A spontaneous conga line breaks out in the back of the Plainview Diner, and as the dancers swaying to “Hot Hot Hot” pass by Sylvia Smith, each of them congratulates the 86-year-old waitress with the poof of snow-white hair who has been taking their orders for 43 years.
“I feel like I’m at a bar mitzvah,” quips longtime diner customer Ina Kaplan, 69, of Syosset.
The festive retirement party on Monday night honored Smith, who, after working at the diner half her life, will finally serve her last dish on Oct. 21. Even though it’s now a little more challenging for her to remember exactly who gets which meal if she has a party of eight, and she only balances three plates of food up her forearm instead of five, she still works 5 p.m. to midnight on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and during the day on Wednesdays. On Fridays, her shift is from 5 p.m. until the wee hour of 2 in the morning.
Smith is an icon not only at the diner, where a portrait of her hangs on one wall, but also in the Plainview community. Each May she rides in a convertible in the Plainview Memorial Day Parade, representing the diner. Some years, when seniors at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School have staged an unofficial scavenger hunt, she’s been an item on the list. “One year they had to take pictures with me,” Smith says. “One year they had to come and give me a kiss on the cheek.”
Smith is finally giving in to a niece’s plea to sell her house in Hicksville and move to New Jersey to be closer to her. Smith is the last survivor of 10 siblings. “It’s a very emotional decision,” she says of retiring.
Not only for her. It’s also a blow to the customers, who have been showering her with gift cards, Champagne and well wishes. One group of diners gave her a dollar for each year on the job; another customer handed her a $100 tip.
“She’s a real fixture here,” says David Goldblatt, 59, of Plainview, a librarian at Westbury High School who says he and his wife, Nancy, 61, a retired administrative assistant, eat at the diner twice a week. “She’s very personable. She’s very open about her life. She’s like part of the family here. People request her when they come in.”
Says Chris Poisella, 61, of Plainview, who has been eating at the diner with her husband, Jim, 69, for 25 years: “I guess we just thought she’d be going on forever.”
HEART ATTACK, FIRE
Life hasn’t always been easy for Smith. She was legally separated in 1985 after 30 years of marriage; she and her husband never divorced, and he died about 10 years ago. She has one daughter, Linda, 54, who is disabled and still lives at home. Smith had a heart attack in 1976 and was out of work for two months, but then she returned to the diner.
Then, on Aug. 19, 2012, Smith’s house burned down. “My daughter and I got out in time,” she says. They were rushed to Nassau University Medical Center and given oxygen to counteract smoke inhalation, she says. They had to move into a trailer in her front yard while her home was gutted. Just as she was lining up contractors, superstorm Sandy hit in the fall of 2012, and the competition for contractors became intense. The work on Smith’s house was finally finished this year. “I came to work smiling and all, but how many times I cried at home? Forget about it,” she says.
Through it all, she’s been asking, “Would you like soup or salad?” In the old days, she wore a white uniform and wrote orders by hand to pass to the cooks in the kitchen, back when diners focused mainly on eggs and burgers, when there weren’t many Burger Kings or Paneras competing for the customers. Now she wears the diner’s red T-shirt with “Plainviewdiner.com” on the back, and the menu she hands customers is a spiral notebook, touting panini and stir fries and Cornish hen. Instead of tabletop jukeboxes at every booth, computer screens let customers summon their waiter or waitress. Smith is now serving the second and third generations of some families.
At each of her five to six tables, Smith takes the order, inputs it on a touch-screen computer monitor, fetches the drinks, enters the kitchen to ladle soup or prepare salad. “You go in the kitchen, it’s like a hotbox. I’m sweating,” Smith says. She comes out carrying three plates loaded onto her left arm — fried chicken, beef stew, shrimp stir-fry. “You have to balance them so that they don’t overlap one another, and they don’t spill on you,” she explains.
Customers are awed by her stamina. “I can’t move that fast now, and I’m 44,” says George Tizzard of Plainview, watching Smith work a Friday night dinner shift.
“My mother is the same age,” says Maureen Guthertz, 59, of Plainview. “My mother is in a nursing home.”
When Smith started working at the diner, the current owner, John Papavasilopoulos, 68, who had moved to America from Greece, was a busboy in his 20s. He rose through the ranks — cook, then out on the floor — and eventually bought the diner. All along the way, Smith was there with him. “She was the best waitress then. Still is,” Papavasilopoulos says. “If I had five Sylvias, I’d have five diners.”
Smith was at Papavasilopoulos’ wedding to Anna; she was at the christening of his firstborn, Pamela, now 30; she remembers the birth of his son, Niko, now 29. The siblings are taking over the business. “She’s like my third grandmother,” Niko says. “That’s how close we are.”
When Smith turned 70, John Papavasilopoulos threw a surprise party for her at the diner, and he gave her a cruise for two to Cozumel and Key West. “I’d never been on a cruise before,” says Smith, who took a friend. “He got me an outside cabin. It was a beautiful gift.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but the advent of the diner’s computer system, rather than flummoxing Smith, enabled her to keep working. She no longer had to add up all the numbers on the check and calculate the tax; she just had to punch everything onto the touch-screen and it did all the work for her. “She was the first one to learn,” Papavasilopoulos says. “So fast.”
When she’s not working, Smith says she likes to watch “The Chew” on TV. “Saturday and Sunday I’m off. Phone’s off the hook,” Smith says. She’ll shop on Saturdays, on Sundays she attends St. Ignatious Loyola Church in Hicksville. She gets paid $7.25 an hour at the diner, and the rest of her income is tips. She says she averages about $500 a week. “Which I can live on,” she says. Her favorite meal at the diner? “The shrimp scampi,” she says immediately.
Smith says she loves that the diner is a social place. “I’m not a loner,” she says. “Either silent or talking, as long as I’m with people.”
Mostly she is talking, customers says.
“We come here with our friends for breakfast,” Guthertz says one Wednesday morning. They love how Smith teases them. “She says, ‘Don’t you clean your houses?’ ”
Olga Portnoy, 55, of Plainview, says that if you come for breakfast and dinner on the same day, Smith will quip, “Doesn’t anybody cook around here?”
Even the teenagers know Smith. “Of course,” says Nick La Bella, 18, of Plainview, who happens to be sitting one evening at the booth under Smith’s portrait. “I’m here late at night and I see her. She’s always happy to help you. She’ll help me go over the menu when I can’t decide what I want to eat.”
Sometimes, Smith vetoes the customer’s choice. She’ll know, for instance, that one of her customers has a heart condition. “I’ll tell him, ‘I won’t let you order it,’ ” Smith says. “Usually they listen to me better than their wives.”
Smith credits her mother for her work ethic. “There was no such thing as a stomachache or a headache. We had to go to work, we had to go to school.” She also credits her mom with giving her strong legs and, if not her photographic memory, at least a strong memory.
“I used to tell her, ‘If you’re getting tired, let me know if you want to leave early,’ ” Niko says. “She stays till midnight. It’s going to be hard without her. I’ll be a little lost for a while. I’m sad. I’m happy for her, too. It’s bittersweet.”