It was my first real promotion at my first real job and I was beaming. From a 16-year-old cashier with her well-rehearsed customer greeting, “Welcome and how may I serve you today?” to the 17-year-old dipper of chicken (flour to batter to flour to fryer), I’d successfully made my way through French fries and onion rings.
I took on the role of dining room captain only days after my eighteenth birthday. It sounds impressive, but in reality there were only a few tables for me to maintain. Yet it was here, in this very small seating area, that I mastered the art of conversation, honing my social skills, becoming more personable and much more observant.
It may have all started with a basic “Hi, folks, may I take that tray for you?” But through this simple task day after day, I began to learn that life is not so simple for many people.
I watched the mother who helped her son with learning disabilities color the pictures on our paper menu every afternoon. The little red-haired boy favored the blue Crayolas, so I made sure all the crayon boxes lost their supply of greens and yellows.
I remember an adoring wife who hand-fed her husband but never took the time to feed herself. I’d wrap up her meal and add a little surprise to brighten her day, perhaps a chocolate chip cookie or maybe an apple pastry.
Then there was the old man in tattered green overalls who always took the corner booth closest to the soda fountain and never said a word to anyone except me, when I’d offer to refill his drink. He’d thank me in his gravelly voice and try to give me a dollar. I always returned it with a smile and a silly joke I had looked up the night before in my brother’s joke book for just this occasion. He never laughed out loud, but I could see in his eyes that he was smiling. I also knew that he was happy because the next day there’d always be another dollar and another joke.
Months passed in this veritable training ground.
One day, a little girl’s spilled fruit punch brought an unexpected opportunity. Her mother furiously mopped up the table and chastised the child for her carelessness, telling her there would be nothing more to drink. I walked past and picked up the plastic cup from the floor. I also took a moment to compliment the mother on her beautiful blouse. She touched her chest and calmed down immediately. I had managed to distract and pull her from her tailspin. I brought the little girl another drink and refilled the mother’s coffee. They stayed to spin the tiny tops that accompanied the kids’ meal.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one simple gesture had taught me something invaluable. You can change a situation just by talking to someone.
The way I had been handling my duties in the dining room had not gone unnoticed, because one day the general manager summoned me to his inner sanctum and offered me my first real promotion. I was to be the new assistant manager at the front end. It was a big moment for a 19-year-old.
I was issued my new name tag, my new employee staff shirt, slacks and a contract stipulating my salary increase of $1.85 an hour. I ran to the restroom to put on my new uniform and emerged moments later feeling a whole lot more important and infinitely more proud.
If I could have strutted I would have, but there was no time, because my boss then asked me to join him on a routine supply run to our nearby sister store. I hopped in the car feeling more like a VIP on her way to a red carpet event than an assistant manager en route to pick up toilet paper and paper towels.
A few minutes later, we veered off the main highway in an unfamiliar direction. I figured we were on a back route until the car stopped alongside a heavily wooded area. My boss leaned past me and locked the car door. He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me toward him. I think he said something about finding me attractive. I probably should have screamed.
Instead, I thought back to that earlier day when a few words of mine calmed a mother so she in turn could calm her child. I told my boss he was so handsome that every girl I knew dreamed of one day marrying him. I convinced him that my parents were away and that right after I finished my shift he could come home with me.
He nodded and headed back to the highway, smiling all the way. I had talked my way out of it, at least for the moment.
When we arrived back at the restaurant, I left through the rear employee entrance. I had been an assistant manager for a little over 45minutes. In that period of time I had experienced the elation that comes with accomplishment and the heartache that comes with betrayal.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t call anyone. I just started walking, never to return to the restaurant again.
A car pulled alongside me, or so I thought. I started to shake until I realized the driver was only trying to make a turn into the 7-Eleven parking lot I was now walking past.
Her car radio was blasting Gloria Gaynor telling the world that she would survive. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought God had tuned the dial to that exact radio station at that exact moment so I could hear the message meant for me.
I bought Gloria Gaynor’s record the next day, after receiving my final paycheck. I listened to her song for hours on end and finally came to believe in the words we were singing together.
It had been my dining-room captain skills that eventually gave me the courage to work with people in trouble. I became a therapist. I taught those in need that they could do something I myself had learned to do.
Previously Published in “We Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and Sue Carswell