Being a former waitress/service industry professional is one of those claims to fame that instantly bond you with other ‘survivors’–much like (hypothetically) being a former smoker, former inhabitant of the mid/southwest, former member of the military. On one hand, you’re so glad to have gotten out, and on the other hand you can’t stop reminiscing about the good old days, and feel immediately compelled to regale people with anecdotes about how many plates you could balance, or that particularly egregious example of what lows humanity can reach while eating, or your sure-fire ‘tips for tips,’ etc. It’s an industry that cultivates a very particular perspective, with a very particular set of experiences, that seem to be pretty much universal to anyone who’s been there.
Yes, I was a waitress. A pretty good one, if I say so myself. I worked at a burger and pasta-based sports bar which had aspirations to a classier clientele than is perhaps legitimately attainable in a strip mall in Arizona. I worked at a Mexican take-out place where my main job was sorting through the garbage to sift out the plastic baskets that the tacos were served in. I was a cater-waiter in New York for a upper-crust art society. All these experiences gave me a different perspective on waitressing (and thereby, humanity), and all, ultimately, convinced me that if I ever intended to enjoy food or people again, that I should quit. I have a profound respect for those who can take professional, full-time waitressing. I, alas, could not. But that doesn’t mean for a minute that I don’t eat up (bad pun intended) those books and stories which really revel in service culture. Because I really do. And Hope Was Here is a great addition to this genre.
The book is narrated by Hope, a teen whose mother was a stellar waitress, but a lousy parent. Her mom leaves her with a sister who excels at diner home cooking and a strong dose of server wisdom and takes off. Hope inherits her mother’s flair for waitressing, infusing it with a kind of folk-psychology and genuine empathy that makes the diner work environment seem like the ideal place for really connecting with one’s fellow man. It’s a warm and cozy sort of book–unflaggingly optimistic without being saccharine and annoying, clever without being disingenuously precocious. Hope is–you guessed it–hopeful, even in the face of great hardship or discouragement. She’s also tough and industrious and has a lot of common sense and heart. Frankly, she’s one of the most satisfying young female protagonists I’ve read in a long time.
And, oh, the food service tidbits (a waitress named “Flo,” for instance). One passage I liked so much I dogeared the page and read it out loud to my friend at work:
We met Lou Ellen, the waitress with the carrot-top hair. She looked me up and down, not impressed.
“You waitressed before?”
I looked her smack in the eye. “I’ve got eighteen months experience waitressing in the best diner in Brooklyn, New York and before that–”
“Counter or tables? Lou Ellen interrupted. She had a pinched together face.
“How busy did it get?”
“They’d be standing out in a line on the weekends and I couldn’t go to the bathroom for five hours straight even if I had to, it was so jammed.”
“I’ve been waitressing ten years,” she snapped back.
I didn’t ask how long she could hold it.
She layered three pancake platters on her left arm (I can carry five) and headed off to the booth in the corner.
A thought that occurred to me while reading this: Hope Was Here–which centers around a small-town political race between the diner owner and a corrupt mayor with ties to an eeevil dairy–was published in 2000. While it may have had some resonance during the presidential election that year, however, the whole ‘hope’ theme wasn’t exactly going strong at that point. But reading this book now, in the wake of Obama’s election and his hope-themed campaign, the book took on a whole new dimension for me. And I wonder if that’s generally true for kids reading the book now.
This also gives me an excuse to post one of my favorite Reading Rainbow episodes ever, where LeVar leans to speak ‘dinerese’ and works, briefly and unsuccessfully, as a short-order cook. (The book is The Robbery at the Diamond Dog Diner.) Highly recommended: watch–at least skim through!–here.