At the age of 76, having recently been widowed for the second time, my mother went job-hunting. Her experience consisted of sewing buttons in a sweater factory in the 1930s and several years of unpaid drudgery as saleswoman, bill payer and inventory taker in her second husband’s mousehole of a grocery store. In the decades between she had raised a family, which may have qualified her for sainthood but not for a good paycheck. Still, the fact that she was willing to work 12 hours a day off the books for less than minimum wage snagged her a job at the first place she applied – King of the Sea, a small busy fish restaurant on the fringe of Philadelphia’s business district.
This was not a place you went to savor the delicacy of warm lobster carpaccio or yuzu-cured hamachi. It was a place of sticky plastic chairs, shrimp-colored Formica, and a bottle of Heinz ketchup on every table. You could get fried fish, fried shrimp, fried clams, French fries and a pretty good fried flounder sandwich on a Kaiser roll with tartar sauce. You could also get broiled flounder, broiled bluefish, broiled Dover sole (which looked and tasted suspiciously like the flounder but cost $5 more). There was chowder so floury you could eat it with a fork. You could get a glass of red or white wine straight from the gallon jug, or a cold Budweiser. If you needed dessert, you got cheesecake, with or without strawberry glue. And three times a week Djemeel, the cook, made a batch of gravlax, probably for his own amusement since it was seldom ordered.
My mother, installed on a platform at the front of the place, became overseer of the cash register and unofficial Queen of King of the Sea. She sat on a high stool all day making change and running credit cards. Once the owners found out that she was fast and accurate and had the stamina of a Clydesdale, they piled on the work. Soon she was bagging take-out orders, weighing fresh fish from the showcase near the front door, hauling six-packs of Bud from the cooler. She stayed after closing time to total up the cash and credit card receipts, reconcile them with the checks, and prepare the bank deposit. (Of course she was not paid overtime for the extra hours.) She hobbled home nearly exhausted.
But she insisted that she loved her job. It certainly gave her tax-free spending money and a chance to tell people how to run their lives. Understand this: Queen Lil was not the sweetest person on earth. She was sharply observant and never afraid to give advice, usually without being asked. “That baby is going to sweat to death,” she would tell the mother of a bundled-up tot. “Your hair was better the other way,” she would inform a woman who had just spent a fortune on highlights. “You don’t come in with your wife lately; what’s the matter?” she would ask a solo diner morosely chewing at his shrimp-in-a-basket. Nobody seemed offended; everybody looked upon her as a mom-away-from home in an anonymous city, someone who, in her own way, cared enough to stare pointedly at your expanding bottom and criticize you for ordering fried rather than broiled. She herself seldom ate either. Her station was busy all day, and often she would not take a dinner break. Instead, Djemeel would bring her something that she could eat bite by bite as she worked – usually a shrimp cocktail or a double order of his gravlax — and another of the innumerable sweet, light coffees that kept her going through the daily scrum.
She stayed in that job for four years, until age and failing health forced her to go into assisted living, where the only fish (except for those in the aquarium in the Alzheimer’s unit) was fried and frozen by Mrs. Paul or the Gorton fisherman, and the only coffee was decaf. Whenever I visited I’d bring a takeout container of Djemeel’s gravlax, bright with lemon and extra capers, and we would go out to the sun porch and feast. But she would never let me take her out to King of the Sea. “Thieves,” she would say, “They owe me a fortune for how I slaved for them.”