52 Years On Her Own Two Feet

April 13, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

It's lunchtime at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen, and 71-year-old Ginger Pluff bustles from booth to booth, handing out menus, taking orders and running to the kitchen.

This is her second job of the day.

She has already worked two hours this morning as a school crossing guard, and as soon as her waitress shift ends, she'll head back to Bakerfield Elementary for afternoon duties.

"I'm the best stripper in the county," says the tireless widow, referring to the number of clothing changes she goes through in a day.

It's a daily turnaround that the great-grandmother of two, grandmother of four and mother of five is used to. The Harford County native has been a waitress "off and on" at the diner since she was 19, and she has worked for the Police Department for 31 years as a crossing guard, radio dispatcher and desk clerk filing criminal reports.

Over the years, there have been a few breaks in the routine -- when she "got a wild bug" to join the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II, tended bar in the 1940s -- "I think I was the first female mixologist in Harford County," she says -- and when her children were born.

"I can't see sitting around," Mrs. Pluff says. "You just have to get up in the morning and say thank you to the Lord."

Her energy level is legendary, especially among her co-workers.

"We come in complaining about a headache, a pain, but Ginger never does," says waitress Nancy Green. "She doesn't stop long enough to be sick."

She also doesn't let asthma slow her down.

"Anger is the worst thing" for her asthma, Mrs. Pluff says. "I try to grin and bear it. But if I have to, I go in the kitchen and cuss."

It's difficult to imagine this sweet-faced woman with short, silver-streaked hair and white flower earrings uttering even a "darn."

On a recent day, she worked the noon crowd like a ringmaster, orchestrating a balancing act of four booths and a table of four, and schmoozing with local pols sitting at the counter.

"To be a good waitress, you have to have respect for the customer and treat them like you want to be treated," she says.

"Unless they don't tip you," she adds.

Marlene Tolman, a customer visiting from Arizona, says she'll never forget her experience with Mrs. Pluff and the diner. "She was wonderful," Ms. Tolman says. "We don't have anything like it."

The New Ideal Diner is the real thing, not part of the 1990s retro craze for vinyl booths, table-side jukeboxes and milkshakes. This particular stainless steel structure has been in place on U.S. 40 since 1952, and there were smaller versions on the lot beginning in 1931.

Mrs. Pluff has had four bosses since she came to the diner. Her current supervisor, owner George Englesson, has been overseeing her since 1955.

"She's one of a kind," Mr. Englesson says of his "oldest waitress," shaking his head. "Did she tell you about her volunteer work?"

Since her husband's death 10 years ago, Mrs. Pluff has become more involved in the community.

"After he passed away, I thought, 'I'm going to get active,' " she says.

She is president of the ladies auxiliary at the Aberdeen Fire Department -- "I was paring 50 pounds of potatoes with the other ladies last weekend" for a retirement party, she says -- and is an Aberdeen Lioness, looking forward to participating in the group's annual fashion show May 18.

"I'm the comic person at the end," she says.

Last year, she dressed as the buxom Morganna, baseball's kissing bandit. "I sat on Cal Ripken Sr.'s lap," she recalls with a laugh.

One of her favorite community contributions is portraying Mrs. Santa Claus in Aberdeen's Christmas parade. In December, she will take her place on the sleigh for the 18th time.

"You can't help but associate Ginger with Aberdeen," says Evelyn Richardson, who comes to the diner every day with her husband, Kemp. The Havre de Grace octogenarians have been patronizing the diner since they were teen-agers.

"She's the best," says Mr. Richardson, who likes to try out his jokes on Mrs. Pluff.

But even the best need to rest. On Saturdays and Sundays, Mrs. Pluff puts work aside and eases into her recliner at home.

"It's a little lonely on weekends," she says, adding that she enjoys listening to music from the 1940s, which she says "just relaxes me." It also reminds her of when her husband, Addison, played drums in area jazz bands.

By Monday morning, Mrs. Pluff is ready to tackle the 1990s again.

Sitting at one of the diner's pale green booths after her shift, she wrings her hands unconsciously and says she is thinking about retiring as a crossing guard in June.

"When you're crossing the children of the parents you walked across, it's time to quit," says Mrs. Pluff, who will turn 72 on July 30.

The diner is a different story, though. She has no plans to hang up her apron, she says -- at least not "till George kicks me out."

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