As a high school student in Philadelphia in the ’40s, I earned expenses by working during the summers as a waitress in a small hotel in Atlantic City. The very small salary, augmented by tips, provided enough to buy my school wardrobe of sweaters and pleated skirts, saddle shoes, and bobby sox. The hotel provided room and board: a basement room furnished with cast-off furniture from the guest rooms, and breakfast and dinner. Our dinner was a pot of what the management called chicken fricassee, but which we termed, more realistically, as bones and gravy. As for breakfast, if we chose to augment the gummy scrambled eggs with cold cereal, we had to pour the cereal slowly and carefully into a bowl, to be sure no insects tumbled out with the flakes or puffs. We took the same precautions, of course, when serving cereal to our patrons. We mostly chose to pass on the hotel food, since we could fill up on hot dogs and frozen custard on the boardwalk.
I remember the one time my diligence failed. A couple was engaged in animated conversation when I saw the man dip his spoon into his bowl of cornflakes, his eyes fixed on his partner as he lifted the spoon to his mouth. He didn’t notice the cockroach nestled in the spoon, waving its legs in an attempt to escape. I stood transfixed as he swallowed the spoonful and its inhabitant, knowing there was no time to warn him, and having no idea what I would say if there had been time. Memory lingers on.