Thursday, September 15, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - Hey Waitress by Helen Potrebenko

As a dear old friend of ours used to say, 'I'm a day late, and a dollar short.' Just pretend it's Wednesday.

I first heard of Hey Waitress and other stories by Helen Potrebenko here and was so impressed that I bought a second hand copy online. As I read this story, I thought often of Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress. Hey Waitress is about Stella Sutcliffe and her daughter Ginny who live in an inexpensive rental house in Vancouver. They are very close, in that way I've always imagined single mothers and their daughters to be. Stella is on break from university and finding it hard to get a job for that short a time.
The trouble was that with about half a million unemployed in the province, no one was very excited about a job applicant who had just completed first year English at university and wanted a job only until the next term started. Stella had worked and scrimped with a single-minded obsession so Ginny could go to school but she was unable to provide the network that was as essential as the schooling.
We learn a lot about Stella's work as a waitress, and the place where she is employed, The Sea Prince 'one of a series of ships which were redesigned to become restaurants.' Later in the story Stella says to a fellow waitress:
... have you ever worked in a restaurant designed to be one? Look at the way the Sea Prince kitchen is on a different level and you have to lug trays up and down stairs. It seems as if every restaurant was originally built to be something else and then became a restaurant.
When we as customers go to such a place, do we ever think about the work the waitresses have to do? I doubt it. We are thinking, oh what a cool ship and noticing all the nautical details rather than how far away the kitchen is from the dining area. This is one of many things I learned by listening to an 'insider.' When her friend Myra has to leave her job because of neck and shoulder pain, Stella tells her that:
... instead of replacing her, Dalton had hired another waitress and changed the rules so the waitresses collected the cash. It was, in effect, a drop in wages since the cashier/waitresses now had to cover the cost of customers who left without paying since they were handing their own cash.
And Myra tells Stella,
One place I worked the manager would look over my bills and charge me for coffee every time customers hadn't ordered coffee, or dessert. ... I had to pay it out of my tips.
Over time, Ginny meets a guy and thinks she is in love. He's a drug dealer, and eventually Ginny moves out and she and her mother become estranged for a while. Other than that guy, the characters in this story are good and decent people. They work hard, they don't complain, they want the best for their children. It is one of the best stories I've ever read. It's about real people. People you see, or don't see, every day.
Waitresses are like baseball players, only without the million dollar salaries.

All those people, Ginny mused. Dreaming of other things. What's wrong with waitressing? It's just the attitude people have. And that attitude would change in a split second if waitresses got decent pay.
I loved this story. I love this writer. I've read one other story in the book which I'll write about sometime. Helen Potrebenko tells a good tale, with honesty and a bit of humor. You don't feel sorry for her characters because they don't feel sorry for themselves. They get on with life, regardless of what that life may bring. Fiction doesn't get better than this.

Helen Potrebenko has a blog of her writing, but it hasn't been updated since last year. Too bad because it was good. It has poems and stories by her. I know that I'm going to try and buy everything she has written. She is a stellar writer.

Hey Waitress, first story. 31 pages long. Collection published 1989.


  1. Sounds lovely. I like stories that let me peek into lives and places that I wouldn't normally notice, in the real world. I will be looking this up.

  2. I haven't heard of this writer, but the story sounds great: the mother-daughter relationship and the focus on an overlooked and unglamorous job. I like it when authors point us to people and things we take for granted.

    Also thanks for directing me to your review of The Basement Room and its movie version, The Fallen Idol; the movie has gone on my list of films to watch (I suspect I'll need to mentally brace myself before watching it - the story was so heavy and hopeless.)

  3. Dave and I always think about the work the waitresses do because his older sister was a waitress all her working life. And none of them are paid enough, so we tip well too unless our service is absolutely awful.

  4. never heard of her, will look into acquiring some second hand, and I LOVE your new header picture
    have a lovely weekend, Nan.

  5. It's a wonderful story, and she's a wonderful writer, Che.

    I can't praise it highly enough, HKatz. And good luck with the movie. I gave it four stars at Netflix.

    Barbara, then I think you would really, really appreciate the Counter Culture book. It's a real tribute to waitresses.

    Niki, there's more about her here:

    I love your new little photo. Is it called an avatar?

  6. I was thinking about seveal restaurants we've enjoyed -- for the atmosphere-- as I read. I hadn't heard about this writer and I'm not, in general, a fan of short stories, but I will look for this one. Because we believe strongly that all honest work deserves honor and respect.

  7. Sallie, I think you'd love the story, and also the book Counter Culture I mentioned. It offers great stories and photographs of waitresses, along with history of the work.
    Hey Waitress is a long short story if that helps.:<)


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