It wasn’t the best paying job, working at a diner. But it came with flexible student shifts, free frozen yogurt, and the opportunity to meet cute guys. So I took it.
My daily duties were varied, so I was never bored. I scrubbed potatoes for the baked potato bar and chopped vegetables for salads. I worked the counter, served food to patrons, and made deliveries on foot for take-out orders. Most deliveries were within a five-block radius of the shop, and these trips were how I made most of my money. On a good two-hour lunch shift, I could make up to $30 on tips alone. It made all the jogging worth it.
My roommate thought my job was demeaning. “I don’t know how you put up with the way they treat you,” she’d say. But like many students, I was struggling to make ends meet, and a job with tips and free food was a hot commodity.
The two sisters who owned the shop, Barbie and Betsy, had almost nothing in common. Betsy was kind and thoughtful, and Barbie was the taskmaster. They fought, and I did my best to work around them. One of their biggest rows happened when Betsy discovered Barbie taking money out of the cash register to shop at the Macy’s across the street. Betsy was furious. The sisters took over the cook’s quarters to scream at each other.
One day, while the sisters were fighting in the back, I served a customer an order of broccoli cheese soup. Barbie came out just in time to see the man give me a tip, and she followed me into the kitchen. “We put all the tips in the cash register and split them at the end of the day,” she said.
All the free frozen yogurt in the world would never be as satisfying as it felt to walk out that door.
Knowing full well that Barbie dipped into the cash register for spending money, I had no intention of giving up my tips. I reminded her that it was against the law to take my tips from me. She started yelling at me. She told me to start sorting a 20-pound bag of pinto beans for chili. I did. As I cleaned the beans, she told me to stop and start scrubbing potatoes. As I began to scrub, she told me she actually needed me to wash all the pots and pans.
It was nearing the end of the lunch rush when an order came in. “Stop the dishes and run this to Carmen, Shultz, and Baylor,” Barbie demanded. We were the only two people left in the diner.
I recognized the name of the law firm and knew it was located at the edge of our delivery area. I looked at the clock. I’d probably get a good tip, but making the delivery meant I had to run 10 blocks there and back, and my shift was over in five minutes. If I took the order, I’d be late for class.
Barbie stared at me. “Run! It’ll get cold if you don’t hurry!”
“But my shift is done, and I’ll be late to class,” I said. “Why can’t you drive it over?”
“Because I don’t want to leave you alone in the shop to steal more tips,” she said.
I tried to hold my dignity in the face of such an insult. Barbie leaned in close and yelled, “It takes an exceptional person to do this job, Cheri!”
I looked at the clock and made my decision. I took off my apron and said, “Maybe you should find that person because I quit.”
I walked out of the store with my head high, and although I had to scramble to find a new job, it was worth it to stand up for myself. All the free frozen yogurt in the world would never be as satisfying as the feeling of walking out that door. Looking back more than 20 years later, it’s clear that the best perk of all was the opportunity to find my voice.