A Signature Summer

A tip from a movie star wasn’t the only highlight of my summer waitressing job.

By Candace Jaffe

[I]n the summer of 1975, with more terror than confidence, I answered a help wanted ad for a breakfast waitress at Smith’s Big Bunch family restaurant in Fryeburg. I had just graduated from high school, had no experience, and wanted the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift so I could have afternoons to lollygag on nearby Moose Pond. I’d spent the last seven summers there, soaking up Maine’s seasons as if I’d been born into them. But I was from Massachusetts. If I got the job, erasing my status as a flatlander could be tricky in a room full of hungry locals.

I’d have to convince them I was worthy of adoption. Tell them I paid my dues in fishhook blood, calamine lotion, splinters, and snow shoveled from the cottage roof. Swallowed blackflies and survived a screening of The Exorcist at the Bridgton Drive-In. Snuck under the fence at the Fryeburg Fair and got swindled by carnies like everybody else. It wasn’t enough to claim birthright, but at least it was something.

I walked in on a Friday morning and wondered if Ernie, the owner of the Big Bunch, would take one look at my skinny frame and think he’d better get someone tougher. Ernie was standing at the sizzling grill in his kitchen whites, pressing bacon and flipping pancakes. He acknowledged me with a lifted chin.

“You here about the job?”

I nodded yes.

“You’re the first one.”

Then he cracked an egg and asked me if I could start on Monday.

Ernie’s wife Edna, the only other waitress, saw the look on my face and told me not to worry. She’d help me.
I watched as she poured coffee with one hand, put bread in the toaster with the other, and shooed one of her three young sons down the aisle with her foot. I came to admire Edna not only for her waitressing skills, but also for her juggling act with the customers, her boys, and a sometimes-surly Ernie. I figured out that Ernie was happiest when his restaurant ran smoothly. He had a system and I adhered to it.

By mid-July, the regulars were getting used to me. I knew how they liked their eggs and had their orders in before they slid into a booth. I listened to their debates about how hot it was going to get, who’d have the earliest butter-and-sugar corn, and if a Chevy would ever be as good as a Ford. When they complained about too many Massachusetts folk on the roads, I’d feign offense. Then I’d pour another cup of coffee and hear “Thanks dee-ah” like I was the best waitress in Oxford County.
In early August, the Volvo International tennis tournament came to the neighboring Mount Washington valley. The hoopla surrounding the event was high, with celebrities and athletes cruising by the Big Bunch in limousines, en route to the tournament from the Portland Jetport. Edna and I kept hoping someone famous would stop by since we were the only game in town open for an early-morning cup of anything.

When a handsome older man came in with a pretty blonde, I wondered why he looked familiar. Edna seized the back of my elbow and dragged me down the aisle, hissing in my ear that it was Glenn Ford.

Glenn Ford? The 1950s movie star my mother swooned over? I looked again. Definitive eyebrows. Dark hair. Dazzling smile. She was right.

Edna was too nervous to wait 
the table. She pushed a couple of napkins into the front pocket of my uniform and asked me to get his autograph. Hesitating, I surveyed the room. Ernie was tending the grill like nothing was out of the ordinary. The regulars were hushed, talking low, but nobody made a move. Hollywood was here, and everyone was playing it cool.

Serving coffee and English muffins to Mr. Ford provided me with my biggest tip of the summer. But the better gift was the look on Edna’s face when I handed her a napkin that read: To Edna from Glenn Ford. It was the same expression I had for Ernie and Edna when they surprised me with an end-of-summer bonus: a Smith-Corona manual typewriter in its own sturdy case.

“Something you can carry with you to college,” Edna said. But it was so much more than that.