Working

By junior year, I was old enough to begin working under the child labor laws. Minimum wage was 65 cents an hour, more than enough pin money to support my book, tobacco and Ripple habits. Through some sort of insider trading, my mother was able to secure a gig for me at the Student Union, as a busboy.

The Commons there was enormous. If all the heavily varnished dark brown oak tables (each engraved with fifty years of graffiti) were in play at once, I suppose some two or three hundred students could have been accommodated. Along one wall stood a grill with a genuine soda fountain (green rivers and cherry Cokes were my favorite) at which short orders could be made, and there was a major league cafeteria style buffet in the opposite direction. Behind the scenes lay a huge and extremely well outfitted kitchen: tons of wide stainless steel countertops, basins, electrical appliances, chefs' instruments and so forth. When mealtime rolled around, some two dozen cooks had at it. It really was food prep on an industrial scale.

Out front, my initial duties were to wander amongst the empty tables from 4:00 to 8:00 with a one gallon Folger's can topped off with soapy water, then wipe down the tables with a dingy and smelly rag.

My first night, I felt very alone and wondered what I had let myself in for. It was boring as hell mopping the tables, or busing the occasionally left-behind tray littered with dirty dishes to the conveyor belt. The food remnants reeked. Before meal hour commenced in earnest, the Commons was quite still, with just a few students enjoying a soda or something. An extremely lanky guy bearing a cranium two sizes too small and an ill-trimmed black mustache, studied by himself in a darkened corner, partaking only of the free ice water. The place seemed cavernous under these circumstances and very lonely. I really didn't think I could stand much more.

Occasionally, one of the few students in attendance would plug the juke box. This was the first time I had ever heard the Jefferson Airplane. Their hypnotic promises weren't lost on me at all. Somebody to Love conveyed Dionysian thoughts, while White Rabbit intimated alluring altered states. Every once in a while, someone would select Simon and Garfunkel's The Boxer. As a rule, folk music has always brought bile up my throat, but there was truly something haunting about this piece which captivated me. I drew the line at Bridge over Troubled Water, however, it seeming more like tripe from Debbie Boone. Give me a fuzz box or wah-wah peddle any day.

In spite of the sporadic tunes, I was miserable and didn't think I could bear the routine, repetitive labor under such dull conditions. I just wanted that first night to end, paycheck or no paycheck. Anyway, I looked like an idiot in that stupid gray busboy's jacket. 

By six o'clock, the place was packed and noisy, but I still felt completely isolated--a tiny island in a vast ocean. The lanky guy bailed out once the dinner patrons arrived.

At the end of my shift, it really seemed as if I had earned my two bucks, persistence pay as it were. Yes, the work was easy, but the interminable boredom a genuine struggle. A quick jaunt home, one block away, returned me to my books which provided some much needed solace. I was soon devouring The Hells Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, figuring my mother's prying eyes would pass it over as essentially harmless. (She might have raised an eyebrow, however, had she chanced upon Smacky Jack's immortal line there: "Hey baby, come sit on poppa's face." That witticism titillates as much now as it did then.) On the other hand, I kept a cherished copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover hidden in my school locker, sandwiched between notebook covers.  Reading is such a subversive activity, isn't it!

The next day at work was more of the same. Just me and the mustachioed guy for several long hours, then the bustle of boisterous students chowing down. Indeed, the entire week followed suit, and was execrable.

Out of the blue, a miracle transpired the following week: I was promoted! I stripped off the phoney busboy uniform and joined the dishwashing crew behind closed doors. Yeah! Now I could blaspheme, eschew courtesy to patrons, chew tobacco, tell spicy stories, sing, you name it! But most remarkable of all was the incredible wholesale hiring that the manager, Wag, undertook that glorious week. In one fell swoop, I was working side by side with Van-O (my buddy, not to be confused with Van, coming up), Armpit, Whitey and Cuds; just round the corner in the food serving line of the buffet stood Dugg Bedd and Fake-Nose, ladling portions to the diners with their own brand of spiked humor.

What a stroke of genius on the part of Wag to hire virtually the entire core of The Gang, en masse! In a trice, work at the Student Union, instead of being the most loathsome struggle, became paradise. There's fun in numbers.

The dish crew bifurcated. We, the teenaged hoods, handled all of the trivial details, essentially removing trash from the trays as they rolled down the conveyor belt from the dining area, sorting silverware, stacking dirty plates and so forth.

The other half of the workers were college-aged students, all black men from Africa, who handled the big duties such as maintaining the enormous and dangerous dish machine (which would fill a living room), loading and unloading it, changing filters and so forth. It was a crazy apartheid. During break times, all these black guys would huddle together, often speaking in muted tongues vaguely resembling French or Dutch or German, but not quite, and we punks would boisterously whip out our chewing tobacco and swear our heads off, roaring at various crude japes.

Don't get me wrong, we all got along famously (save one), black and white, but these older guys were clearly more serious; get a degree and return to Africa was on all their minds. However, they used to laugh endlessly at the outrageous behavior of The Gang. Especially when Jonesy rounded the corner to find Cuds curiously sidled up to an inlet on the dish machine, fly entirely down. A stunned smile morphing to a dropped jaw, eyes growing big as saucers, he gasped in his curious South African dialect near the soprano end of the scale, every syllable carefully enunciated:
Cuds! I can not believe my eyes!
After returning home, I suspect their countrymen were stupefied to learn what Americans were really like!

I loved old Jonesy and Omolo, too. On the other hand, Déle, the boss of the dish crew, was a humorless prick. He and I got into a to-do one night, coming precariously close to blows. For some reason, he took umbrage at my calling him a son-of-a-whore and jacked me up by the lapels. Jonesy leapt in to separate us, which is kind of funny given how diminutive he was compared to either Déle or I. Fearless, the guy was.

During the summer, I was then able to work the daytime shift. To my surprise, I noted the odd, lanky guy with the dilapidated mustache also studied in the early morning.

Working side by side with The Gang was such a delight, that I asked for all the hours I could get. Agreeing to fill in for vacationing fulltimers, I essentially spent every day at the Student Union that summer. Moreover, my earnings multiplied magnificently.  I would often punch in on the timeclock, then go home to sleep several hours before returning. There were enormous runs of hours which never got questioned. The main reason was that Wag, the head honcho, was so busy trying to look important that he failed to see what The Gang was capable of. Like Beetface, he erroneously assumed that respect was built into a job title, which tended to blind him.

If truth be told, very little of my paycheck ever left the Student Union. For immediately adjacent to the Commons on the second story was the university bookstore. Besides textbooks and school supplies, it also displayed the entire run of Dover Publication books. I have always been in love with this quirky publisher from day-one: magic, puzzles, mathematics, music, alchemy, science, Lewis Carroll, language, you name it--I loved it all and shopped until I dropped.

Wag's second-in-command was Van, the chap ostensibly running day-to-day operations, and he was totally zonked. This guy was truly weird, and despite the bald head could have easily filled in for Larry in the Three Stooges. His main duty in the dishroom was to whistle The Tennessee Waltz and meander about while everyone else sweated and worked.

For example: one day Van wondered leisurely through the dishroom with long strides, hands clasped behind his back, whistling while "inspecting." Eventually, his eyes turned skyward and noticed with great alarm that all the ceiling tiles had been punched out, nasty craters pocking their entire surface. Commencing his interrogation: "Studs, what do you know about this?"

Craning my head to see at what he pointed, I responded, "Jeez, I have no idea."

Continuing down the line of The Gang members who were toiling at the conveyor belt rapidly snatching rubbish and dirty forks, he queried Van-O next. Then Whitey. Then Cuds. And so on, each with a response of "I have no idea."

Growing red in the face, Van bleated, "That's the trouble around here! Nobody knows anything!" He marched out.

Elsewhere in this memoir, I left a timely hint to janitors everywhere: always keep the mop closet locked. Or at least use implements whose handles can't reach the ceiling.

It's funny how certain things come together after all those years. As I reported in Whitey, this guy was quite a somber chap, some might even say sullen. He really did give meaning to the phrase "has a chip on his shoulder." And he was curiously trained to give in to society without a fight. A good friend, yes, but so very different from the rest of us there. Whitey seemed resigned to the notion that humans are meant "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

And then in Doggie Tie Racks Galore, I described that business of demerits and squeelerism at West Junior High. 

So just now, those two ideas come together to remind me of a brief scene from the dish room. Hanging on the wall was a clipboard with pencil on string. If a worker broke a dish, he was to self-report it on said clipboard, and its value would be deducted from the paycheck. One night, Whitey had just taken a tray of water tumblers, around two dozen I suppose, from the completed wash to be stored in one of those tall aluminum carts on wheels. Just as he was sliding the tray into the cart, his hands slipped and the whole thing dashed to the ground leaving a pile of glass shards. Every single tumbler broke. I imagined that would be Whitey's entire two-week salary, and came to his aid. I think I knew him all too well.

Dutifully, Whitey approached the demerit clipboard, but I grabbed him at once, restraining him from taking pencil in hand. "What are you doing! Quick, get the broom and dustpan."  

In a trice I had it all swept up and dumped in one of the 55 gallon drums which served as rubbish containers in the dish room. Then I added a healthy layer of foetid food scraps on top from another nearby bin. Perfect camouflage.

Nothing seemed amiss now. I gave Whitey the sign of Harpocrates when Van came sauntering through. He'd never cut it as an Arapaho scout, what with that goddamned whistling.

Working the morning shift that summer was always amusing. Just in general, fulltimers filled the workforce at those hours. And what a crew they were! First was Millie, the plump, garrulous and elderly donut lady. It was her duty to fire up the industrial sized donut machine before the first patrons arrived, cranking out dozens and dozens of those foul burnt brown briquettes guaranteed to lead to endless dry mastication to no good result. Swallowing hurt. She was also responsible for the multiple pots of coffee brewing in the chromed affairs along the back wall. One day, when Van-O and I were teamed up (always an evil combination) an entire pouch of Beechnut chewing tobacco found its way into one of the pots of coffee, setting off quite a stir. Van's investigation led nowhere, of course.

By the way, Millie had the grating habit of greeting everyone with "Hi 'der" which became very old by the thousandth time (around 8:00 in the morning). It always seemed like the addled Van and donut lady Millie were sweet on each other. While it made others in The Gang ill to envision just such a tryst, I had no such compunctions. Even at that time, I considered the Marquis De Sade simply to be a journalist. People are what they are; passions are just passions; no amount of societal interference can change that. Watching Pink Flamingos when working at the University of Iowa back in 1981, I took it as little more than a "day in the life of" documentary.

And then there was the middle-aged Mexican woman, Theresa. She was still clearly not accustomed to how teenage boys in America behave and as a consequence was perpetually addled by us.

Next up was Clarence who worked behind the grill. Clarence was actually some forty years old, but afflicted with Klinefelter Syndrome. As a consequence, he appeared for all the world to be but a fresh-faced lad of twelve, well under five foot tall. It was always a hoot seeing him puff on a Marlboro during break. Russell was another forty-year-old, but developmentally challenged. For example, when the soap dispenser by the sink was empty, he would carefully pen a sign and hang it there with the inscription: "Out of pink soap." This imparted a sense of urgency, since the soap dispenser globe was transparent, meaning it was entirely obvious when it was empty. Russell never smiled, but was a nice guy in many ways.

Next up were the janitors, the favorites of The Gang. Gramps was exceedingly elderly, somewhat frail, and I always wondered what sort of work he could do. He was a dead ringer for Bert Mustin, an actor who continually played ninety-year-olds while in middle age. Anyway, Gramps was really a swell guy who amused us no end with his dry humor. Apparently he fell prone to getting a bit tiddly at the taverns, then tossed into the slammer by the cops to sleep it off. I haven't mentioned it for several episodes now, but this was a wild era, the sixties. Gramps had the bad timing to be at repose in the hoosegow the night City Hall was bombed; there were suspicions of Black Panther handiwork. He was severely wounded by the massive explosion, but survived as I recall. I urge you to take a peek at the news accounts from the time, so you can get a real appreciation of one aspect of the Age of Aquarius few mention. And right in my town.


Last member of our strange cast of characters was Ink the janitor. Man! This guy was genuinely scary: a good 6'6", with a face which would stop a clock. Probably the meanest looking guy I've ever seen in my life, he would have been perfect casting for Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. I couldn't help but note that Ink's thermos, part of his lunch box kit, was never piping hot. Then again, since it was invariably filled with Mogen David, that made a lot of sense.

Both Wag and Van were terrified of him, and left Ink completely to his own devices. And yet, despite the fifty year age differential, The Gang and Ink fell in together quite swimmingly. It was hard to tell who amused whom more in our joint resistance to authority. I will confess, though, that we often played tricks on Ink. He was a bachelor and always craving some sort of dalliance with the opposite sex. One time we gave him the phone number of a crabby old spinster on Stanton Avenue who had pissed us off in some sort of imbroglio, with the addendum that she really puts out. Damn, if his eyes didn't light up! He could hardly wait to conclude work that Friday, gulping his Mad Dog in heavy anticipation at lunch. I'm not sure how the phone conversation went or if an assignation ever came off.

All the while, the lanky, black-haired student decorated with an anemic mustache toiled at his book-learning in the Commons. Always in a long-sleeved shirt, despite summer temperatures in the eighties. Always with a furled brow, stacks of tomes at the ready. Always gnawing on a pencil, then furiously scribbling in his notebook when a brainstorm struck. Never socializing with anyone else. Shy.

I was fired from the Student Union that autumn. The cause given was chewing tobacco indecently and using language more suited to a stevedore. My referring to Wag as Captain Bligh to his face didn't help. The telephone call he placed to home brought our professional relationship to a rapid conclusion.

Next installment: The Shy Mind

No comments:

Post a Comment