I call it my first real job.
I hired-on as a car hop at a Shoney’s Big Boy restaurant at Summer and Holmes in Memphis. I carried food on a tray to cars parked under metal awnings, collected the money, and later when they were finished I brought the trays back in to be wiped clean for the next round.
My hourly pay was below minimum wage because, they explained, I would make up the difference in tips. But there were practically none.
You see, I was the only guy. All the other curbside workers were girls. Young ones. Cute ones. With great smiles. The guys arrived in cars filled with guys. They’d park in a numbered space, make a small order, wait for delivery, then order something else. Several orders spaced over an hour were not uncommon, and the cuter the girl, the more time she’d spend on the lot receiving tips rather than shuttling trays back and forth.
But when some skinny boy in blue jeans and high-top Keds showed up with their burgers and shakes, they’d give me a funny look, no tip, and say, “Send the girl next time.”
After a couple of months of practically no tips and the possibility that someone–Who, me?–might complain about the illegal wage, I was promoted to minimum wage and working the fountain. I answered the squawk box from the cars, jotted down what a carload wanted and where they were parked, made fudge cakes and banana splits, filled and emptied the milk shake machine with its chocolate and strawberry flavor squirt nozzles, filled three sizes of soft drinks, and stacked burgers and fries from the kitchen onto trays and rang for one of the girls to take it all out.
One day, the whipped cream container blew its lid. A gallon of concentrate, a gallon of water, and a gallon of ice in a pressurized container charged from a gas station compressed air nozzle blew its lid and spewed back through the opening to the short order cook, spattered the side of the walk-in freezer, and flew as far as the dishwashing station. The frothy, white brew hit most of the kitchen but spared the customers.
And then there was the day the sewer backed up and exploded into the dining room… But that’s a different story.
Time passed, I worked hard, and was promoted to short order cook. I learned to anticipate a rush by gauging the onslaught of orders and lay down two dozen burger patties before glancing at the order tickets. Busing tables, feeding the dishwasher, shoving the mop around, cleaning up the bathrooms, all of those jobs followed. I did every job in the store including dinner cook. I even set out menus, water, took orders, and delivered plates of food in the dining room one evening when someone–yes, “a girl”– called in sick.
I probably assembled several hundred strawberry pies and topped thousands of individual berries after casting aside most of the overripe, squishy ones. And I’m sure I dipped and battered tens of thousands of onion rings once I learned the rhythm from a co-worker who would occasionally pause to reach around and scratch her unmentionable before resuming the bare-handed work.
One day after many months of learning every job in the restaurant except one, the boss said something like, “Ed, we want to send you to our management school so you can run the whole operation and work here, filling in anywhere needed, for the rest of your life.”
That did it.
I went back to school, learned all I could about computers and programming, and then spent the next fifty years traveling the world programming and teaching software.
In hindsight, Shoney’s was the most valuable education in my life, but I still won’t eat their onion rings.