Former Oriental Drugs waitress pours bottomless cups of memories
OMC: What was your last day like?
KH: I asked the owner, Mr. Eglash, if I could wear a crazy square dancing dress to work. And he initially said no, but then he agreed it would be OK since it was my last day. One of my favorite memories from that day was a 7-year-old girl sitting at the counter and she called me over – she had a voice like Lauren Bacall – and she said, "That dress is so beautiful. You look 17." I was 35 at the time.
OMC: Did you have a favorite customer?
KH: Yes, his name was Mr. L.C. Smith. He came in weekly, almost daily. He was a tall man with the lightest blue eyes I had ever seen. He always wore a cap. He had no teeth. He smoked Pall Malls and he was unfailingly polite. "'Ma'am, I'll have a burger with a little bit of butter and a slice of raw. Thank you, ma'am. And a cup of coffee." I started calling him my peach. I was always happy to see him. I said he could call me Kathy and he said, "Oh, yes, ma'am."
I noticed even without teeth he liked to chew Bazooka bubble gum so I got him some and initially he would not take them, but eventually I won him over, and he took them.
It turns out he had schizophrenia; I knew something was off about him. His mind really started to go and he seemed confused. He tried to go out through the in turnstile and would bring Maxwell House jars filled with pennies to pay for his food. He was at the cash register once and his pants fell down, and I was like, "Sir!" and he was like, "Never you mind, ma'am. Never you mind." And then walked off to the bathroom.
He didn't come in for a week, so Marlene, another server, and I went down to try to find him. We knew he lived on 14th and State. When we got there they told us he was at Froedtert so we went out there and they said, "We're so happy someone showed up who knows this guy." With a name like Smith, they couldn't find any family. So they told us he had advanced lung cancer.
They sent him to a nursing home at 98th and Appleton. We brought him some clothes and cigarettes and bubble gum a few days later. It was a deplorable, horrible nursing home. He was so out of it. I fed him. I tried to give him the bubble gum and root beer and the nurse ran over and said, '"He can't have that! We have him on a strict calorie count." Yeah right, I gave it to him anyway. He died four days later.
A year and a half later, his family came to the drugstore. They lived in California, but someone from the hospital told them, "You should go visit these waitresses at the Oriental." They were so happy we could tell them how their dad was at the end of his life. I got his box of dominoes.
There are stories like this all over the drugstore.
OMC: How did you feel about the Oriental closing?
KH: People kept asking me how I felt about it, and I didn't know. I did not go in on the last day, I had said my goodbyes. A bunch of us all met that night at Hooligan's and said more goodbyes. The day after it closed I was standing across the street, looking at it, and I said, "I hate it. I hate that it's not there."
It was the anchor for that neighborhood. It was one-stop shopping with the pharmacy, the hardware store, the small grocery store, the post office, magazines, newspapers, books, the diner.
I moved away for two years. I went to Arizona. When I came back, I was shocked by what had happened to the neighborhood.
OMC: Do you still own a "I'm Hooked On Oriental Drugs" T-shirt?
KH: I do. The black-and-white one. But it's a big one. I don't wear it except for once in while. It's a memory. I had the last receipt, finally just disintegrated.
OMC: What was your favorite thing on the menu?
KH: My favorite thing – and this is going to sound so horrible – but I loved the Jaeger white bread slathered in butter and then dipped in the roast beef gravy. To die for. I liked the cheeseburgers on English muffins. I like to think that I started that, but somebody on Facebook thinks they started it.
And the grilled cheese sandwiches and the coffee. The 45-cent coffee. We could raise the price of anything on the menu, but not the coffee. You raised the coffee prices and oh, my God, did they bitch.
But it was the whole thing: the horseshoe counters, the restaurant china, the people in the kitchen, it was us.
OMC: Have people always recognized you from the Oriental?
KH: Oh, yeah. I went to my job at the theater one night and they had hired this new guy and I walked behind the concession stand and he freaked out and I'm like, '"What's your problem?" and he was so excited and he finally said, "Oh my God, you poured me coffee!" And apparently – I don't remember this but he told me this years later – I turned to him and said, "I'm sure I did. I've poured coffee for every f*cking body in this city."
That's the kind of reaction I got for working at the Oriental. It was crazy. People always say, "I know you, I see you everywhere." But I was like, "No, you don't know me." I wrestled with that for a long time. But people are still like, "I know you, I know you!"
And I get it. That was my corner of the world for years. I worked at the drug store, the theater, Sweet Doomed Angel and then at Beans and Barley. On my first day at Beans, Lynn (Sbonik) one of the owners asked if we had ever worked together before and I said, "No, it just feels that way because I have served you cheese soup, torn your ticket, served your popcorn, sold you a book at Schwartz. So that's why it feels like that."
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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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