Joie de Viv
More than just a waitress, Vivian was a friend. Her stoic exterior belied a heart of gold, and she was the benchmark for “service with a smile.”
You just didn’t want to piss her off.
Vivian worked at my parents’ restaurant back in the 70’s. With her big auburn hair, black cat-eye glasses (hanging from a fancy chain around her neck), chipped burgundy nail polish, fuschia lipstick, and wrinkled skin from smoking too many Pall Malls out of her peeling, gold vinyl cigarette case, she was arguably the archetype of Old School Waitress. She lived “out in the country” with her family and drove some 40 miles one way to work in a red pickup truck. “Aw, I don’t mind the drive; it relaxes me,” she would say.
Growing up as the owner’s kid had its perks, not the least of which was being showered with goodies from employees (and sometimes customers) trying to “get in good” with the boss. Vivian didn’t have to do that; she was already a permanent fixture in our “family”. But she would bring me things anyway, like her famous Banana Split Cake, books, toys, things her own kids and grandkids liked. She had a heart of gold and would always be thinking of what you might like, and if she saw it, she’d pick it up for you.
Vivian’s kindness, of course, imbued her table service. “Hon, I was wondrin’ where you were at – I saved a bowl of gumbo for you ‘cause it’s runnin’ out! Does momma want chicken fried steak tonight?” She had her following, and a big one at that. The dining room was set up in a grid pattern, and Vivian had the front section. You could always map out Friday and Saturday nights. The Johnsons, who drove in from Pasadena every Friday, would be in Table 29; the Walkers, Table 28, and so on (the Walkers’ table would evolve as Mrs. Walker divorced her philandering husband – no doubt encouraged by Vivian – and soon came in with only her young son, whom we watched grow into a fine young man, get married, and yes, come in to eat with his wife at Table 28).
As kind as she was, Vivian had a crusty, feisty side. In the back of the house, the occasional crumpled ticket was thrown, the casual “Go to hell!” shouted across the steam table. But the real entertainment happened up front. Permanently embedded in my mind is the spectacle of my dad trying to calm Vivian, clearly upset by a customer, her cheeks puffed and red, one fist on her hip, the other hand gesticulating so fast it was a blur. “….that goddamned son-of-a-bitch is a goddamned LIAR!” She saw me, wide-eyed, out of the corner of her eye. Her entire demeanor changed as she ran over and apologized, hugging me. “Oh sugar, I am SO sorry you had to hear that! Vivian’s just a little…flusterated, that’s all.” She giggled nervously as I took in the scent of her cheap perfume, stale smoke, and well, exhaust from the kitchen. Later, recounting the juicy scene to my mom I, of course, as a ten-year-old, couldn’t say THOSE words. “She called him a ‘G. D. S. O. B.’” I said proudly. Little did I know I would recite those letters many, many times later in my adult life.
Then there was the busy Saturday night when a customer made the unfortunate mistake of trying to walk his check. Vivian was at the coffee urn, filling a tray. She spied the guy walking out the front door, some 30 feet away. She grabbed the first thing she could – a coffee cup. Now, we aren’t talking about a dainty little china cup. These were heavy duty, half-inch-thick-walled, mocha-colored, Military-issue cups. Tray in one hand, she hurled the cup across the room with the other. It sailed over the ice cream freezer, over a bewildered Roxy at the cash register and nailed the poor guy right on the back of the head. Whether the cup broke on his head or on the floor, we never determined. But he turned, embarrassed (or scared for his life), threw money on the counter, and dashed out the door. There was enough to pay his check and yield Vivian a nice tip. “That’ll teach him,” she beamed. She handed me enough quarters to play the jukebox the rest of the night. Merle, Conway and Freddy (along with Boston and Foghat) serenaded us well past closing.
But the music, like everything else, had to end sometime. On one long, late drive home, a drunk driver ended Vivian’s shift for good. The woman who had made a career out of serving others was taken away far too soon. But Vivian’s inimitable style of caring and sharing left an indelible mark on me, as well as many others who had had the good fortune of knowing her.
Over the years, I have had countless meals served by countless servers; every now and then I’ll hear a “hon” or a “sugar” and I’ll think of Vivian. But there will never be another waitress like her. No G. D. way.