KEY WEST, FL — The restaurant where I met the waitress soon to be known as Lovey stands unchanged from the way it was 25 years ago on Front Street, the jaunty lettering on its sign spelling out its hokey name, which I will call “Buddies,” here. In the first light of early morning, when the rest of the town is so still you could shoot a gun down Duval Street, haggard waitresses still hurriedly lock up their bikes outside, and haul out everything put away just a few hours before as they ready for the breakfast crowd. It is a rushed and tired looking lot. Of all the ways to make a scant living in Key West, the day waitress has one of the worst work/pay ratios. It was a successful formula; only the faces have changed.

I tended morning bar, a job only marginally less miserable than waiting tables there, for 7 months spanning the autumn of 1986 to the spring of 1987. By the time I left I was an old timer by Buddies’ standards. I had seen the daily feuding — over someone not doing her share of filling ketchup bottles, or taking enough shitty shifts, or doing things the exact right way, being odd in some way, or sometimes over things that had spilled over into entwined personal lives: all the passionate pettiness that can erupt as easily in dead end settings, as in ones where stakes would appear to be higher.

That was what made the elfin British waitress, who came eventually to be known for real as “Lovey,” but whom I’ll call “Meg” here, stand apart. She worked days because she was unwilling to surrender the hours when other people have a good time to working. She loved to go out drinking. If she was an American waitress she might have been more shy about saying that to the extent she did. People might have thought she was just a drunk. As it was, she passed for someone who just loved a good time. She was cheerful and efficient. She didn’t complain about being assigned a bad station, or anything else. She acted amused, rather than mortally wounded, when the forever rotating and just one-step-off-the-street-from-dirtbags in the kitchen screwed up her order.

She didn’t have kids at home to feed, didn’t,  for that matter, have a home. She was just passing through, staying with other travelers in a shared group house that represented most of Europe among its busboys, dishwashers, hotel room maids and cooks. She wasn’t waiting tables to buy a car or a house, or even a tv; she was saving up enough money to get to her next destination.

From an industrial city in the middle of England, she already had travelled all over Europe, around some of the South Pacific, lived in Australia and then Japan. The one place she didn’t want to be, she explained, was England — too cold and too grey. She had made the mistake of stopping there between journeys once in the middle of the winter, and gotten too depressed to get up and get out. She had travelled for long enough that she was a good 10 years older than most of the travellers she lived with.

The mostly local day staff poked fun at her exotic ways. She had to go to the “loo.” She “fancied” things — “Oooh, I fancy a beer,” she would say with great gusto at the end of a shift. She dropped her h’s: “‘Ello, Lovey, ‘ow are you?”  They started calling her Lovey, like it was her name.

Unfailingly good-natured, she was cute in a childlike way, good at her job, and made better tips than most. She did have a lateness issue, which she made a running joke of and which you could see how it could grate on colleagues who raced in as if to save the world each morning. But ire didn’t go far with her. When the head waitress hinted darkly at wanting to see her green card, she nodded agreeably. “I’ll show her a card that’s green,” she explained later.

Someone asked her if she had a boyfriend. She didn’t date, she replied. Her last few relationships had ended unhappily, and she just didn’t think it worth the energy. That seemed extreme to me, but as it turned out, it was, for her, a good idea. Because then she did date.

A handsome customer started chatting with her at happy hour, which she always stayed for at the end of her shift. He was witty and generous — when happy hour ended he picked up the substantial tab, swept her off to the fancy French restaurant around the corner. The date didn’t end until she had to report for work the next day – late, still a little drunk. The day after that she moved in with him. She talked at work about the dinners she would make each night. She tidied up his place. After two weeks he threw her out.

Back at the group home for European service workers, a shy young South African visitor took an interest. She was fun, pretty, easy to get along with, easy, period, and you could tell the young South African, at least a decade her junior, couldn’t believe how lucky he had gotten. Then one night a couple of young women from the house asked the South African what he was doing with someone like Meg anyway? Meg had inadvertently insulted one of them, a friend of his of some two weeks seniority in her acquaintance with the South African, by asking  “you don’t mind do you?”  (“As if she could have him, if I did mind,” the nonrival summed up the insult later). Discovering that he was not admired but pitied for his catch, the South African backed away suddenly and swiftly. “What is wrong?” she asked him, in frankly piteous tones — really expecting an explanation, because she didn’t know what had happened between one night and the next. He turned away stonily, without looking back.

One day one of the waitresses brought a suitcase into work with her — her drunken husband had threatened her and her teenage son and they had left in the middle of the night. The next day the cops came looking for the waitress — her drunken husband had shot himself to death. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude, but Meg seemed to take comfort in the chance this gave her to put her own, and her friends’ men troubles in perspective “We don’t have any problems at all, do we? We don’t have any problems!” she said.

Still, she showed up late, more often, and later. One day she fell asleep while rolling the silverware in paper napkins, her chin resting on her chest, her mouth drooping slightly open, a soft snore audible. The head waitress went to get the owner, who fired her.

She picked up work cleaning houses. One of her clients, a harried, unhappy looking man in the midst of a bitter divorce, lit up around her. He invited her to clean his house and then to move in. Then he blew his brains out.

She stayed drunk all the time for a while after that, and her cheerful laugh turned shrill. Her funny litttle self deprecating ways turned outwardly insulting. She looked rough, and was awful to be around.

About half a dozen years later I saw one of her old colleagues bartending at the Bull and Whistle on Duval Street and asked if she was still around. “Oh, you mean Lovey?” he looked at me narrowly as if I had said something judgemental. “She’s married, a happily married woman,” he went on. “You’ll probably see her. She comes in here every night.”

She did, alone, to join a line of friends at the bar. Her wedding was ever so funny she told me: the groom was more than an hour late. “There I was in this wedding dress, and my parents had come. I had a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other — no one knew where he was.” She laughed and laughed. Finally, he did show up, so it all worked out, you see.


2 Responses

  1. I love this! Lin sent me the link. Lookng forward to reading more of your blog. (At the risk of being sterotypically british) it’s brilliant!

    All the best, Kate

  2. Thank you! No higher compliment!

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