Saturday, March 16, 2013


        JOE"S Family restaurant in Ocean City, on the Eastern Shore of MD. opened onto the boardwalk adjacent to the long wooden pier, spilling out over the Atlantic Ocean.   
             The summer of my sophomore year in High School ( 1961), I boarded a Greyhound Bus for the 50 mile trip to start my first summer job away from home at JOE"S, waitressing.                   
           The learning curve was steep for the first couple weeks, no eating in the restaurant during working hours, no smoking at our corner table, no flirting with customers, clean uniforms and shoes a must, cleaning rules for all stations at the end of each shift.
           I'd been forewarned by a senior waitress, when ordering coffee from Etta, we were to ask for  coffee "with" for cream or coffee without, meaning black.  Etta was feisty and did not take kindly to us white girls using the word black for coffee orders.              
             One hot, humid Saturday afternoon in late July, I observed a negro gentleman in a dark suit and straw hat outside the restaurant looking at a menu posted near the grill where " Squirrel" was busy flipping burgers.  After several minutes, "Squirrel" caught my eye and beckoned me to come to the front and verbally gave me the man's order which I wrote out on my order pad and placed on a clothes pin inside the kitchen serving window in the back.
           He'd ordered a T-Bone steak, potato and peas.  I waited on a couple booths, keeping one eye focused on the serving counter, waiting for my order to be filled.   
           When " Big James" rang the bell I noticed the meal was served on a paper plate.  Walking to the front and handing the warm paper plate to Squirrel, I observed he passed the steak and plastic utensils out to the gentleman, who then made his way across the boardwalk to a green bench.  Shocked I asked, " Can;'t we at least give him silverware"?  "Squirrel's" response was Roy, our boss, would " chew his hide". 
        Slowly returning to my station, sadness crept over me like a dense fog.  Pausing for a couple  minutes, I asked a co-worker in my area to watch my tables while I ran an errand.  She looked at me  puzzled, as this was unusual.  Without batting an eye, I picked up silverware from the tray and a steak knife wrapped in a napkin,  strolled out the front of the restaurant to the green benches directly across where our customer was sitting with his meal balanced precariously on his knees.  
         Saying Hello, I introduced myself and handed him the bundle of silverware and asked if I could sit down.  He responded,  "Yes Maam".  As he ate his meal in the hot afternoon sun, we spoke of the weather, where we lived, our families and fishing , as Roy's round, sour face glared over his glasses at me across the chasm. 
         Upon finishing his meal and disposing the plate in a nearby trash can, he handed me the silverware wrapped in the napkin, smiled and thanked me for keeping him company. 
        As he walked away, my gaze followed him knowing in my heart I'd done the right thing, " Do unto others" echoing from an earlier teaching.    
       My future was unknown to me then as I rose from the green bench, slowly making my way back across the boardwalk, with a clear vision that equality and dignity was every man's right in America.                                                                                                                 Brenda Payne


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