Saturday, July 12, 2008

Girl, you better work

For some reason, a bunch of us at the office got started talking about food-service jobs this week; despite our lengthy, nitpicky literary careers, we'd all slung hash at some point. (Well, one person washed dishes on the graveyard shift in a diner, which might be worse--getting to scrape away the half-eaten omelettes that closing-time drunks had put their cigarettes out in.) Stints at McDonald's, college cafeterias, waiting tables. I think everyone should work a food-service job at least once in their lives, actually--that, and one retail Christmas, preferably in a mall. I know that developing some empathy for the person behind the cash register made me a much, much better and more patient customer. The world would be a kinder place overall, I think.

My first real JOB job, not babysitting, was in the snack bar of the local ice rink. We served a little bit of everything, and so I had to master burgers and popcorn and egg-muffin breakfast sandwiches and french fries and hot dogs, speared on the tines of a little sausage Ferris Wheel that revolved under a broiler lamp. We had fountain sodas; the weird blocky packages of syrups, kind of like wine in a box, must have weighed at least 30 pounds and I practically had to shove them across the kitchen floor with my foot. We had nachos, a gallon-sized can of Que Bueno! pump cheese simmering in a water bath; the smell of that scorched liquid cheese haunts my dreams, and relates to another story that doesn't belong in this post (but come back tomorrow!). During my tenure, we also acquired a slushie machine--both red and blue flavor. The thick sugary shushie goo constantly clogged the nozzles on the machine and would suddenly dislodge in a splattery belch; I had faint pink and blue freckles stained onto my forearms the whole time I had this job (three months). I made $3.35 an hour.

Really it was diabolically clever, the way they set up this job. In addition to the princely wages, the rink management promised you free admission on any public skate session. I was still figure skating then, and paying dearly for private ice time, so the lure of a little free practice was irresistable. It did not occur to me to wonder who would be standing around behind the yellow formica snack bar during all the public skate sessions. Yeah...I caught on eventually.

The shifts I most dreaded were the early, early Sunday morning hours during peewee hockey. Not just because I'd usually worked til 1:30 Saturday night and had to be back at 7 a.m. (although...I think that is illegal. I think it was then, too. Damn you, First Boss!) No, the thing that terrified me most about Sunday mornings was the hockey parents. They'd already been there since five, freezing in the bleachers or slumped in the lobby while their kids skated drills below. They were tired, and aggressive, and they had looooong since finished off the coffee in thermoses they'd brought with them. They scared the bejesus out of me.

I had a key to the snack bar itself, but the change for the register--and the entire cash drawer--were kept in the main office, and had to be doled out to me by whoever was on duty there. Let's just say that the college kids working the front desk were not always as...punctual, as hypervigilant 16-year-old me. So I'd show up and plod visibly, obviously into my little grill booth...and then I couldn't make change, couldn't actually sell anybody anything. Of course, every single groggy, grouchy hockey parent had only a $20 bill on them. The snack bar had a metal accordian gate that wrapped around the countertop, and I remember one squat, toady hockey mom who would actually come up and rattle the bars, barking at me for caffeine RIGHT NOW LITTLE GIRL. Thank God the door locked behind me, you know?

I got crafty. There were mornings I'd come in and see that no one was there to hand me the stupid cash drawer. So I'd wait, hovering in the lobby until I could see that everyone was distracted by something happening on the rink below...and then I'd crawl. I'd slink into the snack bar and, seriously, duck-walk down below the counter level, leaving the lights still off and the gate bolted shut. I could flick the coffeemaker on from down there...and then I'd go into the pantry in back and wait, sitting on a giant box of nondairy creamers or whatever, and praying that someone would come to rescue me before the little orange light on the percolator blinked off and mutiny occurred. (Of course, now that I myself am a coffee-drinking adult--conceivably also on the squat side, really--I...well, I have at least a little more empathy.)

I have a few other vivid memories of this job, like the time the slushie machine blew up on my boss's unctuous brother, who had strolled in and was helping himself. That was excellent. Or the time we discovered that day-old donuts were as hard as any puck and could be similarly slap-shot around the linoleum. Goooaal!

There was a little boom box in the kitchen on a shelf, and for whatever reason the song that sticks in my head, the song that was huge during the brief window of time when I was in there frying corn dogs, was Bruce Hornsby's "That's Just the Way It Is." To this day, I can hear that and be transported back into my snowflake-patterned apron, doing my history homework between customers, sitting on the countertop next to the soda taps. Just for fun he says, "Get a job."

One night one of the Zamboni guys came in and--he was a tall fella--cracked his head on the menu board hanging above us. All the little plastic letters and numbers went flying; I spent the rest of my shift crawling around the floor (a lot of crawling in this brief bad job, I'm now thinking), trying to relocate enough of them to spell out CH SEBU GER and remember what the hell everything had cost. We never did find them all. That guy promised to teach me to drive the Zamboni, as an apology or a flirtation, perhaps...but I didn't last long enough to redeem that offer. Too bad; I would still like to put that on a resume, on every resume, career objective be damned.

No comments: