Instinctively I hated such work from my birth. I loathed it and shrank from it. Why? I could not have said. Had I been born in Carolina instead of Massachusetts I should hardly have escaped the taint of “service.” Its temptations in wage and comfort would soon have answered my scruples; and yet I am sure I would have fought long even in Carolina, for I knew in my heart that thither lay Hell.
I mowed lawns on contract, did “chores” that left me my own man, sold papers, and peddled tea—anything to escape the shadow of the awful thing that lurked to grip my soul. Once, and once only, I felt the sting of its talons. I was twenty and had graduated from Fisk with a scholarship for Harvard; I needed, however, travel money and clothes and a bit to live on until the scholarship was due. Fortson was a fellow-student in winter and a waiter in summer. He proposed that the Glee Club Quartet of Fisk spend the summer at the hotel in Minnesota where he worked and that I go along as “Business Manager” to arrange for engagements on the journey back. We were all eager, but we knew nothing of table-waiting. “Never mind,” said Fortson, “you can stand around the dining-room during meals and carry out the big wooden trays of dirty dishes. Thus you can pick up knowledge of waiting and earn good tips and get free board.” I listened askance, but I went.
I entered that broad and blatant hotel at Lake Minnetonka with distinct forebodings. The flamboyant architecture, the great verandas, rich furniture, and richer dresses awed us mightily. The long loft reserved for us, with its clean little cots, was reassuring; the work was not difficult,—but the meals! There were no meals. At first, before the guests ate, a dirty table in the kitchen was hastily strewn with uneatable scraps. We novices were the only ones who came to eat, while the guests’ dining-room, with its savors and sights, set our appetites on edge! After a while even the pretense of meals for us was dropped. We were sure we were going to starve when Dug, one of us, made a startling discovery: the waiters stole their food and they stole the best. We gulped and hesitated. Then we stole, too, (or, at least, they stole and I shared) and we all fattened, for the dainties were marvelous. You slipped a bit here and hid it there; you cut off extra portions and gave false orders; you dashed off into darkness and hid in corners and ate and ate! It was nasty business. I hated it. I was too cowardly to steal much myself, and not coward enough to refuse what others stole.