This is me at 15. By then, I had spent the past year working at Burger King and Hayward’s ice cream shop in my home town of Nashua, NH. To take the next step in a potential food service career, I thought I needed to work in a ‘real’ restaurant but a friend of mine suggested I try catering at a hotel restaurant first. Back in 1985, the Sheraton Tara hotel was a big deal so I applied. The Tara, as she was known then, was a glamorous beacon calling to drivers who could see her from the highway.
Ten years prior, when my family moved to Nashua, there had been acres of undeveloped land in that area. My father used to take us for a drive at night on those unpaved winding roads with no street lights. He’d stop the car halfway down the hill and turn out the lights. It was pitch black and all you could see were stars. He would go on about how places like this wouldn’t stay untouched and sure enough, within a few years, there were commercial and residential buildings smack in the middle of our star gazing trail. The Tara was modeled after a massive tudor-style castle. Elegance, indeed. There may even be a moat but I could be imagining things.
I was hired to work banquets and there seemed to be a few every weekend. I worked every Saturday and Sunday from 7am-4pm and wore the equivalent of a wench’s outfit. A spicy mustard colored frock with a white apron, a peasant blouse that tried to not-so-discreetly show off my budding bosom, and a headscarf. I could have doubled as a waitress at those once-trendy Medieval theme restaurants. Plus your typical black, ugly plastic waitress shoes.
I was always tired the first two hours of the job, and as stated previously, had to wear a hideous costume, and yet, I loved that job. There were weddings and showers and business meetings. As the population of our town-turned-city increased, people were trying to attract folks to move up from Boston about 50 miles away. Nashua was changing and I was a teenager in the midst of that growth which felt exciting somehow.
Occasionally, I was pulled from the floor to help out downstairs, in the employee kitchen. The hotel employed hundreds of people and I remember thinking how cool it was that we had our own dining area. They needed a waitress and I was put forward for the role. That’s how we talked about our jobs there, as roles, like we were being cast in a play. The employee kitchen and dining area, though, was less like the castle and more like the dungeon. Literally. You took an elevator to the basement, followed a dimly lit hallway into a small square room with low ceilings. It was less of a dining room and more of a cafeteria. Metal chairs that scraped when you moved them. Ugly linoleum floors. Jarring fluorescent lights. And the combined smell of dish water and sternos burning.
I did this shift a few times here and there, and while I missed the potential of earning tips, I enjoyed chatting with the cooks. We would play music and sing while we worked. At least this is how I remember my time down there. And then one day, I checked in for my shift and was asked to see the manager. I remember double-checking the time as I’d been late before and got a reaming for it. Not this time, though, I was early even. I went into his office and the rest is a bit of a blur. I remember some of the words he said… too distracting, young woman, flirting, improper, made it impossible for him to do his job. This was the one I recall the most because I felt a flush of shame hit my cheeks. He said I would need to return my uniform on Monday, when I could pick up my last paycheck.
I remember trying to process what was happening while dialing home from my manager’s office phone. My Mom answered and told me my Dad wasn’t home yet from dropping me off. I told her that they didn’t need me that day, it was a scheduling screw-up, and could he please turn around and come back to get me. I knew he’d be pissed, thinking I messed up, but I couldn’t explain that I’d been fired.
As I sat outside on the curb behind the hotel, I felt stupid. Ashamed. Confused. How did I get myself fired from a job for flirting? Was it the day I tried to fix my bra strap by the cigarette dispenser? Or while on my break I made a joke about how I’d rather not be wearing old lady tights? I was cute then, long legged and funny to be around. And I knew I could be flirtatious. I also knew that the chef had to have been in his 30’s and was a total pig. He used the type of language that would require a full bar of soap to clean out. I thought he saw me as a peer. That was the height of my naivete.
I watched as a truck backed into the delivery dock. The driver smiled at me and I smiled back instinctively then quickly frowned. I felt like I had no control over my body’s actions, and certainly not how they were perceived. My father pulled up and I got in the car. He took one look at me and swallowed whatever he planned to say. He made some type of joke about the swans in the man-made ponds in front of the hotel. Then he asked me what happened and I told him through quiet tears. I felt like I was telling a story about someone else because I couldn’t comprehend how it happened to me. My Dad had always told me to work hard, show up on time, offer to pick up shifts, and be loyal. I thought I was doing those things but I was also a teenage girl trying to have fun.
When I looked over at my father, I could see the strain in his face which I interpreted as anger toward me for acting irresponsibly. I wasn’t the easiest of his five children but I wanted more than anything for him to be proud of me. After what seemed like an eternity, he said “Who needs those bozos?” I still didn’t understand if what I did was wrong but it was better than the response I thought he’d have.
Later that night, he’d had a few beers and I heard him talking to my Mom about wanting to go back to the hotel to give them a piece of his mind. While I’m glad he didn’t – I probably would have been mortified – I thought perhaps I wasn’t so bad a person for getting a man fired who couldn’t keep his mind out of the gutter.