Remember your first job? I sure as hell do. Mine was bussing tables at a diner in a sleepy Pacific Northwest town where I grew up. I was 14 nearing 15 at the time and I used to frequent the diner with my grandmother. This was your stereotypical American Diner. Set to look like a 50's joint, from the moment you walked
in, you felt like you were back in time. The floor was black and white tiled with a big wrap around bar that had swivel barstools. There was a big light-up jukebox in the middle of the restaurant. There were big comfy booths surrounding the outskirts of the place. A big Betty Boop statue holding a pot of coffee was at the front by the hostess stand. The music that poured out was always Buddy Holly, Elvis, or the Everly Brothers. I believe it was even on the "Top 20 places to visit" brochure.
The sweet potato fries, cherry pie, and of course shitty bottomless coffee was a big fave of mine. So naturally, I decided it was where I needed to work. 'I could eat endless buckets of sweet potato fries, drink coffee all day long, and take the pie home after work' .. I thought. I remember casually telling my grandma that I wanted to work there and she ensured we didn't leave until I went up to the old woman at the till to ask if they were hiring. I was beating around the bush and couldn't bring myself to ask. I remember asking for a slice of cherry pie to go, and once she handed it to me and I was about to walk back to our table, I quietly said, "Are you hiring?"
My first day at the diner happened to be on a Saturday. Considering I was still in school, my shifts would be after school on weekdays to close the diner, and then I'd work the mid-shift on weekends.
To start your first job, in the hospitality industry, on a Saturday, was intimidating to say the least. I was given a red polo shirt that was three sizes too large for me. It did not smell fresh. Quite the opposite- it smelled like ketchup, napkins, and grease. I was told to wear black pants and black shoes. I went with an all black nike, and a black slack purchased from JC Penny's. I had a look at my new fellow co-workers. There were two older gals behind the counter with a permanent look of disappointment across their face. I made the quick assumption they had worked here for quite some time. I would later find out that yes, they had been employed there for 15+ years. There was another man who I thought looked like he might be in his 30's. He was running around with a huge smile on his face, going a million miles an hour, never breaking eye contact with whomever he was speaking with all while doing a hundred other things. I was completely in awe by him and decided he was who I nee
ded to learn from. I would later learn that he was snorting lines of coke on his "cigarette" breaks out in his truck.
My boss was a very large man who liked to come into the diner every morning to sit and have breakfast. He'd also read the paper but would have one eye on the floor at all times. I would discover rather quickly that my boss, did not like me. Obviously given that I was a fragile and intimidated child that didn't have the slightest clue what to do, I tried to befriend the older gals because I quickly realized that they were the only two people the chef's and the boss were nice to. For my first two shifts, I was shadowing one of the ladies. Let's call her, Pam. Pam barely spoke to me. She only said what she needed to and if she didn't need to use her words, she would just point, nod, and grunt. She was constantly chewing gum, rocked a bright red lipstick every day, and had long acrylic nails painted red as well. Dotti, the other older woman was practically the same. She wouldn't talk to anyone aside from Pam and the chef.
My job was to buss the tables. When guests would leave, I would clean up their mess. Clear the dishes, dump them at the dish pit, spray and wipe the tables, sweep under the tables, re-stock sugars, check the salt and pepper levels, fill up waters, and most importantly, walk around with two coffee pots, regular and
decaf, asking people if they'd like a refill. This was very serious business.
This is where my love for coffee began. It started with the mugs. Those hearty diner mugs that seem to weigh 2 pounds each. Even just hearing the sound of coffee filling a mug was extremely pleasing. There was a side bar, or condiment station tucked away behind the main bar. That was my station. It was almost like a butler's pantry but less glam. This is where we stored all the sugar packets, coffee things, silverware, condiments, etc. It was here that I would spend majority of my time, polishing silverware using hot water and vinegar, but also mostly chugging coffee. I became overly obsessed with caffeine buzzes. It got to the point where I would be brewing pots of coffee just for myself and for the o
ld gals of course, to in hopes win them over. One time, my boss walked behind the side bar and caught devouring coffee. My back was to him and he blurted, "are you going to pay for that?!" I immediately jumped out of my skin and the coffee spilled down my front and into the front pocket of my apron. That infuriated him even more as we had a full floor out there, and I assume he was looking for me as there were tables to be cleared. This would happen a few more times.
In the down times, I would eavesdrop on the two old gals conversations. What I discovered is they both love cigarettes, black coffee, and heading to the casino after their shifts. I was desperate to earn their respect and to find myself mid-shift lost in a conversation with the two of them. They were who I aspired to be and it was the absolute goal to earn their respect. In the meantime, I was stuck with Captain Crack, me riding on his drug infused coat-tails learning all that I could about becoming a server. He talked at a hundred miles an hour, but was a great mentor to learn from as this is where I discovered how to multi-task and form a great initiative. I became extremely good at knowing the exact time a customer needed a refill on their coffee, when chef's needed a runner without having to ding the bell, or when a family needed a booster seat. I was proud. Chuffed. I started getting tips from customers. They'd notion for me to come closer as if they were about to tell me a secret, then put a quarter in my hand. "Don't tell the waitress, but this is just for you." Followed by a wink. Oh boy. I did get tipped out by the servers most days. Especially if it was super busy and I was doing everything in my power to make their lives easier. It even got to the point where I would be taking orders while they went out for smoke breaks, even though I wasn't supposed to. The chefs started to joke with
me and chat to me when I'd come to the hand off point to run food. They used to call me greenie when I started and unfortunately, it never left. However, I felt as if I was the nerdy girl in school who had made friends with the popular kids. Except these popular kids were old men with tattoos, or workers who legally weren't necessarily allowed to be working. I felt like I was a part of a tribe. Like I was protected from the outside world by my odd work family.
After being in my bussing position for about three months, I was given the opportunity to be bumped up to server. I was elated. At the start of my shift, the diner would be broken off into two sections, Front and Back. My favorite was back section because it was easier and it meant I was closer to the condiment ba
r for coffee chugs. It was around my second week of serving that Pam asked me to cover one of her shifts. I was delighted she was talking to me, let alone asking me to assist her in some way, so I jumped at the opportunity and yelled 'yes.' From that moment on, Pam started saying "good morning" to me and even included me in her list of few people she would farewell before leaving into the night. I can truly say, that in that moment, I wanted to be like Pam. Pam drove an old mustard yellow Lincoln town car and the interior smelled like tobacco. I know because she gave me a ride home once when it was too snowy to walk home. I wanted to know everything about her. Why was she working here? And why for so long? Did she have kids? Did she always live here? What are her hobbies? I truly believe that it was in that instance, that I knew I wanted to learn more about the people that work in this industry. There's always some underlying story there that is so buried yet so apparent. We had everyone working in that place - from ex cons, single mothers, to recovering addicts, students, or just the folks that have been working there for 20 odd years. Why would they leave? Where else can you work where you can ultimately determine your wage. Need extra cash? Hustle harder for tips. Not phased? Just do the work and get by. Where else can you work
where you can get a plate full of piping hot pancakes for free in the mornings? Or perch by the coffee machine and consume 8 cups in a shift? It was also the place where you could see people from all walks of life at all times of day or night, sit up at the bar and have a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Occasionally there'd be a conversation and sometimes that conversation would be a life story that could shock the living hell out of you! There's something about diners that create an extremely homey and comforting ambience that invites a weary traveler in.
You can bet the pancakes will be delicious, the coffee will be $2.00 for a bottomless cup, and there will be pie. I spent many nights after my shift, perched up at the bar with a cup of coffee and slice of cherry pie that had been zapped in the microwave for a mere 30 seconds, with a big scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top, chatting away with the kitchen staff. I felt like I was a part of something and like I was neede
d. We all hated our boss and would finish the day with a shit chat before going our separate ways. Throughout the winter, Pam would often give me rides home in her yellow Lincoln and would sometimes bring me cookies at work. She became a real idol to me and was my anchor when i'd be out in the weeds.
Because of Pam, and because of that diner, is why I decided to start Hospo Bimbo. That diner sent me on a long journey within hospitality, working in all areas of restaurant and befriending multiple people from all walks of life. Now, when going to diners and ordering a short stack with a cup of coffee, I think back on these memories and feel relaxed and at ease. I believe that regardless if you have worked in a diner or not before, even as a patron, that feeling is present. For establishments that have been such a massive staple of our American culture, its the bleak beauty of time standing still and understanding what America used to be. If you peel back the layers, adjust your eyes from the smoke of change and fast times, you can still find diners standing tall, providing jobs, dishing up hot plates of food, and serving up a damn good cup of coffee.