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Donelle M. Knudsen

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Life Lessons: From Incense and Hamburgers to Higher Education
By Donelle M. Knudsen
Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Reflections on first jobs, on the job training and growing up.

            My driver’s license and first job came hand-in-hand; even so I took a bus to the five-story import store on the waterfront where the “bums” used to hang out. It was a locally owned department store which specialized in merchandise from Asia and other far away countries. The job paid $1.00 an hour and was a perfectly miserable place to work. The owners treated the employees with disdain, not caring if we quit or stayed. They preferred hiring honor students for the part-time positions and told us we were fortunate to be in their employ; once we wised up to the system we found other jobs.  

       The insidious smell of incense and stale air permeated my clothes. But it was soon replaced by the mouth-watering smell of Yaw’s Top Notch hamburgers when I became a waitress at a popular restaurant in the Hollywood District.

          Working at Yaw’s, a family owned restaurant and drive-in, was something to brag about. It had the best of everything: hamburgers, french fries, pies, fountain drinks, and a drive-in for teens and the young at heart. Everyone knew about Yaw’s; it was THE place to go. My elementary Sunday school teacher was the night manager and I was practically guaranteed a job if I applied for the evening shift. Mrs. Harris hired me on the spot and I donned my pink seersucker uniform the following week. The episode snowballed as each of us girls told another and another and before long our entire “class” was working at Yaw’s part time after school and on the weekends.

          It took me several months to acclimate to the pace of the busy family restaurant as I learned the menu and tackled serving patient and not so patient customers. But patrons came and went; the challenge was putting up with the array of characters working at the fountain, behind the grill and in the basement. The cooks loved to flirt, tease and make the new girls blush. The fountain girls hated their jobs and complained about everything; taking out their frustrations on the waitresses. Cokes, milkshakes and floats were often slammed down on the pick-up counter, making gooey rings for us to wipe up.


          Anticipating the mad rush of the dinner hour was like bracing for a recurring avalanche or flood; wave after wave of unfamiliar faces surged and retreated at the counter. Some were friendly and patient, while others were cranky and demanding, barking out “Miss, Miss, get me a menu,” “Clear off these dishes, I’m in a hurry” or “I need more coffee!"


         Learning a job which dealt with the primal instinct of hunger combined with time constraints was an eye-opener for someone coming from a relatively sheltered life. Pushed to the edge of endurance physically, mentally and emotionally, at the end of every shift, I swore it was my last. With aching feet and kitchen smells clinging to my hair and clothes, I’d shower at 2 AM and fall into bed totally exhausted. Somehow, twenty-four hours later I’d walk through the backdoor, punch the time clock, and do it all over again. It took a full year to get toughened up enough to go through those doors without suppressing the urge to be sick.


But I wasn’t a quitter and the wages promised to be as good as or better than anywhere else in town. Besides, I needed the money for college. Most of the younger girls who worked there were my friends so every night I’d scan the schedule. It was a real boost to morale when I could work with an ally.


When the feeling of constant dread evaporated; I actually enjoyed my customers, many of whom became friends, and I learned to banter with the difficult co-workers. Two years later when it was time to leave for college, I prayed to be hired back, and sure enough I was - every summer. My sixth and final year at Yaw’s, I was able to work the day shift until I found a full time job. Those years of hard-earned salary and tips paid for all of my schooling and provided enough for living expenses.


The celebrated family restaurant evolved over the years and eventually closed down in mid-nineteen-eighties, succumbing to the changing neighborhood and economics of the area. But mention Yaw’s to a native and you’ll get a smile and knowing nod. The drive-in and sit-down restaurant was a familiar landmark and popular hangout for generations of hamburger connoisseurs from 1926 until 1985.















       Web Site: Life Lessons: From Incense and Hamburgers to Higher Education

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Reviewed by Jean Pike 8/23/2008
Great story, Donelle. It brought back memories of my college days when I payed my way by working at The Red Barn, which was a hamburger chain around here until the 1980s. The patient old dears, the not so patient dears, the sea of faces at the counter -- I'd forgotten all of that! I have to say, though, I stayed there through my first year of college until they closed the place down, and it was one of the most fun jobs I've ever had. I enjoyed the way you wrote about your experience.
Jean :)
Reviewed by L Hippler 8/9/2008
Nice coming of age story, Donelle. And it's incredible that you hung in there for six years!

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