All my life I’d been training to work behind the counter in my Brooklyn coffee shop.
Right out of college, my boyfriend and I lived in Hartford, CT, down the street from the Mark Twain House. He commuted to New Haven for graduate school at Yale while I served veal parmigiana and other red-sauce specialties five nights a week at Gionfriddo’s, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant on Asylum Avenue.
Unable to fulfill my ambition to become an investigative journalist, and in need of money, I’d decided to fall back on a skill I honed working my way through school. Later in my professional life, I always knew I could work a few shifts if all else failed. Waitressing was my safety net, despite the rigors of such demanding physical work. What I never realized was that waiting on tables was also the beginning of my literary education.
Gionfriddo’s had been there since 1933, and was known as a hangout for politicians and even boxers such as the mythic Willie Pep. The three Gionfriddo brothers, Frank, Michael, and Bobby, sons of the restaurant’s founder, were on duty at all times in suit and tie. Frank, the oldest, ran the show, while Bobby, the youngest, was the least severe in manner. Michael, in the middle, remains indistinct in memory, the fill-in guy who took things to hand when Frank was busy or Bobby was goofing off.
The brothers were gruff, but fair to everyone but the crippled Puerto Rican dishwasher, whom they treated like a slave. As far as they were concerned, he was lucky to have a job at all, given the way he limped. Stubble-haired and overweight, his stomach straining against the fabric of his black-and-white checked work shirt, Sancho struggled piteously to haul the dish bins full of tomato-sauce stained dishes into the steaming-hot washing machine. Decades after I watched the sweat from his face drip onto his soiled uniform, I remember the exact contours of his mouth, always slightly agape, as if he were sucking air to get from one work station to another.
Sancho’s situation was my first glimpse of the petty cruelty of which seemingly “normal” bosses were capable. Sometimes I offered pilfered snacks to Sancho on his infrequent breaks; so did the other waitresses. There were no waiters, only waitresses, the harem for the Gionfriddo sultans.
Still, I thrilled to the rush of adrenaline on a good night at Gionfriddo’s. I loved the camaraderie with the other workers, and the sense that I was helping people enjoy a day or evening out. Decades later, the same impulse spurred me to open a Brooklyn coffee shop as the locus for a creative community, as well as a personal proving ground.
Growing up, I was expected to set an example as the oldest. If I acted out, my five siblings might get a message that threw our rules-based Irish Catholic household into chaos. In my waitress jobs, I showed a more expansive and even goofy self: I cracked wise and told dumb jokes. My snappy patter was appreciated and validated by customers in a very concrete way—by an apron-full of cash at the end of every shift. I relished my little role on the stage-set every good restaurant aims to be.
I found my calling after leaving my first job as a clerk at a toy shop called the Bonnie Barn, whose Swiss owners asked me to trail black customers, suspected shoplifters; I didn’t last long there. At the Dolly Madison Ice Cream Parlor in a strip mall not far from our suburban Philadelphia home, I wore an ill-fitting white polyester uniform and an apron with ruffles at the edges that frayed after every washing. The synthetic threads stuck out like quills on a porcupine.
Outfitted in matching white shoes like a nurse in a grade-B version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I was speedy, and had a good memory for people’s orders, but my best asset in food service was my mouth. Solicitous to the older patrons who came in regularly, I indulged my smart-ass impulses with truck drivers—the best tippers by far—and suburban families out for an ice cream treat. I got so sticky from scooping globs of ice cream into little glass boats for banana splits—three scoops, with whipped cream, nuts, and a proverbial cherry on the top—that I barely touched a lick of it all summer. And after the busboys were caught in the walk-in freezer sniffing Freon, I had to face the nasty fact that even whipped cream cans could be instruments of substance abuse. Dolly Madison would have been turning over in her grave.
The busboys weren’t the only lowlifes on the staff; it was rotten from the top down. The mustached manager, an unsavory character who could have doubled as a carnival barker or the villain in a vaudeville production, described the hostess, a buxom woman with Tang-colored hair piled high on her head: “Head of red and a snatch to match.” In comparison, the busboys looked like members of a church choir. Restaurant work showed me for the first time how I might have to make my way in a world far different from the one in which I’d been raised.
The first summer after high school, I got a job at a Howard Johnson’s in King of Prussia, not far from an off-ramp of the PA Turnpike. The uniform there was even less flattering than the one at Dolly Madison because I had to wear a tight hairnet. It was a herculean task to tuck my unruly, curly hair into its confines.
My mouth knew no such restrictions. One day a burly truck driver shouted across the counter, “Colleen, get me a cup of coffee!”
“That is not my name,” I retorted with barely disguised disdain. Yes, I needed this job, but I also needed to own my name.
“It might as well be,” he shot back. “You’ve got the map of Ireland on your face.”
I never felt I had to wear green again on March 17.
At HoJo’s I compensated for the rigor of corporate requirements by acting out with the dishwasher, Matthew, a fellow Irish American and student at the Philadelphia College of Art, whose hair was even bigger than mine. It towered over his long, thin face, like that of the singer Tom Waits. One night after we got off work, we climbed the walls of a private swimming pool in a home nearby and went skinny-dipping under the moonlight. Another night we decided that only a jaunt to the Jersey Shore two hours away could wash away the trauma of serving clam chowder and peppermint ice cream for six hours, and washing all the dishes afterwards. I got home at 6 a.m. the next day to find my worried mother waiting up for me in the living room, shocked at the thoughtless behavior of her normally responsible eldest.
The remaining summers of my college years were spent at the Merion Cricket Club on Philadelphia’s storied Main Line, established in 1865. Though it wasn’t more than a few miles from the street where I lived with my parents and five siblings, it might as well have been a different planet, one inhabited by WASPs, mostly up in years. Alfred, an Italian from South Philadelphia who wore a tuxedo to escort club members to their tables in the dark, stodgy dining room, lorded his authority over the rest of us, as did head waitress Catherine, the ramrod-straight-backed sole survivor of what had once been an all-Irish staff. Little mock English cottages on the club’s capacious grounds housed the imported help.
One day as I served lunch to a white-haired member, he looked up at me and asked, “Are you Irish?”
“Yes,” I said. Though a fourth-generation Irish-American, my blood runs thick: my forebears all married other Irish people.
“How nice that you could come here to work,” he said, smiling and nodding appreciatively. “Where are you from?”
“Ardmore,” I said—a hop, skip and a jump from the club.
He smiled and went back to his lunch, never acknowledging his awkwardness. Though I was taken aback by his comments—more surprised than offended—I also felt pity for his lack of awareness, and for his social isolation. Though there is nothing like the food service industry to highlight class differences, I felt superior in the knowledge that he was an old man, part of a dying breed. I was the new order, with a custodian grandfather, but a father who went to Harvard as a “townie,” the first in his family to go to college.
My dining room cohorts at the Cricket Club beside Catherine included Flossie and Glo, whose names conjured cuddly Easter bunnies. But they were tough-as-nails pros from working class Manayunk who wore their hair in matching platinum beehives, and could balance an armada of dishes on their arms. They indulged me as a “college girl.” I valued their advice on the politics of the dining room, as well as their well-honed and often raunchy sense of humor.
At the club, we were paid a weekly salary drawn from sums members designated on bills they signed after each meal, like guests at an upscale but discrete hotel. No cash on view: I came to realize that this was a typical WASP maneuver. The lack of cash validation was somewhat ameliorated by the antics of Raphael, aka Ralph, a handsome waiter and gifted cartoonist who sketched portraits of club patrons on beverage napkins in his downtime, and danced around the kitchen flamenco-style, with escargot tongs dangling from his ears.
I loved Ralph because of his jaunty style; he carried himself with a self-respect he might not have had waiting on club members who treated him as a faithful retainer. He was taking their measure visually, as I was mentally: I viewed my job at the club as a sociological experiment.
In contrast, Gionfriddo’s was a way station after college graduation until the forward-path became clearer. But if I couldn’t be an investigative reporter, I was at least learning to be a keen observer. I was curious about the customers, including not just lawyers and legislators at the nearby capitol, but also actors and staff from the Hartford Stage Company, who piled in almost every night after the show at around 10:30 or 11. Ours was one of the only places in the area serving food that late.
One night I waited on a group of insurance salesmen, up from the South to train at company headquarters in Hartford. When one of them asked for a hamburger in a syrupy Southern accent, I told him with a smile, “McDonald’s is right down the street.” I wanted him to know that this was a classy establishment, with purely Italian cuisine.
As they left, I found a note scribbled on a paper placemat on top of the white tablecloth: “If you want a tip, grow bigger tits.”
Righteously outraged, I showed the offensive document to Sam, short for Samantha, the head waitress, a tall, formidable woman with cat-eye glasses and a pronounced lisp. Bobby Gionfriddo, the most easygoing of the brothers, promised to approach the insurance company on our behalf. Though there were no tangible results to the complaint, I felt vindicated in being heard and supported by my colleagues. In a subsequent job as a curatorial aide at an art museum, I was labeled “loveable, but a pain in the ass” when I tried to help start a union there.
At Gionfriddo’s I figured out how to make lemonade from lemons—to expand my list of possible niches in the wider world. With the crew from the Hartford Stage Company, Herve Villechaize, then playing Pere Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play, arrived each night in a jaunty beret, cigar clutched rakishly between his teeth. We conversed in my rudimentary French, and as he prepared to go back to New York, he left me the phone number at his Canal Street loft on his paper placemat—quite a contrast to the other message I’d been left weeks before. Even a waitress had worlds to conquer, if I could summon the resources.
Though I never called Herve when I moved to New York, I managed a short-lived affair with Larry, the Stage Company’s lighting designer, a tall, sandy-haired reprobate whose main claim to my affections was that he’d been expelled from Georgetown for trying to push a priest out a window.
My education in the world beyond my family, and the books into which I escaped, was just beginning; I had so much more to learn. Years later, working at my coffee shop brought back some of the joy of mixing it up with all kinds of people: artists, musicians, and designers; retired waitresses and snack truck operators; bakers, furniture makers, art school students, teachers, and bartenders. Even as a business owner, I liked to keep my hand in behind the counter.
When we dispatched a long line, smearing bagels with homemade garlic-and-herb cream cheese, filling medium-sized and large cups with coffee, and ringing up purchases with what seem like flying fingers, the assistant manager Don would turn to me and say with a triumphant smile, “Handled it.”
In Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, she describes what happens when the established order breaks down:
In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society, accompanied by a strong sense of liberation and common purpose. The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure—without disaster, that is—is the great contemporary task of being human.
To me, service is a transaction, and when you serve with real commitment, you might be on the receiving end of an appreciation that feels like a form of love. Each time I asked, “Can I help you?” wasn’t I asking for myself, as well?
In opening the café, maybe I’d been building a refuge all along from a professional literary life I wasn’t sure would last. It didn’t. Eighteen months after the coffee shop opened, I was “downsized” from my publishing job. But even as I struggled with a profound depression at no longer being at the top of the literary food chain, I had my shop, full of supportive customers who made me feel at one with the un-and-underemployed creative class.
As it turned out, the coffee shop didn’t last, either, once changes in the neighborhood rendered it financially untenable. But by then my hard-won service experience was pushing me in a new direction, one that integrated all I’d seen and learned in restaurants: those who serve are also watching.
Rumpus original art by Karen Cygnarowicz.