'The original 'hon' '

May 27, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

The Bridge, a long, narrow diner in the shadow of the Orleans Street viaduct, is not a place where one usually needs a reservation for lunch. But this week, savvy customers have been booking tables in order to be served one last time by Jean Lawson, whose full-time waitressing career of 49 years ends today.

The build-up for her retirement escalated yesterday, as her regulars kept coming, early breakfast through late lunch, hungry for her wisecracks, warm laugh and -- for special customers only -- a pat on the backside.

"She's an era in herself, she's old Baltimore," said her boss of 10 years, George Alatzas. "If there's a 'professional' in this business, she's it. There just aren't that many any more. She's the original 'hon.' "

At age 62, Miss Jean has walked hundreds of miles through a gustatory history of Baltimore -- a history of hash houses and restaurants, cafes and diners, from Dundalk to downtown. Forget D-Day, at least for a moment. Think VJ-Day, as in Victory for Jean, the end of a career that began about a year after the troops stormed the beach at Normandy.

Even retirement can't make Miss Jean stop. She still plans to work part time at various jobs, to supplement her Social Security checks.

She was 13 when she started, a tall girl from Essex who looked older than she was. Her mother was working at the Glenn L. Martin Co., lured to the factory from West Virginia by the promise of a good-paying defense job. Her brother was in the Navy, and Miss Jean wanted to help out, too.

So she found a job as a waitress, working the 3 to 11 shift after school. No one ever asked her for a work permit -- which was good, because she didn't have one.

It was the spring of 1945. World War II dominated the front pages. A "good steady job" with the transit company paid 90 cents an hour. You could buy pig-grained sandals -- "Not rationed!" the ad promised -- for $2.98 and cashmere sweaters for $6.95. A cup of coffee was a nickel, and Miss Jean's tips weren't much bigger.

"When I went to work, I didn't know what a tip was," she says, taking a break after another hectic lunch hour at The Bridge.

She knows now. She also knows who tends to be generous. "Ordinary working people." And who tends to be stingy. "Lawyers."

Did she realize, 49 years ago, that she had found her lifelong vocation? "I didn't. But then, I didn't think I would live this long. I was wild. I didn't think I would live past 30."

She lost one job when she droppoed a hot veal cutlet in the lap of an irate customer.

She left her first job, at a place that no longer exists and whose name she no longer recalls, and went to work at Traveler's on Holabird Avenue. One day, unaware she had been assigned to work a split shift, she showed up on her scheduled day off.

/# "So I got on the bus to go home

and this woman kept staring and staring at me," Miss Jean remembers. "And as soon as the seat next to me was empty, she came and sat in it. She said, 'My husband and me, we have a place downtown, would you like to work for us?' "

It was the early 1950s when she went to work at the Beehive (originally the Lexington Grill) and Miss Jean, say those who knew her then, was a dead-ringer for Jane Russell. Most $H customers loved her. She was happy there, staying 18 years before moving to the Town and Country and then to Werner's, where then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer was a regular.

Ten years ago, she came to The Bridge on North Calvert Street, working 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, then putting in another day at Town and Country. "Big Jean," as some call her, car-pools with old friend "Little Jean" Adamski, a curly-haired blonde and another veteran of Baltimore's waitressing circuit.

Some regulars have followed Miss Jean to The Bridge, through circumstance, fate or loyalty. Others quickly joined the Miss Jean fan club.

"Is she bossy? Yes, indeed," said James Davis, who eats at The Bridge at least four times a week. "Sometimes, when I think my weight is going up, I'll say: 'Do I want sugar in my coffee?' And she'll say, 'No, no, no, you don't want any sugar.' "

Bill Burgee is a second-generation customer. As a boy, he would go to the Beehive with his father, Norris Burgee, a lawyer but not a stingy one. Now in title insurance, the younger Mr. Burgee stopped by The Bridge to make change one day and there was Miss Jean. She recognized him first.

"I'm one of the ones weaned on Jeannie," he said.

Replacing her has not been easy, her bosses said. One woman lasted only two days in the Bridge.

But after 49 years of walking so many miles and going nowhere, Miss Jean plans to head for Las Vegas for a vacation, then kick back and enjoy life with her son, two grandchildren and two-great-grandchildren.

She leaves her own tip for those who follow in her waitressing footsteps: Always elevate your feet at the end of the day.

"I put them up every day, above my head, and I've never had a varicose vein," she said. "I've seen young girls in their 20s with varicose veins, but I've never had one."

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