by Gina Sestak
A hundred years or so ago, I'm told, most men who lived in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas worked in the steel mills. When I was growing up, it seemed as if most students worked in one of two local restaurant chains -- Eat 'n' Park or Isalys. I never worked in Eat 'n' Park and it's still going strong. I haven't seen an Isalys in decades, although rumors persist that one or two have managed to survive.
I worked in the Isalys near Pitt campus the summer after I dropped out of college. I was in the process of worming my way back into academia, taking two night courses in the summer trimester, so a full-time day job seemed like a good idea.
Isalys was a combination ice cream parlor/old fashioned deli/restaurant. There were strings of hot dogs in the front display case, from which we cut individual dogs to order. Customers might request 7 hot dogs, 3 1/4 pounds of chipped ham,* 1 pound of sliced Swiss cheese, 2 pints of potato salad, and a quart of hand-packed vanilla ice cream, and waiting on them was an exercise in mnemonics. I'd be halfway though slicing the cheese when they'd decide that they didn't want all that potato salad after all -- just give them one pint of potato salad and a half pint each of macaroni salad and cole slaw. Oh, and make that maricopa ice cream.
The job was also great for building estimation skills. It's easy to weigh meat and cheese when it's sliced -- there was a scale built right into the slicer. If anyone has never sliced things in a deli, let me describe the slicer. It was like a table saw, without the teeth, a smooth sharp blade that sat upright on the counter, perpendicular to the wall, and spun at high speed. The meat or cheese would be loaded into a metal cradle behind it, with the edge to be cut against the side of the blade. A worker would set the machine for slice width, then manually pull/shove the cradle back and forth, cutting off one slice with every pass. The slice would fall onto a scale, and you would stop slicing when the pile of slices on the scale reached the desired weight. The estimating skills came in when a customer wanted a pound of something unsliced -- you'd have to cut off a chunk and weigh it, trying to come out at exactly the desired weight. Customers get testy if you try to sell them 1.002 pounds of roast beef when they only asked for 1 pound -- they think it's some kind of scam to rip them off for an extra 2 or 3 cents. OK, you can cut off that extra .002 pounds. What really makes them mad is when the chunk weighs in at 0.99999999 pounds.
The most fun part of the job involved the ice cream. Isalys was famous for its skyscraper cones. A special scoop let you dig straight down into the ice cream and come up with a tall thin chilly mass that towered over the cone. Much better looking that the little round balls most scoops produce. Vats of ice cream lined the counter behind a glass shield so everyone could make their choices. We sold ice cream in cones -- both cake cones (the light colored squat ones) and sugar cones (the darker ones that actually had a cone shape). I got to make banana splits and hot fudge sundaes, milk shakes and malts (honest!), and to hand-pack ice cream (which was also weighed, to make certain we weren't selling a carton of air with a little bit of ice cream at the top).
Isalys sold hot food, too, including daily specials like beef stew and Salisbury steak, with overly cooked vegetables and cole slaw on the side. And of course, hot dogs, with or without baked beans.
In addition to working Monday through Friday, I sometimes got to come in on the weekend and work as porter. The porter is the one who gathers up the dirty dishes from the tables, then runs them through a dishwashing machine. I'd never used a dishwasher before, so this was an adventure -- stacking all the plates and cups and silverware securely, then pushing the rack into position before putting a metal canopy over it and pulling the black nobbed arm to start the hot water. The dishes would come out steaming, too hot to touch. What fun!
What does any of this have to do with writing? That is, unless a character is called upon to chip some ham? The most important writing-related thing I learned at Isalys concerned motivation.
Motivation is one of those words that are always being bandied about -- actors demand to know their characters' motivation. Prosecutors present evidence to juries about motive. Means, motive, and opportunity are the three pillars of fictional detection. At Isalys, I learned that, in real life, people never ask "why are you doing that?" They jump to an assumption, then they judge accordingly.
I mentioned above that I worked at Isalys the summer after I dropped out of college. Did anybody wonder why I dropped out? Did you assume motivation based on laziness, a dissaffection for the learning process, an unwanted pregnancy, poor grades, disciplinary problems, or too much alcohol and drugs? It was none of the above. I had to drop out because I was just too poor to stay in. Students who worked for Pitt were paid once a month. I'd worked for Pitt the first semester of my Freshman year (Hillman Library, see my December 2, 2006 blog). Due to the Christmas holiday, 1/2 of December's pay was paid in mid-December. The rest wasn't paid until the end of January. I didn't have the money to pay the second semester's tuition but managed to borrow enough from a friend to cover it. I couldn't afford to buy books. When I finally got paid at the end of January, I paid back the friend but still couldn't afford some of the books. When I dropped out after mid-terms, it was because I was too far behind to catch up. I'd tried to get Pitt to give me an advance on my pay, but was told that wasn't possible. Pitt's clear message to students, or at least to me, was: "Got a problem? We don't care." No one from Pitt ever asked me why I was dropping out, not even the professors who had to sign withdrawal slips.
When I worked at Isalys, I was trying to save every penny for the fall's tuition, so I could go back to school full-time. I had to spend some money on rent, but I didn't spend money on food. The only perk of the job was a free lunch. While my coworkers were sipping a cup of soup or nibbling on a sandwich, I'd be scarfing down a vegetarian Dagwood with mounds of potato salad and an ice cream sundae. A lot of people made critical remarks about the amount of food I managed to consume in one half-hour lunch break. Nobody ever asked why, and I was too shy to know how to explain that this was my only meal of the day. I weighed about 105 pounds then. If it hadn't been for those lunches, I'm sure I would have weighed much less. Nobody ever asked why I would come in on the weekends to do the grunt work portering. The reason was twofold: I needed the money for tuition and I liked to eat on weekends, too, rather than endure a two-day fast.
My glasses broke near the beginning of that summer. The legs came off, and the sections where the little screws fit broke, so I wore glasses tied to my head with yarn. A lot of people made critical remarks about my glasses, assuming that they were some kind of stupid fashion statement. Nobody bothered to ask why, and I didn't know how to explain that I couldn't afford to get them fixed.
For me, motivation is one of the scariest things about writing. I live in fear that, just like coworkers and customers in real life, readers will mistake my characters' motivation and so completely misunderstand my work. And yet, you can't just say, "John killed Mary because she ran over his dog in her truck." That would be the end of the story -- no more pages to fill (except, perhaps, to explain how his dog got into her truck in the first place). We fiction writers have to be more subtle and long-winded than that. And we have to hope that readers understand.
*I've been told that chipped ham is unknown outside of Western Pennsylvania. Being vegetarian myself, I wouldn't know, but just in case you're wondering what this stuff is -- it's pressed ham, sliced very thin, and put on sandwiches in heaps of thin slices rather than as stacked flat slices.