In the summer of ’73, to save for a year’s study in London, I worked three jobs: catering, pumping gas at the cut-rate Merit station on Cambridge and North Harvard Streets in Allston-Brighton, and waitressing at the Blue Parrot in Harvard Square. The catering gigs came at irregular intervals, on occasional weekends, while the gas-station and waitressing jobs were steady, part-time work. Since my hours at the Blue Parrot changed from week to week, sometimes a shift there directly followed a shift at the Merit.
I got all sorts of customers pumping gas at that particular location, where Boston met Cambridge, near the entrance ramp to the Mass Turnpike. It was always busy, because it was the cheapest gas in town—only twenty-something cents a gallon for Regular, in that summer before the October 1973 OPEC oil embargo. It was quite unusual for a woman to be working a gas station job at that time, and though most customers took me in their stride, others did a double-take, while still others felt the need to test me, asking me to check their oil and transmission fluid as well as washing their windscreens and giving them a fill-up. (No self-serve in those days!) One old man would make me do all of the above, and then magnanimously toss me a quarter as a tip. I refrained from tossing it straight back at him, because a quarter must have been quite a generous tip in his day—and besides, it was legal tender, and every little bit counted.
I served an unremarkable couple one day, young, clean-cut, Cambridge-bound. Although the term was not to be coined for another decade, these two were definitely incipient yuppies (Young Urban/Upwardly mobile Professionals). I filled their tank, they asked me for directions, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. It was nearly the end of my shift and I was in a hurry to change for my next one, at the Blue Parrot, and to enter a different world.
The Blue Parrot was the quintessential Harvard Square of the early seventies, and a constant flow of beautiful people came through its doors to sit for a while in the cool, poets nursing a cup of coffee and writing for hours (in longhand, no laptops or hand-held devices), pairs and groups talking intensely or arguing loudly (strictly face-to-face, no cell phones). Most people tipped well, no matter how small their order, and the waitresses, bartenders, and cooks were a diverse and friendly crew. Besides coffee, cold drinks, and a full bar, we served a varied food menu, a couple of our specialties being paper-thin crêpes and a meaty Hungarian schaschlik with noodles. If my friends came in when the owner-manager and his wife were away, I would serve them complimentary Tomasinos—a blend of vanilla ice cream and orange juice topped with whipped cream. We, the staff, were in charge of the music on the turntable, and my choice was frequently the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, then entering the second year of what was to be a legendary ten-year run at the Orson Welles Cinema. When “By the Rivers of Babylon” began playing, the chef would emerge from the hellishly hot little kitchen, cast his eyes histrionically up to heaven, clasp his hands to his heart, and sigh deeply.
On this particular day I had been working only a short time when I took an order from a well-dressed young couple who looked vaguely familiar, but whom I couldn’t quite place. It was they who placed me first: “Hey, you’re the girl from the gas station!” remarked the man. And in that moment, both they and I glanced fleetingly and involuntarily down at my hands, now holding a tray of pastries, not a grimy gas pump. Thankfully, they stood up to the scrutiny: they were spotlessly clean, right down to the nail-beds. That I was a consummate quick-change artist was confirmed by my tip that day.