Me, a Carhop

There comes a time in every teen's life when she wants a real job. Not a baby-sitting job. Not a house-cleaning job. But a job that pays money (and deducts taxes and SS). A job that results in a steady stream of disposable income.

At almost-sixteen years old, in Jermyn during the late summer of 1968, there wasn't a large selection of part-time jobs that attracted my interest. An advertisement for a carhop position at a local restaurant--- the San-Aw--got my attention. The owners of the restaurant attended St. Michael's, so that was a plus because my parents knew them. I applied for the job even though I had no idea what a carhop was. I was determined to be the best carhop the San-Aw ever had.

The owner, Al (Alexander Wanas), conducted my interview in the restaurant's dining area. Because I liked being outdoors and I liked people, I felt those traits already qualified me for the position. Al explained how every employee took a turn filling the napkins and condiments on the tables, checking supplies and cleaning the restrooms, and wiping the machines and tables. In time, I'd learn to serve coffee to dining room customers and run the milkshake machine and cash register because now and then it'd be busier inside than outside.

In warm weather, we wore white shorts or a short white skirt, and a navy blue-and-white striped vest. A white shirt under the vest and long pants were for cooler weather. The most important rule for the carhops was "Don't let a customer drive away with the tray." Al would dock the cost of a missing tray from your paycheck, or worse, from your night's tips.

 

The restaurant patio provided a view of the lot full of customers so we sat on the patio during any breaks or slow time (mostly to keep track of our trays). We'd only return to the car if the customer flashed the lights.  

At some point during my first evening on the job, I went inside to use the bathroom. When I returned to the patio, Linda ran up to me shouting, "Number Eight just pulled away with your tray." Didn't we watch out for each other's trays? I began searching around the paved area in the dark, hoping the tray had been tossed into the surrounding shrubbery. No luck. I walked back to the patio and sobbed. 

Linda and Mary Jane laughed and pointed to a chair where my tray sat. "It's a kind of game we play, an initiation sort-of. We take bets on whether the new girl will cry." Mary Jane put two quarters into Linda's outstretched hand.

"Fun-nee," I said. I immediately liked my carhop pals.

Al turned the Curb Service Open sign off if the rain was heavy. Customers would patiently sit in their cars and listen to music or do a lot of kissing until the rain lightened up. Some nights the summer's brief rain showers were the only times we could enjoy our allotted meal.

Every part of working at the San-Aw was fun. At the end of the night, Al would insert some change into the jukebox and turn up the volume. We'd all chip in and prepare the restaurant for the next day which included skating on absorbent bath towels to dry the floor each night after Al mopped.

The restaurant workers were kind people who made me feel comfortable. It seemed we were never in a hurry to go home at the end of the night shift. We'd tell stories and jokes and listen to Al's plan for a future addition, another dining area with a bar and a wall of mirrors. Al shared his methods for memorizing customers' names and how to impress the patrons by memorizing their orders (the items were written on the tab once we were out of eyesight).

 

Al kept his harmonica tucked inside his shirt pocket and we'd hear him play "happy birthday" when a customer mentioned it was a birthday. The restaurant continues to hold a reputation for delicious food in hearty portions at reasonable prices.

 

It was my first experience to interact with people outside of my Mayfield friends and The Lane residents (except, of course, school). The restaurant workers had no idea I hid a secret. No matter how happy or comfortable I was working at the San-Aw, I knew I could never tell them - or anyone - my secret. This first experience of interacting with new people encouraged me to continue with my double life.

By the time the following summer rolled around, I had saved some money despite purchasing at least a hundred 45 records and a brown suede jacket with fringed sleeves. I would stay on the carhop schedule throughout the upcoming school year.

Money in my pocket as an eleventh grader with a driver's learning permit gave me a feeling of independence. 

Section is from an early draft of Calico Lane.