Trackside waitress hangs up apron after 34 1/2 yearsPublished 10:15am Friday, February 26, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
When Billie Jean Bailey started waitressing at Trackside almost 34 1/2 years ago on Sept. 8, 1975, it was P&J’s, Pat and Jim Pierson’s pizza.
Current owner Donna Colley is Bailey’s eighth boss for eight years come May.
Her first, Jim Pierson, returned for her last day Thursday, when customers watered her money tree, overtipped, signed her quilt and hugged her for all those big cupcakes and other personal touches.
“We’re going to miss you,” one man – and they’re mostly men – is overheard.
“I was only going to work here a year,” she said Thursday morning. “I loved it and never left. I love people and I loved my job.”
As she bustles to the front door to hug some departing customers, a Lawton man formerly of Dowagiac digging into one in the booth behind her volunteers that Trackside serves “the best breakfasts in southwest Michigan – a decent breakfast at a fair price. When I’m in town, I come here.”
Bailey is not sure how she’ll spend her retirement besides “lose my mind.”
Certainly she and her husband, Duane, who likes to garden, will be headed to their place up north, where Billie Jean enjoys fishing – but not mushrooming.
“I don’t like to walk,” she said. “After I get out of here” and on her feet for hours, “I’m too tired to walk. I love to bake. Cook, no,” though she has done that on occasion at Trackside, as well as “plumbing and dishwashing. I’ve done it all, but I’m primarily a waitress.”
Billie Jean, who turns 66 in May, took full advantage of an old Sadie Hawkins Day dance, where girls ask guys out. That invitation to Duane was in ninth grade.
The restaurant and community coffee shop became Trackside more than 20 years ago when Linda and Jim Engle acquired it.
“I like my job,” said Bailey, who could “probably write a book” about Dowagiac with the news and gossip hashed over every morning.
Bailey lives on Hamilton Street, not far from the Catholic cemetery.
She attends Holy Maternity of Mary church.
She broke in as a waitress at the old root beer Barrel across Spruce Street from the football field as a ninth grader until her 1962 graduation.
“I walked from school to work every day for four years,” she recalled. “I even worked there after I had my first baby. I’ve been a waitress most of my life,” although she also worked at James Heddon’s Sons and at Modar, a Decatur business which made victrola boxes – “hi-fi’s, they called them back then.”
She said she still carries the clipping about her 27th anniversary on Sept. 8, 2002, in her purse.
Bailey has three children (Lynn Nelson and Duane Bailey Jr. in Dowagiac and Kristi Fenimore in Elkhart, Ind.) seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, 3, who was at Trackside.
Then there is her tight-knit second family at the restaurant. “We’re one big, happy family, honey,” as she likes to say.
She was not only the senior employee, “I am actually older than the furniture,” she reported with a laugh in 2002. “They’ve gotten new furniture since I’ve been here.”
She can remember before P&J’s, when part of the Donker’s Plaza storefront along W. Railroad Street was Ray’s (Robbins) and the other was occupied by a beauty parlor.
In her leisure time she enjoys solving crossword puzzles.
“When I bought it, they asked if I’d keep her. I said, ‘What do you mean? She goes with it.’ If she doesn’t go with it, I don’t buy it,” Colley said.
“I’ve made a lot of friends in here,” Bailey said, “and I’ve lost a lot, too, by death.”
Bailey leaves working three days a week starting at 5:45 a.m. during the past year.
Nobody made her a big cupcake, but there’s scant evidence by the money tree a sheet cake existed earlier in the morning.
Billie Jean must be mellowing, because this interview ended on a milder note than 7 1/2 years ago when she offered, “I’m really not exciting, honey. As soon as you leave, I’m going to go back and choke my boss.”