Most of us have sat across the tray from a waitress, but how many of us know what really is going on from her side? Hey, Waitress! aims to tell us. Containing lively, personal portraits of waitresses from many different walks of life, this book is the first of its kind to show the intimate, illuminating, and often shocking behind-the-scenes stories of waitresses' daily shifts and daily lives.
Alison Owings traveled the country—from border to border and coast to coast—to hear firsthand what waitresses think about their lives, their work, and their world. Part journalism and part oral history, Hey, Waitress! introduces an eclectic cast of characters: a ninety-five-year-old Baltimore woman who may have been the oldest living waitress, a Staten Island firebrand laboring at a Pizza Hut, a well-to-do runaway housewife, a Native American proud of her financial independence, a college student loving her diner more than her studies, a Cajun grandmother of twenty-two, and many others.
The book also offers vivid slices of American history. The stories describe the famous sit-in at the Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, which helped spark the civil rights movement; early struggles for waitress unions; and battles against sexually discriminatory hiring in restaurants.
A superb and accessible means of breaking down stereotypes, this book reveals American waitresses in all their complexity and individuality, and will surely change the way we order, tip, and, most of all, behave in restaurants.
Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray
2. Voices from the Other Side of the Tray
Slices of American HistoryWaitress work evokes the present. A meal is served now, minutes (if sometimes many minutes) after being ordered, and often within an hour it is eaten and paid for and its residue removed. The perception of waitressing as immediate, however, risks ignoring the deeper connections some waitresses have, in very different ways, with our common history.
Arleen GarciaThe Sonoran desert, the hottest in North America, spreads a scorch of earth from Baja California to Arizona. In its northern reaches, if winter rains are mighty, spring explodes with sparse lushness, in ascendancies of mesquite, yucca, bear grass, cholla, devil's claw, ocotillo, agave. The grateful people who utilized such bounty also planted seeds for squash, beans, and corn. Then they sang for summer rains, to make narrow rivers overflow onto the planted plains. If they failed to perform the rain ceremony, the Wi:gita, there would be no rains and no crops. That was the conviction. Soon the rains did come, the rivers did overflow, and crops did grow. After the harvest, the people left to spend winters by mountain streams and then returned each summer for the next song-through-harvest cycle.
Their prayers, songs, and speech were in an Uto-Aztecan language that is one of the most ancient spoken vocabularies. The people themselves may have been the most ancient of southwestern aborigines. Their descendants are the Tohono O'odham.
Their land, in Arizona and Mexico, totals 4,462 square miles.1 (Only the Navajo have more.) The riches end with the mileage.
The Tohono O'odham Nation, boasting neither aggressive warriors nor turquoise jewelry, has a most unwarlike and uncommercial reputation, and it has not prospered in the past century. A casino south of Tucson does draw gamblers, but, except for the annual rodeo, relatively few tourists head for the main reservation ("a graveyard of good intentions")2 or auxiliary settlements. Furthermore, the land literally is not what it once was. Much was lost because the unaggressive Tohono O'odham—earlier called Papagos—indeed did not fight a great deal and thus were party to few treaties, for whatever good treaties might have done. The biggest property theft, however, was not land but water. Miners and cattle ranchers dug wells that took it away.3 The Tohono O'odham were parched into place.
The tribal capital is Sells, about a one-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Tucson. The landscape along the way opens to vistas of beige and gray, scenes that invoke the ages but do not invite stopping at dramatic, jaw-dropping overlooks. There are no dramatic, jaw-dropping overlooks. Nearing Sells, one sees roadside death sites made of crosses with plastic flowers, and then pre-fab houses, fences, and wires come into view. Then comes Sells. It is where some Tohono O'odham now spend all the seasons.
On the corner of a modest crossroads, with no sidewalks and almost no traffic, is a social center: the town's sole restaurant. It is a one-story wooden building shaded by a huge tree. Inside are metal and vinyl chairs, padded pink plastic tablecloths, a television on a refrigerator, a sign that says "Do not touch t.v.—thanks." The smell of cooking oil is pervasive. The featured menu is the diet that has turned a lean people into the stricken overweight: Indian fry bread, hamburgers, French fries, a scattering of meaty Mexican dishes.
After centuries of singing down the rains, of cyclical certainty, of self-sufficiency aligned with nature, the Tohono O'odham must be chagrined that there even is a Papago Cafe, or so thinks this outsider. One insider, a waitress, feels differently. Things are looking up. She has a job at last.
It is well after the lunch rush and slowing down. Slow is how Arleen Dora Garcia likes it. Rushing puts her off her pace. Her normal pace, notable as she walks from table to table, is a measured glide. Her back is straight, her face impassive. She could be the sister of the model on the so-called Indian head nickel, with sturdy features through forehead, cheeks, nose, chin. She has dark eyes and skin and shoulder-length black hair. She is forty years old, plainly dressed for work in a white blouse, pants, and sneakers, and wears no adornment of any kind.
When the tables empty for a while, Arleen sits at a sunny window to talk, her posture remaining the kind children are enjoined to emulate. Although semi-off duty, she is on the alert for door openings: customers in the front, the owner in the back.
When I asked her for a self-description, she hesitated. "I'm just an ordinary person," she said. "Being a Tohono O'odham, I guess you'd say. Grandmother." Does she call herself an Indian or a Native American? "Either way. Native American." No preference? "We used to [be] called Papago, but now we're Tohono O'odhams." Preference? The latter. She has always used it, along with a shorthand version, referring, for example, to the casino "run by the T.O.s."
Her words are often halting, her sentences sometimes fragmentary and spare, uninflected, filled with "mmm-hmm" and "mmm-mmm" for yes and no. The reason became clear. Arleen's native language is a native language. Her English, whose sparseness contains archaic words like "naughty" or "a doings" (for a social event) that may be a legacy of missionaries, somehow seems not to fit right.
"I don't know why I started talking English with my kids. Now my kids won't talk [O'odham]. They understand it, but they can't talk it." The tribe is not comfortably bilingual. The tribal newspaper The Runner published an article about the need for translators—"Applicants must speak O'odham and English"—in an upcoming election.
Arleen herself is a transition figure. She was born "not even in a hospital" but in "a little adobe house," her parents' home in a town named Ajo, at the western reach of the reservation. An exhibit at the University of Arizona museum in Tucson includes a replica of a Tohono "adobe house of mud bricks."
She seemed not quite of the present, either. At the cafe, several T.O.s—a chubby snack-buying boy who came in wearing his baseball cap backward, two elderly women in polyester dresses and tightly curled hair who chatted happily over lunch—appeared to be more contemporary than Arleen. So did a young Tohono woman, a Stanford alumna who ran a gift shop nearby and used words such as "awesome."
During one of many puzzled linguistic pauses between Arleen and myself, I commented on the cafe's brightly colored Indian motif curtains. She said the boss's wife had made them. How nice, I chirped, glad for an easy subject. Arleen was unmoved by window treatment small talk. "Hopi design," she said flatly.
Despite neither of us always understanding the other, she seemed willing and at times eager to talk, including about personal matters she later asked me to keep confidential. (I have omitted or changed many details of her life and have given her a pseudonym.) "I lived with my parents 'til I was in my teens. The way they are, you know, all teens get into being naughty and what not." For family reasons, she and her many siblings were sent to another site on the reservation to live with their grandparents when Arlene was about fourteen.
What was she doing that was "naughty"? "Really nothing much. We were just trying to be outside playing at night, and our parents didn't want us to be out there."
Her grandparents "talked to us about how we're supposed to be as we were growing up. It's like my grandma would tell us, 'This is how you'd fix...' when you cook something. She'd show us. That's how we learn. This is how we are right now; we know what to do. When you're off somewhere by yourself with a family, this is what you will be doing. By just looking at what she does, we learned it. And my uncles saying this and that, about how to be in life." She eluded my quest for examples.
Arleen started her own family early. "I'm a high school graduate, but I never went anywhere after I got out of school, because I had my kids." Her first child was born when she was "about twenty-one, I think," and another came several years later. She now has two daughters and two sons as well as two grandchildren. "I did try to work, but I couldn't. So I knew once my children are grown up, I finally thought, well, I'm going to get out and do something. Whatever I can come up [with]. I was on [welfare], and then at one point when I was by myself—that is, when my husband wasn't here—I decided I'm going to go find me a job."
She had, and still has, a small income from "things at home, like, I do arts and crafts. Basketry, crochet, beadwork. Sewing. But I wanted to do something that I could have money on the side for whatever I need, you know?" From her description, she does not seem to be an aggressive salesperson for her work, however. "Over at the church, there are usually some white ladies come in, and we have a little meeting, because they have a little women's organization. We say bring your arts and crafts, so we do. We sell it directly to whoever comes and [visits] our church."
One of the most active members of the church (it is Presbyterian) and a force in Arleen's life is the wife of the cafe owner. The owner himself is from the Iroquois reservation in New York State. His wife is Tohono. In Sells, it is a mixed marriage.
Long before Arleen worked at the Papago Cafe, the owner's wife invited her to join a church prayer group. "We have little prayer services here and there, at each [others'] homes." Arleen spoke of them earnestly. "That's how I learned, being a Christian, that you can come over things. Like a problem that you're trying to have. It's a feeling I guess you get to know, learning about the Lord."
Arleen's early exposure to Christianity was to Catholicism ("we just take part in what they do"), which was the first missionary religion in the area. Rivalry between Catholics and Presbyterians caused enormous rifts in the tribe during the 1930s, sometimes splitting families,4 but she mentioned none of that. If I inferred correctly, Arleen prefers the Protestant faith because it allows her to unburden herself without a priest as intermediary. "You can confess it to God and say, hey...when you're by yourself." Her main spiritual advisor, however, seemed to be the boss's wife. "She encourages me about how the Lord is supposed to work in your life and everything."
She also arranged Arleen's job.
"She told me to come in and talk to her husband. I got the paperwork. I just came in that following Monday. I've been here ever since. I worked as being part of the kitchen, cooking and everything. Preparing plates. Later on he was asking me, 'Would you rather stay back here, or you want to go out and wait tables?' I said I think it would be better if I get out and walk, because I found myself, being in there...during the summer, I get these headaches. The heat's too much for me." Summer temperatures zoom past a hundred degrees, and, judging from the cafe's other fixtures, its cooling system may not be the most efficient. To Arleen, though, who often walks the mile-and-a-half route between home and work, movement mattered more. "I have to keep going, keep walking around."
At the cafe, "my legs are too tired to be standing back there. What's good is me going back and forth, doing this. I've had [the job] for three years now." Her children "kind of missed me at one time, and it probably took them a while before they realized that I'm working."
In Sells, a job is a precious commodity, but not one without cost. Arleen lost her benefits from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). "Right now, I am just on what I work for." Her children are in a local health insurance program, but Arleen has no such coverage herself.
Her waitress training was minimal. "I was told to say hello as you're putting out your menus and treat them nice. That's all I've been trying to do. Other times when I'm in a bad mood, I don't feel like I want to say that." People understand when "I'm not in a good mood."
Some customers, she said with the trace of a frown, are "just picky people. They want you right then and there to bring whatever [they] need. Yet you have only got two hands. And you're waiting on other tables. You can't just leave and drop it. They have to wait until you serve them." The pickiest customers are older people, she noted.
Others simply "like to talk, you know?" Arleen got close to giving herself a compliment: "I'm the kind of person where I look at myself as being kind to everybody. And I'm a soft-hearted person, I guess, when they complain."
Almost all customers are Tohono O'odham. "Everybody knows each other around here." Sometimes, "I'm kind of jumping around." By "jumping around," she meant busy. "On one afternoon, me and [another waitress] shifted around our jobs. We rotated. I worked for her because I wanted to get off that afternoon. I just dreaded her job, because at noon this thing fills up." Then one man made a negative comment to someone about Arleen's work. "I didn't know what he said, and I didn't want to know."
Her usual late afternoon to evening shift is "not as bad, but I enjoy it. And the tips I get [are] a help, because what I get from my pay is not as much." Asked how well people tip, she said, "I'm beginning to notice sometime back that some people that has good jobs, are well-off, they don't tip you nothing. Nothing. [Other] ones that come in, they do, no matter a quarter, fifty cents, or a dollar. I noticed, and I told my boss."
He said he could have told her that the well-off ones do not tip well.
There are exceptions. "From last night, some people said, 'Oh, I like your food,' and I got a five-dollar tip. Very seldom I'll get a five-dollar, even more. A whole bunch come in for a meeting, like the veterans? We just give them coffee. We're not supposed to charge them. But they all put in their dollars. It's like eight dollars for eight individuals."
Asked about the Tohono chief, or chairman, she said evenly that he tips "all right."
Once in a rare while, tourists come through the door. They create diversions of more than one kind. At the reservation town of Covered Wells, I watched an elderly Tohono couple make tortillas at their modest outdoor restaurant, while retirees in pastel slacks circled with cameras, calling out instructions about when to smile. The woman of the couple later told me she gets annoyed at such behavior but does not object out loud—it is part of the restaurant business in Covered Wells.
Arleen claimed that picture-taking tourists did not disturb her. "Not really. If we have something like a doings next week, people come and take pictures or whatever."
What the tourists may not realize, as they snap pictures of Arleen or stare at her striking looks, is that she gapes at them, too.
"I'm amazed to see different ones come in, like from another side of the country. I enjoy talking to them, see. I say, well, I should have a book, let them sign that, and say, hey, I met this person from this [place]. There's still people I talk to at times. We get a conversation going and I go, 'Oh, I forgot I'm supposed to work.'" She came close to a laugh.
Other tourists disconcerted her. "Just the other day, some ladies came in, and I swear, I thought, well, my boss did think that they were"—she leaned forward over the tablecloth and whispered—"lesbians." They came back day after day. The first time, Arleen fled to the kitchen and consulted with her boss. "I said, 'God, this lady stared at me.' I was telling my co-worker and she said, 'No, they're not.' My boss said, 'Yeah, I could tell right straight out. They are.' Of course, I got curious, and I had to ask them...," although she asked them not whether they were lesbians but where they came from.
"They were from Austria, and they were out here doing some whatever, research. They kept coming in for three days. God, I felt so uncomfortable. They were the first people that made me uncomfortable." Relief finally followed. "These ladies came in and were telling [the boss] about going back home because they were worried about their family and their children. So he said, 'Wow, they're not like that.'" Arleen seemed blind to the reason that anyone, much less Austrians, would stare at her.
Some local customers can make her uncomfortable for entirely another reason: they walk in the cafe drunk. They may simply stand around and order nothing. "We let them, and then they take off." Others eat. "We can't refuse services to anybody unless [they cause a problem]." Only one group misbehaved, "but I think they got picked up. I don't think they paid [for] what they ate."
She brought up the subject of alcoholism, as she folded and refolded a piece of paper at the window, the sun on her shoulder. "It's killing our people, alcohol, right now." She spoke about its effect on her own family but indicated that she has been free of the problem herself. "I tried it, but I didn't care for it. I won't. Up to now I just don't. And I'm trying to discourage my kids from that, because it's better to be sober than be in that."
It is ironic that once upon a time—but only once a year—alcohol was a respected part of the Tohono O'odham culture. Saguaro wine, or nawait, made from the fruit that grows atop the saguaro cactus, was dispensed as part of the Wi:gita ceremony to open the summer clouds. This was the only occasion when alcohol was drunk.5
As Arleen mentioned one of her grandfathers drinking, a new sound, perhaps just the back door squeaking from a gust of wind, came into the cafe. That instant, she sat up straighter, cocked her head a fraction toward the sound, and stayed utterly motionless for several seconds.
Ludicrous as it sounds, in those seconds before she relaxed (it was not the boss after all), I saw her in the Tohono desert landscape a millennium ago, standing stone still after hearing a twig snap. I shook myself back to plastic tablecloths, Hopi curtains, and Arleen of the present, whom I did not want to embarrass with foolishness.
She was speaking of how the modern curse of drinking puts children "through a lot. Things go on in the household. That's why the kids are the way they are right now."
The Papago Cafe serves no alcohol, part of an attempt to keep the curse off the reservation. "They're not licensed for liquor here, but we have bootleggers a lot."
Arleen Garcia also was concerned about her own future, as it related to the cafe and her life. She began to speak in unexpectedly intimate detail about her current circumstances and a decision about getting back together with a certain man. It was obvious she cared for him. They met "somewhere at a place that had a doings." She smiled as she reminisced, until mentioning that when he gets a job, he might want her to quit hers. It was obvious, too, that she does not want to give up financial independence.
She likes where she works, mostly. She gets along with her employer ("he's an all right boss"), although she does not like that he swears. "Because I don't talk like that. I don't want to change jobs. But if this place was closed down, I might need to start looking for something else. Somebody's offering me a job, trying to say come to the casino."
There is a long and benevolent tradition of gambling (part of a means of making scarcity seem like abundance) among the Tohono O'odham,6 but the T.O.s Desert Diamond casino south of Tucson marks a departure from that tradition.
Inside a domed complex is a stretch of low lighting, the thickest cigarette smoke imaginable, rows of engaged slot machines, and continuous clangor: triple rows coming up, one-armed-bandit handles going down, clanky-toned payoffs, occasional screams of glee. Through the aisles, the women of the Tohono O'odham Nation, many with their straight black hair frizzed into coiffures of foreign tribes, push money change carts like ice cream dispensers.
Conversation is all but impossible, but one money changer shouted to me, after I shouted to her of Arleen's notion of working here, "You have to be sociable." I shouted, "She seems shy to me." She shouted back, "She won't be shy long."
At the cafe in Sells, I asked Arleen what she would like to happen in her life. As usual, she spoke softly. "I don't know. I just live a normal life. I'm thankful for what I get, even though it's not much. Yet I know I want more—if I was to have another job and get more pay, you know?" But "it's hard for me to leave this, because I've been so in it." She looked around her, and then she proved that, in one respect, belief in prayer has not changed for the Tohono O'odham.
"Being that my boss's wife is a Christian lady, when I joined that [church] group, at the end we'd say what we would ask for, a prayer. My request was, 'I want a job. I'm looking for a job. I'm praying for a job that I would some day have. I don't know what, but I want something.' My next time, later on, my prayers were answered."
Ima Jean EdwardsOn February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four teenage male students from a local college went downtown, entered the Woolworth's department store, bought a few items, walked over to the store's sizable and popular lunch area, and sat down at a counter. They assumed that the waitress who came over would say she could not serve them. She was white, they were black, and they were right.
Then they said they would not leave. That precise moment, at those four padded vinyl stools with metal tube backs along that long, cool counter, would take on enormous significance in the civil rights movement. It was the beginning of the first southern sit-in.
Ima Jean Edwards, who had been a Woolworth's waitress for seven years, was working at the combined bakery counter and snack bar a few yards away. "They came in that afternoon, late in the afternoon, and asked to be served. And of course at that time nobody in the South served a black person at the counter or otherwise. You might serve 'em in the kitchen, but you didn't serve them up at the counter with the other people." By "up at the counter," Ima Jean did not mean her counter, where she served food to customers, black and white, who ate right there, standing up. No one objected to Woolworth's customers integrating themselves by eating while standing? "No."
That February day, co-workers later told her, the students ordered a piece of apple pie.7 "The waitress who waited on them told them, 'I'm sorry, but I can't serve you.'" A manager stepped in. "They wouldn't move when the management asked them. They told them then they would be back the next day."
Ima Jean was among the employees who believed the students. "Some had said, 'Oh, no, they won't be back'; but they had definitely told us they would be."
While the sit-in began—"I knew it was going on"—she stayed at her counter, working. She had no need to get close to hear what management would say. "It really wasn't a definite policy, because it was ev-er-y-where. Nobody served a black person with the white people. It was the code of the South."
Ima Jean Edwards did not feel poised on the brink of history. "At the time, I didn't think much would come of it." Then again, she had been raised with lowered expectations.
A native North Carolinian, she grew up the eldest of six children on a small farm of meager output. Asked about her childhood, she said without inflection that it had been "really hard." If misfortune comes in threes, Ima Jean's first might have been poverty. The second came when she was eight. Carrying her baby sister to the post office while their parents were in the fields, Ima Jean collapsed, one leg buckling. It was polio. During a long convalescence at home, "I had to lay there with sand bags to my arm and my leg, to keep it from going crooked." The third blow came a couple of years later. Her father went to a chiropractor for a treatment and suddenly lost his memory. Diagnosed as insane, he was put in a mental hospital. "For four years, he did not know who we were, at all." The children who were old enough to work helped their mother keep the family's few farm animals fed and the corn and tobacco fields producing.
At the age of twelve, Ima Jean decided she could help best by leaving. She became a live-in babysitter for a local family in exchange for room and board. At fourteen, she made another decision to relieve her family's financial burden: as allowed under state law, she quit school. School and books were free, of course, but nothing else was. "If I had had the clothes and shoes and stuff I needed to go ahead to school, I would have. ;...I liked school. But I felt it was too much of a hardship on the family. I would be a-taking away from the others."
To earn her own way, she moved in with a couple who owned a small cafe, where she received room and board and also some pay in exchange for much labor. "I got up when they went to work and worked until they quit that night, and I worked as a waitress." The food was "just country cooking, like pinto beans, turnip greens, and chicken and beef stew." She liked waiting tables. "It gives you a chance to meet people, and I always liked people."
Ima Jean's pronunciation and speech patterns reflect her roots in the northwestern part of the state, a region known for fine fiddle music and proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her accent, however, can mislead the uninitiated. The Woolworth's building is not on "L" Street after all, as I learned after a fruitless drive, but on "Elm." If her accent and her slow, nearly swallowed, words took getting used to, she did not. A pale, hefty, white-haired woman with light blue eyes and a nice smile, she wore an appliqued hot pink outfit more flamboyant than she was. She sat on a living room chair near her grandson's ex-girlfriend's unicorn collection, which she had ended up with, and answered all questions—except ones about the Ku Klux Klan—pleasantly and carefully.
With an abashed grin, she remembered her first waitressing job. "I was real proud of myself that year. I could go buy Christmas presents for all the kids." She bought each of her sisters "what I thought was a beautiful doll." A half century later, her pride still showed.
In the meantime, doctors at the mental hospital discovered that her father suffered not from insanity but from chiropractic malpractice: he had a pinched nerve. "When they straightened that out, he was fine. His mind cleared, and he was well." He returned home to farm life, her parents considering the episode "just another hurdle that they crossed over." Ima Jean, meanwhile, moved on.
She married at the age of sixteen. "Which didn't last but just a few months," she said, laughing. Her husband, a housepainter by vocation and a pool player and woman chaser by avocation, she learned, "was what I thought was the perfect man at that time. Tall and good-looking and all this." But "I don't think he ever considered himself really married. He was always a-running around." (They got around to divorcing some five years later.)
To avoid seeing him, Ima Jean worked out of town at another cafe, where she served food and gasoline. No matter the weather, waitresses ran outside in their white uniforms, pumped gas, ran in, washed their hands, and resumed waiting tables. Ima Jean happily reminisced that the waitresses could eat anything they wanted, even a T-bone steak, "because they didn't pay you much" and "tips wasn't much."
Her next move, to the big city of Greensboro, with a family member as companion-chaperon, had a dual motive: "Things wasn't really going like I wanted" in a new romance, she recalled, and she was also "wanting to move on to a better job." She set her sights on mill work, which paid better than restaurants. She failed a test at one mill (polio had left her "not real good in coordination") and waited to hear back from others.
"Finally, I picked up the paper, and I seen an ad for Woolworth's." The ad was for a waitress. "I said, 'I'll just go take that until I can get something else.'" She laughed. "'Something else' never did come along." Ima Jean worked at Woolworth's forty years.
She glowed with enthusiasm about the early days. "It was busy, busy, busy, that's all I can say. People stood all the way around the counter, all day long, from the time we opened up 'til the time we closed."
Prices were low, the food was homemade, and service was friendly. By more than one account, the integrated staff—white management and waitresses, mostly black kitchen staff—worked well together. "I can't remember not getting along with anyone as long as I worked." She listed waitresses, cooks, and other employees, fretting when she forgot a name. She recalled "a little girl that could not talk" who worked in "bake shop."
On February 1, when the store closed for the night, the four students—who had remained at the counter despite being unable to buy anything while seated—left. Woolworth's manager, C. ;L. Harris, who subsequently became well known for his role in responding to the sit-ins, called a meeting the next morning. Ima Jean attended.
"I don't remember the words," but she did remember the message. Harris instructed the waitresses that "in case [the students] did come in, to tell them that we were sorry, it was not them, particularly, but it was the policy of the South that we had to abide by until it was changed." Even though it was not a legal policy? "Right." She also remembered that she and the other employees were told to be calm and not to speak to the students.
Ima Jean had been right about the young people. "The next day they came back, with more added." This time they were on the early side of lunch, "probably about eleven o'clock. I think they stayed out of school." She paused and wondered out loud about that, about skipping classes in college. Her sacrifice of high school felt palpable. She continued, "Well, I seen them come in and sit down, you know, and they asked to be served, and then they just sit, they didn't move. [The waitresses] more or less worked around them."
Asked about the students' appearance, she said, "They were dressed fine. They didn't come in dressed like hobos would." And "they behaved in a good manner."
She observed from her post at the carry-out counter, where she was extremely busy. She did not recall talking about the sit-in with anyone, for she was "working just as fast as you can go," but she did sense a change in the air. "There was a difference. Yes, there was a tension. As the time wore on, it was more tension." She imitated bitchy voices: "'Well, I wouldn't eat there.' I've heard a lot of that. 'I would not sit down besides one of them neither.' 'If you start serving them, I will not be back.' Stuff like this." Her reaction? "I thought, if you want to feel like that, feel like that. It's your privilege."
The students, of course, also had a logistical impact. "I think the general feeling was that they were taking away from the counters, [from] people that was trying to eat." As for the kitchen staff, "some of them was strongly against. Against changing. In fact, one or two had a few words with the students, about 'Why are you trying to cause trouble?' and all this."8
Asked how the waitresses felt about serving black customers, she paused a second. "Well, the waitresses. Some of them would have waited on them, some of them would not have. Mixed feelings, I guess you could say." Could she have guessed who would have been either way? "No. Because we were more or less friends with the blacks that we worked with. I mean, we talked to 'em, like I'm talking to you. I won't say socialized with them, but we treated them like they were one of the family, I guess. That's the word I'm looking for."
As for her own reaction about serving black people at the sit-down counters, she said, "I'm not sure what my reaction was there, because I served them all day long. My feeling was, well, I don't see why they have to be treated different, I guess."
That was her feeling then? Or now? "That was my feeling then," she said, with unusual forcefulness, and went on to recount that in the cafe where she had worked earlier a black man always had to eat in the kitchen and that she had disliked there being separate waiting rooms at the bus station. "I don't how I felt about it, but it didn't seem right. I felt like they should have been treated equally as we were. I guess that leads back to the Bible. How does it go?" she laughed some, trying to remember. "Treat each...Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
As word of the sit-in spread, "it got so that [the protestors] were taking the whole counter, and there wasn't any place to serve the people. And of course, that was getting them mad, because most [were] on lunch breaks and so forth. They didn't want to go anyplace else." Some people came to Woolworth's to join the students, and some to harangue them, or worse. One photograph shows the students sitting in a row, neatly dressed, heads high, drenched with whatever had been thrown at them by onlookers. A mob of white people, mostly young men, screams inches from the students' faces. The photograph oozes hatred and impending violence.
Ima Jean painted no such pictures. Even during the sit-in, she kept her thoughts mostly to herself, she said. She never discussed the situation with her parents; she was not much of a letter writer, as her mother often fussed, and her parents had no telephone. Nor did she discuss the situation "a lot" with her new husband, a mechanic for the local utility company. She did remember one conversation, however.
"He wanted me to quit. Because he was afraid for me." Speaking softly, she said, "We didn't argue about it. I said, 'No, that's my job, and that's where I'm going to stay.'"
She did not talk much with her co-workers about the sit-in either, although she indicated that waitresses began questioning "the code of the South" more than before and that a majority favored integration. "I didn't hear a lot of argument about 'I'm not going to wait on them, if they start serving them' or anything." She added, "We couldn't work with them as close as we worked with them and be against them at the same time. I'm not sure that's everybody's feeling, but that was my feeling.
"In fact, a lot of [the waitresses] felt like if we had served them that day, all this other might not have taken place. It mushroomed from here all over the South." She also heard that the students had planned all along "to open up the South for serving" and that Woolworth's was picked first "because it was a name that was known."9
Every day throughout the sit-in, Ima Jean commuted to work as usual, boarding an electric trolley bus for the two-mile trip from her modest house (a block from where she now lives alone as a widow) to downtown and back. Twice a day, therefore, she saw another example of what the sit-in was about. "They had to go to the back of the bus. Later on, they [desegregated] the buses, too. They could sit anywhere." Her feelings about that? "My feelings about that would be, if you'd paid the price for the ride, why not sit where you want to?"
Looming over the sit-in was, of course, the Ku Klux Klan. It was "real active in Greensboro, and they got to heckling the students and so forth." She said, "I was not aware of the Klan until after I started dating my second husband. We went to a rally, out off of Market Street, in a field, just to see what it was. Not because we were interested. This was in the '50s. I didn't like it. I did not like the hoods, I did not like the fire. They had torches. Then as things went on, they burnt crosses in people's yards, different things that I did not agree with." Did her husband feel the same way? "Very strongly." Did the Klan give them any trouble? "A little." She elaborated only off the record. Her feelings about the KKK are "a whole 'nother story." As late as 1979, the Greensboro Klan and American Nazis massacred five demonstrators who were taking part in an anti-Klan march. Ima Jean said the Klan remains active in her neighborhood.
While tension and turmoil increased at Woolworth's sit-down counters, Ima Jean's stand-up counter was relatively calm and increasingly busy. It must have been the only prosperous part of the store. Woolworth's was losing a lot of money, she said, but its employees were not. For one thing, waitresses were not tipped. "At that time, we had up signs, 'No Tipping.'"
C.L. Harris, furthermore, reassigned any waitress whose counter was occupied by demonstrators. His feeling about the protesters, she said, was that "if he served them, he thought the rest of the restaurants should serve them also. It wasn't that he didn't want to serve them."
Day by day, while he worked behind the scenes, reportedly for citywide integration, "everything was getting so out of hand" at Woolworth's. Klan members were "jeering the students and pushing. We felt like...it could be trouble."
The sit-in moved into the street, where protestors were arrested, although "it was still peaceful." What did she think of this strategy of nonviolence? "Well, I admired them for that."
A bomb threat forced the next move.
"That's when they made the decision to close the counter. Because they didn't want any disturbance to take place in the store." Also, "the customers were getting very irritated."
The counters received a kind of plastic flower funeral, culled from Woolworth's inventory of artificial plants. The managers "went over to the counters and told the waitresses, 'Clean your counter, put everything up. We're going to close it.' They covered the whole counter with wreaths of flowers and stuff. You couldn't even hardly tell the counter was there." The waitresses and kitchen staff then were put to work throughout the store. "They did not lose one penny or one hour," she said firmly. "They still had the baking and stuff to do." She emphasized, "Nobody lost their job at all."
As is well known, the students eventually won. It might be the only time that waitress work—or, rather, the nonperformance of waitress work—led to a change in federal law.
Hidden in the annals of the big story is a lesser-known one: the identities of the first African American customers. Even McArthur Davis, director of Greensboro's planned International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which is meant to occupy the old Woolworth building, was surprised. One afternoon, he unlocked the old store, which still stands near other elaborately fronted, high-ceilinged buildings, all now empty but glorious, in the old commercial heart of Greensboro. Once inside, he strolled along with Ima Jean and me, talking about the future and asking her about the past. The vacant, unlit premises were dim and dusty. The place looked forgotten. Some counter seats are missing. They are in the Smithsonian, not forgotten. Almost the only brightness came from pictures of advertised specials still lining the walls above the grill. Ima Jean saw them and smiled.
Earlier that day in her home, Ima Jean had related to me the information that so startled McArthur Davis: "Our first customers was the girls in the kitchen. When they opened that day, they had them to sit down, at the counter, to show that we were serving."
Woolworth's management had come up with the idea of asking three kitchen employees to be the first African American customers served at the counters. Geneva Tisdale, then twenty-eight, was one of them.
In a phone interview (thanks to the intercession of her old friend Ima Jean), Geneva Tisdale talked not only about the drama of that day but also about the days that led up to it. She spoke almost without a southern accent, except for dropping some middle r's (so "board" was closer to "boad"), and was altogether faster and surer than Ima Jean as she described the moment the sit-in started.
"I remember these boys coming in, I'll say it like that, and they sat about middleways down. I was in the back working. Once in a while, you had to go up and down the counters for different things, so I happened to pass by, and I saw them sitting there. Well, kind of give me the chills at the time because, knowing it was an all-white counter, I was wondering why they were sitting there. Of course, I just passed by.
"I had this feeling it would cause problems, that's what I thought. We have had blacks come in and sit, and they would tell 'em that...it was all white. I don't know where they were from, but that has happened a time or two. I have seen 'em. So they would get up and leave. No problem there. When I saw these boys sitting there, I thought it could have been the same. Maybe they didn't know." When she realized they did know, and "it started increasing," she grew concerned. "I knew it was heading to something, I didn't know what, but that kind of shook me up. Because all you can think of is trouble." She added, "As long as it was just all white, you had no problem."
Geneva praised her then co-workers, from C.L. Harris ("a nice man") to lunchroom manager Rachel Holt ("a hard-working woman") to Ima Jean. "She and I got along together good. She's always been a good person." In a place where "there wasn't any, that I know of, hard feelings," Geneva sometimes helped out the waitresses with tasks such as taking and getting customers' orders, "because we'd be real busy."
Despite such occasions, she would not have been hired as a waitress; both sides of the counters were strictly white. "At that time, that's the way everything was. We were used to that. So we had no problem with that. It was all white waitresses. We did all the other work. Steam tables and fountain girl were black. Mostly. In the kitchen, we had all black. Once in a while, a white would come in, they would want a job, [Rachel Holt] would put them anywhere they could work. We had no problem with that. We all got along."
Asked whether she thought the waitresses might have served black customers, she said, "I feel like a lot of 'em would have. But they couldn't do it. I guess they felt they could get fired."
As the sit-in continued, Geneva's focus changed. "The more they got into it, I started thinking." She started wondering why black people could spend their money everywhere in the store but at a sit-down counter. She confirmed they ordered "anything they wanted to" at the snack counter and ate it there, standing. "We all started thinking about it. The girls and I, we all talked about it, because we couldn't sit down there either. We worked there, and we couldn't sit at the counter. We were the ones fixing all the food for them to eat, but we felt we wasn't good enough to sit at the counter."
As her consciousness rose, so did her anxiety. "I didn't know what was going to happen, and I was carrying my third child then, and I really was scared." Her husband, a construction worker for the electric company, worked out of town a lot and kept track of the sit-in by listening to the news. He worried, too, but did not ask her to quit. "I was told to be careful." Like Ima Jean, "I didn't think about quitting, because I wanted the job." Rachel Holt—"Miz Holt" in Geneva's telling—moved her to work upstairs in the employee lunchroom, away from the activity.
She was hardly isolated upstairs, however, having to run outside during the bomb threat and realizing all too well that the sit-in had spread to the street. Protestors now included some of her neighbors' children, high school students. "In the demonstration they were in, they were loading them wagons up like I don't know what, taking those children to jail."
Rachel Holt approached her again and told her to go home. "'Don't you come back until after you've had that baby.' So I had a break."
Geneva Tisdale's baby was born, and so was the first success of the sit-in movement. Woolworth's, in her phrase, was going to "open its lunch counters to everybody."
While she and others began preparing the counters for business on that day, Rachel Holt told her about the delicate ruse.
"She called three of us out in the hall. It was myself, Anetha Jones—she's deceased now—and Susie Kembler. She called us out and said, 'I want you three girls to be the first to sit at the counter.' Each one of us, spaced us out. She wanted to get the reaction of the public coming in. 'We're gonna see what happens.' She said, 'When you come in, bring a change in clothes,' so we wouldn't be in our uniforms, because she didn't want people to know who we were.
"We went in to work that morning like we always did." At a signal, the three were supposed to go upstairs, dress as customers, come downstairs, walk around as if shopping, and then sit at the lunch counter. "She said, 'Now, if you don't want to get in the papers'..." Geneva laughed. "She said, 'I got a feeling when the word gets out, they will have these photographers in there. Order something you can eat real quick, and get up and go upstairs and change back into your clothes and come back down on the counter to work. Let's see what happens.'
"I had on, I never will forget, a two-piece black-and-white little suit, and I had my black bag and some black shoes." No, there wasn't a double meaning in the black-white choice, she said, laughing high. "I didn't think of it like that. I just was trying to get into something that looked nice. Because I was supposed to be a customer."
Then came the moment to sit at the counter.
"Mabel Bozart, she was my waitress. They knew what was going to happen. Mabel did. When [we] went down[stairs], she tells me, 'You sit here in my station.' We were already close and good friends anyway. She had no problem waiting on me."
Geneva recalled not only what she wore but also what she ate. "Oh, I ordered an egg salad sandwich. I never will forget that. And I got a drink, a soda. I almost swallowed that sandwich [whole]." She added, "I don't think I've had a egg salad sandwich since!"
She did not wait to see whether photographers came in. "Being nervous, I didn't want to see who was coming in to do what." She laughed in apparent relief. "I got up and cut a beeline and we left the counter. We went on upstairs, back in our uniforms, came back down. Sure enough, here come the photographers. People coming in in droves. We stood around and looked. And blacks start coming in and sitting at the counter. So they started waiting on 'em."
Ima Jean remembered the new customers "didn't say anything. They just come in and ordered like it had always been."
Eventually, she was assigned the sit-down counter herself. "To me that was fine. 'Cause, I mean, [black customers] didn't bother me at all." Holt also asked the three sit-down pioneers whether they wanted to waitress. One said yes, but not Geneva. "I told her I would stay right where I was."
The customers changed in more ways than one. Some white customers left, as they said they would, recalled Ima Jean. "I thought, if that's the way you want to be, fine."
Geneva's recollections are similar. "We did have some of the whites get up and walk out. We went through that, too." She added, "You'd be surprised at, I guess I don't know whether you'd call it hate? Out of fear? I don't know what you'd call it, really, but I'd say hate in people, when you start into something like it. I've seen many [men and women] get up and walk out if a black person would sit beside 'em. For a while, anyway. I don't know if it was because they were scared, or if they thought they were too good to sit there beside a black person.
"After things settled down," she said, "you went to work. It didn't cross your mind right away. But then there was a time you would think about it, what a hard time they had to get that through." She never had another meal, not to mention another egg salad sandwich, at the Woolworth's counter. It was easier to eat upstairs in the employees' area, nearer where she worked.
"Many a time," though, she went downstairs "and just sat on the stool for a little while."
Geneva Tisdale worked the salad board and steam tables until 1993, when Woolworth Corporation, as part of a nationwide downsizing, closed first the lunch counters and then the whole store. She went to work at a Friendly's—where her old boss C.L. Harris visited her—until she retired.
Ima Jean Edwards was promoted to lunch counter manager in the 1980s and continued in that job until she retired.
Having known each other nearly fifty years, the two women stay in touch, mostly by phone. They come from two sides of the old "code of the South" but share concern about its staying power. Geneva said at one point, "Racism is not over yet. We all know that." Ima Jean, asked what she would like to have happen in the next ten years, did not hesitate a second. "I would like to see the people to get along together. That'd be my feeling."
Beulah ComptonShe had no more desire to keep her opinions to herself these days than she did in more tumultuous times, and she was now ninety. Save for her snow white hair, one would not think her that old. She drove her car through the streets of Seattle skillfully ("I've got wheels!" she announced on the phone), her voice was strong, her creamy skin looked remarkably smooth, and her eyes flashed, especially when she talked about her adversaries.
Beulah Compton was a "union maid," as the phrase in the old song goes. She was not so much a rank-and-file member, however, as she was a union leader.
Waitresses unions, which started about the time the twentieth century did, are unique in the history of the American labor movement. They were so strong for so long and, in most cases, were adamantly separate from male unions. The spunky and gutsy "girls," as they generally called one another, wanted their own locals to fight their own battles, in an era when neither their sex nor their background was prized. Socially and financially, they were marginalized; but politically they organized. Imagine, waitresses—who did not even have the right to vote—going on strike! One early goal was a six-day work week. Another was a ten-hour work day. Over the years, their setbacks sometimes were as stunning as their successes, but by the 1930s they were a power.
So was Beulah Compton. From 1948 to 1956, more or less the peak years of unionization, she headed the country's oldest permanent waitresses union in one of the country's biggest restaurant union strongholds: Seattle. Her union, Local 240, was founded in 1900. In her last year in office, 90 percent of the city's restaurants were union, and nearly four thousand waitresses were in her charge.10 As for her adversaries, the people who made her eyes flash, they included not only the usual foes but also some unexpected ones: certain union officials.
Beulah Compton first revealed her sentiments when I mentioned meeting her former cohort and contemporary Jackie Walsh, who had headed the San Francisco waitresses union. That union and Local 240 have long been part of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE).
"Oh, goodness, yes," said Beulah, upon hearing the name. "I always liked Jackie. We were a couple of rebels. Well, she got along with the international union better than I, but I was such an upstart, promoting minimum wage. Things like that were a no-no as far as the union was concerned. Getting a minimum wage—you close the door on unionism, [they'd say]. Afraid of a little floor to build on," she said mockingly.
She was sitting in her modest apartment in northern Seattle, surrounded by grief. One of her two daughters had recently died. It was helpful, she implied, to talk about something else. She fingered her string of costume pearls and let sadness surge into outrage.
"My union was and still is just full of crooked hierarchy." She raised her chin and laughed. "All men. The top echelon is always filled by men. They have a few women vice presidents, but I understand they sign a resignation form before they're hired. If they don't go along with the president's wishes, he can accept their resignation and say 'Goodbye now.'" 11
Despite the praise of its supporters, HERE has amassed other notable detractors, too, including the federal government, which repeatedly investigated the union and put it under federal supervision during the 1990s.12 Beulah Compton, in the meantime, amassed some detractors herself.
She was the child of an adventure. At the turn of the century, her family and several others climbed in a partitioned-off railroad car in Iowa and headed west. The trip and the tracks ended in Tacoma, near where her father had leased some timberland, to which the family then hiked. Beulah, named after a horse, she said, was born in 1905. According to family legend, she was such a beautiful baby that an Indian chief asked to trade an Indian woman for her. Beulah's father, not a man she grew to admire, refused.
She grew up in a log cabin he built. She later saw a photograph of him with the cabin windows strapped to his back. An especially strong friend named Olly carried the stove, joking that it would be less heavy if not for the sack of flour in the oven. The light-hearted spirit did not last. She portrayed her father as a domineering wanderer, her "absolute angel" of a mother as "very submissive."
Beulah then recalled an exception, a childhood incident that inspired her own later behavior. The family was in church. "Papa shot up and asked the congregation to pray for his wife, to make her a better woman. I remember her, with all the dignity in the world, standing up to her full five feet," and then she "swept out of the church. I wanted to clap. Papa left again shortly after that."
As a young woman, Beulah married a man named Ralph Compton and had two daughters. She was circumspect in describing him but gave the impression that his primary affections were directed toward himself. His family's social standing was more elevated than hers, but his work habits were not. Beulah soon had to get a job. She was living in Aberdeen, Washington. The year was 1929, and the Depression had just begun.
"I didn't realize what the Depression was, because I had been living in a depression off and on as a kid. I didn't realize there was any calamity going on. My husband would hop from one job to another." Beulah brought little hope to her search for work. "I didn't have any confidence. My husband didn't help give me any self-confidence, either. He was a compulsive gambler. It was at Christmas time, and we were living with my sister and her husband down the street. My mother cooked Christmas dinner, and we were all invited, and Ralph didn't show up. After dinner, I went home and I told him we were disappointed he wasn't at my mother's. He said he'd gotten his paycheck and gambled the whole thing. It was ninety-eight dollars a month. I said, 'Well, ninety-eight dollars. It could have been a hundred.' He put his arms around me and said, 'Oh, Beulah, I always felt I was much better than you, but right now I don't.' That was my compliment."
She and he soon parted company, and she supported her daughters on her own, waitressing one job full-time during the day, another part-time at night. On one nighttime job, in a place owned by Greeks (good, respectable family men, she recalled), she augmented her income by stealing seafood.
She put crab in one pocket of her apron and shrimp in the other, went home, woke her girls, and fed them "like little birds." Beulah pocketed seafood in part because she pocketed so few tips. "I didn't know how to promote tips. I really didn't like working as a waitress, to tell you the truth." She laughed heartily. "I probably showed it. An outgoing waitress could go right alongside of me and make more tips than I would.
"One time we were really short of help, and I went to work on the counter." It was huge—"almost a half block long," she said. She worked four to five hours a day, "and I think in six weeks I'd made one dime." The Depression, of course, was a big reason tips were low. "There wasn't that much money around." She remembered "a group of young lawyers that came in for coffee about ten o'clock every morning and sat at this long table. An old-time lawyer used to sit with them." They asked questions, he "held court," and they never tipped at all. At Christmas, however, they pooled their money and gave her red satin lounging pajamas, "just my size," she smiled.
Often management promoted her into other jobs. "I would either get to cashier or work as a hostess." Unfortunately, the salary often was even less than she made waiting tables. "I usually worked myself up to where I couldn't possibly make a tip. And I needed it."
In Seattle in the 1930s, working as a cashier, she encountered a policy about discrimination she never forgot. "If a black couple came in, the waitresses were told to...just let them sit there. Don't serve them. Discourage them." The people always left. "It made me feel terrible, but there was nothing I could do about it." As far as she knew, no one else protested, either.
Beulah began to accrue power to fight other fights. "The Bartell Drug Company in Seattle had fountains and tea rooms and cafeterias all over town. I went to work managing one of those and then worked up to where I was supervisor of the twenty-three food outlets. As such, I was the negotiator for management, and I had a lot of fun. You know, getting things fixed up for the help. I was maybe eight or ten years with the drug company [when] this one wonderful woman who was the head business agent for the waitresses union invited me to join her."
She was Pauline Newman, who also invited Beulah to accompany her to a union convention in Chicago. "She confided in me then she was sure she had cancer, but the doctors wouldn't tell her she did. She didn't think she was going to live long, and she wanted me to come to work with the union, because she didn't want to turn the union over to dirty hands. Meaning [her] boss, who was my boss later." Beulah identified the "boss," as she almost always called her, as Lillian Sandburg. Pauline Newman proved right about Sandburg, according to Beulah's account, and she also proved right about her own diagnosis. "She died, and it really broke my heart." Beulah then followed her mentor's wishes.
In 1947, "I got a job, paid job, as a business agent, and I did love that." Being a union business agent included traveling to restaurants in her territory and hearing what was on waitresses' minds. "I loved going from one to another and trying to correct grievances. Most all waitresses, as I knew them, particularly in those days, were forced into the [work]. One place you could get on-the-job training was become a waitress. And most of them had children and needed child care." For them, Beulah discovered a sympathetic and untapped resource. She went to "some of the older waitresses that were in their sixties and seventies and not working as waitresses, but maybe had lost their husbands and rattled around in a home big enough to share. I found a lot of places for working waitresses to leave their children with former waitresses.
"The boss"—Lillian Sandburg—"later heard about it and discouraged it. She said, 'I want you to know, Beulah, you're not a social worker, you're a business agent. You shouldn't have any real interest in what happens to that individual.'" (Sandburg, in Beulah's eyes, also committed the sin of being "uppity" to waitresses who served her.)
Beulah was not deterred. "I'm a strong union person. I believe in unions, and there's so much a union can do besides bread-and-butter issues." In her years as a business agent, she discovered that a common grievance was "harassment." She looked exasperated as she described the complaint of a fifty-five-year-old woman, "a really fine waitress working not far from a union hall, Sailors [Union] of the Pacific. She came in to see me and said the chef had fixed her tray for her...It was her [break] time, and she told him what she wanted for lunch. He had prepared that, but he put a note on it: 'This will cost you so many rolls in the hay,' or some silly thing. She brought the note in and showed me.
"I had a friend running the Sailors Union of the Pacific, [Max] Weisbarth; he was half Jewish and half Filipino. I called him and told him what was going on, and I knew he and his men ate there. He was built like a gorilla, a great big head and long arms and very muscular-looking, with a high little voice. He says," she piped her voice high, "'Okay, what you want, Beulah? A broken leg?' I said, 'Oh, no, Maxie. I don't want anybody hurt. I just want him warned he has to treat the waitresses with respect.'" Maxie and "his following" kept going to the restaurant. "One day, sure enough, as the waitresses would come around the corner, this cook would reach out and grab them by the behind or did something right in front of some of Maxie's men. [Then Maxie] says, 'He's in the hospital now.' 'What?' 'Oh, he'll live okay. He got broken up, but he won't tangle with any more waitresses.'"
Beulah smiled again.
She had great admiration, too, for the union's top boss, whom she met during one of her first convention trips. She was "fairly new," but "very popular with the membership" and had been elected a delegate early on. Hugo Ernst, "the president at that time, was a dear old Jewish man from Czechoslovakia. Oh, my, he wore spats, and he walked with a cane, and there were no flies on him. A sweet, dear, honest old man." Ernst was more progressive than his times. Despite a racist enmity held by rank-and-file members toward Asians (Chinese and Japanese in particular), Ernst tried for years—and in vain—to bring them into the union. Two waitress orators at the convention, who had earlier spoken eloquently against the condescension of "helpful" bourgeois women (who disapproved of waitresses serving alcohol, for example), helped to trounce Ernst's attempt.13
A person for whom Beulah had no admiration was Lillian Sandburg. "The female sex is not a passport to heaven. I found that out." She charged, among other things, that Sandburg "was in up to her neck in kickbacks" (all allegations I was unable to verify).
Beulah decided to fight Sandburg for the leadership of Local 240. "I either had to get all the way out or all the way in, so I ran against her and got [up] a slate of some of the misfits with me." Then "I had to pick executive board members to run with me and...made it." In 1948, Beulah Compton became the leader, the executive secretary, of Seattle Local 240.
She now was in charge of some three thousand women, and she got to work. She hired business agents from a variety of places, one "from a banquet group and one on a working men's counter and one from a fine hotel," and watched how well they did their initial jobs. Then, "when I got better acquainted with them," she expanded their duties. "One, in addition to having her territory to cover, called on the sick and ran errands for ill waitresses." Beulah also promoted health lectures for members. "At the union meeting I invited doctors in with different specialties, particularly oncologists. Any waitress interested could go get breast exams, and there were seventeen or eighteen small cancers found. All but a couple of them were small enough that they could be taken care of."
She also fulfilled a campaign promise: she set up child care centers at union halls so that waitresses could more easily attend meetings.14 And she made "a lot of headway" with African Americans as union members—"putting them on committees, making them feel part of the union."15
During her first three years of leadership, she not only went beyond her expected tasks but also set about achieving a major goal: to get Seattle waitresses a good contract. After efforts she did not describe, but which must have been mighty, she became the head of a negotiating team of five unions, representing cooks, bartenders, waiters, waitresses, and hotel maids, and got very close to settling a contract. The year was 1951.
"The [old] contract was expiring at midnight on the thirty-first of May, and we were all set to strike." Then came an unexpected blow. The international union by that time was no longer headed by Ernst, and Lillian Sandburg was still in the picture, having been promoted within the union after losing the election to Beulah. "The international sent a wire to continue negotiating, pull off the strike, and sent a copy to the union boss, Lillian Sandburg, with a copy to the head of the restaurant association, saying we couldn't strike." Beulah's tone took on outrage.
"[Sandburg] brought this wire up to the lawyer who was the president of the [restaurant] association, and he read it to his associates. We were in negotiations. It was on the thirty-first, around noon. He said, 'You couldn't strike if you wanted to.'" She pounded her dining room table. "He called his group of negotiators out and left us with egg on our faces."
Some on the negotiating team "were scared to death of the international." Beulah was not scared but was furious about the betrayal. While those who "had whipped us went out for a banquet," she and a friend, who headed the hotel maids union, went off "to talk it over."
Inspiration struck during dinner. "One of the employers was by this time running the Bartell chain restaurants. I had been his boss and was a good friend when he came out from New York to work on one of my counters." Beulah now called him. "I said, 'Fred, there's no way we can stop this strike from going on. We've got a tiger by the tail, so you tell so-and-so and so-and-so to meet us in the basement meeting room of the cooks union hall before midnight, or the strike is going to go on and there's no way we can stop it.' It was all a bunch of lies. I could have called it off just like that."
She knew she was in defiance of the international. "So we were in this meeting hall, and just before midnight who comes in but the head of the hotel chain [and the] head of the restaurant chain and about four or five restaurant owners, almost with their tails between their legs. They came in and wanted to talk. I had left one door open, showing all the picket banners, so they could see we were ready to go, and something happened. Suddenly in that hall was hammering, hammering, hammering, banging around, 'Strike!' 'Strike!' 'Strike!' These kids were going to strike. Somebody had put them up to doing this, but it wasn't me. I never did find out who did it. Well, it really scared the employers to death. They started talking business.
"We stopped the clock at midnight, and by quarter after midnight, literally, we had a contract all wrapped up. This was the good contract with the health and welfare plan and the dollar and thirty-five cents [per day raise]." She looked ready for a celebration.
The next step was to offer her hard-won contract to the members. (According to her daughter Dorothy, only San Francisco's contract then had comparable health and welfare benefits.) When Beulah presented the contract at a big meeting to be voted on, however, she said, she made another horrifying discovery: the union opposed it.
The person voicing the dissent was none other than Lillian Sandburg. "My boss got up and tried to talk the waitresses into turning it down." Beulah then realized her boss had become an enemy from within. "She hired me, and I was the fair-haired child until I got this good contract." Why would Sandburg, among other officials, not want a good contract for the workers? The reason was simple, according to Beulah: union officials were in secret league with restaurant owners. "You see, [restaurant] employers would pay union management to keep the wages down. That's why we were three dollars a day below San Francisco waitresses."
Sandburg's speech burned in Beulah's memory. "One thing she said was that I had accepted the health and welfare in lieu of wages." The editor of the international's publication, "who knew" that was false, said so. "He was at this meeting, and he took the mike away from the executive secretary and explained what I had accomplished." The workers voted for the contract. "I dropped to my knees up on that stage. It had been such a struggle."
If the union did not support the contract, restaurant owners soon did. "They realized how good it was for them to have their employees able to get this service. If [employees] started getting symptoms of a cold or the flu, they'd have it taken care of right away, where if they didn't have the health and welfare plan, they would really get sick. It was preventive measures."
Beulah knew she had won big, against the orders of HERE headquarters, then in Cincinnati. She did not know there would be repercussions. "At that point, there was nothing the international could do, except they were going to finish me off.
"They decided I was a communist. They spread this word. It was the most un-American thing you could imagine. I was investigated by the FBI. My poor little son-in-law in Kentucky was investigated. My other union friends shied away from me as though something was going to rub off on them. I remember [being] in the central labor council, where I was compulsive about being there on time. I always sat in the same seat. There was room for about four hundred members. Friends would come and ask my advice and chat with me. Well, when that story broke that I was a communist, you could have shot a cannonball around me. Nobody sat near me. It was a horrible thing to go through."
As soon as she learned about the investigation (through a former boss who said he had been questioned), she called the local FBI office herself and went with a sister to see an agent. When he refused to tell her who had reported her, her sister got so angry that "she jumped all over him like a little wet hen. Finally he said, 'Miss Compton, if your conscience is clear, your record is clear.'" Just in case, "I called a lawyer who had been a busboy under me," and he told her that the coming Christmas holidays "might dust this whole thing off." They did.
Among the only people who never wavered in their support of her were the rank and file of Local 240. "As far as me being called a communist, those waitresses couldn't have cared less. They knew I had been running a good union."
Along the way, Beulah learned the identity of her putative betrayer. She said, eyes flashing, that it had been Gertrude Sweet, "the international union vice president, head of the northwest region." Beulah called her "a very sweet-looking woman who had always been lovely to me."16 She also claimed Sweet was merely "the hatchet woman," who had spread the rumors because the international ordered her to. The hatchet man? "I'm sure, the president of the international union," whom she identified as former Kansas City bartender Ed Miller, adding sharply, "He's dead, and the world is better off because of it."
She all but spat that "the liquor industry" had first put Miller up to run for secretary-treasurer and had "told [Ernst], this dear old man, to endorse him or he would find his older brother and nephews floating down the Ohio River." While relating further allegations of hardball tactics implicating Miller, she added, "Nothing against unionism, but it's the individuals that get in there are so crooked."17 Union members "had no way of knowing."18
As executive secretary of Local 240, Beulah Compton prided herself on keeping accurate books, on going beyond the issues of hourly pay, child care, and health care. She also challenged tips.
When an old boss started his own restaurant and came to see her about staffing it, she told him that if he would pay "above the scale and discourage tipping," she would assign him the best waitresses in Seattle. He agreed. Menus featured a large lettered announcement about the arrangement. "That place took off like wildfire. The customers loved it." She said the owner "was a great manager, and he knew how to buy." Ever since, contentions that restaurants will go under if good wages are paid are hogwash to Beulah Compton. "I would like to see [waitresses] paid a living wage without depending upon tips." Tips, she said, give waitresses no "dignity."19
When Beulah Compton retired from leading Local 240, she was barely into her fifties and not about to quit working, especially on behalf of other working women. She got a job helping to administer Washington state's labor laws. Concerned about tray weight at Seattle's Olympic Hotel (now the Four Seasons), "I called a waiter down there to find out what that tray weighed to serve four people in silver service. He filled one up and he weighed it, and it was twenty-two pounds." Beulah got to work. "I put out a notice—and I had no authority to do this—recommending that [weight] be the maximum a tray could be loaded for a woman to carry." She grinned. "It went over just fine."
Beulah still had clout, but unions were losing theirs. In addition to reverberations from the McCarthy era and from the Taft-Hartley Act (which limited picketing and seriously curtailed other powers of unions), factors particular to waitresses unions weakened them. A new generation of restaurants began dotting the country's nonunion regions such as the South, the Southwest, and the suburbs, making organizing difficult. Fast-food franchises appeared, owned by corporations resistant to unions. Waitresses changed, too. More worked part-time, and newcomers challenged older leaders on matters such as protective legislation. Union sisterhood gave way to individual saleswomen. Finally, waitresses and waiters locals merged, begetting unions unresponsive to the issue of job equality and other feminist concerns.20
Beulah herself moved on, from the state to the federal Department of Labor, becoming regional director of labor standards for western states. According to a resume she wrote in her seventies, she proposed the first Washington State Governor's Commission on the Status of Women, helped draft and lobby for the state's 1959 minimum wage bill, and organized women workers in the pulp and paper industry "to eliminate inequitable wage rates and discrimination in promotions."
The resume led to Seattle's city hall. "This last job I had was in the mayor's office for senior citizens," she said happily. Who would not hire a septuagenarian who listed her current hobbies as painting, swimming, and auto mechanics?
Another "hobby" was eating out. Beulah lamented, though, as she drove to a restaurant she liked, that it was nonunion. "Very few restaurants are unionized any more in this area. I just gave up trying to find one."
Verna WelshShe was part of a legend, although it took her a while to realize it. She was a Harvey Girl.
The Harvey Girls, sometimes known as the women who "civilized" the Wild West, were young Americans (well-groomed, well-behaved, single, and white) who left family and friends to head west as waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurants along the Santa Fe railway. Their heyday was the turn of the twentieth century; their territory covered an area from Illinois to California, with a concentration in the Southwest; and their boss was an entrepreneurial genius.
Fred Harvey, an immigrant from England, perceived in the 1870s that railroads were transforming the western United States. He also realized that, despite very long journeys, passengers and crews had little more for food than private picnic baskets or public slop. Harvey convinced the Santa Fe management to let him open eating establishments of superior quality wherever the trains stopped. In exchange for his making Santa Fe riders happy, the railway would provide free coal, free ice, and free freight for anything Harvey's establishments needed, from fresh fruit to fresh employees. Harvey would reap any profits. Agreed, in a handshake.21
The handshake had significance beyond the future empire of Fred Harvey and family. Some contend he started America's affair with fast food: no Harvey's yesterday, no McDonald's today.
Another touch of Harvey's genius was knowing that his vision of superior and spotless restaurants in the hinterlands would be aided by superior and spotless waitresses.
He advertised for young women "of good character, attractive and intelligent" to become "Harvey Girls," a term he used to signify that "they were more than simply waitresses."22 He also knew the importance of constructing safe living environments. In 1905, upstanding girls from upstanding families (most from small towns or rural areas of the Midwest) could not be expected to take off to unknown spots like Rincon, New Mexico, or Guthrie, Oklahoma, without proper accommodations, especially given the social stigma that could be attached to working in general, and waitressing in particular. So, as Harvey Houses went from one trackrolling success to another, he arranged group dwellings for Harvey Girls, complete with curfews and other proprieties.
The waitresses' virtue was paraded in the ridiculous 1945 movie The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland. (The real star is Angela Lansbury as a befeathered showgirl of dubious morality, who would not be caught dead in the silly—and unauthentic—hair bows the fictitious Harvey Girls wore on the silver screen.)
Harvey Houses soon gained a reputation as being as pristine as their waitresses. Photographs and menus from the era bespeak dazzling feasts, with a backdrop of starched linen, monogrammed plates, and polished silver, all presided over by women who were impeccably trained and immaculately frocked, no matter how their uniforms changed over the years.
In the middle of nowhere, gushed Santa Fe customers, in the middle of the desert, look at what there is to eat! One menu from 1929 listed fresh shrimp cocktail, mangoes, Blue Point oysters, broiled live baby lobster, avocado salad, Camembert cheese, frozen eclairs, and lemon sherbet. That free ice helped.
If most passengers were lured by the victuals, most waitresses were lured by the prospect of a job, not (as legend holds) an adventure.23 Among the job seekers was Verna Northcott, who was leaving Newton, Kansas, for Winslow, Arizona.
"I packed my things in my two suitcases, got on the train, and headed west." The trip was 1,200 miles; the year was 1938, or perhaps 1939—"I never did write it down." To supplement her memory, she later penned an account of the trip itself. "First I was very excited as I watched the rolling hills of Kansas go by," she read, "and then we climbed higher as we reached Colorado and traveled through the mountains. Going into New Mexico, we soon came into the barren desert and the Indian lands. I could see a hogan here and there, but that land looked so dry and desolate I thought to myself, 'What have I done? Where am I going?'" The only creatures she saw were sheep. "It was too late to change my mind. My ticket was only one way."
She related her tale from Winslow, where she has lived since 1938 or perhaps 1939. She is an affable, buxom woman, a few months shy of eighty, with curled hair, spiffy glasses, and a pastel outfit. One boon of the westward rides, including returning from visits to Kansas, were the sunsets. "One of the most beautiful sunsets I ever saw" stayed with her. "I can still remember how kind of awed I was, because the sun came down through the clouds and the rays came down, just as if Christ was coming back through that."
Verna had no celestial welcome when she first arrived in Winslow. She was twenty, give or take a year, and she had been hoodwinked.
She never meant to wait tables for Fred Harvey. In Newton (coincidentally a Harvey terminal), she had waited tables for a few months at the Harvey House and at a hotel owned by a relative and had also been a private waitress serving dinner parties at the home of a well-to-do couple. She attended college one year "with the limited funds I had saved," in the hope of eventually being a schoolteacher, but she quit to earn more funds before going back.
To that end, she was working in Topeka at a job she liked, as a clerk in the Hotel Registration Division of the state government. Then she was voted out. "The Democrats were defeated" in Kansas, as her old Harvey House boss, a Mr. Wright, had predicted, and Verna found herself jobless. She recalled Mr. Wright saying that if she wanted to work at the place he was going to help run—La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona—he would help. She wrote to ask whether he needed a hotel desk clerk. His answer was a one-way ticket. Her parents felt that Arizona was a long way to go for work but that it was her decision.
In Arizona, Verna arrived at a virtual oasis that was a monument of architectural grace. La Posada, the last grand Fred Harvey hotel (now on the National Register of Historic Places), was built in 1929 by his major architect and designer, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. La Posada, which took up eight acres by the Santa Fe tracks, was meant to recall the colonial Spanish ranchos of the area. It has elegant archways and long halls, a tile roof and stucco walls, and was decorated by Colter in her customary blend of roughly hewn local furniture and imported antiques. Even today, after decades of use as railroad offices before being abandoned (although it was being renovated as a hotel when I visited), it exudes coolness and serenity, amid seemingly perfect proportions. La Posada was said to be Colter's favorite creation.24
Verna happily walked through it with me, admiring carved bedroom doors, wall crannies, wrought iron fixtures, the sweep of it all. On her first trip, though, she was not in a mood to admire anything. Mr. Wright told her there was no job available on the hotel desk. She could be a waitress, he said.
In other words, he had brought her there under false pretenses! He had snookered her. "He did. He did," she agreed. "I was really upset at first. But I had a ticket one way. There was no going back. And I had worked for him in Kansas for a couple of months and he knew my folks. He was a nice gentleman. But," she sort of laughed, "it wasn't what I wanted to do at the time." She may have said nothing. "We were taught to respect our elders."
Before long, "I guess I just accepted it for what it was. And the other girls, the waitresses and everybody, were very nice, and it was a job, and I was out on my own, and I was getting to see the West."
Bound by the rules, she lived in a dormitory and had a dorm mother. She said her room, long vacant and layered in red dust and dirt (many of Winslow's streets were then unpaved), held only a bed, a dresser, and a chair. She went to J.C. Penney as soon as she could, bought yards of cretonne in a green print, sewed a curtain and pillow covers, and eventually had a place she called "homey."
Although uniforms were less cumbersome in the late 1930s than in previous decades and standards less rigorous (the Depression changed some rules, as World War II would later change others), it is notable that Verna skipped the once-mandatory month of training. Neither at the Harvey House in Newton nor the one in Winslow did she ever learn the famous Harvey coffee cup placements her predecessors used to show the coffee pourer whether, or how, customers wanted their brew (for instance, an upside down cup meant no coffee).
On Verna's first day, "my most outstanding recollection" was that one of the railroad men, "a smart aleck" named Brian, used insulting language about her. He was "talking about the new waitress" and "this and that." She still looked pained during our interview and would not reveal specifics. "I was pretty young and innocent."
A major difference between Harvey work and other restaurant work was that Harvey Houses were always open, to accommodate the trains. "As a Harvey Girl, we worked shifts, and the shifts were round the clock; six a.m. to two, and then two to ten, and then ten to six. We rotated. I preferred the two to ten. Then I could sleep late. I didn't care for the night shift."
Verna remembered clearly the rush of serving the Santa Fe's crew and passengers during the standard thirty-minute stops. "The passenger trains that came through stopped for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the preparations were made [by the kitchen] before the train arrived...so they had food they could get out in a hurry. Usually they would tell them they had thirty minutes to eat, [but] it went a little bit longer than that. If people were still eating or if there were more people and they couldn't get waited on in that particular amount of time...the train wouldn't go off and leave them, is what I'm trying to say."
It helped to be prepared. "Before the trains would arrive at a station, the conductor or brakeman would go through and ask the people how many wanted to eat, and they'd send the message on ahead so that the different Harvey Houses would know how many people to prepare for." No matter how fast the rush, "as far as serving the guest, we had to do it properly; serving from the left, picking up the dirty dishes from the right. We were to anticipate any extra needs. If people needed more water, more coffee, more bread or butter, we were to serve that without them having to ask." The trick was "to have a keen eye and keep an eye on what's going on at the tables that you're waiting on."
As far as she recalled, her customers never needed to cry out. She might have, however, from fatigue. La Posada's stunning proportions meant waitresses had to carry food long distances. Furthermore, as in other restaurants, the work called for more than serving. "We were required to do what we called side work, which was polishing the silver," probably silver plate, she figured, "but it all had to be polished. And, of course, they have the counters and all underneath there were shelves. We had to keep those clean. The coffee urns had to be washed every day, which was a job that we didn't any of us relish. And there was always the folding of the napkins." They were large, white, and linen.
"You probably have read what they said about the Harvey Girls coming west," she said, picking up notes she had written earlier to refresh her memory. "They brought culture, refinement, and romance." Refinement indeed. "We also had to serve finger bowls." Yes, with a slice of lemon in them, exactly as she had served them in Newton. Harvey Girls, she continued reading, "were required to serve friendly, extraordinary, and perfect service to hungry, friendly, or grouchy train travelers."
A famous and frequent customer was La Posada's own architect, Mary Colter. "When I knew her, she was a very elderly lady. She had gray hair, and she pulled it back, kind of poofy like, on the sides. She wore glasses, and we knew she had false teeth because she always clicked her teeth," she laughed. "You would remember something like that. Mary Colter thought that she owned La Posada. That was her baby, see, and she thought everybody should cater to her, so to speak. I hate to tell you, but you know how things stick in your mind: she would never tip a waitress. So we didn't care whether we waited on her or not."
She was also demanding or, in Verna's word, "precise," about her food. "She always had soft-boiled eggs for breakfast, but you didn't dare break the yolk. If it was broken one little bit, back to the kitchen it went. She knew what she wanted. But she was a smart woman and very talented." She paused, smiling. "I can still see her sitting at the table on the south side, right by the window."
The Harvey organization was almost as strict about the waitresses' time off the job as it was about on-the-job behavior. "As Harvey Girls, we were not permitted to really visit very much with the guests, and when we were off duty, we had to leave the premises. Occasionally we did go into the gardens and walk around, but they really didn't want us doing that, either. By the time I came along, the rules and regulations were not as stiff. They didn't lock the door at ten o'clock like it tells in the books."
Discouraged from socializing with guests, Harvey Girls' romances centered on Harvey boys—that is, the male employees—and on railroad workers. It was a railroader, L.D. Welsh, who won Verna's heart. In Winslow to visit his grandparents, he spent an evening at a cafe, where a mutual friend introduced him to Verna. "I wasn't too impressed." She hesitantly revealed why: "I never did care for a man with a mustache." Once he shaved it off, they started dating.
Harvey Girls "didn't have any place to entertain our gentlemen friends or anything, and L.D. and I still laugh about how he'd get my attention." When he arrived for a date, he would throw rocks up on the roof of her dormitory room. "That's how I knew he was there. We laughed that by the time I quit work, there were quite a few rocks up on the roof."
Both she and a Harvey Girl friend, Virginia Graff, married railroad men who also became friends, working the Santa Fe's Winslow to Gallup run. The friendship among the four is approaching sixty years, thanks to Fred Harvey.
The empire started by the clever, gentlemanly entrepreneur drastically changed when World War II broke out. The Harvey House staff went from opening fresh oysters for tourists to dishing out far meaner fare to thousands upon thousands of U.S. troops. (The staff, more integrated than it had been, served both white and black segregated units equally.)25
Winslow, later popularized in the Eagles song "Take It Easy" ("...standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona..."), became a major stop of troop trains heading to California and the Pacific. Verna Northcott Welsh, who married L.D. in January of 1941 and had their first daughter by December, was no longer a Harvey Girl by then, but her longtime friend vividly remembers serving the troop trains, two to three hundred young soldiers at a time.
"My heart ached for 'em," said Virginia Graff, for the "boys." One reason was the not-up-to-muster Fred Harvey service. Silverware and china were gone, as were linen tablecloths. So were the good cooks, she said, all gone to war. She cringed that the soldiers had to use paper plates and "horrible tinware." Also, the "food was not desirable. Powdered eggs."
She remembered a Harvey Girl named Jenny Sterling, a "Polish woman with a sense of humor," who cracked up a dining room full of soldiers. Jenny took one young soldier, a "little red-headed guy," by the ear and said loudly, "Does your mother know you're here?"
Then the little red-headed guy was gone.
Verna Welsh never again waited tables at La Posada, which closed in 1957, as travel by train lost favor to travel by car or plane. The closing was part of the gradual demise of the Harvey empire, whose economic remains and name his heirs later sold.26 The reason Verna Welsh quit work, however, was her husband. "After we were married and we started our family, he did not want me to work. He felt he was the breadwinner and he was to take care of his family." Verna did as he wished. When the couple wanted to enlarge their small home, though, "I finally talked my husband into letting me go to work, to make a little extra money so we wouldn't be too much in debt." She found a job waiting tables in another Winslow restaurant, to which the two of us headed for dinner.
It was so un-Harvey-like—from Muzak playing "True Love" to a waitress asking us, "How you guys doing?" to slapdash service—that Verna began getting a little giddy. She managed to talk some about Harvey House etiquette. "We always were required to pick up a glass to refill it with water." Demonstrating, she showed that picking up a glass not only deters spillage but also helps the person pouring, who doesn't have to stretch as far. Then a large fly began assaulting us and our food. When it persisted, and she jokingly asked the waitress for a fly swatter, and the waitress returned to the table, set a fly swatter down, and walked away, Verna started laughing so hard she could barely stop.
The élan Fred Harvey brought to town has gone. Here, as in other such railroad stops, though, Harvey Girls or their descendants remain. Verna Northcott Welsh, for one, now realizes she was part of a significant institution in American history. "For years it was nothing. To me, being a Harvey Girl was just another job."
Marguerite SchertleHaving "always" been in good health—"until I fell, I never had an ache or pain"—Marguerite Schertle was mightily annoyed to need a steel walker while her broken foot and fractured hip healed. She shoved the support as if it were to blame as she made her way into the kitchen of her son and daughter-in-law's split-level suburban Maryland home, where she was recovering.
In truth, she missed her job, waiting tables in the tea room of the Women's Exchange in Baltimore. She had not planned to stop working this young. "I fell five days after my ninety-fifth birthday. Tripped over the breakfast girl's foot."
The "breakfast girl" would be Charlotte, who is about eighty-five.
Until the premature layoff, Marguerite woke at 7 every weekday morning and at 7:50 got a ride to work with her sixty-two-year-old son, Ken, an "assistant vice president whatever," whose office was nearby and whose plans for retirement hinged on not quitting before his mother did.
At the tea room, Marguerite worked her own shift, and more. "I didn't have to be at work until ten-thirty, but I helped the breakfast girl. I'd clear tables and fix coffee [or] toast for her, pull up the dumbwaiter, take the food off. Anything I wanted to do." The waitresses had lunch at 10 a.m., and "we were on the floor" from 10:30 until 2. "We really didn't get busy until eleven-thirty. But downtown has dropped off. Even the Women's Exchange. It was nothing to have two hundred people. We're lucky if we get ninety now. It's a shame."
After work, Marguerite took a bus home, then walked two blocks to her apartment. "I didn't mind it. I loved it." With her job, the walk, and her housekeeping errands, she likely had more daily on-the-hoof exercise than other ninety-five-year-olds. That is, until Charlotte's foot. "She was standing by the door. She shouldn't have been there. She had a foot back, and I came out the door. I always walk very fast. My doctor said, 'Take it easy.' He used to say, 'Don't walk so fast. You'll get there.'" Charlotte must feel terrible, I wagered. Marguerite had me turn off the tape recorder for her reply.
All is not tomato aspic, chicken croquettes, and vanilla cupcakes at the tea room of the Women's Exchange.
"A Baltimore tradition for over 115 years," as the menu states, this and other Women's Exchanges were opened along the East Coast in the 1880s by Quakers. The menu quotes the nonprofit's constitution, noting that Exchanges aimed "to encourage and help needy women to help themselves by procuring for them and establishing a sales room for the sale of women's work." According to lore I had long heard, Exchanges were outlets for destitute Civil War widows to sell discreetly whatever items they still had or could make.
Baltimore's Exchange, in a lovely red brick building on Charles Street, has a handiwork room in the front, with crocheted baby sweaters and quilts and baked goods for sale. The tea room, visible through the door, is an economic evolution.
It hardly feels evolved. The most notable aspect is quiet. No music plays. Customers speak softly (although one deaf older man loudly states of his army career, "If you don't have to go into combat, it's a darn good life"). Mostly, a visitor has the sense of being in a pastel parlor.
The Baltimore Exchange is unique in that it is the only branch still in its original building. Marguerite Schertle is unique in that she may be the oldest waitress in the United States. She may, in fact, be the oldest in the world.
"I never think about my age, hon. No, never do." A niece is going to put her in the Guinness Book of Records, she laughed. "'The oldest waitress in the world.' Oh, dear." Marguerite claimed not to take the idea seriously. "I don't take anything serious, hon. Take one day at a time."
She is slender, with short reddish hair, penciled eyebrows, and a prominent nose. Her hands are agile, her fingernails long, strong, and polished pink. "I was brought up the right way," she announced, erect at the kitchen table. She was one of five children of German immigrants who settled in Baltimore. Her mother, a whiz at baking, sewing, reciting American poems such as "The Village Blacksmith," and singing American folk songs, loved her new country so much that she managed to lose her German accent. Marguerite keeps her Baltimore ("Balmer") one, and the local endearment "hon" is never absent long.
Being "brought up the right way" refers not to how Marguerite was raised but how she was taught to be a proper waitress. The Dutch Tea Room, the first place she worked, catered to leading figures of city society. Among those she served was Wallis Simpson. "She married the Duke of Windsor, whatever. He gave up his throne for her. That was [known] nationwide, I guess."
Marguerite began working there at fifteen, in 1915, following the intervention of her mother, who made altar cloths for priests of St. Mary's Seminary. Knowing that one priest ate lunch at the Dutch Tea Room, she asked him to help get summer work permits there for Marguerite and Anna, her twin sister, now deceased. Soon Anna was helping make the ice cream (strawberry, banana, raspberry, vanilla, and chocolate, Marguerite easily recalled), while Marguerite served lunch in the dining room and worked mornings in the pastry kitchen. For the pastry job, she first had to make a test cake for the bosses. "I was a nervous wreck." But Marguerite Klaus, granddaughter of a Nuremberg baker, passed the test and was hired.
"Then I started making pies and cakes and nut bread. I was in the pastry kitchen about thirteen years. I went down there six o'clock in the morning, made big crocks of icing." It was "a lot of work. Work never hurt you, hon, never hurt."
Marguerite's baking became so well known that she developed a private clientele among Baltimore's leading families. "They called me up and asked me if I'd make a cake and get the chauffeur to pick it up. I made it at my mother's house."
As carefully as she baked for the prominent, so did she serve them food. "They taught us how to wait on customers at the Dutch Tea Room, yes, ma'am. We weren't allowed to wear any nail polish, we weren't allowed to wear any drop earrings. We had to wear a hair net. We had to learn how to be courteous, serve from the right side, never from the left side. To this day, they serve from any side, and I don't do that. I served from the right side until the day I left the Women's Exchange. You don't reach over people." (It is now standard, of course, to serve from the left and remove from the right.)
Waitresses were treated almost as delicately as customers. "We did not have to carry any food." Others brought it out on trays, "put it on the bus stand, and we served it from the bus stand to the customer. We were not allowed to clear tables. We had a girl that cleared the tables, set them up, put on a clean tablecloth. That was a much, much more refined place, 'cause we waited on"—her voice dropped—"very, very rich." She named names, from "the Black and Deckers" to "Wallis Simpson and [her] Aunt Bessie" to many others. "Oh, I could sit here and mention dozens and dozens of people that became my customers because they liked the way I served them."
Baltimore's society ladies dined tidily. "We had assorted sandwiches, we had sandwich and a half" (six pieces cut in cubes). "One was a minced chicken, one was an egg [salad]. In the summer, it was a lettuce and tomato, cream cheese and jelly, and a minced ham. We sold a lot of those. I used to go in the morning and help make them. We used to have big trays full, and they'd put a wet cloth over it, because they went—you wouldn't believe. They ate light, much lighter than they do now. People are eating too heavy. It's surprising the amount of lunches we serve to people...and then," she grimaced, "they'll get a dessert."
The Dutch Tea Room also offered a more baroque diet. "We used to have sweetbreads under the glass, kidney stew and waffle, giblet stew, Smithfield ham and poached eggs, vegetable platter, which Mrs. Decker always got because she never ate meat. And never would wear a fur coat, you know. Mrs. Decker was a lovely person. She introduced me to her friends when she brought 'em in. She called me over and put her arms around my waist and [said], 'I want you to meet Miss so-and-so, I want you to meet my best friend, Marguerite.'" An uncharitable question gave Marguerite only slight pause. Did she and her "best friend," whose husband co-founded Black and Decker, see each other away from the restaurant? "No. Off the job, no." A moment's silence followed.
While employed at the Dutch Tea Room, Marguerite married. "I made my own wedding cake—three tiers of pound cake with white seven-minute icing" and decorations of "leaves and what not" she crafted with a pastry tube. The tea room donated the ingredients, and the ladies who lunched showered her with wedding presents. "Miss Wexter gave me my place settings. Came from Longer's. Still have them," she recalled, as she listed gifts by giver, item, and store.
She praised all the ladies, from Wallis Simpson to a Mrs. Bauerschmidt, the brewer's wife. "But you got to be careful how you wait on 'em. I mean, every...I wouldn't dare make a mistake." Table settings were meticulous. "Cup and saucer on the right side. They were very fussy about how the silver was placed. You had to put it down just so," she demonstrated at the table. "Now, down at the Exchange, they put the napkin like this," she said grimly, placing one under a fork. "I was never taught that. What I do," she showed, is to place the napkin "alongside of the fork, 'cause you're not supposed to pick up the fork before you pick your napkin up."
She recently chastised a younger waitress, Loretta, eighty-one, for putting forks on napkins. "'I don't like them like that, please?' 'Everybody else...' [Loretta started to say]. 'I don't care what the other girls do, honey. I'm not doing anything disrespectful to the Exchange, I just like my napkins on the outside.'
"I couldn't stand seeing a fork like this"—askew—"when you can, very easy, do it like this," she again demonstrated. "Even here at the Women's Exchange, when we had Miss Warfield [as] hostess, she was very strict about how the tables were set in the morning, the salt and pepper shaker and the ashtray. I thought everything was just so, but with Miss Warfield, nothing was ever just so. She would find a little tiny flaw, and she would say, 'Marguerite...,' and here I thought, perfect, right? I wasn't. But it was good she was like that. She kept us on our toes. I wish we had more hostesses like that.
"That's gone now, that era, when people used to be meticulous about things, about the tables and the flowers and everything. Why? Why is that gone?" The question hung in the air.
In the Dutch Tea Room, Marguerite also was schooled in pronunciation. "I've always said 'to-mah-toes.' The kids made fun of me when they were little. A lot of my customers do, too. I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm not really putting on, hon. I was taught to say "to-mah-toes" at the Dutch Tea Room.'"
There and at the Exchange, Marguerite learned her lessons well enough to become head waitress. "Every waitress that came in I trained." By her account, there is much to impart. "You'd be surprised at the amount of people that do not know how to set a table." She crumpled up her demonstration napkin. "Napkins not even folded." Even the tea room's tea was served improperly. She shook her head. "Towards the end I said, 'Nope, take me off as the head waitress. Forget it.'"
In Marguerite's unwritten training manual, proper customer service includes a proper finale. Do not "clear the table before the customers get up. Makes them feel they should get out, you know what I mean?" When she points out to "some girls" that they are rushing customers, "they don't like it."
There have been many tempests in the tea room. "I tried to tell the girls...'Do not serve [only] one customer when you have three at that table.' Keep it back, keep it on the side, because that makes the other ladies say, 'Well, where is mine?' You don't do that. But they'll do that time and time again."
Marguerite tells them not to complain about management either, but they do, she grumbled. "No need to say you have a nasty boss or you don't like her. There's no such thing as that. You're the one that creates ill feeling. If you do the right thing, you won't have no ill feelings with your boss. I never had problems, hon, with mine. The same way with the customers.
"When a customer comes in, if you're busy or something, you'll say 'Hello' or 'Good morning, I'll be with you in just a moment,' but you don't gush over people. Some people like it, some don't. You have to know your customers." She served cherry pie to Mr. Dow only if it was "fresh and runny." If it was "thick with corn starch," she would not. "You pretty well know what your customers won't like," she laughed some, "after all them years."
Strong fingernails drummed the kitchen table, as she fumed about certain waitresses who gossiped so loudly that customers could hear them. "Tone it down," she told them. "Maybe this is why they didn't like me, because they thought I was bossy or what. But somebody had to control them, right?" She fumed, too, about waitresses who complain about their tips. "I've had people leave and didn't tip me and mailed it to me. Mailed it to me. They knew as sure as I'm sitting here, I did not work for that tip."
When the Dutch Tea Room era ended ("they closed up, hon"), Marguerite "went down to Lovely Lane where Carrie, Loretta's sister, worked. They're no more alike than the man in the moon," she added. The Lovely Lane "was more of a restaurant. They used to serve four and five hundred people a day. It was a very quick place." Forks were not laid carefully to the left of the napkin. "I think the silverware was rolled up in the napkins, like you see in a lot of places." Her face harrumphed.
She disapproved of the change in standards but had a more important matter on her mind at the time. Her husband, a fireman, "wasn't making a big salary," and they were buying a house, "so I really had to get to work to do something." She also went to night school, "taking up millinery and dressmaking." She would have loved doing that as a career, but waitressing paid more.
After eight years at Lovely Lane, it too became history, and Marguerite began working at the Women's Exchange, a place that held its own history and eventually would hold hers.
"When I first started there, oh, I thought maybe I was going to last one day." She did not know where anything was, and an embarrassing early moment almost did her in. She had taken a glass of iced tea to a male customer and upset it "down the front of his pants." The man asked whether she was going to wipe it off. "He was only kidding, and I thought he meant it. I went back and my face was blood red. I died a thousand and one deaths."
Revived, she learned her way around and got "into it after a while." "A while" became fifty-two years.
She became, indisputably, the Exchange's in-house perfectionist. Take the famous starched white organdy sashes, tied (by her) in a huge back bow, which waitresses wore over their robin's egg blue uniforms. She put on a clean sash every day. "Sometime they didn't take theirs home for a week. I said, 'I'm not tying it anymore. It looks like a rag.'" (Loretta told me a sash could last her all week, and spot cleaner worked fine.) Who tied Marguerite's? Who else? "I'd bring it in the front and tie it and then put it back. Where there's a will, there's a way, hon."
Somewhere along the decades, Marguerite's reputation grew beyond the small square tables and sky blue walls of the Exchange. "I had so many write-ups and so many books. A monthly magazine or what, I was in there, picture of me. Hah! I think it could be a little jealousy. Of the girls. But no reason why they should be, because I never act any different towards them." She said management wanted to have an enlarged picture of her in the hall. "I said no way, I don't want it."
The cap to Marguerite's fame, and cause for even more public interest, was moviedom. She spent seconds in Sleepless in Seattle. The Rosie O'Donnell and Meg Ryan characters are eating lunch in the (unnamed) Women's Exchange and talking about the Tom Hanks character, "Sleepless in Seattle," whom Ryan heard on the radio. As O'Donnell speaks the sentence, "Now two thousand women want his number," Marguerite walks by. She is wearing glasses, white button earrings, and the Women's Exchange uniform. She is moving quickly (no acting skills required there) and carrying food she places on a table. "That thing never did die down. Now they're playing [it] tonight. I'm going to get a check for that. I've gotten so many checks, you wouldn't believe."
All the Exchange waitresses were invited to be in the film, she said, and to get paid by the producer and double-time by the restaurant. Only she accepted. "They couldn't give up their Saturday," she said, mockingly. "They had to do this, they had to do that. I had a lot I had to do, too, and I had a hard time getting down there." Finally, a granddaughter drove her. "They treated me like, oh, my, I was royalty. Anytime I do something, they'd holler, 'Hip, hip, hooray, Marguerite.' I thoroughly enjoyed that day, from nine in the morning to nine at night. I didn't know I was there."
She knows her part was modest ("you don't see much of me, hon; you got to look fast") but is not letting anyone forget their decision to stay away. "Every time I got a check, I took it down to the Exchange. 'See what I got?' I did do that. I shouldn't."
Publicity from the film brought more Marguerite-watchers. "Oh, yes. Even to this day, when they come from out of town, 'Where's the lady who was in Sleepless in Seattle?" Some wanted an autograph, which Marguerite gave. Some wanted to chat, but the working waitress drew the line. "I'd say, 'I'm sorry, I can't talk to you. I'm busy now.'"
Marguerite Schertle's longer roles, of course, have been behind the scenes. She is concerned about "one of the new girls" who told one cranky man he had to wait his turn. "Now see, she should have never said that. I would have said we were a little short today, but I'll make up for it, I'll see that you get even better service than if I had waited on you ten minutes ago. I do, even if I'll let somebody else wait that is not in a hurry. Now I got another customer, right? Tipwise, it doesn't bother me. I work for the benefit of the Women's Exchange. That was my second home, and I loved it."
If anything prevented her from going to work over the half century, she said, she cried. When she missed her bus by working late, which she did "many a time, [I] didn't get home until five o'clock. But it was my job and I had to do it."
She could not and cannot imagine life otherwise. "Now, when this foot gets well and I... I don't know what I'm going to do with myself." Months after the accident, she did go back to work, but only for two days; her hip was not ready for her. Those two days were long enough to impress the new thirty-seven-year-old manager, Lucy Weiss, and to convince her that Marguerite's memory surpassed hers. Lucy impressed Marguerite as well. "A round bucket where they have the dirty silver, she put it underneath the bus stand. I was for that one hundred percent. The girls didn't want to do it." They, she scoffed, "didn't want to stoop a little bit."
Marguerite, edging toward her ninety-sixth year, was hopeful about returning to the Exchange. The possibility of not going back made her uneasy. "I haven't started to think about that yet." She had, though. She planned, she said, to get rid of her walker and do more needlework, from embroidering to crocheting to knitting. She also wanted to bake and sell her date and nut bread for five dollars a loaf and to volunteer at a nearby hospital, maybe its gift shop. "Anything," she said.
It would take a lot of work to replace the Woman's Exchange.
Cathryn Anita SmithThe time of the battle, the mid-1970s. The battle site, a legendary castle of haute cuisine at 5 East 55th Street in Manhattan. Unaware of the gathering armies, old customers enter easily, while new ones contend with crossing many a moat: name, nerve, wallet, wardrobe, and French. Once inside, however, all who enter are rewarded. Glorious sustenance is delivered with exquisite attentiveness, amid sumptuous decor.
All that is less important to some customers, however, than simply being seen or else perusing the crowd for those who have come to be seen. Ill-at-ease newcomers or the couple on a splurge, behind menu shields, shoot glances furtive or bold toward the glitterati. Eyes skim the not quite recognizable (the king of Belgium, for instance, or women who populate small photographs in society columns), then snap in recognition at Richard Nixon and Sophia Loren (not together) in one corner, the shah of Iran and his retinue (with accompanying bodyguards seated in less desirable areas) in another, and—the most prized sighting of all—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She never looks around.
The legendary spot is La Côte Basque. The name misleads. Neither within nor without East 55th Street (the restaurant has since moved across town) is a "Basque coast" conjured. Only one Basque dish, an honored chicken entree, is served. The decor does incorporate the Basque trio of red, green, and white (subtly altered to off-white for a warmer look); but the cuisine, she is French. Presiding over it all is Madame Henriette, a one-woman ancien régime who refuses to let any woman enter her domain wearing trousers. Legend has it that among the well-dressed ladies turned away was Mrs. Onassis. But she came back, the legend goes on. They all come back.
At any given hour, for example, one might see returnees from the scandal—Truman Capote's shocking and salacious story, published in Esquire magazine, about the sexual dalliances of those animated society women with whom he used to dine. It was unclear to readers which anecdotes he made up, overheard, or was told; but it was clear he aimed to wound: several women are named, and the story is titled "La Côte Basque." Capote is persona non grata in extremis to his former dining companions, but he is back. They, in slim suits and perfect pumps, are reeling and furious; but they are back, too. Separate tables, please.
The battle to come, which will provoke its own headlines, is being waged behind the scenes. While La Côte Basque's customers may have been consumed with their own concerns, and while the restaurant may have considered itself an oasis extraordinaire within the vast desert of America, a new revolution has stormed right past the maître d'. It is feminism.
La Côte Basque has just been sued for sex discrimination in hiring. Mon Dieu! Madame may have cried. What brought this about? The answer: an act of friendship between two waitresses.
Before becoming an inadvertent revolutionary, a young woman named Cathryn Anita Smith was waiting tables at the Blueprint, a restaurant many blocks and worlds away from La Côte Basque. She had grown up on a cattle ranch in northern California, moved to the southern part of the state while her parents were divorcing, and for a while attended college with the dream of studying music (one of several "dreams" or "dreams come true" she would mention). She dropped out, in part for lack of emotional and financial support from her parents. Then, in what she now considers an act of rebellion, she began waitressing.
The work led to a pattern of toil, quit, and travel, whenever mood and tips added up. Every time she quit, "I would throw away my aprons and swear I was never going to go back to waitressing. Every time I did, I had to go back and be a waitress."
Then came the battle to be more of a waitress than she had planned.
She chronicled it in her small, packed Upper East Side apartment, which I reached after ascending five flights of stairs. Her welcome beamed, but she had nothing of the elegant look I had seen one other evening. Today, her hair was lank, she wore bulky clothes and slippers and looked like someone recovering from an operation. She was. She had developed a hernia from toting boxes of floor parquet up the five flights for her latest home improvement project. A glance downward reveals that the project is not finished. But who would notice? Her small foyer is so crammed with objects—for example, a drum set (she plays in two community orchestras)—that the floor is barely visible. In the miniature living room is a grand piano, next to it an ornate metal cage containing a strident parrot. Prowling nearby is her cat, meowing a counterpoint to the squawks. A piano bench serves by default as a table. La Côte it ain't; home it is.
After years of bicoastal waitress rambling, by 1974 Cathryn had settled in New York, found a boyfriend, partied nights at clubs, and worked days at the Blueprint. There she became friends with fellow waitress Jeanne King. "[Jeanne] was trying to get another job at night, so she could go on this cruise through the Panama Canal in this catamaran with a bunch of people. She couldn't get a night job because all the Upper East Side places"—Cathryn spoke so slowly that each word stood by itself—"would not hire women." The "places" Jeanne sought out were modest. No matter. "All the little bistros would not hire women."
Landlocked on Manhattan, Jeanne was getting discouraged. "She had tried and tried. Someone had said to her, 'Why don't you go to the New York State Civil Liberties Union and, you know, Title VII." One of the best-known parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII essentially says employers cannot refuse jobs to people based on matters not of their choosing, such as sex or skin color.
"So she did. The woman said, 'Why don't you go to the national office and speak to Kathleen Peratis, who was working on the women's rights project? I think we can do something a little more interesting with this on a national level.' So Jeanne did. Kathleen said to her, 'Find another woman who can do this with you. You both are going to need to say you looked for these jobs, and you're going to have to stand up in a court of law and say, yes, I was with her when she went in there and she was refused.'"
Jeanne asked Cathryn to be the other woman. Cathryn, "a silly, timid, little twenty-five-year-old," agreed.
In ensuing strategy sessions, it was decided that Jeanne King and Cathryn Smith should not try to get work at sex-discriminatory bistros but rather at sex-discriminatory haute cuisine restaurants. "We basically targeted the top ones. You have to choose."27
The two waitresses, pumped for victory but primed for rejection, set out to gather evidence. "We took turns," recalled Cathryn. Jeanne "applied to the 21 club, I applied to Lutèce, I applied to La Côte Basque. We alternated." They mostly met maître d's, who were "very brusque. Several of them flatly said, 'No, we don't hire women.'" In response, the women offered their practiced guise of nonconfrontation.
"We said, 'Thank you. But may I leave my resume?'" Jeanne, meanwhile, "managed to get the money together and took off on her little sailing trip. And I had to keep calling these places every month to see if they had any openings."
Cathryn began to sense she was involved in more than a gesture of friendship. "There was something instinctual that made me realize you have to make things better in your own way." She also liked the idea that "the little fish in a little pond in California is somehow going to make a splash in New York."
In the course of evidence-gathering, she also studied French. The ACLU, not wanting to risk its plaintiff being unqualified, sent her to the Berlitz language school. Cathryn had taken French in high school and college and thus knew basics, but she would need much more in an all-French kitchen. She certainly had time to study. Soon after she agreed to be part of the case, she and her boyfriend, a teacher-turned-bartender, broke up. "He was totally appalled. That I should presume to sue a restaurant."
In May 1975, presumption paid off. A sex-discrimination lawsuit was filed against a number of restaurants, including 21 and La Côte Basque. The suit also named the restaurant workers union, for not trying to alleviate sex discrimination.
Cathryn soon had to face La Côte Basque's lawyer. "He cross-examined me eight hours in discovery. I knew I could put up with anybody after that. I learned how to answer, and I learned how not to volunteer information."
In November, a top target caved. Jeanne King, back from her sailing trip, was hired by 21 as its first female waiter. The four-star restaurant's capitulation made the front page of the New York Post.
The next summer, La Côte Basque abandoned its separatist stance—Cathryn Smith had won, too. Under the terms of the lawsuit, she was to receive a cash settlement close to twenty thousand dollars, which she got "in dribs and drabs," as well as entrance into the inner French realm.
She still seems enchanted by the restaurant, describing it from memory, the front door bar area leading to "that huge entry hall called the royale, where all the people who wanted to be seen sat, the celebrities and those who could pay the maître d' enough money to buy a table. Manhattan real estate," she laughed. In the rear was la salle, a "very beautiful room with beautiful murals." She spoke of an area where coffee was poured and of the stairwell that led down to the kitchen, which, she said, was clangingly loud, busy, and steaming from "unbelievable heat, especially in the summer. That kitchen had to be a hundred and ten degrees."
Cathryn's professional entree was picked up in the New York Times and on local and European television. "I got a kick out of it." Yet, La Côte Basque had not hired its unwanted woman to be a waiter. Cathryn was to spend a year as a "busgirl." The reason, she said, imitating a French accent, was that "no woman could possibly know how to be a French waiter."
When Cathryn began working in her litigated but humble role, Madame Henriette and almost everyone else on the otherwise all-male staff welcomed her with closed arms. Cathryn does not seem to be a whiner, but she leaves no doubt that her colleagues' intention from the start was to make her life miserable. "They did everything possible to make me quit. I could never do anything right, blah, blah, blah. They were supposed to fill out a monthly report on how my 'training' was going on, my learning how to carve and how to do things in the French manner. Of course, none of that went on." She again affected a French accent: "'We are too busy, Cat-reen, to teach you zat kind of stoof.' I said, 'Well, I'll come in on my day off, and you'll teach me how to carve. Is that agreeable to you?' I would go in on my day off. At that point, they pissed me off, and I was not going to let them get away with it."
She struggled mightily. "They were going to give me a test on French wines and sauces. I remember going to the New York Public Library, being so overwhelmed by Larousse Gastronomique. I got depressed, and I started falling asleep. The cop is coming over, he hits me with a club—'Miss, Miss, you can't sleep in the library,' like I was a bum," she laughed. "But I'm looking at all these sauces and trying to learn what comes from what."
Months before her busgirl year ended and waiter status loomed, unexpected obstacles appeared. "Girard [the maître d'] said, 'Cat-reen, you don't know enough about wine.'" Cat-reen was ready. "I said, 'Why don't you give me two months off with some money to go to France to learn?' I had been reading about it, and I was truly interested in the whole history, the romance...I loved that stuff. So I called all the big importers and said, 'I'm the new person at La Côte Basque, and I want to learn about wines. Is there some place you can recommend I go to?'" They arranged a two-month trip. The powers that be at La Côte Basque gave the busgirl their blessing.
"They thought I wouldn't come back. I did everything legally through the union, everything from La Côte Basque, so they could not screw me, and I went to France July ninth."
Her face lit up. "I was treated like a queen in France. I was picked up in chauffeured limousines. I stayed in the finest chateaux. White glove service." She "drank cognac from the time of Napoleon. A cask of 1812 cognac," stored in la cave de paradis of her host's wine cellar, was tapped for her to taste. At night, a butler turned down her bed and put out her nightgown.
One reason for the treatment was investment, she thought. "They had no idea where I was going, what I was going to do, and I'd made the newspapers. Who knows, must have touched something in these peoples' minds." She liked the experience so much that she signed up to learn more about wines the next summer. (During lunch at the West Side reincarnation of La Côte Basque, Cathryn rolled a sip of chardonnay in her mouth and remarked that the flintiness indicated the grapes were from southwestern France.)
When she returned to New York, royalty became reality.
Not only was she treated as shabbily as before, but her promised promotion seemed to be stalled. In an interview in Cosmopolitan years later, she is quoted (in words that now embarrass her) as saying, "It's a bunch of baloney that women don't have enough class. Women should have these jobs, damn it!"28
In response to the stalling, Kathleen Peratis called for arbitration. Cathryn's assigned arbitrator was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with whom she recalled having a lively dinner. The future Supreme Court Justice was appointed to a court of appeals, though, and Cathryn was assigned someone else, a law professor, who made the terms of the settlement stick. Thus, after a quest of nearly three years, Cathryn Smith began waiting tables at La Côte Basque.
Day one in the new position was "very stressful. The men refused to work with me." Cathryn's temporary reign as a queen in France, however, had given her confidence and knowledge. She now knew her sauces, her favorite being Perigourdine, "a demi-glace sauce, which is a meat sauce with veal bones in it, then they put black truffles in it and Madeira or Porto. Yum, yum, yum." She also had learned about her co-workers.
"I realized what I ended up getting involved in was a clash of two cultures and the war between the sexes. I was a woman who had gone to college, not that I graduated. They all left school when they were thirteen or fourteen. They couldn't make it in France," she added scornfully, "so they came to America. So there you had poorly educated men—it's a typical stereotype—whose position and earnings are being threatened."
"Little things" pointed out the basic truth. "Raymond [a waiter], who really hated me, told me he was my sworn enemy and he would do anything to screw me up. He was the first one who refused to work with me. When I realized he sold the man who was eating fish a half bottle of sauterne because he didn't know he was giving him a sweet wine, I brought it to the captain's attention." The captain sold the man something else.
Cathryn also began to recognize that the French staff made many mistakes in French grammar. "These other clowns I was working with who knew nothing" could "barely speak poor French. You start picking up the differences. Understanding grand bourgeois, petit bourgeois, paysan [peasant].
"There was one waiter who went to hotel and restaurant school in Nice, and he was the one I would always try to emulate. He really knew about service, he really knew about the sauces, and he [was] always impeccably dressed. And he refused to work with me." The waiter's nickname was Josie. "He was working with this guy named Phillipe who always had dirty nails. He was like a big horse. I said to Josie, 'I don't understand why you will work with Phillipe when I'm the much better waiter. I'm clean, I'm...' He almost started to cry"—she imitated his flustered voice—"'I cannot work wiz a woman.' I literally thought the man was going to break down in tears, he was so emotional!" She laughed. "I said, 'Okay, Josie.' But part of it was because I was upstaging him, too."
The French restaurant system did not promote cooperation. The serving staff had specific job titles, such as the chef de rang and the commis de suite ("the one who ran to the kitchen"), fostering "real definite delineations, which is sort of revolting. My idea is, if something needs to be done, we have to help to get it done." Some waiters had "a humanistic approach, who would help people out. Other ones...thought their shit didn't stink."
Cathryn had one important ally: Jean-Jacques Rachou. "The chef happened to like me, so I never had any problems with the kitchen. One time, one saucier was arguing with me. The chef was standing right there. It was this young smartass kid who'd just come over from France and saw the others giving me a little bit of a hard time, so he was going to do it. I said to him in perfect French, 'Excuse me, André, but have I said something to offend you? Please tell me what it is, and I will apologize if I've done anything.' The kid couldn't say anything. 'Cathryn, ce n'est rien [it is nothing].' I said, 'Merci, merci.'"
Sometimes harassment behind the scenes verged on dangerous. "In the period when they refused to work with me, they hired another waiter to work with me. He hit me once. We were having a little confrontation about a check. I told him the table needed a check, and he hadn't put it down. We were in the stairwell, and I had a tray, and he went like..." She mimed a smash to her stomach. "He hit me right here. It so happened that one Italian waiter saw it. He stood up for me. I ran to the men's locker room, and they were trying to get him to say he hadn't seen it. But, 'I'm sick of it. I saw it. He hit her.'
"Eventually they got sick of harassing me." Behavior that had been hostile became nearer playful. Once while the staff set up, Josie took a serving cart, a guerridon, and pointed it at Cathryn. "He was going to run me down, and I didn't move. He started pushing at me, and he realized I wasn't going to move. I said, 'Josie, say excusez-moi. Are you looking for a fight?' 'Zees is not zee battleground where I fight zee women.' I said, 'I get to choose the terrain.' 'Ah, mademoiselle, I have zee choice of weapon!'" She roared.
Her shift, like that of other waiters, started at 10 a.m., six days a week. Everyone was suited up for "service" in the same outfits: "functional" black shoes, pants and cummerbund, a white shirt, "a white modified waiter-dinner-jacket thing," and a black bow tie. She laughed, recalling the reaction of one customer, actor Tony Randall: "Oh, you look so darling in that outfit!" She liked it, too. "I felt absolutely comfortable. Having grown up on a cattle ranch, I wore completely functional clothing." Her daily school clothes had included cowboy boots and jeans.
Some customers envied Cathryn "the pants thing," for Madame Henriette's stricture had not changed. "One of the old, really rich women said to Madame, 'She has to wear pants, and you won't let any of us in in pants.' Madame turns around and says"—a growly female French accent ensued—"'She want to work like a man, she can dr-r-r-ress like a man.'" Another laugh. "She was in her eighties, perfectly coiffed every night, immaculate."
Cathryn's outfit did partially disguise her figure but not other differentiations. She hennaed her hair a reddish brown and "used to wear it up in a modified French twist. And I could afford to have a facial every week, so my skin was beautiful. I was in the bloom of youth then, too." Furthermore, at 5 foot 8, "I was taller than most of the men." She added, smiling, "I was fifty pounds thinner then. I weighed one hundred forty. I was all muscle." Male waiters resented that "I actually could run up and down those stairs and carry heavy trays."
The serving staff's first task was to prepare dining areas for lunch. "I usually ended up filling and cleaning all the salt and pepper shakers and doing the condiments, because I was naturally neater and cleaner. Men hate doing that kind of stuff." At 11:30 a.m., the staff had lunch. "In the beginning, there was not much conversation. But after a while, you start talking and laughing and telling jokes. The human nature has to share."
At noon, when the ceremony of lunch began, so did the hard work. "I would assist the captain, or I would be running up and down to the kitchen getting the plates and the hors d'oeuvres and the main courses and the desserts, except if it was a soufflé or a hot prepared dessert." To my surprise, her jobs never included taking a person's order. She did not, I asked, recommend dishes? Did not need to know all those ingredients in Larousse Gastronomique sauces? Anything about wine? "Of course not. Neither do these people, as I came to find out."
As in most such establishments, the captain took customers' orders. Lower-ranked waiters, including Cathryn, merely delivered. "You just say, 'Bon appetit,' and move on." First, though, they had to consult a copy of the food order and set the table accordingly. "Making sure all the proper place settings for the fish course or the salad course or whatever it was that people ordered were on the table for them, so as soon as the plates were down, they would be ready to eat. Each course is set separately. That's the time-consuming thing. [If] one person would have asparagus [and] the other person would have the cold salmon appetizer, you would have to make sure the person that had the fish had a fish knife and fork, and the person who had the asparagus had a knife and fork." A fish fork has more tongs on the sides for flipping out little bones, she explained, whereas the fish knife is not as sharp. "Then everything is cleared away after they've finished, and a whole new setting is put out.
"If somebody had a shrimp cocktail, you'd bring the stupid little thing with the oyster crackers and the Tabasco and horseradish. Nobody should ever have to ask for anything." Not for anything French, that is. For ketchup, "they would have to ask. It's an American condiment." Cathryn brought it in a "little silver condiment holder" as if the request were culinarily correct. The goal was to make customers comfortable. "They're paying a lot of money for their food, and if they want to doctor it up with ketchup, more power to them. But in the back, there would be, 'C'est Shee-cah-go [Chicago]'. It's like mobsters from Chicago—no class."
In one exception to the comfort commandment, a couple of rich regulars ("he was head of Bristol-Meyers or something") were asked to leave their royale table and take coffee at the bar so that someone "very glitterati" could be seated. "I thought it was horrible." So did the couple. But they too came back.
Someone who never got bumped was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. "I remember Jackie coming in with [her companion Maurice] Templesman. She always sat very close to whatever man she was with and gave him her un-di-vi-ded attention. The woman knew how to make a man feel like a man. She had that ability." She also had the undivided attention of the captain, who delivered the food himself. She "knew what was going on."
She also knew about Cathryn Smith's battle. Cathryn recalled a day when Jacqueline Onassis dined with Pia Lindstrom, a New York television celebrity and daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman: "I remember...Pia Lindstrom saying to me, 'Mrs. Onassis finds it wonderful you're here.'" Could Mrs. Onassis not speak for herself? "No, she never did." But "she always smiled. She was very nice." Cathryn added, "Almost everyone took care of everything for her. She almost never spoke to anyone. She was in her own little world."
In his own little world within the royale was Capote, whom Cathryn often saw. She reread his "La Côte Basque" at my request and reported that he evoked wonderfully the visual sense of the restaurant, but she claimed no knowledge of conversations he quoted or made up. Other than overhearing one man tell another that he had never masturbated ("Yeah, I bet," she recalled thinking), she rarely heard anything. "I was too busy trying to do my job, stay out of everybody's wrath." Her fellow waiters "had no opinion" about Truman Capote, she said. "I mean, they didn't read."
Cathryn was more taken by movie star celebrities. "I remember the time Sophia Loren came in. Everybody was very nervous. We didn't want the busboys near the table because they might knock something over, so only the waiters were supposed to take care of it." She laughed. "No picture has ever done this woman justice, let me tell you. She is so beautiful, and she was wonderful." Cathryn's friendly admirer won her praise, too. "Tony Randall was wonderful. You could [sit] him anywhere and he wouldn't care. He never made a fuss. I adored him. He was a pleasure to take care of." She had another celebrity supporter in British film director David Lean. "He said to me, 'My dear, you have handled this with great dignity.'" She laughed again.
In contrast to her reception from colleagues, that from her customers was generally positive. "Most of them were terrific. I had my real champions. [But] there were some who were totally offended by it." Who? "Men. American men. Generally, there would be a hostile feeling coming from them," as if, she said, she could not put a plate of food in front of them properly. "Not ever look at you or thank you."
As for the types of women Capote parodied, "they were just wonderful. They had no real worries. Noblesse oblige. They had the time to be gracious, they had the time to enjoy. All of them are well educated. They went to women's schools, they married well, which is sort of what they're supposed to do."
Lunch ended as late as 3 p.m. Capote wrote, from his point of view, that "it was an atmosphere of luxurious exhaustion."
Servers felt differently. They had a break and then had to return to work, dressed and ready to go, for the staff dinner at 5:30, before being back on the floor at 6:00 for dinner service, which could last more than six hours.
"I usually got home between one and two o'clock in the morning, and I had to be back at work at ten. It was a killer. All I did was work." On her single day off, "I'd sleep to one in the afternoon and then go out to dinner. Come home, get ready, wash my shirts and [iron them], ready to go work the next day."
Cathryn's days were not only hard and long but also lonesome. After she and her boyfriend parted, she keenly felt the lack of a lover. "Every young woman wants to have a significant other. [Then] you've chosen to do something you believe in and they don't. It's very hard. It's just not negotiable." She never got involved with a Côte co-worker, she said, aghast at the suggestion. "No, no! How could you get romantically involved with someone who didn't treat you nicely at your job?" The only one she was interested in was the chef, "but he was married, so I...you know." Her friends married, too. "All my friends married and had children. Without exception."
Her work did have two silver linings. She could take long breaks during the restaurant's winter and summer slow seasons, and she was paid well. Waiters' tips were pooled and divvied fairly. Co-workers apparently resented only her presence, not her earnings. She spent hers on rent, getting "my first own place" (where she still lives), and on indulgences. "I bought good china"—an eight-place setting of Lenox's Autumn pattern is packed in a cabinet—"I bought good crystal, I went to Europe twice a year. I pissed it away, but I had a good time."
By the fall of 1980, after three and a half years at La Côte Basque, Cathryn Smith decided nothing compensated for the work or the hours. "I didn't want to keep going on like that anymore." With no plans, she decided to quit. Asked whether her decision had been gradual or sudden, she laughed loudly. "I never wanted to stay the day I walked in the door!"
When the time came to inform Jean-Jacques Rachou of her decision, she surprised herself by crying. "We gave one another big hugs. I said I felt like I'm getting a divorce, like I've been married. I didn't want to say I felt battered."
The news of her decision "went through the restaurant like wildfire." Her colleagues wished her well and took her out for a drink after work. "They did do that." Did any ever apologize? "No," she answered crisply. "I knew it wasn't going to happen. Men don't like to apologize to women, I don't think."
Times had changed, though. By then, La Côte Basque had hired other women waiters and a woman pastry chef. "There was not a woman in the kitchen when I started, either."
When Cathryn left, one of her contacts at La Côte Basque, a wine importer, got her a job as a captain at Windows on the World, the well-known restaurant in the World Trade Center. "The view was incredible," she sighed when I spoke to her weeks after the view plunged to earth in the September 11 terrorist attack.
At the time of the attack, Cathryn was on her way to a temp job at a law firm nearby. She spent her efforts getting a "visibly shaken" man from the Midwest on an uptown bus and therefore did not see the building's collapse. But amid the common aftermath of horror, she has been thinking of the many restaurant workers who died in the attack. Breakfast, she said; Windows began serving breakfast years after she left. When she worked there, in the lunch-and-dinner-only days, the busboys were from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They had asked what they should call her, and she had laughingly suggested Begum Fatima, after one of Muhammad's wives. They had laughed, too. She wondered which immigrants had replaced them, and died.
Cathryn Smith recalls her days at Windows on the World as "ancient history" and says that she has no "what if?" thoughts about what her own fate might have been had she continued working there. Similarly, she considers her fight at La Côte Basque "like a dust speck" in women's history. She opened doors, but who cared to enter them?
"It's hard, brutal work" for women and men, and women face the unspeakable behavior of co-workers. "They make it so difficult. There are other ways to earn a living."
The fight, though, was more than a dust speck for her. "How it changed my life is what was important, I think now," she said. "In its own weird way, it made certain dreams come true for me" and taught her to "stand up for myself."
About fifteen years later, in 1995, La Côte Basque closed its 55th Street doors. The reason was another form of New York real estate: a Disney store got the lease. "Disgusting," Cathryn said cheerfully. Just before the closure, she and a friend went by for a farewell lunch. "They all came over, they were giving us food, they were giving us wine. They were so happy to see me."
Something did not make her happy, however. She looked around and walked around, and she realized that no woman, not one, worked there any longer.
Notes 1Bernard L. Fontana, Of Earth and Little Rain (Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1981; Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989), p. 118.
2Ibid., p. 113.
3Peter Blaine Sr., with Michael S. Adams, Papagos and Politics (Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1981), p. 2.
4Ibid., pp. 49-50.
5For a firsthand description of the ceremony (from the 1930s) and the texts of the songs, see anthropologist Ruth Murray Underhill's Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993).
6Fontana, Of Earth and Little Rain, p. 50.
7No, it was coffee and doughnuts, recalled Franklin McCain, one of the students, who is quoted in Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York: Putnam, 1977; New York: Viking 1983), p. 76.
8Such comments are also cited in ibid., pp. 77-78.
9According to Franklin McCain, one of the four students, they had chosen Woolworth's because it was well known to them for advertising so much and accepting their money but not allowing them to sit down and eat (ibid., p. 76). McCain clearly was pleased that the protest spread throughout the South, but he implied in an interview with Raines that the group's initial focus had simply been Woolworth's (ibid., p. 81).
10Dorothy Sue Cobble, Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 62, 193.
11In contrast to Beulah Compton, Jackie Walsh was much less responsive when I interviewed her. She was also interviewed by Lucy Kendall in 1980 for the California Historical Society; see "Oral History of Jackie Walsh," 1980, California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library, San Francisco, MS 3587, pp. 172, 173. In both interviews, Walsh was notable for countenancing not a word of criticism about the international, for which she had worked, although she did occasionally mention shoddy work by individual local officers.
12In 1995, the U.S. government put HERE, which at the time had 350,000 members, under federal supervision. The New York Times reported that the move ended "more than a decade of investigations that had repeatedly found that the union was a bastion of organized crime," mentioning that a decade earlier a presidential commission had named HERE "one of the most corrupt in the nation" (Clifford J. Levy, "Federal Monitor to Oversee Hotel Employees' Union," New York Times, September 7, 1995, sec. B., p. 6). A former FBI official, who had spent his career investigating organized crime in the United States, testified to a House Judiciary subcommittee in 1996 that organized crime was alive and well in four unions, including the restaurant workers. He contended that a staff job with the restaurant union "transforms an ugly criminal caterpillar into a very dangerous but beautiful butterfly. It gave instant legitimacy, an unlimited expense account, legitimate income for income tax purposes, plus all the money you could steal from union dues, an entree into the business community and an entree to those aspiring for political office" (statement of Jim Moody, former deputy assistant director, Criminal Investigations Division, FBI, in testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Hearings on the Administration's Efforts Against the Influence of Organized Crime in the Laborers International Union of North America, 104th Cong., 2d sess., July 24, 1996).
One example of corruption was the case of Ray Lane, head of what became Local 2850 in Oakland, California, who was imprisoned in 1980 on numerous charges, including racketeering and embezzlement. Two union waitresses charged that Lane's egregious behavior included trying to turn them into prostitutes (unpublished interview with Karen Seritis and Terry DeLoache, conducted by Robert Kubey, ca. 1980). (When I interviewed him in 1999, Jim du Pont, who was then president of the local, groaned into his car phone when I mentioned Lane. "I live with his legacy," he said [telephone interview, January 26, 1999].)
13Cobble, Dishing It Out, p. 78.
14Ibid., p. 134.
15The record of HERE and various locals toward African American members or potential members was erratic, reflecting the racism of the era as well as the employers' tactic of playing off minority groups against one another, especially during strikes (ibid., pp. 12, 67, 77, 78, 169).
16Sweet is portrayed only positively in the pages of Cobble's Dishing It Out (see especially pp. 64 and 65), with no mention of this incident.
17Beulah Compton also described how HERE had commissioned Matthew Josephson to write the book Union House, Union Bar: A History of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union. She said that he met with her for several days "to get all the skinny" about the Seattle local and knew "all about the contract trouble." She further said that the international would not accept his initial manuscript and refused to pay him unless he edited it to their liking and that she "persuaded him to go along" because of the years he had spent on the work. The AFL-CIO published the book in 1956.
18Former FBI official Jim Moody testified that because restaurant workers are often transient, they could exercise "little oversight of union operations" (statement before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, July 24, 1996).
19San Francisco's Jackie Walsh opposed tips as well, in part because if waitresses did not report them as taxable earnings, the money would not count toward future Social Security benefits (Kendall, "Oral History of Jackie Walsh," pp. 80, 170).
20Cobble, Dishing It Out, pp. 192-203.
21Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West (New York: Paragon, 1989; New York: Marlowe, 1991), pp. 35, 36.
22Text from the Harvey exhibit at the Arizona Hall of Fame, Maxine T. Edwards, curator, Phoenix, 1996, p. 33.
23Ibid., p. 83.
24Ibid., p. 189.
25Ibid., p. 195.
26The buyer was AMFAC Corporation, in 1968 (ibid., p. 209).
27Peratis, who focused her career on employment discrimination, said in a phone interview, "We were all very young." She described herself as being "so green" that she did not know that Jeanne and Cathryn would make such good plaintiffs (interview with the author, May 28, 1996).
28Andrew Feinberg, "Checking Out Waitresses," Cosmopolitan, July 1981, p. 225.