Panorama of San Bernardino

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Breakfast at Benji's

My mom is quitting her waitress job this week and moving in with us.   We now have a matching set of moms because my mother-in-law already lives with us. 

My mom has worked at the same Chinese restaurant in Ontario since I was little.  It's called Yanghzee's and serves Cantonese food.  Growing up, we always waited up for my mom to come home with a bag of broken almond cookies. 

It's the end of an era for my mom who is seventy years old.  She should have quit waitressing years ago.   The last time I stopped by to have lunch, I watched her run around from table to table.  "That's my daughter Jenny," she said to her customers as she refilled their water.  "She's one of the twins, the lawyer one."

I know what it's like to waitress because I did it for more than ten years, up until my first year of law school.  Name a restaurant and I probably worked there.  I worked at Mexican restaurants, sports bars, barbecue pits, and a coffee shop or two.  I even worked at a hotel and delivered room service.  It freaked me out.  I hated waiting in a room while a man in his robe searched for his wallet.  I have seen way too many movies to do that for long.  I quit after a month.   

I still have waitress nightmares where I am working all by myself with thirty tables.  When I wake up, I have to shake myself  and remind myself that it's not real.   

I especially remember Benji's, a coffee shop I worked at in Upland in my early twenties.  The uniform was a peach polyester wrap around skirt, a dark green apron and a peach polo shirt.   When I think back to my waitressing days at Benji's it sometimes seems like it was yesterday, rather than almost twenty years ago. 

It was 1992 when I started working there.  I lived in an apartment complex in Upland on Benson and Arrow in a two bedroom with my nineteen year old sister Annie.  My friend and ex-roommate Melinda lived a couple doors down.  We had parted as roommates on good terms after Melinda moved her boyfriend Josh in which didn't match my single girl lifestyle.

Annie decorated our apartment in Southwestern pastels.  Our rent was only $567 a month because it was subsidized under some type of low income program.  Annie had the master bedroom with the attached bathroom and I had the smaller room.  Annie always kept the apartment and her bedroom neat and clean.  My bedroom was a mess, but Annie tolerated it as long as the common areas were orderly.

Annie worked at Zendejas in south Ontario.  Annie made about seventy five dollars in tips a night while I averaged about forty a shift.  I was forced to work at Benji's because I didn't have a reliable car and it was only about half a mile away on Central Avenue above Arrow.  I walked to work in my peach uniform and Annie usually picked me up if she wasn't working. 

I started out on the graveyard shift from nine p.m. until five in the morning.  On the graveyard shift, you served all the obnoxious kids and drunks on their way home from the clubs.  It was penance that you completed to get on the coveted breakfast or lunch shift.  I drank a lot of coffee to stay awake and got moved up early for good behavior.

My favorite person at Benji's was a girl I will call Dana.  Dana was a curvy Puerto Rican blond with green eyes and a sassy sense of humor.  She taught me all the ropes and we joked and laughed while we buttered our toast. 

One day I was working what's called a split shift.  On a split shift, you worked from twelve until three for the lunch rush and then came back from five to eight for a dinner shift.  Three to five was dead time where you clocked out and went home.  It should have been called the we're fucking you over shift. 

On that day, I didn't go home probably because I didn't want to walk and sat at a table and finished a book.  The other waitresses and regulars teased me and called me a bookworm.  At five, I went back on the floor and the time flew by.  My dinner shift ended at eight, but I stayed late and finished my side work.  After I cleaned and refilled the salad bar, I called my dad from the pay phone to pick me up.  Annie was working late that night.  My mom and dad lived about fifteen minutes away.

My dad answered the phone.  "Jenny, I can't pick you up right now," he said.  "I'm taping a movie."  My dad was obsessed with his VHS collection of tapes which he kept in a swiveling wood cabinet. 

"Fine, I'll walk," I told him and hung up.  I grabbed my sweater and made sure my tips were in my check holder in my apron.  It was a short walk and I got home in ten minutes because I had to go to the bathroom.  I unlocked my front door, ran to the bathroom and walked out to the living room in my bra and skirt.  I froze when I saw a man in our living room.  I had left the front door unlocked.

"Who are you?  What do you want?"  I said as I crossed my arms in front of myself.  I looked at my apron lying on the coffee table with my tips from the night.  I didn't know whether I should try and grab them.  The man was a young, skinny Mexican guy.  He looked at me with a strange, vacant look in his red, glassy eyes and said, "I want you." 

"Fuck", I thought to myself and gave up on my tips and turned and ran into my sister's bedroom and locked her door.  I grabbed her phone and locked myself in the bathroom.  The man pounded on the master bedroom door while I called 911.  "There's a strange man in my house," I said.   "Hurry." 

The dispatcher calmed me down and stayed on the line with me and within five minutes, an officer was outside the bathroom door.  The officer said to come out and that everything was all right.  My hands shook as I opened the door to him. 

The officer interviewed me once I put a shirt on.  My apron with my tips was missing along with my house keys. 

My dad showed up at the apartment a few minutes later.  He had stopped by Benji's to pick me up, but I had already left.  He said he was sorry and hugged me.   I pulled away and told him I could have been killed.  Even back then, I knew the definition of leverage.

The next day at Benji's, I regaled all the regulars who sat at the counter with my story and lucky escape.  I made light of the situation and acted tough.  "I could have taken that guy down," I told them. 

Later that week, Annie and I changed the locks.  We made sure we always locked the front door when we came home.

But the feeling I got while I waited in the bathroom, the feeling that I was all alone, didn't go away for a long time.

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