A LIFETIME OF SERVICE
One day, while dining at Taix French Restaurant, I met Antonia Becerra, a barely reaching 5 foot tall, 84-year old waitress wearing an apron around her waist, spilling pens and papers out of her pockets and carrying a tray full of cocktails. It was love at first sight.
I was since set out to find seniors who have been in the service industry for a lifetime. These are the working class heroes we never hear about and I wanted nothing more than to shine a light their way. Every character I meet is a box of memories and anecdotes. Each encounter fills my soul with love and reassures me that having a reason to wake up every day, not matter the age, adds years to your life.
Antonia Becerra, 85, worked at Taix French Restaurant for 48 years. “I got the job through a friend who used to work there and told me, ‘You better come over and start working with us.'” She retired last year but continues to come in every Saturday. “I never thought I’d be serving this long but it happened. The bosses were excellent.”
Rafael “Rafi” Covarrubias is 84. He works the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift five days a week at Pacific Dining Car in Downtown LA. “I love this place. I like what I do and I make a decent living doing it. It also protects my sanity.” A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, Covarrubias says he became a bartender by accident. “When I moved to LA at the age of 25, I started washing dishes at a hotel. Then I got the opportunity to bartend.”
Bella Haig, 81, has been walking the freckled floors of Canter’s deli for the past 51 years. “My mother would take me to Canter’s as a kid. It used to be in Boyle Heights and then in 1948, it moved to this location…I worked nights and my husband managed a parking lot during the day so we never needed a babysitter.”
Donald Levin, 80, has been serving scalding cups of coffee and tasty slices of banana cream pie at Marie Callendar’s on Wilshire for the last 30 years. He works six days a week and plans to retire next year. “It’s strange because I’m not a very social person but I do enjoy serving the public.”
Pat Fisher, 65, has been baking sweet potato pies at Les Sisters Southern Kitchen and BBQ in Chatsworth since 1992. “I love what I’m doing. Plus I get to meet new people and I get to see lots of regulars. I’ve created a family here.” She started serving at 15. “I had my first crack at being a server here in LA at The Nickel Spot, one of the few Black-owned Southern restaurants in the ‘60s. It was so hard, I never wanted to do it again, but here I am, still serving.”
Linda Yamamoto, 65, works the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at Olympic Cafe, Mid-Wilshire. Her parents opened the restaurant in 1972 and she became a part of the family business when she was 21. “I’ll retire when I hate to be here or when I don’t like the business. But for now, I love my customers and it gives me something to get up for.”
George Karkabasis, 75, started working at Canter’s in 1964. “I’ve been with them for 50 years, they are my life.” Amazingly, Karkabasis says he still feels like he is 19-years-old. “You deal with the people, you deal with the public, you keep your mind working, your body active, that’s what keeps you going.”
Vel West didn’t want to reveal her age but she did say she’s been working in restaurants across LA since 1960. She’s been at The Dresden in Los Feliz for nearly 18 years. “I love the people. If you’re in a place long enough you become friends with the customers and their kids. When the people pass on, I can still see their kids.”