1. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
The phone rang in the kitchen, and I heard my mother answer it: “Who’s calling? You’re from where?” I rolled over in bed and turned a page in “Crime and Punishment”. I read a few more lines about Raskolnikov wandering the streets of Moscow, feverish, hungry and desperate to get some cash in hand. Mom called me to the phone and I was surprised when a man identified himself as the manager of a seafood restaurant by the Dayton Mall. He told me that I had been hired as a dishwasher and wanted me to report for my first shift on Friday night. It had been two weeks since I had filled out an application and interviewed there, and I had given up hope. I eagerly agreed to come and asked him if I had to pick up a uniform beforehand. He told me to wear long pants, a t-shirt and sneakers.
I arrived ten minutes early on Friday afternoon and was directed to wait in the stock room. The manager breezed in and told me that I would work a seven hour shift, would have a dinner break half way through and a ten minute break every two hours. He said as he hurried away that he had some business to attend to in the dining room and that when he came back he would show me how to do my job.
I stood at the edge of kitchen and watched two young men on the cook line work at two fryers. They wore hair nets and long red aprons. In the middle of the line another man checked orders and plated food. At the far end a fat cook pulled a metal dish holding a piece of broiled fish out of a large oven. Beyond them I could see a table against the far wall piled high with gray, plastic tubs of dishes. The manager didn’t return, the cook line started to work at a faster pace, no one washed dishes, and more tubs were pushed through a window in a wall next to the table. I decided to start working.
The tubs were crammed chock-a-block with heavy ceramic platters, glasses, plastic coffee mugs, silverware and scraps of food. When a hush puppy had been crushed into a puddle at the bottom of a tub it formed a thick, gluey sludge. I pulled out platters and silverware, scraped food into a garbage can, and set the dirty dishes in wire racks that I pulled down from a shelf above my station. The dishwasher had a lever on the side nearest the sink. I pulled up and doors on either side of the metal, rectangular box opened and vented a cloud of steam. I pulled out a rack of clean dishes out of the left side, pushed in the rack of dirty dishes into the right, and shoved the lever down to close the doors. I hit a green button and the machine rumbled low and began to make swishing noises.
The manager showed up after I had done several loads and handed me a hair net and an apron to wear. He told me to soak the coffee mugs in a iodine bath to get the stains out, to yell “platters” when I carried clean dishes behind the line of cooks to warn them that I was coming, and that I was closing that night.
I didn’t ask for my break when two hours rolled by, and realized that I wouldn’t be getting anything to eat. The dirty dishes kept piling up even though I worked as hard and fast as I could. There was rarely a time when I could stop and catch my breath. My fingers cramped up into rigid claws from reaching and grabbing continuously, and I had to flatten them against my chest to release the tension. The busboys sometimes let the tubs stack up in the bussing room and would refuse to push them through until there were ten filled to overflowing. They also had the bad habit of stacking platters on top of glasses. When I hurriedly stuck my hand into a bucket I would cut my fingers on broken glass.
After the restaurant closed it took me another hour to finish up the dishes. During the final close in the kitchen I had to clean every surface of the table, shelves and dishwasher until the metal shone. I was given two small towels to accomplish this task, and ended up using the few clean corners of my apron and folds in my t-shirt to wipe off the last smears and smudges. The oven cook also told me to climb on top of the oven and take out the filters. I climbed up the side of the oven using a short ladder. A sheet of plywood was the only barrier between me and hot metal when I knelt, reached up and pulled the filters out of the exhaust duct above. I burned my forearm on the way down when I lost my balance momentarily and brushed it against the side of the oven.
At the end of the night my pants and shoes were covered with a fishy, greasy paste that stunk. I looked like a customer had vomited the entire menu all over my clothes and I smelled like the processing floor of a cat food factory. I opened the windows of the car as I drove home, and when I walked in the door my mother gasped, held her nose and asked, “What happened to you?” I explained that my job was a little slice of hell and said that I had to take a bath and go immediately to bed.
2. Whatever Doesn’t Kill You
I was surprised when I got my first paycheck. I had become miserably acclimated to the heat, fast pace, and general nastiness of the job and came to feel that I had been sentenced to a life term of drudgery. It seemed odd that I was actually getting paid. I put the envelope in my front pants pocket and went back to work. At the end of the shift I tried to pull the check out again, and it disintegrated in my hands. My jeans were saturated with water and muck, and the check had become sopping wet. I went to the night manager and told him what had happened, and he said that I’d have to wait another two weeks for a replacement.
Some of my fellow inmates in dead lobster hell were sympathetic, and others were amused when I had a mishap or did something stupid. I remember coming around a corner with a stack of metal trays in my hand, hitting a slick spot on the floor and falling heavily on my hip. The trays went flying and made a loud, prolonged clatter when they crashed to the floor. The guys on the cook line laughed their butts off.
Sometimes the managers would get frustrated by my inability to keep up and would attempt to show me a more efficient way to work. I didn’t have much faith in what they said. I was moving in a blur already. A pitcher of coke was sometimes given to me to drink in hopes that caffeine and sugar might improve my pace. A busboy or manager would set it on top of the dishwashing machine, and the ice melted, the carbonation evaporated, and the soda turned into lukewarm swill within minutes. I drank it anyway. I needed the calories to keep going.
If things slowed down a little after the supper time rush I was told to take a “break”. A break meant that I would gather up heavy, black plastic bags of kitchen garbage and haul them out to the dumpster in the rear parking lot. If I was lucky I would get some help from another poor soul. We would flip a coin to see who would be the one to open up the sliding door to the dumpster. Rats the size of raccoons made regular trips galumphing hump backed from a strip of woods to the dumpster, and no one on trash detail wanted to surprise a band of rodents at their feast.
Once we had dumped our load we could stand around and smoke a cigarette for a few minutes. I didn’t smoke when I started the job, but took up the habit after a few weeks. But we didn’t linger: the work would pile up inside if we took too long, and customers (mostly young males) ambling full bellied to their cars would jeer at the sight of our dirty aprons and hair nets. It was common for them to point at us and say, “Look at the fags!”
3. I Escape
I got a promotion of sorts after I had washed dishes for two months. They decided to make me the back up cook. On my last night in dishing I trained my successor. He looked beleaguered after the first two hours had passed, and I tried to reassure him that the job would get better once he got used to it. He muttered something unintelligible and said that he had no problems with the job that he couldn’t work out. He spoke smugly as if he knew something I didn’t, but I was still surprised to hear that he quit an hour or so after I clocked out. The rest of the crew had to take turns washing dishes and pitch in to police the area at the end of the night. They hired two guys to replace my replacement, and I took some satisfaction in knowing that I had been doing the work of two men. All those complaints about my speed and efficiency were bullshit.
As a back up cook I was in charge of a bewildering array of responsibilities. I restocked the fry cooks’ supplies of breaded fish, oysters, scallops and clams. I baked potatoes, made cole slaw, fried chicken, broiled shish kabob skewers, served up oysters on a half shell, heated up chowder, and fetched lobster tails and premade scampi dishes from the cooler.
I was terrible and made a lot of bone head mistakes. I had trouble identifying the breaded fish and shellfish and would put them on the wrong trays in the fry guys’ cooler. They would throw an order into the hot oil and yell at me once they saw that the floating gray blobs were clams instead of scallops. It took me fifteen minutes to open up a dozen fresh oysters: I couldn’t get the hang of cutting the tendon linking the two shells together and often botched the display of the quivering mollusks on their half shells. I once left the stop cock open in the chicken fryer after draining and cleaning it out. When I began to refill it oil spilled out beneath and mucked up an area that had already been swept and mopped. I delayed the clock out of the whole kitchen crew and was properly despised for my mistake.
One of the cooks, a young man with a permanent five o’clock shadow who wore boots and a bandanna over his hair, began to call me “Eggnog Head” for my fuzzy inability to plan ahead and juggle all the duties required of me. He usually said my new nickname when I was just in earshot, but he never looked in my direction when he said it. He had plausible deniability on his side if I ever decided to challenge him.
Bandanna Man also carried a hunting knife in a leather sheath at his hip. I didn’t confront him, but managed to scare him one night when he finally began to berate me openly in front of a bunch of the other workers. We were standing at the back door resting for a moment after hauling out the last load of trash, and he turned to me and started to spell out the multiple ways in which I had proven that my head was full of eggnog instead of brains. Everyone knew, somehow, that I was going to start college in a few months and that I had signed up to take biology courses. They assumed that I planned to be a doctor. Bandanna man sneered, “Why do you want to study medicine? You’ll be the shittiest doctor ever, Eggnog!” I didn’t bother to explain that one could study biology and become a biologist. He tore into me again: “Tell everybody what kind of eggnog doctor you want to be when you grow up!” The crew looked at me and waited as I let a few seconds drift by, and then I deadpanned, “A surgeon: there are some people around here I wouldn’t mind cutting up.” Bandanna Man’s face turned white and he walked away. I could tell that the rest of them were considering the possibility that one day they might run into me when I was wearing a white coat instead of an apron. They were a little more polite to me after that.
On another night one of the fry guys known as “The Missing Link” was the target of derision. He stood about 4’10”, was heavily muscled, had a thick, protruding brow and spoke in monosyllables. Oddly enough he was a sensitive boy, and decided to pout for an extended length of time during a rush after burning himself on his forearm. Fry guys and cooks were always getting minor burns, so he got little sympathy as he sat on a box and mumbled to himself while holding a bag of ice on his arm. The night manager couldn’t get him to go back to his post, so he was banished to the pots and pans sink and told to scrub. That area was just down the line from the back up post, and I became an unwilling witness to a series of little tantrums as he battered and bashed the pots. He kept whining about being forced to work when he was badly hurt.
The fat cook couldn’t stop teasing him (“You happy back there, Wimpy? How’s your little boo boo?), and when Missing stopped responding to his catcalls the cook decided on a new tactic to provoke him: he threw a hush puppy over the top of the fryers. It hit and exploded all over a pile of clean pots that Missing had just washed. Missing gave into his genetic heritage: he grabbed heavy pots and threw them in all directions without picking any targets. I had to duck into a cooler as one sailed by my head. The manager was in the dining room but heard clanging, shouting and curses. He ran in the kitchen and put a stop to the ruckus by telling Missing to go home. The fat cook was well pleased by the mayhem he had set off.
The next night I came into work The Missing Link was calmly working at a fryer with a bandaged forearm. A new cook was working the oven. I found out from the other fry guy that Missing’s tormentor had quit when the manager put the blame on him for the incident. The manager ordered him to apologize to Missing, and the fat cook tore off his apron and hair net, threw them on the floor and told the manager to go to hell.
A few days later I got transferred to a day shift where I came in early and worked for a middle aged woman who gave me clear instructions and supervised my work with patience and kind attention. I mostly thawed fish, peeled shrimp and chopped lettuce. We were doing the prep work for the lunch and dinner shifts, and the job was a lot more peaceful. We didn’t have to worry about satisfying customers. I discovered that I could work quickly and efficiently in calmer surroundings, and began to enjoy working with my boss and one other lady.
I might have just felt more comfortable in the company of women. The absence of macho posturing, shouts, and angry demands made the job almost relaxing. We told a few jokes and talked every once in a while in a friendly way, and I got to know them better in a few days than I had any of the men on the night shift. The feeling that I was going into battle when I stepped into the kitchen began to fall away, and I realized that work didn’t have to be hell.