During my 19th summer, I worked as a server at Mr. John's, a truck stop on Edmonton's south side. The place was open 24 hours and I was assigned rotating shifts: 8-4, 4-12, or 12-8. Aside from foolishly giving away Wayne Gretzky rookie cards that might have paid for a year's tuition if sold, it was a fairly uneventful summer job...but for one particular shift.
I arrived at the truck stop shortly before 4 p.m. on a warm midsummer afternoon. In my dress shirt and slacks, I was the very picture of professional servitude, ready to juggle plates and coffee urns for the next eight hours.
For most of the afternoon and evening, business was steady but manageable for my small team of servers, cooks and busboys. At midnight, as per the restaurant policy, I closed the non-smoking section and awaited the arrival of the graveyard shift.
Save for the cook, they never came. Meanwhile, my fellow afternoon-shift employees streamed out the door and into the black summer night even as more customers streamed in. Suddenly, I was the only server on hand.
I immediately phoned each server scheduled for the graveyard shift, but all pleaded illness. Not knowing how to proceed - I was, after all, only 19 - I phoned the manager.
"Nothing I can do," he said sleepily. "You'll just have to handle it."
And so I did, on what turned out to be the busiest night of the summer. The lower portion of the restaurant was completely full, and yet customers continued to cram themselves into the restaurant, pushing aside the chairs I'd used to block off the non-smoking section and seating themselves while I attempted to take orders and refill coffee.
The night went by in a blur: pour coffee, hand orders to the cook, collect food, serve food, make more coffee, refill soda machine, clear tables, rush to the back to wash dishes, man the register,run over to the convenience store/gas station side of the business to man that register, make the rounds to ensure the food was good, run to the back to sort dishes, wipe tables, clean messes, assist the cook. There was a lineup for tables the entire night - not a single moment of respite. If the gas station hadn't been relatively quiet I probably couldn't have kept up at all.
At one point we ran out of cutlery because the washing machine couldn't keep up with the volume I was cramming into it. There were forks and knives in storage downstairs, and I raced to the stairwell intent on collecting them. But my haste was my downfall; at the top of the stairs I tripped, plunging head-over-heels down the stairwell. My head bounced off the stairs at least twice, but I miraculously ended up feet-first on the basement floor, only to have my momentum propel me head-first into the opposite wall. Stunned but high on adrenalin and desperation, I collected the extra cutlery and raced back upstairs. My teenage lungs filled with second-hand smoke, but I fought through it, smiling through the grey haze at the bemused truckers and exhausted travelling families who were our primary customers.
The shift remained frantic until 8 a.m. Eyes red and lungs blackened by tobacco, I felt a surge of giddy relief when the manager arrived. He surveyed the restaurant, flicked through the night's receipts and nodded in satisfaction.
"You had a good night," he said. "Nice job managing that yourself."
"Thanks," I smiled, extending a weary hand toward the exit door.
"Make sure to vacuum before you leave, okay?"
I left an hour later, the truck stop carpets pristine but my mood considerably muted by a 17 hour shift and a probable concussion. There was a bountiful silver lining in my pockets, however - over a hundred crisp 1988 dollars, thanks to the generous and patient patrons I'd done my best to serve. That money paid for my second-year university texts, some of which I retain today, the hard-won fruits of a long, smoky night.