Former Oriental Drugs waitress pours bottomless cups of memories
Chances are, if you lived on the East Side of Milwaukee in the '80s and / or '90s, Kathleen Hamilton sold you a movie ticket, helped you find a book or poured you a cup of coffee.
Hamilton, 54, worked at a variety of high-profile Milwaukee businesses, including the Oriental Theatre, the now-defunct punk / goth shop Sweet Doomed Angel, Schwartz Bookshops and Beans and Barley.
She also spent a decade waitressing at the iconic Oriental Pharmacy Tea House diner from 1984 to 1994.
Today, Hamilton serves at Transfer, 101 W. Mitchell St. She has developed a passion for photography and shows her work around town. But people still remember her most as the cute, young waitress in the blue polyester uniform who served food and coffee with a charming mix of sweetness and sass.
Recently, OnMilwaukee.com spent the afternoon with Hamilton and had the chance to experience through her the quirky and meaningful decade she spent working at the Oriental.
OnMilwaukee.com: Were you a customer before you worked at the Oriental?
Kathleen Hamilton: Yes. I just started hanging out there. I liked the crazy cast of characters. You never knew what was going to sit next to you.
One time I was sitting there and I got up to go to the bathroom and there was this weird guy sitting next to me that I had seen around, but he was kind of freaking me out. He had earrings all around his ears, and granny glasses and a woman's shirt on and I was like, "I can't get a handle on you." Years later, I met him again and he became my hairdresser for 19 years. I said to him once, "Hey, do you remember that time you and I were sitting next to each other at the drug store?" "Yeah," he said to me, "you really freaked me out."
OMC: So how did you start working there?
KH: In 1984, Leona, one of the waitresses, asked me if I wanted a job there. At the time, I was working at Sweet Doomed Angel and the Oriental Theatre. So she slipped an application in a Sentinel and gave it to me because she didn't want this one waitress to see.
OMC: Which waitress? Why?
KH: Anita, people called her Tomiko. She was the one Leona didn't want to see her giving me an application. I guess she felt like I was competition. She was going out with this guy named Gary, and Gary looked like a gnome and for some reason she had got it in her head that I had the hots for him and she got in my face about it. I had no idea what she was talking about. I had to leave. She wouldn't back down.
But people loved her. She was bawdy. She always had something to say about something. But she and I, well, all the years we worked together, we kept our distance.
OMC: So back to the application ...
KH: Well, I filled it out and took it in. Don, who was the manager at the time, said to me in the interview, "Oh, I know you. You laugh a lot. You're hired."
And then it started. And thus began my education.
I was the last hire for eight years and the youngest one behind the counter. After having been a customer for a few years and then being on the other side, it's such a different perspective. Visually. My first couple of days I was just staring, staring and Leona would walk by me and say, "Don't stare!"
OMC: Why did the Oriental lunch counter appeal to so many people?
KH: What really made it special was the sense of community. There was and is no other place like it on the planet. Goldmann's was close, but not exactly. Brady Street Pharmacy was a poor cousin. (Laughs.)
You couldn't walk in there and not know someone. We had customers who went on vacation and their first stop before going home was to stop at the Oriental, and loudly announce, "We're home!" All walks and all talks of life came in on a never-ending basis. It was a treat. It was really a treat.
OMC: How were the tips?
KH: In the beginning, the first eight years, you would hit the floor from 2 to 10, it was constant. They nickel and dimed you to death, but in the end, it added up. I would take a box of change at the end of the month to the bank and have $500 in coins.
When I left in 1994, my hourly was $3.75 and they had profit sharing for their employees, paid sick days, paid vacations. It was amazing.
OMC: So why did you leave?
KH: It was time to go. I had been there a long time. And it was security. But I started to see the handwriting on the wall. Business was dropping off. The older clientele were dying.
But this is really why I quit, seriously: I had a dream I had a week to live on a Thursday night and I had to decide in the dream what to do so I could die peacefully and gracefully and the next day was a Friday and my friend read my tarot cards and he said I had to decide what made me happy and that I should bring that into my life.
The next day, it was Saturday, I went to my job and looked around and said, "I'm not happy here." I went in the back, looked at the calendar and saw June 18 was a Saturday and I said to myself, "Looks like a good day to have off." So I grabbed a guest check book, wrote on it, "Dear Debbie, I'm sad to say, June 15 will be my last day." I stuck it up on the grill. I had four more hours to pull it down and I didn't do it. I had a part-time job at the theater still, but that was all – I didn't have another job lined up.
About a week later, I was walking past a customer, my former landlord, and he was reading the sports page and the headline read, "Hamilton leaves huge gap to fill." I still had that until someone stole my wallet a few years ago. When I cut it out I thought, "I'm going to be OK." Page 1 of 3 (view all on one page)
what's wrong with prefacing an order with "when you have a moment...."? sounds polite to me, and definitely sounds better than demanding it immediately when you can see the waitress is busy. waitstaff have some of the weirdest pet peeves, and yes, i've waited tables.
Great read, very enjoyable interview. OMC needs more of these. Fascinating subject and work Molly!
I really liked this story. Kathy is just one of those genuinely good people that you're always happy to see.
What a wonderful article. Thank you for the memories.
Great interview! Milwaukee needs more Kathleen Hamiltons.
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