By half past noon, nearly every one of Marguerite Schertle's customers wants her attention. And all at the same time. One table needs the check. Another has to order. A third is clamoring for ketchup.
"Ketchup?" she asks. "I have to go all the way to Lexington Market to get it, but I'll be right back."
Laughing, she races off to the kitchen, her white orthopedic shoes shuffling along the tiled floor, her white starched apron bow resembling a pair of wings behind her.
"How ya' doin', Marguerite?" asks a regular, looking up from a tuna sandwich.
"Right now, I'm flying high," she answers as she throws one arm in the air.
You could say that Ms. Schertle has spent the last 45 years flying high, serving up chicken salad and tomato aspic, deviled eggs and blueberry pie to as many as 50 people a day at the Woman's Industrial Exchange restaurant on North Charles Street.
If a woman making a lifelong career as a waitress seems commonplace, consider this: Marguerite Schertle turned 90 last week.
"We don't keep records, but she might be the oldest waitress in the country," says Jack Lavin, public relations director for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union in Washington.
But Ms. Schertle, a widow living in Hamilton, quickly dismisses the notion she might be extraordinary.
"Who wants to stop working?" she asks. "Why would I quit? What would I do? People who stop working get in a rut. They get depressed."
So, instead, she has chosen to become the head waitress, acting when necessary as a strict disciplinarian for the staff.
"If someone is not sharing their load, she comes down on them pretty hard," says Rita Knox, manager of the Exchange. "It's the 'If I can do it, you can too' philosophy."
She has been known to inform lollygagging waitresses that it's unprofessional to sit down on the job. And when the kitchen help gets overwhelmed, Ms. Schertle will pitch in there, too. "I don't play around," she says. "If they don't give me the desserts fast enough, I dish 'em out myself."
But it's the camaraderie with customers and fellow waitresses she says she values most. That's what has helped her through life's rough spots -- most notably the death of her husband 20 years ago and bypass surgery on her leg two months ago.
"I couldn't wait to get back here," she says. "I really enjoy my work. There's no putting it on with me."
Her colleague, Charlotte Zimernack, expresses it more emphatical
ly: "I think this is her life. Without this, I don't know if she'd exist."
Over the years, customers have grown as loyal to her as they are to the homemade pies. "Everybody always wants to have Marguerite's section," says longtime patron Marlene Meseke. "All the ladies here are special, but Marguerite has a sense of humor and she's very efficient.When you have Marguerite, you're in and out in an hour."
Despite being a senior citizen, the diminutive great-grandmother with the red hair and round glasses says she's as sharp and fast dTC as ever. So what if she mistakenly brings one customer chicken rice instead of Lima bean soup? Blame it on the busy day.
She will admit that age has brought one significant change in her appearance: "I may have shrunk a little bit. Who knows? And who cares?"
At age 18, she began her culinary career as a pastry chef for another tearoom, before moving on to the Woman's Industrial Exchange. For nearly half her life, her workdays have followed a similar routine. By 7:45 a.m. she catches the No. 19 bus, meets other waitresses downtown for breakfast and then, she says, "we race like hell to get here by 10:30."
Over the next five hours, she works the six tables at the front of the restaurant, the station farthest from the kitchen, dishing up motherly advice along with the food. As one 50ish man puts a spoonful of chicken rice soup in his mouth, she cautions, "It's hot now, so don't burn yourself."
She tells another, "Eat some of your salad."
Until several years ago, you might have thought there were two Marguerite Schertles dominating the floor at the Exchange. But the other was her twin sister Anna, who has since retired and moved to Virginia.
"Her customers were always nagging me," Mrs. Schertle recalls. "I would have to tell them, 'I'm only helping her out. I'm not your waitress.'"
(Not only did the twins hold the same job, but they also married a pair of brothers who lived near their childhood home in central West Baltimore.)
Although the tearoom, with its burgundy-colored booths and Wedgwood blue walls, has retained its retro charm, plenty of changes have occurred during her tenure. The clientele is now mostly businessmen, instead of society women. (Mrs. Schertle says she once waited on Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Dutchess of Windsor.)
And the restaurant's famous chicken salad no longer comes delicately molded on a plate.
"It was beautiful," she recalls with a sigh. "But times like everything else has changed."
Although she will never get rich off her salary and tips, she's able to maintain her bungalow and she's happy, she says. Until last year, she even cut her own lawn.
"I know how to cater to people," she says, lifting a water pitcher from the counter. "To me, it's a piece of cake."