Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part I)

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Reservoir Dogs.

I am very squeamish about blood (seeing it can literally cause me physical pain[1]), and I knew there was a great deal of bloodletting in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 heist-gone-wrong neo-noir masterpiece. Plus, a friend had once informed me she could never hear the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You” the same way again.

(Here is why the song so disturbed my friend, if you are game).

Despite my squeamishness, however, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film; it was a well-crafted tale of crime, paranoia and, in an odd way, humanity. But what particularly stayed with me after the film was its opening scene, in which the men about to commit the jewelry robbery eat breakfast in a small restaurant. In typical Tarantino style, the overlapping conversations include pop culture references (e.g., the meaning of the Madonna song “Like a Virgin”), inane recitations from a re-discovered “little black book” and a pointed conversation about restaurant tipping. The latter brouhaha is triggered by Mr. Pink’s (Steve Buscemi) refusal to add his allotted dollar bill to the tip. “I don’t tip,” is his response, though he is eventually forced to do so.

My father had his flaws (boyish self-centeredness, destructive gambling addiction), but he was always generous with whatever money he had. It was from him I learned the value and respect of tipping well, especially while he spent the last year or so of his life driving a cab in Philadelphia. My five months working as delivery boy for a pizza/sub shop (I give you food, you give me extra money? Sign me up!) only reinforced this lesson.

Too many people fail to understand (or care) that waitstaff make little in base salary and so depend on tips for their income. I do not remember who said this, but I once heard that waitressing is the one job that any woman, regardless of education or experience, can always get. Just the other night, in fact, I overheard a young server at our favorite local restaurant observe she had earned $30 an hour in tips one recent shift. Show me an entry-level job where I can earn that much money, she added for emphasis.

The woman making this observation will soon be a college graduate, while her interlocutor just became a college graduate.

***********

Our summers have settled into a mildly complex routine.

Once our daughters’ school year ends, my wife Nell takes them, the dog and herself to her family’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. They stay a few weeks then return to Brookline for a week or two, so we can take a family vacation somewhere (key requirement for daughters: hotel with swimming pool; they are indeed their parents’ children). Then they return to the Vineyard until the end of the summer, leaving “Daddy” to entertain himself as best he can, with a trip to his birth city of Philadelphia thrown in for good measure. Perhaps finish his darned book as well.

This summer is no different. Nell literally picked up the girls from school, dog and baggage in tow, and drove to the ferry in Woods Hole. Three weeks later, they returned home; two days later, we dropped the dog with Nell’s mother and drove to the always-charming Bath, Maine.

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Not Mario's of Bath

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Yum Mee Chinese Restaurant

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I actually took these photographs on a trip to Maine in July 2015 (when a very odd thing happened to me [Fact #82]), but the city has not materially changed in the interim. Mae’s Café is still THE place to go for brunch—and to learn how to pronounce the county in which Bath resides (Sagadahoc—suh ga duh hoc, accent on 2nd syllable). I have yet to visit Mario’s, Mateo’s (which is NOT Mario’s) or Yum Mee.

Actually, it was on that trip that I discovered Bath’s brand-new Hilton (which I recommend—as well as Kennebec Tavern, directly across the street), the Hilton in which Nell, the girls and I first stayed in July 2016. Not only does it have an indoor pool, the pool’s lights cycle through the colors as you swim.

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I took these photographs in July 2016 trip in the park adjacent to Patten Free Library, just across the street from the Hilton’s back door. The church building now houses the Winter Street Center.

For the record, this is pretty much an impossible choice:

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*********

Before I describe this year’s family vacation to Maine (and a subsequent day trip to Nashua, New Hampshire), just bear with me while I backtrack a week or so.

I first described my penchant for meandering late-night drives here. Generally, I take such a drive the first Saturday night after Nell and the girls leave in late June. This year, though, I waited two weeks, in no small part because I was making headway on my book. I ultimately decided to take a drive on Saturday, July 6; the following day I would thoroughly clean our refrigerator, a necessary task I had been procrastinating for days.

But when I awoke that Saturday, an ominous-looking sky sent me to the Weather app on my iPhone. What I saw was a near-certainty of thunderstorms that night.

Crud!

Disappointed, I decided to flip-flop my days: I would tackle the fridge Saturday then meander on Sunday, whose weather appeared far more promising. Rewarding as a sparkling-clean, odor-free refrigerator was (and there was, in fact, a torrential downpour that evening), it was hard to shake the disappointment, and I ultimately wandered that evening down a bizarre rabbit hole of memory, eventually taking myself for a late-night snack to the nearby New Yorker Diner, which is open from 10 pm to 4 am on weekends.

However, Sunday was as sunny as promised, as was my disposition. And at 8 pm I pulled out of our Brookline driveway, bound for…somewhere or other.

I quickly decided to wander west through Wellesley to Route 135 west. Natick, Framingham, Ashland.

In Ashland, I briefly toyed with stopping for a meal at the supposedly-haunted Stone’s Public House. Sometime in the 1990s, while I dated “AC,” we watched a “Haunted New England” program which featured what was then called John Stone’s House (or something). AC and I went there for supper one night; we had a fine, if unspectacular, meal but did not experience anything remotely supernatural. On a lark, I took the girls (then six and five) there for supper in March 2015; they were fascinated by the stories and the “investigation” documented in this book. For my part, not only was I extremely skeptical, but the report itself was remarkably poorly written.

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On this July 2019 Sunday night, though, I chose not to stop. Instead I continued to drive west on Route 135 into Hopkinton (where Nell called for the “Good night, Daddy” ritual) and Upton. There, just past the intersection with Route 140, I veered south, eventually landing on Route 16 west in Mendon. This took me right past the terrific Miss Mendon Diner, which unfortunately had closed 10 minutes earlier, at 9 pm (photograph taken July 2010); I was starting to get hungry

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Following Route 16 west, I began to hear loud explosions, which I quickly realized were fireworks (it was only a few days after July 4, after all). At first, I thought they were coming from the West Hill Dam, but as I crossed into Uxbridge, I realized they were coming from near the town center. Just before reaching that center—the intersection with Route 122—I drove by St. Mary Parish, home to Our Lady of the Valley Regional School.

I took this photograph of the larger playground adjacent to the school building in September 2012.

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Our younger daughter, then not-quite-three-years-old, accompanied me that day. After enjoying the playground, we had supper at the Miss Mendon Diner. There, I took this photograph of my left hand to send to Nell, reassuring her I had not lost my wedding ring.

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Again.

In March 2011, the girls and I visited that same playground, and while we were there, my wedding ring somehow slipped off my finger into the wood chips comprising its “floor.” Realizing what had happened that night (and with Nell none too pleased), I drove back to Uxbridge the next day, but I could not find my ring anywhere. Being an optimistic sort, I left my name and phone number with the school office.

A few weeks later, literally as I was having my phone interview for the data analyst/project manager job I was about to land at Joslin Diabetes Center, I received a phone call from a woman at Our Lady of the Valley. One of the girls in the school had found a wedding ring, was it mine?

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Apparently, I did not drive back to Uxbridge—an hour’s drive at the best of times—until April 15, 2011, the date on the card inside this envelope. The envelope which did, in fact, contain my wedding ring. I made a point of thanking the girl who had found it (I think she was in 5th grade) personally.

Meanwhile, back in July 2019, I crossed over Route 122 and continued west on Route 16. Here, only a few miles north of the Rhode Island state line—and only a few miles northeast of the Connecticut state line—the surroundings became much more rural, so I decided it would be prudent to stop for gas at the next open gas station.

I had LITERALLY just formed the thought, when I saw a gas station on my left. As I pulled up to a pump, a young man exited the attached convenience store, heading for my car.

“Is this full serve?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” he replied, and proceeded to “fill it up, with regular.” My Discover card slip ($32.50 for 12.503 gallons) tells me this friendly interaction—and subsequent $7 tip—took place at 9:50 pm. It was the first time I had not pumped my own gasoline (outside of New Jersey, where it remains full-serve) in years.

Shortly after pulling out of the station back onto Route 16 west, I entered Webster.

Webster, Massachusetts is home to the lovely Webster Lake. However, locals often prefer its original name:

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg

This is the longest place name in the United States. I took this photograph, in a shopping center right on Route 16, in November 2014.

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A few miles after this shopping center, Route 16 ends at the intersection with Route 12, which runs south to Groton, along Connecticut’s southern shore. AC and I took this way home one night in May 1998, after visiting Mystic (yes, THAT Mystic), listening on the radio (back when you could up the Phillies radio station hundreds of miles away at night) to Carl Pavano make his major league debut against my Philadelphia Phillies; the Expos won 3-2).

Here, I had a choice (given that the Friendly’s at that intersection had also just closed): I could take Route 12 north about an hour (half that if I took the interstates) to Leominster, where I knew a Denny’s was, or I could try my luck further south and west along Route 12 (which sort of turns right when it hits Route 16).

It was “only” about 10:15 pm, so I decided to try my luck. Lurking in the back of my mind was the possibility of a late-night diner in Worcester, not all that far to the north. Plus, Connecticut has all sorts of excellent 24-hour diners, right?

Webster is a charming town—at least at night—but I found nothing open there. Continuing southwest on Route 197 when Route 12 veered south again, I crossed into Dudley then, finally, into Connecticut.

The section of Thompson, Connecticut known as Quinebaug was rural enough that I quickly rethought my “Connecticut has SO many 24-hour diners” strategy. This was wise; I later learned the nearest such establishment was the Vernon Diner (which I last visited in August 2018)—another 45 minutes southwest. Earlier in the evening, maybe, but not at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night.

A few minutes after entering Connecticut on Route 197 south, it intersected with Route 131 north. There, a helpful sign informed me the latter road would take me to Charlton, Massachusetts.

If you take I-84 north through Connecticut over the state line into Sturbridge, Massachusetts (which I have done innumerable times over the last 30 years, driving between Philadelphia and Boston), it ends at the Massachusetts Turnpike (known here simply as “The Pike”), just north of U. S. Route 20. If you then take The Pike east a mile or so, you hit the Charlton Service Plaza Eastbound; I have lost track of how many nights I pulled into this rest stop, desperately needing to urinate.

Back in Quinebaug, I prudently chose to turn north (OK, northwest) back into Massachusetts, pinning my hopes for satiating my increasing hunger (clearly, I had not eaten enough before embarking on this drive) on that diner in Worcester. Quickly crossing back into Massachusetts (I was in Connecticut for five minutes—10 minutes, tops), I was in Southbridge; in that town’s center, I turned north onto Route 169, which took me past a string of super-sized triple-deckers looming eerily in the night.

Entering Charlton not long after, I turned east onto U.S. Route 20, which I believed would take me directly into downtown Worcester. In fact, I thought, I think my diner is ON Route 20 in Worcester.

Some 10 minutes later, I hit Auburn, just west of Worcester. I also crossed Route 12 again, which I know for a fact passes through downtown Worcester; this, frankly, confused me. And then I entered Worcester itself…but what I drove past was no downtown. The next thing I knew I was entering Grafton…and then I was at the intersection with Route 9, a few miles EAST of Worcester.

Oops.

Route 20, it turns out, does not traverse downtown Worcester, but merely kisses its southern edge.

At the intersection of Route 9, I did something I do not think I have ever done before: I doubled back INTO Worcester. And here I mean absolutely no disrespect to Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts, just edging Springfield, and an area determinedly on the upswing—as evidenced by the gorgeous Route 9 bridge over the Quinsigamond River that takes you west into the city/east out of the city.

Soon after entering Worcester on Route 9, Shrewsbury Street cuts sharply off to the left (southwest), carrying drivers into the heart of the city. The same directional instinct that misled me along U.S. Route 20 told me to turn onto Shrewsbury; OK, I actually could not make it into the left turn lane in time, but rather than make a U-turn, I cut down through the Brasil’s Restaurant parking lot. No harm, no foul.

Maybe three minutes later, I did see a diner off to my left—Mac’s Diner—but it was closed. However, I knew the diner I sought was a classic railroad car diner…and not a minute later, there it was on my left, lit up in a neon welcome.

The Boulevard Diner.

I parked right in front (it was nearly midnight on Sunday after all), walked inside with my copy of Drift (which should be required reading for every American policy maker) and took a seat at the counter.

My recollection of the menu (a giant black board with white plastic letters, surrounded by a forest of multi-colored, star-shaped sticky notes) was correct: mixed in with the usual diner breakfast food, burgers and sandwiches was a wide array of Italian specialties.

The chicken parmigiana over spaghetti (or ziti) caught my eye, but it was not clear if such dishes were time-limited. Nope, the dark-haired 40-something waitress who distractedly took my order assured me, everything on the menu is available 24 hours a day.

It took me a good half hour before I realized that the word “Bully” in a number of the menu items was short for “Boulevard,” as in “Boulevard Diner.” I may be slow at times, but I always get there in the end.

As I waited for, then ate, my meal (it was perfectly good for a vintage railroad car just past midnight on a Monday morning), I noticed that the two waitresses (mine, whose name escapes me, and a younger blondish woman named Kim) rarely walked from behind the counter to the six or seven booths. Instead, they took orders from behind the counter, then called patrons over to the counter to hand them their plates.

Also, while most of the cooking was done in the back kitchen (hidden down a step from the right end of the counter, looking in from the street), the two women worked the grill just behind the counter, efficiently preparing eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers and the like. Oh, and they constantly wiped, restocked and otherwise kept the conga line moving.

I found it all absolutely mesmerizing, frankly, like watching a contemporary minuet, with the background chatter, sizzling grill and clatter of cutlery serving as the music. At one point, the darker-haired waitress stood next to me, kibitzing with a customer, when something she said made me laugh out loud. She laughed quietly herself, playfully jabbing me with her elbow, as if to say, “hush up, you.” Later, when I was leaving, she teased me by asking if they had “entertained” me. Sure, I replied, showing my appreciation with a substantial tip.

After consuming nearly all of my meal (with a full plate of fresh hot Italian bread and butter—my mouth waters thinking about it), well into my third cup of freshly-made black decaf, Kim asked if I wanted desert. I asked what they had besides the few things I saw on the “menu,” specifically what flavors of pie (if any) they had. She went into the kitchen to check, got distracted by a large takeout order, came back to the counter, realized she had forgotten to check on the pie selection, went back into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later.

“We have lemon meringue,” she began.

“Stop there,” I replied. Because, believe it or not, that was exactly what I wanted.

It was delicious.

My drive home, almost entirely along, Route 9, was remarkably uneventful, and I pulled into our driveway at 2 am.

To be continued…

[1] There are exceptions, of course. In June 1991, my mother sliced her thumb open when a jar of cocktail sauce shattered in her hand. My friend and I had just exited our apartment building when she came out onto the porch, dressed only in a dark blue kimono and underwear, to call us back. She was bleeding profusely, but in that emergency situation I did not “see” the blood. At her insistence, however, I did have to dress my mother, including her bra. My mother was a buxom woman. Frankly, that was far more unsettling than the blood.

6 thoughts on “Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part I)

  1. I really enjoyed this post! From the chuckle I got about you and blood, to the waitress making $30.00. My daughter is a nurse and her co worker at the hospital works part time at a local pizza place and she makes more there! I couldn’t help to think you were on vacation when the family left for 3 weeks…hahaha my husband would have loved that! Thank you for sharing all those memories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so kind, thank you! Mazel Tov to your daughter for being a nurse; my mother trained as a medical technician before she married my father (making my dressing her even more ironic). I am working on Part 2 now–the waitress that inspired these posts is about to make her first appearance. Plus, what is the good of having stories if you do not tell them to anyone? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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