A Cockroach Saved Me from Ruin

In the installment Working, you learned the reason for my being relieved of duties at the Student Union. Well, you win some and you lose some, I always felt. However, my mother was made of sterner stuff and instantly began railing at me to find a new job. Believe me, she could really rail when the occasion warranted. Not because she wanted to, but rather, because that's what was expected.

I need to interrupt myself here to describe a humorous scene. Immediately after the dismissal, she, my father and I took a trip to Iowa City to visit my eldest brother for some sort of holiday function. After the usual introductory chit-chat, he innocently asked how things were going.

Before I could even respond, my mother launched into a big spiel on how I had been discharged from the Student Union for using foul language and chewing tobacco. After blathering some two minutes to set up the debacle, she finally paused (with a vinegary expression, I recall) to wait for my brother's condemnation to corroborate my delinquency.

Instead, he burst out laughing! 

Big time vinegary face, now. Seems Presbyterianism isn't one of the inherited traits investigated by Mendel.

But back to the events after my dismissal. After just the right amount of haranguing, I was thrust into a new gig at the oriental restaurant on the southern edge of town. Damn! Can't you even let a guy unwind from one profession before he embarks on the next, I thought?

Reporting for work that Monday (4:00 in the afternoon, an hour before the restaurant opened), I was "trained" in my duties. Now the depression really set in.

I was expected to carve 200 chicken carcasses each night on an industrial band saw. And supposing by some stroke of good luck I finished early, then was to help the other workers load the dish machine.

Definitely lugubrious, I. For looking around the kitchen, even with youthful eyes unused to food preparation, I could just tell someone was going to die--me or them. The shelves holding the industrial cannisters of so-called ingredients were of a very plain whitewashed nature, the better to make the deep brown cockroaches stand out as they scurried to and fro. Flour was sprinkled throughout, mostly on the floor. Grease was caked a good quarter inch thick on the steel stove backing. A mouse ran by. At least someone was eating well at this dump.

All this while sawing away at limp, green chickens. I didn't touch chicken again for over forty years anon.

My first night, wielding useful shop skills developed early on (see Doggy Tie Racks Galore) I buzzed through the 200 poultry with time left over. Always obedient, I, as instructed chipped in to help the dishwashing crew. Turns out they were all developmentally challenged, what was called retarded in those days. All smiling, all cheerful, glad to be providing such a useful service to humanity.

The dishwasher was clogged with slimy rice, but no matter. Just keep piling the dishes in anyway, and grin while you do so. Everything that came out sported caked-on debris. Forks, especially, were a biohazard to my eyes. That mouse could have fed for years on a single piece of cutlery.

Before, at the Union, I was surrounded by The Gang, which always lightened the load of miserable chores. But here I had no one. Alone.

Visualize it: one teenage hood brandishing a band saw upon a multitude of sulfurous reeking chickens and six others who'd probably do the work for free. Only one of the lot never smiled.

That first night, I remember it vividly. All of the above is completely true. I really didn't know how I was going to make it. When I got home at 8:00, I just wanted to kill myself. You see, by those days I had already read Dickens and knew things never get better.

And then the miracle!

Rather unbelievably, and I'm not making this up, the Iowa State Board of Health shut the dump down the very next day.

I still recall returning then from a hard day of study at high school to be greeted by my mother relating these sad tidings. Such a stern expression she bore...

No need to head to work that Tuesday. But she was still determined to find me a job.

Many years later, Pinkie and I took up together and shared a remarkable love. Her passion was entomology, just as mine was ornithology. When we went hiking in the woods, I suppose others might have thought we were a weird pair: she always looking down at the path for bugs, me always looking up to the boughs for birds. The one thing I never told her and wished I had before she left this planet too early, is how much I venerate insects, too. I'll never win this game.

For you see, those cockroaches saved me, don't you know.

Next installment: A Helpful Smile, Indeed

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