by Mike Crawmer
My 16-year-old niece announced this summer that she was no longer eating meat. Seems that one day her job in a deli took her into a back room, where she ran into the reality of the meat course in the form of a freshly slaughtered pig hanging from the rafters, awaiting the butcher’s knife.
Curious, I thought--my first exposure to food only whetted my appetite for more. The summer I turned 17 I was back home from a six-week visit with a widowed aunt in Arizona and beyond broke. I jumped at the chance to join two friends as a busboy at a restaurant next to a Holiday Inn. What my so-called friends didn’t tell me was that my first day on the job was also their first day of a two-week vacation.
While they slept in and caroused, I worked my butt off. I helped open the restaurant at 6 a.m. and stayed til closing around 11 p.m.—every day seven days a week until the first day of school. I bussed the front room--which catered to families and diners looking for a quick meal at the counter (how often they were disappointed)—and the Lounge, a dark cavern of a room with fake-red-leather arm chairs and an ever-present pall of cigarette smoke. This room catered to salesmen, anniversary celebrants, and mysterious, chain-smoking women who swiveled seductively on the bar stools while nursing their overpriced cocktails.
The work was fast, furious and never-ending. Besides bussing tables, I washed dishes, worked the counter, ran the cash register when the hostess was busy in the back (doing what with whom I could only guess), and carried motel room service orders.
Every job had its challenges. Kids threw food. The dishwasher broke down. And room service could be, well, interesting. One Sunday morning I was carrying a breakfast order along the outer second-story walkway when I crossed paths with a jowly old man (probably mid forties but old to me) wearing a rumbled sports coat and slacks and shoes (no shirt or socks). A few doors after passing him I knocked at my destination. The door was opened by a haggard-looking woman dressed only in a slip. I had time to register the word “pendulous” before Mr. Rumpled Man stepped between us, grabbed the tray out of my hands and paid me. When I described the incident to a Lounge waitress later, she explained that the couple had met in the bar the night before. She thought it was funny. I didn’t. She had seen their perfumed and prettified bar faces; I had seen the dissipated morning-after look. Not a pretty sight.
I lasted a record 13 months in that job. Call me stupid, but I learned to respect hard-working, underpaid waitresses; avoid the lecherous cook’s advances and still keep my job; greet every subsequent restaurant meal with a degree of skepticism; and love Boston cream pie. As for that last one, perhaps love too much; my weight ballooned by 50 pounds. Maybe that’s the lesson I can pass on to my niece: It’s not always what you eat, but how much.
Were there any lessons in my first paying job for a writer? Maybe. But there’s certainly fodder for a story or three.