Bertha Noack begins her 77th birthday at 6:20 a.m. the same way she begins every day, with breakfast at Pepper's Restaurant in Pinellas Park, across the street from where she works. The waitress knows to expect the former nun and which booth she'll be in. She knows without a word to serve a poached egg, rye toast and coffee.
She knows Bertha will prepare her coffee with two creams, no sugar, and a few ice cubes from her water glass to bring it to just the right temperature. She knows she'll drink three cups, but not to give her a refill until the mug is completely empty. Full cups are the only way to keep the ice cube cooling system in order. Half-cup refreshing makes a mess of it.
Bertha politely chugs the last two swallows as the waitress walks by, and gets a perfect one cup refill. The faint sound of When Doves Cry by Prince fills the quiet booths around her at the approximate volume of two dishes clinking together. It is one in an endless loop of bad '80s hits cleverly used as white noise.
In her first life, for 32 years, she was a nun, but retired in 1989 for reasons she describes as "personal." In her second life, she was engaged for a November wedding, but a September heart attack took her groom. The dress hung in the closet several years before she had the heart to give it away. She still wears the engagement ring, a simple single stone on a plain gold band.
In her third life, she works as a counselor at AARP helping retirees find jobs to make ends meet. While in the convent, she worked as a schoolteacher but did not contribute to Social Security, so retirement is still a dream.
"I put $50 into a savings account two years ago with the idea of putting something in it every week, and I just haven't been able to. I'm one week to the next," she says, "I'm going to hang in there as long as I can, physically I mean."
The waitress drops the check, for $2.89, face down, as she does every day. Noack says it doesn't make sense to cook breakfast for one, but means she'd rather not begin the day alone. The breakfast is the one luxury she affords herself.
"Sometimes I feel guilty. I could be using the money for something else, but I don't drink, don't smoke and don't go to movies. I've been working since I was 17 years old and I deserve it."