One of the things Covid has done is to foster nostalgia not only for a return to normalcy but also highlights from days gone by. My 1950’s summer waitressing job at Marie Dressler House Restaurant is one of these.
This coveted summer job paid $15 for a six day week: 11AM to 9PM with two hours off each afternoon. Given I usually made $60 a week in tips, Google says my weekly $75 would be $750 today.
The restaurant owner, Lenah Fisher’s high standards for waitresses included speech, posture and attitude. The restaurant sported white linen table cloths and napkins, elegant antique furniture, table settings and silverware. Delighted I made the grade, I knew how gruelling the job would be, having worked two previous summers waitressing at a respected Cobourg hotel.
I rode my bicycle from home on Brook Rd South to and from work, rain or shine although, if it was raining, I covered my uniform with a plastic drycleaner bag and carried it on one arm, praying none of it would get water or mud stained on the way.
Each waitress was designated a room. The Music Room with its antique wind-up music box, belonged to the head waitress whom we all resented. As Maitre D, we felt she took the best customers. On her day off, when Lenah was Maitre D, customer distribution seemed more democratic. Second best was the Button Room – its walls adorned with an extensive collection of glass-framed buttons and, lastly, the Little Back Room which none of us wanted.
We were allotted one cotton uniform: a black below the knee dress, a white, tied at the waist apron, a black and white headpiece that required starching and black stockings held up with our garter belt or girdle. We provided black shoes. If the apron became soiled over lunch hour as it often did, I cycled home to wash, hand dry and iron it for the evening shift. We wore these uniforms, according to Lenah, to emulate demure and efficient French maids.
The two-way windowless swinging kitchen door was a nightmare and I remember disasters with loaded trays. We moved as quickly as possible, always trying to give good service in the shortest time. The rule to be quiet and unobtrusive was certainly broken when two waitresses collided resulting in spoiled orders and an infuriated cook.
One of my compatriots who worked the breakfast shift says Lenah insisted waitresses make and butter their own toast, time-consuming and nerve-wracking when a bus load of tourists arrived. I remember making individual salads and desserts and being told to clean up afterward or face the wrath of the cook Marius.
Ah, Marius! According to Lenah, he was from some posh Rivera restaurant in France. Why he was in small town Cobourg in the 1950’s was, of course, something we were not allowed to question. He ruled with despotic ferocity, often belittling and admonishing us in his Maurice Chevalier accent. The job description said our weekly pay included suppers but Marius was loathe to give us any of us his French fare. He insisted we wait, even when there was a lull, saying he couldn’t give away his prized creations. Paying guests could arrive at any moment. The result was, of course, we stole – a piece of chicken, a slice of beef. We were hungry having not eaten since breakfast. When he noticed and accused us, we played dumb. “I know I had dix pieces of ‘cheeckin’, he would sputter, “and now there are only neuf”.
We complained and griped but the paycheck plus tips made it worthwhile. Memories have kept the experience alive for me and, I’m sure, for others who worked there in the 1950’s.