The summer I graduated from high school, I turned 18 and got my first job. I wasn’t all that motivated to begin my career, but my older brother insisted I’d be a complete failure in life if I didn’t start acquiring work experience on my resume immediately. I wasn’t necessarily lazy; rather my mother had always provided me with spending money and told me my job was to get good grades in school. “Depravation doesn’t build character. If that were true, there’d be plenty of character in the ghetto,” was how she explained her fiscal parenting philosophy.
But I was highly influenced by my brother and so I got a job at The Seawane Country Club in Hewlett Harbor, New York. While my parents had close friends who belonged to The Seawane, they were not the sort of people to belong themselves. They didn’t engage in leisure activities. My father was a non-golf playing doctor. “I tried it once but didn’t care for it,” he said. He preferred to unwind watching episodes of Benny Hill. My mother, also a physician, scoffed at the women who spent their time at the country club, claiming, “I’m too busy earning a six-figure income.”
Every day at 6:30 a.m. I started in The Seawane kitchen doing the bagels. Giant brown paper bags filled with 100 hot bagels would be delivered each morning. I’d slice the bagels in half and then using my fingers, I’d scoop out the soft dough from the inside leaving only the shell. After which, I’d place the bagel husks in breadbaskets and distribute them in the clubhouse restaurant. Rosemary, one of the kitchen veterans who looked 60 but was probably closer to 40, explained that scooped-out bagels were a staple at The Seawane. “They’re always on diets!” said Renee, another waitress who had worked at The Seawane for years. Renee wore her hair Pat Benatar style and applied her lipstick using the reflection off the sharpest kitchen knives. “You know what’s less fattening than a scooped-out bagel? Try not eating a bagel at all!” she said. I laughed hard at that one, but even still, Renee didn’t like me much. She could tell from the moment I stepped foot into that kitchen that I was something of a dilettante.
When the clubhouse restaurant wasn’t busy, and the manager wasn’t around, the waitresses would send me out onto the floor to wait on tables. Technically I wasn’t allowed to do that because I was hired as a busgirl and had no experience, but I welcomed the chance to show the veterans what I was made of. My first week, I met Mrs. Fink, one of the regulars. “I want fresh squeezed orange juice,” she said. “Please honey. Fresh. Squeezed. Okay?” She put her hand on my arm for added emphasis. I nodded and went back into the kitchen. “This is how we take care of Mrs. Fink,” Rosemary said. She filled a glass with Minute Maid then threw in a handful of slimy pulp from a bowl in the refrigerator. I brought the juice to Mrs. Fink, and stood at attention like a wine steward. “Very good,” she said licking her lips.
Later that night I told my mother, who thought the whole episode was hilarious. “Albert, you’re never going to believe this!” she yelled to my father watching TV. “Fifty-thousand dollars to join and they get Minute Maid!”
Working the breakfast rush was easy enough. Though we offered things like pancakes and muffins, all the women ever ordered was cottage cheese on half a cantaloupe or cottage cheese on a scooped-out bagel before heading out for Ladies Tee Time. The men at the club rarely stopped in for breakfast before teeing off. Occasionally I got to work the halfway house at the ninth hole. The halfway house had sandwiches, salads, ice cream, and frozen yogurt but I never saw members ask for anything other than iced tea. Mostly I spent my time reading People magazine and eating frozen yogurt, which worked like gangbusters helping me gain an extra ten pounds I didn’t need.
Once while working the halfway house, a boy I knew from high school walked in with his father. We had hooked up a few times when I was in 10th grade but the relationship never progressed. He was two years ahead of me in school and was already in college. We both were shocked to see each other again under these circumstances. I was wearing my gold polyester waitressing dress. I could fully appreciate why he didn’t want to introduce me to his father. He barely acknowledged me before downing his iced tea and heading out into the stifling heat to finish up the back nine.
There was another boy working at the club that summer who, like me, was from the neighborhood. Russell was a few years older and had worked at The Seawane every summer since high school. He was planning to apply to medical school in the fall. The waitresses liked the idea of Russell and me getting together since we were the only Jewish kitchen staff.
“He’s going to be someone some day and he likes you,” said Rosemary.
“I’m going to be someone some day too,” I replied, though I was decidedly less certain about the someone I was going to be than Rosemary was about Russell.
“Don’t be foolish, Terry.”
Keeping Rosemary’s warning in mind, Russell and I went out a few times. He was the kind of boy my parents would have been thrilled to welcome into their home, which meant the relationship would never have worked, not in a million years. Plus, I couldn’t get past his habit of lip-synching every song on the radio.
One afternoon Russell and I were assigned to the card room at the club. It was an easy gig that kept us busy in the lull after lunch and before dinner. The card room was one of the smaller banquet rooms used by members to play poker or mahjong. The staff was required to keep the buffet stocked with hot coffee, cold drinks, and bowls of pretzels and nut mix. We weren’t supposed to offer wait service.
Russell walked into the card room with fresh pitchers of ice water as I was wiping down some tables when a club member looked up from his card game and said “Good. You’re here. I’d like a glass of water.” He was a big man, sporting a deep tan and the latest in golf apparel.
“It’s right here,” Russell said making a gesture well suited to a Price is Right showcase.
“No. No. No. I want you to get it for me,” the member said. He said it not in a snotty way but as if explaining an American custom to a newly arrived immigrant.
“You know, we’re not so different, you and I,” Russell shot back. “I live in the neighborhood. I’m going to medical school next year.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” another member from the card table jumped up. He was thinner than the first, but equally tan and in golf clothes. “Hey, my friend didn’t mean anything by that. He just lost a lot of money. A lot of money. You know? He’s thirsty.”
“It’s just that we’re not so different,” Russell said again.
“No, of course not. He just wanted some water. Is that so terrible?” He spoke in a tone he might have used a hundred times before with his grandchildren. “You know what? I’ll get it.”
Russell looked sulky for an instant but then straightened up. “No, I’ll bring it to him,” he said. “It’s my job.”
Though he never came right out and said it, I had the distinct impression Russell both resented the members and aspired to be them. But he couldn’t afford to lose his job this early in the summer. Not that the members would have gotten him fired. He wasn’t worth the effort. They barely noticed us at all, the help.