Joe’s Take: July 18, 2014

A tip for the waitress  …
bio-pic-newThe first tip I earned was as a nineteen-year old busboy in Mike Trench’s Neptune Inn, which occupied an old bank-building in Atlantic City across Pacific Avenue from the Knife and Fork.

It was one of the upscale restaurants in town, always crowded with big tippers in summer and during conventions. We didn’t get tips directly; the deal was that the waitresses gave us about ten percent of their tips for the night. There were only two of us busboys, and the waitresses were fair about it, so we made out all right. Their honesty mattered a lot. My day job was as a lifeguard on the beach in Brigantine, and the combined income helped feed our newborn baby until I could find year-round work.

One night powerful Republican State Senator Frank S. “Hap” Farley came in with a table of six VIP’s. Their table being near my usual post, I could overhear the conversation, which had to do with some baseball player’s batting average.
“Wanna make a few bucks?” Helen, the waitress for the table and wise in the ways of the world,  whispered to me. “I think they’re about to put a bet on it. Go call the sports desk at the Press. Get the guy’s average, write it on a slip of paper and slip it to the Senator.” I did, and was soon rewarded with a discrete $50 tip, which was a ton of money in those days. Helen, a good sport and old hand at waitressing, declined her share of my good fortune with a cheerful wave. “Keep it, kid,” she said. “My kids are grown. You need it more than I do.” How right she was.

The working kinship with waitresses, bartenders, cooks, busboys and dishwashers that I grew up with has never faded. My family was full of kids that grew up in that world. Still is, for that matter. Can’t think of a relative, and precious few friends, who haven’t carried trays or served drinks or worked in the kitchen at one time or another, always glad for the work.

Funny how vividly that memory of Mike Trench’s Neptune Inn came back to me the other day. Long past my busboy days, every now and then I treat myself to lunch at the Grille Room of the Atlantic City Country Club. It’s a great place for quiet conversation or writing notes to myself. The food’s good, the price modest, and the view of the golf course and the Atlantic City skyline across the salt meadows and the bay is beautiful all year around.

Every good waitress, from breakfast café to diner to white-tablecloth restaurant, gets to know her regulars after awhile and can usually guess what you are likely to order. That sort of thing can spoil you. It makes you feel pretty special, like the customers at “Cheers” on the TV show where everybody knows your name.
Kathleen Harmon, a tall and cheerful blonde who spent 27 years as a seating captain for Caesars and the last 7 years waiting tables at the ACCC after Caesars bought the place from the Fraser family, combined all that with a great smile and personality and has spoiled hell out of me at such lunches these past few years. And she cares. When my better half went through the ordeals of breast cancer and major surgery I got in the habit of taking her to lunch, and Kathy invariably greeted us with a big smile and suggestions of menu choices that eased the problems of keeping your digestion while dealing with the side-effect of nausea from the medications.

She got bad news herself recently; was diagnosed with lung cancer that has reached her brain. She’s fighting it as best she can, and can still drive and get around. But something about the white cell count keeps her from working, which for years has been a bright part of living for her.

Her co-workers are holding a benefit for her. No surprise there: I never met a waitress or bartender or any restaurant worker who wouldn’t kick in something for a colleague, and I know that still holds true. The Ottinger family, who recently bought the place from Caesars, are hosting it at the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield  at 6 pm on Wednesday, August 6th. Tickets are $25 a head. We’ll be there and I hope many of you will also. If you can’t make it in person, send a check to “Karing for Kathleen”, c/o the Atlantic City Country Club, 1 Leo Fraser Drive, Northfield, NJ 08225. And thanks, from an old busboy.

© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins