Tots

WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL I got a job washing dishes at a synagogue, for the caterer there. This was in Pittsburgh, in Squirrel Hill, 1976. I was in a garage band and our bassist Marty Roth worked there, so he got us all jobs–me, Mark Gaudio (our guitarist), and our drummer, Mark Serotta.

I’d had jobs before, painting and stuff, but nothing where you had your own timecard and got a check every other week. We all started at two dollars an hour. Marty was already up to two-seventy-five; this seemed like another tax bracket to us. And Marty worked a lot of hours. He had a Sun bass cabinet and a Nakamichi tape deck, which none of us had ever heard of.

He’d call up and say, “Goat”–my nickname then–“you wanna work this weekend?” And I’d say yeah or no, depending on whether I could convince my girlfriend to go out or not. Her name was Merle, and she was my first serious girlfriend. Her parents drove a Lancia and hated me because I wasn’t Jewish. It was very Romeo and Juliet for a few weeks.

I worked a lot that winter. I remember getting up before it was light and walking through the snow in my blue Pumas, the suede ones that bled on your socks. The first thing you’d do was punch in, then hang your coat up and tie on an apron.

The apron represented all kinds of things. At first we were embarrassed by it, being teenaged boys. For a while it was simply a reminder of what a crappy job you had, but then we began to wear it like a uniform, sloppily but with affected pride. We were kitchen–not cooks and definitely not the guy who ran the place (Jerry Myers, a great blowhard of a boss, not above reducing a waitress to tears). In spirit, we were closest to the waitresses. We worked, we didn’t sit around on our asses like Michael the cook, and we got paid shit and nobody cared about us. We were proud of that.

Once you got the apron on, it was time to do some heavy prep. If it was the men’s club brunch, you were talking whitefish and lox, trays and trays of it. Someone had to cut the bagels, maybe 200 of them. And woe to the dude who got stuck with fruit cup. After ten minutes, the melon baller would have you shaking your wrist like a hit batter.

“Where the fuck are my relish bowls?” Jerry would come in screaming. “You, Mergatroid, O’Neill, get ya thumb outta ya ass.” And you’d have to run into the storeroom for a five gallon jug of baby corn, your fingertips numb from arranging the celery and gherkins in the crushed ice.

Dinner meant stirring the vat of beef barley soup–slop it on yourself and it would burn through your jeans–washing several crates worth of lettuce, cutting pans and pans of kugel, splitting and then breading 400 breasts of chicken. And then there were those special tasks Marty had to initiate you into: edging the plate with a garnish of whipped sweet potato, squeezing the pastry bag so hard that your knuckles ached the next morning; molding a pile of cold chopped liver into the shape of a leaping salmon, a black olive for its eye; and, best of all, operating that mysterious black lake of bubbling grease known as the Frialator.

The bread was already out there, and the butter, the salad and salad dressing (in a metal three cup lazy susan whose edges never failed to draw blood). there was a lull of a few minutes, but we weren’t allowed to go out on the dock for a butt, or, better, to get stoned. We invented reasons to go down the sloping ramp to the basement, where the walk-in fridge and freezer were. There were boxes piled along the walls, stacks of folding chairs, a dolly you could pile racks of dishes on, a barrel of Zep cleaner with a spout. The temptation to go out on the dock was painful, but someone might see you from the parking lot. Just take a toke behind the walk-in, hope Jerry doesn’t come downstairs. Bring something up, make it look good.

Now the salad dishes were coming back in, the waitresses hefting busboxes on their shoulders. Mark Gaudio manned the Insinkerator, shoving the food down into the funnel of the opening, the machine growling as it tore it to bits. Every so often a waitress wouldn’t take all the silver out of her box, and a fork would ring and chatter on the blades, maybe even jump out if you didn’t clap a plate over the opening. Mark Serrotta rinsed and racked, sliding heavy plastic trays into the front of the big, swishing Hobart, while I worked the Ass, pulling out the burning, dry dishes and stacking them on a dolly. When you finished emptying a tray, you turned it vertical, stuck it in a gutter that ran behind the Hobart and slid it back to the front as hard as you could, hoping the spray might get someone.

Salad wasn’t bad, especially if your Ass was fast. The guys on front would come back when they were down and help shelve.

Between courses the waitresses took a break in their room just off the kitchen, and then, when the roast was done, or whatever the main course was, Michael the cook would put down his cigarette and, with the disdain of a world famous conductor, he would serve. The waitresses came in with their trays and banged out through the swinging doors. When they came back, everything was quiet. Michael was outside on the side porch smoking, his job pretty much done.

This was the best time of the night, because there were no dishes coming in and you got to eat too–and for free, which impressed us at first. You could slug down as much Coke as you wanted. You could have anything.

But after working with the food all afternoon long, you didn’t want any of it. It was under your nails and crusted on your arms. You’d seen it dropped on the floor and picked up again, you’d seen it last week in the walk-in, and maybe the week before. What you wanted was something clean and untouched, something you could trust. What you wanted was Tater Tots.

“We got Tots,” Marty said. “How many you guys want Tots?”

He tore open the bag and dumped them in the Frialator, and in minutes they rose again, gleaming in the dripping steel basket. “Tots, baby.” You’d get enough ketchup for everyone and open a new Coke and follow everyone downstairs with your bowlful and sit among the boxes and dollies, eating. Maybe one of the waitresses would come down, the ones who liked you–Roz or Cathy–and they’d ask you outside to smoke a joint or just stand there bitching about Jerry or their boyfriends. They’d ask what the band was up to, and Marty would tell them; the rest of us were too shy. You’d eat all the tots, just like you cleaned your plate at home, because you were astonished by how much food went to waste here–gone rotten, left on the plate, or just tossed.

And then it was time to work. You could count on being here till one, one-thirty, mopping the floor while Michael, who hadn’t done anything since main course, sat on his ass, bitching because he had stay to lock up. You did the water glasses and silverware last, the fake corkboard trays. Dry it off, put it away.

You untied your apron and noticed your jeans were wet where it stopped. You counted the hours so far this week and projected the rest, multiplied them by two and thought of what records you’d buy at Jim’s–The Ramones and maybe an old Stooges boot you’d had your eye on. And then, with all the lights but the one by the phone off, you’d punch out and head down the long ramp and let yourself out onto the loading dock. It was snowing hard and no one had a car, so you popped the bottle of kosher champagne you’d hidden in with the case of empties and you all walked home down the middle of Shady Avenue, passing it between the four of you. In the cold, your hands still felt greasy, and you knew you had to take a shower when you got home, even though all you wanted was to fall in bed, never move again.

“Anyone got a butt?” Mark Serotta said.

You did and he lit it.

“This thing’s killed,” Marty said, and tossed the bottle in a snowbank so it disappeared.

The snow fell so slow.

“Are we gonna practice tomorrow?”

And Mark Gaudio would say, “What are you, stupid–we’re all working breakfast tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah,” you’d say. “I forgot.”

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