I’ve been a waitress for over 30 years. More than half my life. And let me tell you something about that. No one ever starts out thinking that they are going to be a waitress for over 30 years. Its just something that sort of sneaks up on you.
You strap on an apron and you thing-hey! This’ll be fun! For like, a summer. Then I’ll figure out what it really is that I’ll do for a living. And the next thing you know-your co workers have nick named you “Mom,” its 30 years later and all you’ve really figured out about what you want to do with your life is that maybe it doesn’t involve hairnets and polyester.
I knew I wouldn’t want to work at a fancy place. I’m not a fancy person. I got a job at a diner. A real diner. Mickey’s Diner. On the corner of 9th and St. Peter. You should go sometime. It’s still there.
On the outside, the diner looks like a little toy train’s dining car; Streamlined, neon, and deco. Inside it is all gleaming stainless steel and red vinyl. Easy to clean, and homey.
Pat, short for Patricia was my boss. Boss of the whole place. Not the owner, big difference. I’d say she was around 50 years old, but I don’t know that for sure. That’s just not the kind of a question that you ask your boss. Howie the dishwasher was 35 with the mental capacity of a 12 year old. But again-I’m not so sure on that-because how many 12 year olds do you know that could work a 40 hour week and pay their bills on time?
I was seventeen, almost eighteen years old when I started work at the diner. I’d quit school the year before and though my family wasn’t too jazzed about the path I’d taken, they figured at least my job at the diner kept me off the streets. I lived by myself in an efficiency apartment about 5 blocks away from the diner.
The winter of 1985 started in mid-November. Bitter cold. No snow, no ice. Painful, searing winds whipped through the downtown grid this way and that-making my 5 block walk to the diner each day from my tiny apartment an endurance test.
I found the answer to my prayers at the St. Vincent DePaul shop up West 7th. I went in looking for a parka but came out with a full length black fur. Who knows what beast shed its skin for that coat? Gorilla maybe? I put it on and it covered me from the tops of my ears to the tips of my toes. The pile on that coat was so deep, that if I turned up the collar, it blocked out all sound. I went to Woolworths and bought a hat to go with my ensemble, a blaze orange bank robber ski mask that had place stitching around the mouth and eye holes. My walk to work was now both toasty AND amusing, since people would take one look at me and scoot out of my way.
I worked 2nd shift. 3pm to 11pm. Which meant no super late nights, and more importantly to me-no early mornings. The diner was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. That meant Christmas too.
When I found out that I was scheduled to work Christmas that year, I called my mom to tell her I wasn’t going to be making it to my sister’s place for dinner. The news went over better than I expected. Maybe she was just getting tired of fighting me. We resumed small talk, and I scanned my mother’s voice for disappointment. It was there, for sure. But I keyed into a lot of other things too. Weariness, anger, fear, and love. A Christmas stocking full of all the things a mother might feel for her wayward 17 year old daughter.
On Christmas Day we had our first real snow of the season. Grand showy snow globe flakes, but no accumulation. Just swirly, snow globe snow. Slept in till noon, and drank coffee and watched TV on my little black and white portable until it was time to go.
At 2:30, I stepped into my uniform and big gorilla coat. I left the TV on so I would have something to come home to. I stepped out the door.
You have never known quiet until you have walked downtown St. Paul on Christmas Day. No people. No cars. All that decoration just for me. Twinkle lights framing every skyway and spindly boulevard tree. You could hear the traffic lights click. This wasn’t just St. Paul on a Sunday quiet. This was a higher grace of silence. Like the difference between gold and platinum. It was ominously beautiful. Like an act of God or something. Like the Rapture. I could see the diner up ahead, glowing dimly in the snow. The Pancake House of Purgatory.
As soon as I walked in the door, Pat said: “Go ditch your stuff and get back out here. I got some special cleaning projects for you to do.” In the back room, Howie was listening to the radio, quartering chickens and singing to himself, even dancing a little bit, slipping on the chicken guts that had fallen to the floor. I wrapped a clean apron around my middle, and took my station behind the counter.
It never dawned on me that Christmas would be dead on top of everything else. It was weird to see the place empty-no regulars even. Pat slapped a Phillips head screwdriver in my one hand and a bleach soaked towel in the other. She said: “No way are you gonna sit on your rear all day and moan kiddo. We all got places we’d rather be. You’re gonna take apart the pie case and scrub it down.”
So that’s what I did. Pat wasn’t someone you argued with. I’d been there long enough to know not to.
Three hours later, Howie had moved on to chopping onions, I finally had the pie case put back together, Pat had the meat cooler sparkling, and we got our first customer.
Al Venutti was a big fat cab driver who worked for Cityside. Venutti ordered everything from the diner in double, like with James Bond and a Martini-only with Venutti it was ham and eggs. Venutti always carried his own insulated gas station coffee cup with him. That thing was huge-like an ice cream bucket with a sippy lid and a handle. But it suited the scale of his body. If Venutti had tried to drink out of one of our cups at the diner, he would have looked silly-like a fairytale giant.
Venutti came in wearing a fuzzy red Santa Hat and ordered a double patty melt to go o the double. He said: “I’d love to stay and talk, but I got volleys all day between the senior high rises and the suburbs.” I handed him his Styrofoam box of food, and Venutti peeled the cheesy bun off his sandwich and upended a ketchup bottle over it. It was a new bottle, and it wasn’t pouring so Venutti pounded his meaty hand against the bottom of the bottle and sent a good sized splat on his sandwich, and a fair one on the front of my clean pie case. Before he left, I saw him sneak a small brown paper bag to Pat.
Pat told me that I might as well order my shift meal as long as the grill was dirty so she wouldn’t have to clean it twice. She yelled at Howie in the back room to do the same.
Ten minutes later, she told us to have a seat in one of the back booths. “Today we can eat like human beings at the table at least!” I dug the dollar that Venutti gave me out of my apron and plugged it into the jukebox.
Christmas Dinner 1985 was a burger and coleslaw for me, a hot turkey with mashers for Pat, and a malted waffle sundae for Howie. When Pat came and sat down with us, she brought over three cups of coffee generously laced with Wild Turkey. When I smelled the whiskey, and looked at Pat in surprise. A curling flutter played over the edges of Pat’s lips. A rare smile. Like bacon thrown on a hot grill. “Didn’t you know that Santa always comes on Christmas?”
And before we ate, Pat folded her hands, and Howie did the same. They both closed their eyes. I followed suit, but I kept peeking to make sure Pat wasn’t joking. She wasn’t. In her clear no nonsense voice-Pat said: “Ok God. Thank you for the good food before us. Look in our hearts God, and keep us focused on doing right. Thank you for today, and thank you for our families; at home and here at work. Amen.”
Maybe it was the sneaky whiskey. Maybe it was the snow globe snow against the darkened windows and Bing on the juke. It could have been the smell of butter and sugar melting into the squares on Howie’s waffle. I looked from Pats strong face to Howie’s relaxed and happy one, and at that moment I felt like if God did look in my heart, it would have been as clean and shiny as the pie case. Which is to say, mostly clean.
In the last 30 years I have had all kinds of Christmases. Family Christmas, friend Christmas, orphan Christmas, hospital Christmas, Christmas where tree fell down and the ham caught fire and Christmas where everything went just right.
My Christmas at the diner taught me that Christmas is transferrable. That no matter where you go, what you do or who you are with-the only responsibility you have to Christmas is to take it with you. Christmas can totally fit into a to go box.