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."
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."
OMC: What was the uniform like?
KH: We had to wear polyester uniforms and, early on, we had to wear hairnets. Ain't nothing attractive about it. There was a blue and a brown polyester and white pants and then there was a polyester dress. Originally there was a winter one and a summer one and eventually we just went with the blue ones.
OMC: What other memories surface for you?
KH: There was a blizzard in the early '90s. A lot of the other waitresses lived on the South Side and they couldn't get there. So they called Marlene and I because we lived above the drugstore – I lived above the "D" (of the Drugs sign) on Farwell – and we didn't have an excuse so we came down at 7 a.m. even though we usually worked later in the day and eventually Dolores came in but we didn't have a cook and we were deciding what to do and the owner showed up but we were open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the place was jammed.
I waited on some people four times that day. They just sat there and sat there. One guy sat down with about 13 more customers and called out to me, "When you have a minute, I'll have a cup of coffee." The minute he said that I thought, "I hate you." And from that day on, I always hated him. "When you have a moment...?!" Check with me tomorrow!
It was real life in there. Don died of AIDS early on. He was the kitchen manager. He was a very dignified, amazing man. There was all this tittering after he died at the drugstore and there were these three customers, who I loved — I called them the Old Goat, The General and then there was Reggie. The Old Goat was my landlord, and he called me an Old Wet Duck. They were tittering about it one day and I said, "You would not do this to his face and you're not going to do it now and you're never going to do it here because you all loved Don and he ran this place amazingly." And so they didn't. At least not in front of me anyway.
OMS: When did you work at the Oriental Theatre?
KH: From 1978 to 1996. On June 6, 1977 I went there to see "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution." And the Oriental got me. I was like, "wow, wow, wow!"
I loved working there, but people always asked me, "when you going to get out of here? When you going to go to school?" They asked me this at the Oriental, too. The thing is, I had already gone to school. I have a degree in sign language interpretation. I didn't know when I was going to leave the drugstore, but I knew you wouldn't find me in the back with a beehive (hairdo).
OMC: Have you ever been married? Do you have kids?
KH: Single, never married, no kids.
OMC: You quit waitressing for a long time, but then you returned. How did that happen?
KH: After Beans, I thought I would never work in a restaurant again. I was burned out. But I have a new saying: life is funny.
Five years ago, I saw an article about Transfer opening and the owners said they were committed to the neighborhood, using fresh local produce and had rehabbed the building. What caught my eye was that they rehabbed the building. Anybody who will honor both the architecture and the history of a building is aces in my book, especially in this city. I'm still mourning the loss of the Coast Guard building. I have over 900 photos of that building because I was like, "Dammit, they just let it rot."
But usually when I say never, I mean it. And yet I cut out the article, put it in my wallet and thought about it. My friend Francis Ford and I were running errands and we passed Transfer and he said "there it is" knowing that I had been thinking about it. I said I was still on the fence, but he knows me really well and he pulled the car over and said, "get out."
Transfer turned out to be so much more than a restaurant to me. I love working for these guys. They are so supportive of their employees in so many ways. But anyway, I went in and talked to (co-owner) Stacy (Zielinski). She asked if I had experience and I told her all of the places I had worked. At the end I said, "And The Oriental Drugstore."
There was a man sitting at the bar and he turned to me and said, "That's where I know you from."
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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