Transient: A person or thing that is transient, especially a temporary guest, boarder, laborer, or the like.
In the dark of night, Estherville, Iowa, appears as a giant metropolis from atop Half-Mile Hill, a sloping stretch of asphalt leading into the dormant town of 6,000 residents. Lights seem to go on for miles, a luminous deception to motorists approaching from the west. An A&W restaurant had been situated on the crest of Half-Mile Hill for several years, capitalizing on the expansive view and its convenient location next to Estherville’s only drive-in movie theater. When the drive-in closed, the failing A&W was purchased by a couple who gave the place a thorough makeover and renamed it Grandma’s Revenge. They kept the drive-up booths and the homemade A&W root beer, expanded the menu threefold, and improved the burger selection. My friend Christy had hopped on her moped as soon as the help wanted advertisement appeared in the newspaper. As previously mentioned, I was right behind her. But not on a moped, I had to be driven. I’d been banned from mopeds until further notice. I had terrible balance back then and was always wiping out, breaking the blinkers and knocking the kick stand off my sister’s moped, not to mention the large patches of skin I’d left on several local roadways.
Grandma’s Revenge was a much cooler place to work than the Dairy Cream, and I was getting paid $2.25 an hour. A few popular girls were waitresses there, including the owners’ daughter, Connie. I wanted to be a waitress, too, but they only hired blue-eyed, tow-headed girls for those positions. With my flat chest, brown eyes, and brown frizzy hair, I was stationed behind the counter instead, a few feet in front of the dreadful kitchen where they put older girls with bigger butts and bad skin. Those in the back of the restaurant had the freedom to dip french fries in tartar sauce to their hearts’ content, so I secretly wanted to be back there with them. Of course, the food freak in me would have counted every fry and measured the tartar sauce, too.
I did all those duties expected of a counter girl: I washed glassware, prepared beverages as the waitresses ordered them, took food from the kitchen window and schlepped it over to the counter window, refilled the salad bar, and answered the phone for takeout orders. Grandma’s Revenge also served ice cream floats with the A&W root beer. The mugs holding those famous floats had to be washed immediately and chilled in the cooler; grown customers pouted and whined like children when we ran out of the frosty glasses and had to serve their float in a room-temperature glass. When I encountered these grumblers I let my face ice over with a well-rehearsed stare.
Once in a great while I would get to wait on a table in the dining room. The first time it happened, I was unfamiliar with both waitressing and tipping.
“Looks like they left eleven dollars too much,” I said as I handed the money to Christy, figuring she knew best how to divvy it up.
“That’s your tip, dummy.” She handed the money back to me.
“No way. I get to keep all of this?”
“Duh. You can’t give it back to them.” Christy rolled her eyes and gave her head a shake to emphasize my stupidity. I put the money in my pocket and began clearing the table.
I started thinking. I multiplied and divided and added some numbers, and in the middle of sponging a sticky orb of ketchup it dawned on me that my girlfriends, those blue-eyed blonde nymphs, were taking in a huge haul of cash while I washed dishes and took orders from the drive-up stalls for a measly $2.25 an hour! A clot of envy formed in my stomach as I went over the numbers again in my head. X number of tables with X customers, ordering X dollars worth of food each equals . . . That is so unfair, I told myself. They weren’t doing anything more difficult than I was; yet they were making five times as much money. I promised myself that one day I would get to be the waitress. The brunette waitress.
Events were few and far between at Grandma’s Revenge. Interesting events were fewer and farther. Most of my time was spent in anticipation of Craig sightings or rearranging my schedule in order to play drums in the marching band during Friday night football games. Craig was the owners’ son. He was in college and worked in the kitchen during his summer break (guys could only work in the kitchen). I had a crush. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a face full of teeth. Whenever I caught a glimpse of his head in the service window I’d turn red and drop whatever I was holding. By the end of our shifts together my fingers were singed from the coffeepot, my shirt was spattered with chicken fat and ketchup, we were down at least one frost-worthy mug, and nervous energy had steamed my polyester uniform with B.O.
Connie was aware of my infatuation with her brother and felt perfectly comfortable broadcasting this information.
“Hey, Craig, Sandy likes you,” she informed him while I stood next to her.
“Gross, I do not! God. You are such a liar.”
Craig feigned concern for my self-esteem, “Connie, knock it off.”
“What? She thinks you’re cute. She told me so.”
I would run off and cower in the bathroom, forced to work the rest of my shift in a fog of embarrassment. I spent the summers of ’83 and ’84 in that fog, making root beer floats and hanging out with the toilets —and finally decided that was more than enough. The following summer I would have my driver’s license, and I was going to be mobile. Maybe I could get myself some of those tips.