Guys, when we started this blog it was just me and a few imaginary friends. Today, you guys are hundreds strong and growing! I love each and every one of you!
That being said, you guys shit the bed. Every post was full of typos, grammatical errors, omitted words, repeated words, and none of you said bumpkiss! I gave you life! At least a few of you could be editors! I’m sorry I had to be cross, but today’s topic is important.
My years waiting tables had such an impact on shaping who I am today, I could never tell the full story in one sitting. I will break it into parts starting with the most important:
Entry 1: Feeny
This is tribute to one of those rare (not-imaginary) people that make you believe there is hope for humanity. Alas, I do not possess the skill to articulate this the way she deserves, but I will do my best. In keeping with our tradition of Boy Meets World analogies, This one goes out to my Feeny.
My Feeny was my first boss. Even though I was 16 when we met, she taught me more than 95% of my actual teachers. 100% if you don’t count my Algebra teacher.
The restaurant was a tourist attraction. For the purpose of this story, I will refer to it as Cows. I was hired the same way everyone in a small town is hired. Through family connections. Feeny’s daughter-in-law (Kerry), worked at Cows, but also worked with Granny part-time during summers. This meant I could begin work immediately. The only thing stopping me was the prospect of dying from a panic attack while strangers stood over me.
If I wanted to make money, I would have to walk into a building full of strangers and say words (good ones). Alone, apparently. Granny insisted it would be inappropriate to bring Bestie. I almost backed out when she said I couldn’t bring Tiger either, but I compromised, promising to leave him in the car.
My first day, I kissed Tiger for luck, and forced my feet across the parking lot. My fear was momentarily suspended as I took in the wonder of Cows. I lived in that town my whole life, but never noticed this old train depot turned into a restaurant. They even incorporated a couple antique train cars into it. Had I chose to avoid work a few more years, it would have closed down without my ever knowing it existed. That is a terrifying thought.
Kerry found me outside and directed me to a side door. She explained, “The whole building is used when Cows opens for dinner, but we’re trying something new in this side portion. We want to serve soups, salads, and sandwiches and call it Lunch on the Side.”
Sounded clever to me, but I was more excited Kerry seemed non-threatening. I was able to speak without a stutter, it was a genuine miracle. I put all my focus into making sure my facial expression conveyed happiness. Back then, we didn’t have a name for resting bitch face. If you suffered from it, you had to stay aware of your face constantly.
While Kerry continued to explain the basics, a jubilant woman emerged from the kitchen. Yes, jubilant, she exuded warmth and happiness. She wore a basic Lunch Side shirt with a pair of jeans. It seemed reasonable to assume she was a cook, but that’s why they say it “makes an ass out of u and me.”
She introduced herself (Feeny), extending a hand. We all know how I feel about touching people, but I was so comforted by her demeanor my hand was in hers before I realized. I touched a stranger without feeling the need to sanitize my hand with boiling water. No matter what happened from that point, I had myself a day for the record books.
“Hey darling! You must be the new kid. Let’s go sit down. How are you? Are you hungry? Do you want a drink? Don’t be nervous, we’re a family here.” It sounded genuine, not like a formality. I thought I might be ok without Tiger, but proceeded with caution. I’d been fooled before.
Based on my keen skills of observation, I understood the surly, old lady sitting at a corner table must be the boss. She had the kind of face that said, “If you’re here with bad news, go away. If you have good news, go away.”
I’m calling her Lizzie. As in Borden. It turned out, I was half right. Feeny owned Cows, and Lizzie was her parter for Lunch Side. Lizzie was, to my dismay, the anti-Feeny. Life did something to make her bitter. I never learned what, but this isn’t about her. All you need to know is, she hated me, she thought I was a moron.
It’s not my fault I was born in America. I don’t know what they expected me to do when two British ladies ordered tea, but when I asked, “Sweet or Unsweet?” They simply replied, “Hot.”
That was all the information I was working with. I poured an iceless glass of unsweet, it was fresh, no need to microwave. I was baffled with the order, but I dutifully delivered the tea with a smile.
Those ladies stared at the tea like it was the strangest thing they ever saw. “This is the first time someone has asked for hot tea, isn’t it dear?”
“Yes ma’am.” How many ways can there be to make hot tea?
“You’ll want to use the coffee mugs dear, it’s the kind you make with the little tea bags.”
“What are tea bags?”
The ladies were very sweet about it. They found it endearing. Lizzie did not. Once again, Feeny to the rescue. She taught me how to make British tea and turned an embarrassing moment into a treasured memory. We gave the ladies the tea at no charge and went on to have a lovely chat about their travels through the states.
In the early days, Kerry and I were the only employees. We were waitresses, busboys and cashiers. Feeny cooked, but still found time to hostess and pick up our slack. It was all well and good when I had tasks with obvious start and finish points, but certain tasks confused me.
For example, when they told me to sweep up, I did. I swept every inch of the floor, but no one said I was finished. So I kept sweeping. 20 minutes later, I was still sweeping. Unfortunately, it was Lizzie who realized I was still sweeping an hour later. I had a difficult time explaining, “It’s my second time to use a broom. The first time, in art class, the teacher signified the task complete by taking the broom away.”
Lizzie’s jaw literally dropped. Wordlessly, she took the broom, and walked away. Kerry and Feeny laughed. I took it as a sign my transgression was comical rather than offensive, as Lizzie’s response led me to believe.
When the laughter died down, Feeny gave me a coco, and patiently explained how to know when I’m finished sweeping. To be fair, looking back now, I do see Lizzie’s point on this one. It makes Feeny’s patience all the more saint-like.
Being there didn’t feel like work, it felt like home. It was a safe place when Mom was having an episode, or I just needed an escape. There was a magical hour between lunch and dinner when Cows was my kingdom. It made me feel like the rich kids who lived in antebellum homes. It was my special place.
My respect grew as I learned more about Feeny. Her husband passed away years before. They started Cows from scratch with a few family members. Cows itself was family. She went through hell and came out the other side, still capable of laughing and loving. It could have turned her into a bitter old croan (like Lizzie), but it didn’t. She persevered.
If she could endure that, what must I sound like bitching about my piddly problems? I (finally) began learning perspective. I was getting glimpses into the real world I had been sheltered from all these years.
She taught me interesting facts about history. Did you know, way back when, tv cut off after a certain time? It was just white static on every channel. I can’t even imagine.
We played many games on slow nights. My favorite was a game just for me and Feeny. I don’t remember how it got started, but I would sing a new song, then she would sing the original song it came from. It doesn’t sound like much now, but it was incredibly special to me. I was always surprised we never ran out of songs to use. There really aren’t many original songs anymore, not even back then.
Plus, she fed stray cats, but there are special cat stories that come later. The point is, had she not won me over with all the other things I’ve mentioned, I would have loved her purely for the cat thing.
Before we found a cook, Lizzie helped Feeny make sandwiches, but wasn’t a fan. Most of her time was spent drinking coffee, reading the news, and complaining. Her favorite hobby was fussing at me.
If I didn’t give her reason, she fell back on, “We shouldn’t have to do any work. We’re paying you to do it for us. If we’re doing the work, why should we pay you?” Lizzie loved standing super close so she could look down on you while she bitched.
On this particular day, Feeny was able to hear Lizzie’s rant. My socially damaged brain interpreted the events incorrectly. Thinking Lizzie was wrong I said, “You’re just lazy! Feeny is the real owner and she’s done more today than you have all month!” I was beaming, I thought Feeny was proud.
Instead, she beckoned me over to speak privately. I walked past Lizzie, chest puffed, chin held high, like I was the cock of the walk. She could have chewed my sorry ass for talking that way (deserving or not), but she didn’t.
She sat me down nice and gentle-like and told it to me straight. “You absolutely cannot speak to her that way! I know she treats you poorly, it’s unfair, but that’s life. You have to pay your dues, you’re still a child. One day when you’re an old lady, you can talk to brats however you like. Until then I don’t want to hear it again, you got that?”
“Got that.” And only that. No smart retort, no lashed out insult, not so much as an angry tear. There really is a first time for everything. I didn’t know the word for it at the time, but I was experiencing shame. After what she said next, I experienced fear.
“Lizzie is the normal boss, not me. I don’t mind doing something that needs doing, that’s how I was raised. You’ll probably never work for someone like me again.” Her tone wasn’t mocking, it wasn’t conceited, it was matter-of-fact. As if she knew I was incapable of understanding and felt sorry for me.
She had a way of correcting me that didn’t make me lash out like a cornered animal. She was some kind of Brat Whisperer. There was something calming about her presence. She treated me like family, fed me, and paid me. I would have done anything for her to keep me.
Fun side note: she could cure anyone’s hiccups just by looking at them and saying, “You do not have hiccups.” If you tried to argue, she cut you off, “You don’t.” It was the damndest thing. It worked every time. I’ve tried it hundreds of times over the years, but have never been successful. Maybe she is magic.
I became desperate to work dinner shifts. All the benefits with none of the Lizzie. I listened to funny stories about the Cows crew for months before I worked up the courage to ask for a position. It was a hard no, but only because it was illegal to serve alcohol at 16. I had to bide my time.
My wait was shorter than I feared. I turned 17 a few weeks before two waiters quit on a Friday night. Feeny was desperate. “You can hostess, and make set-ups if we’re busy. You don’t go behind the bar, you don’t take orders. Agreed?” Even Feeny’s serious face smiled.
“Totally agreed.” I was on my very best behavior. This was basically an audition for a permanent position.
“I’m serious. It’s just for tonight. This isn’t permanent… you understand that… right?” She just didn’t want me to be nervous.
“Totally understand.” It was official. If I did well, I would be working nights from here on out.
It wasn’t a total victory, but my performance was outstanding. I met the people I heard stories about for so long, and they were nice to me. It was major progress even if I had to wait few more months to make it official.
The day finally came next time she was short-handed. I started as a hostess, but soon I was filling any position needed. I came early to help waiters with set-up. At first I just wanted them to like me, but eventually I was doing it for the stories.
Things you learn fast working in the restaurant business:
- They have extremely high turnover rates
- If they are over 30, they are probably lifers
- Anyone who still has energy a few hours into a shift is on drugs.
Obviously, there are exceptions, but that is the general rule of thumb. It didn’t take long to learn these kinds of people have the best stories, but I will have to save those for later. Being a kid desperate for a loving mother figure, I latched onto some questionable characters.
Life advice I’m trying to teach my nephew: If you’re a kid, and an adult is hanging out with you, there’s a reason they don’t have friends their own age. It’s not going to be a good reason.
I watched dozens of employees disappear when Feeny needed them. When they ran out of drugs or had nowhere to go, she took them back. One guy would call ahead to have us hold the door open so he could crawl in on his knees, begging. She forgave him every time. He was part of our family. To be fair, he controlled his drug use fine, but his wife was batshit crazy.
To be banned from Cows, one had to do something truly unforgivable. A few examples that spring to mind:
- One guy kept “accidentally” bumping into the women, cupping their breast or ass. Feeny walked into the kitchen in time to see it happen to me. A few other women confirmed it happened to them as well. The man denied his actions as three cooks removed him from the building. I never saw him again.
- A busboy was selling cocaine out of the kitchen. He started his own drive through at the back door. Feeny had several catfish plates delivered to the sheriff dept. The busboy evaded capture by living under a porch for a few weeks, but he never returned to Cows.
- This last example is tragic. A long-time employee was mentally unstable. When he drank or used drugs, he believed he spoke to Jesus. One day, Jesus told him to “kill the black people.” Sadly, he loaded his gun, went for a drive, and shot several people as he rode around. A few of them died, it was a very difficult time everyone.
While I inserted myself into danger, Feeny was always there, trying to knock sense into me. “You shouldn’t hang out with those girls, they’re only inviting you because they don’t have a car.”
Did I listen? Hell no. “Nuh-uhhhhh I’m not a kid anymore!” Yea… if you’re stomping your foot, screaming you aren’t a kid… you’re definitely still a kid.
She didn’t give up on me. She kept an eye on me even when I was behaving like a rotten little shit. When I was especially unbearable, she hit me with a wooden spoon. Just a love tap, but once she got me in the elbow. That one hurt! I didn’t mind, I deserved it. I think, subconsciously, I enjoyed it. It felt like someone cared.
If I pushed her too far, she felt bad and bought me Popeyes the next morning. She once threw a head of lettuce at me, but hit a waiter in the face. We all had a grand time with that one. She didn’t mean to hit anyone when she threw something, but when you’re mother hen to a group like us, you needed a healthy release. It was that kind of family. We were there to make money, but we had fun too.
Cows was my home, but when I began dating Crook, he became my home too. After years of begging to work, I noticed I was watching the clock, becoming infuriated when customers dared walk in at closing time. I loved Cows, but I loved living in a home without wheels under it more. Owning a nice home, snuggled to a hottie, watching anime all night was as good as gets. I was greedy and impatient.
Crook wasn’t cut out for waiting tables. He was use to a richer lifestyle. He put us in debt badly enough to need work on a drilling rig. That meant seeing him 6 months out of the year. I had to travel with Crook. There were a dozen ways I could have quit Cows on good terms, but that would have been an adult decision. I was a snotty brat, who quit in the most cowardly way possible.
I called Kerry, not Feeny, and blurted out why I had to quit. She tried to reason with me, “You need to tell Feeny yourself, you owe her that much.” She was 100% right, but I was a coward.
I could not call the woman who did so much for me to say, “Hey, I know you really need me to work tonight, but I have to quit right now because I decided to sit in hotel rooms while Crook works on a drilling rig.” That was not happening. Now I would give anything to be back in Cows. The way I left is one of the biggest regrets of my life. I’ve made epic mistakes, so that’s really saying something.
Not too long after I left, an evil group of old hags swooped in and destroyed everything. These hags are the oldest creatures in town, and believe they own it. They torture anyone who owns an antebellum home with strict rules on how it must be kept, how it must look during tourist season, etc. These hags set their sights on the train depot. They wanted it for yet another visitor center in a town most people will never know exists.
Feeny fought the evil witches every step of the way, but in the end, evil triumphed. I have not seen the building since Cows closed. It’s too painful to think about it, no way I could see it.
Guys, nothing I put into words can do Feeny justice. A soul like hers comes along once in a century. Who am I to even try? I haven’t scratched the surface, this is merely a rough summary of the time I was privileged enough to have her in my life. She not only raised her own two children and resulting grandchildren, but touched every lost soul who crossed her path.
I have never been a religious person, but I have no doubt in my mind she will be reunited with her husband one day. I hope they can finally catch up over all the years as they sit at their special table, drinking coffee out of their special mugs, with nice crisp well-done steaks.
May Feeny be with you.