for him and invited him home for a real dinner, so he wouldn’t have to have another clam roll. We went fishing at Lake Milton on our days off and he and my mom became buddies. She used to have him over for dinner even after I went back to college.
〽 Locals sometimes came in and many of them were Mafia guys. Although why someone in the Mafia would pick HoJos when they could have gone to Antone’s, Mr. Anthony’s or Antennucci’s or someplace that had espresso and cannoli, I have no idea. They looked like Mafia, they talked like Mafia and they didn’t have jobs to go to, so they were either Mafia or unemployed Italians. A disproportionate number of the locals were Lebanese guys, who loved Howard Johnson’s. They were constantly asking out the waitresses. Apparently it didn’t matter to them that we had our hair in big buns and were wearing those uniforms. Maybe in Beiruit, orangish-brown is a swinging, sex color. They were persistent. Trust me when I tell you that I did nothing to encourage them - I barely wore makeup - and I never went out with any of them, even though they kept pointing out that they had big houses in Boardman with swimming pools.
Waitressing is a character-building exercise and could be used as a deterrent in extreme cases of laziness. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for all high school seniors who are college material to work waiting tables, if for no other reason than to see why you need that degree so badly.
Mr. Hurley used to tell me that I should watch out, because I just might like being a Howard Johnson’s waitress so much, that I’d forget about that BA in journalism that I was working toward.
“I was in teaching once,” he said. “And I got the restaurant bug and I’ve been here ever since.”
Yeah, I don’t think there was ever any chance in Hell that I was going to drop out of college so I could be a HoJo princess full time. I haven’t made a lot of money as a journalist, but I do well enough that I don’t regret my decision to toss my waitress uniform.
Labels: EBay, HoJos, Howard Johnson's, King's Inn, waitress, waitress uniform