by Nancy Martin
One of my first jobs was waiting tables at the Holiday Inn, located along the interstate in my rural, Pennsylvania home town. Because I was a collge student, I tended to work on the weekends and holidays so the career waitresses could be at home with their families. At that time of my life, hanging around the house with my own family on Christmas Eve was less appealing than making some big tips or schmoozing with the kitchen guys who provided recreational substances along with the occasional plate of deep-fried scampi.
After the kitchen closed for all food except steaks and burgers, I'd change out of my orange dirndl skirt (and into something tighter) and move over to the bar to wait tables there. I was underage, but the bartender was usually busy and appreciated the help. I have a lot of memories of that bar. I was standing there, for example, when Richard Nixon came on television to resign.
The big tippers always came out on Christmas Eve--kindly, elderly couples who asked about my education, or single, middle-aged men looking for a nice steak and a few drinks served by a blissed-out college co-ed.
One regular was a big, gruff man who always wore a pale gray suit and a tie. The way he dressed, his crew cut and ruddy complexion (surely acquired on a golf course) heightened my impression that he was an executive, maybe divorced, probably an alcoholic. Beyond that, I didn't know his story and didn't care either. He came every Saturday night and fired back a few bourbons before ordering a strip steak with extra potatoes. He was usually too drunk to make his way to the salad bar while the steak broiled, so I loaded up his plate with cole slaw for him. We got along fine, and he usually left $20 on the table--big money to me.
But on Christmas Eve, he came weaving into the bar and fell over a chair--drunk, it appeared, long before he arrived at the Holiday Inn. The bartender and I helped him into a banquette, and he asked for a double. In those days, we didn't blink over serving an inebriated customer. His condition was none of our business. I brought him his drink, then went to the kitchen to place his dinner order.
By the time I got back with his salad, he was asking for another drink, which I brought. When my kitchen signal light came on, I went to pick up his dinner and happened to pass his table. He was nodding over his cole slaw, which finally made me nervous. What if he passed out?
It was much worse than that. By the time I got back with his dinner, he'd upchucked into his salad and passed out, face down in the mess. The bartender, cursing under his breath, helped me stretch him out on the banquette, and I dashed for help--in the form of the restaurant manager.
Ernie, the owner of the hotel as well as the restaurant, was a tough-talking Italian guy who'd operated restaurants in Philly before washing up in our little community. I never asked about Ernie's past, but I'd heard rumors of back-alley beatings and cheating suppliers. He wore a black shirt, open at the throat to show his gold necklace. (Yes, in that Italian horn shape. Hey, it was the 70's.) He also kept his hair dyed very black.
Ernie frowned over my unconscious customer and snapped, "How much is his tab?"
I pulled the chits from my pocket and calculated the drunk owed us about $25.
Ernie didn't hesitate. He rolled the guy over--which caused his pants to hike up, revealing skinny white legs above his black dres socks. I suddenly noticed the heels of those socks had been darned by somebody. His mother? A wife? Himself, maybe?
Ernie pulled the man's wallet from his hip pocket and found a wad of cash inside. He took $100 and stuffed it into his own pocket. And he gave the second $100 to me.
Ernie looked me sternly in the eye and said, "Keep the change, kid. And Merry Christmas."
I took the money.
I must still feel guilty about it, though, if I remember so many details of that night. Not exactly a storybook Christmas memory, huh?