I once met a woman who reminded me of a chicken, and another one who often stored muffins between her breasts. At the time I met them, they were both well into their 70s, if not older. Though many, many years have passed since then, they were so memorable that I based two of my favorite people in THE JUICE, my sci-fi novel, on them.
At the time, we were in a kind of mom-and-pop vacation resort in the Catskills—a humbler version of places like Grossinger’s. But Henny Youngman—and Mrs. Maisel—never played there. The guests got off on polka, square dancing and sauerbraten.
I was 17 and had decided to strike out on my own and earn some cash. So along with a couple of high school friends, I ventured forth from my tiny hometown and found a gig in the resort waiting tables.
The place was owned by a family of German heritage, with a steely, petit woman as the star host. She ruled the staff with an iron fist—which was probably the only way to control a bunch of largely untrained-puppy laborers.
My friends and I had never waited tables before. I was terrible at it, never quite got the knack of timing my visits to customer tables when I was needed. People were always yelling for me, or at me. But somehow, I made it through the summer, and came back for another round a couple of years later.
The resort was named after a woman who had started the resort decades before, the host’s mother. But the older woman was largely retired by the time we got there. Like the Gram character in my novel, she looked like a giant chicken. She had big arms with wobbly skin that must have been arthritic, because she was always rubbing them as she moaned “My arms! My arms!”
The kitchen was her main domain. She did prep work and barked out orders left and right. “Hey Blackhead!” she’d yell at me, referring not to my skin but to my hair. She thought she was really funny, but how could I take someone who looked like poultry seriously?
I was more interested in what was going on behind the restaurant in the little cabins where the hired help lived. Each dwelling was extremely tiny, consisting of one room, with a couple of old beds and just enough room for a nightstand and bureau. The buildings were just one step up from dirt-floor shacks.
It didn’t matter. We were out on our own for the first time, experimenting with booze, weed and driving 100 MPH up the thruway to make an Elton John concert in Saratoga. There was a motley crew of other kids away from home for the summer—some of them from that terribly exotic location for me at the time: New York City. My crush of that first summer was a guy who could play the A side of ABBEY ROAD on the piano, from start to finish, without pause.
There was an elderly lady who lived among us in the shacks, and the memory of her became the inspiration for another character in my novel: Felicity. Rumor had it that at one point, this woman had been a guest at the resort—the wife of a wealthy New York dentist. But he’d lost all their money and died. She’d come back to work as a housecleaner in the summer, getting out of the city heat.
She seemed to moisturize with baby oil, because her wrinkled skin always had that kind of wet sheen to it. Like many of us, she wore a white uniform, but sometimes she got mixed up and put it on backwards.
Other times, when her uniform was on the right way and she bent over, we could see muffins or rolls bobbing between her breasts—like Felicity in my novel. I had a soft spot for her, and she had one for me. Whenever she saw me, coming to or from the restaurant, she’d curtsy and call out, “Hello Elizabeth,” with a beaming smile. She thought that with my high dark ponytail and dark eyebrows I looked like Elizabeth Taylor in NATIONAL VELVET. Her eyesight was fuzzy, but that was a helluva lot better than Blackhead.
If you’d told me back then that I’d create two characters in a sci-fi novel based on those two women, I would have been blown away. But with material like that, how could I forget, and how could I resist? In retrospect, the experience of meeting them kind of turned me into a goose who turned around in her nest several decades after she first sat down and suddenly realized she had a couple of golden eggs. At least, those ladies are golden in my eyes.