Priceless Tip (From an AA Old Timer)

By Bridget Brookman 12/18/15

I would not recommend waiting tables for anyone with an attitude problem. I was under the impression that I had a rough life and the world should tip accordingly.

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I grew up wanting to be a ballerina and a detective, envisioning myself dancing in theaters across the globe and solving mysteries on the side. Instead, I wound up working in the kitchen of a gated community (and I don’t mean in the 90210 zip code). The facility was called CIW, an acronym for California Institution for Women. My life had become so unmanageable that the state of California had decided to manage it for me. This was not part of my plan, but when I drink I am open to suggestions, which is how I ended up in that hellhole. 

Upon release, I made a few failed attempts at sobriety and wound up at the dismal Pepper Tree motel: out of money and out of hope. I came-to one cold December morning with about $1.50 in change to my name and 24 hours to vacate this fine establishment. The thought occurred to me that I might attend one of those AA meetings I had been to when I paroled. 

My destination that day was a little clubhouse on a dead-end street which held some vague sense of comfort for me. Not sure if it was the coffee, donuts or the cranky old men who sat outside chain-smoking and telling me they spilled more on their tie than I drank. “Gee, you must have dipped yourself in a vat of Tequila,” I snapped. They laughed and said, “Keep coming back, kid.” 

Once inside, I was escorted away from the men and the coffee bar (known as the half-measures room) to the area where the meeting was about to take place. An older woman with a thick Alabama accent introduced herself to me and asked how many minutes I had sober. I began to relay my tale of woe, insisting that money was the answer to all my problems. She interrupted me mid-sentence, saying, “The meeting is about to start, go help those people set up chairs.” Incredulous at this callous request, my deer-in-headlights-look must have caught her eye. “If you take care of your number one problem today, everything else will take care of itself,” she advised. 

Out of desperation and lack of a better plan, I walked over to the official chair wrangler and offered to help. He introduced himself as Frank and asked what brought me to the meeting that day. I could not wait to tell him. When I got to the part of my trilogy about no job, no money and one day left at the flea-bag motel, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. “I know the manager at Bob’s Big Boy! Have you ever waited tables?” I was offended. Musical theatre was my background. Alcohol may have interrupted my career, but work for a paycheck? “No,” was my prompt response. After explaining that Bob’s actually preferred people without experience so they could train them from the ground up (yikes), he offered to take me there after the meeting. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an act of kindness with no strings on it, which is so common in Alcoholics Anonymous. So, with nothing else to do and nothing to lose, I took him up on the offer. The date was December 17, 1982. I have been sober ever since.

I got that job and worked as a waitress for the first three months of my sobriety. I would not recommend waiting tables for anyone with an attitude problem. But I needed a gig and I had a court date coming up. Soon, I was renting a room from a woman I met at the meeting where I set up chairs. 

Before every shift, I attended an AA meeting where I heard one old-timer say, "The only thing you have coming today if you don’t drink is another day sober.” I thought to myself, “Well no shit, Sherlock.” But as many times as I heard it, that phrase did not thoroughly register in my thinking. I was under the impression that I had a rough life and the world should tip accordingly. Well, that did not happen at Bob’s. I ended up getting fired for throwing food at a customer. She started it. 

Stripped of my Big Boy apron with matching pin, I marched down the street on my way to the bus stop. I intended to get off at the nearest liquor store. Getting fired from Bob’s was God’s way of telling me I needed to drink. I never shared this pearl of wisdom with anyone, but have since been told that any alcoholic consulting with himself is getting advice from an idiot. 

As fate would have it, the man who got me the job at Bob’s drove by just then. He asked if I wanted a ride. I couldn’t say no because it would look suspicious. Now everyone who knew me knew that I HATED the bus. Back in the early '80s the bus system was the RTD, which in my hateful mind stood for reason to drink. Once inside the car, he told me he needed to make one quick stop before he took me to wherever it was I needed to go.

We stopped at some dilapidated apartment project where a woman with three sick kids (all under the age of five) was waiting. Her husband had crashed the car, spent the rent money and was in jail for drunk driving. She had a three day or quit notice on her door. It never looks good when the sheriff’s office is your moving company. Her life looked like hell to me, with these kids crying in the background, dirty diapers and no money for food. The woman could not get to a meeting, obviously, but she had three months sober and Frank brought her a 90-day chip. She started to cry when she took it and said, “No matter what happens to me and these kids, even if we have to sleep in the park, I’ll have something you can’t buy at Tiffany’s.”

When we left the apartment, my justification for needing a drink was insufficient compared to this woman’s story. Rather than drown my sorrows in a tumbler full of tequila, I asked if we could go to a meeting. 

I dodged a bullet that night. The moment Frank handed this woman a little plastic 90-day chip, something clicked in me. I, too, realized that what I have inside money could never buy. I may not have been tipped well at Bob’s (regardless of my tough life) but I know for a fact that some of the best tips I have gotten in life are free.

Bridget Brookman is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, with an MA in Journalism. An ardent fan of Los Angeles history, she wrote, produced and narrated a radio documentary on legendary Clifton’s Cafeteria which aired on NPR. Previously a staff writer for the San Diego Attorney Journal, Bridget has also written for Puente House and is currently working on her second radio documentary.

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