I learned a lot about life and business and corruption, and taking flight from the seedier side of life, during the summer that I worked at The Golden Steer in Hawthorne, New Jersey. This summer was my last one living in the Garden State, and it was the summer after my graduation from high school. Some teens heading out into the world at that time had lucrative jobs and brand new cars lined up for them; others had cushy connections with big-wigs, local and distant. I had my job at The Golden Steer as, initially, a cashier, and then a waitress, and then a hostess, and then hostess and waitress. Keeping the Salad Bar uncontaminated was a full-time job! Three months of minimum wage and maximum experience! The cook was a guy named Willie. He did not wear a cap, hair net, chef’s toque. Back in those days, there were very few safety regulations and no public rules for hygiene. One had to count on any hired help to know enough to take a bath, wash the hair, put on deodorant — the kind of basic common sense and cleanly, civilized practice that is now State Edict for public employees who somehow do not know the basics of sanitation and common courtesy: wash your hands, cover your mouth when hacking up green mucous, stay home from The Job when you have a cold, or some other infectious disease.
Willie wore a pick in his Afro. From time to time, as he flipped the steak on the grill, he’d re-adjust the pick. Mainly, though, Willie was intensely focused on cooking up a storm, in between smoking his cigarette that he set on the far edge of the grill. He played the radio and sang along with the soulful strains, sometimes better than the on-the-air vocalist. And he prioritized each cooking order by how good the waitress was. I eventually became the best waitress, and got my orders filled first. (I would later find this cook’s prerogative to be customary in the restaurants where I waitressed in D.C., thereby working toward the acme of the server-structure.)
It wasn’t hard for me to rise, within a matter of weeks, to the top of the huddle of young women, girls, really, who came from varying backgrounds. One was Miss Big Brown Eyes, Brownie, the mistress of Mr. B, the married owner of the restaurant. This illicit affair was not a matter of privacy among the workers at this steak house. Mr. B routinely came strutting into the bar section of the eatery with his younger side dish on his arm. She wore a fancy gold polyester get-up and white platform heels.
Waitressing back then was done in those fashionably wretched white low-heeled, nearly orthopedic, shoes. (I later dyed my pair black to use for waitressing that next summer in D.C.) Somehow, Brownie had located a pair of obnoxious heels to pair up with philandering with that heel.
Willie deemed Brownie the worst waitress of the group. She was one step below Jennifer, who was built like a Sherman tank and bull-dozed her way through people and serving trays. The middle of the pack was held by a very nice classmate of mine who was an utter klutz in the kitchen and a disaster with any food in her hands. She once opened a roll of quarters for the cash register by banging it against a metal counter. The quarters went flying everywhere! As she served a lawsuit-worthy bowl of steaming hot French onion soup to a patron, the tie of this guy (and ties were LONG and WIDE back then) did a French dip in the soup. I was not the best waitress initially at The Golden Steer, but Willie showed me the ropes and taught me about the types of customers that any restaurant attracts. He also informed me about the more clandestine goings-on of the food-service business in northern New Jersey. I wasn’t angling for my Guest Check to be the first pulled off the silver wheel of food fortune, but somehow I earned that coveted place amidst the waitresses.
They were, of course, jealous and approached me with spiteful payback, but Judy the Manager got in their way. She was a fiery-eyed fishwife of enormous bulk who protected her best waitress as part of doing business. Judy was known to have reduced several waitresses to tears, just with the murderous glare in those eyes, but somehow she left me alone and let me do my waitressing work, that I, as a novice, learned quickly. I thus progressed from duty to duty, job to job, with the same hourly wage! Judy especially looked out for me when I played the role of Glamour Girl, seating the customers into specially selected “stations” and sizing up the wait times for seating. I also divided up the Dining Room into zones of quality customers and bad ones. The bad ones were the loud, crude and rude patrons, quick to complain, always getting drunk, and trying to welch on payment. Every waitress gets her share. That summer, I got mine: A guy and his gal who ordered the biggest most expensive steaks in the place, with those hideous fried onion rings, along with salads, alcoholic beverages, and, for dessert, coffee and the cheesecake that was kept in the walk-in (a favorite hide-out for romantic workers and for anyone trying to escape the wrath of Judy). I handed the guy the check after this big repast was consumed, and the guy told me that he was not going to pay for the meals. The steak was greasy and stringy, full of grizzle. Just awful.
I immediately went into the kitchen and told Willie. He set down his spatula, adjusted the pick in his hair, and marched, with me behind him, out of the blazing hot kitchen and into the Dining Room. I then led the way to the offensive consumer. Willie stood there by their booth a minute or two, eyeing them. He then said: “You didn’t like the steaks?” “No, we did not.” Willie stared down at the empty plates. “Then why did you eat them?” The smug guy said nothing, and Willie left the room. I followed him, and asked what to do, whether to expect payment. He said, “If he doesn’t pay, get Mr. B. But don’t expect a tip.” That eventuality I already knew. Mr. B didn’t have to intervene in the situation. The guy paid and walked out of The Golden Steer which he probably told people was a bum steer. In that instance, any friend of this guy was not welcome as a customer.
That summer, the busboys and dishwashers of the kitchen staff were Hungarians, straight from Hungary. Spoke not a word of English. I think I learned how to talk with my eyes even better during those three months of my employ at this steak house. One Saturday, toward the end of that summer, I arrived at The Golden Steer in the morning as part of the opening shift. When I went into the kitchen, the place was a complete shambles. The dishes had not been cleared or cleaned from the previous night, a Friday. And Fridays were always busy, late until 2 a.m. Some dishes had been set in the dishwasher, but the machine had not been operated. The bar manager, Mr. H., came into the kitchen. He looked with some guilt and disgust at the scene. “INS,” he said in a low voice. For whatever reason, the green cards had either expired, or the adulterous owner was on the receiving end of a malice-attack by a competitor, or perhaps a supplier he’d either stiffed or shorted. I do not know where those hard-working Hungarians went, off into the night. Mr. H, another waitress and I loaded the dishwasher and cleaned and organized the kitchen. To this day, I am not a very willing loader of any dishwasher, even my own, although my aversion to a dishwasher is more because I was the dishwasher in my home-of-origin.
The end of summer meant that I was leaving The Golden Steer and New Jersey. I’d bought a plain, beige smocked maxi-dress with strap sleeves for my hostessing shift (it accessorized well), but I needed an alternative option. My best girlfriend let me borrow her elegantly beautiful prom dress (I didn’t go to The Prom). This gown was of a delicate floral tile print on white cotton, with puffed sleeves. She also gave me a wonderful dark green cable-knit cardigan as a parting gift — classics never go out of style. I wished I had something to give to her; maybe the gift of friendship was enough during the next year or so after I “went away to college.” Judy, the ferocious manager, was a bit tearful in letting me leave this place of food, drink and chaotic noise. I’d helped her rack up a lot of greenbacks at The Golden Steer. She had a soft spot beneath all of that hostile bluster, and I repaid her many kindnesses by keeping that secret to myself. Undoubtedly, she’d developed a crusty exterior after those kindnesses had been used against her.
And Willie the cook, he kept working there for quite a few years at The Golden Steer. The place went downhill, along with so much of the New Jersey that I’d known. I’m sure Willie found his just reward at a big steak house in the sky. He didn’t kill any fatted calf, but he did have faith that this yearling would find her way in this world, once she’d left the petty pen of The Golden Steer. He certainly steered me toward even better waitressing jobs in Washington D.C. Whenever a customer complained about the food he’d scarfed down but didn’t want to pay for, I’d scratch my head, symbolically adjusting my pick, and say: “You ate it, didn’t you?”