Friday, September 28, 2007

Blood In The Suds, II

(My apologies to those of you who breathlessly awaited this second part of the story. You're probably dead now, of course, going without breath for so long as you did.

I was sick the past two days, thus out of work, thus unable to post since I'm a neanderthal and live in a cave without computer access. As a special bonus, I'll be publishing Part Three later on this same day. So, if you're reading this on the morning of Friday, September 28th, come back around 4pm Eastern Time for the next installment. And thanks for your patience.)


So, my friend, Joey, had driven me to The Pillar House restaurant in Newton, for a job interview, and – despite the initial misgivings of the kitchen manager - I had been hired as a dishwasher. Now it was the next morning, and I was due in to my first shift at 10am.

My Dad was employed by Singapore Airlines at that time. He was in charge of the entire New England region, which meant that all Singapore Airlines personnel in the area had to report to him and follow his orders.

Well, he was the ONLY Singapore Airlines employee in New England. And his orders to himself more often than not included going to Suffolk Downs and hanging out in the press box. Through the years, he had become friends with many of the writers on the horseracing beat in the six-state region – Sam McCracken, Bob Kinsley, Eddie Duckworth, and others – and they had welcomed my Dad into their fraternity with open arms. He loved the sport, he loved the action, and he loved the camaraderie. He was a marvelous handicapper, and he won a number of informal contests involving himself and these professional prognosticators. He did his job with Singapore quite well – he didn’t screw them over – but he set his own hours, and they frequently included mornings (as well as afternoons and evenings) off.

Anyway, this was one of the days when he intended to go to the track. Since he had nothing else to do this early in the morning, he offered to drive me to my first day on the job. I accepted.

We pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant a few minutes before 10. I thanked my Dad for the ride and went inside, reporting to the kitchen manager’s office. He was there, still unshaven and still wearing soiled whites. He had me fill out a couple of tax forms and such, and then brought me to the kitchen proper.

I had never before been inside a working restaurant kitchen, so had no idea what went on in one. I stood in the doorway and saw people chopping vegetables, people setting up salads and other cold dishes that could be stored until needed, folks filling salt shakers and pepper mills and condiment containers, still more people working with tablecloths and candle holders and the other niceties of a fine eating establishment. Cooks were cooking, and waiters were waiting. The only thing missing was a dishwasher.

I mean that quite literally. There was no other dishwasher in sight. As I was soon to find out, I was it. I was the one-man dish crew. The kitchen manager confided to me that he was pressed into service doing the dishes when there wasn’t anyone else on the payroll. And that’s why he had been so anxious to hire me, even though he wasn’t sure I was the right man for the job. I was a body, and that got his hands out of the water.

He walked into the kitchen and I followed him – but not for long. I took one step and fell backwards on my ass. I felt wetness on the back of my shirt and the seat of my pants. There were a few laughs from the rest of the staff. I went to boost myself up and my hands felt what my boot-clad feet hadn’t. The floor was slippery with grease and water. Great start.

“Oops!” said the kitchen manager, as he helped me to an upright position. “You have to watch your step. You’ll get used to it. Hazard of the trade.”

I followed him, gingerly now, to the dishwashing station I was to man. It consisted of a sort-of trough, perhaps a foot wide from front to back and four feet long, filled with constantly replenished water from a pipe at the left side. Closer on the left, bus tubs full of dirty dishes were on a counter, waiting to be cleaned. To the right, there was an area to stack dishes that had been scraped clean and rinsed. In the middle of the trough was “the pig” – the garbage disposal - constantly running and eagerly awaiting a chance to suck down whatever was scraped from the dishes, as well as the dirtied water.

There was a stench to the entire area. The combination of leftover food bits, grease, sweat, and the other various kitchen odors, added up to a smell not entirely unlike vomit. In particular, grease seemed to hang in the air, and I felt like I was breathing in fatty particles. It was hot as all get out, too, it being late summer and a working kitchen. I felt a bit queasy, and I hoped that the smell and the heat were something I’d get used to as my time in the kitchen went on.

I was instructed to stand in front of the pig, on a black rubber mat that allowed better footing than the wet, greasy floor. I was shown a scrubbing brush, a sponge, and a bottle of pink liquid. The manager instructed me on how I was to take a dish from a bus tub, sponge it off in the flowing water, and then stack the dish to my right. If there was anything particularly nasty stuck to the plate, I was to apply some of the pink liquid – dishwashing detergent – and then scrub off the detritus as best I could with the brush. The same went for silverware and glasses, although there were separate trays to place these items in once I had finished with them. I was told that there would be pots and pans later, but that there was a separate station for scrubbing them. The manager would give me some instruction on those when the time came.

Once I had given the dishes and other items their initial cleaning, they were then to be loaded into a huge dishwashing machine that sat to the left of my station. This machine gave everything a thorough wash and sterilization. After the machine was done running its cycle, I was to unload it and place the clean items on a counter to the far left. A bus boy or chef or other worker on the front end of the eating process would then pick them up for a new round of dirtying.

The kitchen manager, satisfied that I knew what needed to be done, started to leave. He then turned, and said, “Oh, yeah. Be careful of the pig. If you drop anything down there, don’t reach for it. It’ll take your hand off before you even have time to think about it.”

Well, I hadn’t counted on dismemberment being one of the job perks. I decided that I’d be VERY careful around the pig.

I grabbed the sponge and took a plate from the nearest bus tub. It wasn’t too dirty; just a bit of ketchup and parsley on it. I plunged the plate into the water.

I immediately withdrew my hand, leaving the plate behind, and swearing accompanied the action. The water was scalding hot. It’s dumb, I know, but I hadn’t counted on that. My hand was red.

Well, there were no two ways about it. I had to get used to the hot water. I reached back into the trough for the plate, willing myself to keep my hand in the water for as long as I could stand it. After three or four seconds, I had to take my hand out again. However, I persevered and, after doing about fifteen or twenty plates, I had more-or-less become inured to the heat.

I continued working on the bus tubs full of dishes for about two hours. I cleaned a bunch, along with silverware and glasses, and then loaded the big machine. While it ran, I went back and washed more stuff. I was making a serious dent in the accumulated dirty items, and I figured another half-hour or so of work might clear the decks. I had decided that I’d go full-tilt and impress the boss, finishing everything that needed to be done, then breaking for a smoke, for which I would have to go out the back door of the kitchen.

I was just finishing loading the last of the stuff into the dishwashing machine, when more bus tubs started arriving. It was almost 1 o’clock, and lunch had been served in the restaurant starting at approximately 11:30. I now realized that any breaks I took would not come during a time when I had nothing to do; there would always be something to do. If I took any breaks, the work would just back up.

I ducked out the back door and lit up.

While I was standing there having my smoke, I realized once again how much of a fetid stench there was in the kitchen. The fresh air outside – aside from my smoke, of course – was pure and sweet. It was also a good twenty degrees cooler outside. I had been working up a mighty fine sweat, and the change in temperature was tremendously refreshing. I dreaded having to go back in again.

(Next: Back In Again)


Chuck said...

Ah my, this does bring back memories. I do recall a similar situation at my dishwashing job...there were lots of cooks, wait staff, etc. but only ONE dishwasher on duty at any time. We stayed busy.

Brian in Oxford said...

Access to the food prep area, huh? What kind of grub could you access on the job?

Unknown said...

When I worked behind the counter of a coffeeshop I always used paper plates for whatever I ate because I didn't want to make more dishes for the dishwasher. Well, the boss stopped that, washing dishes was cheaper than paper plates and cups.