NEW YORK – She's petite, white-haired and 88 years old. And if you ask Rosie the waitress what's in the meat loaf, she's likely to tell you, "It's made of old socks."
Order clams and she'll say, in her delightful Northern Ireland brogue, "I'd rather be shot than eat clams."
Rose Donaghey is a bit of a legend in the East Bronx, so well-liked and well-known that she can attract business to a new restaurant — as she's doing these days at the Wicked Wolf.
Click here to see photos.
The restaurant's manager, Kathy Gallagher, hired Donaghey 14 years ago at Charlie's Inn, a German-Irish hangout that was the traditional ending point for the local St. Patrick's Day parade.
"She was, what, 70-something then, and when she asked me about a job I thought she meant for her daughter — or granddaughter," Gallagher said. "My mother-in-law said, 'Just give her a chance.'"
Charlie's closed last year, and Donaghey figured that was the end of her career.
"I felt lost," she said.
Then the Wicked Wolf hired Gallagher. Two months ago, she called Donaghey.
Gallagher says Donaghey's success is built on "her personality and her charm — she's a little bit of a spitfire. ... She can take orders, come out and serve people, and then talk to them and keep them entertained. I know they're coming in to see her."
Attorney James Newman comes in only when Donaghey is working — Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"Any time you joke with her, she jokes back," he said this week. "She always tries to order for you. You ask for a burger well done and she says, 'I'll have it cremated.'"
Donaghey can't rush around any more, and other waitresses enter her orders into the computer. She brought a Budweiser instead of a Bud Light to one table, but turned it into a joke: "I'd blame the bartender," she whispered.
Rose McElroy, born in 1920 in County Tyrone, married James Donaghey in 1947. They came to America in 1949.
Her sister had a bar in Queens. "I arrived on a Friday and she put me to work on the Saturday," Donaghey said.
"My first customer was a lady who came in off the beach with all these kids and said, 'I'm so tired. I need a screwdriver,'" Donaghey said. "Well, I didn't know what a screwdriver was except for the tool you'd use, so I went in the back and asked the boss for a screwdriver. 'It's a drink,' he told me."
Things went better after that. She had four children and part-time jobs: a Fifth Avenue tea house; a Jewish deli in the Bronx.
Donaghey was retired when her husband died in 1994. The funeral lunch was held at Charlie's Inn, and Donaghey apparently thought the place could use her help.
Donaghey says she doesn't have to work. There's Social Security, and her three surviving children would help out if needed. She won't say what she gets paid, but Gallagher thinks she knows where the extra income goes: into the church basket. Donaghey takes in a Mass every day, in person or on TV.
"The world might have changed but I never change," she said.
Asked what it takes to be a great waitress, Donaghey said, "Be pleasant, and let them take their pick of tables." Later she thought of something else.
"I guess it's the blarney," she said.