The notice in the college placement office offered the summer of your life in a prestigious Cape Cod hotel, with better-than-top tips for waiters and waitresses fast on their feet and with smiles on their faces.
I dialed the number, and the manager invited me for an interview. I paid for the busfare from Boston, but he picked me up at the station. He asked me where I had waited on tables, and it turned out he had eaten there and thought the service was excellent. He hired me in the first three minutes of the 20-minute drive to his hotel.
Standing on its own peninsula, the hotel was a many-columned Victorian edifice of clapboard, freshly painted a brilliant white. A staff of 10 waiters and waitresses, as well as the cook and his wife, were housed on the top floor--which was the fifth or the sixth. The hotel had never been grand; it seemed poised between a tacky past and a seedy future.
The owner, in his sixties, was chubby and morose. The manager, his son, was lean and nervous, in his thirties. He told us that the season would start slowly, because the hotel had lost some of its good reputation but that he was recovering it fast, having just taken over.
"Hard workers from big cities are high livers on vacation, and high livers are great tippers," he said.
In the first three weeks, only a few guests came. Our salary was a few dollars a day, paid at the end of the month, and we didn't make enough money in tips worth going to town to spend it.
The pace didn't pick up. The great tippers were nowhere. The manager told us that July might not come up to his expectations--but just wait for August!
There was a cloudburst the first weekend in August, and it rained for the rest of the month.
A week before Labor Day, the manager told us that he had reservations for every room. He said each of us would have to feed more people than we ever fed before and that we'd make more tips than we ever made.
The weather was glorious, and on Saturday night we had the biggest crowd ever, spilling over onto the wraparound porch.
Trouble began when we lined up at 5:30 and discovered that one waiter was missing. Apparently, he just packed up and quit. Then, when we went to the kitchen, the chef informed us that his wife had left him and asked if we knew anything about it. We told him we knew nothing. He poured himself a drink and wished us good tips.
The chef had two huge vats at either side of him. In one were live lobsters, and in the other, lobsters were being boiled. When we gave him an order for a lobster, he fished one out and dropped it in the other vat.
He tried to talk to us. I heard him toast his wife and declare his everlasting love. I also remember him downing a drink and calling himself as finished with her as he was with that drink.
Orders came fast and furious, and everybody seemed to crave boiled lobster.
I was waiting on a large family--five sisters and their spouses, it seemed to me--and every one of them ordered boiled lobster.
Suddenly, a spine-chilling shriek brought the dining room chatter to a stop.
"My lobster is alive!" one woman in my party shouted. I saw a lobster crawling off her plate with amazing speed, upsetting melted butter dishes.
"We'll kill it for you, ma'am," I said. I pounced on the lobster, plunked it on my serving tray and sprinted to the kitchen.
The manager followed me. It was painfully clear what happened: The chef took the lobster from the wrong vat.
The two men traded insults. Then the chef took his fifth of Scotch, gulped down what was left and walked into the dining room. "Freedom for all lobsters," he bellowed, "and to the hell with humans!"
He then staggered out into the perfect, moonlit night.
My party fled, as did some others. The guests took the occasion to complain about everything--not just the food but lumpy beds and no towels. We tried to cope and smiled our best smiles, but the tips were contemptuously low.
Next morning, the manager quit, too. His father took the reins again. He walked over to our table and told us not to take a second helping from the heap of scrambled eggs.