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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Coffee And A Life Story In Fort Lauderdale

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Through a window fogged by a rainstorm, Florence Martin can be seen waiting on a table. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.

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Florence Martin has worked as a waitress for 45 years and has little hope of retiring soon. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.

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“As I get older, it gets a little harder,” said Florence Martin, 68. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.

He giggled.

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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A group of men and women enjoy the sun and their retirement at Hobe Sound, Fla. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  July 3, 2009; 11:11 AM ET
 
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Comments

This and the article on homelessin FL really point to education in America. This lady may not have had the opportuntity for an education that would have pulled her out of a lifetime of waitressing. The realy troubling thing is the article on homeless in FL notes youger people and in particular one couple in their early 20s. Why don't our youth get an education? Do they not see that this is their way ahead? Are we failing them before they get to high school? I think in many cases we are. But I think in home education about the realities of the world and the fact that life it tough and expensive and the fruits of life will not be served up on a silver platter are critically important. In some cases we have affluent parents who raise kids who then become homeless or nearly homeless and contribute virtually nothing to society. I came from a blue collar family in a small town in New England and the first in my family to go to college. I have accomplished a lot in the near 30 years since high school and much of it I credit to education. I grew up in a district with great education and lots of opportunities and went to a state college of the same nature. Are these now rarities in our society? Really, in America we need to focus on education - basic stuff. Stay in school, do your homework, forego immediate pleasures for future rewards, eat your fruits and vegetables and get some exercise. I believe education is the big factor causing our serious obesity problem in this country too. We need to start focusing on how to change things and accept that we have somehow gotten on the wrong track. Feeling bad and providing handouts make us feel good but they won't fix the underlying problems. We need our people to be smarter.

Posted by: jdp123 | July 3, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

As I've read these entries, it has struck me that many of these tales of woe are less indicative of the current recession and more a reflection of the chaotic lives of the poor in America. Many of the people featured in these essays obviously lack an education, and I agree with much of what the previous poster says. There's also several who truly seem to lack any intrinsic motivation or even common sense. Those hit hardest by this recession are the lower middle class, many of whom have been knocked into the ranks of the poor...and only a few of these essays seem to focus on them. These are the stories I find the most compelling. Those whose choices (a loaded word, I know) have kept them poor will still be poor after the recession is over.

Posted by: mlc2 | July 3, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Having posted what I did above, I should say that this woman has an interesting story. The difference of about $25-50 in tips makes a huge difference in her world. I had a hard time mustering sympathy for the couple in the last essay whose choices prior to the recession were questionable.

Posted by: mlc2 | July 3, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Go back to the central west part of FL and you will see plenty of retirees at work. I lived in the Tampa Bay area for 13 years and saw plenty of old men bagging groceries, little old ladies working counters or as waitresses, etc.

Gonna echo what the previous couple of posts say, in that education is so vital. I read some of these stories and shake my head at the young people just wandering to some town "because they heard there was work there". Stay in school and get a solid education would be my best advice.

Posted by: pk_1 | July 6, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

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