Coffee And A Life Story In Fort Lauderdale
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.--Her story trickled out over refills of coffee we didn’t want but ordered anyway.
“You can’t retire, hello!” the 68-year-old waitress said, pouring me my third cup. “When I’m 75 years old, I’m going to have a little tray on my walker where I can put the plates.”
She did a crooked shuffle across the floor, pretending to use an invisible walker laden with customers' orders.
Michael and I had spent the day driving from Port St. Lucie to Fort Lauderdale, chasing leads about people who had retired only to find themselves pushed back to work by the recession. We must have stopped at a dozen grocery stores, scanning the baggers for wrinkled faces and tufts of white hair. We were told three elderly people worked at a CVS, but when we arrived, we found only a woman in her 20s. Maybe we showed up during the wrong shift, or on the wrong day, but we didn’t see any elderly men or women at Loews or Home Depot or McDonald's or Wendy’s – all places where people who live in this retirement magnet told us they had noticed a new, greyed workforce.
So when we walked into a Denny’s in Fort Lauderdale just after 10 p.m., we were surprised to see Florence Martin’s small, aged frame carrying trays with the ease of someone half her age. Her retirement story was not what we had been on the watch for– someone who had slipped into a routine of relaxation only to have it yanked away from them. Instead, she told us that she had never retired and that now, because of the recession, she had even less hope of doing so.
“This is my fourth recession that I’ve been through and it’s the worst one,” she said, patting her pocket where she keeps her tips. “From the feel of my pocket, it feels like $75, $80 when it should be at $100, $150. I know it’s not the service. I know the kind of service I give.”
She spoke to us in spurts, between taking care of other tables. We accepted the refills because it gave us a chance to hear more about her.
At 68, she takes care of her 95-year-old mother and an ailing husband. She’s been a waitress for 45 years, taking time off only after she suffered a heart attack and a bout of Bell's Palsy, which causes paralysis in the face.
“As I get older, it gets a little harder,” Martin said. “I’m tired. I’m tired. When I get in here at 3 p.m., I stay on my feet until I walk out to my car.”
Her car, a black Chevy HHR, is her prize possession, the place she can smoke a cigarette at the end of the night and drop the facade she has to put on all day for customers. She’s an introvert by nature, she said, but knows that if she shows her true personality, it will cost her tips. Already, those are down because of the economy, and she needs those tips to supplement her $4.25-an-hour wage.
“All they are going to see,” she said of her customers, “is this little bouncy old lady running around and not knowing that in her real life, she’s not like this.”
At one point that night, she stopped at the table next to ours and pretended to sweep up a little boy's feet. She asked him, “Do I look like a waitress?”
What followed was the routine she’s perfected over the years to make children laugh. She told him she was an elf and that she works for a blue fairy who sits on a blue cloud. The fairy has magic, she added, popping a quarter in the child’s hand to prove it.
“That’s a lucky coin,” she told the boy.
Michael and I waited, emptying our fourth or fifth cup of coffee, until Martin ended her shift. Then we walked her to her car. When she got there, she popped a few painkillers.
There are two sides to Florida’s retirement-age community, she said – those who work and those who “don’t know there is a recession going on.”
“This place…it is for the rich, for the transient, for people coming down here with $50,000 for vacation,” she said. “I’ll probably be working until my body says, ‘Okay, that’s it kiddo, you’re done.”
She said this matter of fact, without lament.
“A lot of things are mind over matter,” Martin said. “Do what you have to do in this world.”
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