Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thank you Mary Baker

Sometimes we're blessed by angels in our lives, though they're often disguised to us (and maybe to themselves).

Mary Baker, who passed away earlier this month, maybe had the best disguise of all.

When I was a teenager initially growing up in Sterling Park, Virginia and then later returning there for my senior year in high school, Mary ran the local pizza parlor, Sterling Pizza (pretty much the only restaurant in Sterling at the time).

As graduation neared, summer job prospects were slim for a teenager with fair-to-good calculus skills but not much else going for him.

On the recommendation of two friends, Mary hired me to work at Sterling Pizza, though she made sure to explain at the time that it was against her better judgment and that we would just have to see whether things worked out. Given my utter lack of restaurant (or any other useful) skills and yet still imbued with a teenager's infinite sense of wisdom, the job offer represented a true leap of faith on Mary's part.

During the first few days, during slow spells in the mornings and afternoons, Mary patiently showed me how to cook, clean, and run a cash register. It didn't take long to find out that there was a very strict quota on that patience. Mary's "kind" voice lasted through her demonstration of something and through your first (and maybe second) try of that same thing. After that, the task was yours, and heaven help you if the task wasn't thereafter performed to the standards that Mary set.

Within a few days, you were also expected to perform those tasks at the pace that Mary had set and to do so in the middle of a lunch or dinner rush. Because the shop was small, there was only room for a handful of employees. Orders were barked out and managed by whoever ran the register (later when I worked in a larger restaurant, I would find out that this is called expediting). With few employees, limited counter space, and only two ovens, orders usually backed up. At these especially tense times, Mary helped us with new vocabulary and occasional screaming.

Within a couple of weeks, Mary trusted you with most of her business. There were a few tasks, such as ordering and training that she kept to herself, but everything else was eventually handed over for substantial stretches of time to her mostly teenage crew. Opening, closing, making the bank in the morning, closing and reconciling the register at night were all left in the hands of her pimply charges.

All of us who worked there were grateful for that trust. I was additionally grateful for a job that was available each winter break and each summer for the next several years. Mostly though, I was and remain grateful for a door that was opened and an opportunity that was given.

After I took my first post-college job working as an economics research assistant in a Washington research firm, I still came back for a few weekends to work at the restaurant when Mary was short-handed. Mary met almost all of the girls that I dated. For a short while, she actually took in the first girl that I was engaged to as a boarder, and she was kind enough not to make this known to the second. She met my oldest son, but sadly had closed Sterling Pizza before I could introduce her to my youngest.

It was important to me that Mary see some of the blessings that she contributed to. I hope that she can still see some of those blessings now.