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Terry 2007OH04.4

Career Waitresses: Rethinking Work and Identity

Interview with Marie Terry

Conducted by Candacy Taylor

September 12, 2006

Louisville, Kentucky

Kentucky Oral History Commission

100 W. Broadway ( Frankfort, KY 40601

502-564-1792 ( (fax) 502-564-0475 (

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Maria Terry

Churchill Downs Racetrack


Louisville, Kentucky

[Maria was raised in Italy during the rule of Mussolini. Maria has a very thick Italian accent].

Usually people here make their own plates. We put ice here; this is where we keep all the alcohol and we bring all the alcohol down. Some will say, “Can you fix me a drink?” So I fix them a drink and then they go through and get what they want [buffet style].

I can’t believe you’re in your 70’s.

Seventy-six, I’ll be seventy-seven in January [she talks about the newspaper article].

Yes, I’d like to scan that if possible.

I didn’t even know [about] it. I knew they was coming, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. Because people come and say, “Oh, Maria! Maria!” And they come and they just hug you, and I didn’t know they were going to do that, and in the newspaper they put in that I go and hug everybody. And I’m a very warm person type and I tell the truth, not [a] cold person, very warm person. And when they say, “Oh, Maria, you kiss everybody.” I said, “I kiss on the cheek. I’m used to [it]. I’m a warm person.”

So you’ve always been that type of person.

Always. And when I forget their name, I go honey, sweetheart.

So how many years have you waitressed?

Thirty-six years.

So can you state your full name and say how long you’ve waitressed?

Yeah. Maria Casita Terry. The first time I ever did waitress, I’d never been a waitress in my life and I didn’t know how to write English or speak English. At another track, my mother put me on the stand and after about two weeks, they told me that they wanted me to be a manager of the stand. And I said, “I don’t know how to do it.”

And this was a sandwich stand?

Sandwich stand, a hot dog stand and sandwich. Count the cups, count the sliced bread and count the buns for the hot dog. It’s got to be that way, and you put it there and they pay. I come over here and I did the same thing, at the first Derby, I was at the grandstand. They put me on an infield with thirteen people, and I never did things like that. I said, “I can’t do it.” And everybody said, “Yes, you can do it.” And I did.

We wore this white nylon uniform and I stayed close to the heat and they melt[ed] all over here. So somebody gave me an apron. Because I had to put it in the front. I didn’t know anything about how to do anything like that. So when I come back to my other truck they told me they wanted me to work in the lounge. And I say, “Ugh Hun, I don’t know the drinks.”

And how old were you during this time?

Well, I was in my forties, but I had never worked as a waitress in my life. So this manager come to me and said to me, “I want you to work in the lounge.” And I said, “I don’t understand English much and I don’t know about the drinks.” “You’ll learn. I know you will. Try it for three days and then if you don’t like it you can go back.” So I did and I liked it because I made ninety dollars.

That’s a lot for almost forty years ago!

Yeah, that was a lot of money. Because the bartender told me, put two straws on the bourbon and one on the scotch, and that’s the way I know what it was, and two on vodka and one on gin. And the beer, it was almost all alike, but Miller Light was a little bit light[er] and Budweiser was a little bit dark[er] and that’s the way I learned. They told me, “Try a little bit with the straw and I said, “They all taste alike; they’re all nasty.” And beer, I didn’t like the smell either and I don’t like to drink beer neither. And when they put me in the dining room and I said, “I don’t know how to write for the food;” he told me look at the menu and copy. So anything I did, I’ve been pushed into it. I was scared to do it. They said, “Look at the way it’s [written] and copy and you’re doing all right.” That’s the way I did [it].

Did you have other waitresses help you?

Oh, yes, yes, there was a lot of help. You know another way I used to do [it], for “early time,” I wrote O-r-l-y, [instead of early] and this waitress said, “no Maria, ET.” Okay then “ET.” When my son was in college I would write him, and I asked him if he understand and he said, No. And I said, well then I’m not going to write you anymore. But my twin girls in college, they could understand a little bit, they just thought of the way I was talking and they could pick it up, but not him. “Why didn’t go you to school here?” [They’d ask]. I just couldn’t do it.

But you had incentive to learn right?

Yes with television, little bit with newspapers and true stories because in a lot of ways you see pictures and you do it [learn English] and that’s the way I did [it]. I never went to school here.

And so when you started waitressing….I mean your story is really amazing how you rose to the top, you started doing sandwiches…

Here when I start waitress I went on what you call the Sky Terrace, that was strictly drinks or it was a buffet once in a while. One time they asked me to go to the dining room and I said, “No, I cannot do it.” He told me, “You’re a waitress and you do it. Because if I’m going to send you to infield and you’re a waitress, you’re going to do it.” I said, “Okay.” I tried and I did. Anything that he told me I had to do, I did. Okay when I went to the other truck it was called Louisville Downs, I went there as a waitress, the first thing after I was there for two weeks they put me in the Directors Room, and I didn’t want to do it.

Why do you think they put you in the Director’s Room so soon?

I don’t know. My head, we called him Mr. William H. King. He was very strict on every little thing and he was very fanatic…”I want my tea this way and you have to make it this way.” His was supposed to be very, very light, his iced tea, I put two, three pieces of lemon [on the side], don’t put them on that way, squeeze them in it. I did the same thing he told me. The first time he liked it. I told his wife I didn’t like her husband because he was too strict and she told me, “He like you.” I said, “He like me?” I said to her, my husband does the same thing, “Do this and do that.”

One time I was asked to help waitress for a dinner party [for Mr. King], “Okay.” His wife was right there to help.

How often did you get asked to help at private parties?

A lot of times for him, because he didn’t like anybody else, he wanted me there because he knew how I would do it. He would just tell me what to do and I would do it. When I worked the Director’s room, I had to be there even if there were other waitresses, I had to there with them [Mr. King] that’s the way he was, we wanted me to do it. One time the CEO was here, the president and the wife of the president, they came to Louisville Downs to the Director’s Room and Mr. King said, “This is my waitress. And I hope you understand her because she is very good and she will take care of you.” And it was Ms. Meager and Jerry Lawrence, and he’s not here anymore, but they looked to him and said, “Don’t worry about it.” His wife said, “Don’t worry about we know. We’re from New York.” And everything was okay and every time I used to see Mr. Meager I’d say…”Do you remember….” He’d say, “Oh, yes but you still can’t speak English.” [laughing] He’d tease me, “You still can’t speak English Maria but I love you anyway."

Everybody that was here, they are here to work for Churchill when they see me they come and hug me.

And the name of this customer was again?

William H. King.

And how many years did you serve him?

Twenty-five, then they closed and sold it to another company. Churchill bought the truck and so I worked there all along for first, Mr. King, second Chester Porter, third Churchill Downs.

And you’ve been a Churchill Downs for…

Thirty-six years, about thirty-seven years.

Your son told me about your difficult childhood in Italy during the time of Mussolini; can you talk about that?

My mother used to make her face look ugly [so she wouldn’t be raped]. We had no salt, no water and then we decided to go down and cross the line between the German and English. So one morning we was about twenty people. We went to this ditch, and it was raining. I’m trying to think of what day that was because it was early February and it was cold. We went to this ditch and in this ditch was a lot of dead people. The Germans went after us, so we ran. About 2 or 3 o’clock we tried it again, because the people that tried, some died and some was paralyzed because the Germans shot them in the back, they were running so they shot them in the back. So when we did try in the afternoon we went off in a ditch, so there was two men in the front of us poking the front of us to see if they could see any wires, because you do see little tiny wires and they put a little stick on it. So each one [would say] “step this one, step this one.” So we did cross there about in the afternoon and when we crossed we went to [the] English [side].

If I tell you what my dress looked like, you wouldn’t believe me. It was a little dress and we had lice very bad and this English guy he took his shirt off and told me to put it on. And we he gave it to me I put it on because it was cold. And we was barefoot, and you know I never did catch [a] cold either. Then I don’t but now I catch [a] cold a lot easier. And so that’s what we did. We spent about one night there and they give us some cornflower to make polenta.

So the next day they put us on the truck, they took us close to Naples and there was a camp there, a tent, and there was a lot of straw, it was better than just a ground. The next day, they spray us and then after that take showers and then they brought clothing. I went through the line two times, you know why? I said, “If they only give me one, how am I going to change?” I mean it was wonderful though, first I had a dress, a pair of shoes and a pair of socks and a pair of panties and the next time they give me a skirt and a sweater and I don’t know how they didn’t know I was there a second time, but they didn’t. When I went back to the tent my sister said [something in Italian]. I said, “I’m sorry, I went two times. So I was kind of thinking ahead always. So they took us further south and then we spent almost a year there because the Germans was high and English was low. We go two miles, this was in February, I remember this day because it was [in] a song, the 14th of May was when the French came to go to the mount[ains] because from there, there was nothing but mount[ains]. So after about a year or so, they told us to come back home. We had nothing at home, we had sheet on the door and bed on the floor and I catch malaria and when I catch malaria I couldn’t shake it for nothing. This was 1946, there was a lot of typhoid and malaria. Because when the Germans had opened the canal there was nothing soaking up dirty water, the fish were coming in from the sea, there was a lot of dead people, mosquitoes so they took me to the hospital and the doctor said, “She’s never going to get well here. I was very skinny, but when I went to the hospital, you know what they told me? They said, “How old are you?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t want to tell because I was so ashamed because I was so small. They said, “You’re almost 16 years old!” I said, “Umm hmm.” They said, honey you don’t look any more than 11 years old. I was just a stick, I was not developed or nothing. Nothing. So I was there for two months at the hospital. So they gave me a lot of vitamins, a lot of iron and there was no more fever. And so from there I was supposed to go home, this was from March to June. I was supposed to go over there and my doctor told my mother, “Don’t let her go back home, because there’s still some typhoid, and you don’t know what can happen.”

The Americans were there because they had a lot of marines. And while I was there I went to the nuns and school for me was very…it was a drain. I went everyday for one year and then I went home. But every Sunday the nuns would take us to the cemetery so we had to pray and they’d line us up just like kindergarten, one nun in the front and one nun in the back. But I did get well and I come back home.

So when I come back home, I was very bare and people were worried, and yes other people got sick too, but see every morning they would give you quinine. And the quinine affected by liver, I had a lot of spots on my face and stuff like that. But when I come back home I was home for a while and I decided I didn’t want to be in Italy anymore. There was nothing, but at the same time I was there, my uncle…I lost 3 cousins, they were at school and they were playing with the rats, you know there were a lot of rats and one was on top of a mine and they killed 5 and 2 survived and they were all 2nd and 3rd grade children. So I lost 3 cousins there.

And then my uncle, my fathers brother, he had to shovel to clean up and he found the mine and they killed him. I thought, why do I want to be here? This is after the war, what happened? How did I get back here? So when I was 18, there was a lot going on in England and I worked on a factory. My father was supposed to consign for me to leave home, because I wasn’t 21. My father said, “No you’re not going to England. I was there and I know the way it is.” I said, “That’s okay, I’ll go to England.” [he said] “No.” So I waited until I was 21. And when I was 21 I went on a Saturday to get my passport and everything and I went to England, but this time I was already engaged with one Italian guy and I was going to England and he was in France by that time and he said, “Okay, I’m going to go to Montreal. We meet there.” I never did get to Montreal [laughing] by the time I was there, I meet my husband. I went there in November and the next year in May. He was there a week and I was there but we didn’t meet and that was it. After about 2 years we didn’t meet and we didn’t get married there and that’s the way I wound up here in the states.

But in England you worked in a sewing factory, is that correct?

Yes a sewing factory. I worked in a sewing factory, yes. I worked in the factory for…I even worked there a little bit after I was married. I was pregnant and I quit and from there we come to the states and he was originally from Louisville, but he was still in the service, he was in the air force. They sent us to Virginia, from Virginia to South Carolina and that’s where I picked up my southern [accent]. They tell me I’m Italian with a southern accent. I said, “Well I picked it up there.” We were there in ’59, I come there in ’56 in ’59 they told us we had to go to Germany. I was scared. I was very scared to go to Germany. I told him, “You go to Germany, I’m not.” He said, I put in for Italy and England and they sent me to Germany. I didn’t put in for Germany. So they told me I had to get my citizenship because there was trouble with the Russians. Yeah, in ’59 – ’60 there was trouble with the Russians. So they told me I had to get my citizenship and I said, I don’t need it and they said, “no you should, just to be sure,” And I had a child, Tony was born so I had him and twins, after three years I had twins.

So when they told that me I couldn’t go to Germany because I had to get my citizenship and they told me I’d have to go back to Italy and I said, “No.” So after 6 months I did get my citizenship and I went to Germany, but I was still scared. And it was very different, the people were different. We had two family friends and one night we went out drinking, drinking wine and they were singing a song they used to sing when I was in school, in Italian. And I said “Richard,” and he told me the truth. If we didn’t do it to them, the Italian, the Gestapo’s, or Nazi’s whatever you want to call them, they are going to do to us, we have to what they told us to do. But I hope to God there doesn’t come another war, I would tell you myself before I do it. And you know it was very sad to hear something like that. Because in Morocco, it was worse, they told me when they went there because people were crippled, or if maybe you wanted to take care of your mother or grandmother. And there was a song when I come back from Calopia [????] they were talking about Morocco and I didn’t even know what Morocco looked like. And that’s the truth, and it was very bad. So everybody was scared to leave Rome. Rome was an open city, nobody touched Rome. We all stayed away from the city.

But that’s what happened in my life, so I come here and I enjoy being here and I tell you I enjoy being a waitress. I really do. You know I’m bored without it. I mean you really see it, I like people, I really do. People say, “I want to be a waitress.” And I say, “If you don’t like people, don’t do it. No. don’t do it.” My daughter went to college and she went to work one night and this guy, I don’t know what he told her or what he did, I think he touched her leg and she looked to him and she went to the bosses and said, “Wait a minute….” And he said, “That’s okay.” And she said, “Well, that’s okay for you. I’m leaving.” And she called me and said, “Mom, “Good luck. That’s enough for me.” Well you just turn around and say, “Keep your hands in your pocket.” A lot of times, I’ve picked up their hands and put them in their pockets. Oh yeah, I did. I said to this one guy, “How far you wanna go? Take your hands off of there. If you don’t, I’ll pick them up and put them in there for you.” And there were times I had to be nasty, but I said, that’s okay, I’d rather be nasty. I say, “I’m married and I’ve got children and that’s it.” And you know people say that waitresses are easy, not all of them, no, not all of them. Some are and some are not. I got a cigarette burn on my shoulder because I didn’t pay attention to him. I didn’t know…what do you call…a whore…I didn’t know it what it was and this guy said it and I said, “Who they are?” And I looked around, I didn’t know. And finally he said, “Do you know prostitute?” And I said, “Oh, I heard that in Italy.” He said, “That’s who they are.” I said, “Well, what they look like?” And he said, “I’ll let you know when they come.” There were two guys. He said, “Maria, come over here. You see that?” I said, “Yeah.” [He said] “That’s who they are. Will go you over there, see what they drink, take them a drink.” And they were smart, they said [about the drink], “No thank you, but thank you very much.” Maybe it was worth it [for them] just to show off.

This guy one time come in and tell me, “How much?” I said, “How much for what?” [He said] “$25?” I said, “For what?” And I looked around. “50?” [He asked] and I looked at him and said, “What are you buying? Wait a minute.” He got a cigarette and stuck it on top of here [her shoulder]. And when he did, that’s when I turned around and I screamed and I kicked him. And this friend of mine went to get security and he ran.

There has always been a stigma attached to waitressing.

That’s the truth.

I’m researching where that came from and I know in the 20’s a lot of women who were prostitutes would lie and say they were waitresses and that would explain why they had cash on them. So that’s some of the research I’m finding about this stigma.

Yeah, they believe that waitresses are really easy. I had this one man come to me one day and say, “I would like to do this to you.” And I’m standing with a tray of drinks and I was on the steps to come down. And he looked at me and said, “Oh, I would like to do this to you.” And I said, “What?” But at the same time, this waitress come up and said, “Maria, what happened?” I said, “You’ll never know what he told me.” The manager said, “What happened?” And I said, “You’ll never believe what he told me.” And he said, “Where did he go?” And I said, “He went up there.” You see you have to let everything go in one ear and come out the other. To me, you find the good and bad, but most people are good, to tell you the truth.

Is there anything you don’t like about waitressing?

No. I tell you, I really don’t. Because when you find those people who are really nasty towards waitresses, you know, I don’t like it. When they say, “Will you do this, will you do that. Will you go with me?” When you don’t want to go, “Why do you keep pushing?” I don’t mean to say that I’m a saint, because I’m not. Nobody’s a saint. But when you tell some people no and to stop it, that’s one thing I don’t like about it. But most of the people, I like. In my old company, I didn’t like one person, and I’ll tell you the truth, we had a buffet, and there was the company from out of town, and they said, “Maria, can we get a tray of shrimp cocktail?” And I said, “Oh we don’t have that, I’m sorry.” When you tell them you don’t have it or if they’ve had too much, then they get upset. When I see that they’ve drink too much, I just stay away. So I went to the line and told this gentleman that worked with the company and said, “I’ve got to get some cheese and crackers, we don’t have nothing to snack on and this group has been drinking a lot and they’re spending a lot of money. He said, “Go ahead.” And I did get it. There were two tables, eight a piece, so there were sixteen people.

So the next day, there were some senior citizens in my group. Senior citizens, they’re not going to ask you to get their plate, they just go and do it themselves. So he [manager] asked me, “Who put that plate there?” There were just snacks. And I said, “I didn’t do it.” “Yes you did.” I said, “I didn’t do it.” “Yes you did.” And looked straight at him and said, “Who do I work for? I said, I didn’t do it. And you tell me I did. Why don’t you go to the table and ask who did? You haven’t been working in this place for that long, you don’t know anything, you’re company is new. But I’ll tell you one thing, I didn’t do it.” But at the same time I said, “Who am I working [for]? The Gestapo, the Nazi’s…who?” He just looked at me with his mouth open. Oh, I was upset. When he left, I started crying, I was really nervous. So my manager, her name was Kerry, she said, “What happened?” I said, “I told him that I didn’t do it.” I said, “Kerry you’ve been working here now for a while, do you know they do it themselves?” She said, “Yeah. Don’t pay attention to him.” I said, “Well it made me mad.”

That’s the only time I remember that somebody…oh there was another time too. My manager ordered soup and I found the soup already on the heat, I picked it up and it was cold. They took shrimp cocktail and you know you eat soup before your shrimp cocktail. And he said, “Maria, come over here.” And I said, “Yes.” “Give me your finger.” And he stuck my finger in his soup. “Would you eat this?” I said, “Oh, my God, it was on the heat.” He said, “Next time, don’t put it in your mouth, but stick you finger [in it], this way, just a little bit and see if it scald your finger.” So I was scolded but I didn’t check it, it was my fault.

One time I had to do restock and one time I didn’t do it. I said “No, I didn’t do it. I believed there was enough stuff there.” “You’ve, got to do it.” I said, “Okay.” I’ve been catched a couple of times, but hey, everybody makes mistakes.

But this company has been very nice, all three companies have been very nice. Harry was here for a long, long time and it was more like a family. And the people that come in, they’re most all young, not old people. And I think I’m older than the managers here. They’re all young people but they’re all well liked. They don’t scold you or nothing, they respect you. I had one say one time, “Maria, my grandmother is the same age [as you].” I said, “Good, is she still working?” [laughing]

Like I said, you’ve got to like it. You’ve really got to like the people to be a waitress, if you don’t like people, do other jobs. And I like them too, I went to a young[er] one and said, “Honey, you want to be a waitress? You don’t get no pension [laughing].” So come and work on the weekends. In this place you don’t get no pension, you really don’t but I just say, go to school and get some place where you’ll get a pension and enjoy your weekends here, because now we’re open on Sunday. Before the weekend was just Friday and Saturday and now it’s Sunday. So you can work Saturday and Sunday, hey, two days a week. But that’s what I mean. I don’t have anything against a waitress, I really don’t, but if you don’t like people, stay home. That’s the only thing I can say.

It’s not for everybody.

Yeah, and when I went to Germany, my husband did get multiple sclerosis and he was only thirty-three years-old and it was tough after that, because he did become the baby and the children become old. Yep, because he was like a big baby, not the children, so all my attention [went] to him, not the children. It was a tough life, I lost a daughter, thirty-four years-old, one of the twins, so you know, but you’ve got to keep going. And then when I see my children, I think I did a pretty good job, because actually I had to do almost all of it myself because he wasn’t even there. I tried to do everything. I try to do everything at home now, except cut my grass.

What are the worst physical parts of waitressing for you as you age?

Carrying trays, and you can’t really do what you used to, especially if you’re shorter, a lot of people carry on the right and I cannot carry.

[Maria’s son comes in to tell us that her regulars are here to be interviewed]


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