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Service with a Smile

By Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa

“If a customer is rude to you, and you talk back, you may get even; but if you don’t say anything, you get ahead of him!” I’ve never forgotten these words of Mr. Hudacek, Manager at Van de Camps, where I worked as a waitress for three years, so my then husband could go to art school.

In 1952 Van de Camps, “the largest coffee shop on the West Coast,” was located on the famous “Miracle Mile” on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. We were expected to smile—all the time. If you weren’t smiling, the hostess would come over and remind you. It didn’t matter if you had a stomach ache, your marriage was falling apart, your dog just died, or you had a sick child at home; when you were serving the public, you had to smile.

One afternoon, waiting on a customer, I was called aside and handed a subpoena. My soon to be ex-husband was claiming child custody. I almost lost it! I got into a heated argument with the customer over whether he had ordered his English muffin buttered or not. I knew I was right; he had asked for it buttered! Fortunately, I caught myself mid-argument and apologized. Then the man also apologized, and told me he had just been in an auto accident. No wonder we were both upset.

Now whenever I have to deal with someone who is angry and unreasonable, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt—who knows what may have just happened in their lives?

When the Beverly Hilton Hotel opened in 1955, they hired more than 50 waitresses. In a few weeks they started weeding out. In my interview (Yes, I abandoned Van de Camps for the upscale Hilton) I was told that they wanted to keep me because I was so pleasant to the customers. (I definitely smiled a lot.)

I didn’t last long in the prestigious dining room overlooking the pool. Clumsy at carrying heavy trays, I spilled wild mountain blackberry syrup all over a South American gentleman’s white Panama suit. I was quickly transferred to work the counter in the coffee shop. No trays. Safer for all concerned. And I kept smiling.

As a waitress I learned psychology, patience, perhaps even humility—swallowing my “pride” to apologize no matter what—and what to say to keep the customer happy: “I’m so sorry,” “I’ll be right with you,” “Is everything all right?” ‘Kill ‘em with kindness’ works.

Meanwhile I was studying astrology and reading books on metaphysics, trying to understand why my life was so hard—divorced at 22, raising a son alone. I discovered The Power of Positive Thinking.[1] There was a tall fiery red haired waitress at the Hilton who gave me a really hard time. Every day, driving to work and dreading my next encounter with her, I repeated over and over, “God bless Diane[2] for her kindness and sweetness.” It worked! Soon her attitude softened; she actually became friendly. Hooray for positive affirmation!

When I met Yogi Bhajan I thought surely I could quit working as a waitress and be his full time secretary. No way. He told me, “You’re not there for the money.” He said, “Even if we have to pay them for you to be there…” When I accepted the fact that it was a karmic necessity, an opportunity for my spiritual growth, I stopped resenting the job. It took five years before my waitress days were over and I could serve Yogi Bhajan full-time as his Executive Secretary.

For over 35 years I had the privilege of observing his living example of selfless service. Yogi Bhajan gave time, money, energy, encouragement, and guidance wherever it was needed, with no concern for what he might get in return. He never reacted; he always acted, in service. When he smiled, it opened our hearts; when he spoke, he touched our souls; and wherever he looked, his gaze brought Light. His very existence was a service to the evolution of this planet.

Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa was Yogi Bhajan’s first student in the United States. He gave her the title of Divine Mother of 3HO.She has been teaching Kundalini Yoga since 1969. She is the author of Kundalini Yoga: The Flow of Eternal Power; Kundalini Postures and Poetry; and Marriage on the Spiritual Path: Mastering the Highest Yoga. She is a frequent movie-goer in the City of Angels.

[1] Best seller by Dr. Normal Vincent Peale

[2] Not her real name.