In the summer of 1968, the Vietnam War raged, the Civil Rights movement spread across the land, and the sexual revolution began to impact the lives of Americans. Days after her graduation from high school, Sadie Wainwright joined the ranks of the Howard Johnson Restaurant Empire by becoming a HOJO Girl at the Golfair Howard Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida. Behind the gleaming counters of this popular eating establishment, Sadie not only worked for college money, but she also grew up—learning life lessons as a waitress, a daughter, a sister, and a friend.
HOJO Girl is Sadie’s insightful journey of into womanhood back in the turbulent year of 1968, but even with all the troubles of that time, life was often made bearable by a dish of Howard Johnson ice cream served by a HOJO Girl on a road to somewhere else.
Florida has always been the Promised Land, at least for as long as there has been a New World. Even when Florida was not much more than a huge swamp, people from all over the world were drawn to it. Conquistadors looked for gold, while Ponce de Leon searched for mythical springs, bubbling with an age-defying elixir. By the 20th Century, countless people had flocked to Florida to enjoy sunny beaches and fantasy landscapes. It was here they escaped the tyranny of winter or enjoyed the freedom provided by summer vacations. All who came seemed to enjoy their escape from the mundane rigors of life.
There were, however, those who actually maintained the rigors of life in Florida all year long, and they were soon wise to the ways of tourists and how to collect their vacation dollars. The powers-that-be built magnificent highways and tourist centers that served orange juice, Florida’s most famous export. Enterprising entities provided plenty of places along the way for travelers to spend their cash.
Sadie Wainwright, however, was hardly aware of these things, even though she had just graduated from high school. It would be a while before she realized that she was just a small cog in the great tourist industry of Florida. She had been lucky enough to land a summer job as a waitress, also known as a HOJO girl, at the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant on Golfair Boulevard, in Jacksonville, Florida. The shiny, orange-roofed eatery was right off Interstate 95, a highway that carried most tourists south to Miami or Tampa.
As Sadie nervously awaited her very first customer on the morning of June 13, 1968, she was silently praying that her pockets would soon be filled with TIPS. She needed to earn lots of money from those hungry tourists, before she left for Florida State University in the fall. She was also trying to remain calm.
She stood behind the gleaming soda fountain counter dressed in a regulation HOJO turquoise hounds-tooth uniform that went way past her knees. Her feet sported white orthopedic shoes and her long, light brown hair had been secured in a bun that was covered with the regulation hairnet. She practiced what she hoped was a winning smile and prayed that she looked, at the very least, as if she were competent.
Suddenly, they appeared—a tired, dour-faced couple and their young son came through the front door. Painfully, they shuffled to the counter and sat on the stools right across from Sadie. It was 6:00 a.m.
The mom’s eyes—swollen from tiredness—were almost slits. Smeared mascara had created raccoon eyes, and her hair was a mass of dark tangles. She looked as if she had been stuffed in the trunk of her car and had just rolled out. Her husband looked no less rumpled. He had a bland, middle-aged face and his graying hair was thinning at the top. He looked beyond tired and had probably driven all night. Both seemed oblivious to the whining of the chubby young boy who sat between them.
“It’s too cold in here, Daddy. Make ‘em turn up the heater!”
“May I take your order?” Sadie asked, smiling as she handed them menus.
“Yeah, sure,” grumbled the mother in a heavy New York accent. “What’s all this grits stuff anyways?”
“Well, it’s something like cream of wheat, only it’s made of corn.”
“I’ll have the #1 and hold the grits. He and the boy will have the same, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee, and milk, too—for the kid.”
Sadie tried to look as professional as possible as she wrote the family’s order on the regulation HOJO order form and put it in the cook’s window as she had been taught. Then, according to procedure, she balanced three medium glasses of iced water on the round, regulation HOJO tray she had been issued that morning. Slowly and carefully, she moved back to her station where she promptly lost her balance and tipped all three glasses of chilly liquid onto the unsuspecting family.
A look of stunned horror spread across the woman’s face as her eyes grew wide and the icy water spread through her clothes. The man’s mouth fell open in amazement as the coldness seeped through his shirt. The water-soaked child let out a piercing wail that brought all the early morning customers out from behind their newspapers to see about the commotion. Sadie’s heart almost stopped.
“You idiot!” the mother breathed through clenched teeth. “You ignorant moron. How could you be so damned stupid?”
Stunned, Sadie wiped the counter with whatever she could reach. Napkins. Regulation cloths. Her apron.
“I’m so sorry. Terribly sorry.”
The mother continued shouting about Sadie’s lack of intelligence, as she sometimes pulled and sometimes pushed her husband and son out of the restaurant and back onto the highway. The young waitress took a deep breath to keep from crying, only to realize that just beyond the window, many silhouetted tourists had just filed off a great shadow of a bus in the restaurant parking lot. This Howard Johnson’s was about to be swamped with customers.
“Take it easy, Honey,” a gruff but gentle voice rose from behind her. “You can’t win ‘em all.”
Sadie turned and saw a rather tattered-looking older waitress she had seen in passing earlier that morning.
“Sometimes they act that way, even if you do everythin’ perfect.”
“Great,” was all Sadie managed to say.
By 10:30, Sadie had surely waited on at least a thousand tourists, truck drivers, and insurance salesmen and she did so without spilling any more glasses of ice cold water. Mrs. Denver was the kind matronly manager who had hired her, even though the girl had no job experience. The manager signaled for Sadie to leave the fountain and insisted she take a break before the lunch rush. Sadie did not argue. She took with her what was to become her traditional Howard Johnson lunch–a dish of ice cream. She had every intention of trying all 28 flavors and then go back to the ones she loved best.
On this first day, she chose a large scoop of Pistachio Nut, her favorite flavor as a little girl. She hurried to the lounge, intending to enjoy every morsel of the ice cream for no less than fifteen minutes of uninterrupted bliss.
The workers’ lounge was a stark room with one long table against the wall, one bench, and one khaki colored locker in which each employee could store a few small items. There were no windows. For the first time in four and a half hours, Sadie sat. By the light of a bare bulb, she untied her clumsy shoes and sighed with relief as she slid them off her throbbing feet. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“What you thinkin’ on?”
When she opened her eyes, the scruffy waitress who had spoken to her earlier stood in the doorway.
“My feet. I was just thinking how nice it is to take off these clunker shoes.”
The older woman slowly took a seat on the bench next to her. Sadie looked the woman over and figured her to be maybe forty or fifty, but it was hard to tell. Her teased white hair could have been bleached. False eyelashes fluttered bug-like on her tired watery eyes, and her heavy make up only accentuated the lines forming on her face. She had pinned the hem of her turquoise uniform where it was coming undone in the back, and graying lace from her slip peeked out at the neck. Sadie wondered if this was what years of vacationers’ abuse could do to a person.
“The secret to this job is takin’ good care of your feet,” the older waitress said authoritatively as she pulled a pack of Marlboros from her pocket and lit up.
“Got room for one more?” another waitress asked from the doorway. She was a young slender blonde who was about Sadie’s age. She had seen this girl earlier that morning when they were busy setting up. She also held a dish of Pistachio Nut ice cream.
“Sit,” the veteran waitress said, nodding toward the last space on the bench. “Take a load off for a while.”
“Hi, I’m Adrienne Hightower,” the newcomer drawled, her delicate, flawless face smiling at the others. Her silky hair was drawn meticulously into a regulation HOJO bun, and a boy’s class ring dangled from a gold chain around her neck. Her hands were beautifully manicured and several silver rings adorned her fingers.
“I’m Sadie Wainwright. Nice to meet you.”
“Francine Baker,” the older woman said. “Sadie here and me was talking about tired, aching feet.”
“Don’t you know that’s right!” Adrienne said as she took her seat on the bench.
Francine took a drag on her cigarette. “I’m tellin’ you girls. The only way to survive in this business is to take good care of your feet. Soak ‘em every night in a tub of hot water, hot as you can stand.”
The very thought of placing her burning feet into hot water literally made Sadie’s toes curl. “Are you sure you don’t mean cold water?”
“Yeah,” Adrienne agreed.
“No, girls, I mean hot water. Seems to draw all the ache right out your bones, and believe me, without healthy, happy feet, waitin’ tables ain’t no picnic. You can’t move around right. And you start limpin’ like you’re walkin’ on egg shells. And when you move like you’re a hundred-year-old woman, people don’t think you’re capable and they don’t leave you no tips. They want perky and efficient.”
“How long have you been a waitress?” Sadie asked.
“I started waitin’ tables when I was sixteen,” she said thoughtfully, “so I guess that makes it about twenty-some years.”
“Wow!” the younger waitresses breathed in unison.
“Yeah,” Francine said, “I stopped only once. That was when my husband was killed. I took off about a year.”
She gently tapped her cigarette ashes into the HOJO ashtray on the table. Adrienne and Sadie silently ate their ice cream.
“Adrienne,” Sadie finally said, “how long have you been a waitress?”
“Oh, I only started last week. I just graduated from high school.”
“Me, too,” Sadie said. “Where’d you go to school?”
“Robert E. L – E – E!”
“Cheerleader, were ya?” Francine asked, smoke curling from her mouth.
“On the Second Place All-Florida Squad.”
“And you?” Francine asked Sadie.
“Me? A cheerleader? Oh, no. I was just a person,” she laughed. “What kind of tips do you make around here?”
“Fifteen dollars a day, if you’re good,” Francine said. “Sundays you might make twenty, twenty-five.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out maybe three dollars in change. No bills.
Francine pulled a fat roll of dollars from her bosom and counted out eleven. Her pockets bulged with coins.
“You are good,” Sadie said.
“Well, I’m not here for the money,” Adrienne announced.
Both Francine and Sadie looked over at her.
“You’re not?” Sadie asked.
Francine asked, “Why you here then, if it ain’t for the money?”
“Well, I’m going to major in business when I get to college, and I need experience with the public. I’ve got to start somewhere, and it might as well be at the bottom.”
Francine smiled a cold smile, but ignored the insult. Then, she carefully crushed out her cigarette.
“You’d better start with your feet, then,” she said. “Soak your dogs in hot water every night, or you won’t never survive in this business for long.” She rose almost painfully from her spot. “Come on, girls. Sadie and me can’t make no money at all, and Adrienne, you can’t get no experience, with the public, if we don’t get on back to the floor.”
Adrienne and Sadie nodded and hurriedly finished the last spoonfuls of ice cream. Francine had readjusted her uniform as best she could, and Sadie put her shoes back on. Then all three women slowly moved from the stark room and back into the lighted dining room.
By the end of her first day as a Howard Johnson employee, Sadie had cleared $6.75 in tips. Her feet hurt so badly and felt so heavy that she was sure she looked like Alice the Goon with blisters. Her knees buckled twice before she made it across the hell-hot parking lot to the old white Falcon her brother was letting her drive while he was away in the Navy.
The thirty-minute ride home lasted an hour because of a traffic accident on the Fuller Warren Toll Bridge. As the Maxwell House Coffee Plant on the St. Johns River processed its coffee beans, the afternoon smelled like the HOJO coffee brewer. It was a pleasant smell, but with the humidity so high and the car interior so hot, Sadie felt as if she were drowning in a giant cup of coffee. She was light-headed and a little queasy.
When she finally made it to the toll booth, she quickly paid her fifteen cents to get off the bridge and escaped the bumper-to-bumper traffic as she took the nearest exit. She really appreciated the shade of water oaks and pine trees lining the streets as she drove home. When she pulled in her driveway and got out of the car, her uniform was completely damp from perspiration. Her forehead and neck were plastered with loose strands of hair.
A tiny oasis of coolness enveloped her as she stepped gratefully through the side door of her house, into the cheerful kitchen. This house had been her home for at least ten years. She had lived here since she was eight years old and her father was transferred from San Diego and stationed at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. The small, one-story cinderblock house had three bedrooms and two baths. It had central heat, but the only coolness came from the one little window air conditioner that her mother had insisted they buy last summer. They all but worshipped this appliance and often bowed before it and its wonderful gift of refreshing coolness.
“How’d it go?” her mother asked. She sat at the dining table behind an arrangement of artificial daisies, as she clipped coupons from a Good Housekeeping Magazine.
“It was all right,” Sadie said, hurrying to stand in front of the air conditioner. She held out her arms and closed her eyes. When her hot body had acquired an appropriate temperature, she moved like the Mummy zombie toward her bedroom. She didn’t remember much after that. Still in uniform, she collapsed upon her bed. Dreams came to her quickly. She dreamed of sticking her hot tired feet into round vats of pistachio nut ice cream and about long, cool roadways with no traffic and no Howard Johnson’s signs.
Yvetta Jones, a young black woman of about 30, completed the waitress ensemble. Sadie didn’t meet her until her second day on the job, since Yvetta had been off when Sadie joined the Howard Johnson family. Yvetta came towards Sadie that morning as they were setting up stations for the day. Loaves of bread and rolls filled her arms as she hurried towards Sadie.
Sadie smiled at Yvetta and opened her mouth to speak, when Yvetta said, “Honey, I ain’t got the time.”
“Sure thing,” Sadie answered, and she stepped away as quickly as she could. She watched as the woman rounded the corner towards the bread bin. She felt her face burn with embarrassment.
Once the restaurant was totally prepared for customers—coffee made, butter softening, jelly jars set out, ice chests filled with crushed ice and tables set—the women sat in a booth up front and sipped coffee together in the last precious moments before opening time. Sadie sat next to Yvetta with Francine and Adrienne opposite them.
She couldn’t help but notice that Yvetta was quite a beautiful woman. Her skin was a smooth milk chocolate brown, and she had plaited her black hair into an unusual, but regulation, HOJO bun. Of all of them, Yvetta had the best figure. She actually made the HOJO uniform attractive.
After Francine introduced Adrienne and Sadie to Yvetta, they all fell pensively silent. No one was awake enough to carry on complicated conversation. Francine yawned, and then lit up a cigarette. Adrienne smoothed errant strands of hair into her hair net, as she sipped a Coke. Sadie had an orange juice with ice, and Yvetta slowly stirred the liquid in her coffee cup.
Finally, Sadie broke the stillness. “Francine, I soaked my feet last night, just like you said—nice and hot.”
“And?” Francine asked, through a swirl of cigarette smoke.
“It was heaven. Absolute heaven!”
“Oh, yes,” Adrienne agreed. “What a difference it made!”
Francine smiled. “You can’t go wrong with a good hot soakin’.”
Adrienne nodded. “My feet hurt so badly that I didn’t even consider going out with Robert. But after I soaked my feet, I could have danced with him all night long.”
“Who’s Robert?” Yvetta asked.
“Robert,” Adrienne said, turning to Sadie and Francine, “is the dreamiest guy I have ever had the pleasure to know, much less love. We’ve been dating since I was a sophomore. When he moved to Michigan, I thought I was going to die. But love has triumphed! He’s staying with friends this summer, and we are both going to the University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor, this fall. Now, we can be together and live happily ever after.”
None of the others missed the fact that Adrienne excluded Yvetta from the conversation. She quite literally turned her back towards her. After Yvetta picked a thread off her apron, she excused herself from the table and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Blacks,” Adrienne said. “Can you figure them?”
“What are you talking about?” Francine asked.
“Well, they’re so rude. Like just now. She wasn’t listening to a word I said.”
“You didn’t seem to be includin’ her in this little conversation of yours,” Francine said.
“Well, I don’t make it a habit of revealing personal business to people like her.”
Francine exhaled her cigarette smoke sharply and spoke very softly. “I’ve worked with a lot of waitresses in my time, honey, and I ain’t never seen one better than Yvetta. She’s always there when you need her, and I don’t got to cover for her like I do for you white girls.”
“Well, excuse me for living,” Adrienne said, starting a day-long pout.
Sadie stayed quiet in the awkward silence that followed. Francine didn’t look up as she took a last draw of her smoke. When she did speak, all she said was, “Time to get to work, ladies.”
A chill ran through Sadie at the thought of another waitressing day. She tried to shake it off by taking a few deep breaths as she slid from the booth. The breathing exercises must have helped. Soon she was standing calmly at her station at the soda fountain counter. Adrienne stood at her tables. Yvetta had emerged from the kitchen and stood near hers. Finally, Francine flipped on all the lights. When she unlocked the door to let the first few customers in, it was 6 a.m.
© 2020 by Dorothy Fletcher