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Rated: E · Non-fiction · Experience · #2274976
Washing dishes for next to nothing
Back in La Grande for a fresh start at school and religion. Maybe this was the year I'd figure out what to do with my life. But as the weeks passed, I came to understand what Thomas Wolfe meant when he said “You can’t go home again.” The ancient church building I’d been baptized in had been torn down, replaced by a newer, sterile-looking edifice. My friends were all gone, off to school, careers, or matrimonial commitments. My girlfriend was no more, though I didn’t know it yet. And sophomore year was starting to look like the freshman debacle. I was pushing twenty-one, plans for the immediate or distant future a mirage. Depression was roosting in my emotional rafters.
But aside from family, the one positive thing in my life was being in La Grande, away from what had become a corrosive existence in Portland. I could never get my fill of the beauty NE Oregon provided. And the return to church was good for me, though a return to the working life would prove difficult. Jobs in the small eastern Oregon town of La Grande were plentiful. Good-paying ones were not. If you wanted to work at the wood mill, you had to know someone. If you wanted to work at the railroad, you had to not only know someone, you needed to be a blood relative of that someone. The same could be said for the other jobs that didn’t pay so well.

I found a dish-washing position at the Roaring Twenties restaurant. Located on the main drag, the place was run by a heavy-set fellow named Rusty. And despite the pay being only $1.75 an hour, it beat sitting around the apartment, watching my roommates head off to full-time jobs. Duties included busing tables, running the dishwasher, and retrieving supplies for Rusty from a dark, forbidding basement. Despite the stigma attached to such menial activities, I didn’t care. It felt good to be a part of some place of business, even if I was at the bottom of the pecking order. At the top was Rusty, who doubled as owner and cook; next down was the other cook; then came the waitresses and janitorial.
Busing tables was not as complicated as I thought it would be. Just walk to the dining area, ignore the customers, and stuff all the empty plates I could find into a tub before hauling them back to the kitchen. And in the process, I discovered there was something rewarding about cleaning up things. But that role diminished, after a short time. Maybe it was due to the risk the waitresses ran of missing out on the tips that customers left, or because there wasn’t enough work for all the employees. If there were gratuities left behind, I sure as hell never saw any. And given the fact that one of the waitresses was my ex-girlfriend- who could manage nothing warmer than a scowl every time I was in her presence- it was a given that there would be no tips or other gratuities within reach.
Dishwashing. I had to push from my mind the fact that I was handling forks and spoons and knives that'd been in people’s mouths only minutes before. And though I knew a lot of food was being consumed, I was amazed at what was not being eaten- matters complicated by the fact that the longer I was in the kitchen, the hungrier I became. Spaghetti eaten but meatballs ignored; buttered toast or garlic bread untouched; glasses of milk sipped once or twice- a crime, in my estimation, for I loved a tall glass of milk; baked potatoes someone had gone to the trouble of adorning with melted butter, then abandoned for the greener pastures of dessert. Since Rusty charged me for any meal or portion thereof that I wanted to eat, it was all I could do to not grab a bite when no one was looking. And once in a while I did. But I had to be sly; it’d be a disgrace to be seen sneaking consumables off a customer’s plate.
But, most of the time I was in no mood to sneak a piece of anything, given what was arriving at my workstation. Food was slopped together like paint on a Jackson Pollack canvas. If it was recent, it was easy to scrape into the garbage. But if more aged, I had to chip and scrub every heavy particle loose. If I didn’t, certain substances like eggs or gravy would fuse to the surface, once subjected to the burning heat inside the washing chamber.

Being new to a commercial kitchen, I was amazed at the technology. At home, I’d been stuck with washing and rinsing plates, cups and silverware in a sink, arguing with my sisters about who would do what. For a while, I’d want to wash, because once I was done I could take off, leaving the appointed sib to finish rinsing and drying, while I ran around outside. But after a while, I went for the rinsing and drying job, as it did not involve scraping food off of anything, including myself. Then my folks bought the latest in domestic dish-washing technology- a portable, roll-around unit. Though it seemed a wonder, at the time, my sisters and I were soon arguing about who was going to load (and later empty) the damned thing.
When I saw that stainless steel-enclosed chamber in the restaurant kitchen, I was enthralled. Pull up the door, load the interior rack with plates, cups and flatware, then slide the door closed and push a button- and within a few minutes everything was clean. Opening the door subjected me to a blast of hot, clean-smelling steam, which at first refreshed me, then became annoying, as it made me break out in a sweat. I also discovered that washed dinnerware was hotter than hell. Though I tried to let the plates cool off, there wasn’t usually enough time, more food-encrusted dishes and such being deposited at my station every minute. I’d have to grab the plates and wince as the 180-degree glassware began cooking my dermis and epidermal skin layers, before I could safely let go. My hands took on a lobster-like appearance and stayed that way until well after shift’s end.

Being in close proximity to the cooks had its upside. I liked the smell of cooking spaghetti, one of the main courses offered there. Meat dishes took on heavenly aromas, each one sumptuous, depending on whether it was rare, medium or well done. Garlic bread was ethereal. Desserts like ice cream and pies drove me to distraction. And then there were other unidentifiable, but mouth-watering smells that wafted and swirled around the kitchen, their power magnified by the steam cascading out of the opened dishwasher as it enveloped my head.
Most of the time, my movement was restricted to the kitchen or a break room, where I could sit and rest, or grab a quick meal. I had no idea that there was more to the building than the main floor. From the outside, it looked like a one-story edifice with a tall sign taking up the front. That’s why I was surprised when payday came and I was asked to climb the stairs to Rusty’s citadel-like office: a small room jammed into the rafters above the kitchen area. There was just enough head room available to stand, or squeeze around behind my boss’s desk. And given my boss’s ample girth, I don’t know how he managed the maneuver. As he handed me my minuscule paycheck and thanked me for a job well done, I saw how cramped the place was. Beside the desk was a file cabinet, a few books, a smaller table with a guitar lying across it, but not much else. It didn’t look professional in any way, having more of a slipshod, temporary ambiance to it than anything else. After asking for more hours, I’d be told there was little extra time available, but that I was doing a good job. Maybe in the near future there’d be more to do.

As claustrophobic as Rusty’s office was, it was still more comfortable than the lower reaches of the restaurant. Every so often, my boss would ask me to retrieve something from the supply room in the basement. I’d have to go out to the back alley, leaving daylight behind as I passed through a large door and down a wide set of stairs to a room full of half-empty shelving. While there were lights at the entrance, there were none at the far end, which was usually where I had to go to retrieve large cans and boxes of cooking supplies. As I walked along the aisle, the sounds of the street faded, the further back into the gloom I moved. And despite myself, I’d grab whatever I was supposed to retrieve, then run like hell to the lit end of the basement, feeling as if something unseen was about to jump me. Looking back now, it seems illogical and irrational to feel the way I did, but it was the one thing about the job I hated above all else. The basement creeped me out.
But there was something else almost as troubling. I’d been surprised to run into my old girlfriend at work, and saw this as Fate’s way of rekindling the old feelings between us. I was lonely most of the time I lived in that small NE Oregon town; everyone I knew there had romance in their lives, to some extent. But successive workplace encounters with the Scowler lead me to realize that I was no longer the light of her life, and never would be. Even engaging her in innocuous conversation was a struggle, and caused me no small amount of anguish. Her continual frosty demeanor was puzzling. I could only assume that, like myself, she was unable to find middle ground from which to interact. The only time we shared mutual feelings was when customers showed up five minutes before closing, and we’d grumble and growl about their crappy timing- considering we were about to head home.

By the end of the first month I’d worked 64 hours, which amounted to $146.39. After the boss subtracted taxes, $12.95 for meals, and another $33.97 for meals costing more than $1.00, I received net pay of $99.47. In the end, I was more a customer than an employee. But since I was enjoying some sort of income, I started paying tithing, the amount being $14.00, along with $2.00 for fast offering, $1.00 for welfare and $2.00 for the missionary fund. It was a sacrifice, but I was glad to do it. I felt I was being blessed for being obedient. But after a few more weeks of minimal hours and anemic pay, I realized that God never intended for me to make restaurant work my career- more like a bridge to something better.
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