A rowdy crowd surrounds Sadie Witz and her sister Mary Ann at a table near the door. Sadie hugs Peggy's neck before she can get to the kitchen. Peggy orders Sadie's usual, Irish Cream and coffee, but leaves out the whipped cream. She knows Sadie always gives up the whipped cream during Lent.
Peggy escorts a weary-looking Irish woman to a seat in the corner behind the bar. A quiet spot. Secluded. The woman whispers something and Peggy orders her a Bloody Mary, "not too hot."
"First time she's been back since her friend died," Peggy says. "I couldn't put her at her usual table quite yet. Wouldn't be right. I think she's better off sitting there for today."
"Peggy!" A faint call across the room.
In the crowded restaurant no one seems to notice. Well, almost no one.
Fresh coffee to console the mourner behind the bar.
She learned to waitress by learning to care. She learned about caring the hard way.
There are a few things her customers don't know.
By 14, Peggy had worked in sticky North Carolina tobacco barns and started picking cotton in the fields. Her alcoholic father used to beat her mother, bloody fights that once left Peggy and her mom cowering in the outhouse all night.
Mom left North Carolina for Baltimore so she wouldn't end up dead. Dad lost his job at the paper mill. Motherless at 14, Peggy went to work to support her father and her 2-year-old sister. She became the mom.
Peggy worked at a textile mill for a while, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. "I said, no I will not do this. I will waitress."
She got a job as a car hop on roller skates. Started at the Puppy Palace in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. - "hot dogs, cheeseburgers, no booze" - making $30 a week. It was 1957. Cared for her dad, cared for her sister. As soon as she graduated from high school, she packed up herself and her baby sister and got the heck out of town. Came to Baltimore in '60. Moved in with Mom.
She tried typing. "Hated it - sitting all day." So she took a job at a deli on Park Heights Avenue, Duke & Lou's. Peggy called it "Dukey-Loos." She told Duke Bergerson she didn't know anything about Jews, pastrami, corned beef, lox or bagels. "I was raised on beans and collard greens," she said. He said, don't worry, just write down the order and bring it to me.
Her first day of work, she was nervous. She had eight Jewish customers, one of them, a handsome young man. He ordered a "tongue sandwich."
Peggy cussed him up one side and down the other.
Duke apologized to the shaken fellow and took his new waitress into the kitchen to show her the cow's tongue.
She had a lot to learn.
She waitressed for a while at a Holiday Inn near the Pimlico Race Course. One Saturday, on the day of the Preakness, she went to work and discovered she was the only waitress on the floor. The place was overrun with people, and the girl at the cash register whispered that Adolph and Joel Krisch, the country's largest Holiday Inn franchisees, were in the crowd waiting for breakfast.
"Thanks for telling me, Wanda," Peggy told the cashier.
Before you knew it, Peggy cornered the two millionaires, handed them coffee pots. "They're your customers, too," she said.
She has lots of tales. Her first flambe almost set the Candle Light restaurant in Catonsville on fire. She used to wear a basketweave wig that would get snagged in the wagon wheel lamp at the Middleborough Inn in Essex. She and the other waitresses from the Candle Light would take their tips once a month to the horse track, get a table at the wire and bet $2 apiece on the horses.
Forty-seven years of good times.
But at home, life was never so easy or carefree. The man she married in 1961 got sick in 1972, and was paralyzed during a heart catheterization. Peggy took care of him for five years until he died. At 35, she had two boys to raise herself. That began the doubleshifts - five days a week.
She and the boys lived with her mother for years, and when her mother died two years ago, Peggy rented a spare apartment behind the Cigar Landing on Frederick Road - exactly 84 steps from her door to the Jennings Cafe.
With another friendly bar and restaurant directly across the street, Peggy can triangulate her path from home to work to a seat at the bar, waving and stopping to meet people everywhere she goes. She is locally famous and so greatly loved that people stand and cheer for her every year when she rides by in the Catonsville Fourth of July parade.
Give her half a chance and she'll tell the secrets of her success.
"I have them cradle to the grave," she says. "I have one with Alzheimer's - she recognizes me, but can't cut up her own salad. So I cut it for her. It's not a big deal.