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Chapter Four: The New Breed

Sonny Gooden and Stewart White share their experiences in a recent interview with Simply Saratoga, 2019

It’s the summer of 1975. Just as the seasons change and time moves on, it was also moving on at the Reading Room.  The changing of the guard was taking place.  The older workers were being replaced by new, young faces that were born and raised right here, in Saratoga Springs. New young, dark faces were becoming part of our working class of black folk that helped make the Reading Room a world class club.

Our friend Ed Pinn, who started as a dishwasher with us, left for college and never returned.  Sonny, who was a great basketball player for Saratoga High School and held the scoring record at the school for 25 years and who would eventually be named to the Capital District Basketball Hall of Fame, was in college playing hoops at Broome Tech Community College in Binghamton, New York. I was also starting college at Corning Community College in Corning, New York that fall. Corning, known for being the home of Corning Glass Works, wasn’t far from Binghamton, where Sonny went to school. I spent a lot of time with him there visiting and watching him play ball. Sonny is now retired after 30+ years at GE. He is currently living in Glens Falls NY where he celebrated 39 years of marriage to his lovely wife Mary. He also finds time to be part of the Housing Commission and is also an assistant basketball coach for GFHS Varsity.

So now we had three spots to fill. Tom, who had replaced Otis as our supervisor, left it up to Sonny and me to fill the vacant positions. Three kitchen helpers were needed.  You know what we were going to do. We brought in three of our buddies. The names had changed, but the faces remained the same. All black faces.

Buster Tillman, Dave Long, and my younger brother James joined us as part of the crew. Now it wasn’t just work, it was going to be super fun. These were the guys we hung out with every day anyways. Having us all together at work made it an even sweeter place to work.

Sonny and I didn’t take long to fit right in with Fred, Tom, Mack, and our favorite, Bill as servers. We were athletic and moved quickly. We were having fun and were developing trust and building relationships with the members.  The money flow started a little slowly for us. We had to show that we knew what the heck we were doing. The section we inherited was located on the front porch. We brought a different vibe to the members. We were youthful and sometimes couldn’t contain it. Mr. Stanley Petter of Lexington, KY and probably my all-time favorite guest, used to love talking with us .He was a very health conscious man and used to love to hear our stories of playing ball.   

Sonny & Stewart, 2019

Buster, James & Dave, 1974

As a new server at the Reading Room, I found out the front porch was the place to be. I inherited the biggest tables where some of the most prominent people in the country would sit. They would bring their families and here I was, taking care of them. I used to take care of Mr. Ogden Phipps II and his family for example. Mr. Phipps was a huge name in racing circles and his family was one of the richest in the country. He was one of my first true tests. He had a nice family and would always have cute young kids at his table. During lunch, the kids would all ask for lemonades. I felt comfortable with them and I felt that Mr. Phipps was pleased with how I took care of him and his family. He would leave me a great tip to let me know how pleased he was.

With each day, my cousin Sonny and I become more and more comfortable. The more comfortable we became, we noticed the more money we made. We laughed and made jokes with the members. We were starting to develop relationships, especially with the regulars who came daily. I remember taking care of socialite Molly Wilmot and her guests at the big table in the center of the porch, which overlooked the yard. Mrs. Wilmot, who was once the neighbor of President John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach FL was a really intriguing lady. She personified style and grace. I can envision her in her white dress, heels, her large pieces of jewelry and wearing her famous white sunglasses. The porch was the perfect place for her and her guests to sit. It was important to me that she and her guests were very happy. I thought she was very entertaining, and I enjoyed serving her.

Stewart waiting of the front porch

J. White, S. White & D. Long, 1970s

I have to tell you about the moment Sonny and I had long been waiting for. The time had finally arrived… I had previously mentioned that 20% of the checks went to the servers as their tips. The checks would go over to the head office, where they would tabulate the total money made for the week and return that money to us in cash. We were actually a part of something we had only heard about previously and now it was here. The dividing of the tip money equally amongst the 8 servers was upon us.  Tom, our boss, would count out $100s eight times, one for each waiter and continue piling, until all the money was divided equally. My eyes popped when I saw it was over $700 per man. Now that’s what I was talking about and why we wanted to be servers. Our patience was finally starting to pay off. It was like that every week. The tips we were pocketing daily was becoming steadier as well.  Being college students, we were able to save, and it came in handy. I was also able to buy my first car - a 1972 Sky Blue Chrysler Newport Cruiser for $900. I had 5 of my friends in the car the day I bought it. It was a 90-degree day and we were so excited to have air conditioning. One day - later in the fall, when the temperature dropped - I would later find out that the car had no heat. Surprise!!

After dividing the tip money, each waiter would give the kitchen staff $10-$20 each. They pocketed an extra $80 or more in tips, as well as being the highest paid dishwashers in town. During the 70s, you didn’t see dishwashers making over $500 weekly. We wanted to thank them for their help.  We showed them how much we appreciated their hard work. Sunday, after the serving of the members’ breakfast, we would all sit down as a family and get treated to one of Lucille and Helen tasty meals. Life was good!!

For the next installment, chapter five,  we'll meet "Changing Times" 

For previous chapters: Chapter One: The Beginning
Chapter Two: The Old Guard
Chapter Three:  Sports Celebrities



J. White, 2016