It was September 1965, I was in Washington, D.C., and three things had gotten me there:
1). I'd flunked out of college
2). I was directionless
3). I was clueless
That summer, I'd worked on the only beach in the Bronx, Orchard Beach. I don't remember my official job title, but I'll never forget its unofficial one - crap picker.
I was with a crew who patrolled the beach and picnic areas, in one hand a huge cloth bag, in the other a sticker (a dowel with a nail in its end). We picked up whatever the Bronx's finest citizens saw fit to throw on the ground instead of in one of the area's many trash bins. The assortment of trash was endless, but I most remember the disposable diapers - packed to the seams with the best that Gerber had to offer.
Since it was a New York City Department of Parks job, the status may have been low, but the pay was real high. I was only hired due to a act of literal nepotism - my uncle was high up in the Department of Parks hierarchy.
At the end of the summer I'd acquired a fat savings account, insights into the foibles of Bronx-kind, and some faintly amusing anecdotes. But there was one thing I never acquired - a suntan. Even though I'd been on the beach eight hours a day, the polluted skies let in not so much as a single sunbeam.
After I bid the Bronx a less-than-fond farewell, I came home, where I ran into a high school classmate, Bruce McNamara, who said he was leaving for D.C. in a couple of weeks. I asked if I could ride with him; he said yes, and thus I ended up in the nation's capital.
Entry into the food
For reasons that now elude me, I'd decided I'd work as a hospital orderly. Probably the reasons elude me because there weren't any; it was just some weird whim that hit me at the peak of a sugar and coffee binge. No matter - that's what I'd decided; that's what I'd do.
Of course, it was all much easier said than done.
Bright and early the first D.C. morning, I went to a hospital that was only a few blocks away from my boarding house. It was a tiny hospital - much smaller than the old Saranac Lake hospital - and not terribly modern, but it was tidy and well run.
I went to the personnel office, told them what I wanted, and they gave me a form to fill out. It had all the usual stuff, but a few items struck me as odd. One asked if I smoked, another asked if I drank and another asked my religion. I neither drank nor smoked then, but I still wondered what business it was of theirs if I did. As for asking my religion? Somehow that seemed to have no relevance whatsoever to my ability to empty bedpans and the like.
I never heard from them, and a few weeks later I found out why. I also found out what those odd application questions were about: It was a Jehovah's Witness hospital and they didn't hire any goyim, as it were.
Anyhow, after my interview, I went to catch a bus to the next hospital on my list, but when I got to the bus stop, I realized my wallet was back at my room. Then, just before I started to walk back, I saw I was standing in front of a Hot Shoppe.
Hot Shoppe may mean nothing today because it morphed into Marriott, and all their restaurants are now gone. But it was a D.C. institution, featuring good food at great prices, plus it was an unofficial social center for all sorts of strata.
Hot Shoppes were also the restaurants on the Thruway, and my family and I had eaten in them for as long as I could remember, so the one in D.C. seemed like a touch of home to this little country boy. And thus, on impulse, I went in and applied for a job. The interview was brief; in fact, I was hired on the spot. My job? A curb boy at their drive-in restaurant.
Taking orders, not guff
The Hot Shoppe was a pretty big operation. In the front, it had a huge lunch counter, off to the side was a full dining room, and in the back (naturally), was the drive-in.
The drive-in was a classic: The cars pulled in and called through a microphone for a curb boy. I waited in the restaurant and when I got a call, I went out, wrote down the order, then came back and handed it to the cashier, who then sent it into the kitchen. When the food came back, I took it to the cars and handed it over with huge, moronic grin on my face. And why not? My salary was a lordly 50 cents an hour - my ticket to owning the big house on the hill would come only through tips.
I averaged 10 bucks a day in tips, which may sound paltry, but dig this: First, I paid $30 a month rent. Second, Hot Shoppe gave me two meals a shift, and since my shift was 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., that took care of all my food. Plus, the meals we got were from the regular restaurant menu and, given the Southern flair for cooking, they were delicious. Truth is, in the 45 years since then, I've never had onion rings as good.
And I'll tell you something else, I earned my tips. The work was nonstop. Every shift was eight hours of walking to the cars, then back to the kitchen, then back to the cars, then repeating it over and over and over. And keep in mind, a 10-cent tip was par for the course - if I got a tip at all.
I learned a vital lesson about "serving the public." It was no matter how polite you are, how good your product, or how fast and efficient your service, there are always shmucks who not only won't tip you, but'll give you a bunch of guff besides.
But I learned something else, and I learned it fast, namely I didn't have to let anyone abuse me: Jobs were plentiful - especially those on the bottom of the status and skill ladder - so I sure didn't need to be a curb boy. So if anyone was rude, I'd tell them they were paying for the food, not the right to treat me like their inferior and good thing it was since I wasn't their inferior.
I figured if they didn't like it, they could tell my boss. At worst, I'd get fired and go get another job. And since I wasn't getting a tip anyway, why sweat it in the first place?
But the weirdest thing happened, every person I confronted backed down. Not only did they not complain to the boss, most of them became oddly meek or even apologetic.
I don't know why that was, but I suspect people who take advantage of their supposed inferiors are bullies. And bullies are cowards whose script only allows them to deal with the passive and the meek. So when their intended victim comes back at 'em with both barrels blazing, they falter, if not fall apart.
My conjecture aside, I can only say this: Being a curb boy gave me the low-pay, lousy status, and very sore feet.
But the delicious Southern cooking and the freedom to tell rude customers to take a flying leap more than made up for it.