ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
If you're in Los Angeles and you want pastrami, you might do well to head for Langer's near MacArthur Park. Even The New Yorker magazine says that Langer's has the finest pastrami sandwich in the world. But if you do go to Langer's, says commentator Heather King, the waitress who serves you might be even more memorable than what you eat for lunch.
Joan is 60 years old and has worked at Langer's for 18 years. Every Thursday and Friday morning she rises in her studio apartment, sets out for the half-hour walk and reports for the breakfast shift in her waitressing uniform, a white shirt and black pants.
JOAN (Waitress, Langer's): Right now I have three pairs. Two of them have bleach stains on them, but I take an indelible--you know, one of those Magic Markers and make it all black.
KING: Joan can seem scattered or, as she puts it, dispersed, but she's a crackerjack waitress. If she's done it once, she's done it a thousand times: described the difference between a phosphate and an egg creme, corn beef and brisket, the eight kinds of bread.
JOAN: Egg, white, wheat, sourdough, rye, and then we have kaiser roll, onion roll and French roll. That's 65 cents more for the French roll.
KING: Langer's is part of Joan's world, but it's not her whole world. On her day off she volunteers at a Vietnamese convent that runs a shelter for homeless women. Nights she takes English classes at LA's City College. Three years ago she squared her shoulders and set what seemed like a huge challenge to herself. She decided to take one course a semester.
JOAN: It was scary 'cause I didn't even know if I could do it or if I had it within me to do it. I've done waitressing so many years, and I just--I needed to know within myself and kind of, like, to work my brain. And I just went.
KING: Joan hadn't been to school in 40 years. When she went in to be tested, they told her she'd have to start out two levels below everyone else. She was the oldest person in the class. She struggled for weeks over a three-page paper, and then she pushed the delete button without saving it.
JOAN: I did purchase a Dell computer, and I actually went over to this man's house Tuesday, Don and Bonnie(ph). He's an accountant. They're customers of mine. And I just said, `Here, order it for me.' It's pretty high-powered. This Dell computer was like having a Corvette, you know. I should have had a bicycle.
KING: Joan's always had a unique way of expressing herself, and thrillingly for me, the computer also means she also now sends e-mail. Her messages begin, `My one and only' or `You are all good' or `Oh, dear God, it is hard. Fear, fear!' Being in school has widened her vocabulary, livened up her conversation, increased her self-confidence.
JOAN: Oh, Heather, this is so exciting. I got a paper a few weeks ago in the mail, and it said that I have made the part-time honor roll at LA City College. And in a way it's kind of funny and sounds like a joke, but, you know, it is a big deal.
KING: If you happen into Langer's on a Thursday or Friday, Joan will recommend the number 19: pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing. It might be the finest pastrami sandwich in the world, but that still isn't the best thing about Langer's.
SIEGEL: Heather King is the author of the book "Parched."
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