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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 8: June 2021
Haibun: 580 words
By Alison Woolpert

Title VII

 
L.A. summer
somewhere stars in the sky
stars on the street

In 1950 Harry and Marilyn Lewis opened a chic eatery on Sunset Boulevard called Hamburger Hamlet. Harry was an actor and Marilyn, a fashion designer and entrepreneur. The restaurant was an immediate success and they opened a number of locations around the L.A. area.

The stars showed up: Ronald Reagan would stop in, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bette Davis, and Lucille Ball.

I was unaware in 1971 of any issues concerning this chain of restaurants, including the reason that I was hired as a waitress.

Independence Day
an outlier in the crew
of black waitresses

The particular Hamburger Hamlet where I worked was located on Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, and was known to staff as the Racetrack. We had our own contemporary stars to watch for: Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen, the reigning couple at that time; Bob Denver (aka Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island); and the #1 ranked woman in tennis, Billie Jean King. Even The Rifleman Chuck Connors came in to drink. One rainy afternoon he sat in the bar area with a girlfriend and as I served them drinks, he hit on me for a three-way, promising all kinds of drugs. The woman got up and ran out into the street to wave down a ride. Chuck ran out after her.

thunder claps
his thrown twenty-dollar tip
lands face-up

The waitress uniform was that of a southern servant. A black polyester splayed skirt that reached well below the knee, a white pleated blouse with the server’s name embroidered in black cursive. The blouse buttoned up to the top and clipped closed at the collar with a black satin bow tie. Nylons and heavy-duty white shoes. The ensemble topped off with a bobby-pinned, miniature white pillbox hat. Despite the uniform the job was one of the best paying for women of color.

dog days
a crash while marrying two
ketchup bottles

Employees received one free meal a day, though food that could be ordered off the menu was highly restricted. We served Lobster Bisque, but couldn’t eat it; baked potatoes, but were allowed only french fries; gourmet hamburgers, but could not expect our own to come with onion or cucumber. Rice pudding was verboten, along with German chocolate cake. Occasionally, a waitress on break would run across the street to Ralph’s supermarket and buy groceries for the cooks to prepare on the side. One waitress, Merry Mac, funny as hell and absolutely the customers’ favorite, was the first to invite me to come join the meal back in the employee corner.

hot day, but yet...
ham hock, collard greens,
and black-eyed peas

From time to time La Migra would show up. Undocumented Guatemalan and Mexican busboys and dishwashers would vanish, and we’d bus our own tables and hope there were enough clean glasses to last until they’d reappear. When the school year started I was the one to disappear, though I’d fill in shifts from time to time: a stint in Woodland Hills, another in downtown Pasadena. That’s when I began to notice that there were other Anglo waitresses hired at those locations.

I moved to Santa Cruz and continued waitressing until I finished college. I’d travel to southern California to visit family, but only once did I stop in to eat at the HH Racetrack.

winter fog with smog
the all-Anglo male waitstaff
in black and white wear

 

Alison Woolpert
Issue 8, June 2021

was born in the California desert, but for many years now has been cycling through the seasons in the beach town of Santa Cruz.

She writes lyric and narrative poetry and prose, in addition to Japanese short forms. Her haiku, haibun, tanka, tan-renga, and haiga have been published in a number of journals and books: Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Acorn, frogpond, Mariposa, Geppo, red lights, Ribbons, and Something Out of Nothing.

Her haiku chapbook, Greetings From, was published in 2018 by Colorvue Press (Santa Cruz, CA).

 
 
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