This is a story about the worst job I ever had.
For starters; it was to start at 7 a.m. and I felt the pain of that first morning days before I was officially supposed to report for duty. I needed a job though. Another job, that is. I already worked as a bartender in the evenings and on weekends. That was a part-time, event based job, however, and the pay wasn't quite cutting it. I barely had enough to make rent at the end of the month and practically nothing left over for food let alone going out or having any sort of good time. So with two jobs, I felt I would be back in business. Not that I really wanted to work that many hours. I hadn't really been looking for anything full-time. But hey, the shoe fit. I was to start at 7 a.m. every fucking weekday and work until the afternoon. The hours didn't and never would conflict with my other job but it already sounded like hell. It sounded like hell before I even started. I had no idea just what kind of hell I was in for though. It was the opposite of most situations where the fearful anticipation is much worse than the actual. Quite the opposite.
Right around Labor Day, I'd been hired primarily as a dishwasher. Jannie, the kitchen manager, told me during the interview that they liked to train people at every work station though. Obviously, it was in their best interest just in case anyone ever called in sick. And it was in my best interest to get the hell out of the dish pit every once in a while. That's what she told me. This cross-training, however, never actually came to pass...for anyone! No one ever left their station. But I wound up not minding. The truth is; I never wanted to leave the dish pit. Ever. I hated even going out there to stock the shelves with clean dishes which was part of my job. Quickly, I learned to do this chore between breakfast and lunch when the cafeteria was closed so we, the kitchen crew, could take our lunches and regroup. The calm before the storm. Because the fact of the matter was; every single last fucking lunch I worked on this job was insane, cuckoo-bananas busy. I used to wonder if it was the single busiest restaurant in Portland and often, while I was back there in the pit, I tried to think of one busier but could never come up with one. We fed thousands of kids every day. Breakfast and lunch. Kids and professors and anyone else at all associated with Portland State University. The kids were one reason I didn't like restocking the selves while the place was still open. Another reason however, and a more pragmatical one, was that it was also so packed out on the serving floor that there wasn't any room to navigate the enormous 'clean dish' cart. But I know I'm getting ahead of myself.
It was a Monday morning and it was still dark out when I rose. Two days before, my girlfriend had accompanied me to the Target at Cascades where I purchased two pair of black work pants; cargo style with extra pockets just above each knee. When I'd talked to Jannie on the phone, when she told me that I was officially part of the team, she said that uniform shirts would be provided the first morning of my first day. If this job had one saving grace, it was that Portland State University was basically on the same side of town that I lived; my apartment being in Northwest while the school was in the Southwest quadrant. The campus and this cafeteria were still only a half-dozen light-rail stops away; a total of perhaps 2 miles and a total one-way commute time of less than 15 minutes...which wasn't so bad...I guess.
It was also still dark when I arrived at Ondine; a 15 story high-rise that included the cafeteria on its ground level. The cafeteria itself consisted of a long kitchen without enough room for two people to pass each other abreast...let alone with hot pots or baking sheets in their hands. Then there was the serving area; a space with sleek, black linoleum tile. This room was large enough for a couple hundred kids at a time to cram themselves into lines at the various food stations. And then there was the vast dining area with floor to ceiling windows along one wall, plenty of television sets for the kids to veg out on, and a combination of tables and booths at which to sit. The serving and dining areas were designed well; I'll give them that. But when put together, the whole place was more of a factory than anything else.
The front doors were locked that first morning and, through the windows, I couldn't see anyone inside. So I walked around to the back where there was a small parking lot for students and employees who'd purchased parking passes. There was also a set of double doors illuminated from within that led me into a food storage area that, when including the two walk-in coolers, amounted to about the size of a small house. There were boxes of vegetables and pallets of bread and buns set everywhere. So many of them, in fact, that it was difficult to move around in this room. Half a dozen people were trying to slide past each other shoulder to shoulder. They were making their way either to or from a time clock hung up on one wall. And I, not yet possessing either a punch card or uniform, went to find Jannie. This didn't take much effort. Her tiny cubicle and desk was literally right around the corner next to three, deep sinks that they used to defrost all the meat. She was an enormously fat woman with a tiny head who didn't seem to remember having interviewed me at all just a few days ago.
“Are you here for part-time or full-time?” she asked.
During the interview, I'd told her that I was looking for full-time work if the hours didn't interfere with my other job which, as I've said, they didn't. Looking back though, in the split second that it took me to answer her question, I could have easily still gone the other way. I should have gone the other way. I would have been able to pay my rent and have a little left over still. I'd just been so broke and out of steady work for so long, though, that being able to actually save a little money sounded great. Had I but known.
“Full-time,” I said.
“Great!” she seemed surprised, “Well, let's get you a uniform.”
Beneath her desk, she had a giant box full of heavily knit, sky blue or maroon polo shirts. They were individually wrapped in a thin plastic and she handed me two of them; thankfully, both blue. Then she handed me a back brace and visor. The dorky shirt, I could deal with. It; I'd at least been expecting. But these other two items... Back braces, for one, I've never understood. They never seemed to do much good to me but this may or may not be due to the fact that I've also never been able to figure out how to properly assemble them. I find all their Velcro straps and anchors and clasps intimidating and usually just give up and cast the thing aside. And the visor, well...so far as that went... I hadn't had to wear one of those mortifying articles since I'd worked at Arby's back in high school. And here I was; 15 years later. Look how far I'd come. Jesus, I wanted to die. I put the stupid thing on though. And the shirt. The back brace, however, I just carried with me as I made my way down the narrow kitchen corridor past all the stoves and grills and fryers and ovens. And through an open doorway at the very end, I found the dish pit. And there, I introduced myself to a man named Lester who was then supposed to show me the ropes.
He was a huge man with a huge gut who wore a baseball cap rather than a visor. And there was something about his accent, something about the way he over pronunciated his words that led me to believe he was originally from the Midwest. This morning, he was sporting one of the maroon polo shirts that had been faded to an almost pinkish hue. Obviously, he'd been working here a while already.
“Need some help with that?” he was referring to the back brace I still carried in one hand.
“No problem. Here. Lemmie see it.”
And sure enough; Lester really knew his fucking back braces. In less than a minute, he had the thing rigged up to where it fit me perfectly.
“Just pull the belt tight around your waist there...”
I pulled the two flaps together until the elastic in the small of my back felt sufficiently tense and then Velcroed them so they'd stay that way. And I've got to say, it felt alright. The shoulder straps still didn't seem to do much of anything but the belt definitely offered me some extra support.
“You the new dishwasher?” Lester asked.
“Well, alright then. This is your baby,” he said referring to the whole room, “Just feast your eyes.”
He knew he was being facetious and I knew that he mistook this for wit.
Just like he said, though, I feasted. I took many minutes to take it all in...to let it all sink in, rather. And after I'd done so, I wondered just what it was that I'd done to deserve this. Was it just one bad act that constituted this kind of karma? Or was it many all clumped together; many that had been building up for some time. I seriously thought about walking out right then and there and many more times throughout that first day. But if it was karma...not that I believe in that sort of thing...but if it was; then maybe I did still have some sort of debt to repay to the universe. And maybe I needed to nip that debt in the bud before it compounded interest and grew any worse.
How could just a single dish pit be so intimidating and horrible, you ask? Well...where start? The dish pit itself was right about the same size as my one bedroom apartment. And, considering I lived downtown, my apartment wasn't that big. On the other hand, considering that a dish pit even could be about the size of someone's apartment spoke wonders to me that morning. I'd never seen anything of the like. And the first impression I had, other than the quick taking in of its general size, what that it was exceedingly bright. The overhead fluorescents were bright but that was sort of a given. But it was more the way that those overheads reflected off of all the metal in the room that caused everything to seem ten times more luminous. The room was ablaze with light and the shiny metal of hundreds of pots and pans and bowls and utensils stacked up on shelves that reached well over my head. Chafing dishes and sinks and counters and even the dishwasher itself was completely comprised of bright, shiny metal. There was even some porcelain cookware mixed in there as well. And off of each and every individual piece; there shone at least one spot which was white in all purity. Pure, polished radiance that was already scalding my retinas and I knew...I just knew that this effect would work to worsen my hangovers every morning from here on out.
To compliment all this metal; there was the noise. The racket. The constant clanging and banging and scraping and shinging. Every minute or so, someone would sneak up behind me from the kitchen in order to throw a piece of cookware onto a four tiered rack (also taller than myself). They never just set anything down gently...ever. Most of the time, mostly due to some built-up aggression (I'd assume), the cooks and preppers would come in and toss or slam their shit down with such vehemence… They hated this job. And many of them hated their lives because of this job. They had to take it out on something and that dish rack got a lot of it. Every minute or so, someone would sneak up and chuck something onto its metal wires. And that 'something' that they chucked would bang down with a deafening, reverberating sound that caused me to inadvertently perk up on my tiptoes and my heart to thunder.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, even more slamming and banging down of bowls and plates and silverware was coming from the other side of this mechanical contraption deemed a tray-er-ator (which I’ll explain in just a minute). But basically, when the students were through using their dishes, they’d walk by on the other side of this great, metal device and dispose of their own dishes with pretty much the same ferocity that the kitchen staff disposed of theirs right behind me. I had no idea what the students were so ‘agro’ about though. I personally think that they just lacked the manners and good breeding to set items down without creating a racket. And I stuck to this view today because I just couldn’t imagine that these students could ever be so angry about anything on the first day of school! Maybe they were just full of loose energy but I wasn’t about to give them the benefit of the doubt.
On top of that noise, the dishwasher and tray-er-ator themselves generated quite a bit. The tray-er-ator; a constant, electrical hum. And the dishwasher; the sounds of jetting water and heavy, shifting parts coming from deep inside the thing. Also, Lester seemed to me to be producing an unnecessary amount of noise while clearing plates, bowls, and silverware from the tray-er-ator. The plates and bowls, he’d slam against a giant, green, 55-gallon trash barrel in order to remove any excess food. He would take the plate and hang it in the barrel until his arm was about elbow deep in the thing and then he would ring it against the sides like some sort of upside down bell made of rubber and garbage. And he really seemed to love it! Like a pig in slop; there was something about Lester that just seemed to belong in this dish pit. They just went together.
“It’s not so bad back here,” he admitted. Then he lowered his voice some, “Jannie leaves you alone for the most part. Plus, I get to wear my hat backwards and nobody says anything.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty sweet,” I agreed.
“You can stand here and start clearing dishes from the tray-er-ator if you want. I’m gonna go down to that end and stack up the clean ones.”
“Totally. Um…are there any gloves I should be wearing or anything?”
“Na. I don’t even think we have any back here. They’d just fill up with water anyway and your hands would be soaking in no time. Just wash your hands every time you go from clean to dirty like I’m doing.”
The ‘no glove’ thing bothered me a bit. I didn’t like directly touching bits and pieces of people’s leftover food. It seemed infectious to me and kind of disgusting. A lot of other disgusting sensations hit me then too as I took over for Lester at the steaming mouth of the dishwasher. The first was the smell. We’ve all smelled it before; that sweet and sour smell of food garbage. A lot of it was probably sour milk and such left over from…yesterday? Days ago? Even weeks ago. Little patches of sour milk and food on the floor that had survived and accumulated for months maybe just out of the mop’s reach. It was bad. I’d noticed it when I’d first walked into the room but there was something about having my face directly above that 55 gallon compost bin that really seemed to accent it. The humid fumes; so putrid and strong that my face instantly formed an involuntary frown and stayed that way.
Fumes also rose from the sink just in front of the dishwasher’s mouth and one reason for this is that it was plugged up and almost overflowing with an opaque, brown water that could have easily passed for diarrhea. If the sink did overflow, it wouldn’t have really mattered since it was built directly into a wide, stainless steel counter (complete with a waterproof guardrail) that wrapped around this entire side of the room. Or…upon further examination, I supposed that the water would have begun to run down the single hole cut into this counter that was supposed to be used as an alternative to Lester’s ‘bell ringing’ method for removing food from the plates. Rather, we could simply tap the plate against a rubber ring that lined this hole in the counter and, with the green barrel set directly underneath, the food would fall directly into it. I opted for this method and scooted the barrel back under the hole without asking his permission.
“Is there a disposal switch or something?!” I had to yell at him down at the other side of the room; so great was the noise.
“No disposal!” he yelled back, “There’s a drain at the bottom though. You just stick your hand in there and pull it out. You’ll probably have to keep doing that about every 15 minutes or so.”
Fuck. Well, I couldn’t exactly have the water running into the barrel. It would probably fill the thing up before too long and then be impossible to lift. So I just fucking went for it.
‘Ahhhhrrrrgggg,’ my soul cringed as did my fingers as I screamed this on the inside. ‘Hoo!’ I actually shivered! And what my fingers found at the bottom was so much more than just a drain’s worth of pulp. All the chewed food. All the saliva. All the spit! Everybody’s collective spit in that one sink. It was sickening and I tried not to smell this mushy substance as I plopped handful after handful into the compost bin. I wanted to take a deep breath and hold it but was afraid I’d puke.
Somewhere out of sight and far away, presumably from her cubicle, I could hear Jannie chewing out the cooks and other kitchen staff in a shrill voice that could cut through anyone’s nerves. I decided then that I wasn’t going to put up with any of that. This job was gross enough. It was degrading not because there’s anything wrong with being a dishwasher but because of exactly how many dishes I’d be expected to do in a single day plus a lot of other working conditions that will be explained shortly. The rest of the kitchen staff just stood there and took it though; the verbal abuse. She never used profanity and the only reason for this is because she knew that that was the only slip that could get her into any trouble with the company or the staffer’s joke of a labor union. But she would get right up and scream in people’s faces for…I’m not even sure. I guess I never paid that close attention. For moving too slowly? I couldn’t imagine what else she’d have to bitch about. But I was not about to let her or any of the other managers ever raise their voice to me. I’d do a good job; the best that I could. And if they ever talked down to me; I was going to let them have it right back. What would they do? Fire me? Would they do me that favor? Would they really shoot themselves in the foot so badly and have to scramble to find someone who could even bear the burden of these dishes physically let alone mentally and efficiently. I highly doubted it. The fact that I was living out these scenarios on my very first day, though, meant that, in my mind, I knew that I’d officially committed myself to this horrible place for as long as… Well, for the duration of the school year, I guessed. After that, the cafeteria remained open but was run with a skeleton crew. Lester told me that they laid people off but would, if Jannie felt so inclined, hire them back the following year.
Once the clean cookware had been put away, Lester came back over and kicked me back out of my place…which was fine. I moved a little to the right and, together, we both worked at pulling more plastic plates, bowls, and endless cups off of the tray-er-ator; a machine inspired by one, simple concept. Torture.
To those on the other side of this machine, though, it was probably nothing more than a conveyor; a three tiered conveyor that was designed to slowly spin around and around and around. Imagine us standing with our waists pressed up against the stainless steel counter. We had to reach over the counter a couple of feet in order to grasp items from off the tray-er-ator. Basically, it was the wall on that side of the room. It ran the entire length of the counter; from the dish rack to the mouth of the dishwasher. And the tray-er-ator, which began at waist-height (as I’ve said), rose to just over the height of my head so…just over 6 feet. So we couldn’t see over it or anything going on on the other side of it at all. The ceiling sunk down to meet the top of the tray-er-ator but this was mostly, I’m guessing, so kids couldn’t throw full cups of soda over the machine with the intention of hitting us.
The tray-er-ator itself was comprised of a chain of sections; each of them about a foot in length. And attached to each of these sections, there were three trays. One, low. One, medium. And one, high. The surface of these trays was made of a terribly heavy sheet metal that, each and every day, I had to reinstall back into the metal framework that held each one in place. And it was atop these surfaces that the students were supposed to put their used plates. And they did for the most part. When business became really busy (especially during the lunch hour) there would be such a constant flux of kids all leaving the cafeteria at the same time that these trays would ultimately and inevitably become piled with shit to the point of overflowing. But also for the most part, I kept that thing pretty well cleared in my time there. Once I got it down, that is. Once I became systematic in this work, became organized, and got the hang of it. But that wouldn’t be for quite a while. And it certainly wouldn’t be while Lester was in there with me.
Lester wasn’t a bad guy. He may have been kind of simpleton and he was definitely gross so far as getting dirty as hell by way of splashing dirty dishwater and unnecessarily tossing food scraps in every direction. But deep down, he was nice enough. However, I was having quite a problem standing just to his right where, on the counter, there’d been placed a bus tub full of soapy water. And in the bus tub, the used silverware was supposed to go until the tub grew full and the silverware was run through the washer. And it didn’t matter if I stood a little to the left or right of this tub; there just seemed to be no way for me to keep from getting splashed every time Lester threw a fork in there or something…which was often! Every few seconds practically! Also, resting next to this bus tub, there was a rubber rack where all the dirty cups went before they could be run through the dishwasher. And, rather than pouring out any remaining juice or soda, Lester would sloppily toss the cup in a slot…or sometimes just anywhere near the rack. And, in this way, I was getting splashed with people’s backwashed soda too. In the mouth sometimes. Next to it, there was a different rack for coffee cups and…well, you can guess the rest. So needless to say, I was fucking getting wet and covered in the spittle of hundreds of students.
This went on for hours and, just to break up the monotony, Lester and I took turns being the guy down at the clean end of the washer. This meant that we stood about 20 feet apart and had to yell to one another over all the noise if we needed to communicate…but we rarely did. This job was pretty self-explanatory or, at most, it required the half-hour’s worth of training that I’d just had.
“What’s that?!” Lester yelled over his shoulder.
“I didn’t say anything!”
Like I said, we were 20 feet apart. And that’s because the dishwasher was no less than 25 feet in length. It took up most of the wall; the rest being filled by a few feet more counter space down at the clean end for rubber racks of clean dishes to slide out. And then, of course, that disgusting sink back down at the other end. It was a locomotive! At least that’s what this dishwasher reminded me of. It certainly seemed to ‘chug’ like one. And it, much like the tray-er-ator, was basically a glorified conveyor belt at heart. Unlike the tray-er-ator which ran in a circle though; the dishwasher obviously just moved in a straight line. It was a closed machine mostly. And by that I mean; there was the mouth which was always open and spraying the person standing next to it perpetually in the face. And then there was the exit chute which also blew out a lot of steam. But the machine was closed all along the sides and, once a rubber dish rack was inserted, it disappeared and remained unseen until being spat out the other side. There were three main compartments through which the rubber dish racks went once either Lester or I slid one into the hissing, steaming mouth. The only reason I mention this, since each compartment pretty much did the same thing, is that sometimes one of the dish racks would pop off the conveyor’s track leaving the situation in need of some manual correction. And if such a rack needed correcting, there were three hoods that could be opened; one separately covering each of the compartments. These hoods slid straight up like the doors of a Lamborghini (albeit; much less glamorous). And when they did; water vapor would begin to billow out in such copious clouds that my shirt would instantly stick to me, my hair would lie down flat, and half the room would become enveloped in a heavy, steamy mist. When one of the hood doors was open, the dishwasher’s motor would shut off automatically but water would continue to drip down from the top of the now exposed compartment resembling some sort of ungodly, black waterfall. And the water was boiling! If ever I had to correct a dish rack in there (which was like every other day), then this water raining down upon my forearms would leave little red blotches on my skin for days to come. And half the time, I couldn’t just wait for the water to quit dripping. I was in a hurry! With the unceasing supply of used dishes coming in on the tray-er-ator after being deposited by the students; I barely had enough time to wash my hands, move down to the clean end of the wash, stack the clean dishes onto a cart and put the cookware back where it belonged, and make it back to the dirty end before more plates and bowls began piling up to such an extent that they were literally falling from off each tray due to an excessive flow of kids who’d finished their meals. And this was the job, in essence! Running back and forth from the clean to the dirty side of the room… Constantly working my way around the narrow pathway that encircled the dish pit and its giant island of dish racks in the center… I never stopped fucking moving. I couldn’t. I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I did. The dishes would pile up if I did. They’d start falling from off the tray-er-ator onto the counter. Then the tray-er-ator and the counter would be covered in all sorts of dishes that I’d hopelessly try to organize. My hands and arms became blurs like the wings of a hummingbird. And, where the rest of this kitchen’s staffer’s feet stood still as they worked from one particular station or piece of counter space, I ran around that fucking room. All day. Every day. Because there was no Lester to help me after that (not that that mattered since I worked more efficiently on my own anyway). But for both the breakfast and lunch services; that dish pit was my duty.
Of course, I got a break though. If it wasn’t for state and national laws and a union contract; Aramark could have really given a fuck whether I got one or not. So, as I’ve just mentioned, it would seem impossible what with all the running around that was expected of me and potential of pileup that I would ever and could ever leave that room for the half-hour’s time that was allotted me. But, as sweet serendipitous fortune would have it, the cafeteria did close for an hour between breakfast and lunch. It had to. The kitchen staff needed time to replace the types of food at each station and I needed the time to take the clean dishes out to the serving floor and stack them on the shelves so that the students could come back and do it all over again…as did we. Coffee cups. Ceramic cereal bowls. Silverware. The first couple of weeks or so; it hurt to grab these things as they popped out of the dishwasher at one hundred eighty-five degrees. I never developed calluses so the pain went away probably more due to nerve damage than anything else. But stack these scalding dishes I had to; often without being able to wait for them to cool down. I stacked them on a cart directly behind the shiny platform onto which they slid out. It took me several weeks in order to get a nice system of stacking down on this cart as well as with the dishes being pulled off the tray-er-ator. But I did finally arrive at a point where I could stack them high and yet with some sort of stability. And this stability allowed me to not have to take them out, huge cart and all, during one of the meal services. It was damn near impossible to maneuver that thing around all the kids. And, when replacing the clean dishes onto the shelves; it’s not like they moved out of the way or anything. They were horrible, glassy-eyed, open-mouthed… I’ll get back to them.
The technique for stacking dishes so that things continued to run smoothly and efficiently was pretty simple and yet something that Lester had never thought of. He was slow, disorderly, and unmethodical. He was a stupid rhinoceros and he picked bits of food out of the cookware the kitchen staff would bring in. And already, I could find myself hardly being able to wait until the next day where he would be assigned a permanent station…doing something else. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what that guy did after that first day! He was always around, though, and always in the way.
The proper method for stacking dishes, I could have eventually written the book on. Had there been a book. But there wasn’t. For such a huge operation, I doubted that there was even one policy and procedure manual in the whole fucking place. But…hypothetically…assuming there was; I would have added that the dishes should be stacked by type and never mixed. Again, for stability’s sake. And, as a result of not doing this, I had heard horror stories of these individually stacked towers of dishes wavering and then toppling and then spilling all over the floor with a crash if the cart should accidentally collide with an object on its way out to the serving area. Dozens and dozens of nice, clean dishes; they’d all have to be washed again. And I certainly wasn’t going to be having any of that shit. So…I’d stack plastic soup bowls only with themselves. Glass plates only with themselves. The multicolored plastic plates with their own. And so on. Because they were all shaped uniquely and their weight differentiated greatly. If you really want to get into it; there were even two different kinds of plastic plates that were so similarly shaped that, to the layman, they would have appeared exactly the same…as they did to me that first day. But they weren’t! And so…those needed to be separated and collated as well. I’d use this same technique pulling the dirty dishes off the tray-er-ator since the serving wear, at times, could really pile up there too. And this only made sense…to me. But try, for just a moment, to imagine the Lester method if you will. Imagine a nice foot-and-a-half stack of lightweight, plastic plates on a nice, clean dish cart. And then imagine piling, on top of them, another foot-and-a-half stack of heavy-ass ceramic ones. The shit would be so top-heavy that it, almost of its own free will, would want to topple. And glass plates shatter.
About the only problem with my method was that it was so new…so innovative that the management had never before seen anything like it. Jannie didn’t give a fuck. She would have as soon as I spilled a cart full of dishes but, since this was never going to happen (due to these tactics of mine), she never said shit. But she did have a couple of other goon, assistant mangers working beneath her. And believe me; they made my job around there look respectful. And so there was this one guy, Milton, who would come into the dish pit from time to time. He would scrutinize the clean dish cart stacked about chest-high with clean dishes about halfway through breakfast service. And I guess, despite their stability, the stack just seemed too high for him. I did not want to take the cart out there while there were still tons of students about for reasons mentioned above. And, for one reason not mentioned above, I was just embarrassed to show my face out there. All the cute girls; so young with their whole futures ahead of them. And all the douchebag jocks who’d never make it into the world of professional sports but would grow up to be successful business people… I just couldn’t face them a lot of the time despite the fact that, deep down, I knew they didn’t notice me. They’d never remember me or ever care who the fuck I was. But for some reason it pained me to have to look at them and the way they carried themselves; their attitudes. I should have been happy for them. So far as they were concerned; they were on top of the world. And shit, I loved that feeling back in my 20’s. But now I was in my 30’s where the word ‘pathetic’ was just beginning to sink in. Despite what I’d done! Despite all that I’d accomplished! Despite all the worldwide adventures I’d had already that those kids probably never would! Despite all that, I still felt self-conscious about being their dishwasher. I couldn’t help it. And so when that moron assistant manager asshole, Milton, told me that the plates were getting too high and that I needed to take the cart out before the break, I always replied with an, “Okay. I will in just a minute.” And he’d then go away. And on the rare occasions that he’d come back and see that I hadn’t done it; he’d just get one of the other staffers to. And I’d usually just tell them not to worry about it…that I had everything under control and that break was coming up in just a bit anyway.
An hour before I was supposed to leave, Ed came in. We overlapped in this way for the first couple of weeks or so. After that though, as soon as Aramark figured out they could save money by having him come in just as I was leaving, we only passed each other at the time clock. And that’s too bad because, unlike Lester, Ed was the fucking man. More than a man! Some of the others even called him ‘a machine’! No kidding. And in that hour, the two of us could finally clear the dish rack still piled high with all the cookware from lunch. We could scrub the pots that were soaking in the 3 huge sinks running along one wall. And we could generally tidy the place into pretty good shape before the next wave of cookware came in; the cookware from dinner service. That’s right. This place was open for dinner too. And not just on the weekdays. This fucking place was open and serving 3 meals a day, 7 days a week…which seemed unsanitary to me. It seemed like they should at least take one day every once in a while to really cleanse the place spick-and-span. To detail the place! To get the little bits of food scrubbed from the surfaces of…everything! Little scraps that had been there for weeks. Months even! To ‘de-con’ the place just like they used to do to the ‘cleanroom’ back when I worked at Hemcon Medical Technologies. Back there, I guess a routine cleaning was justifiable though. We were making medical products. Things needed to be sanitary. But in a cafeteria, who gives a shit?
Ed, as I came to find out a few days later, was a physicist. Or, rather, he graduated from PSU last semester with a physics degree in, to quote the rest of the kitchen staff, ‘record time’. I’m not sure what that last part ever meant…‘in less than 4 years’, I’m assuming. And all the while, during this ‘4 years or less’ while he was studying, Ed came in and washed dishes for 8 hours at night. And boy, was he a character. This kid would come into the dish pit, take over on the tray-er-ator for me, and then just start singing at the top of his lungs pausing only to smile at me insanely and ask me some equally insane question. So these first few weeks would go as follows:
“If Mick gets to heaven…before I do…comin’ for to carry me home!” he’d just switched from a long, loud, operatic aria to this old, Negro spiritual which, while slaving away, only seemed appropriate. He’d also incorporated my name (I think, just to make me laugh). “Tell all my friends that I’m comin’ too! Comin’ for to carry me home. Swing low…” he really did have a honey-sweet baritone. “You know what, Mick?!” even his spoken words were always projected at a very high volume.
“What’s that, Ed?”
“I was just wondering…you’ve worked here a couple weeks now, right?”
“Yeah,” I was down at the clean side loading the scalding hot plates and bowls onto the clean dish cart.
“That’s awesome, man! You’re doing an awesome job!”
“Thanks, Ed. I appreciate that. Especially coming from you.”
“Oh, yeah?! Why’s that?!” he asked innocently.
“Well, because… You’re the guru. The master. The expert.”
“That’s true, Mick. That’s true.” But he turned around and looked very seriously at me then, “I’m not always gonna be a dishwasher, ya know.”
“No. I know. You’re a physicist. Everybody knows that. I heard you’re even looking into ways to start up your own energy company or something like that.”
“That’s true,” he raised his eyebrows and stared at me in a fixed gaze, “But that’s not why I’m not always gonna be a dishwasher. The truth is; the dishwasher is simply in me. Like if I even so much as see a dirty dish, I need to ‘do’ it. But that’s all gonna end someday.”
“Because, Mick,” the tray-er-ator was beginning to overflow behind his back, “And I doubt anyone has told you about this because we’ve really only been the two dishwashers back here so far…ya know? The only true dishwashers, I mean. And so I feel obligated to tell you; one dishwasher to another. Plus, I just have a feeling that it’s going to make your day,” he smiled widely once again.
“I’m glad. The truth, Mick, is that you and I are actually back here working towards a cause. Now, this cause may sound like a dream. But if we all just keep believing, well…I believe it’s a dream that can one day come true. We’re both working for ‘the cause’. And ‘the dream’…is that one day there will be no more dishes left to do.”
“That sounds like a pretty nice dream, Ed. I believe.”
“I knew you would,” and his eyes were black and lustrous just before he spun back around again to work the conveyor.
For the first few weeks, I smoked cigarettes outside instead of eating a lunch. Most people ate quickly and then smoked quickly. But I just hadn’t been able to bring myself to eat any food yet. With all the touching of the scraps and slop in the dish pit (not to mention all the unpleasant odors); who the fuck could have an appetite?! Well, Lester probably could. Actually, a lot of those guys probably could have eaten even if they’d worked, in my place, back in the dish pit all morning. Most of these guys (and some gals) seemed immune to how absolutely disgusting everything was. But, then again, they weren’t in my specific position and never would be. They’d never have to deal with other people’s cereal bowls still full of their nasty, leftover milk or see things like a wad of chewing tobacco spit out onto a plate before that student ate his breakfast. But I did. And I got to smell them too. It wasn’t the empty plates that I minded so much. I could have taken those all day. But all the half-eaten shit was just gross on so many levels. Fucking little gluttons. And they would fuck up the food somehow. So, rather than just cutting off a nice piece of waffle, what was left over on the plate resembled something that a human-sized fly would have spit on in order to dissolve before slurping it back up. Also, the syrup would cause the shit to really stick on there even after I’d tapped the plate several times against the rubber bumper. Sometimes it required the use of a fork to un-gunk it. And, should this be the case, I would use the student’s fork that they ate with (since they were always readily available with the plates) but try and succeed in not touching the actual surface of the plate with the fork or spoon or whatever the utensil may have been. Because…I have a thing. A quirk. A peeve that makes me shudder right in the heart. And this kink, if you will, is this; I absolutely cannot stand the sound of silverware (and probably even plastic silverware) scraping against plates. Even if it consists of only one scrape like the single scrape it would have required me to un-gunk that nasty, halfway dissolved waffle. It’s true! I can’t even stand the sound of my own silverware scraping let alone other people repeatedly grazing the bottom of a bowl in attempts to get that last half a teaspoon full of ice cream. Ahh! Just writing about it is making me shiver!
I can’t stand excess noise of any kind though. Scraping silverware just hurts me the worst. But even the clinking of coffee cups can freak me out. Those, I’d lie down gently in their flat, plastic rack. So that, really, over all the other necessary noise going on all around me; the only sound, virtually, that I could be held accountable for were the tiny ‘shloops’ of the silverware as I laid them (at an angle) into the bus tub of chemically infused water on my right. I try to do everything with a certain amount of speed and grace. I am the opposite of the Lester’s of this world.
And that’s just it. I’m hypersensitive to shit. The shiny metal everywhere blinded me. The horrible odor choked me. And I would literally jump a little every time someone would come in there, unnoticed by me, and slam the bunch of pots and pans they’d been using down on the metal shelves (where, granted, dirty dishes were supposed to go) about ten feet from where I was usually standing. And, what with the overall noise level in this dish pit, it was too easy for any of those fuckers to sneak up on me…not that that was ever their intention. So I found it sort of interesting when, as we were out back smoking cigarettes while the weather was still sunny and nice, a group of kitchen staffers brought up my immediate predecessor.
“You should have seen this girl, Mick. I swear, I actually think she was in a sorority!”
“Yeah,” another guy agreed, “She lasted maybe…two weeks? If that. You’re not thinking about quitting though. Are ya, Mick?”
“I think about it every day.”
“Well, don’t. ’Cause I don’t want to have to do that shit. And that’s exactly where Jannie would send me until she found a replacement.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“But seriously, man! Every dish that chick fucking touched; she’d be like, ‘Eeewww!’ And then she used to complain that, even after she got off, she could never stop smelling like the pit.”
“Duh,” another guy chimed in, “Shower.”
“It’s not for the fragile, that’s for sure,” said the first, “You either get used to it…or you run away screamin’.”
That last part may sound extreme or overdramatic but it wasn’t.
So I did everything within my power to try and make the job less gross. Like the sink. I figured out how to keep it from getting clogged. The solution was simple really. All anyone had to do was just make sure that they got every last scrap of food from each plate into the compost bin and bingo. The sink never clogged on me again. I wondered if the sorority girl had come up with that much. Did she even make it that far?
“Look at ’em,” Lester said smiling while holding open the lid to a compost bin, “All the blues, and greens, and oranges.”
The green, 55 gallon bin had filled up with just the scraps from breakfast and he was helping me take it outside to where some even larger compost containers were kept locked up behind a chain-link fence. Pulling the trash barrel out to this area wasn’t so bad. I could have done that on my own. The trick was that this completely full, 55 gallon barrel then needed to be lifted up, flipped, and emptied into one of the larger receptacles. They were 95 gallons.
“You ready?” he asked.
We each took a handle, lifted it slightly with our right arms, brought our left hands down to grab the underside of the barrel, and then lifted it high enough to dump all of its wonderful contents on top of some other slop that was already in there. The splatting sound it made caused me to shiver and the smell…well, I’d been holding my breath for damn near a minute and responding to Lester’s inquiries with different facial expressions only.
“Yep,” he said looking satisfied as we placed the rubber bin back down again, “It seems like only yesterday that we cleaned these things out last. Every year on the last day of school. Bet you wish you’d been here for that! And boy, you should have seen the maggots in these things…”
“Pooofff!” I finally exhaled, “That’s the nastiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I mean, David…in culinary school…don’t they teach you how to cut a pizza fast?!”
“No,” David answered without any emotion, “They teach you precision.”
Vedran had been complaining about a co-worker who’d been working the station with him.
“I mean, Jesus!” he went on, “He dropped a plate on the floor and it broke, of course. So then he goes and sweeps it up. But what do ya think he does instead of just grabbing a dustpan?! He starts trying to pick the shit up with his hand! Seriously! I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with this guy!”
Martin, the guy who didn’t know how to either use a dustpan or cut a pizza fast, was a newbie such as myself. And, as Vedran had so graciously pointed out, he’d gone to and graduated from culinary school like several other guys working the kitchen at any given time. And, while this educational background distinguished them from the rest of us losers (as well as the fact that they got to wear ‘whites’), Vedran had just brought up an important subject; the difference between someone who’s been schooled and someone with real world experience. Yes…even on the lowest of rungs that was this cafeteria; this differential could be seen and measured. As for Martin himself though; he looked like such a nice, fragile, and quiet type that he (more so than myself even) just didn’t seem to belong here. His hands were so pale and dainty and he, unlike David or any of the other culinary grads, actually wore a chef’s hat! I felt sort of bad for him because, also unlike David or any of the other culinary grads, I don’t believe he’d had time yet to become properly disenchanted. Because, mustn’t that be what so many students of the culinary arts think when they’re first enrolling in the program? That they’re going to find themselves, upon graduation, working in some nice fine dining atmosphere where they get to be creative put some of their own personal accents on the menu? Well…welcome to the real world, sucker. Especially in this city where culinary kids could be seen in swarms standing outside their various schools (and there were many) smoking cigarettes downtown… So I guess there were two open paths before Markboy now. He could either toughen up like me or run away like that poor sorority girl I still wish I could have seen. Only time would tell. Not that much time though. We’d know in a couple of days.
“What’s that?” Vedran asked me.
I was sitting on a milk crate and had been staring intently at my thumb. The fleshy pad had been gashed from the knuckle all the way up to the top of my fingernail and the cut was deep. “I fucked it up this morning. My hands just get so soft back there from being wet all the time…”
“Yeah. That’s a pretty good one,” he agreed, “I feel your pain.”
“Yeah. I do. ’Cause take a look at that,” and he displayed for me then the underside of his forearm. There was a crusty, red burn on it almost the size of a baseball and it appeared as though it was becoming infected. “It happens.”
How often would it happen though? And to what extent? Because, it’s not like Aramark was offering up any medical benefits. They couldn’t give a shit. They couldn’t care if my thumb bled all over those dishes (clean or dirty) or if Vedran’s burn squirted puss right onto those pizzas. My thumb had stopped bleeding though. A lot sooner than I’d expected. That must have had something to do with my hands being wet all the time too but, from a curative perspective, I sure as hell couldn’t explain it. And that particular wound, relatively speaking, was just on the surface!
The more alarming pain, especially at the end of my first day there, came from my back. I remember making it back to my building and, while waiting a couple minutes for the elevator to come down, I actually had to kneel like a baseball catcher. The only other option was to lie there flat on the ground so fucked was my back that afternoon. The job just wasn’t in any way ergonomically friendly. It was my duty to stand there removing shit from that fucking tray-er-ator all day; the top rack of which I needed to reach over the counter for almost on my tiptoes. And it was this constant counterbalance that really put a strain on my muscles; even from something so seemingly benign in weight as a plastic or ceramic plate. The back brace though…I just didn’t feel that it did me much good. And when I unVelcroed its strap from around my waist that first day; the relief I felt was instant and amazing. Still…there I was kneeling down on the balls of my feet waiting for that elevator. Other neighbors were beginning to gather and wonder what the hell was wrong with me. So I made it a point to see how I felt the next day after not wearing the brace. And if they bitched at me about not wearing it; well, then I’d just have to quit. They didn’t bitch at me however. Lester acted a little concerned but that was about it. And sure enough, my back felt…well, not great. But better. I could, at the end of the day, at least stand up straight. Shortly thereafter, I threw the brace away.
Among other articles I stopped wearing; there were my visor and nametag. Now the visor, while sort of humiliating, was nothing compared to students knowing my actual name. Jannie never said anything about their absence though. She saw me. She’d noticed that they were missing. But she could also sense that I was perpetually on the edge of quitting this job and had enough common sense to know that a few uniform violations weren’t worth losing me over.
“You know how I know this isn’t real food?” Gunther asked me back in the dish pit one morning. “Because it says ‘real food’ on the door.” He was dipping a piece of toast in some apple butter and taking enormous bites. The kid sure didn’t seem to have any qualms with fake food though. He was always back there eating.
Probably seven different kinds of cold cereal, two or three different kinds of milk, soy milk, juices, sodas, coffee, tea, lemon infused ice water, orange infused ice water, cucumber infused ice water, whole fruit, fruit salad, a selection of yogurts, granola, toast, bagels, butter and cream cheese (of course), home fries, hash browns, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, breakfast burritos, bacon, sausage (both patties and links), oatmeal (that shit really stuck to the pot), cream of wheat, pancakes, waffles, potato pancakes, whipped cream, strawberry glaze, miso soup, clam chowder, corn chowder, let’s just make it any kind of soup, chowder, or stew, also any deli sandwich that could ever possibly be conceived of (made-to-order), a salad bar with an endless supply of veggies, dressings, sunflower seeds, and don’t forget the croutons, stir-fry, mini chimi’s, a sorry excuse for sesame chicken, broccolini, buttered peas, succotash, cauliflower, glazed and roasted baby carrots, sweet potatoes, baked potatoes, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, fettuccini, linguini, baked ziti, pizza, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon cheeseburgers, burgers with blue cheese, Swiss, mushroom, and onion, patty melts, tuna melts, grilled cheeses, gyros, fried mushrooms, fried cukes, onion rings, pickles, French fries, curly fries, waffle fries, Tater Tots (also fried), fried chicken, roast chicken, chicken parm, and chicken fingers, hot dogs, corn dogs, the ubiquitous Reuben, Spanish rice, fried rice, white rice, omelets, weird pieces of meat on sharp, wooden skewers that jabbed me in the fingertips as I tried to pluck them from off the conveyor, enchiladas (which were really just burritos with a ladle of sauce poured on it), crispy P.B.&J’s (Rice Krispies; to answer your question), and Ramen noodle soup, sausage and peppers (my would-be personal favorite had I ever eaten there), and my first exposure to orzo, Krispie treats, Lucky Charm treats, Trix treats, Cocoa Puff treats (!), a soft serve ice cream machine with both chocolate and vanilla taps, and every fucking kind of pudding, pie, cake, or dessert bar you can imagine are just some of the menu items served on any given day. And all of it was all-you-can-eat.
And because it was all-you-can-eat and already paid for (which, to these kids, essentially meant; free), I’d pull plate after plate from off the tray-er-ator…plate after plate containing entirely untouched meals. Perhaps a burger would have one bite taken out of it or a sandwich or an omelet or slice of pizza. The really baffling ones were the meals with no bites taken out of them. Maybe the kids just didn’t like the way they were served or how the food smelled once they got it to a table. Who knows? But talk about wasteful. This occurred countless times a day and it really irritated me. At least there were the compost bins. They may have been that cafeteria’s single, redeeming feature. It was just nice to know that all this perfectly good (yet uneaten) food was going to make for fertile soil so that new food could be grown and also go uneaten. I often wondered what a skinny kid in India would think about it.
“Flip it,” Vedran told a student standing only a few feet away. Apparently, the student didn’t register that they were being addressed.
If ever you want to see some dumb looks on some numb faces; spend any amount of time on the open campus at PSU. Even while walking through the kitchen, I tried not to peek out at them. It made the job just that much more depressing knowing that I had to serve these animals. And that’s what I saw whenever I did walk out into the serving or dining area; animals. Cattle mostly. I saw cattle mindlessly chewing their cud. The ones that really got me were the guys who must have had some really stern potty training. They chewed so hard and with such concentration, I thought their jaws would come unhinged as they stared fixedly at one of the TVs. Even soft shit like scrambled eggs! And this is what got me more than anything. While they were chewing, their hand was working hard at stabbing up the next mouthful of food with their fork! And the second they swallowed, the next mouthful would be shoveled in there! It must have been the one time of day that these types didn’t breathe through their mouths.
“Flip it,” Vedran said again. The student was trying to make a waffle which required them, unlike anything else on the serving floor, to actually have to do something themselves. That is; it was necessary for them to pour the batter in the iron and then, when a red light came on and it began to beep, it was also the necessary time for them to ‘flip it’.
It was just so apparent that these kids, before leaving home and coming to live here on their own for the first time, were the kinds of kids who never did shit for themselves at home either. Most of them had probably never done a load of laundry let alone cooking of any kind and they sure as hell never had to do their own dishes. These were rich kids mostly. Loud and arrogant and they all seemed to live in athletic wear. Poorer kids went to community college and lived with their parents. These kids lived here. And by ‘here’, I mean; this very building! Because Ondine, in actuality, was a 15-story dormitory with a cafeteria comprising the entire bottom floor! All the kids had to do was take an elevator down and BAM! There they were (often in their p.j.’s even). That’s how far they had to go for every fucking meal of their day. And by ‘had to’; I mean that too. This was an all-freshmen dorm and, during this year, it was required that all freshmen have a meal plan in this cafeteria and this cafeteria only. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner and, aside from maybe a few classes in-between, it’s almost as if they never really left. They came. They ate. And then they ate some more. And most of them, according to a verbal survey taken by Ricky who worked one of the afternoon serving stations, had no idea how much that meal plan even cost. The price was all tied together as part of their student loans and, although somewhere I’m sure there must have been an itemized line, none of them ever cared to check. Their parents probably knew though. And Aramark definitely knew. And that’s probably the only thing these students and I had in common. By forcing the kids to eat here through some obscene deal with PSU; the company was fucking them in the ass. They were also, unbeknownst to these kids, screwing them out of a vital learning experience that’s probably more important than most college courses. Traditionally, freshmen year is when you’re supposed to learn to eat on very little money. It’s a time that a student can prove to their parents that they can survive by cooking up pots of mac and cheese, Lipton noodles, Ramen noodles, or slathering slice after hundredth slice of the cheapest white bread with peanut butter and jelly.
“Flip it,” but the kid didn’t move.
It’s almost a rite of passage! And when your parents come visit and take you out to dinner; it feels like a real treat! A real meal! Real food (although, again, not according to Gunther)! At Ondine though, in this cafeteria, there existed the exact opposite of this concept and it was called ‘Parent’s Day’. No shit. As if the place couldn’t get any busier with all the freshmen who were forced to eat there, the upperclassmen who sought the convenience of eating there, and even some professors! We also had to deal with certain designated days like ‘Parent’s Day’ where the parents would all flood in from the suburbs and join their kid for a meal. And on days like those; they couldn’t even find a seat.
Also, by taking advantage of the present economic situation (which was bleak); the company could basically force me to do this horrible work for a few pennies above minimum wage. So my asshole hurt too. The students and I and our assholes. They were sore. We should both just be thankful, though, that it wasn’t from the food.
“Jesus!” Vedran said, “How the hell are you in college?!”
But the kid still didn’t hear him.
On extra busy days such as ‘Parent’s Day’ or ‘Prospective Student Days’ (when the cafeteria would overflow with a few hundred extra 16-year old Korean girls); they’d let Ed come in early to help out. He’d taken on a pirate persona for the day and could go hours without breaking character.
“How’s it going, Ed?”
He was working the tray-er-ator when I came back from lunch and I was about to help him with it when…
“Arrr, matey. It’s going well. Going well. Everything’s shipshape. But you might want to stand back a little because I have some horrible gas.”
“Sounds good,” so I took over on the clean side.
“Arrr!” he’d scream at the prospective student Korean girls who, from the other side of the conveyor, would also scream and laugh.
Sometimes Milton would come in and tell him to knock it off.
“He’s a genius,” Vedran would tell me when we were outside smoking cigarettes, “I mean, seriously. In all rights, I think Ed is a genius. But you know what? He acts all happy and stuff but…I think he’s really sad inside.”
Vedran was the class clown. He must have been throughout high school and probably still was at PSU. Yes, he and Ricky were the only two students presently working this job and what a personal hell that must have been for them. How conflicting! On the one hand, since they were both attending this school; I’m sure they wanted to support it and be proud of it in a way. But on the other; that must have been really fucking difficult while working in this place.
These two were not, by any means though, the only two staffers with ties to this fine, educational institution. And this was the real irony behind almost everyone working back in that kitchen save myself. Most of the workers at Ondine (again, save myself and the two morning cooks who’d merely taken a two-year culinary curriculum) had actually graduated from Portland State with bachelor’s degrees and sometimes more! The dessert lady, for example, actually held a master’s in…well, I don’t know exactly. Obviously something she couldn’t find a job with and so…she was our dessert lady. But everyone. Every single last person working in that cafeteria (at least on the day shift) held a degree besides me. So really…perhaps I was the only one deserving enough to work in this hellhole. I don’t believe that necessarily but that also doesn’t mean it’s not true. Even Lester had a fucking degree from this university. So one really funny thing they’d do (they; being the management here) was make a giant poster board containing one of our employee’s faces and background information (especially including their education) and post it in the center of the dining area for all the students to see and read! Talk about humiliating. At the same time, though, this was our only true revenge upon those arrogant, carefree, and hand-to-mouth students in a way. It was a gentle reminder that really read, ‘Look. Quit acting like you know it all and that life is just going to be one sweet, downhill, coasting cruise after another. These people are like you. They were you. And if you’re not careful and don’t go for a major more challenging and in demand; this can and will be you too. Just wait.’
They never dared to make one of those posters out of me though. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t have a degree. Or maybe it’s because they knew that I’d flat-out reject it. I’d quit before that shit happened. I seriously would. And, for one reason or another, Vedran’s smiling mug never made it up there either.
Vedran was Bosnian or Serbian or whichever one of those two nationalities was victimized the most during the early-90’s. He and his mother had come to the US then as political refugees. And, since he was still 10 years my junior; that must have made him only a small boy at the time. You’d never know all this just by interacting with him though. His English was perfect. There wasn’t the trace of an accent. And he could easily just be taken as one of those mischievous troublemakers who never take anything too seriously. He was a good-looking kid and, from his pizza station in the afternoons, he loved to flirt with all the young girls that would come by. He’d even date them every so often and tell me all about these sexual endeavors and conquests back in the dish pit…sometimes in the morning too early.
“You know that one chick from Colorado?”
“You one you’ve been flirting with?” I asked just to be polite.
“Yeah! That’s her! Well, we went out the other night.”
“You don’t say.”
“That’s right! And guess what?! She lives here!”
“She lives in this building?”
“Yep. And get this. I fucking got laid in this building last night.”
“Nice,” I had to admit, “I’m proud of you, man. At least someone’s finally getting something out of working here. I mean, other than a sorry ass paycheck every two weeks.”
“That’s true, man. That’s true. Don’t remind me of that shit. And hey…scoot over a little bit, will ya?”
“Uh…yeah,” and I did.
He reached for my sprayer then. The overhanging one that I used to spray the last bit of crumbs off all the dirty dishes.
“And hey,” he smiled with a devilish glint in his eye, “Don’t eat the meatball pizza today.”
Vedran had a huge colander full of meatballs that he’d placed up on the stainless, dirty dish counter and I’d wondered why the hell… But it quickly became clear to me. As he reached for the sprayer and began spraying, it was obvious that the Swedish meatballs left over from last night’s dinner service were about to become the Italian meatball topping for one of today’s variety of pizzas. And by the time he was done they all, in that colander, looked saturated, grey, and revolting.
“And hey,” he added as an afterthought once he’d picked that dripping colander up by its handles and was ready to leave again, “Have you ever tried the pesto pizza here?”
“Well, good. Don’t. It’s fuckin’ disgusting!”
That was back when I had a sprayer. There was a hose that hung down from the ceiling just above the mouth of the washer and, attached to the end of it, there’d been a spray gun. And it had had some power behind it; some serious water pressure that had made pre-cleaning the excess shit (the shit that didn’t automatically come off whenever I tapped the plates against the rubber ring that led to the compost bin) off the dishes really easy. And not only that. There was also something psychologically satisfying about spraying those fucking dishes off with this gun that had even kicked a little. I could actually watch them as they became clean in a matter of seconds. And sure, I had to run them through the washer anyway for sterilization purposes. But still…there was something about blasting those fuckers that made me feel really good. This sensation may have lasted all of two weeks though. It wasn’t because I ever got tired of it. Probably, it was the one piece of enjoyment that I ever got from this job. But the hose overhead, that mother fucker of a hose that connected to my sweet, sweet gun; it was old and the rubber was dry and, one afternoon as if it had chosen this particular time to just give up altogether, it began springing pinhole-sized leaks at various points along its length. And because these leaks were so small but the pressure so great, they basically wound up squirting all over the place; one of the most annoying of those places being my face. So I told the manger on duty. I addressed this problem to him. It wasn’t Milton or Jannie but a third guy who didn’t seem to work quite as many hours. He was pretty young. Young enough to have just graduated from PSU with a hotel and restaurant management degree. And now, here he was still spending most of his days on that very campus. He wasn’t so bad though. But I could never remember his name. Rather, he was just sort of a moron and he confirmed this to me that day by ‘solving’ this little problem of mine with a large roll of duct tape.
“I don’t think that’s gonna work,” I told him as he tossed me the roll.
“Yeah. Sure it will,” he obviously trusted his own blind ingenuity very much so, “Just keep wrapping it around there and it’ll hold.”
“Well, look man. I’ll try it just to humor you but…”
He had already left though. Or; I could only make out the back of him as he exited the dish pit’s doorway. You stupid, stupid man who will be working here or at jobs almost as bad until the day you retire…
So I humored him anyway. I wanted to see the look on his face when I called him back in here to display the result of this idea of his. Mostly, though, I wanted to expedite whatever process was necessary in just getting me another hose! And so I taped. I wrapped that shit around the length of the hose as far as I could reach as it rose up to the ceiling. I double wrapped that shit in many areas. Triple wrapped it even! And boom. There it was still springing little leaks again almost the very second I turned the water back on. Little blisters bubbled up beneath the tape’s surface which caused the water to ooze out at first. But, once these tiny reservoirs had reached their maximum capacity, the streams began to shoot once again with an equivalent force…back at me…at my face.
Upon bringing this manger back in, it became apparent that he didn’t know quite what to do or think…
“Just…tape over it again,” was his actual suggestion.
“I don’t think that’s gonna work,” I reiterated.
“Well…I don’t know what to tell ya then. I’ll mention it to Jannie.”
Ed, that night, must have had to deal with getting sprayed in the face too…all throughout dinner service. By the time I came in the next morning though, and I was surprised at Aramark’s expediency, the hose had been replaced…as had the spray gun attached to it. That’s not to say, though, that my beloved gun had been replaced with another gun. Oh no. Instead, in its place, I found one of those nozzles that resembled a showerhead and was more equipped for watering plants than anything else. Also…the water pressure was all but gone and I was left with no more than a drizzle to work with. It was a sad day.
No more ‘spraying’ of the plates existed after that and, most of the time, I didn’t even try. The dishes were often spat out, from then on, with food debris still stuck to them. But I, still being a perfectionist, would bring these particular plates back to the dirty side to be run through again. Ed, on the other hand (and I was surprised by this), would just flick the chunks off with his finger or even scrape them with his nail…and stack them on the clean cart.
“Aw, Mick. You’re about to make me cry now, buddy.” This was Jimmy. He was one of the evening cooks and a really nice guy. He must have been right about 50 and, just by looking at him and taking in his general demeanor, I could tell that he was used to working in shitholes like this. He probably had for most his life. “And say…I don’t mean to pry but…you seem like a nice, bright young man. What the hell are you doin’ workin’ in a place like this for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you in school?”
Eating the pizza around here was obviously out. I guess, so long as Vedran was making it. But eating any of the other foods, other than the raw vegetables from the salad bar, were out for me too. There was no palpable reason for this beyond a paranoid fantasy I harbored. It had somewhat to do with my other job which, this seems like a good time to disclose, was also (it had happened at random) working for the Aramark corporation. That’s right. Two jobs. One company. One, gigantic monster of a company. It was so big that the left hand obviously never knew what the right hand was doing. The people at my night job (co-workers or managers) had never met or even heard of any of the people at this day job. In fact, if I were to tell the respective managers that each of these different organizations was run by Aramark; they’d probably be surprised to learn it.
There was one, unifying quality though. Well…perhaps ‘quality’ is really the wrong word. There was one trait that remained the same throughout this whole, global corporation. Whether it be in cafeterias such as this, or behind bars such as at my night job, or catering, or ballpark concession stands, or their linen and laundry business; this company treated their employees like shit. And although I’d worked for many companies and corporations that treated their people like shit inadvertently or otherwise; Aramark was different. It was as if they actually hated their workers. And here’s an example:
Many months into this job, the clock in the dish pit would stop working. At first, I wasn’t sure if I minded this or not. On the one hand, since there were no windows in the dish pit, the thought of not knowing what time it was may cause me to freak out. But, on the other, having that cheap, little Office Depot clock on the wall above my head constantly, I’m sure, made time seem to move just that much slower. The truth is that, most of the time, I tried not to look at it anyway. But, for practical purposes, I did sort of need it to know exactly when to go to lunch or leave for the day. And believe me, if I were a few minutes late clocking out; I would hear about it from Jannie because she’d be getting into hot water from her higher-up for having allowed me to be paid those few extra cents. That’s neither a joke nor an exaggeration. So…I did what I thought to be the prudent, rational, and responsible thing. I walked through the kitchen and back to her cubicle and asked if she had any spare batteries in or around that desk somewhere. And she didn’t even have time to say ‘no’ before Lester intercepted me.
“Nope,” he told me, “We take care of that.”
Jannie, without saying anything, turned back to her computer then.
“What?” and I did an about-face to discuss the matter further with Lester.
“We take care of that,” he repeated, “We replace the batteries. It’s in our union contract.”
“No. It’s specifically stated in there. And I should know. I helped negotiate it last year.”
“And…” I didn’t know quite what to say, “And you let them put something like that in there?!”
“We put it in there actually,” and he actually sounded proud of this!
“You mean it was your idea?!”
“Well…I guess we thought that, in doing so, it would open up the door to talks on other types of benefits. Healthcare. Paid holidays. Paid time off. You know…stuff like that.”
“Well, did you get any of that?”
“We got paid holidays.”
“But this place isn’t open on any holidays.”
“We were open half the day on Labor Day.”
“Wow. Well, so you have some batteries stored around here then?”
“Ah, no actually. I’ll have to bring one in tomorrow if that’s okay. Could you just take it down and make sure it takes a double-A. I’m pretty sure that’s what it takes but…just to be sure. I actually bought that clock last year with my own money.”
“Oh my God,” I sighed and began to rub my temples with my fingertips, “Look…I have to get back to the dish pit. I’ll come let you know though.”
“Sounds good,” and Lester sounded very satisfied with himself, “And hey, if you’re ever interested in coming to a union meeting sometime…”
They had a union at my night job too. A different union, believe it or not, supposedly fighting for worker’s rights and better working conditions against this same company…if that doesn’t help to construe just how big and how many different tentacles this corporation had sticking to this city. And that union, much like the one here representing the cafeteria, was all but worthless from what I could gather. They were parasites upon the very laborers they claimed to represent. And the workers (such as Lester, many of the cooks in this kitchen, and plenty of people I worked with at night) were fucked in the head for even looking at jobs like this in any sort of long-term or serious light. But hey, I guess any way you slice it, we still needed the money.
If I thought that they were going to give me another spray gun with more water pressure just because I asked for it, though, I had another thing coming. And that ‘other thing’ would probably be the managers laughing out loud at me. Maybe they’d save it for behind my back.
It was because of this company’s nefarious nature and its inclination to abuse us (especially so long as the economy remained at a standstill and the job market all but a joke) that Jimmy offered me his sympathies that day for having to put up with them in the form of a double dose. It was also because of their nature (and just an overall Aramark overload) that I couldn’t eat any real meals made in this cafeteria. There was often food at my night job; the leftover catering from the Performing Arts Café. And sometimes I ate that as it saved me from having to worry about putting a meal together when I clocked out of there at ten ‘o’ clock. But that, for some reason in my head, is just where I drew the line. The catered food was cooked and prepared at the Convention Center (also run by Aramark). And so…figuring that if I ate my two main meals of the day at work and both of those meals were basically a product of this horrible company; it’s like I would have become a living, breathing Aramark. Aramark-man. That’s what they’d call me. And, unfortunately, that appellation represented something a little short of a superhero.
Alternatively, on my break from washing dishes during the day, I would eat the raw vegetables from the salad bar. Every day. That’s what I ate. Mostly a ton of broccoli and cherry tomatoes. And most of the time, I’d opt for ranch dressing but did also experiment with some of the other ones. I still didn’t like eating there but at least the vegetables weren’t cooked and hadn’t gone through the general processing that this kitchen staff was there to facilitate. It hadn’t passed through their hands and I guess, in my mind, that’s what made it okay. And even then, I didn’t like eating there because the sights and smells and thoughts of globs of spit and chewed food from the dish pit were yet so fresh in my brain and stuck to my clothes even. It grossed me out to chew these vegetables and usually I had to put my mind somewhere else. And lastly, I didn’t like eating there because of a principle. By using one plate and one fork, I was essentially creating more dishes for myself to do. It took me two seconds to rack them, sure. And these may have been the only dirty dishes in the whole building that didn’t gross me out because they were my own but… Well, like I said, it was just the principle of the thing.
“Oh my God, man. I gotta tell you about my morning,” Gunther was in the pit with me and grabbing the porcelain pots that would contain the salad dressings later this afternoon.
It was about a quarter to eight in morning. Both of us had basically just arrived. I was still assembling some of the various, metal components of the dishwasher before even turning it on and letting it fill so… I couldn’t fucking imagine what the hell he had to tell me because the day, in most respects, hadn’t even begun.
“Oh yeah? You mean something actually happened to you already? All I do is get up, take a quick shower, and go.”
“Yeah. Me too, me too. Pretty much. I mean, I eat breakfast too since the bitch won’t let us eat it here. I eat a whole bowl of oats every morning. It makes me feel less guilty about smoking weed the whole rest of the day…or some of the shit I eat here.”
Gunther was about my age, I’m guessing. Somewhere in the late-twenties to early-thirty range. He looked older, though, and that’s because it was clear that he didn’t take care of himself. He was overweight and smoked as many cigarettes on the job as he thought he could get away with. And, just for the sake of cementing the fact that absolutely everybody back in this kitchen had their degree; his was in political science and he rarely failed to remind me of this on a daily basis.
“Alright. So what happened?” I asked feeling the camaraderie that can exist only between two co-workers both working in such a shithole as this. I was glad that he had something so compelling to tell and that he wanted to share it with me.
“Okay. So I live with my girlfriend, right? I think I told you that.”
“Okay,” but then he paused, “Have you ever lived with a girl?”
“Okay. So then you know how it is in the morning. Like…if she’s in the shower but you have to take a shit really bad. You know. Like it’s no big deal after a while for your girl to see you on the can.”
“Um…yeah. Totally.” And, while I had lived with a couple of different girls (one for a year and one for two); I can’t say that either of them had ever seen me taking a shit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I guess. Relationships and how couples behave in them are all different. Personally, I just didn’t want to be trying to fuck my girl later that night and have her, in the back of her mind, thinking about just how nasty a shit I may have taken that morning.
“Alright, alright. So anyway…she’s in the shower. She’s behind the curtain and everything and it’s steamy. I mean, it’s not like she can see the expression on my face or anything.”
“But it’s like…I don’t know. I take a dump every morning. It’s part of my routine. But I try to stay out of my girlfriend’s way until she’s out of there. You know. So she doesn’t have to take a shower while she’s smelling my steaming shit. But this morning…dude. I don’t even know what the fuck I ate last night but it was… Well, let’s just say it was movin’, bro. Fast. And so she’s in there and, of course, the door’s unlocked and everything. So I just go in. ‘Hey, honey. Really gotta take a shit.’ Ya know. And she’s like, ‘Okay. Whatever.’ But I’m tellin’ you, I like barely make it to the can. Like I had to race. And so, long story short, I also have to sneeze all of a sudden. And so I do and, at exactly the same time I sneezed, my ass just couldn’t hold it anymore. And dude…I shat all over the fucking seat.”
And I laughed but more for the reason that he had decided to tell me this story than I found it as comical.
“And dude…” he was really cracking up now and even put his hand on my shoulder, “It was fucking all over the place. And my girlfriend… Well, I had to clean it up right then because she usually takes a shit after me!”
“Dude, that’s insane,” I agreed, “I wonder what the fuck you did eat.”
“Dude, I don’t know. But I’ll promise you, it probably wasn’t something from my house. My girlfriend and I only shop at Trader Joe’s. Ya know? I’m guessing it had to be something from here yesterday. That greasy chicken or something just slid on out.”
“That’s crazy, man.”
Gunther was one of the gruffest, crudest people I think I’d ever met. I’ll admit, though, that his humor and laughter was contagious around the place…and we needed more of that. What we didn’t need any more of, however, was grossness. And it wasn’t his story that morning that grossed me out so much as it was his overall way of being. I kind of did wish, though, that the kids coming down for breakfast knew that, perhaps only half an hour ago, this kitchen compatriot of mine was sponging up his own shit off a toilet seat. I wondered if he’d even bothered to wash his hands. He probably did but, knowing him just well enough by now, I still had to wonder.
He and Lester. They were the worst as far as gross goes. At any given minute back in that kitchen, Lester could be seen picking at any food (about to be served) that you could ever imagine and dropping it into his mouth. Even shit like chicken skin that had dried up and stuck to the cookie sheet during cooking. Especially shit like that actually. And the scrambled eggs; when they came back every morning just after the conclusion of breakfast service, I was somehow the one privileged enough to watch him deliver the leftovers in their tray to the dish pit whereupon he would just reach in there and grab an entire fistful, cock his head back and raise his hand up like a crane, and then release his grip unloading most of these eggs directly into his infinite food hole. A few yellow crumbles, however, would tumble down his cheeks and fall to floor. Some would actually get stuck on his shoulders.
Both he and Gunther were also notorious spoon lickers. Anything that required stirring or mixing also, somehow, seemed to require them licking an entire spoonful of whatever that substance may have been just after the task was completed. With Gunther, it was the salad dressing. He’d walk into the dish pit just to drop a spoon he’d been using into the dirty utensil tub… And I’m not just talking a tablespoon here. We’re talking about a full-on mixing spoon almost half the size of his face… And he’d just be licking it. His tongue did acrobatics on that shit…and I had to watch this. Spoon after spoon. Dressing after dressing. And one by one, he’d again enter the dish pit to drop off that single spoon after having had his way with it. Like I wasn’t fucking grossed out enough!
It was the creamier ones that he was most into. The ranch. The Russian. And of course, the blue cheese. He’d tickle his tongue on some of the others, though, and proclaim, “Mm, that’s good ball sack,” while referring to the balsamic vinaigrette. He also possessed a tremendous amount of nose hair that was so wiry and bristly and long that it could be observed actually growing out of his nostrils as if consciously (albeit futilely) seeking the nourishing sunlight! And I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those wound up in people’s food too.
My falling out with Lester stemmed from this particular variety of personal grossness. It was a couple of months into the job and it immediately led to us not talking for almost the duration. Having to watch him drop bits of crusty chicken skin into his suck hole was one thing. I could easily look away and not quite as easily pretend that I’d never seen it happen. But on the day that I was carrying a tray of heavy, ceramic plates out to the serving area (sometimes if there was only one leftover stack then I couldn’t justify taking the entire clean dish cart out there again), he actually moved directly in front of me… He moved so he was blocking my way with his fat fucking ass and, with every passage being so narrow leading in and out of the kitchen, I was stuck! I was stuck fucking holding that heavy stack of dishes and it was all because Lester had noticed a cookie sheet on one of the back counters and instinctively moved toward it without the least regard for what I was going to do with that tray of dishes. And he’d seen me coming! He’d looked right at me! Right in the eye! And he even smiled! And this cookie sheet, of course, still contained the remnants of some kind of meat that had stuck to it. For a few seconds, all I could do was watch on in complete disgust as he proceeded to try and scrape as much of that shit as he could like some kind of animal. Then I had to intervene less I drop the shit I was carrying.
“Hey, Lester. You think I could get by. Thanks.”
My tone was spiteful as he deserved.
“Sorry!” his apology was sincere though. He realized that he was actually a disgusting pig by birth and was apologizing for this. Unfortunately, I don’t believe there was anything he could do to change this about himself.
That incident pissed me off but, as I’ve just pointed out, it’s hard to loathe someone so much just for being a pig innately…especially to the point of almost never talking to them again. So yes, there was something else that oaf did every morning that really pissed me off. He’d use the clean dish cart to take the ice water dispensers out to the serving area in order to assemble them. And he would always return that cart to the dish pit with like an inch of fucking water in it! And through this act, also, he wasn’t even trying to be a dick. In fact, I’d seen him take a bunch of clean dishes out on that cart while it was full of water. He didn’t give a fuck. He’d just stack them dripping on the shelves…right in front of the students! And if I may digress for just one moment here; I may have resented all of those students to the point of nearly hating them. But there was just something in me that, when coalesced with doing a job (any job), required me to do that job to the best of my ability. And in respect to this form of workplace integrity; taking dripping dishes out to the serving floor just wasn’t simpatico!
And so I asked him one day. I asked him nicely although the confrontation had been building up in my head for so long that I kind of had to take a deep breath or two while making an effort to control my voice so that it didn’t sound as if I wanted to kill him…which I did. “Lester, could you please not return the cart to me full of water. I’d really appreciate that. Thanks.”
“Oh, it’s clean water.”
Again, he actually was not trying to rattle my chain here. He was merely a moron. And he was already turning to walk back towards the kitchen when I stopped him, “Lester…”
He turned around and I was proud for how assertive I’d become in my old age.
“I know that that’s not the way you found the cart this morning. Because, just as I do every morning, I already wiped it down with sanitizer and then dried it.”
The poor fucker was afraid of me because he felt that I was crazy and might do something to him. And he was right.
“Okay,” his voice was tight when he replied but his tone reflected that he understood me. We were clear but it still felt weird to me to have to give someone an order who was at least 10 years my senior. And Lester didn’t want any confrontations either. Mostly though, I could tell, that he thought I was just being a grouchy, hungover, control freak, dick.
Speaking of gross people though. I, on a more domestic level, found myself without a whole lot of room to talk. It appeared that the dishes were already taking a more chronic toll on me as well. In some professions, people are known for taking their work home with them. In dishwashing, I found the opposite to be true. My apartment that I’d once kept so clean and sterile looking that, often, people didn’t believe I lived in it… That once clean apartment and my own habitual hygiene were now jointly deteriorating. Dishes quickly became stacked in my own sink as did silverware, my frying pan, and my single cookie sheet. My pot for boiling pasta remained on the stovetop with little noodle guts stuck to its bottom and sides. Sometimes I’d put off washing them until the weekend came. Sometimes longer. And sometimes I even reused them as they were. Fuck it though. I lived alone anyway.
“Hey,” Vedran grabbed my attention just as he was heading back into the kitchen.
“Hey, if you see a whole bowl of Cocoa Puffs come around on the tray-er-ator…it’s mine. Just leave it on there.”
“God, this place sucks! I can’t believe I have to sneak around like this just to eat a bowl of fucking cereal.”
“In her cubicle. I should probably wait until she goes out to the dining room to eat her morning baby but… I’m fucking hungry. Don’t they want me to have the energy it takes to do my job?”
“I don’t know.”
“Really? I thought all you dishwashers were supposed to be all wise and have all the answers.”
To which I first responded by giving him an odd, austere sort of look. Then, “I hate to disappointed you, Vedran, and ruin any preconceived interpretations you may have had but…if I was that wise, I guess I probably wouldn’t be standing here washing dishes.”
“Hmm,” he reflected a second, “I guess I never really thought about that. See?! You are fucking wise!”
“If you say so.”
“Not to mention that you sort of outwitted the rest of us by working back here.”
“You’ll have to explain yourself on that one.”
“Dude, it’s fucking nice back here.”
To which I gave him the same look. It didn’t sound like he was being sarcastic though.
“You don’t have to wear your hat or nametag, for one.”
“Well, I sort of pulled a power play on that one.”
“And that bitch never fucking comes back here, does she?”
“Nope. I haven’t spoken more than a couple of words to her in weeks.”
“Dude, that’s fucking awesome. That’s what I mean. It’s peaceful back here. And probably the best part now that I get to thinking about it is; you don’t have to listen to that fucking music all day!”
“That’s true. There are a lot of sounds coming from this room but music is not one of them. And, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure how I feel about that exactly.”
“Feel blessed, man. Feel…blessed. To not have to hear the exact same song at the exact same time every day! You know how many times I’ve heard Hotel California? Enough times to want to kill myself.”
“I know. That’s actually the one that plays every day while I’m taking the dishes out. For better or worse, it’s the only one I’m really subjected to in this place. I know what you mean though. I’d heard that song enough times to want to kill either myself or others way before I’d ever started this job.”
“Yeah, you get it. Now try to imagine that every song you hear, every day, all day, makes you want to do the same thing.”
“Yeah,” I had to admit, “That’d be pretty bad, I guess.”
“Well, just think. We only have to put up with it for 8 more months.”
“Then what happens?”
“Summer happens, my man. And we can all legitimately get on unemployment. And we can all tell Jannie to suck our fucking cocks goodbye. At least until next year. Everyone says that they’re never going to come back here but… Well, this is my third year and I’ve seen all the same poor fuckers in here every time.”
“Yes it is,” and he turned to leave, “Hey, I’ll be back in a minute. And remember not to toss those Cocoa Puffs.”
Thankfully, the short conversation with Vedran this morning gave my mind enough to chew on to last me through breakfast.
First, there was the thing about the music…or lack thereof. Out there in the serving area, it ran on a loop through a Muzak device that sat next to Jannie’s desk. And every day, those poor fuckers really were subjected to the same exact songs at the same exact minute. And to make matters worse; most of it was Classic Rock. Not even anything good either. As Vedran pointed out; it was mostly just radio hits by the Eagles and shit. And, oh my God, Tom Petty. Imagine hearing ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ every day for months straight. I would get to anyone. It would get to the students! I’m surprised they never complained. And maybe they did. A lot of this protocol stuff was coming way down from Aramark corporate headquarters though. I’m almost certain the Muzak selection was. And just to think that at any other cafeterias Aramark ran across this country; the exact same songs were probably playing at exactly the same time. I wondered whether the Nazis would have appreciated this type of uniformity.
On the flipside, music wasn’t allowed in the dish pit. And I’ll say it again. Music or even so much as a radio playing an AM station bringing me only the news. It was strictly forbidden. And I wondered whether the Chinese would have appreciated this type of censorship and deprival. And that was the rule. It was probably typeset in black and white right there in our fucking union contract. I knew it wasn’t worth arguing about and so I never tried. But just how heartless? How sinister?! Could anyone in corporate ever conceive of someone as forlorn as me back there in the pit all by myself with only my thoughts to keep me company? Or from going insane. Of course not. And this lack of any outside stimulus did add to the torture chamber feel of the place. It was a dungeon. And it wasn’t where dreams went to die. It’s where people went. I had received word that last year there were in fact two kids in here doing the dishes during my shift. They were brothers from out of the country or something and supposedly they were absolutely worthless. And crazy as it may sound, I was actually sort of used to hearing shit like this. That is, this was not the first time that I found myself doing the job of what two persons had done prior or even after I left a position. And I always wondered if I should call the management out on this. Should I ask them for twice the pay? Even one and a half times would have suited me alright. They’d never go for it though. They’d fucking get Lester back in here before that ever happened. They’d let the dishes pile up so that Ed had to deal with them along with his own shift’s worth later that night. Ultimately, they would find somebody to fuck over. It just so happened that, for now, that somebody was me.
At least those kids had had each other to talk to.
Secondly, as Vedran had mentioned, he’d seen the same staffers back here year after year. And every single day, so far as I could tell, they bitched about their jobs with an ever-increasing rancor. They hated Jannie a little bit more each day. They hated the other managers too, of course. They hated the shitty wages they were being paid. They hated the food. They hated the students (make no mistake, please, I certainly wasn’t the only one who hated them). But worst of all; they hated themselves and their lives, their own willingness to take more and more shit, and their spinelessness when it came to even thinking about looking for another job. And that’s just it! I think that this place had somehow frozen every one of these poor fucks with so much fear that they were actually afraid to get proactive about bettering their situation. Already, I’d heard people talking about the summertime and how, after that, they’d never be back here. I started hearing talk of that in September! Could they possibly believe that any other place on Earth could be any fucking worse than this? Maybe. And again, it’s not that the job market was very kind these days but I never heard anyone talking about a job search let alone having an interview. And as for me; well, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. But I’d just started this job and it did feel good to finally have that extra cash coming in…the cash that I needed to pay rent without dragging my ass across town to give blood. And so I told myself that I’d pick up the job search again in another month or two. I couldn’t make it till summer. I knew that much. Every fucking day was such a struggle and my body ached. More than a few months here would kill me or worse… It might break my mind in ways I couldn’t quite yet even imagine. I had a feeling it could. Breathing in this stink.
It was morning again and things were just barely getting going. The first, small wave of kids were finishing their breakfast and depositing their dishes on the tray-er-ator. And that’s when I noticed it. One of those fucks had stuck a dollar on his or her plate. It wasn’t sadistically stuck in there like under a bunch of spit or even food or anything. It was just there; folded once like at a strip club.
“Hey, Gunther.” He was gathering his porcelain pots for the salad dressing as he always did this time of morning, “Check this out.”
The plate was just about to go around the ‘dark side’ of the tray-er-ator when Gunther hopped over and grabbed it. I didn’t have to point it out or anything.
“Somebody put that there? It’s not yours?” he asked.
“Nah. I mean, it’s not mine.”
“Do you want it?”
We both stared at the bill on the plate in his hand.
“I don’t think so.”
“You care if I take it?”
“Alright, I’ll take it then. Thanks, man.”
“Yeah. No worries.”
“Lemmie know if any more come back here,” he smiled.
“I will,” but I didn’t know if I would.
It sure would have been nice to get tipped for doing this shitty job but I couldn’t actually make myself believe that this person had stuck the dollar there in good spirits and with some sort of honorable intention. Maybe I should have just taken it though. Maybe that was the difference between Gunther and myself. I should probably wish to be more like him. I should wish to be more like the other people in this world who see money only as a currency; a numerical value. Why did I have to be the kind who took it as some sort of nominal symbol? And was I that insecure or self-conscious to believe that I was always on the blunt end of a joke? And who cares if the placement of the dollar there was intended to be a joke? Who cares if some rich fraternity fuck was snickering just beyond the conveyor and out of sight? The subject had me thinking philosophically the rest of the day. But as usual; where philosophy ends, the real world starts. And in the real world; that frat guy was one dollar poorer, Gunther was a buck richer, and I was left both eternally full and empty with the gift/curse of yet another something to contemplate.
That was the one and only dollar (or any form of money) that ever made its way around but that’s not a good indicator of whether it was a joke or not.
“Mmm. I brought ya your favorite. Chicken juice,” Alex said as he walked up behind me. He was one of the chefs. That is, one of three people on the day shift who got to wear ‘whites’.
Days or weeks ago, he must have entered the dish pit with a similar tub full of the same pink stuff and I must have said sarcastically, “Oh, thank you. How did you know that’s my favorite?” And ever since then he’d been keeping up this little joke between us.
So far, this fall leading quickly into winter was the rainiest season I’d ever spent in Portland. It also turned out to be one of the rainiest winters on record which, in the Pacific Northwest, is really saying something. We’d turned the clocks back by now which left it dark when I left the house and almost dark by the time I punched out of here…not that it was that much brighter when the sun was actually up. For all that heat and flame, it could barely penetrate the soggy blanket of grey. Not even a white ball was visible up there most days.
So between this weather and the dread of a long, oncoming winter and the breaking up with my girlfriend whom I’d cared for deeply; I found an unavoidable situation occurring in my head that can only be described as something like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I was getting pretty weird and I was thinking weird thoughts. For example:
“You know what’d be really fucked up?” I asked Alex before he could leave.
The clear plastic tub he’d just deposited on the end of the counter was the size of a laundry hamper and it contained about a gallon (!) of pink, bacteria ridden chicken juice that probably one hundred various chicken parts had discharged during the thaw process.
“Well…I was thinking. Did you know that Gunther, after chopping up all the fruit for the day, brings in an identical tub with an identical looking juice…though not my favorite?”
“I don’t think I like where you’re going with this,” he smiled, “But go on.”
“Well…you know how Ed comes in every day, lifts up the whole tub of fruit juice, and drinks it right out of the thing? He loves it!”
“Oh my God.”
“That’s right! What if I did it, Alex? What if I washed the fruit juice tub and just left the other one sitting on the rack? You think he’d drink it?!”
“Ah…haha,” Alex’s laugh was slow and forced as he tried to figure out whether I was serious or not, “You know that might actually kill him, right?”
“Oh I like Ed, Alex. Don’t get me wrong. But if that’s the only way to get a day off around here then so be it.”
“You mean like after being incarcerated for manslaughter?”
“Actually no. I was just hoping they’d let us off for the funeral.”
“Oh Jesus, dude,” and he really did laugh this time, “They’d never let us off for that.”
“Ah, sweet!” Ricky walked into the dish pit one morning to gather some utensils, “The noise is back!”
And he’d said this with such false enthusiasm that I just had to laugh.
He was right though. The noise had made its triumphant return on this morning. Or; the sound of screeching metal emitted by the tray-er-ator to be more specific. It had been there my first few weeks on the job and had caused me many a major headache by the end of the day. And I’m sure (I’d actually heard!) that the only reason the management had it fixed was because some of the students were beginning to complain. It must have really bugged them in the 5 seconds it took to walk by the conveyor to drop off their dirty plates. I wasn’t complaining, though, because at least they’d fucking fixed it.
And now it was back.
And this noise; it bothered me so much more upon making its return than it ever had before. I guess that before, I just thought that that’s what the tray-er-ator always did. But now I knew better. And if it had caused me a few headaches before, now it absolutely made my eyes bug. And it was fucking loud. And constant. And I actually leaned my head over so that my ears could be that much nearer to the mouth of the dishwasher; it’s lower frequency slosh and rumble sort of drowning out the other. I couldn’t stand it much longer. Action had to be taken.
“You have any PAM?” I asked Alex who was busily thawing more meat out in the sink.
I knew that they did. I just didn’t know where they kept it.
“The noise is back.”
He sort of chuckled upon discovering that this was my plan. He chuckled like he always did; ambiguously, because he never knew quite whether to take me seriously.
“Sure. Yeah. It’s over there by the oven.”
“Yeah?” I looked over my shoulder.
“Let me know how that works out.”
“Oh, I will. I figure I should know almost instantly.”
And know, I did.
To be completely honest, I didn’t think it would work. I just couldn’t bear the noise any longer without at least trying to do something about it. And that ‘something’ now included at least half a heavy can of professional sized PAM cooking spray. Pressing the little button-nozzle and holding my finger down; I sprayed behind the trays on the conveyor and all up in the dark cracks in order to reach the gears and moving parts that I couldn’t necessarily see. And sure enough, the noise stopped after about 5 minutes and was never to return. It worked but I also didn’t care if a complete PAM-related disaster would have occurred. Since one didn’t occur, though, I was sort of forced to take this as yet another sign from the gods that, unfortunately, my work here was not yet over.
“Did it work?” Alex asked as I returned the can to its spot beside one of the ovens.
“You don’t look too happy about it.”
One night, I went out drinking with a friend. Typically, even on a weeknight, I’d drink an entire liter and a half sized bottle of red wine (the cheap stuff). I could handle that if I ate afterwards and still get up in order to be there so early in the morning. However, going out to a bar or two was kind of a different story. Liquor sneaks up on me and suddenly I find I’m much drunker than I ever remembered drinking. And anyway, I called in sick. It took forever, lying there in the dark, to even find the cafeteria’s phone number. I had to search and search the internet over my phone and even try a few numbers that led me to the wrong offices. This is how attached I was to the job though; months into it and I didn’t even know the phone.
When I finally did get ahold of Jannie, she didn’t sound too pissed. She told me to get better, hung up, and left me wondering why I’d been so afraid of calling-in to begin with…why I felt the consequences would have been so much worse. Part of me actually thought I’d be fired! Not that I would have minded being fired. It’s just that being fired for calling in sick for being hungover would have clearly been my fault and I certainly would have felt guilty and insecure with my own alcoholism if that were to happen. Telling myself I wasn’t going to make it a habit, though, I rolled over and went back to sleep. And, as it turned out, that happened to be the only day that I ever called-in on that job. I just hated the thought of wasting money even if they were only paying me minimum wage.
Medieval, sharpened swords and suits of chain mail armor. And absolutely positively no hope. Not in the US today. Medieval times. Those who have no hope for themselves. Raw survival. Shit, they didn’t even have any hope for their kids other than living past infancy!
When my alarm went off the next morning, I rose feeling refreshed. So maybe it’s not so bad to take a mental health day every once in a while. I’d slept through the majority of it, granted. But that also meant that I’d only have to work 4 days this week and that really appealed to me. In the shower, I listened to sports radio. Then I pulled on my uniform and made my way out into the cold, dark morning. Down at the MAX stop, the brick sidewalks were slick with rain that had frozen during the night. It was still sprinkling, in fact, and every streetlamp glowed with a halo and appeared to be emitting some sort of fog. God, how I hated getting up this early. It was fucking inhumane.
Getting off at the PSU stop on Mill Street, I walked the couple of uphill blocks and around to the cafeteria’s back door. I clocked in and made my way back to the dish pit expecting the worst. They may have stuck Lester in there yesterday to replace me but I knew how slowly he worked. And Ed…
“I hate having any dishes up there on the rack,” I’d so often hear him say. He liked to stay completely caught up; is what he meant. And then he’d smile at me, “Well…hate’s a pretty strong word. So I’ll just say, I aspire not to have any up there.”
But he would have been backed up last night. Lester would have had a shit-ton of stuff left over from lunch and Ed’s aspirations, no matter how fast he worked and hard he tried, would not have been achieved. And this would have carried back over to me despite the fact that I knew about some sanitary, health department law regarding dirty dishes left in dish pits overnight and how there should never be any. Aramark would risk it though. What were they going to do, pay someone overtime to stay late and do them? Oh, hell no. And since there was no way a manger was ever going to stay late either…
Something caught my eye, though, before I got back there. Something in my peripheral. There was something different about the serving area as I saw it through a doorway leading out there. The shelves. There were some stacks of regular bowls and plates on them but there were also stacks of…paper plates?
“Hey Lester,” I’d talk to him but only if it was directly pertaining to work, “What’s with the paper plates? And paper bowls too?”
“Yeah,” he replied in that short voice that always sounded like he’d taken a deep breath and was trying to hold it, “You called in sick yesterday so they thought that was the only alternative.”
“Nope. I went in there to wash the cookware but as far as plates and bowls go… They even went with paper cups and plastic silverware.”
“Yep. Then when Ed got here in the afternoon, they switched back to regular ones. That’s why there’s a mixture still out there. We should probably work on getting those off the shelves this morning.”
“Alright,” I’d been knocked back deep into introspection, “I’ll get on that. Thanks for doing the cookware.”
“No problem. Hope you’re feeling better.”
“I am. Thanks.”
And I made myself flat against the wall so that he could pass by.
Paper plates and plastic silverware. I wasn’t sure what to make of this yet I knew there was meaning in it somewhere. Did it have to do with job security though? I couldn’t figure it out. And could the question of more or less job security be connected with the amount of money that the company must have thrown away yesterday? Because that many paper bowls and plates could not have come cheaply. And what would the students have thought since, in Portland, everyone is such a wannabe environmental activist? I hoped that they’d revolt against Aramark by notifying the EPA or something. At least that would give me a funny fantasy to think about all day; every different scenario that could ever possibly ensue when some stereotypical G-man busted the door down, flashed his badge, and ultimately discovered the secret cache of paper dishware hidden in an indescript closet somewhere. At the very least, though, I hoped they’d run something about all the wastage in the student paper.
At any rate; this company obviously put a lot of stock in their dishwashers if the whole fucking operation came to a halt in one of their one-day absences. And I found myself with something else to laugh about today when I thought about asking for a raise.
“Victor? Who the fuck is Victor?”
It was towards the end of the day and Vedran had come back to drop off all of his leftover pizzas which meant that the rest of the staff would be back to grab one of these nice, stale slices.
“Victor’s. I said, ‘I hate Victor’s.’”
“You hate Victor’s what?”
It used to be around this time of day that I’d be badly ‘in the weeds’ and the individual stacks of dishes would climb so high they’d resemble something straight out of Dr. Seuss’s mindscape; multicolored discuses rising high above my head. But not anymore.
“This place! Victor’s! I hate Victor’s!”
“This place has a name?!”
My hands were so steely, I’d accidentally hurt someone recently when gripping their hand for a shake.
“Yeah,” his tone conveyed that he didn’t believe anyone could ever be so oblivious without actually saying ‘duh’. “It’s on the door.”
“I mean…it’s not like I think you’re making this up or anything. I guess I’ve just never actually come in through the front.”
I was better than Ed now.
“Yeah, but you leave through there.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like I ever turn around or anything. I’m usually running out of here fast!” I laughed.
My back still hurt though. Never as much as that first day but it was chronic just the same.
“That’s crazy, man! How long have you been working here?”
“Three months. And it is crazy,” I agreed, “But the question remains the same. Just who the fuck is Victor?”
My feet hurt too. At this job and my other.
“Fucked if I know. Some asshole, I’m sure.”
“Or is it, do you suppose, ‘victor’ as is someone who is victorious?”
The shoes I wore here weren’t very quality not to mention that they squeaked with every step. Still…I’m super frugal when it comes to certain things; clothes being one of them. I wore shoes till they wore out. And already, I’d made some pretty good headway on these. A hole was wearing into one of the tops where I could just barely see my sock.
“You know…” and Vedran acted as if he took this very seriously. Perhaps he even did! Either way, he pondered a good, long while before answering with, “I’ve never thought of it like that. But then shouldn’t the apostrophe be moved like one place to the right? You know, like Victors’ plural?”
“God damn it, Vedran. You’re smarter than you look, you know that?”
“That’s what they tell me,” he smiled. “Hey, check this out…”
Along with the uneaten pizzas, Vedran had also brought back some unused balls of pizza dough for composting. I suppose they’d been in the fridge for weeks and were now well past their expiration date. Anyway, all of these balls were heavily floured.
“Do it!” I’d read his mind before he could even…
With two fingers, he skimmed one of the dough balls and then rubbed them directly under his nose until the entire area was blatantly white.
“Which reminds me,” I giggled, “It’s Friday!”
No one around here actually needed any reminding of this. I was just setting him up for the weekend mantra.
“Hookers and blow,” he nodded, “Hookers and blow. Should I go out to the serving room like this?”
“Ya know something, Mick?”
“This is my favorite time of the week.”
“Yeah totally, man. I mean, we’re almost outta here.”
“No. I mean, it’s my favorite time of the week including the weekend.”
And I couldn’t believe anyone felt the same way but I knew just what he meant. Vedran went on to explain but little did he know; he didn’t have to. It was like…when we clocked out of here today; that’s when the timer really started ticking. That’s when the countdown began. The countdown to when we’d have to be back here on Monday. That’s why there really was just something about these last couple of hours in the afternoon on Friday that… It was like the farthest we could ever be from the next workweek. And there was something very comforting in that.
“Fucking Nazis. You know they had a razor blade and just would mow them down.”
This was Martin speaking…not directly to me, thank God. It was first thing in the morning and it wasn’t uncommon for him to come into the pit to retrieve some cookware. He was the daytime grill guy; the mild mannered one who, during the first week, didn’t know how to ‘cut a pizza fast’. And although he’d barely mumbled these words, he’d been close enough for me to pick up on them; these words that he’d mumbled…to himself…that were so uncharacteristic of him. Martin hardly ever said a word to anyone, in fact. And when he did; it was just about how much he loved his family. He wasn’t really ‘one of the guys’ so to speak and he never joked around with us about hookers and blow.
But hey, the stress can get to anyone. And if Martin was posthumously pissed at the Nazis for whatever reason; it really wasn’t any of my business because he clearly hadn’t been addressing me. He grabbed his shit and moved on and we both went about our daily business…for a few minutes anyway.
“Hey,” Gunther came back now to grab his salad dressing receptacles, “Did you see Martboy today?”
“Was he acting all fucked up?”
Gunther never beat around the bush.
“Well…now that you mention it; I did maybe overhear him mention something about Nazis and mowing people down.”
“Dude,” Gunther smiled, “Come ’ere. Seriously. You’ve gotta check this out.”
So I followed him just outside the dish pit to where the first doorway let out into the serving area. We sort of hid along the threshold and it was understood that we were now spying on him.
“Fucking crap,” Martin was still mumbling while proceeding to set up his morning station at the grill, “Oh. Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Fucking Nazis. You know they burned everyone. I’d fucking burn everyone too.”
Betwixt all this clearly discernible anger, though, he was also laughing sarcastically. It was quite frightening.
“Is he tripping his fucking balls off?” I whispered.
“Dude. I don’t know,” Gunther whispered back, “But I saw him 5 minutes ago and he was swatting at flies.”
“And I’m assuming you mean flies that aren’t there?”
“Dude, I’ve seen roaches and rat shit but I’ve never seen a fucking fly in here.”
Down past all the grills and cooking ranges, Alex and David were spying through the other doorway. They smiled and waved to us but quickly scattered like mice at the sight of Jannie coming around the corner.
“Oh, shit!” Gunther exclaimed under his breath and was about to make like he was getting back to work as well. Jannie walked straight through the doorway and into the serving area though. Somebody must have narked on Martin. We could hear them whispering to each other now but she remained just outside our line of sight. “Now, it’s over. Dude, I wonder what she’s gonna do to him.”
“Drug test him, I guess. Still…I’m seeing but I’m not believing. Martin just doesn’t seem like the type of guy to drop acid or eat mushrooms even. Especially not on a work night!”
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
And so I went back to work as did Gunther as did the rest of them. It could be expected that we’d learn the fate of Martin fairly quickly. The reasons behind his strange behavior, though, we may never know. Maybe he didn’t even know! Either way; I doubted that the other managers would ever leak us this information.
Not even ten minutes had elapsed before Gunther poked his head in again.
“Dude! She called him off the serving floor and now their talking in the walk-in.”
I wasn’t sure why Gunther felt so compelled to keep me updated on this situation but I was glad that he did. The shit was just too funny and too…interesting. That was it for this announcement though. And he left again immediately after having made it.
David was the next one back there. We exchanged glances and then started cracking up. It was apparent that whatever this little episode was, was the only subject on anyone’s mind that morning.
“Well, this day’s getting off to a bizarre sort of start,” he smiled.
“Yeah, you said it.”
And that’s when the two of us heard a pair of footsteps running from all the way over on the other side of the kitchen. Intuitively, I knew it to be Gunther. He was rushing back here to give us the latest play-by-play.
“She did not send him home!” we could hear him well before we saw him, “Guys! I repeat! She did not send him home!”
Hm. This was a striking piece of information. We’d obviously all been wondering whether or not he’d be fired for showing up to work so blatantly impaired. If not, it was almost certain that he’d be written up as a consequence. But not to even be sent home! I’ve gotta say, I did not see that one coming. What the fuck could Martin and Jannie have possibly talked about in the walk-in cooler? What was his excuse?! And even if he had a really good one like; he’d simply forgotten to take his antipsychotics for a week…that still didn’t change the fact that it was his job to operate a grill station and that he could be considered a danger to himself if not others, e.g., between the breakfast and lunch shifts; David found Martin still mumbling away to himself while attempting to slice onions and other hamburger condiments with a large and ridiculously sharp knife. And I guess there’s some sort of glove that they’re supposed to wear while doing this that would keep them from cutting any finger off should they (meaning; any staffer who had to cut stuff which amounted to basically everyone but me) misaim. Anyway, David handed him this protective glove and I was happy to hear that Martin nodded a subtle ‘thank you’ and did put it on right away. Talk about a liability.
The craziest part about the whole situation, though, (aside from never discovering exactly what it was that had caused our Martboy to flip out so badly) was that a few days later; he did it again! He’d sobered up or whatever for the next few shifts and them BAM! In walks Martin again, talking to himself first thing in the morning. And I guess Jannie could have been pissed at him for having repeated the offense but…she didn’t send him home that time either…or any of the other times which amounted to several more occasions, I would say. So whatever his excuse was; it must have been a good one.
One thing was for sure though. If any of us ever wanted to be sent home early again (on purpose), we’d have to come up with something more fucked up than losing our shit entirely. Because Martboy, unwittingly, had really set a precedent on this one.
“Lester has a girlfriend?” I asked, “Is she fat?”
“Dude, what the fuck do you think?”
“Yeah, I guess I didn’t really need to ask.”
“No,” Nolan shook his head, “You didn’t.”
“What day is it?”
“You know what fuckin’ day it is, Mick,” he was more bitter than normal even.
“Noodle Bowl Day,” I stated.
“Yeah. Thanks for fucking reminding me.”
I wasn’t positive why Nolan hated Noodle Bowl Day so much. He just did. I think it had something to do with being swarmed by Asians though. Each and every Korean student who ate here (which happened to amount to no small sum) never passed up the oversized bowls of Ramen that he served from his station on Noodle Bowl Day.
And he added, “They’re gonna bomb me like fuckin’ Pearl Harbor.”
“I feel for ya, buddy.” Then I had an idea, “What if, in the display plate you set out in the lobby, you like…ya know…made it all fucked up looking so the kids would get pizza or something instead.”
“Mick,” and he looked at me with perfect contempt now, “I could literally take a dump in that plate and no one would notice.”
“Oh, well then you should definitely do that.”
“Why the fuck couldn’t it be Enchilada Day?! Fuck!”
Nolan was a quirky guy. I seemed to commiserate with him more than anyone (which, in this place, meant a lot) but there were a lot of details regarding his personal life that I just didn’t understand. For example; he lived even closer to work than I did (probably no more than a mile) and he not only persisted on owning a car, but drove down here every day and actually paid for parking! Ten dollars a day! Fifty a week! Two hundred dollars a month and it’s not like any of us were making very much money here anyway.
He walked away from me momentarily but quickly returned holding onto the handle of a large, solid skillet. “Mick,” he said as if trying to recapture my attention that he already had.
“Yes, Nolan,” I raised my eyebrows.
“I need to ask a favor of you.”
“Anything, Nolan. Anything for you, buddy.”
“You see this skillet?”
“Well, I want you to take it…and just bash me over the head with it as hard as you can. You can do it, Mick. I know you can. Because, ya know, you look like you have a little heft to ya.”
Often, I’d make fun of Nolan’s weather-resistant clothing as we were clocking-in in the morning. Everyone wore those shapeless, ridiculous looking garments with the hoods and built-in bills. Everyone except me, that is. Still…Nolan was the only one I felt close enough to rip on. And because I always carried an umbrella, he’d call me, Mary Poppins.
“You see that plate, Nolan?”
“I see a lot of plates, Mick.”
“Yeah, but do you see this plate?” and I grabbed it hastily from off the tray-er-ator.
The dish was plastic and coral colored. It also had the slightest, whitened scuff along its edge.
“Well, I see it now,” he admitted as I held it out before him.
“It may look like all the other plates, Nolan. But you see this little scuff right here? That’s how I always know it’s this plate. I see it twice daily. I have a special relationship with it. You could even say that I look forward to washing it. I look forward to just seeing it come around on the conveyor again each day. Each day; slathered with new and different food. I love this plate Nolan. This plate understands me.”
For a second, he squinted his eyes as if making some sort of diagnosis. Then, “How many times do you think you’ve washed that plate, Mick?”
“Well…that’s a good question, Nolan. And I’m glad you asked. It’s a question that, for some people, other people…people who are nothing like me and never will be… For them, it’s a question that might take a lot of time and calculations to answer. But again…not me. I’ve washed this plate one hundred thirty times, Nolan. And by the end of this school year, you can make that number; three-fifty. I just hope it holds out,” and I began to caress it’s smooth, round, coral colored edge, “Otherwise…well, I just don’t know what I’d do.”
“Hang in there, buddy. Christmas vacation is only a week away.”
“One week and two and a half days, Nolan,” I switched back from the emotional tone I’d been using to express my affections for the plate to my curt and normal self, “Excluding the weekend, of course.”
“You got any plans?”
“Pssh. Not really. Working my other job, mostly. It gets really busy there this time of year what with the Nutcracker and this other religious show called the Singing Christmas Tree or something. But it’s money. And it’s the summer vacation that I’m really looking towards. It’s what I’m saving for anyway.”
“Saving it up for the last day, you mean?” and he seemed to get excited just thinking of this, “And that’s when you’re gonna tell Jannie ta suck it?!”
“You’ve thought about this before, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. I’ve thought about doing it for the past two years actually. But then…well, I guess I’m glad I didn’t because what else would I be doing, ya know? A guy’s gotta eat.”
“And park,” but I didn’t wait for him to get the joke, “And no. If I was gonna quit, I’d wait for the busiest day I could find…like one of those days when they have the couple hundred extra high school kids here touring? That’d be perfect,” I shuddered with pleasure, “They’d be so fucking fucked. But no…that’ not what I meant either. I meant that I’m already saving money for this summer. Like…you know…aren’t you gonna try and get out of town and do anything?”
“Yeah, like go camping.”
“Exactly. Like rock climbing. Didn’t you say you were into that?”
“Yeah, like indoors.”
“Oh. Like…you’ve never gone rock climbing outside?”
“Oh. I’m really unimpressed by that, Nolan.”
“I don’t really care.”
“Good point. So anyway, since I enjoy traveling so much and try to get overseas at least every couple years or so…”
“Here’s what I’m thinking. India.”
“Yeah, that sounds like fucking hell.”
“And it probably will be, Nolan. Especially in the summer. But, ya know… Fuck it. I just need an adventure. Or at least just something to dream about while I’m back here. I mean, there wouldn’t be any point to the dream, though, if the goal wasn’t to make it come true. And there wouldn’t be any point to working so many hours in this shithole and saving money if it wasn’t to do something awesome. I mean, I’d just go somewhere else and work like an extra four hours a day or something. Not eight!”
“You only work seven here, Mick.”
“And why don’t you just go to Canada or something?”
“’Cause Canada’s for pussies.”
“Bullshit. That’s where I’m going this summer.”
And I just looked at him.
Vedran was floating across the kitchen on the morning before Christmas vacay. The kid appeared to have fallen in love and now wanted to tell the whole world.
“Guess whose new girlfriend likes it in the pooper?!” he shouted rhetorically and smiled with glee.
“Nice,” somebody actually congratulated him, “And she lives here? Wait… Weren’t you dating another girl who lived here?”
“That’s right,” he confirmed, “It’s actually her roommate. Which is kinda weird. But it’s also kinda weird how, once again, I never even left the building last night. And boys…I didn’t shower either.”
“Oh. Fucking sick,” about six of us all jeered him at once.
“Yeah, yeah. You know you wish you were me.”
This was an exciting day and there was a buzzing energy around the place. For starters, since most of the kids had already taken their midterms and split, the day-to-day routine had all but gone out the window. Dishes would come back around on the tray-er-ator but much more sparsely than on any other day I could remember since the beginning. I was still kept pretty busy, however, with the washing of just about everything imaginable from the kitchen. Seriously. Weird stuff like some of the oven doors that I never, in a million years, would have guessed actually detached from the ovens themselves. A lot of the shit, I just ran through the washer and called it ‘good’. But other stuff, the management wanted me to meticulously degrease with some sort of chemical agent, a roll of paper towels, and a toothbrush. The oven racks, for instance. And I relished in this job because it was like nothing I’d ever done before in this place and because it had absolutely nothing to do with dishes.
The kitchen staffers weren’t exactly working their usual routines either. Ricky’s sandwich station was open and, I believe, Nolan was also out there putting together crispy P.B.&J’s. But other than that, whenever I peeked down that long and narrow hallway, everyone could be seen with a spray bottle in hand and every piece of stainless steel (which consisted of just about everything) was starting to shimmer like it hadn’t since Labor Day.
They brought other stuff into to get run through the washer too. Even the managers were helping which was the first I (or perhaps anyone) had ever seen the like. Virtually anything…any piece of plastic that had been sitting on the floor for months not serving a purpose. If it appeared to have traces of grease or dirt, it was brought in for me to run through as many times as it took for most of the grime to come off. With most of this random equipment, though, the lack of cleanliness wasn’t even a question. That is, the majority of the shit was thick with months’ worth of grime. Dustpans. Hard molded step stools. Utensils that had been found hiding under major appliances for months. And most of these items, at least on the parts that had been touching or closest to the floor, carried with them something stuck to their surface. The rat shit, I could easily identify. Those little turds just fell right off. But this…this was something else. As disgusting as it was fascinating to look at; this crust resembled tiny, little, dark brown barnacles. That is; there was a pattern to it that left no uncertainty as to its organic nature. Roach eggs, if I had to guess. Thousands of them. And, since I was already busy with the cleaning of oven racks, these egg-encrusted dustpans and utensils and step stools went right into the washer. And I knew that it was the machine’s job to sterilize everything and that that was sort of its whole purpose. But there was just something about running roach eggs through the very same water with which I used the clean the rest of the breakfast and lunch plates. Also, we ran all the garbage cans through that day; I actually had to scrub some of those and pour the milky white liquid out of the bottoms. It stunk both literally and proverbially. And then there were the floor mats. Apparently, running the floor mats through the dishwasher is a pretty standard practice in most restaurants…on a nightly basis…despite how gross that might sound. The idea, on a regular day, is that all these mats and any other ‘really nasties’ are the last items to travel through the washer before the machine is drained for the night. Otherwise, no matter how pristinely sterile the extreme heat during the wash and rinse cycles might render something; there’s still a good chance that actual grit from the floor mats (from having spent all day on the floor) could wind up stuck to the plates or the bottoms of any bowls that may have to be washed afterward with the same shitty water. And I’d seen it happen with my own two eyes; the water becoming contaminated with other substances not quite so vile as roach eggs or floor mat sludge. It had happened to me once when I didn’t rinse out a large container full of leftover honey Dijon mustard entirely. The dishwater in all three compartments of the washer quickly turned yellow and cloudy. And the dishes that I’d tried to run through it anyway came out the clean end with those little, brown mustard seeds stuck to them by the hundreds. But hey. Seeds. Eggs. What’s the difference?
“How the hell do you ever take a shit back here?” Vedran had come back to start a discussion and, just based on his body language (call it; the way he was leaning his elbow onto the counter), I could tell that he had no plans of going anywhere or doing anything else for a while…at least until he heard Jannie approaching…and she could be heard approaching from the other side of the building.
“Well, man. Much as I’d like to, and as often as I’ve thought about it, I just think that the Department of Sanitation may have something to say about it.”
He cracked up. “That’s a good one. You’re good. But seriously! With all the dishes constantly coming back here… I mean, not today but that’s probably what made me think of it. I mean, what the fuck do you do?! Go get Lester or something?”
“No. There’d hardly be any point to that. In the time it took me to take a dump, he’d have fucked this place up worse than if nobody had covered me at all.”
“You just always go on your lunch break or something?”
“Fuck no. We get a measly half-hour for lunch and I’m not going to waste any of that sitting on the can…although I guess I do just sit there and read anyway. But…that’s not the point. The point is…have you ever taken a shit in that bathroom? I mean, I go in there routinely to take a leak everyday but that’s different. It’s uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable bathroom with all the kids coming in and out of there. And even then, there’s only one shitter. And it always smells like shit in there. And part of the reason for that is because there’s only one. And I just don’t want to sit in there for any duration of time and breathe in people’s shit fumes.”
“Dude. You just go like this,” and Vedran made a mask by pulling his shirt up over his nose.
“Is that what you do?”
“Fuck yes. If I have to shit, I have to shit, man. Even if it’s right in the middle of making pizzas,” and he smiled here out the side of his mouth.
“So I’ll ask you one more time. What do you do? And don’t tell me you’ve never had to shit back here before because I don’t buy it.”
“Alright,” I admitted, “Just…calm down. It’s true. It’s not every day but…I have had to take a shit back here a few times. Sometimes really bad. But most days, I think I’ve just sort of trained my ass…”
“But what did you do on the other days?”
“I don’t know,” I threw my hands up in a demonstrative shrug, “There’ve been a couple pretty solid feeling ones that I can remember. And with those, I just try to crunch them down as best I can. You know. Kind of squeeze ’em and compact ’em a bit.”
“I do. I do. I’ve done it many times.”
“But then there were a couple of other days where…well…where the shit wasn’t quite so compact.”
“Yes. You know what I’m talking about. The explosive diarrhea.”
“Well, anyway. On those days, and I repeat, there’ve only been a couple, mind you. I don’t, man. I just really clench down on my sphincter and pray to God that things would begin to settle down in there. Like…I imagine the shit trying to get out and then hitting a dead end and then, not knowing what else to do, it kind of freaks out and heads back up towards the stomach where it creates this like fountain. Like a brown, diarrhea fountain of shit. And then, you know, I still have to keep it clenched but it tends to settle and mellow out. Either way. I shit the very second I get home every day. I swear to God, I barely make it up the elevator.”
Vedran was about say something else regarding the faithful geyser that was my ass when Lester came in pushing a food cart. And apparently, and I’m glad, Vedran didn’t want to hear what Lester would have had to contribute to this conversation.
Rolling the cart towards the counter and then past us without excusing himself or saying anything, Lester caused Vedran to have to move in order for him to get past and me to have to move from my spot by the dishwasher’s mouth because I guess that’s just where he needed to go. So Vedran and I both moved over towards the dirty dish rack at the opposite end of the counter and just sort of watched him. And it was weird because, rather than just spraying the cart down with bleach and then wiping it down with a couple of paper towels, Lester actually lifted the whole cart into the air, turned it upside down, and then reset it on the stainless steel counter right next to the washer…right where I’d been standing and always stood (it being sort of my station position) every weekday for the past several months. And sure, I’d probably become a little territorial over this spot but that could never explain Lester’s reasoning for cleaning the cart in this way. He reached for the shitty, new dish hose they’d obtained for me; the one where the water came out in only a drizzle. And with that piece of pressureless shit, he actually proceeded to wet the thing down and…I don’t know! That was about it! It took him 5 minutes but, after he’d veritably misted the entire thing, he removed the cart, rolled it passed us again, and went on his merry, non-acknowledging way.
And once he was out of earshot, I just had to ask, “Now, was that really necessary?!”
To which Vedran replied with one of the most profound answers I’ve ever heard in my life. It was an answer to not only this particular situation but to all those confounding questions of why people do weird and fucked up shit all the time. He said, calmly and rationally enough, “In his mind it was.”
And I felt very satisfied with that and much clearer on everything from there on out.
Everyone else claimed unemployment for the next few weeks because, technically, they could. Christmas break was just long enough to be considered, by that department, a short-term layoff. And so everyone else could claim it but, having another job, I could not. I wasn’t too pissed off about it though. The truth is that, without my other job, I probably would have been really bored around the holidays that year and probably kind of lonely. Plus, my other job was cake. It was also a more social sort of job with there being so much downtime and often a group of co-workers and I would organize a trip to the bar after work.
The best part about Christmas break, however, was probably also the most obvious. Even though the hours did begin to pile up with so many fucking showings of the Nutcracker and the Christian choir thing…and although my feet did actually begin to hurt… And despite the fact that those Christians didn’t tip for shit and neither did anyone else in this season of giving… Despite all that! There still weren’t any dishes for me to do. Not a goddam one. Instead of a dirty dish pit full of eye-blinding aluminum and screeching metal, I had soft carpet and the sounds of a live orchestra to work to. And instead of the smell and humidity of slop and saliva, I was able to work these several weeks in the aromatic atmosphere of freshly baked cookies. And to think that before I’d started the dishwashing job, this job actually used to get on my nerves. But now…now it was like apples and cinnamon. Like a warm little slice of pumpkin pie with a spoonful of Cool Whip. It was somewhere warm and cozy with Christmas trees and lights inside, oversized prop boxes wrapped up like presents and tied with ribbons and bows. It was a soft, warm sanctuary from the white, winter days and the streams of sniffling shoppers on the streets rubbing their mittens together and exhaling in foggy, crystalline breathes. And it was located not even half a mile from the noisy, disgusting hellhole that I’d have to return to much too soon. Or did I?
Yes. I did. I’d come this far and tried to convince myself that I was now committed. This was about India. Financially, it was a now a feasible trip. I’d planned it all out. And if I quit now and didn’t take the ride, then what would I have? What the fuck would I have at the end of this year? Nothing. Just another fucking year of…having survived. Another year with an extra three and half months of agony mixed in there. Three and a half months. It didn’t even sound so long. And let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things; it honestly wasn’t. But it had felt like doing hard time…or at least what I imagined ‘hard time’ must have felt like. And the worst part was…the part that I tried to block out of my head more than anything so soon as the thought tried to enter; it wasn’t even half over. January. February. March. And those were some tough fucking months, especially in Portland, even for people with decent lives and jobs. And then April. May. And half of June. I’d try it though. I had to at least try.
“What’s the matter, Mick?” Nolan asked me in the dish pit sometime after lunch.
“Well. I’m fucking here!”
“Aren’t we all now, Mick. So suck it up.”
“And you spit in my food.”
“What? When?” he took offense.
“Today, Nolan. Today. I was out there peacefully eating my salad just like I do every day. And you came over and started talking to me about something. And you were standing over me eating an ice-cream cone. And I saw…a tiny drop of spit fly out of your mouth and land on my broccoli. I probably could’ve eaten around that particular piece but that’s not the point! The point is that it all felt contaminated, Nolan. I feel contaminated.”
“Dude, is that true?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry about it. And if it had to be somebody’s spit, Nolan,” I added dramatically, “I’m glad it was yours.”
“Yeah, but I am worried about it.”
“I’ll get over it! It just might take me a few days.”
“It’s not that. I’m worried about it because we work with a bunch of disgusting fucks around here and I just don’t want you to think of me as one of them.”
“I never really did, man. We’d probably hang out even…if I wasn’t so antisocial.”
“Yeah, but I need you to know I’m not one of them. For me! For my sake!”
“Dude. You’re nowhere close. Trust me. Did you know the other day I saw Vedran come in with the leftover pizzas just like he always does…”
“And he left them on the rack for anyone who wants a slice…just like he always does…”
“I’m not gonna like this, am I?”
“I doubt it. And then Gunther comes in, grabs a slice, takes a bite from said slice, and then rather than tossing it into the compost bin… You guessed it. He puts it right back up there on top of all the other, uncontaminated slices! And at the time, as I’m watching him walk away, I actually asked myself if that was just normal behavior and how people just did things. I mean, I guess it is around here.”
“Dude, that is not fucking normal though. Why didn’t you tell me and I would have beat his fucking face in.”
“Again. Because, it’s just like I don’t even know what to react to and what not around this place. Because I think I just have different sets of standards than a lot of these fucks. And so they always think I’m overreacting!” I took a deep breath, “I think I’m going crazy, Nolan. Like finally, for the first time in my life, really starting to actually go crazy.”
“You don’t own any guns, do you?”
“Like…do you see that face right there?” I looked towards the tray-er-ator.
“Okay,” he seemed to understand, “You’re right. I think maybe you are starting to get a little…”
“No! Jesus! What face?!”
“Right there,” and I pointed to a plate as it rolled just past the center of the conveyor now, “This one,” I picked it up, “This one with the fries on it. Doesn’t it look like a face to you?”
“Oh yeah,” Nolan scrunched his eyebrows and even bent down a little in order to examine it more closely, “Do you think somebody meant to do that?”
“Well, that’s what I mean. They had to have, right? I mean, nobody just finishes their fries and it winds up in… I mean, it isn’t just like a happy face or anything either. I’ll bet you an art major did this.”
“Yeah,” he continued to agree which surprised me, “I could see that.”
But was I leading him off the deep end?
“That’s pretty cool,” he went on, “What other shit do you find back here?”
“All sorts of stuff. I mean, sometimes when I look at the tray-er-ator through the corner of my eye, it looks like every plate has a different little lucky charm on it…and I don’t mean the cereal. And just earlier today, I found a heart made of brown rice. It was actually sculpted so masterfully that I saved it in order to contemplate it later. It’s up there on the rack if you wanna look. And then mashed potatoes seem to be a popular medium but I guess that one’s kind of obvious.”
“Way too obvious, Mick.”
“But vegetables added to mashed potatoes can be fun. You know….like little props? Like how a carrot makes the nose on a snowman? I mean, don’t get me wrong, Nolan. Some of the shit, I must be hallucinating for sure. The question is; how much of it? And is there really any acceptable level?”
“No, Mick. No, there is not. Which is why I’m gonna get the fuck out of here…”
“’Nother wonderful day, my friends?!” Jimmy entered the dish pit just then. He was just crazy enough by now to make it sound as though there were actual joy in his voice.
“Sure is,” we both answered.
“Say, Mick. Those girls still sending you hearts around on that there thing?”
“They might be, Jimmy. We were actually just talking about that. They either are…or I’m just slowly going insane.”
“Hmm,” he seemed to think about this for a second, “Well, if they ever send any of their panties around on there…will you lemmie know?”
“Sure, Jimmy. You got it.”
“Will you lemmie sniff ’em a little?”
He laughed uproariously then while Nolan and I moved out of the way for him. Jimmy had heard that we’d served bratwursts today and actually wanted to dig through the scraps of compost for some…to eat! I guess, there’s a first time for everything though. And that was definitely the first time I’d ever seen anything like that. I don’t even know if a bum would have done that. I really don’t. All that spit and saliva and gushy little half-masticated globs of what used to be food. And yeah. There were some bratwursts down there too. Way down underneath all that crap. I know because I’d dumped them there.
“Sorry, Jimmy. I just wanted to wash the pans they were in. Next time, I’ll know to save them.”
“Oh, that’s alright buddy. Ain’t nothing a little rinse job can’t fix.”
But was it?
Unbeknownst to us all; Ricky, the deli sandwich kid, had been eavesdropping from the doorway. He had a funny look on his face but I couldn’t be sure if it was the sniffing panties-talk or the rooting around in a compost bin that had put it there. Or both. Or neither! One could never tell in this joint. It could also have easily been something a kid had done or said to him right outside. And sure enough…
“One of those fucking little piece of shit assholes,” he spoke while carrying his cutting boards over to deposit them on the dirty dish rack, “Just asked me to cut the fuckin’ crusts off his bread!”
“Yeah?” Nolan asked, “Did you tell him to get fucked?”
“I told him he could do it himself!” poor Ricky looked really exasperated, “I fuckin’ gave him my knife and everything. And he did!”
“I told him he could do it himself!” poor Ricky looked really exasperated, “I fuckin’ gave him my knife and everything. And he did!”
“And would this be the that sandwich?” I pulled a plate from off the tray-er-ator and held it up for him to see. It contained a slice of pickle and one entirely uneaten sandwich on wheat…with the crusts cut off.
“That mother fuck!” Ricky slammed his cutting boards down then causing every other pot and pan on the rack to rattle. Then he proceeded to nod his head in a quick, nervous motion while smiling widely. Jimmy had already left the pit but Nolan and I were watching him closely. Ricky was one of those staffers who (like Nolan actually) was highly likely to crack. But he finally stopped nodding. His eyes looked up for a minute and he stuck out his jaw as if trying to reconcile something deep within his head. Then he simply shrugged and, just before turning to leave, announced, “And that, ladies and gentlemen, was Tuesday.”
Ecolab. That’s the company that maintained the dishwasher. I’d seen some of their representatives come in once or twice to either restock our dish soap or unclog the sanitizer dispensers. And they always wore lab coats which, other than the word ‘lab’ being in the company’s name, nobody could really figure out.
David nudged me one time so he could talk right behind one of their backs, “I mean, it’s like…they let me wear chef’s whites. And that seems kind of ridiculous…even to me! But this. I mean, do you think the company makes them wear the coats and that they feel kind of stupid for having to do so? I mean, they’re fucking repairmen!”
So when I saw the Ecolab guy walk into the dish pit wearing a lab coat one day; it wasn’t this particular article that surprised me. I was, however, taken aback. Honestly. It must have been one of the worst rattles I’d ever had in my life. Because the guy…the Ecolab guy…just imagine looking up and unexpectedly seeing this;
He was a pretty tall guy. Big but not fat. It was more that his shoulders were really broad and, in the midst of my surprise, I had one of those weird moments where part of my brain (presumably a part unconnected from emotion) goes off and automatically thinks of something practical. And it occurred to me instantly that Ecolab must had to have special ordered these coats for him or he must have had them altered. So his shoulders were enormous and the guy was pretty big; that was my first impression. And the second occurred only a millisecond thereafter. Moving up from the lab coat and the shoulders; we came to the neck. And it was his neck that startled me mostly. It was his most sever attribute but not his only (as we shall see). But basically, on both sides, from his shoulders to his jawline; it appeared that two, Nerf-sized footballs had been surgically implanted under his skin. They were huge tumors, obviously, although I couldn’t even begin to guess at what kind. But they were disturbing, looked painful, and caused me to wonder if indeed they were painful or obstructed this guy’s breathing in any way. How the fuck he was still working in such a state, and (most importantly) how in the fuck had they come to grow there in the first place.
Thirdly, there was the matter of his hair. It was thin but not just on top. Rather, the thinness was evenly distributed throughout. Much of his scalp was visible and shiny since, like most men with thin hair (and I’ve never understood this) he appeared to use a heavy product. In this guy’s case; I would have guessed a gel. Something that gave it a wet look but, in reality, I’d bet the shit was really hard and crusty. But the craziest part was this thinning hair grew in tiny little clusters…perfectly apportioned over his whole cranium. And each cluster; it reminded me almost exactly of the wet tip of a paintbrush…like the size one would use to do an 8x10 in watercolors or something. Teardrop shaped; getting fat in the middle but ending in tiny, little points. So this combined with the neck thing…
And lastly (and this is the part that really completed my terror when it all finally hit me); there was a smell coming off the guy…like a mixture of breath mints and cheap deodorant. There was definitely something pepperminty involved that I didn’t like. And it was strong. The deodorant must have really been caked on there and the breath mints smelled as though he’d just chewed a whole thing of Tic Tacs just before walking in. But it was my reasoning behind these powerful and artificially fresh scents that disturbed me most of all. It was probably just my imagination. Probably. And my imagination, I’d come to find, could really run rampant back in that disgusting dish pit. There was also a certain philosophy right here that seemed to ring true: If one is surrounded by disgusting shit all day, then disgusting shit, for this unfortunate individual, is often the first place the imagination turns. So…in my imagination, I reasoned that this guy must have been wearing these different scents (and so much of them) in order to cover another smell. A bad smell. An unnatural smell that, sometime over the course of this guy’s life, had become natural to him. Like burning flesh. That’s what I imagined it to be. Because, to me, he was a radioactive monster. In that lab coat, he was a mad scientist involved in one of his own experiments that, somewhere along the lines, had gone catastrophically wrong.
And he didn’t even greet me! This mutant misfortune of a man didn’t say one goddam word! He just walked right over to the clean side, hit the kill switch, pulled a couple of stainless steel panels from off the washer, and began to tinker with its insides. All right before the lunch rush was about to hit! Talk about inconsiderate. But I guess this inconsideration sort of humanized him for me. So suddenly, he was just another dickhead. And although still freaky looking; I saw him more as just a guy with a medical condition or two than some smoking, supernatural beast. Right in the fucking middle of lunch, he worked. For 45 minutes! And it’s not like I could very well go anywhere. It’s not like I could run to take a shit if I had to because I still needed to be there to mind the tray-er-ator. The downside; there just wasn’t anywhere for the dirty dishes to go but up. And so up like Tokyo, I stacked them. I stacked those dishes so high that day that they looked like something straight out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party…all because this asshole couldn’t find a better time… No. I couldn’t blame him though. I’m sure he probably called weeks in advance to tell the management that the only time he could maintenance the machine was sometime during the twelve ‘o’ clock hour and ‘would that be a problem’. And they were probably like, “Nope. No problem at all. Come on down whenever you can. Middle of the day sounds great.” I couldn’t blame the guy. The poor bastard obviously had enough problems as is. But he could have greeted me or so much as nodded in acknowledgment of my existence. There’s nothing wrong with a little etiquette. Nothing wrong with having some manners.
Later on, Alex came back and asked me whether or not I thought it was the chemicals that did that to him and I told him, I didn’t know. I’d seen some of the other Ecolab guys, though, like I said…and they didn’t look like that. They still wore those stupid lab coats, sure, but… It was this guy in particular who was the dishwasher expert. So again, automatically my mind jumped to certain conclusions provoked by my environment no matter how illogical. Like, was there something in the dish detergent? Or in that viscous, blue rinse solution contained in that dispenser on the wall with the leaking slow drip that we’d simply stuck a pan beneath?
The dishes had become pretty backed up by the time the guy left and I even heard somebody yell back into the kitchen, “Mick’s in the weeds!” That had never happened. And I actually had it under control but, since it was Vedran whom they sent in to help, I wasn’t about to complain. He just smiled until his eyes were little slits and continued to shake his head as he worked down on the clean side. He’d stack the dishes onto the clean cart just as soon as I sent them through and they popped back out again scalding hot. And I swear, the worse it got, the busier it became, and the thicker they laid them on the tray-er-ator; Vedran would just smile wider as is this were all just a big game to him. He was young though. He wasn’t over 30 and working back here like me and, for him, I don’t believe that even the faintest of ‘sadness’ had yet sunk in. He barely knew the word! And yet he said things sometimes that were so well beyond his age. Who knows. Maybe it was because he wasn’t born in this country. Maybe he wasn’t as shallow as us.
“You know what this place is?” he asked me while stacking plastic cups that, for some reason, only ever came in clear or red, “I mean, like really?”
“Enlighten me,” I stopped what I was doing for a second to look across the room at him.
“It’s a coffin, Mick. It’s one humongous, gigantic coffin. And you know what these are?” he held up a stack of the cups so that I could be sure of what he was signifying, “They’re nails. And with every one of these little mother fuckers that we stack…that’s how much tighter the lid gets.”
“You Slavs really don’t sugarcoat much, do you?”
He shrugged. “What’s the point?”
Ricky was pissed off again. This time, though, it had something to do with the management. As was customary, he stalked into the dish pit in order to blow off some steam. And, with a hand practically on his shoulder, Gunther followed him in like a mother trying to sooth her girl’s first broken heart.
“Come on, man,” he proceeded to console him, “Is that how small-time a pimp you are?”
Those were his exact words and, to be honest, they would have made me feel better. I would have started laughing and been unable to stop! But not Ricky. He was just sort of a negatively charged kind of guy and had been ever since I’d met him way back on Labor Day.
“Hey, Mick,” Ricky, still followed closely by Gunther, brought quite a large sauce pan over to me, “I want you to take this and just beat me in the fucking head with it. Please.”
I used to receive this request quite a lot actually. And I wanted to do it since I really didn’t like Ricky and I knew he didn’t like me. I think it had something to do with when, way back during that first or second week, he said something to the effect of, “Well, that’s why I’m in college. I don’t wanna be a bum all my life.” And I said something (innocently enough, I swear) like, “Well, that’s great but what’s college got to do with it?” And from then on out, we were just kind of dicks to each other.
“I want to, Ricky. I really do. And I would. But I actually have something that I think might cheer you up instead. But if it doesn’t…and you still want me to beat you…I just want you to know that, as a friend, I will. Out of respect.”
Not waiting for them to even ask, I reached on top of the dishwasher and pulled down a comment card that had come through on the tray-er-ator that very morning…not more than 10 minutes before, in fact.
“What is it?” Gunther asked but instantly figured it out, “Do kids really send those around on that thing?”
“Nope,” I answered, “And I’m actually surprised that they don’t. But this here before you is the very first one.”
Ricky took it from me and held it close to his face in order to read it better. And Gunther bent over it a bit too so that their heads were almost touching.
“Poopballs!” Gunther read triumphantly.
And Ricky read the other part, “Fuck you! More sweet fries!”
And we all started laughing. Then we began to analyze it just in case there was any sense to be made.
“Did we ever have sweet fries here?”
“Yeah. But only one day that I can remember. They were experimental or something.”
“And what’s with ‘poopballs’?”
“I’ve heard that term on a sketch comedy once, I think. But what it’s doing on that comment card, I couldn’t fucking tell you.”
“Who left this?”
“I can’t see on the other side of the thing, man,” I suddenly felt the need to speak the obvious.
“Man, I’ll bet you wish a naked bitch would just come around on that thing one day.”
“I do. And I have for quite a while. But I keep thinking she’d probably be kind of mangled by the time… Well, you see how there’s very little space. She’d have to be like a cephalopod or something.”
“Oh, Jesus. Here comes Vedran.”
“What’s up, boys? What the fuck are you all doing standing back here. Slow morning?”
“It is, sort of,” I replied.
“More sweet fries?! What the fuck is this?!”
“Yeah, that seems to be the question of the hour.”
“Whoops!” Vedran picked a ceramic bowl from off the tray-er-ator, tossed it a couple feet in the air, and let it fall on the tile floor where it shattered into a myriad of sharp, little slivers.
“Oh, Jesus,” Gunther slid passed him and began walking back towards the door, “So this is where it starts. Vedran. You know I love you, man, but I don’t want to get blamed for any of this. Ya feel me?”
“Yeah, I feel you. You, fucking faggot.”
“I’m out too,” Ricky said, “I’ve gotta go fart on whatever the fuck Jannie’s gonna eat today.”
“That’s the spirit!” Vedran was smiling from ear to ear as he shouted after them, “You know what today is, boys! It’s the Final Countdown!”
And here he proceeded to sing loudly; the notes to that cornball song by the Swedish band, ‘Europe’.
“Say it ain’t so, Vedran. Say it ain’t so.”
“It’s so, my friend. It is so. You knew it. I knew it. We both knew this day would come. I just never actually thought they’d let me put in my two weeks!”
“Yeah. That was kind of cool of them, I guess.”
“The fuck it was! It’s just that bitch’s way of torturing me just that much longer!”
“You have anything lined up?”
“Actually, yeah. Jimmy’s getting me a job where he works nights and weekends. PGE Park, baby! Gonna watch some baseball. Sell some fucking hotdogs.”
“Not bad. Sounds better than here.”
“Fuck yeah, it does.”
Two weeks ago, Vedran had been caught sitting down in the crowded student’s lounge in the front of this very building just beyond the cafeteria’s entrance. Together with what must have been a quarter of the dorm, he’d been cheering and hollering along to the World Cup on the big screen…while ‘on the clock’ the whole while. So Jannie gave him two weeks to find another job and leave on good terms which, as I tried to tell him, was actually doing him quite a big favor.
“You know I saw your stalker the other day…”
We used to tease Vedran about this sandal clad, fat guy who used to stand there and talk to him during breakfast.
“Dude, don’t even talk about that guy. I fuckin’ hate that dude so much.”
“Dude. I saw him in the dining area. I walked right past him. And check this out. He had a string of Thousand Island hanging from his beard. It was like right next to his mouth. And it was just hanging there like a loogie or something that you keep thinking is going to break. But it didn’t! It just kept wiggling back and forth. And seriously, dude. It was at least a few inches long…”
“Thank you! But enough. Mick…I could have gone the rest of my life without ever needing to hear that. And yet…for some reason you felt that I did. So thank you. I’m gonna have that image in my head all fuckin’ day now.”
“Vedran!” Yvonne walked through the doorway now, “What the fuck are you doin’ back here?!”
She was a new hire. And yeah…she was a sassy black chick.
“I uh…” she’d caught him off guard.
“I uh, uh, uh,” she mimicked, “Get your fuckin’ little skinny ass back there and start makin’ some pizzas. ’Cause I ain’t makin’ em. I’m makin’ other shit. Now, let’s see what kinda shit they want me to make today,” and she unfolded a piece of paper containing an Aramark recipe for macaroni and cheese or something.
“Alright,” Vedran brushed her off, “Jeez. I’m leaving,” and he made for the door humming the whole way, of course, the tune to the Final Countdown.
“That’s right,” she continued behind his back in a perfectly normal speaking volume that he was probably already too far away to hear, “You get your fuckin’ skinny ass back there before I slap the shit outta you. And you know I’d do it too. Don’t you, Mick,” she suddenly switched to me.
“I’m not doubting you. It wouldn’t even be a good fight.”
“Goddam right, it wouldn’t. Hey, Mick?”
“How the fuck come you don’t have to wear your visor hat? Jannie don’t say nothin’ to you?”
“I just never see her. She’s been back here like twice in the past 4 months.”
“Well, she told me to wear that shit today. And I did. But do you know what the fuck it makes me look like?”
“A slave! Between that and this red fuckin’ McDonald’s shirt. I’m serious. I don’t know how you all have managed to put up with that bitch. But her and I, we’s about to get into it.”
“Like I said, back here, I really don’t see her.”
“I’m about to pimp slap that ho.”
“Not to be confused with the bitch slap.”
“I gotta ask you somethin’ serious.”
“Yeah. Go for it.”
“You want a black bitch? I’m hookin’ Nolan up with one of my cousins and I just thought that you might want in on some of that shit too.”
“Um…that’s really nice of you. But I’m actually trying to get back with my girlfriend…”
“Is she white?”
“You got somethin’ against black bitches?”
And she cracked up. “It’s alright, Mick. I’m just fuckin’ with you.”
“Phew. I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
“Yeah. You do that,” and, after grabbing the cookware she needed, Yvonne passed Nolan on her way out the door as he was making his way in.
Nolan wasn’t after anything. He just didn’t want to be out there prepping for yet another Noodle Bowl day. The stress for him was imminent and he already looked like he was about to cry.
“Call me crazy, Nolan,” I said, “But I just never thought of you as the black girl type.”
“I’m not. But I mean…Yvonne’s pretty good lookin’. So hopefully her friend is too. It can’t hurt. I’ve really got nothin’ else going on.”
“I thought she said it was her cousin.”
“Jesus, Mick. They’re all fucking cousins, dude.”
“No, it’s not. I’m being serious. They all call each other ‘cousin’.”
“I thought it was ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’.”
“Yeah. I mean, there’s that too.
“Well, good luck.”
“With Noodle Bowl day, I mean.”
At the end of the day, just as he was about to clock out and fly away from this place forever, Vedran came back into the pit to break another bowl and tell me a few, random words that didn’t make any sense at the time. He said I should go home and punch them into a Google search. And so I did. And it led me straight to a video clip of a barely legal Japanese girl shooting live, little eels out of her twat.
I was going to miss that kid.
“You could get promoted,” she suggested.
Shayla was another new girl that they’d brought on to work mostly weekends. I’m pretty sure that she was twenty-one but she definitely didn’t look a day over sixteen. She was a cute, tiny little thing who must have grown up far from the city…way past the last suburb where public education didn’t really exist. That is to say; she was complete and utter trailer trash and even spoke with a twang. And yet she had a nice personality.
“Well, that’s just it, Shayla. I mean, it’s kind of hard to explain. But I don’t really want to get promoted. I don’t think I could handle it out there.”
Jannie had asked if, in order to break up the monotony, I wanted to work a couple weekends in the afternoon and evenings. And I told her that, in order to break up the monotony of my routine, I would do just about anything. So here I was on a Saturday getting ready to close the place.
“I got promoted!” her smile was truly full of pride, “And I’ve only been here a week!”
“Oh yeah? Well, I’m glad. You do a good job.”
“Thanks!” both her shirt and visor seemed three sizes too big.
Things were dying down out in the dining area so they’d sent her back to the pit to help me with the dishes. But it was pretty slow back here too.
For a while, I just watched her. Fascinated. She’d brought a plate full of roasted chicken back with her, placed it down on the counter amongst all the other dirty dishes, and then proceeded to eat from it with one hand while pulling plates from off the tray-er-ator with the other. I couldn’t stop looking at her greasy, little fingers. How could this girl remain absolutely unphased by the disgustingness of this environment? I mean…especially being a girl (not to sound sexist or anything). And especially being as young as she was. Because people harden as they get older and become less squeamish. But how could she be so comfortable around all this slop and these smells?! Comfortable enough to eat even!
“You want a milkshake?” she turned to ask me. She never did lose that glowing smile.
“Thanks. I’m alright though.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay. Well, I’ll be right back then.”
And when she returned, the girl set her cup full of ice cream from the soft serve machine (her idea of a milkshake) right down amongst all the dirty dishes and her chicken and began to eat it with a spoon.
“How old are you anyway?” she asked me.
“No, you’re not. I’d say you’re about twenty-four.”
“Well, thanks. I get that a lot so I must really look that young. But I just have good genes, I guess.”
“Do you like to drink?”
“You could say that.”
“And go to parties?”
“Nah. Just drink.”
“I really like this job. You get all the free food you want.”
“Yeah. That’s one of the perks.”
“Do you go to school here?”
“No. Do you?”
“No,” and for the first time, she actually looked a little sad, “I’m not smart enough to go to college.”
“Don’t say that. You can go to college if you want to. And you are smart enough. I can tell just by talking to you.”
“You’re really nice.”
“Yeah. Well…that depends on who you ask.”
A while later, as we were wrapping things up, Shayla grabbed a bucket and began mopping the floor. And still, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She just seemed so content; still smiling and humming to herself even. Her skinny arms; barely able to lift the mop or move the bucket. And yet her attitude. This girl was amazing!
Hobart. That’s what everyone called the dishwasher. They referred to it by this name as if it were a real person and for some reason that used to bug the shit out of me.
Like, “Hobart needs some more detergent.”
Or, “Would you run this sauce pot through Hobart really quick? I need it for the dinner service.”
Hobart was the name of the corporation that manufactured these washers. And, indeed, the very name was molded right onto its metal casing…but it still bothered me and for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on ‘why’ other than I just thought it was stupid. But then, one day, in about the middle of spring; I had an epiphany:
If the dishwashing machine had a name…and I, the dishwasher, had a job title of the same name… If both of us dishwashers were referred as ‘the dishwasher’ then…was there really any difference between the two of us at all? I was merely an extension of it. Another moving part. I was a robot that they could pay less. Dishwasher: it was our name and description all in one. It was the man and it was the machine. We were inseparable components one, continuous conveyor that reached far beyond the tray-er-ator. It began…let me see. Where did it begin? With the students, obviously. It began with them out there feeding their fucking faces. They had to come into the serving area for food though. But what if they didn’t have to do that? Imagine a conveyor that began in the serving area. It would be like one of those sushi-go-round places. The kids could sit out in the dining area and have this extension of the great and single machine bring them the food of their choosing. And they could sit there and eat and, once they were finished with that particular dish, they could simply set it back onto the conveyor which would eventually lead back to the tray-er-ator that would eventually lead back to me. I’d take the dirties, place them in the dishwasher… And oh! What if the conveyor actually began at the clean side of the dishwasher. These dishes, in a chain-like, mechanical fashion, could be brought through the kitchen where the plates and bowls would be filled with slop where they would make their way back out into the dining area. There was still one problem though. The students. As beneficiaries of this grand and solid apparatus; we, the workers of Ondine, needed to think up and then construct some sort of invention that would allow the students to never have to leave. If they never had to stand up and go anywhere then we’d be able to feed them around the clock. Let me see here. What could it be, what could it be? I’ve got it! Toilets! Toilets installed underneath every one of the seats! They could flush or not or just be like those campground toilets over big, septic holes in the ground that, when the shit hits the bottom, it goes; clop, clop. Either way. They could sit there. And eat. And shit, of course. And maybe even do a little homework. My God. I needed to tell a manger about this idea quick. It was almost too perfect.
Maybe it wasn’t necessary though. The kids had been getting noticeably fatter as things were already. I wished that we would have started doing a time lapse, video experiment at the beginning of the year just to see how each one of them widened. No joke. I’ll bet it was pretty significant. Twenty pounds apiece at least. They’d been going at it through almost three quarters of the school year now and showed no signs of stopping.
It was somewhere around this time that the dishwasher broke. It was in the afternoon and, thankfully, just after the major lunch rush. I’d been feeding various pieces of cookware into the machine’s mouth when it started to smell. I kept feeding it, though, rather than pushing the stop button. Call it; curiosity. But it wasn’t ‘curiosity’. It was sadism. I knew the fucking thing was sick and possibly dying. But I also knew that we were bound together and that, perhaps by killing Hobart, my job around here as dishwasher would die along with it. It was worth a try and I really had nothing to lose aside from the weight of this long, metal limb of mine like a cancerous tumor; malignant and doing its best to suck my soul. So I kept feeding it cookware and certainly didn’t alert anyone to the scent of an electrical fire about to catch. And about 5 minutes later, it started to smoke. And still, I wasn’t going to tell anyone. And I didn’t. I wonder if I would have had there been any open flames. Probably not. I may have even just stayed there feeding it dishes. Maybe I just would have decided to go down with it.
“Mick?! What the fuck?!” Milton, the douchebag manger’s fat fucking ass, had randomly come into the dish pit. Well…‘randomly’ meaning; it had nothing to do with the smell or the smoke. The fucker had probably come in to tell me that the stacks of clean dishes were getting too high again. Six months later and he was still power tripping on that.
“What?” I turned around slowly and then just played dumb, “Oh my God. Hey, Milton. I think there’s something wrong with the dishwasher.”
“Yeah! No shit!” he yelled frantically over all the general dish pit noise, “Turn it off!”
“The kill switch is over there on your side, man.”
And sure enough it was since he had walked straight into the clean dish area which, as I predicted, was probably because he had had every intention of chiding me for the stacks being too high. Fucker.
The second he mashed down on that red button, a lot of the noise in the room stopped.
“Jesus, Mick. Didn’t you smell that?!”
“I think that, after working back here for so long, I’ve actually taught myself to shut off my sense of smell when I walk in the door every morning. Sorry,” I smiled, “But hey, it’s three ‘o’ clock so I’m gonna get outta here. Don’t guess that any dishes will be getting done tonight.”
“What?” already, Milton was barely listening. He’d lifted a few of the metal flaps from the various washing compartments and was attempting to seek the source of the problem.
“I said, it looks like it’s had it.” Then I just left.
That night I tried to convince myself of something; that I wasn’t part of the machine washer after all. Or, if I was or had been, it was high time that I worked my way back towards being a human again. The machine had broken but I had not. And that very concept worked to stir something awake in me as I dreamt, per the norm, of the dish pit sometime in the wee hours of the morning where, half-consciously, I hoped that my alarm had at least another half-hour before going off. It can only be described as my spirit or my life force or my happiness or hope. There was a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel now. I could see it like the tiny, open shutter of a camera lens. It was unwavering.
Much as I’d tried to separate myself from the machine in my mind during the night though; when I walked into the pit the next morning, I saw that they’d immediately switched to paper plates and plastic utensils for last night’s dinner service and now, still, for breakfast. The creepy Ecolab guy was in there and he had some panels close to the floor removed from the washer…panels that I’d never seen removed before and the car-like engine parts therein. He wasn’t in there with me an hour before wrapping it up, however. And again, he didn’t say anything to me but just turned the washer back on and walked out. But there I was still removing the remaining paper bowls and plates from off the tray-er-ator, tossing them into the composting bin, and thinking to myself; when I called in sick, they switched to paper plates that day. And when the machine phoned one in yesterday afternoon, they’d done the exact same thing. The only two days since I’d started working here that they’d resorted to paper fucking plates. So maybe we weren’t that different after all.
Since most of the kids had finally become too lazy to wake up and eat breakfast (despite the fact that it didn’t cost them any more to do so), the mornings back in the pit had become much more relaxed. In the afternoon, it’s true, they seemed to make up for having missed that meal by putting away three times more than they normally would have…which made the lunches suck just as much, if not more, than usual. But the mornings had become calm enough to where I could actually squeeze in a round of Angry Birds or two before having to re-pocket my phone and clear down the tray-er-ator again. Towards the end of breakfast, there’d be a little rush, of course. And then came in the cookware used to make breakfast; two carts full. All of which had to be washed before I went to lunch. But the first couple hours say…they actually weren’t too bad. Until the day that Milton came in and saw me with my phone, that is.
“Mick. There’s no phones in here. You know that.”
“I’m not talking on it. Just playing Angry Birds. I’m pretty addicted.”
“I don’t care. Put it away.”
If it were Jannie talking to me, I probably would have. But I just really hated this guy.
“There’s a war going on, Milton. And it’s serious. A war between bird and pig. And do you know what’s going to happen if we all just stand by and let the pigs win? Because…well, I guess I don’t either. But it can’t be good.”
“If you need something to do, I’ve got things for you to do,” he came closer to me now and stood by the dirty dish rack; still empty at this hour.
“Yeah, Milton. Ya see. That’s really not gonna work for me. I mean, I may have a few moments right now. Not many. But a few. And I can’t very well leave the dish pit just in case this thing starts overflowing unexpectedly. I mean…it’s unlikely but you never know. But more importantly…I still get my ass handed to me every afternoon. And I like to think that I’ve earned this little time in the morning.”
“Well, that’s not the way I see it,” he put one hand on his hip and the other on the counter so he could lean. He also made the ‘test me’ face.
“Alright, Milton. Then how about this. Minimum wage equals minimum work.”
My girlfriend, who’d had more minimum wage jobs than anyone I’ve ever heard of, taught me this little philosophy. It was hers and I’m not saying that I totally agreed with it. But it was something to say to that fucker just then that would hopefully get him out of my face. And if he threatened to send me home…I’d already made up my mind. I’d tell him that I wasn’t coming back if that happened…and mean it. I’d come too far to have to put up with this shit. They all knew I fucking did an awesome job and that I only ever called in sick that once. So fuck them. I didn’t deserve this and I wasn’t going to take it.
“I’m telling Jannie you said that,” was his answer as he turned quickly around and walked even more quickly back towards the kitchen.
“Yeah, you do that man!”
He didn’t come back though. And we both knew that Jannie wasn’t even in the building that morning.
Later on that afternoon, after the word had had time to spread, the guys came back to congratulate me on standing up Milton’s fat, hipster, douchebag, bearded face. And they laughed when I told them that, even though Jannie had finally made it in and had been back for hours, she never came in to talk with me. And she never did. At least that lady had sense enough not to fuck up a good thing.
And weeks later, the other manager…the nerdy, glasses guy who was just more of a dimwit than anything else; he came back into the dish pit for some reason. Who knows. There was probably some slip and fall safety disclaimer that he wanted me to sign without reading. But anyway. Even he came back into the pit and laughingly repeated my, “Minimum wage equals minimum work. Milton was so fucking pissed off about that. He wrote a full page report on it. It took him all afternoon. That’s pretty funny though. And Jannie never said anything to you?”
My walks to work were more pleasant these days. It was light in the mornings now, even clear sometimes, and almost warm. Also, the trees all along 5th Avenue were in full bloom and I could smell them as I passed. Such a contrast, they were, from the wafting aroma of greasy bacon and eggs that seemed to billow out that cafeteria’s back door. It was easier to get up in the a.m., I guess. And we were close now. All of us who’d made it. We were each exactly one month away. And as Vedran may have put it; it felt to all of us like ‘the final countdown’.
“You haven’t been eating those beets, have you?” Gunther asked me just before I went to lunch.
“Yeah. I like ’em. I mean, I know they taste like dirt. But they’re nice and cold and…I don’t know. I heard they’re good for you.”
“Dude,” and he leaned in closer so that he could whisper, “Didn’t anyone tell you?!”
“I’m just gonna say ‘no’.”
“Dude. Come ’ere. You gotta check this out.”
And so I followed Gunther to the counter where he did most of his work. It just so happened that the industrial style can opener was also kept on this counter; the same one used to open any and every can of food or ingredient in this kitchen.
He picked up the rectangular dish of stainless steel that each different kind of vegetable was served in over ice at the salad bar and, without saying anything further, held it up for me to see.
“What is that?” I asked seeing a weird, little substance at the bottom through all the purple juice, “Are they spoiled or something?”
“No, dude. That’s shavings from the fucking opener. It’s busted.”
So I looked a tad more closely and sure enough… The little bits of debris that I’d seen at the dish’s bottom and had mistaken for something more like… Well, I don’t know. Like something that had separated from the beets or the beet juice from the can having either expired naturally or being left in the heat or something. But what I was really looking at (and now that I knew, I could see them quite clearly) were little slivers of metal that had been shaved off of the can’s lid upon opening. And this was no small can of beets. It weighed six and a half pounds and had a lid about 8 inches in diameter. And that much lid meant a lot of excess shavings.
“I ran them through a strainer but these still made their way in there. And there’s even smaller ones dude. Ones that you can barely see.”
“How the fuck long has this been going on? I’ve been eating those all week.”
“About a week,” he judged it, “Give or take. Or, I don’t know. It’s been about a week since I first noticed them.”
“Oh my God.” Suddenly, I imagined those little shards grinding their way through my system as my poor kidneys and liver attempted to process them. Oh Jesus. Then I imagined myself sharting out a bunch of blood right into the seat of my pants as we stood there. Or worse! Pissing a bunch of blood right before one of those sharp, little shavings ripped and tore its way right out of my dick! “And the management knows?!”
“Shh. Yeah. I know that they’ve known for at least a week because I told them about it as soon as I noticed.”
“And they haven’t fucking done anything about it?!”
“She told me she’d order a new one but…”
“Oh my God.”
“And it’s in all the food, dude. Anything that you think may contain an ingredient that came here in a can, don’t eat.”
“Jesus. I can’t even believe I’m saying this right now but…what about the students?”
To which he just shrugged, “I haven’t heard about anyone dying yet. Or coughing up blood or anything. But I was thinking about telling the student paper anonymously or something.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I think that might actually be a good idea. I mean, there’s just certain shit that we can’t let them get away with. And how can they even think…?”
“Telling him about the can opener?” Nolan interrupted us as he was making his way from the serving area into the dish pit.
“It’s fucked up,” Nolan agreed. “Hey, Mick. You know what else is fucked up?”
Evidently, he wanted to stop and talk rather than continue his quest for cookware.
“Your girl, Shayla.”
“I work with her three times and all the sudden she’s my girl?”
“You said she was cute!”
“I didn’t mean it like that!”
“Well, apparently she’s quite the little sperm receptacle.”
“What?! Oh please. Oh no. Just…please. Tell me it wasn’t Josh. Anyone but him. Please?”
“Well, then I’d be telling a lie.”
“Oh, Jesus! But he’s just so white trashy!”
“So what? So is she.”
“I know! But oh! Come on! What the fuck is going on today?! Don’t you realize that if his sperm so much as even made contact with one of her eggs the whole fucking universe would implode?! Did you ever even stop to think about that? And now it’s up to us, Nolan. We have to save it. It’s up to us to save the universe!”
“Dude, I doubt he wore a condom. It is fucking Josh we’re talking about.”
“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck! Poopballs!”
There! I finally found the right term to properly express my frustrations.
“Haha,” Gunther laughed then, “More sweet fries, fuckers!”
“Hey!” Jannie inevitably peeked her tiny head around her cubicle way down at the other end of the narrow kitchen, “That’s enough with the language, boys!” Then she suddenly switched to a sort of sarcastic, singsong voice, “And I know you all have stuff to do.” This was her way of warning us. The next step would be for her to get out of her seat and then we’d all get berated.
So the three of us scattered like roaches and went about our daily business until lunch and then through the afternoon. After the rush, just as it was about time for me to go home, Ed came into the pit to take over for me on the night shift.
“How’s it goin’, Mick?” his smile was as huge and insane as always.
“Great. ’Cause I’m gettin’ outta here now. How about you?”
“Well…last night was pretty rough. But that’s just how it goes, I guess. Sometimes I win. And sometimes the dishes win. And last night…the dishes won.”
“Sorry to hear that, buddy. And not to change the subject or anything…”
“That’s alright. I wasn’t looking for sympathy.”
“Good. Because I never would have given you any. I mean…you’re a science and math guy, right? It’s just survival of the fittest. To get all emotional over the dishes winning… Well, it would be…”
“It would be crazy,” and his eyes then conveyed something resembling an inside joke; like he knew that I knew that we both knew a lot about crazy. ‘You’re just like me,’ they seemed to say, ‘And just like you, I don’t know if we’ll ever bounce back from this…no matter where we land eventually.’ And it was all true. We both knew a lot about crazy. And why shouldn’t we? Not to blow my own horn or anything, but I did always consider Ed and I to be the two most intelligent people working in this dump. And we were the fucking dishwashers! Not that any one job around here was that much better than the next. But the two of us; we were stuck in a room by ourselves all day and just left there to go crazy. It’s no wonder he sang out loud at the top of his lungs. It’s no wonder he fucking talked to himself constantly. It’s no wonder to me because I’d started to do the same thing! A couple weeks ago, I even caught him sifting through the compost for leftover chicken. Just like I’d seen Jimmy do a couple months ago. Jimmy; the old and broken guy. And so I had to wonder… It would be dangerous not to wonder… At least I could still fucking wonder! Is that what was next for me? Were we three; Ed, Jimmy, and myself all on the same path to nowhere? Or worse. To a giant, fucking compost heap! We had to get out of here. Ed was young. Younger than I; so it definitely wasn’t too late for him. But me; I wasn’t so sure about. I had to get out of here. At the end of the year, I needed to run the fuck away and never come back. Jannie had spoken already about keeping me on in the summer if I so wanted. The cafeteria then, as Lester had pointed out to me on my very first day, would only be open a few days a week…and for half-days at that…and even then it would be completely dead without 90 percent of the student population. And I’d said ‘yes’! I really was trying to save to go to India still and I’d said ‘yes’! Because this India thing; it wasn’t just a pipe dream. It was the single reason I’d stayed at this job all year! So many fucking days went by where I just wanted to quit…or not come in. I wanted to just stop showing up, break off all communication with the place, and then just be fired that way. But I didn’t. Because I was slowly saving up enough money and now I was close. If it weren’t for that dream, I would have just gone back to giving blood. Because I’d rather sit in that white trash hell of a waiting room for hours upon hours and then be stuck with a needle twice a week than work in that dish pit any day. To be fair, though, I also would rather have bled to death through my dick.
“But here,” I shook my head back from out the clouds, “This is what I wanted to show you.”
There was a plate that came around on the tray-er-ator. It came around some afternoons…I wouldn’t even say ‘most’. And not that it was ever the exact same plate every time. But it was obvious that the same kid had put it there. He or she would take a full glass of soda and place a plate over it. And then, while holding them tightly together, this mystery person would flip them upside down so that the soda didn’t spill. It was pretty interesting although I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it was supposed to be a prank. Like; did the kid think that I wouldn’t notice that the cup was still full only to lift it thereby dumping soda all over the place. I also, for absolutely no reason that I could think of, suspected the culprit to be Ed himself. I don’t know why but the idea just popped in there one day and wouldn’t go away.
“You ever see this?” I asked him now pulling the entire plate off the conveyor; the cup remaining unlifted so that the soda couldn’t spill.
I wanted to read his face. It’s not that I thought Ed would go that far out of his way to do something like this. But I knew that he always ate a meal in the cafeteria before his shift and would have had to drop his plates off at some point.
“Oh yeah,” his face lit up even brighter than before, “I’ve seen that. And it’s a great application of physics but, other than that, just sort of an all-around dick thing to do.”
Hmm. I didn’t pick up anything discernible. Either way; I wouldn’t have been mad even if he’d come right out and admitted it. That’s not why I was testing him exactly. Actually, I don’t know why I was testing him. Call it; intrigue, plain and simple. I found Ed to be an intriguing character. He interested me and I wanted to know more about whatever it was that made him tick. I wanted to know why, a year after graduating with one of the more challenging bachelor’s degrees one could ever earn, he still didn’t have a better job. Not necessarily a job in physics even. But just a better job. And I wanted to know what sort of project Ed was always working on as he’d sit out there in the dining area eating lunch. Often, he’d take up a large table and wraparound booth all by himself. And there, while grabbing a bite off his plate here every once in a while, Ed would proceed to work on these giant sheets of paper that reminded me of blueprints or schematics of some sort. He was definitely designing something. And he went to work on the actual pieces of paper with rulers and compasses; gauging and measuring.
“Do you know what the future of energy is, Ed?” I asked, to him, seemingly out of nowhere.
“No,” he never stopped smiling or making eye contact, “What?”
“Static,” I’d remembered John Galt’s invention from Atlas Shrugged; the one that could change the world.
“Static? Static electricity?”
“That’s just what I figure, man. I mean it’s everywhere, right?”
“It is,” he nodded and I could see him thinking about it a little.
God, I just hoped that kid would hurry up and change the world already. For his sake and for ours.
EEN! EEN! EEN! EEN!
That was the fire alarm and it had startled the both of us considerably. It was loud, yes. And as fire alarms always do, it began suddenly and seemingly from out of nowhere. But there was also the fact that…well, I can’t speak for Ed. But I’d certainly never heard one go off in this place before (which is sort of surprising since this was a dorm after all and I figured these fucking kids would have been pulling them all the time). But the truth remains; I hadn’t. I didn’t even know what the routine was supposed to be.
“Alright!” and again, somehow, Ed was able to seem even more animated than before.
“Aren’t you worried about the dishes piling up?” I asked the sensible question.
“The kids have to leave too. So there’s no new plates or anything,” was his equally sensible answer.
So I followed Ed out into the back parking lot where the rest of the staff was already gathered. I think every single last one of them was smoking a cigarette and watching the 15-story building intently. Everyone was hoping they’d see either flames or smoke. Something. Just please let that son of a bitch burn to the fucking ground today. None of us would ever have to come back… And it wouldn’t even be our fault. But we never did see any smoke. And about 10 or 15 minutes after the fire truck arrived, word spread that some dumbass had just burnt some microwave popcorn in one of the dorm rooms. Still…it was really nice just sitting out there. The sun was shining for one of the first days of the whole year and spring was definitely in the air.
This was it. This really was ‘the final countdown’. It was the last week and we were halfway through it. And in some weird, Stockholm syndrome sort of way, I didn’t want it to end. Because then what would I hate? My other job that, up until now had seemed like such a paradise of employment compared to this? Yeah. That’s exactly what would happen. I would start nitpicking over shit that went on there and start hating it real fucking quick. But this was only natural.
“It’s breakfast,” I was telling Nolan, “So it doesn’t work quite as well. But you’ll get the idea.”
“And how long did you say you’ve been playing this?”
“Two or three months.”
“I am insane, Nolan. And I realized that when the management had to come in here the other day to tell me to stop laughing so loudly.”
“Was Ed in here with you?”
“Nope,” I smiled, “Just me. But anyway. So it goes like this. The game is called ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that’s all from one kid’. And it kind of works on a point system. So check this out. See this pile coming through on the tray-er-ator here?”
“Okay. Just look at it. There’s two plates there, two bowls, a coffee cup, a soda cup, and…oo! What’s that there underneath everything else? That’s right, Nolan. And exhibition bowl from your own serving station as well. So…what’s wrong with this picture?”
“The little fucker took all that shit and didn’t eat hardly anything. That’s what’s wrong.”
“And I’ll agree with you there. But…for the sake of the game, we’ll say that what’s wrong is that there’s only one set of utensils. And that would infer?”
He had to think about it a moment, “That it’s all from one kid!”
“Exactly, Nolan. Exactly. And so once you’ve established that’s it’s all from one kid… And believe me, this little example here is absolutely nothing compared to some of the shit I’ve seen… And so once that’s been established, you can officially tally up your points. To keep it simple, I usually just do like one point for each piece; utensils not included. So…let’s see here. With two bowls, two plates, and two cups. And who,” I started to really put on the game show host voice here, “could forget about that one nearly hidden exhibition plate? That brings us to 7 points in the first round of…say it with me, crowd. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that’s all from one kid!’”
“But if you’re not playing against anyone, how do you know if you’ve won?”
“That’s a good question. A really good question actually. But maybe that’s why I’m finally showing you. So that you, Nolan, can be the next contestant on…?”
“I got it. I got it,” and he changed the subject on me, “You hear that Ricky got fired this morning?”
“Shut up!” I had actually not heard that one, “For what?”
“Who knows. I think they said it had something to do with his attendance but I don’t know. Who the fuck fires someone over their attendance record when there’s fucking three days left?”
“Two and a half, my friend.”
“Two and three quarters.”
“But all they really did was seal his not having to come back here next year.”
“God, wouldn’t that be nice. Just to know you’ve burnt your bridge with this place… What a relief that would be.”
And so it was…Aramark was officially trimming the school year fat much like the students would have to do if they ever wanted to fit into their swimsuits this summer. They’d fired Yvonne too pretty recently. I guess, she’d finally ‘gotten into it’ with Jannie. And Gunther, after having to deal with the can opener caper weighing on his conscience…well, I’m not sure that that was the reason exactly but the timing was sure right. He requested to be transferred to the Smith building (another PSU place of dining but more in the tradition and style of a food court) and got really into the union. Also, another girl had quit seemingly at random. And it would have appeared that Aramark had left themselves severely short-handed (even if summer was right around the corner, a cafeteria couldn’t operate with just a dishwasher and one other guy) but for the…
“Did you see them out there?” Nolan asked me.
“You mean the two ‘newbies’ chopping fruit?”
“Yeah. I must say, I did notice them,” and I smiled, “And it looks like they finally did it. They finally replaced us with real, actual Mexicans. Well…some of us anyway. But I’m sure you and I won’t be too long to follow.”
And indeed, the two people I’d seen (a man and a woman) had been speaking Spanish to each other as I passed. Not that that’s to say they were illegals by any means. But it did kind of make you wonder. Aramark was a huge, international corporation that couldn’t afford to get caught employing a bunch of illegals slaving away for below the minimum wage. And during the school year, there were too many kids about and too many ears. There was a student newspaper circulating and… My point is; it certainly wouldn’t take too long before somebody called them out on it, the company became exposed, and suddenly there arose a national scandal (which is exactly why ((and the only reason why)) this company chose to hire us white boys and pay us the very bare minimum). But now that summer was nearly upon us and there weren’t nearly so many lurking eyes and ears... Would they be so bold? And I’d love to bust them on it if so but, at the same time, wouldn’t want my conscience held accountable for this poor couple being sent all the way back to Mexico.
“That’d be fine by me,” Nolan said looking pretty resolute about it and I was glad to finally see this sort of resolution in his face.
He turned to leave then while I finished up and went to lunch.
Despite its being the term’s last week, I could tell this afternoon was going to be a busy one. Kids began to roll in before I’d even finished eating my salad and, by the time I got back to the pit, the tray-er-ator already had shit falling off of it. And although finals were scheduled to run throughout Friday, I presumed that a decent portion of the kids would probably finish the last of theirs up today. Maybe they had already. Maybe they just wanted to squeeze in that one, last meal. And while it may not have been free exactly; they wouldn’t have to pay for it for approximately four more years so… To them; it was several lifetimes away.
Twenty minutes later, the rush really started to pick up and even back in the dish pit, I could hear how loud it was out in the dining area. A lot of these kids, as I’d suspected, had finished their last tests and had quickly shifted into a pre-celebratory mode where they’d strategically stuff their guts to capacity before going out tonight and drinking. And I couldn’t blame them. I would have done the exact, same thing. But that would be me Friday night; just two days’ time. Well…two and a half. And I don’t care how hard the year was for these kids; for me it was harder. And whereas they were going to get drunk, I was going to make it my mission to get blackout, shitface obliterated.
If I could only make it ’til then. Jeez. What the fuck was going on today? The tray-er-ator was already so crowded and overflowing with dishes that I could barely keep up. And, although disappointed, I certainly didn’t have time enough for keeping any meaningful sort of score at ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that’s all from one kid’. And that’s about the time that Milton came in.
“Mick,” he came pretty close to me and tried to make a lot of eye contact…not that I could focus on him very well what with the tray-er-ator and all, “Somehow some plastic utensils got mixed in with the regular ones. So I need you to go out there and pull all the plastic stuff from the silverware cups.”
And I actually had to stop (only for a second) and turn to look at his face before I said anything. “I’m pretty busy back here, Milton. As you can see. But I’m sure they’ll just use up the plastic stuff or they won’t. No big deal, right?”
“Actually, Mick. It is sort of a big deal. Jannie’s boss was just out there making the rounds, she saw the plastic stuff, and she said that she wanted it pulled. And so now I’m asking you to do it.”
“Well, I appreciate you asking me and everything but I’m afraid that’s just not going to be possible right now,” and I went back to work, fast as I could, on the tray-er-ator, “Can’t you get someone else to do it? Oh, that’s right. I forgot. You guys got rid of everyone else. Seriously, though, Milton. You see me? I can’t walk away from this thing. But if you have enough time to stand back here, then you probably have enough time to go out there and grab the stuff yourself. Just sayin’.”
“Alright, Mick,” his smile; I would have to describe as ‘tight’, “I’m no longer asking you. Is that what you want? Now, I’m telling you. Go out there and pull the plastic utensils. From both stations. Or you can go home for the day.”
“Well, ya see. It’s like this, Milton,” and I stopped what I was doing again, “It’s just that…if I go home for the day, I’m not coming back,” and I smiled tightly too.
“That’s fine with me,” and he didn’t even think about it or anything. Jannie had probably given him the green light to go ahead and fire anyone this week.
I replied with a shrug that was neither angry nor frustrated nor sarcastic. This was simply to be the effect that Milton had caused and it’s not like I hadn’t warned him. “Ok.”
And while he stood there, I calmly turned around, walked past the clean dishes and past the last rack of clean utensils…I took my rubber apron off and hung it on a rack, and then I proceeded to walk through the kitchen on my way to the time clock. One of the chefs, David, seemed to recognize what was going on and he followed me back into the storage area where I was about to swipe my card for the final time. He didn’t say anything but just nodded his head and smiled. And I did the same. The rest of the guys, I never saw again.
I didn’t want to leave that way necessarily…despite the fact that I’d been entertaining the idea literally every day, all year. But I just didn’t want to quit. I wanted them to fire me. And in time, I was able to convince myself that they basically had. And what was the big deal anyway? With only two more days to go, it’s not like there would have been that much more money on my last paycheck anyway. And even if I would have stayed on to work the odd day or two during the summer, that also wouldn’t have amounted to much (monetarily speaking). I’d just have to be that much more frugal before embarking on my trip. And I’d have to live that much more poorly in India. But I’d already had enough saved for my plane ticket. That was the important thing. And if there ever was a place that one could go long and far on very little money; India was it.
It was only a couple hours earlier than usual that I’d walked out the door that day but the sky seemed brighter and this wasn’t only a psychological effect. After leaving at practically the exact minute every day for a year, the subtle shades of daylight can actually seem quite drastic. And the feeling of being early for something came over me. Early or like I had a couple more hours with which to spend my time freely before having to get up at the crack of dawn again and go back to that horrible place. But this was just conditioning. I’d leave my alarm on, however. Not because I planned on going back there and begging for my job. And not because I thought Jannie would call me tonight to try to do the same. Nothing of the sort. Rather; I’d leave it on so that it could go off so that it could wake me up so that I could turn it right back off and go back to sleep. And those brief moments before I did, I suspected, would be some of the most blissful of my life.
Stopping at a street corner, I sent a text and then proceeded to walk in the direction of my neighborhood. Taking the MAX wasn’t necessary today. I could walk at my leisure whether I had to work tonight or not. I honestly forgot if I did but it didn’t really matter. Without having a fulltime job any longer, I could walk wherever the hell I wanted…and would. I enjoyed it so much more than public transit. There was just something about the lack of white trash on the light-rail that agreed with me. That and being able to take in an abundance of fresh air. I stopped at Cameron’s to buy some books to take with me on my trip. And I remembered then something else that Nolan had said to me that morning.
“If there’s any day to quit, Mick, this would be it.”
He’d said it when we were talking about all the layoffs and cutbacks and firings that the company had done recently. And he was right. On a nice, busy day like that… I just hoped they didn’t pull him in there and make him do the dishes. Nah. What am I saying? They probably made the Mexicans.
After making it home, I just sat in a chair for a little while in silence. My head was silent too. Then I stripped off my clothes that I knew I’d never wear again; the black, pocket-pants and the two, baby blue polo’s I’d been issued on my very first day. They’d held up surprisingly well without a hole in either pair of pants or either of the shirts. But my shoes… My shoes which had been brand new upon starting that horrible job… My shoes with their thick, non-slip rubber soles. They had holes. Two gaping ones just beneath the balls of my feet where my socks showed through. Two huge holes from basically walking from the dirty side of the pit to the clean; back and forth, a line of only about twenty feet. And if I hadn’t been so careful all the time to keep the floors nice and dry, I would have come home with soaking feet at the end of each day. And that would have been just another hardship that, to me, sickly, was worth enduring just to save a little bit of extra money for my trip. Before doing anything else then, I walked down the hall to my garbage chute, threw the shoes in it, and listened as they fell the nine stories down into the compacter.
This story contains no exaggerations or embellishments. And I only say this because I want to be very clear about the point I make next. It is absolutely no exaggeration when I say that, in the entire fucking year that I worked there and all the horrible days I had, all the sweat that I poured, all the cuts that I suffered, and all the disgusting shit that I had to put up with (not to mention my nearly perfect attendance record)…it is no exaggeration when I say that not once, not one single time, did any fucking manager ever say, “Thank you,” or tell me, “Good job.” Not a once. So if anyone ever wanted to know what Aramark is all about, that statement probably gives a better idea than any other description in this whole rendition. And it fucking pissed me off that I still worked for them at night but…well, I’d do something about that when I got back.
It’s both funny and interesting that today, two years later, I can easily recall and re-smell the grossness of it all but, in that same vein, am not able to feel the painful boredom. And it was the boredom that was agonizing. It was this boredom that was the most challenging part of my day. And it was just the tortuous thought of this boredom that made it so hard to get up and keep going back there every time my alarm went off. I guess it was the people that kept me going most of the time and the funny little things they’d say. Things that, while stuck back there by myself all day, I had tons of time to analyze and break down and go over again and again and again until I knew that they’d stick with me forever whether I liked it or not. And there was this one thing that, day-to-day since then, has probably stuck with me most of all. Ironically, it came from that oddball manager. Not Jannie or Milton but the other guy. The guy whose name I couldn’t even remember. But he was back there in the dish pit one day for some reason or another…and I distinctly remember him talking about the Weebles; a kid’s play toy from the 1970’s (they may still be around, I’m not positive). Anyway, they’re these little plastic figurines and they’re egg-shaped with a weight in the bottom which renders them impossible to knock over; they always just pop right back up again. Their advertising slogan, in fact, was ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.’ And it was this slogan that the manager said was his personal philosophy. “It’s like people keep trying to knock them down,” he said, “They flick ’em and hit ’em and they really take a beating. But they always get right back up on their feet. Or…well, I guess they don’t really have feet. But you know what I mean. And I just thought to myself one day. Be like the Weebles. And that’s kinda how I go through life.”
Ed was in there too and he began to laugh both hysterically and maniacally at once. And I wonder today if he took that slogan to heart too and, if so, if it’s still with him. Maybe. Maybe not. Ed and I were sort of like the Weebles anyway. We never really had to tell ourselves to behave in such a way. Landing back on our feet (or egg-shaped bases as it were) just came naturally. That’s why I also wonder sometimes where he is and what he’s doing these days. Changing the world, hopefully. And hopefully not from the dining area of that awful place. He’s out of there though. It’s not like I’m keeping tabs on him or anything but he’s out of there. I’m certain of it. I’m certain that the cause had finally caught up with the dream for him too. And that for him, just as it had happened for me, there were no dishes left to do.