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Working Less 

And enjoying it more

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001

In 1972, I took my first job in the real world: waiting tables at Ruth‘s Hickory Mountain Restaurant in Siler City, North Carolina. I’d moved to North Carolina to live on a farm with my boyfriend, grow organic vegetables, raise dairy goats and revel in a backwoods squalor that stupefied my parents. I needed an income, though, so for my job I donned a spongy white nurse‘s uniform and white orthopedic shoes (the two items cost more than my first week’s pay), a yellow apron, pantyhose and a hair net. Ruth‘s was a family-style restaurant, a family coffee shop. I learned the regional particulars: A burger ”all the way,“ for example, meant mustard, slaw, chili and onions. Everything came with French fries and hushpuppies. Barbecue meant a mash of chopped pork, usually served with coleslaw on a hamburger bun.

I was shown how to ”marry“ the ketchup bottles, refill salt and pepper and sugar shakers, work the coffee machines, and brew the local beverage of choice: a highly sugared iced tea. I was taught how to abbreviate and arrange my orders on a ticket. But there were no instructions for interacting with customers -- the English language was deemed sufficient. On my first day, I spilled a 20-ounce glass of iced tea on a mentally retarded man who, in turn, broke into noisy weeping. Otherwise, I managed to take orders and serve food. Within a week, I’d served enough country ham biscuits, pork barbecue, fried fish, banana pudding and iced tea to wreck the cardiovascular health of any small city.

I was young (18!) and had not expected full-time work to be so life-consuming and exhausting -- or to so closely resemble a Flannery O‘Connor short story. Miz Ruth, the owner of the restaurant, was blind (although she did have the uncanny ability to count money, including bills, by touch). Al, her husband, had no arms -- he’d lost them by grabbing a live wire when building the restaurant. As a pair, they coped; she‘d hook her fingers into his waistband and he’d lead her around. He had a prosthetic arm, but he wore it only to drive and sign our checks. I actually never saw the thing. Next to the register sat a stack of free color post cards of the restaurant. Printed on the back of the cards, right where you‘d want to write a message, were a few words scrawled by Ruth: Come have a meal with the handicap [sic]. It’s good eatin‘.

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The shifts were nine hours with breaks. Often, I cried all the way home, partly from exhaustion and partly because life, as lived at Ruth’s Hickory Mountain Restaurant, seemed so difficult and bleak and poorly paid. Still, I did well and was given more hours and more responsibility, neither of which I remotely desired. Soon, I was awarded the badge of trust: I was asked to feed Al. (Eating was one of the few tasks that he and Miz Ruth couldn‘t manage -- she couldn’t see where his mouth was.) Al and I would sit in a booth among the customers and, avoiding each other‘s eyes, I would cut up food and fork it over to him. He took each mouthful like a snapping turtle.

Within a year, I gratefully went back to college, where I took part-time waitress positions in small cafes for spending money.

In graduate school at the University of Iowa, I applied for a job at the Hawkeye Truck Stop in nearby Coralville. The owner of the truck stop, Dick Meyers, was smart and quick, a recovering alcoholic and a big advocate of transcendental meditation; he’d pay for his employees to receive instruction in the technique. Impatient of manner and always on the run, Dick nevertheless knew everything that was going on at his truck stop, from the restaurant to the fuel pumps, the gift shop to the mechanic‘s pit. He read my application and offered me a job. He said, ”I have only one piece of advice -- and that is, no matter what else you’re doing, when a customer comes through the door, you get him a cup of coffee before his ass hits the seat. If you give him that coffee, and a cheerful greeting, and keep his cup filled, it won‘t matter if the kitchen is slow or the food is bad.“

Dick’s coffee-first rule, I discovered, was brilliant. That instant cuppa and initial blast of good will gratified even the grouchiest trucker -- and it also prioritized a my tasks, structured each encounter with a customer and bought me a few moments to get organized. I used the coffee-first rule in all my subsequent jobs, amending it when necessary: cocktails first for banquet-goers; iced tea first for golfers.

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