“I became a busboy at the Parker House in Boston. I wore a starched white jacket out in the dining room, where the waiters would put the customers’ dirty plates on silver on big aluminum trays which I would take back to the kitchen’s dishwashers.”
In the summer of 1940, fifteen year old Malcolm Little boarded a Greyhound bus in Lansing bound for Boston. Born in Omaha, Malcolm had spent most of his life in foster homes in Mason, Michigan until his half sister Ella invited him to spend a summer with her on the East Coast, the first trip Malcolm X would ever take out of the Midwest. From the back of the bus, Malcolm watched “white man’s America rolling past for what felt like a month.”
As Malcolm X recounted in his autobiography, Ella was “the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life.” Ella lived in Roxbury, a community Malcolm X would describe as effervescing with blackness. In central Michigan, Malcolm had only known life as a black person in white spaces, bound by the de facto Jim Crow framework in competition for evil with the official Jim Crow laws of the South. Roxbury was everything that the small, white community of Mason was not. Malcolm X would return to Mason at the end of the summer, but would settle in Boston for good at the end of the school year as Ella arranged for full custody.
Once he was enrolled in a private school, Ella encouraged Malcolm to postpone getting a job until he got a feel for his new home, so he observed the comings and goings of Roxbury, but soon branched out and began to explore the entire city of Boston. According to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm gawked at the historic buildings, with plaques and markers and statues for famous events and famous men. Malcolm wrote at length to his extended family in Lansing about the cobblestone streets and the department stores. In Boston Common, he was astonished to see a statue of a black man, Crispus Attucks, the first to fall in the Boston Massacre.
In the fall of 1941, Malcolm found himself a job at one of Boston’s most storied institutions, the Parker House. Established in 1855, the Parker House Restaurant claimed to be the first to serve Boston Cream Pie, Parker House Rolls, and scrod, and was a famous haunt of local politicians and writers like Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton. At the Parker House, Malcolm held the benchmark of restaurant jobs: the busboy.
The Parker House, now run by Omni Hotels & Restaurants, looks, feels and smells like an institution that thrives on inherited wealth. Its consistency makes a strong selling point to those accustomed to an old fashioned notion of luxury, and little has changed. It is proudly past its prime.
The Parker House is the type of restaurant interior one might imagine being underdressed in, until you arrive and realize that guests are happily getting along in flip-flops and Disney sweatshirts. The same 1856 Boston Creme Pie recipe is still as venerated as it once was, yet now it’s woefully overshared on social media as a key component in the Boston experience.
This was my experience, though, from a position of privilege that couldn’t have been more opposite from Malcolm X’s. I draw extensively from my experience as a blue collar worker but disconnect in further comparisons both here and in my head. I’m a white women with means, able to move about spaces out of bounds for others. I assume racism is everywhere, everyday, but I have never been a figure to ground against an unjust center of power.
The crisp white shirts Malcolm X wore are now gold vests and ties, but classism and racism continues to subvert and resist challenges in exhaustive ways. As a restaurant worker, I cannot say that I challenged each and every coworker when racism was implied or overt. At the Parker House, all of the guests were white, and the staff was black and hispanic. Bussers were present, but anonymous, encouraged to fade into the background and expected to maintain a complementary demeanor. They are the only component of a restaurant that exists comfortably among the table linens and silver trays of the dining room, and the dish bins and sinks in the kitchen, the most vital connectors between the front of house and back of house. They clean up after the servers and vacuum the crumbs from the carpet. They lift heavy bus bins, take out the trash and are responsible for what is often a restaurant’s most thankless, labor-intensive work. The colloquial job title is still woefully, pejoratively gendered, as the term ‘busboy’ is fundamentally belittling.
Service industry professionals build a thick skin against the criticisms of both their guests and co-workers. You learn to internalize anger, as being agreeable and non-confrontational are seen as not only positive attributes, but traits that will get you the biggest tip percentages and the best table sections. You brush off disparaging comments and harassment, and learn to keep your head down. I spent a considerable amount of time loitering outside the associate entrance, trying to determine if the physicality of the doorway had any common traits with the one that Malcolm X used while he worked there, and if so, how he . While the Parker House wasn’t Malcolm X’s first service industry job or his last; he washed dishes at a restaurant in Mason and would go on to shine shoes at the Roseland Ballroom in Roxbury, perhaps it played a roll in the development of the revolutionary American he would become. Was he talked down to by white customers and staff? Did he see fellow black employees struggling to make ends meet at menial jobs? While Malcolm X wrote little about his time at the Parker House or in the service industry, he borrowed generously from personal experiences throughout his life, allowing them to inform his refusal to cooperate with the white status quo. Perhaps it was this job, the first outside of his hometown, that incited him to action.