By John Thomas Tuft

Harry looked across the bench seat of the Cadillac convertible, one hand resting casually on the steering wheel, and said, “John, just follow my lead. We’re going to the East Liverpool Employment Office. Just watch me and learn how to size people up.” It was one of those times I was trying to escape finishing seminary in the late 1970s and I found myself taking this ride with a man north of 50, proud of his car and his job for Pinkerton Security. Harry wasn’t real sure what to make of this greenhorn who was in and out of theological graduate school, of all things, now dabbling in the field of security. East Liverpool was where my mother graduated from high school before going off to work in the Pentagon during WWII. Her mom, my grandmother, still lived there up on the hill. I knew the lay of the land. What could this guy teach me?

We pull up to the nondescript government issue building and strut inside in our shirts and ties with the air of “we have jobs, come one, come all,” to set up in a conference room. “John, not everybody can do this job. We have to find folks who will stay sober, show up on time, and not give any lip to their supervisors.” I nod like I know what I’m doing. We are looking for people who can be security guards to work nights guarding the construction site of the nuclear power plant being built along the Ohio River in Shippingport at the time. Keeping the site supplied with enough warm bodies is an ongoing battle. We spread pamphlets on the table, stack a few uniforms to one side, and open the door to the waiting room. It is full of confederates of the Beatitudes. I try to imagine them fighting off terrorists coming by boat to storm the site in night vision goggles and automatic weapons. And the Jason Bourne novels have not even been published yet. We’re giving them a uniform and a flashlight and telling them they have to stay sober and stay awake.

A woman with a black eye says, “My man says I gotta bring in money, too. He’s tired of keeping me.” A young man with stringy, greasy hair keeps sniffing, staring at us through bloodshot eyes. An older gentleman tells us about being laid off from the mill. A middle-aged woman informs us that she’s taken in her daughter’s baby in their trailer and needs the money, not to mention some peace and quiet. Harry takes this all in and uses some sort of sixth sense to judge who will fit and who will not. It’s my training day. But I have no idea how he does it. When he sends me back on my own a couple of weeks later, everyone that I send in is rejected by the home office. The bosses call me in. “Are you sure you want to keep doing this? Harry likes you, but we think maybe this isn’t really what you can do.” Maybe not.

I think about that time some forty years later when I’m in the local waffle establishment feeding my need for waffles at least once a month. When we enter, I notice right away that there are way too many people behind the counter for a normal day. The reason becomes clear when two wait staff approach the booth. One introduces herself as the trainer and the other is the trainee, Becky. It is a training day for the waffle places of the world, including not only wait staff but grill cooks, as well. Waiting on tables in an eating establishment is an honorable job that requires people skills, organizational skills, grit and stamina, good comfortable shoes, and an attitude of “I got this!” Becky appears to be around 18, with a silver studded nose ring, quiet demeanor, and an attitude of “dealing with people in the real world is waaay different than dealing through social media from my cozy bedroom via my phone.”

It is painful to watch but I am amazed at the patience of her trainer. Becky is a meek lamb in the midst of a noisy, fast moving, service-oriented environment. I watch as she is guided to the next booth to take another order. Becky stands about five feet away from the customers, speaking softly. Without flinching or remonstrating, her trainer puts one arm behind Becky and gently herds her closer to the booth. At the far end of the restaurant there are apparently no trainees and I hear the loud, confident voice of experience belt out an order to the cooks in training. Sighs. Belts it out again for those who didn’t realize they had to listen first. When I turn back, Becky is being led behind the counter for her turn to call in an order. I can hear her trainer instructing the cooks that “I’m gonna call out the order and then Becky will call it in. Don’t make two orders. I’m the real one. Becky’s is practice.” I hear her call out the “Hash browns, scattered. All sausage. Scrambled. Plain.” The cook in training stares blankly. His compatriot nudges him in the ribs and gives a confident nod and recites it back.

It’s Becky’s turn. I know she’s speaking because I can see her trainer watching her closely and mouthing the words along with Becky, but I don’t hear any of the order. Then I hear her trainer congratulating her like one does a puppy who managed to not make a mess. My waffle and two eggs over-easy arrive and I dump the eggs on top of the waffle. I’m distracted as I chew by watching Becky begin to clear her station at the counter. It has all the appearance of “I’ve never touched a dirty dish before in my life.”  Later, she meets me at the cash register as we are leaving. The screen asks if I want to leave a tip. I pause. I see Harry sitting across that front seat of a Cadillac convertible. Maybe it is always training day. I scribble in the usual amount of a tip and wish Becky well.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.