The house special

Long-time waitress Peggy Bailey is renown for taking her Jennings Cafe customers' orders without writing them down.
Long-time waitress Peggy Bailey is renown for taking her Jennings Cafe customers' orders without writing them down. (Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)
People stumble in off Frederick Road out of snow or rain or whatever else life's dealt them that week, and when they step in, they just stand for a moment, as if they've broken through a bubble.

They squint into the rosy glow of ruby fluorescent lights, a red Formica-top bar, crimson lace curtains and scarlet tablecloths. They call through the smoky din.

"Where's my Peggy?"

"I want Peggy!"

"I'm here to see Miss Peggy!"

A little lady dressed in a faux tuxedo of black and white comes shuffling through the noisy crowd in her Easy Spirit shoes like some kind of Super Mario, hefting a tray of stewed tomatoes and fried oyster sandwiches in one hand and a draft beer in the other.

The white hair, the pudgy cheeks, the nod and a wink - might as well be Mrs. Claus.

"Hey, Sugar" ... "Hey, Honey" ... "Hey, baby," she says, a slur of Southern tones.

At Jennings Cafe, a dining tradition in Catonsville since 1958, Peggy Bailey is about to part the curtain on a remarkable gustatory experience, one more about friendship and kinship than the meal and a deal. At Jennings, where she has earned the sobriquets "Mayor," "Queen," and "Legend," where she serves a room ("Peggy's Parlor") named in her honor and regularly pockets tips of 25 percent to 50 percent, the 61-year-old waitress has transcended the job.

Around here, she's everyone's family.

You can find her name in the Washington/Baltimore Zagat Restaurant Survey guide under the postscript for Jennings Cafe: "Ask for Peggy - 'Baltimore's best waitress.'"

The guide's editor, Marty Katz, not only calls her "a peach and a dining treasure," but he drives all the way from Towson just to sit at one of her tables.

"She always asks about my father's health, asks about who's in the hospital or who's moved away, always has a compliment for someone who's been on a diet," he says.

He makes the pilgrimage every few weeks at dinnertime to see the same people he doesn't know, and they all make wisecracks at Peggy meant for everyone else to hear. She cuts through the paperwork and backlog in the kitchen by fixing things that can be plated up without cooking. She remembers people's favorite dishes and drinks, what they like on their burgers, what side dishes they prefer. She steers customers away from sumptuous-sounding main dishes or specials that she doesn't think are so good and raises an eyebrow if they order, in her opinion, the wrong item.

"She's not just a server," Katz says. "It reminds me of Chinese restaurants where you refer to your server as 'little cousin' or 'venerable aunt.' If you're one of her customers, you are de facto family," members of a loyal tribe.

Two guys at the end of the bar, Earl "Moe" Mosner and Bill Davis, both in their 60s, talk about her like love-smitten schoolboys.

Bill: My wife and I met her back in '68.

Moe: That's when I met her, '67. Waitressin' at the Candle Light - her and a girl named Marie.

Bill: She always set us at the window side of the dining room, and the drinks would be on the table when we got there.

Moe: She's been around ... what?

Bill: Thirty-seven years ... I'm sure you know she never writes anything down. She can wait on 20 people and never get a pencil out.

Moe: Hell of a memory.

Bill: Good gal.

Moe: Great gal! I knew her when she worked at the Middleborough Inn.

Bill: I knew her mother when she worked at Duffy's Tavern.

Mo: That's right, her mother waitressed with her, too.

Bill: Peggy grew up in North Carolina, but I'm sure you know that.

Moe: There's not a person in Catonsville that goes out at night who doesn't know her.

Moe: She comes to work every day, does her job, is kind to everybody and when she gets off she goes out and has a few drinks with the boys, goes home, gets up and the next day does it all over again. That's the kind of person she is. A sweetheart.

Bill: I could never even think of anything derogatory to say about her.

Moe: Well, I mean, she lives right across the street. She can walk from home to work. From work to the bar. From the bar, back home. That's pretty good, isn't it?

Bill: Couldn't be any more convenient.

Mo: You can't screw with Peggy. She's seen it all. ... Damn good gal. I love her.

Bill: We all love her.

The door opens, in comes Mickey Imbach. Duckpin bowling hall-of-famer. He has two women on his arms.

Mickey laughs when he sees Peggy. Since his stroke, his two daughters bring him in to visit Peggy every Wednesday. She sets his drink on the table without asking and puts in for a hot dog wrapped in baloney - mustard, not mayonnaise - without asking.

Behind them, Mary Kelly walks in with her mom, Ida Mae. Peggy hugs Ida Mae, noticing the oxygen tubes in her nose.

"Where've you been?!" Peggy asks, motioning to the tubes.

"Keeps me livin'," Ida Mae says.

Dolly Marvel, 87, brings her daughter and great-granddaughter. Shannon, who is 2, gets candied cherries. Her dad has known Peggy since Little League. They come all the way from Harford County to visit.

A rowdy crowd surrounds Sadie Witz and her sister Mary Ann at a table near the door. Sadie hugs Peggy's neck before she can get to the kitchen. Peggy orders Sadie's usual, Irish Cream and coffee, but leaves out the whipped cream. She knows Sadie always gives up the whipped cream during Lent.

Peggy escorts a weary-looking Irish woman to a seat in the corner behind the bar. A quiet spot. Secluded. The woman whispers something and Peggy orders her a Bloody Mary, "not too hot."

"First time she's been back since her friend died," Peggy says. "I couldn't put her at her usual table quite yet. Wouldn't be right. I think she's better off sitting there for today."

"Peggy!" A faint call across the room.

In the crowded restaurant no one seems to notice. Well, almost no one.

"Coming, honey!"

Fresh coffee to console the mourner behind the bar.

She learned to waitress by learning to care. She learned about caring the hard way.

There are a few things her customers don't know.

By 14, Peggy had worked in sticky North Carolina tobacco barns and started picking cotton in the fields. Her alcoholic father used to beat her mother, bloody fights that once left Peggy and her mom cowering in the outhouse all night.

Mom left North Carolina for Baltimore so she wouldn't end up dead. Dad lost his job at the paper mill. Motherless at 14, Peggy went to work to support her father and her 2-year-old sister. She became the mom.

Peggy worked at a textile mill for a while, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. "I said, no I will not do this. I will waitress."

She got a job as a car hop on roller skates. Started at the Puppy Palace in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. - "hot dogs, cheeseburgers, no booze" - making $30 a week. It was 1957. Cared for her dad, cared for her sister. As soon as she graduated from high school, she packed up herself and her baby sister and got the heck out of town. Came to Baltimore in '60. Moved in with Mom.

She tried typing. "Hated it - sitting all day." So she took a job at a deli on Park Heights Avenue, Duke & Lou's. Peggy called it "Dukey-Loos." She told Duke Bergerson she didn't know anything about Jews, pastrami, corned beef, lox or bagels. "I was raised on beans and collard greens," she said. He said, don't worry, just write down the order and bring it to me.

Her first day of work, she was nervous. She had eight Jewish customers, one of them, a handsome young man. He ordered a "tongue sandwich."

Peggy cussed him up one side and down the other.

Duke apologized to the shaken fellow and took his new waitress into the kitchen to show her the cow's tongue.

She had a lot to learn.

She waitressed for a while at a Holiday Inn near the Pimlico Race Course. One Saturday, on the day of the Preakness, she went to work and discovered she was the only waitress on the floor. The place was overrun with people, and the girl at the cash register whispered that Adolph and Joel Krisch, the country's largest Holiday Inn franchisees, were in the crowd waiting for breakfast.

"Thanks for telling me, Wanda," Peggy told the cashier.

Before you knew it, Peggy cornered the two millionaires, handed them coffee pots. "They're your customers, too," she said.

She has lots of tales. Her first flambe almost set the Candle Light restaurant in Catonsville on fire. She used to wear a basketweave wig that would get snagged in the wagon wheel lamp at the Middleborough Inn in Essex. She and the other waitresses from the Candle Light would take their tips once a month to the horse track, get a table at the wire and bet $2 apiece on the horses.

Forty-seven years of good times.

But at home, life was never so easy or carefree. The man she married in 1961 got sick in 1972, and was paralyzed during a heart catheterization. Peggy took care of him for five years until he died. At 35, she had two boys to raise herself. That began the doubleshifts - five days a week.

She and the boys lived with her mother for years, and when her mother died two years ago, Peggy rented a spare apartment behind the Cigar Landing on Frederick Road - exactly 84 steps from her door to the Jennings Cafe.

With another friendly bar and restaurant directly across the street, Peggy can triangulate her path from home to work to a seat at the bar, waving and stopping to meet people everywhere she goes. She is locally famous and so greatly loved that people stand and cheer for her every year when she rides by in the Catonsville Fourth of July parade.

Give her half a chance and she'll tell the secrets of her success.

"I have them cradle to the grave," she says. "I have one with Alzheimer's - she recognizes me, but can't cut up her own salad. So I cut it for her. It's not a big deal.

"I used to have one customer, Mr. Seth, I used to peel shrimp for him because he couldn't stand to get his hands dirty. I said, 'Don't worry about it, I'll peel them in the kitchen before they come out.' I'd tell the cook, 'Steam these, then give them to me.' The cook thought it was hilarious. But what are you going to do with these people? Someone comes in with a broken arm, how do you think they're going to cut [their food]?

"If you just pay attention and care for people, there's nothing to it. The cook tries something fancy that no one's ever heard of, I tell the cook, 'I'm not serving that [stuff]!' If it's some kind of off-the-wall thing, I say, 'Look son, this is just a little down-to-earth place. This is not Tio Pepe's. This is not the Prime Rib. It's just what it is. It's just plain food.

"Sometimes you can have some fancy stuff, but not much. They can try - put a big old price up there, but I'm not going to sell it for 'em, and I'm not going to try to explain it to my customers. The cook'll say, 'Yeah, but Peggy, if you don't sell it to them, it won't sell.' And I just say, 'Yeah, I know.'

"So they take care of me, too. They bring me Christmas presents and Valentine's candy. All those young boys on the UMBC [ University of Maryland Baltimore County] lacrosse team brought me a sweat shirt and big box of candy. They'll come back later with their parents and give me a kiss. One little boy brought me a pretty little gold lighter and another one brought me a Ravens shirt.

"There's an 89-year-old man, who I call The Colonel, who brings me flowers for Mother's Day, Christmas, my birthday. He comes in once a week with his daughter. Another man takes me to the hairdresser every week, and if there's a funeral, there's a man who takes me to those. We just take care of each other.

"Look, there are lots of places you can eat," Peggy says. "But people really like to feel at home. I say, 'Just sit down and act like you're at home.' That's what it's all about."

Two weeks ago, Peggy went back to North Carolina for her mother-in-law's 90th birthday. At the Wal-Mart, she ran into Dot Mullins, the woman who owned the "Puppy Palace" in Roanoke Rapids long ago. Forty-seven years after she started waitressing, Peggy could tell her old boss she still enjoys the work.

"I love people, I love talking to people, I love caring for people," she told Dot. "Anybody can serve food. It's the way you serve it that matters."



Two four-letter words that have converged in Peggy Bailey's time to make something exceptional from an ordinary waitressing way of life.

Born: July 5, 1942

Mother's occupation: Waitress

Previous jobs: Cotton-picker, tobacco fieldhand, car hop, clerk/typist, textile mill worker

Offspring: Two sons, two grandchildren

Reason for not remarrying: "Takes too long to break 'em in."

First day of work at Jennings: Halloween, 1981 ("It was a Monday.")

Double-shift day: Wednesday, 10 a.m. till midnight.

Largest number ever served without writing down orders: 40

Pet peeve: Young waitresses ("The first thing they want to know is when do they get off.")

Favorite shoes: Easy Spirit, a new pair every six months

Favorite upscale restaurant: The Prime Rib

Culinary specialty: Stewed tomatoes

Favorite pastime: Playing "Pitch" at the VFW on Columbia Pike

Favorite hangout: Ship's Cafe, one block from Jennings

Favorite music: Country

Next big vacation: Nashville

Worst habit: Cigarettes, two packs a day ("I'd hate to die healthy.")

Why she keeps working: "A lot of people depend on me. I have them all spoiled rotten."

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