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The House Special

Peggy Bailey, 'Baltimore's best waitress,' dishes up patter along with the food. It's just one way she shows she cares.

March 18, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

"I used to have one customer, Mr. Seth, I used to peel shrimp for him because he couldn't stand to get his hands dirty. I said, `Don't worry about it, I'll peel them in the kitchen before they come out.' I'd tell the cook, `Steam these, then give them to me.' The cook thought it was hilarious. But what are you going to do with these people? Someone comes in with a broken arm, how do you think they're going to cut [their food]?

"If you just pay attention and care for people, there's nothing to it. The cook tries something fancy that no one's ever heard of, I tell the cook, `I'm not serving that [stuff]!' If it's some kind of off-the-wall thing, I say, `Look son, this is just a little down-to-earth place. This is not Tio Pepe's. This is not the Prime Rib. It's just what it is. It's just plain food.

"Sometimes you can have some fancy stuff, but not much. They can try - put a big old price up there, but I'm not going to sell it for 'em, and I'm not going to try to explain it to my customers. The cook'll say, `Yeah, but Peggy, if you don't sell it to them, it won't sell.' And I just say, `Yeah, I know.'

"So they take care of me, too. They bring me Christmas presents and Valentine's candy. All those young boys on the UMBC [University of Maryland Baltimore County] lacrosse team brought me a sweat shirt and big box of candy. They'll come back later with their parents and give me a kiss. One little boy brought me a pretty little gold lighter and another one brought me a Ravens shirt.

"There's an 89-year-old man, who I call The Colonel, who brings me flowers for Mother's Day, Christmas, my birthday. He comes in once a week with his daughter. Another man takes me to the hairdresser every week, and if there's a funeral, there's a man who takes me to those. We just take care of each other.

"Look, there are lots of places you can eat," Peggy says. "But people really like to feel at home. I say, `Just sit down and act like you're at home.' That's what it's all about."

Two weeks ago, Peggy went back to North Carolina for her mother-in-law's 90th birthday. At the Wal-Mart, she ran into Dot Mullins, the woman who owned the "Puppy Palace" in Roanoke Rapids long ago. Forty-seven years after she started waitressing, Peggy could tell her old boss she still enjoys the work.

"I love people, I love talking to people, I love caring for people," she told Dot. "Anybody can serve food. It's the way you serve it that matters."

Care.

Work.

Two four-letter words that have converged in Peggy Bailey's time to make something exceptional from an ordinary waitressing way of life.

Peggy Bailey

Born: July 5, 1942

Mother's occupation: Waitress

Previous jobs: Cotton-picker, tobacco fieldhand, car hop, clerk/typist, textile mill worker

Offspring: Two sons, two grandchildren

Reason for not remarrying: "Takes too long to break 'em in."

First day of work at Jennings: Halloween, 1981 ("It was a Monday.")

Double-shift day: Wednesday, 10 a.m. till midnight.

Largest number ever served without writing down orders: 40

Pet peeve: Young waitresses ("The first thing they want to know is when do they get off.")

Favorite shoes: Easy Spirit, a new pair every six months, Favorite upscale restaurant: The Prime Rib

Culinary specialty: Stewed tomatoes

Favorite pastime: Playing "Pitch" at the VFW on Columbia Pike

Favorite hangout: Ship's Cafe, one block from Jennings

Favorite music: Country

Next big vacation: Nashville, Worst habit: Cigarettes, two packs a day ("I'd hate to die healthy.")

Why she keeps working: "A lot of people depend on me. I have them all spoiled rotten."

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