My first job was as what was called a car hop at an A&W in Iowa. I was just 14 — you’re legally allowed to work young in farm states — and I used my babysitting money to buy the uniform I needed from a medical apparel shop: a white polyester nurse’s tunic, zip front with big patch pockets, and matching trousers. This A&W was located along a stretch of Highway 6, a straight flat road lined with cornfields on either side. Looking back, the whole enterprise seems dubious. The iffy ROI of paying $20 for that uniform, for a job with an hourly wage of $1.25. Biking along the highway to get there wearing that scratchy white get-up, trucks barreling alongside my Schwinn. Biking home under the muggy night sky, my tips jingling in the patch pockets—dimes, sticky with root beer. But especially dubious was delivering the orders that got called in from the motel next door to the A&W. Now mostly, I’d carry food on trays that I’d hook onto the customers’ car windows. But a couple times a night, I’d be asked to carry a tray across the parking lot to the back of the motel, knock on a door and wait for the man—it was always a man—to answer.
One such scene: a man wearing underpants standing at the door with a woman lying in bed, her bare back turned toward me, just visible in the flickering light of the motel TV. When she turned toward me, a white breast flashed in the darkness.
The man noticed me noticing her. He winked, opened the door wider as if to invite me in.
“Thanks, darlin’” He said, laughing, paying for his burgers, slipping a dollar tip into one of those patch pockets.
I backed away then ran across the weedy motel parking lot to the safety of my A&W.
“Gosh,” I remember thinking, feeling shaky and a little thrilled, although I’m not sure I knew why. At the time, I probably chalked it up to that dollar tip. A whole dollar!