Michele Wood was a carhop in the golden age of carhops. Thirty-some years later, she tends bar and waits tables in the shabbily elegant Palm Room at the Fort Garry Hotel.
Sometimes she wonders how she ended up where she did.
"I recently realized, 'Oh my God. Pretty soon I'm going to be a 50-year-old waitress,' " she said, sipping coffee in the hotel's breakfast room. "How did this end up happening?"
She was 14 when she started running trays of Teen Burgers and frosty mugs of root beer out to waiting cars.
The teenager loved the job.
"It was fun. When you're 14 and you're staying up until one or two in the morning, it's great. My parents finally made me quit because there were too many late nights in a row."
But Wood realized the service industry suited her. She loved music and theatre. Her flexible shifts at places like Branigan's and Knickers gave her time to audition and perform.
"Oh, I did Rainbow Stage and Gilbert and Sullivan and The Hollow Mug," she says. Her big bright eyes and pixie haircut reveal the ingenue she once was. Waitressing was a way to lead the life she really wanted.
"The Hollow Mug was so much fun. I loved it, loved it, loved it!"
Wood was young, a pretty soprano with a personality bigger than life. The audiences adored her and she adored them right back. The future wasn't nearly as important as the next song.
She describes herself as a "former Wolseley hippie girl," one who spent 10 aimless years taking university courses.
"I believed in learning for the sake of learning," she laughs. "This was higher education. I didn't want to think about a career."
Eventually she earned her arts degree.
Wood tried going straight.
"I did work two years in a bank to get the feeling of a real job," she says. "I just remember being really bored."
The waitressing jobs were always there. Wood is smart, attractive and able to handle a room filled with demanding customers.
She's officially a bartender in the Palm Room, a job that includes getting the ice, setting up the bar and tables, cutting the fruit for drinks and ordering liquor.
Wood takes the bar and lunch orders, delivering the food and drink to the tables.
She usually works solo. Some days she has a busboy running up and down the stairs to the hotel's basement kitchen. Sometimes she does it herself.
The bartender works straight through her seven-hour day shift without a break. The demanding lunch rush usually lasts about two-and-a-half hours.
Her schedule allows her to spend time with her 11-year-old son. She's a single mother.
Wood's demanding job is made more stressful by the fact that tips form a significant portion of her income. If you're professional and read your customers right, you can earn more in tips than you do in salary, she says.
As a bartender, she makes $13.50 an hour.
"I think I've got a plush job in this city in terms of waitressing," she says. The uniforms are supplied and they're classy, not sleazy. It's a small staff and they know each other well.
"I'm always smiling. That's the key. No matter what happens you keep your cool and you smile."
"I always say you earn your tips for service and your salary for keeping your mouth shut."
She's usually able to charm the customers. She has her regulars and can joke with them. But sometimes people arrive in foul moods with no interest in anything but food or drink.
"You can't buy into that," she says. "You can't let it affect you. I just give them prompt and efficient service. A lot of the job is being able to read people. It's 'Good morning, good afternoon.' It's more formal with some people."
Like most waitresses, she has horror stories to tell. The only ones she'll share (see "keeping your mouth shut," above) are her own flubs.
"There was a table in the middle of the room. A guest had left his suitcase sticking out. When you're carrying those big trays you can't see your feet. I tripped."
Wood stops and laughs.
"I did this wonderful balletic move. I didn't spill a drop. I got applause for that one."
The secret to carrying heavy trays, she says, is simple. The bigger, heavier items go in the middle.
"If someone thinks they're doing me a favour by removing something from the tray, they're wrong. That's the quickest way to have me drop everything."
She sees herself working indefinitely. The little bit of money she had saved vanished when the stock market tanked.
"I hope my feet hold up," she says quietly. "This job is hard on the body. At least now I'm not doing it in stilettos."
Michele Wood still performs, singing with a dance band. That's for her. For the money, for the bills, she puts on the uniform and performs like a pro.
"I think the people who are blessed are those who know early what they want," she says. "If I could do it again, maybe I'd be doing interior design. Yeah. I wish I could have had the foresight."
The former ingenue smiles, smoothes her uniform.
There are tables to set, drinks to be made.