by Jim Park
When Marsha Haylock says "I'm glad to see you," you know she means it. As she comes to your table with a pot full of fresh hot coffee in her hand and a twinkle in her eye, she's on a mission. Her job isn't just about getting your order as soon as possible; what she's really all about is keeping you smiling.
A resident of Amherst, N.S., she's been working at the Irving Big Stop at Aulac, N.B., for more than eight years. The truckstop sits right on the Nova Scotia/New Brunswick border, just a mile or so from the scale on Highway 104. It's a busy route that's become busier since the Cobequid Pass toll road opened up last year.
"We get all kinds of people in here. The best I can do is to make a good impression on them," she says. "I can't get them in off the highway the first time, but I can make a difference in whether or not they come back again."
Marsha has seen just about everything humanity has to offer come through her doors, and as a waitress, she doesn't have much of a choice in who she deals with. Her worst experience? A particularly miserable son-of-a-so-and-so who came in one day when they were especially busy. "This guy sat down at the counter and said he wanted a glass of water, and he wanted it now," she says. "I already had my arms full, but this guy insisted he'd have me fired if I didn't get him his water." When another customer offered up his untouched glass of water, Haylock says the guy came unglued. He got pretty abusive so eventually the police were called and hauled the guy away.
Business at the Aulac Big Stop seldom gets that exciting. "Mostly, we get a lot of regulars stopping in, good people just looking for a little break in their day. We get lots of locals as well," she says. "They're really more like neighbors than customers."
Waiting tables can be a fairly stressful job at times. Even on a slow day at the Aulac Irving, Haylock and the others serve around 1000 people. A busy day will see that number double. With a half dozen other waitresses all placing orders for three cooks, there's lots of potential for confusion. Guess who gets the complaints?
"But it's nothing a little charm can't fix," Haylock says, adding that it's a matter of getting on the customer's good side before anything can go wrong. "Obviously, we like to avoid any complaints, but when they happen, it's better if you've made a good impression with the customer beforehand. That's not something we consciously do, it's just a matter of being friendly all the time."
"The guys who come in here at night are the best," she says. "They're mostly regulars, and they love to clown around." Haylock says the routine is easy enough, and that allows her to really get to know her customers. "I've made some really close friends here at night. We joke and carry on, and really have fun with each other. That's something we don't have time to do during the day.
"When I'm in a bad mood, they get me going to cheer me up. And it's the same in reverse with me," she says. "When I see they're a bit grumpy, I can go a bit further to bring them around. Stuff you really can't do when there's a room full of little old ladies."
Life at Irving's Aulac Big Stop isn't all business by any means. During the summer, the staff organize several events to keep the work environment as family-like as possible, things like bus excursions and family picnics. Sometimes they hold fund-raising events for charity. Last year Haylock and her partners in crime raised $17,500 in a single day for the Isaac Walton Killam Children's Hospital in Halifax.
There are times, of course, when a truckstop assumes a larger role than normal in the life of a community. The winter of 1991 was one of those occasions. Haylock says a blizzard had dumped a ton of snow in the area, paralyzing traffic and leaving dozens of motorists stranded.
"I started my shift, as usual, on Friday night at 8:00 p.m. and didn't go home until 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning," she says. "That was my longest shift ever, but it was also one of the most fun shifts I've ever worked." Mark, her husband-to-be, was out with his 4X4 bringing in stranded motorists, while the band Crash Test Dummies sucked up the coffee just like everybody else who had found refuge under the big Irving sign.
"It's a lot of fun working here and I think I'll probably be working here until I retire," she says. "The day shift is easier on the body than nights, but I do miss all my night-shift regulars. If you're a big Marsha Haylock fan, drop by the Aulac Big Stop any weekday for breakfast or supper. She'll make you glad you did.