By Madeline Zelazo
When I turned 17, I took my first waitressing job at a small diner named The Red Carpet, in my hometown of Adams, Massachusetts. It was anything but what one might associate with the phrase “red carpet.” There was no Leonardo Dicaprio, Versace dresses, or screaming fans. Instead, walking into the Red Carpet, or “The Dirty C” as we servers referred to it, was like time traveling back to the 80s. The radio was always playing “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and “Under Pressure,” by Queen– which I remember being a consistent disappointment for me as I always prepared to belt out the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby” every time the opening notes bled through the air.
The booths, carpets, and uniforms were an ostentatious red that made me cross-eyed by the end of a long shift, and the walls were decorated with black and white photos of people from town, most of whom were nearing the end of their life spans. Ferns hung from the ceilings—I never found out if they were real or faux—and the wall behind the bar was pinned with lottery tickets, a pleasure many of our customers indulged in.
The air always smelled of stale coffee, and you could get lost in the layers of stains that spotted the carpets. Like most restaurants, it was a fast-paced environment for the servers, and it also possessed a sort of leisurely atmosphere that a lot of our customers–the church going, tickling retirement, smells-like-a mix-of-library-and-casserole type– sought.
Saturday was my favorite day of the week. As soon as I flipped the closed sign over to open at 7 a.m. I could count on the company of two customers, Ronnie and Mr. Lisee who were always just a couple of steps around the corner. The men would sit at the bar with the other town locals, scratching tickets and drinking coffee with my boss and me. “Let’s go in halves, Smiley” my boss would say to me as I willingly spent my morning’s tips on tickets I knew would lose.
Working at The Dirty C was something I looked forward to since I had my own posse of fans. They would listen to me sing behind the bar, admire my youthful energy that never seemed to fade, and joke about my face that never seemed to quit smiling. While Ronnie and Mr. Lisee knew how to kick off a great day, it still didn’t compare to the true highlight of every Saturday: Jim Shippee.
Jim was a customer I met the day I started working for the Carpet. Every Saturday at 1 p.m., his little gray sedan would turn into the parking lot and I would yell to the kitchen, “Jim’s here” and we would all take a minute to freshen up and contain our excitement. If there were ever any celebrities here, he was definitely one.
There were many times that Jim told me what he did for work, but I never really understood. What I did know is that he dressed much like a lawyer might on a casual Friday, talked kind of like an accountant, and had the personality of a realtor. He could have done any one of those jobs, maybe even all three, but one thing I did know was that he always drank Diet Coke with lemon.
Strutting through the doors, Jim would take off his flat cap and mosey over to his corner booth to sit facing the wall since he knew I would have to sit facing the other way while talking to him so I could keep an eye on my other customers. I’d lean back onto the booth while wrestling with my saltine crackers–my lunch since it was the only food I could successfully steal from the kitchen besides an occasional pickle–as I began to tell him about all that had happened during the week.
“No, he didn’t!” Jim would exclaim as I told him about a shitty date. We would laugh together at everything, and every week he would get a new chapter of my life story. He’d often remind me of how funny and special I was, and how I deserved to be treated. I can’t even count the times we cried together, sometimes from laughing, other times from the harshness of life.
Our conversations were a lot like speed dating since I usually had other customers to help. I would start a story and be rudely interrupted by the arrival of a meal and the kitchen’s call on my buzzer. Ugh can’t they leave us alone.
I wanted to tell Jim everything and he wanted to hear everything. My dreams, my failures, my love, my losses, and, of course, my triumphs. Jim didn’t have a significant other or kids and the one person that he mentioned often, his mother, passed away during the time that I knew him.
He brought a sense of comfort to me since he was as predictable as he was conversational. He always ordered the same thing, the lunch size Chicken Broccoli Pasta with a bowl of whatever soup we had that day. It’s not that the food was necessarily bad, it was just lazy, unspectacular, and definitely not something I would voluntarily choose to order one day of the week, every week.
In a recent conversation with one of the former Chefs of the Red Carpet I discovered it was even worse than I thought. “How did we make that dish that Jim always ordered?”
She responded, “Oh, that? It was tortellini, broccoli, chicken cooked in butter with some seasoning…we used frozen tortellini and broccoli so we microwaved them slightly before cooking them.”
MICROWAVE? I thought, who would be crazy enough to pay good money for a half microwaved meal? The answer, Jim–although I knew deep down that the meal wasn’t really why he came.
In my experiences, sharing food with others has allowed me to develop bonds and friendships that are unmatchable and profoundly close knit. During my days waitressing, I learned this most passionately as I watched week-after-week as church groups, families, couples, and single diners like Jim rushed through the doors to wrap themselves in blankets of cheap and mediocre comfort food and immerse themselves in good company–even if I, the waitress, sometimes was that good company.
Jim’s Chicken Broccoli Pasta Recipe:
2lbs boneless chicken breasts (or thighs) cut into bite size pieces
1 bag of frozen broccoli or 1 ½ cups of fresh broccoli
1 bag of frozen tortellini
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp onion powder
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp italian seasoning
½ tsp paprika
1 tsp red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste