(Originally published in The Beach Reporter on 11/1/90.)
Some experiences in life you may leave behind, but they never leave you. I was reminded of this the other evening when I attended a reunion for former employees of a restaurant I once worked at: Orville & Wilbur’s Steakhouse.
It may seem a little strange that a restaurant would hold a reunion for its past employees. But if you had ever worked at O & W’s you would understand.
I had just graduated from college in December 1975. My boyfriend (now husband) and I had just moved to Manhattan Beach from Laguna Beach. He had accepted a job as a sales rep for Xerox in downtown L. A. and we needed to be closer to the city.
I didn’t have a job, a car, or two nickels to rub together, but as a recent college graduate I was certain those minor details would take care of themselves. Ah, the optimism of youth.
We rented a one-bedroom apartment on 31st and Alma for $300 a month. Since I didn’t have a car, and I needed cash quick, I decided a waitress job would be the best way to tide me over until I landed a real job. I was certain that with my degree in political science, prospective employers would soon be beating my door down.
I was hired as a lunch waitress at O & W’s. The lunch trade consisted mainly of businessmen who liked to come in for lunch and drink a “nooner” or two, eat some tournedos of beef and flirt with the waitresses. We wore short brown, wrap-around skirts, platform shoes, low-cut lacy T-shirts, and a jaunty scarf around our necks. In case you are wondering, a “nooner” is a double martini in a snifter. Just what every businessman needs to take the edge off the day.
We were booked up for lunch every day. Each girl had about six tables. I still remember the table numbers. I even have dreams sometimes still where I am waiting on tables and trying to find the ketchup.
We really had to hustle during the lunch rush, and then after we did our side-work. Most of us couldn’t make enough to live on working lunches, so we often doubled up as cocktail waitresses in the bar at night.
Remember when your parents told you that certain experiences might not be exactly as you planned, but that they would at least build your character? Well, that’s how I look at waitressing.
Waiting tables is like being a servant to a table of complete strangers, who know that you have to be nice to them or they won’t tip you. A strange relationship, at best. It teaches you all sorts of virtues like humility (even when a table of drunk jerks is ordering you around), speed (even when you have eight tables and a hangover) friendliness (even when you have two sixty year-old ladies who each order a cup of soup and a glass of water, take your table for two hours and leave you fifty cents). You learn to smile and grit your teeth when a table of men order nooners and the boneless breast… of chicken, of course. All the while staring at your cleavage.
And just when you thought that waitressing was the lowest, most degrading occupation in the world – you thanked God that at least you weren’t a busboy.
The lunch waitresses at O & W’s always formed quick and intense friendships. At the time I never thought that I was forming life-long friendships with these women. I assumed that in our next jobs we would all go our separate ways. But more than a decade later, there are seven of us who still get together for our birthdays.
I ended up working at O & W’s for five years. After six months, I became the lunch manager. During that time I waited tables, tended bar, served hors d’oeuvres in the bar at Happy Hour, did the books, hostessed, ordered food, and hired, fired and trained scores of people. I had planned on doing none of this after college. I never looked at restaurant work as real life. But it turns out it was a darn good training ground.