Josna Rege

55. Quick-Change Artist

In 1970s, Stories, United States, Work on July 3, 2010 at 12:09 pm

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. I’m so enjoying these stories Jo, please keep them coming. You have a lovely style of writing, quite simplistic, but very entertaining. I’m looking forward to the next one.

    • Jan! Glad you’re enjoying them–I’ve wondered, and especially with the ones about our family (like A Nice Bit of Spanish and My Grandmother). I do try to keep them short and simple, but sometimes they get away from me and grow ridiculously long! Thanks for commenting. Hugs, Jo

  2. The Merit station AND the Blue Parrot! My old stomping grounds, but a bit after you were there, more like the late ’70s and early ’80s. I passed the Merit station on the bus when I lived in Brighton, near St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the center. I once was lucky enough to be included in a free seminar by Noam Chomsky. I think it went on for three Thursdays in a row, and I’d stop at the BP for supper before making my way over to . . . wherever it was held, I don’t remember now. I was sorry to see it disappear, along with the Ha’penny. There was another place nearby, too, a few steps below street level. Do you remember it?

    • Ha! What d’ya know?! And the Ha’Penny, too: I used to go there for lunch, where their very cheap (or maybe free, if you bought a beer?) soup of the day was accompanied by unlimited amounts of fresh French bread. Was the other place The Idler, by any chance? I remember someplace being a few steps down, but the memories are extremely hazy.

  3. The Idler, yes! And the Back Room at the Idler. I was there probably twice. Maybe it was because it was below street level, but it always looked like it would be another world down there.

  4. What a great memory for details you have! You have lived such a full and fascinating life, Jojo!
    This one really sounds like a book, or a really good movie!
    It makes me wish I had been there!

  5. Nice! I can imagine the look on the couple’s face! I am really enjoying these stories!

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to post a comment. Glad you like the stories. I’m glad now that I had many and varied jobs in my youth; they made me see that all work is work and that no kind of work is beneath or beyond me. I’m also grateful for having had the opportunity to move in and between many different worlds; it was often amusing when they overlapped (not always so amusing when they collided!). See you on your blog, which I am now following with interest.

  6. Jo, I just stumbled across your wonderful little story while looking for information on the Blue Parrot, a favorite haunt of mine from days of yore. I remember well the music from “The Harder They Come”. That was another favorite.

    I was actually trying to find a source for the kind of cheese the Blue Parrot used in their Quiche. They had the best quiche I have ever had, and that includes in all of France.

    Now that I have found your stories, I’ll have to read more!

    • What a trip to hear from a denizen of the Blue Parrot! There is nothing I enjoy more than receiving an email like yours out of the blue. I wish I could help you with your cheese question, but I was just a clueless 19 year-old, not paying attention to much of anything, and there was so much I missed. Think of all the poets, for instance, who must have sat scribbling at those tables all day, long before internet cafes. I wouldn’t have known that I had just served one; just whether or not s/he had left me a generous tip. But I loved the atmosphere of the place, and am glad that I had that summer working there. I’d forgotten the quiche but now you mention it, it comes back to me. Thank you for your comment; it was a delight.

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