Archives For St. Louis

You’re hired!

September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

Woohoo! The 3-day weekend has arrived, bringing with it the official end of summer, family barbeques and picnics, and perhaps a parade. And it might be your last chance to go camping. It’s the last bash of the season.

But, you ask, exactly how does all of this honor the American worker? By giving all of us an extra vacation day! Since Americans work more hours than any other industrialized country, I think we’ve earned it.

This post is dedicated to the American worker – the common laborer who contributes to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. More precisely, to this American worker and her very first foray into the world of work.

Before I was 16, I earned a little spending money by making and selling Barbie clothes. I also did babysitting occasionally, but those weren’t real jobs, where you go to a workplace and have a boss and coworkers. I’m talking about that kind of work. (My brief stint as a sewer of pockets doesn’t count.)

I had applied to college and realized should I actually got accepted, I’d need some moolah. So I got on a city bus after school one day in search of gainful employment. I headed south on Grand Avenue to this place…

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Those of you who know St. Louis, know that this establishment is iconic in the Gateway City. But I knew it as a place where a gal could pull down some serious tips as a carhop. The owner happened to be there and conducted an interview with me right on the spot. I was hired.

Mrs. Drewes knew that maintaining a stellar reputation in frozen custard world is serious business, and her tone said as much. She gruffly detailed the rules, handed me a few uniforms and aprons, and told me when to show up for my first shift. I didn’t react much until I got on the bus to head home. I was elated.

I had landed my very first job.

I was at that stand five nights a week through the rest of the summer, from about 6 p.m. to midnight. Because it was a very popular family destination, the parking lot was packed with wood paneled station wagons between suppertime and about 10:00 p.m. Cars would even circle the lot waiting for spots to open. Folks were also serious about frozen custard.

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I served too many cones to count. And sundaes and shakes and malts and floats and… banana splits! Everybody was always happy to see me headed to the driver’s window with a tray laden with frosty deliciousness. And happy dads passing out treats to happy kids meant happy tips for my apron pockets. Which was a very good thing because…

Mrs. Drewes didn’t actually pay carhops. The deal was you could work for tips. And we high schoolers were more than happy for the opportunity to beat the asphalt for six hours at a stretch to score those tips. Bona fide American workers contributing to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of South St. Louis.

When the family began clearing out, the same parking spaces were occupied by a steady stream of young people cruising around town. Young people are pretty serious about frozen custard, but not quite as serious about tipping. But the sheer volume would make up for it.

The Ted Drewes recipe consisted of four ingredients: cream, eggs, honey, and vanilla. No chocolate, no swirls. Just vanilla. But it was as delicious as it could be. And the Drewes operation produced a texture that was sheer perfection. Tips weren’t the only perk of the job.

Somewhere between 11:00 and 12:00 it would begin to slow down a bit and some of the gals might take a moment to sit on a guard rail and rest her Keds. Usually I just kept on moving, because once I stopped, I’d notice how much my feet throbbed. (Alas, no Air Jordans just yet.)

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Our uniforms were a lot like this, only white trimmed with blue.

Three memorable events occurred during the three months I worked there:

  • One of the inside workers – they were paid an hourly wage – introduced me to a new concoction. He put a squirt of strawberry topping in a drink cup, then filled it with lemonade and ice. Who knew the combination would be so yummy?
  • This dude drove off with one of my trays one night. At the end of my shift I had to pay Mrs. Drewes $1 to replace it. She had explained that particular rule at the very beginning, so it wasn’t a surprise. But I was still burned. $1 was a good-sized chunk of what I could earn in a night.
  • Service got very slow at about 10:00 p.m. on July 20th. There was a TV mounted on the wall inside the stand and we carhops lingered at the window for as long as possible. Our eyes were glued to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And for a moment, that was more serious than out-of-this-world frozen custard.

City buses weren’t running any longer by the time my shift ended, so my dad would always come pick me up. Then every night I would sit on my bed (with my feet up), count my loot, and roll coins. At the end of the summer I had amassed enough earnings to buy all my clothes and shoes for college, pay for a plane ticket to L. A., and had $300 to spare.

And I had become a slightly seasoned member of the American work force.

Happy Labor Day, everybody!

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Fifty years ago today, I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the significance of the massive gathering taking place on the mall in Washington, D.C. Nor was I old enough to understand the magnitude of the sweeping movement kindled by the refusal of a solitary Birmingham woman to yield her seat on the bus. However, a couple years later, I was old enough to figure out what I needed do in an awkward situation.

A new kid had joined our seventh grade class. It wouldn’t have been all that unusual, given that every fall the new homeroom teacher would introduce a new kid or two, but, this new kid was the “Ruby Bridges” of Rose Fanning Elementary School in St. Louis. In 1965, the same year as the Selma-to-Birmingham voting rights march, K.R. single-handedly desegregated our all-white school. I haven’t a clue what the teacher or any of the other students thought about his arrival because no one ever mentioned it. I do know that I was fascinated by it.

I had heard enough racist comments through media and from adults in my world to understand the negative stereotypes. Yet within the first month or so, this young man managed to bash all of them with his dignified demeanor, superb elocution, academic prowess, razor sharp wit and, my personal favorite, probably the finest penmanship in our class. To top it off, K.R. was warm and engaging and made friends easily.

Every school year the P.E. staff taught a six-week unit of square dancing sandwiched in between units of tumbling and basketball, etc. It was the only co-ed unit. I always enjoyed learning the square dance calls and mastering the new dances, so I was really looking forward to it. We entered the gym that first day and the teachers instructed the girls to line up on one wall and the boys on another, and then each boy was to ask a girl to be his partner for the duration of the class period.

Now, you’d think that the big people — in this case, the teachers — would have had the foresight to coach us as to how to handle the very next scene in the script: K.R. was the only African American in the class and if he was going to participate in the unit, he was going to have to select a white girl to be his partner — there was no other option. Maybe the awkwardness of this situation hadn’t occurred to the teachers beforehand, because it surely hadn’t occurred to me, but one sort of expects the big people to be a little more on the ball. The instant I saw him walking in a straight line toward me, I realized I had a dilemma.

Using arguments that sound dreadfully absurd nowadays, the church my family attended had a “separate-but-equal” position on civil rights. This meant that if I accepted K.R.’s invitation to dance with him I would do so in defiance of the church’s teaching. There might even be repercussions for my parents, should I be found out. To make matters worse, I also suspected my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to do it either. (Many years later, he and I would have a talk about this). Needless to say, I was a little nervous standing there.

Yet, as soon as I was face to face with K.R., I had no doubt about what to do, despite the religious dogma of my upbringing. In a split second, without giving it another thought, I said yes and took his hand. And for the next six weeks, at the beginning of every P.E. class, K.R. made the same bee line for me and I accepted every time. I guess he figured he shouldn’t change a winning ball game — at least he knew he wouldn’t be rebuffed. While I knew it was right, it wasn’t necessarily comfortable. I wondered if the other kids thought we were an item. (No other boy danced exclusively with one girl for the whole unit.) I wondered if he secretly wished there were at least one African American girl in our class to relieve the pressure of having to navigate uncharted waters. I wondered what might happen to me if my parents or other kids in our church who also attended my school found out what was going on.

Yes, I wondered, but it didn’t change anything, because here’s the deal: by some inexplicable grace, I somehow concluded that, while I needed to respect my parents, ultimately, I didn’t answer to them. Nor did I answer to some crotchety local pastor. I even concluded that I didn’t answer to denominational muckety-mucks. Nope, I possessed a strange but quiet assurance that eventually, on the far side of the Pearly Gates, my case would be heard by a loftier tribunal and my position vindicated. I believed my refusal to further wound the heart of a young man abandoned between a rock and a hard place would be validated.

Just yesterday I attended the screening of a new documentary on the life of a civil rights activist in our own city of Columbia, Elliott Battle. This gentle yet determined man paved the way for others in many situations: he was the first African American faculty member at the all-white high school, the father of the first African American students to attend their local elementary school, the first African American home owner to desegregate an all-white neighborhood. These firsts didn’t come without a cost. The film shared the reality of those times and the pain visited upon his family. (On one occasion, their beloved dog was shot by an antagonistic neighbor when it got loose from its leash and ran onto the man’s property — in full sight of their young son.) In one part of the film, Mr. Battle explained that the children who led the way in the desegregation of schools were referred to as the tender little warriors of the civil rights movement. Hearing that phrase for the first time brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. Later it occurred to me: I myself had a close encounter with one of these tender little warriors.

So, K.R., wherever you are, I acknowledge that probably more often than not, the role you filled was less than thankless. And today, on this special anniversary, I thank you for giving our class a real-time lesson in race relations by letting us observe you up close, for just being yourself and inviting us to interact with you. Thank you for having the courage to blaze a new trail in our school and making it a better place.

And thank you for calling forth the better person in me.