Like a lot of kids from Point Pleasant, all of my early employment experiences were with jobs in the restaurant industry. Since we lived on the Jersey Shore, there were many summer jobs available on the floor as a server or in the kitchen doing food prep, dish washing or pot washing. If you were lucky enough to work in a restaurant that was busy all-year-round and you were on the service side of the business, you could make some decent money as a teenager.
I got my first job at age fourteen working as a busboy in the restaurant and banquet facility at Kings Grant Inn on the corner of Route 70 and River Road in Point Pleasant. It was a physically tough job since you had to stay on your feet all afternoon and evening clearing tables, doing the setups and pouring glasses of water for the guests. I started the KGI job working part-time on the weekends in the spring of 1974 and then worked full-time hours that summer during the busy season.
I still remember the distinct odor of my clothes while working there. That’s something you can’t forget. It was an awful combination stench of grease, vegetables, cigarette butts and human BO that you wouldn’t ever want to smell like if you weren’t at work. We had to wear a sort-of uniform of black pants, black shoes and white collared, button-down short sleeve shirts. These clothes had to be washed after each shift and, no matter what, you couldn’t get rid of that stink.
Anyway, one of the first things I had to learn was all about the different kinds of drinking glasses in the restaurant, most of which had to do with booze. As a fourteen-year-old I wasn’t permitted to serve drinks to the patrons. However, I was expected to know all the kinds of glasses because I often had to help stock up the bar or go find one or another glass for a waitress or bartender.
I learned the difference between a water goblet, a rock glass, a highball, a shot glass, a cosmo or margarita glass, a martini glass, a cognac snifter and the common beer glasses: pint and Pilsner. I also learned the different wine glasses—red, white, rose and port—as well as the champagne glass and the all-important Irish coffee mug. Fortunately for me, I was never a teenage drinker. I suppose I’d seen a lifetime’s share of drunks and inebriated stoops during those restaurant years and that helped steer me clear from alcohol until much later in life.
There was one particular experience with excessive drinking that I remember vividly. It involved the decision by restaurant management to hire a man as Captain. The captain’s job was to work with the hostess at the front of the house to make sure that the customers were seated properly and all of their needs were being met.
Well, unfortunately, this young man—who was quite the handsome gent and started off doing really well with both the staff and customers—had a serious drinking problem. After about a week, we started noticing he was gathering all of the partially empty wine bottles and cocktail glasses in the back of the restaurant and was polishing them off one by one. By the end of the night, he was staggering around the place and babbling incoherently to anyone within earshot. I certainly didn’t see it as my responsibility to report the guy and I don’t think any of the other busboys did either. As a naive teenager, I thought it was kind of funny. After a few days, we heard that he’d been fired.
Another thing that I learned was how to properly arrange a place setting and what the different plates and silverware were called. This is another thing that you never forget. Napkin in the center, forks on the left (dinner fork on the outside, salad fork on the inside), butter plate above the forks, knife and spoons to the right (knife first with blade facing toward the center, followed by the table spoon and the tea spoon). The water goblet is placed above the knife and spoons. If there is dessert ware, the fork (on top) and spoon go above the center in opposite directions, spoon facing left and fork facing right.
Among the more physically challenging parts of the job was carrying trays full of dirty dishes and other table stuff that had to be returned to the kitchen. There was a knack to getting one of those fully-loaded oval aluminum trays up on your shoulder and balanced with one hand twisted back flat underneath it. You always had to have the other hand free so you could make your way through the restaurant floor and push the door open into the kitchen that swung both ways.
The best busboy never, ever dropped his tray. His skill was about getting that heavy tray up and completely balanced on his shoulder so that, even if things started to slide around on there, he did not lose it all to the floor in a huge crash. Unfortunately, this did happen to me on a couple of occasions because I had been hasty in loading up the tray or was moving too fast into the kitchen.
Losing the contents of a busboy tray typically didn’t involve actually dropping the tray itself. It’s just that everything on the tray tips over to the floor and you are standing there stuck-on-stupid with the tray dangling vertically from one hand while everyone is looking at you before you dropped your head and walked swiftly toward the broom closet. Fortunately, when this happened, the other staff would always step in quickly to help you with the cleanup.
The experience of losing a busboy tray is similar to what happens in school when a kid drops the contents of his or her lunch tray. The crash of plates and glasses is followed by a half-second of dead silence from the otherwise noisy din of voice chatter and conversation. The one important difference between the restaurant and school lunchroom mishap, however, is that the restaurant crash isn’t followed by enthusiastic applause, cheers and laughter from the assembled diners. No, everyone in the restaurant just picks up where they left off on whatever they were talking about as though nothing ever happened.
Pretty much throughout my restaurant working years—until I left Point Pleasant in 1979—I made something like $2.20 an hour in wages paid by the employer in a weekly paycheck. The rest of the money was approximately 15% of the tips that the waitresses collected from the customers during each shift.
We usually made more than $8 an hour with the tips we pulled in. One of the obligations of the newbs on the busboy staff was that you got your tip money in the smallest denominations from the nightly take. Of course, this was long before the widespread use of credit and debit cards, so the waitresses would turn over their 15% to the head busboy in cash and he would count it all up and divvy it out evenly to the number of busboys on duty.
The head busboy would always keep the biggest bills for himself and then on down the line in seniority until he got to me. If I was lucky, I got some singles and the rest in a bunch of loose change. More often than not, I went home with only coins. So, in that first year on the job, I would leave KGI after every shift with a big sack of change that filled both my front pants pockets. But I didn’t mind it at all. I just remember the feeling of accomplishment I had when I got off at 11 or 12 at night and got on my bike to make the 2 mile ride home.
It was so quiet riding down River Road toward Pearce Street at night in the dark. But you could hear me coming from a mile away with that load of coins jingling in my pockets. By the time I hit the top of Summit Drive, I could darn near coast all the way home coming down that hill with that heavy load of change in my pockets.
Kings Grant Inn had a marina behind it on the Manasquan River. There were lots of people who loved yachting and boating and docked their watercraft there. Some of these folks were regulars at the restaurant and one of them, a shoulder-length blond-haired dude by the name of Clay, lived on his sailboat in the marina and worked at the restaurant as a busboy too. Clay was a late 20s-something beach bum with a fantastic golden tan. He had this sort of hippy way of talking that I had never heard before. I got to know him pretty well and he talked a lot about his sail boat and his girlfriend who lived on the boat with him.
And speaking of being fourteen and girls, there was this young lady who was hired as the hostess during that summer that literally stands out for me. I remember hearing the other busboys talking about her and how she was, let’s say, front loaded. She would come to work with these tight tops on and I would find myself drifting over that way and standing there, staring at her without a word coming out of my mouth.
Like on any job, there was certainly a pecking order among the busboys at KGI and, if you weren’t tough and ready to stand your ground, you might get hazed right off the job in your first week. The guys I worked with were all older than me, some by more than a couple of years. Some were local guys who I knew from school and others were some really worldly types that came down from north Jersey for the summer. There were definitely some pretty rough and lonely nights for me during my first few weeks there (I won’t go into the details).
I’ll just say that these guys were all really hard workers and they taught me how to do my job the right way. They were both testing me to see what I was made of and, most of all, they wanted me to know right out of the shoot that they weren’t going to put up with someone who wasn’t pulling their weight during those busy summer nights. It took me a little while, but I eventually made some really good friendships with my co-busboys at KGI and I learned many, many things from them both on and off the job.
I also met some really great working people from the other departments at KGI. Since I was just a pimply-faced kid, there were many people—and some of them quite hardened by their experiences—who wanted to teach me all about the ways of the world. Back in those days, practically everyone was a smoker and you could smoke just about anywhere in the restaurant. I remember how some of the waitresses would light up a cigarette in the kitchen, put it down on an ash tray, run a customer order on a tray out to their table and then come back into the kitchen for another puff.
Anytime the staff had a break, they would light up and start talking to me in a very friendly manner while they blew smoke off to the side and made this face with one eye closed and their mouth only partially opened. The waitresses were some really tough ladies who went out of their way to keep me out of trouble. There were a few of them who took a liking to me and wanted to make sure I was on task and where I was supposed to be. They did not want me to have any run-ins with the KGI maitre d‘ named Fritz, who actually was the person who hired me.
Fritz was an immigrant from Germany or Austria and he had a very thick accent. He would get explosively angry and give you an expletive-laden tongue lashing if you weren’t taking care of things. He was very tall, had a long hooked nose, slightly balding dark hair that was combed straight back, and a paunch that protruded from his cummerbund. Fritz was a task master and rightly so to keep the dining experience up to par for the customers.
He would swear at you in broken English with the F-word if you didn’t do precisely what he told you to do, even if you did not understand a word of what he asked you to do in the first place. There were a couple of busboys who could do a dead-nuts impersonation of Fritz that would make you laugh so hard you couldn’t stand up straight.
Anyway, the others on the restaurant staff who were great people were the dishwashers, pot washers, the maintenance people and, of course, the chefs and other cooks in the kitchen. These folks all worked very hard all the time to keep things moving along for the customers even though it was always super hot in the kitchen.
Despite the fact that everyone who worked in there was completely drenched in perspiration, they had the most pleasant way of talking to a young kid like me. They would always ask me if I needed anything or if I was hungry. Because of them, I probably ate some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life during those few years at KGI like steak, lobster and, of course, chocolate mousse.
When we got a few minutes to talk about things other than work, especially on smoke breaks, the kitchen staff would always ask me about school and if I planned on going to college after high school graduation. They wanted more than anything to pass along the message that a life working in the restaurant business was very hard and that I needed to try and make something of myself.
I finished my career at KGI after two years and I have to say I was ready to move on to some other summer restaurant jobs at the Steak Shanty on Routes 35 and 88 in Point Beach and as a short order cook in the snack bar and later, again as a busboy, in the restaurant at the Bay Head Yacht Club. I even worked my senior year of high school at McDonald’s on Route 88 in Point.
I truly believe that my first summer working experience at KGI taught me many important lessons: do your job and work hard and people will respect you, count your money and make sure you get your fair share, don’t smoke and don’t drink to excess, stay in school and go to college if you are able to and, for God’s sake, wash your clothes after every shift and never stare at anyone with your mouth open.