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Constance Alexander: Being reminded of what work really is and whether we appreciate it enough

In my New Jersey hometown, the Duchess Diner was the main hang out for teenagers. Next door from the Dairy Queen, catty-corner from the Four Seasons Pool Hall, and a couple of blocks off Main Street, the location was strategic.

Our parents hated it.

We probably spent more time in the parking lot than anywhere else. We talked with friends, kidded around, boys and girls subtly checking each other out and assessing romantic possibilities.

Relationships waxed and waned at the Duchess, and many a prom date was finalized there.

The jukebox (Wikimedia photo)

Summers were great for eating ice cream at the DQ, but as the seasons changed, we straggled inside the Duchess for snacks. The oversized, multi-paged menu listed choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desserts. From rice pudding to shrimp cocktails, bagels and lox, and multi-course meals at any hour of the day or night, the variety was stunning.

Despite the array of choices, and because none of us had much money, we often shared one order of fries and a couple of Cokes. When feeling flush, we might splurge on a cheeseburger nestled on a stale bun, accessorized with a limp, sliced pickle.

Anyone with an extra quarter could play three songs on the jukebox, and sometimes we chipped in to play our favorites again and again, no doubt driving adults crazy.

Our lack of funds probably chagrinned the servers, all women. We didn’t pay much attention to them but were respectful. They were as old as our mothers, or maybe older. We left tips but they were minimal. Whatever extra coins we could scrape together were stashed underneath the rim of a plate as we rushed to pay the check and get out the door before the waitress discovered our meager offering.

But this column is not about diners or food or teenage hangouts, it is about work and working people. After all Labor Day is a time to ponder the concept of working and getting paid for it, and how workers can be invisible to those they serve.
On a random Friday night senior year in high school, sick of the mind-numbing sameness of the Diner, my friends and I were driving around town. By some miracle, I had the car. It was close to my 11:30 curfew, and we were almost ready to give up and go home. As we rounded the curve on Lake Avenue just past the Diner, we noticed one of the waitresses standing on the curb. She motioned frantically to us, so I pulled over and rolled down the window.

Waitress — this is work. (Wikimedia photo)

She had no way to get home. Her husband, she said, must have forgotten he was supposed to pick her up at eleven. She called a couple of times from a pay phone, but he didn’t answer.

“He probably fell asleep,” she said.

She chatted nervously as she gave directions to her house in South Plainfield. These were unfamiliar roads and I was anxious I’d get in trouble if I didn’t get home on time. She lived on a dead-end street. The house was dark when we pulled up. She thanked us as she struggled to find her keys in her handbag. When she got inside, she didn’t turn on a light.

As we headed back to town, we didn’t talk much. I kept thinking about the woman: the heavy trays she carried, the drudgery of the work she did every day, and the way she had to serve whoever showed up at her assigned work station, including bunches of kids to whom she was mostly invisible.

I’ve never forgotten her.

Years later, she came to mind when I discovered the poet Philip Levine’s “What work is.” 

“You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.”
So here’s to the people who know what work really is because they do it every day — at all hours; in all weather; with or without a smile, sick days, or a living wage. Labor Day and every day, we thank you.

To see the full text of Philip Levine’s poem, click here.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com

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