Recently I read a NYT story about a new documentary film “Booker’s Place,” about a Mississippi waiter named Booker Wright. While working at Lusco’s, then operating as a de facto all-white restaurant in Greenwood, Wright appeared in a 1966 documentary called “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” in which people were interviewed about the status of race relations at that time.
In the 1966 film Booker Wright gave viewers a glimpse of the indignities he experienced serving Lusco’s patrons who sometimes demeaned him or left him no tips. Following the airing of the show on television he lost his job at the restaurant where he had worked since he was a teenager. Patrons no longer wanted him to wait on them – he had broken the bubble by revealing his misery in playing the role of a happy-go-lucky black waiter.
No doubt he realized beforehand that his interview would put an end to the charade. After leaving Lusco’s he operated a restaurant of his own called Booker’s Place at which both whites and blacks were welcome.
As I read about the new documentary I immediately thought of a book called The American Colored Waiter, published initially in 1903 and revised several times. It is a manual written by John B. Goins, an African-American waiter in Chicago. Along with instructions on how to set tables properly, carve meat, and even restore rancid salad oil, Goins dispensed some poignant advice on how to “take it.”
No doubt all servers can relate to his words, but I believe they had special meaning to African-Americans, who were being eased out of the profession in Northern cities at that time.
With the eighteen years’ experience I have had I have found, from the beginning until this present time, that I have been getting the worst of it at all times …; and, my dear sir, if you expect to climb the ladder of success, expect always to get the worst of it while you are a waiter …
I also recalled a scene in the 1953 novel by William Fisher called The Waiters in which the book’s main character Asher Brown, a waiter at “the Fishbowl” on the seashore near Manhattan. Brown serves a party of inebriated white people and has the following exchange with one of them:
“Bring us some lobsters,” the man snapped.
“How’d you like them, sir?” Asher ventured timidly.
“Fat and ___” The man flashed a broad grin at his companions who scowled at Asher. “Listen, boy! Are you on the ball or not?”
Asher tried again. “Would you like them boiled or broiled, sir?”
“Bring us four large broiled lobsters,” the man commanded, in a morose growl. “And bring us some bread an’ butter right away, some of them biscuits.”
Asher had moved only a few feet away from the table, preparing to go to the kitchen, when the man called him back. “Hey, George,” he said importantly. Asher turned to face him with a tight-lipped expression. George, he repeated to himself. He oughta drop dead right here.
To read more about the making of “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” see the blog written by his granddaughter Yvette Johnson.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012