Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Patty Somlo

            By the time I got a job at The Boathouse, I had been a waitress for years, first while a sophomore at American University, in Washington, D.C. During my one semester at the on-campus bar, The Keller, I pressed trays in the air with my right palm, loaded with full glass pitchers of beer, building up muscles I didn’t know I had.  

             Several years and jobs later, I toted liter mugs of dark German beer to tables at The Bohemian on Connecticut Avenue. By then, I had my bachelor’s degree, still working as a server because the money was decent and my degree, unfortunately, close to useless. I’d dropped out of two colleges, American and Montclair State in New Jersey, and slipped into a University Without Walls Program, offering a freewheeling approach to education that fit me perfectly. One problem with my easygoing Art Education course was that I hadn’t spent a moment as an instructor in a primary or secondary classroom, hours of which were needed to obtain the certificate required for a teaching job.

            When I worked at The Bohemian, a section of the D.C. Metro was being dug right out front. I was only allowed to walk in the bar once the manager, Doug, had gone in and shot the rats that the digging let in each day.

            Every night, I pushed tables together to accommodate groups of conference attendees, who ambled over from the large hotel across the street. Frequently, they were visiting from Europe, used to having the tip included in the bill. Not only did I need to explain that they should tip in addition to paying the bill, but the guests inevitably informed me that they wanted separate checks.

            As at The Keller, I ferried heavy trays of sloshing beer to crowded noisy tables again and again. The trays weighed more than at The Keller, since beer was served in liter mugs made of thick glass. By the time I doled out fresh drinks, the guys would be eager to order another round.

            When they were ready to leave, I had to total up fifteen to twenty checks, hand out each bill, and collect and provide change. Only once they’d walked out would I realize how little each man had tipped.

Located in Georgetown, an historic neighborhood filled with lovely eighteenth-century homes, The Boathouse overlooked the Potomac River, with fine dining on one side and a spacious bar on the other. Since the restaurant didn’t take reservations, diners were forced to wait a half-hour or more in the bar. After nine, the bar lights dimmed, and a band started tuning up. The music brought in a younger crowd than the restaurant. The usual bar-sitters could be found perched on stools at the long mahogany bar– lonely people, mostly men, and problem drinkers – along with an unusual group – undercover D.C. police officers.

            Once I got the job, I learned that the manager only hired women he judged attractive. When I saw our work uniforms, I wasn’t surprised.

            Set on the river, The Boathouse had a nautical theme. Guys who worked as busboys got cute sailor outfits, with navy blue bellbottom pants, white shirts and red ties. That uniform was transformed for the female staff, making us look more like hookers than midshipmen. Instead of comfortable, demure pants, we were saddled with a bright red skirt so tiny, it barely covered our butts. In fact, a bit of modesty could only be achieved while standing straight up. Bending over, what a waitress in a cocktail lounge does a million times a night, showed everything. Management instructed new hires to buy a navy-blue bottom at a dance supply store. Though opaque, this item still resembled underpants when that miniest of skirts rode up. I was also required to wear red high-heeled shoes. Since I had to stand eight hours a night, I searched for a lower-heeled pair. Later, I invested in a variety of cushiony inserts. Nothing kept my feet from aching.

            The most popular band that played in the lounge included a lead singer and five musicians and backups, all cute with good hair, originally from the Philippines. They played a lot of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, popular at the time and good for dancing. When the band members sang, it was impossible to detect the accents they had when they spoke. However, at the end of each set, they played the tune, “The Impossible Dream.” The lead singer, who had a lovely voice, pronounced the word “dream” as “drim,” and “unbeatable,” which came up in the phrase, “the unbeatable foe,” as “unbitable.” No one really minded. The band drew big crowds, with tables full on weekend nights. In addition to the band, another big draw was that the lounge didn’t charge a cover. Management simply jacked drink prices up.

            Unfortunately, the pricey drinks became a problem, or rather, the management turned it into one. Servers weren’t allowed to collect for drinks when they were served but instead had to run a tab. This wouldn’t have been a problem, if not for the second policy. If, God forbid, a customer skipped out on the check, the amount owed was deducted from the server’s wages.

            That punishment was made worse because the restaurant didn’t pay servers the minimum wage, or even close. Outside of tips, we only earned a dollar an hour. A dollar an hour for standing on our feet in those pinching shoes. A dollar an hour putting up with customers who assumed waitresses were fair game for touching, since in those tiny skirts, we appeared half-dressed. A dollar an hour that could shrink to less if a customer snuck out in the dark without paying the check.

            This, though, is where the undercover cops sitting at the bar came in. They were scruffy-looking guys, circumspect about their work. Their long unkempt hair and unshaved chins made us assume they went undercover to buy drugs. I would have liked them no matter what because they were kind, respectful and tipped well, times I filled in for the bartender when he took breaks.

            The cops’ best trait shone through when a customer tried to leave without paying. Out of the corner of my eye, I would notice a group sitting at one of my tables had suddenly stood up. I would locate their check, add it up, and start heading their way. But having been stiffed before, I would quickly glance up. That’s when I could spot them hurrying toward the door.

            Even though I would be running as fast as I could, in shoes not made for even a slow jog, I couldn’t catch up. It didn’t matter, though. John, a sandy-haired undercover cop, would already have leapt off the barstool and raced past me. By the time I made it out the door, John would have pinned one of my customers to the ground.

            The band quit playing about one-thirty in the morning. Even after the music stopped, folks lingered. Some nights it was hard to get the last drinkers to leave. To speed up the inevitable, ten minutes before our two a.m. closing time, Jerry, the manager, would flick on the overhead lights.

            The place was normally kept so dark, all you could see was the glow from the candles housed in round red glass. When Jerry turned on the lights, we were momentarily blinded. I never knew how that moment felt to the straggling customers. To me, it was as if strangers had broken into my bedroom and discovered me naked.

            Sometimes, even blasting that white light didn’t send the message that it was past time to clear out. That’s when Jerry would march through the lounge shouting, “It’s hotel-motel time.”

            I worked hard, stashing my tips into an ever-expanding savings account. In June, I served overpriced pina coladas and mai tais in tall glasses for the last time, then gleefully tossed that tiny skirt and those punishing shoes into the trash. A few days later, my boyfriend Michael and I packed the ugly orange Chevy Nova his mother had given him, with its low mileage, and hit the road.

            Our destination was Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we planned to live while Michael worked on a documentary film. Beforehand, we intended to sightsee, starting in Boston for a visit with Michael’s mom, then wending our way through the Southeastern states down to Florida, and eventually cutting northeast to New Mexico.

            Unrelenting rain forced us out of our tent one afternoon near Smoky Mountain National Park. After hours driving past No Vacancy signs that Fourth of July weekend, we gratefully nabbed the lone vacant motel room within a one hundred-mile radius of the park.

We spent the first evening in the shabby Asheville, North Carolina motel watching the Fourth festivities on the small TV. The following morning, we went out for breakfast nearby. After returning to our completely packed car, Michael backed the Nova up, not having noticed the high curb behind. As he pulled forward, we heard an ugly scraping sound.

            We got out of the car and hurried to the back. Standing behind the car, we smelled gas.

            Michael was chewing gum. At that moment, he jabbed two fingers into his mouth and yanked the sticky wad out.

Without saying a word, he crouched down behind the car and scooted underneath. Several minutes later, he scooted back out.

“I just plugged the hole,” he announced, once he was standing up.

            Wisely, we assumed it would be impossible to find a car repair shop open that day, the Fourth of July. But we didn’t want to rely on a wad of gum keeping what gas we still had in the tank, so decided to look around.

            Surprisingly, we did findopen shops. Unfortunately, no one we met in those shops wanted to help. Not a single car mechanic cared to risk his life soldering a gas tank. Everyone agreed the job was far too dangerous, likely to lead to an explosion, destroying the car and everything in sight.

            The last guy, though, had a suggestion.

            “You might try Bud Owens.”

            When we walked into the garage, a man was working on a car, high above his head on the lift. Michael shouted, “Hello,” and the man walked out from under the car, looked over at us, nodded and grinned.

            At that moment, I thought Central Casting couldn’t have found a better guy to play the hillbilly in some silly sitcom, making fun of people who lived in rural places. He was tall and gangly, wearing grease-smeared coveralls with one strap hanging loose, and a faded long underwear top underneath. Strawberry-shaded hair peeked out from under a railroad worker-style blue cap.

            “Howdy,” he said back. “What can I do for ya’?”

            In addition to the way he looked, his accent was perfect for a character we might call Jessie.

            Michael explained that he’d hit a high curb with our weighed-down Nova and the gas tank had gotten punctured. Before he finished, the man we would later know to be Bud broke in.

            “How’d you keep the fuel in?” he asked.

            Michael told him about the gum. Bud shook his head and chuckled.

            After stopping at car repair shops and gas stations all around Asheville, we had eventually circled back, ending up at Bud’s shop, walking distance from our motel. This turned out to be fortuitous. Astonishing as it seemed after the horror stories we’d heard from Asheville mechanics, Bud was more than willing to work on our car.

            I, however, wasn’t thrilled. Letting Michael anywhere near that shop while the work was being done was out of the question. I knew I was a terrible person for feeling fine about Bud risking his life while Michael and I were safe in the relative comfort of our seedy motel room, but self-preservation is not always nice.

            I pulled Michael out of the garage and whispered in his ear, “Make an excuse that I’m not feeling well, and you need to walk me back to the motel.” The second part of my plan was to have Michael wait at least an hour until Bud had probably finished the dangerous part. Only then would he return to the shop.

            Michael reluctantly agreed and gave Bud the news. The man wasn’t the least bit fazed.

We walked back to the motel and even waited an extra twenty minutes to be safe. Then we slowly made our way down the narrow road, stepping along the shoulder, since there weren’t paved sidewalks on either side.

            When we entered the garage, my gut seized up. The Nova was still on the lift.

            Bud stepped into the garage through a door that appeared to lead to an office.

            “Gotta pick up the wife,” he said. “She’s done with work.”

            I swallowed to get some moisture into my dry throat. Bud answered the question I was too afraid to ask.

            “Car’s good as new,” he said.

            My heart pole-vaulted down from my throat.

            “You mean you’re done?” I asked.

            “Yup. Gotta get the wife or she’ll be steamin’. Take a ride with me and we’ll come back and get you your car.”

            At that moment, I would have driven off a cliff with this wonderful guy.

            Michael and I sat in the truck’s roomy passenger space. Bud pointed out this and that, as we made our way through Asheville. I was so happy and relieved about the car, it didn’t occur to me to ask what kind of work Bud’s wife Daisy did or wonder why she was working on the Fourth of July. The local mechanics had characterized anyone willing to solder a gas tank, especially on the Fourth of July, as a nut, but this friendly man seemed anything but.

            We reached a commercial street and Bud slowed down. As we got close to the sidewalk, I spotted a woman waving at the truck.

            She was the opposite in appearance from her husband. While he was slender and tall, Daisy was pleasantly round and short. She opened the door, leaned in, and said, “Howdy.” In appearance, she would fit into our sitcom as an aspiring country singer. We’d sit her on a wooden porch, where at night she’d sing and strum her guitar.

            She had a wide smile, lovely blue eyes, and didn’t seem the least bit annoyed that her husband was toting around a pair of Yankees for whom he’d just risked his life. Her somewhat brassy blond hair was pinned in back and poofy on top.

            Daisy wanted to know everything about us. How had we ended up in Asheville needing our gas tank soldered on the Fourth of July? Before I started to tell our story, I asked what kind of work she did.

            “I waitress,” she responded, turning the word I usually considered a noun into a verb. “Been doin’ it since I turned sixteen.”

            So there, in what I considered enemy territory, the South, where people were different from us Northerners and many of those differences weren’t good, this woman Daisy and I had an important connection.

            “I waitress too,” I said, picking up the grammatical usage from Daisy. “That’s what I did back home.”

            We exchanged stories about our work experiences, mostly whining how much the jobs destroyed our feet, before Bud asked if anyone wanted to get something to eat.

            At the Country Kitchen, Michael and I studied the enormous, several-page, hard plastic menu, while Bud said he and Daisy always ordered the same thing, fried fish with fries. After the waitress took our order, Daisy launched into a story about their one and only visit to our now-former home, the District of Columbia.

            Their motel was walking distance from Chinatown. Since they weren’t comfortable trying to find their way around a big city, Bud and Daisy opted to have dinner close by, and walked the handful of blocks to a Chinese restaurant.

            Daisy couldn’t remember what they ordered. She did recall that when the waiter brought the food, he failed to leave an essential item.

            “He didn’t bring any rolls,” she elaborated. “Bud always liked to have a roll with his supper.”

            Bud and Daisy had no idea that bread rolls, the sort best with butter, were generally not eaten with Chinese food. To get rolls, they figured those warm, round balls of dough waiting for a melted square of butter needed to be ordered separately.

            Bud studied the menu, eventually finding what he was looking for. He called the waiter over, pointed to the item, and said they would like some of those egg rolls.

            Minutes later, the waiter set a plate down in front of Bud. Gracing the white porcelain dish were alien-looking fried tubes.

            “What’s this?” Bud insistently asked.

            “Egg rolls,” the waiter said. “You ordered egg rolls.”

            But waited until the waiter walked away before saying to Daisy, “I thought they was just some rolls with egg whipped around ‘em.”

            By the time Michael and I got into our car, I felt as if we were bidding goodbye to old friends. Bud had charged us practically nothing for risking his life to fix our car. He’d only accepted our offer to pay for dinner after Michael argued and Daisy said, “Bud, honey, just let the young people pay.”

            The last thing I remember Bud saying before we drove off, after I’d thanked him for about the tenth time, was, “I’m just an old hillbilly I hope you remember who fixed your gas tank on the Fourth of July.”

            When I tossed that tiny red skirt in the trash, I assumed, but couldn’t be sure, that I had taken the last order for a fancy pina colada or mundane scotch and soda. In Albuquerque, I stumbled into work for which my bachelor’s degree had supposedly prepared me – teaching art.

Twelvegates Elementary was a private alternative school that didn’t require a teaching certificate. The pay was low, the work hard, and many of the kids impossible to control, easily convincing me, who’d never wanted children, that I wasn’t cut out to teach them.

            I abandoned teaching after that one short year, but, happily, never returned to waitressing. However, a little over a year after wearing that tiny red skirt and dashing out the door to nab customers leaving without paying the tab, I found I wasn’t done with The Boathouse.

            The letter from the Internal Revenue Service arrived a few months after Michael and I left Albuquerque and settled in a house at the top of a nearly ninety-degree slanted street, in the magical city of San Francisco. Some bureaucrat in a government office in D.C. was informing me that I owed back taxes from my time working at The Boathouse. The reason for the tax debt, this official letter explained, was that I hadn’t declared – and paid taxes on – my tips.

            As it turned out, the IRS had audited the corporation that owned The Boathouse. In the process, the company’s accountants claimed something awful. Yes, they agreed, on first glance, it appeared that servers weren’t paid the minimum wage. But, they went on, that dollar an hour was only a start. Servers earned tips that when added to the wage and divided by the number of hours worked, far exceeded the legal minimum to be paid.

            Not only did the company allege that tips brought our wages up to the minimum and beyond, but they also provided the IRS with an estimated amount we each should have earned from tips. And so, the government was now coming after me for the back taxes they argued I hadn’t paid on tips I’d never declared.

            After reading the letter and feeling the blood rush to my face, worrying that my head might explode, I could see that at least the company was consistent. When customers left without paying, they threw the servers under the bus. Now that the company was at fault for, among other things, not paying minimum wage, they drove the bus over us, to make sure we had died.

            Maybe I did, though, get the last laugh. I couldn’t possibly pay the supposedly owed taxes because I didn’t earn enough money. As much as the IRS wanted to attach my wages, my secretarial salary wasn’t enough, after essential living expenses were deducted.

            So, I moved forward with my life, into different jobs that never included dropping maraschino cherries into drinks or dressing like a hooker. To this day, though, one lesson from the job has remained. I always tip at least twenty percent and higher for excellent service. That’s because I am eternally grateful for not having to stand on my feet all night or suddenly break into a run, to keep from having to pay for someone else’s drinks.


About Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, The Nassau Review, and over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest and in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net multiple times.

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