In the early part of the twenty-first century, I went to a new restaurant owned by Rich Melman. the dining mogul of the “Lettuce Entertain You” restaurant group in Chicago. While sitting at the bar, I noticed Mr. Melman slip into the room.

I looked straight into his eyes but received no return glint of recognition. I don’t know why there should have been. Our last encounter was in nineteen-seventy, when he fired me.

This restaurant was called Great Gritzbes Flying Food Show. It was Melman’s second restaurant after the wildly successful R.J. Grunts. I thought it was a very cool thing to be one of those new kind of waitresses, a trendy, attractive seventies girl, slurping up the last juices of the hippie era. Landing a job here was tantamount to instant “in crowd” admission.

And because of the flexible hours, I could go to daytime auditions, as I had recently graduated from the University of Illinois, with a theatre degree. I was certain to become the toast of Broadway.

Everyone congratulated me except my mother, who was appalled. As the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she had worked hard to rise above her west side tenement roots. She viewed a waitress job as sliding backwards down the ladder.

My mother watched with disdain as I tied my black half-apron over my tight jeans. “For this, I sent you to college? Who are you gonna meet there? Goyim men looking to fool around on their wives?”

Gritzbes was located near Chicago’s Rush Street, an area crawling with conventioneers. “Mom,” I whined, “why does everything I do have to involve finding a husband? What about my career?”

“What about my grandchildren,” she countered?

This is where being an only child put me in a tight spot. I tucked this guilt trip away in my apron pocket and trotted off to Gritzbe’s, eager to be a waitress.

How hard could it be, I asked myself? After singing and dancing and learning my lines, this should be a snap!

On my first trainee night, I followed a waitress around and learned the protocol when someone in your station has a birthday. The waitress was supposed to hotfoot it over to the “dessert bar,” fill a bowl with ice cream, nuts and fudge, and top it off with semi frozen maraschino cherries.

Next, with bowl in hand, she ran around the restaurant shouting that someone was having a birthday. All the other waitresses would surround the birthday celebrant and sing a mostly off-key “Happy Birthday.” I struggled valiantly in my pitch-perfect alto, to slice through all the errant notes and find the melody. This was my favorite part of the job. In these modest ceremonies, I felt a bond with the other waitresses.

But the truth is the sisterhood I yearned for never really happened. These waitresses were not feminist, post hippie women. What they were, in fact, were tough broads, lifers, if you know what I mean. They weren’t working here so they could finance an outside business in, say, herbal tea. This job was the pinnacle for them, a place where they could meet conventioneers with money (and wives), who would take them out and lavish them with little gifts – such as paying their rent. They were the kind of women who call you babe or hon.

It wasn’t long before my name was mud. I was clumsy, perpetuating daily spills and collisions. I didn’t pick up my orders promptly, causing other girls to bring my table’s food out for me. But the worst thing of all was, I couldn’t make change.

This was the reason I was late picking up my orders. Checks were paid to the waitress at the table. Each waitress kept her own bank, in a changer slung casually around her hips. Each day I arrived for work with a bank of fifty dollars. Anything left over my original bank was profit. After a week or so I began to notice I wasn’t making any money. In fact, I was losing money. Too often I would have nothing left in my changer. Clearly, the only thing I was good at was Happy Birthday.

The final blow came two weeks into the job. Ninety-year old Louis Goldblum had a birthday. I ran around publicizing it to my fellow servers. But they ignored me, whizzing by, their arms piled high with steaming, fried onion cakes and half-pound burgers. Then, running over to the dessert bar, I piled on mushy cheesecake and un-defrosted strawberries. I crowned it all with drippy peaks of whipped cream. Holding my trophy, I skipped to the birthday boy’s table, ready to take my place.

But the others never joined me. All alone, I began singing in a small voice, thinking someone would join in. “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday Mr. Goldblum.”

They heard me belting it out for all it was worth, but not one of them stopped. They blurred right past me, their arms a cornucopia of the good life. I sang on bravely and clapped as loud as I could when Mr. Goldblum wheezed at the candles.

Closing time on Friday night was my swan song. As I was counting up the night’s losses, Rich Melman approached me. “I’m sorry Gail, but you’re just not cut out for this type of work.” “I know,” I sniffed, my eyes filled with tears.

“But Gail, “

“Yes Mr. Melman, “

“You sure can sing “Happy Birthday.”

As my husband and I were leaving the new restaurant, I remembered this old story. Rich Melman was positioned near the door. I approached him and told him I had worked at The Great Gritzbes Flying Food Show. He didn’t remember me.

“That was long, long ago,” he said.

“You fired me,”

“Looks like you got over it,” he observed.

‘Yeah, I got over it.”

“Looks like you did okay for yourself,” he added, eyeing my handsome husband.

“Yeah,” I said “but after three careers and two husbands, I still can’t make change.”

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