… since I left my hash-slinging job, and, though these photos below may be a little blurry and faded, the memories are not. I’m going to stray from squirrel stories and Fall foliage to time travel today, where I’ll revisit my job at Carters Hamburgers, the diner where I waitressed during my college years. A local artist’s rendering of the diner is featured in the photo above. Sean Manuel has captured the image of Carters as I remember it best, because now the building is burgundy and named Harry’s Corned Beef and Ham.
I believe there are certain choices you make which are life-changing. I can honestly say that starting a walking regimen, then writing about it, are two decisions that have been very positive moves for me. Working at Carters, a friendly little diner here in Lincoln Park, was the best decision of my life. Taking a job slinging hash was one that changed me forever. It turned this shy, just-turned-17-year-old girl into a confident young woman.
On October 29, 1978 I donned my white uniform and perky black apron for the last time. It was my final day for slinging hash, and, by the way, that’s a job description you don’t hear anymore. That is because we are a politically correct society (some of the time), so the more correct term would be that I was a server, or a waitress. Honestly, to say I was “slinging hash” sounds like I was Flo, the tall, wise-cracking, gum-chewing waitress from the old T.V. series “Alice” – you may even recall her Southern twang and favorite expression “well, kiss my grits!”
Well I was no Flo and my boss was not named Mel. His name was Erdie. Erdie Eugene Pugh. And, on the final day of my employment, he wrote his name on that last paycheck giving me his autograph.
He was my first real boss and I thought the world of him, and his wife, Ann, who was one of the waitresses and had worked alongside him for decades at this burger and breakfast joint.
That last day was a real drippy goodbye, full of hugs and tears for all of us, because for Erdie, it also marked the end of a long stint of managing Carters, and before that, managing a coffee shop at the busy Michigan Central Train Depot. Though Ann was ready to retire, Erdie was not, and he had to have been close to 80 years old by then. He was spry, full of wit and the customers and employees all loved him. But, Erdie was retiring because the new owners were bringing in family members to manage and run the restaurant and he had taught those new folks all that he knew, so it was time to turn over the reins. The previous owner had died suddenly in late Summer of 1977 and the new owners would take possession of Carters on November 1st. When I graduated from college in June 1978, I knew about the new owners and told Erdie I would stay on for weekends, so he did not have to hire someone for only four months. Thus, Sunday, October 29th was my last day on the job.
Here is how it all began.
I consider my waitressing gig at Carters my first real job, as I don’t count that brief stint at Kentucky Fried Chicken back in June of ’73. It was one week before graduation from high school and I landed my first job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. In those days, we never called it KFC – that just happened when people started balking at any food that had the word “fried” in its logo, so Colonel Sanders’ famous chicken dinners were rebranded to KFC.
I started this job the day after high school graduation. I had my food-handlers card and a fresh white uniform when I began the shift at around noon. I was a little bleary-eyed, as the all-night party sponsored by our high school had just ended hours before. I was handed a red-striped apron which was mine to keep and wear for when I worked my shift. In the course of that first week, I learned how to run the cash register, tell the five pieces of chicken apart – sure, it is easy to tell a drum and a wing, but there was the keel (breast) and thighs and ribs. When it had the Extra Crispy coating on that chicken, and I peered into the big oven with my “metal grabbers” and my wire-rimmed glasses steamed up, it wasn’t so easy picking those pieces out. But I caught on, plus I learned what chicken pieces went into a barrel, a bucket, a family meal and a snack pack. I learned how to don a huge plastic sleeve over my forearm and spoon a ton of mayo into a large vat of dry coleslaw and swirl it around. Ugh!
I came home stinking to high heaven of grease from peering into the warming oven. My hair and skin smelled of fried chicken. Oh my!
I received my first paycheck after a week’s work and was feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially after my boss said “good job, so maybe we could make you an assistant manager one day – would you like that?” I reminded him, as tactfully as I could, that once college started in the Fall, I would have to cut my hours significantly. “College? Cutting your hours – what do you mean Linda? We just trained you!” In short order, I was told a replacement would be found for me, then I’d be out. That happened in a matter of days.
Truthfully, getting let go was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
I scoured the classifieds for a new Summer job, one that I could also work part-time once school started. But everyone had already scooped up those jobs before school ended. My mom suggested I go to Carters as she remembered seeing a help wanted sign in the window when we had driven by recently.
I walked to Carters and the help wanted sign was still in the window, so I went in and asked for the manager and/or an application. The manager, who wore a jaunty paper cap on his head, and a large apron to cover the front of him, came out whistling. I told him I was there to apply for a job, and, without pulling any punches, I told him why I lost my last job.
“So, do you have any waitressing experience Linda?”
“No” I answered while shaking my head.
“Oh” was his answer, then rather reluctantly he asked for my name and number and said “I’ll call you because a couple of girls are coming to interview this week.”
I thanked him, but felt dejected. Two days passed, then three … my mom suggested I return to Carters and ask for the manager and tell him our phone was not working properly and inquire if he might have called and we missed the call?
That sounded a little far-fetched to me, but I rehearsed my story as I walked to the diner. The sign was still visible in the front window. I didn’t have to ask for the manager this time as he was standing at the grill and glanced up when he heard the door open. He came over to the register, and was whistling. I laid my spiel on him, and he paused for a moment or two, then said “well I didn’t try to call you, and I was hesitant because you have no experience.” Silence. I piped up with “I’ve got a food-handlers card, three new white uniforms and white shoes and nowhere to use them.” He smiled and asked if I could start tomorrow. “I sure can” was my answer. “Okay, my name is Erdie, so, get yourself a little black apron and be here at 6:45 a.m. before shift change, okay?”
I know I floated out the door. My wages would be $1.10 an hour and I could keep all my tips.
The first day.
I was there the next morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to take on the world. Erdie told me to just watch and observe Ann as to how to wait on the customers and where everything was, then after the morning rush was over, I’d go out on the floor alone. Suddenly, my confidence was waning and I was nervous because I was so shy.
At 10:00 a.m. he said “okay you’re up Linda, good luck and your first customers are Jack and Bernice Loveday – they own the Dairy Queen down the street.” Erdie said “you can set your watch to Jack and Bernice; they get here every day at 10:00 o’clock sharp. They want to be waited on promptly, to be out of here by 10:45 to open the Dairy Queen. I was introduced to them. Jack, a retired Lincoln Park police sergeant, was a flirt. He made me blush after mentioning my short uniform and long legs, but hey … 1973 was the age of miniskirts, after all. Bernice gently reprimanded him for being foolish and he winked at me. I know I stumbled and bumbled around while getting their small order just right, but it was all good until I didn’t bring the coffee pot around a second time. After they left, I went to pick up the dishes and wipe off the counter where I found a napkin twisted up to look like a Dairy Queen soft-serve “curl” and, after I untwisted the napkin I found $0.12, a dime and two pennies, plus a note on the napkin that read: “half coffee, half tip” … well, I was crushed and Ann and Erdie laughed and said “don’t worry about Jack, he’s a kidder, but always give them their second cup of coffee!” They would become my all-time favorite customers and I looked forward to their return every Spring to open the Dairy Queen again. I had a standing invitation to go visit them at their Florida condo on my Winter school break, although I never took them up on the offer.
Those first few days, even weeks, became a college of hard knocks several times. I’d write out customer’s orders very neatly and Erdie got on me the second day asking if I was there for penmanship or to wait on customers. He meant no ill will as he said it with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. He told me “better yet, memorize the customers’ orders – they like it when you do that and you’ll be faster.” That was easy … most customers ate the same thing every time they came into the diner. For years after I left, I’d see my former customers and would greet them by their name and rattle off an order like “two cheeseburgers with, a side of fries and a Coke – no ice.” What a memory, huh?
A slow metamorphosis began as that shy girl was no more.
The best thing was interacting with the customers. Most all the employees at Carters were from the Deep South and most of our clientele were as well. Erdie and Ann met as high school sweethearts in Alabama, and our cook’s name was Georgia and she was born in that state. People would spent half their lunch hour driving to the diner to down Georgia Massey’s homemade soups and chili – none of that waxed chili in a block for Carters; we only served the real deal. So many Southern customers came up north to work at the Big Three. They missed their kinfolk and how life was back home, so they dropped by to be with other Southerners. I even picked up a few expressions and could ease into a Southern twang at the drop of a hat. For years I said “it’s coming up a storm” instead of looking outside and saying “it looks like rain any minute.” I had never known Southerners before Carters and I found them to be the nicest, and most-genuine folks I have ever met.
At the diner, we prepared all the Lincoln Park prisoner’s meals and various police officers would come in to pick them up. Policemen always got a free cup of coffee and a donut, or a reduced price for their meal. I got to know most of the patrolmen, and often I’d be driving or walking and they’d see me, turn on the sirens and call my name on their loudspeaker, then wave. The old me would have been mortified; the new me laughed it off and smiled.
Carters was also a break-time stop for many of the City workers. They came in shifts for their morning and afternoon breaks. There were all the guys who ran the street-sweeping machines. All the Parks and Rec guys. It was bedlam twice a day, as a rush of about 20 workers filled up the stools quickly when coming in to down hot coffee or icy-cold drinks. They’d clear out in about twenty minutes’ time, leaving a large load of dishes. One day the Parks and Rec guys told me they had left a special present at my house and I got home to find a huge tar “X” at the foot of the driveway. My father was furious and it took many years to wear off.
I was hired to work all Summer, six days a week, then during the school year I worked every weekend, any holidays and/or semester breaks. The only time the diner was closed was Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. There were swivel stools throughout the diner and the counters were like two horseshoes with about five stools over the sink area. I had my own horseshoe during the week and worked the entire diner every Sunday. I got about 15 minutes to sit down and eat and other than that I ran around the entire day.
In the cold and snowy Winter, though I don’t like to drive in that weather now, I was fearless in my Biscay Blue VW Beetle back in the day. But sometimes Erdie would call the night before and tell me he’d pick me up the next morning so “you don’t have to stand out in the cold and snow in your short dress and coat scraping snow off your little car” … your boss couldn’t say that to you nowadays, as it would be considered harassment. I would just grin and say thanks and I could sleep in a few minutes later too.
At the end of the Summer, the day before my first day of college would begin, Erdie told me he was glad he took a chance on hiring me. He confessed “when I saw you walking along Fort Street on that first day, in your short uniform, the apron almost as long as the hem, I wondered if I’d made a mistake.” So, I told him it was my turn to confess and said “there was nothing wrong with our phone” to which he said “I knew that, just as I knew you’d get around to telling me sooner or later!”
A couple of years later, Erdie’s granddaughter, Leslie, was hired to work the other “horseshoe” during the Summer months and Saturdays during the school year. We got to be friends at work as well as outside of work and still keep in touch via Facebook. Erdie and Ann’s family were close to them and they always were popping by to visit. When Leslie started working, I realized how close she was to her grandparents, especially Erdie, and I began to envy her as my own grandfather had been an ogre, not the kind of grandpa where you’d climb up onto his lap for a bedtime story when you were young. In fact once he yelled at me when I was a toddler and I went onto the floor and bit him in the ankle. I was not a precocious child, but I was upset and I got a lickin’ when I got home for biting him, but I never regretted my action. I got to meet each member of the family and when Erdie had his 90th birthday party, I was invited and got to see everyone all grown up – it made me feel kind of old, but special too, for being welcomed into this special family gathering. Most of the kids had been pre-teens or teenagers and some were now married with kids of their own.
More memorable moments.
During the course of my five years of employment, the 40-something owner of the diner decided he wanted to marry and start a family. He returned to his native country and brought back a young wife and the following year they had a daughter. She was named Linda, after me, because Jimmy said he admired women who wanted to further their education. He doted on that little girl, who was beautiful with her springy black ringlets and dark brown eyes. He’d bring her in and I was immediately given a break to sit there and chat with my namesake, or he’d thrust a $5.00 bill at me and say “you and Linda go play the jukebox with this money.” Linda would be long gone and tunes would still be playing – I think they were three songs for a quarter back then. After Jimmy died, his wife and Linda returned to their homeland and I never saw them again.
I planned a surprise party for my mom’s 50th birthday in 1976. I arranged for my grandmother and aunt to come from Toronto by bus and I met them at the Greyhound bus station downtown. We went to the diner where Erdie had picked up a pre-ordered cake earlier that day. We had a meet-and-greet and then he drove the three of us and the cake home. I opened the door and said “Mom, I’m home” and my grandmother carried in the cake. We pulled it off and my mom burst into tears, as she was so surprised.
One of my favorite customers, a guy named Charlie Brown, won big at the racetrack one day and came in for his usual one cup of black coffee. He handed me a $50.00 bill and told me to keep the change – of course, I was over the moon with that tip. That was the first and only time anything like that happened – but wow, (and remember this was the mid-70s)!
I learned how to cook on the grill and could take over for the cook when he or she had to take a break. The poor clean up boy was also the official onion chopper for all our burgers and every Saturday, he’d sequester himself in the backroom, where he chopped up a 50-pound mesh bag of Spanish onions We daren’t go back in that corner for fear of teary eyes, so if I needed more diced onions for burgers, I’d have to stand at the doorway and yell for him to bring me some.
Earlier this year I wrote about a post about going to Carters wearing my graduation gown on the day I was to graduate from Wayne State University. Because I had a mouthful of metal braces I refused to smile as I posed with Erdie at the counter…
… and then took another picture at the side of the diner with both of them. (It is poor quality unfortunately.)
Ann wrote me a beautiful note which I’ve kept, along with these mementos, in a scrapbook all these years.
On the last day of work, many of the regular weekday customers stopped by to say goodbye. One brought his family and I resorted to writing out a receipt, and turned to Erdie and said “I couldn’t memorize the order, but I made it messy, just for you.”
I visited Ann and Erdie every Summer. I’d walk over to their house and sit on the porch and spend some time with them. I’d call on their birthdays and catch up with what was happening with their family. When each of them passed away, I couldn’t bring myself to pay my respects, as I wanted to remember them as I last saw them, at Erdie’s 90th birthday party.
I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to share this 40th anniversary story. I originally was going to post it as a “Tuesday Musings” on Bosses Day, October 16th, but decided against it, choosing to make this a fond, look-back post instead.
Artist rendering by Sean Manuel. The rest of the photos are my own from my photo albums and scrapbooks.