Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I really became a reporter

I’d like to say that the reason I became a reporter at a daily newspaper in North Carolina was because I had a burning desire to investigate injustice, to promote knowledge, or even to see my name in print. But that’s not exactly true. I mostly became a reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal because I was sick of being a waitress at the Pizza Inn in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

It was the only job I could find after I moved back home in January 1985. Actually, there was first a one-day stint as a waitress at the Dodge House restaurant, where patrons blew smoke in my face all evening and hardly tipped me. It wouldn’t have been so bad except that I was only making two dollars an hour and, even worse, it turned out that the job also required me to clean the restaurant toilets once every shift. I balked at this and the manager, who was originally from India, said, “You think I didn’t have dreams, too?” I had no idea how he’d gotten from India to this deep-fried/fine dining restaurant in a nowhere corner of North Carolina, but I never got a chance to ask him. I quit at the end of my first shift.

Before the Pizza Inn, I also cleaned a movie theater for a few mornings with one of my mom’s co-workers, a secretary who came there before work for some extra income. It was taxing, disgusting work. We always spent the first few minutes trying to get hardened gum off the floor.

It turns out that a lot of people in Wilkes County worked extra jobs. Two of the waitresses I worked with at Pizza Inn came straight from the Tyson’s chicken factory. Legs tired, feet aching, they stood for another four hours. And yet, amazingly, they didn’t complain about it. They seemed to accept it as their lot. Or they were happy for the extra money because they were trying to build their savings or pay off debt. Most were young and energetic, but there was one woman whose feet swelled so much from standing all day that her doctor told her that she was going to have a stroke if she didn't get off of them. The grim reality is that she didn't have health insurance and her son had needed life-saving surgery, which she was still paying off, she said, when their house burned down.

We were paid the standard waitress minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, with the expectation that patrons would tip our way past the real minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. That hardly ever happened. The management pushed us to promote the buffet table, which was cheaper for them than individual orders, and most patrons took us up on the offer. That meant, however, that the waitresses were only serving them their drinks and handing them an empty plate to fill and most people didn’t think of that as service. In fact, they found it annoying when we came back to check on them once or twice after they had their plates and drinks. Begrudgingly, we’d get an occasional quarter or two when they left.

Unlike the other waitresses there, I had a way out. I started sending my resume to small town newspapers all over North Carolina, along with photocopies of my few precious clips from the Spokane Chronicle, pretending I knew what I was doing. I also started to study for the GRE, with the new thinking that school would not be a place to study whatever I wanted and to find myself, but instead a place where I would train for a career (surprisingly, this had never occurred to me in all my years as an undergraduate).

And so, when I got the call from the Winston-Salem Journal, I trotted out of there with hardly a day’s notice.

The Pizza Inn is gone. It’s been a Mexican restaurant for years. I bet the waitresses there are still paid the waitress minimum wage, which remains at $2.13 an hour. I just hope that people in my hometown have gotten a little more generous with their tipping. And that the lady with swollen feet finally paid off debts before the job killed her.

1 comment:

Chandra Garsson said...

Good to read and know all of this about you. Great writing, too...I love memoir.