Grace

Grace ran the kitchen with an iron fist. Bob ran the bar with an iron elbow.

To understand this story, you need to understand a bit about Supper Club Culture. A supper club is where you went out to eat when you wanted familiarity in the days before franchises. Friday night was fish fry; preferably all you can eat, served family-style. The platters came out as fast as the deep fryers could work – battered perch and french fries. Saturday was prime rib with baked potatoes. The leftover baked potatoes were grated on Sunday morning to become hash browns. Sunday was turkey and mashed potatoes – served in the afternoon. Yellow food coloring made sure you could tell it was turkey gravy and not beef gravy. If Bob (the other Bob – every man was Bob, Tom, John, or Bill, it seems) was a little heavy-handed with the Yellow #5, the gravy took on an otherworldly, fluorescent hue.

Every day you could get Broasted chicken. Broasted is a portmanteau of basted and roasted, and only refers to chicken that came from the Broaster, a machine made by The Broaster Company of Beloit, WI. It is deep-fried under pressure. If memory serves me correctly, you could go from raw to crispy fried chicken in seven minutes. (My dictionary says broiling, not basting, and that the term originated in the 1980s. What do they know?)

Every supper club has to have an extensive salad bar. Cut glass bowls are arranged in crushed ice. Three bean salad and pickled herring are required, as are mountains of iceberg lettuce. [You do know why it’s called “iceberg”, right? Before refrigerated railcars, it was shipped east in waxed cardboard boxes, loaded into insulated railcars. After the lettuce was packed, crushed ice was poured over the top. The tops of the heads stuck out, like the tips of icebergs.]

So Grace ran the kitchen and Bob ran the bar. His job was to hold down a stool at the end of the bar and schmooze. It sounds like an easy job, but her liver lasted longer. On Saturdays we had a piano bar. Grace figured that busboys were a waste of money, so one dishwasher doubled as busboy each night. When you were the busboy, you wore a white shirt and black necktie. You had to stay clean, including your apron. You were only in the dining room when you were clearing a table because, while you were gone, the dishwashing got behind. Your reward was that, at the end of the night, each of the waitresses shared a quarter from her tips. I don’t mean a quarter (¼) of her tips, I mean a quarter (25 cents) from her tips.

I wore an American flag tie tack to keep my tie out of the food. To the diners, it appeared upside down. During the time that we were invading Viet Nam, this was commonly used as a sign of distress. If a diner commented, I would just look down and say, “It looks rightside up to me.” Occasionally a diner would smile or wink. Sometimes Grace would make me turn it over.

Grace insisted that silverware had to be hand-dried. It had to be dried as soon as it came out of the machine so the water couldn’t evaporate and leave spots. The final rinse was 180 degrees. To this day (50 years later) my hands are less sensitive to heat than most. Drying the silverware was not as bad as putting away the 180 degree china.

Grace and Bob tried to turn their son into a chef. When that failed, they bought him a liquor store. John was best known as the supplier for the biggest beer party in our high school’s history. The parent of one of my classmates was a realtor and selling a parcel of land between our town and the next town up the road. It seemed like a good place for a party. Folks pulled their cars off the road and parked surrounding a clearing, lights shining inward so they could see (this being out in the country and dark). An enterprising cop, seeing the light in the woods, crept up to find hundreds of high school students and a row of half barrels. He called in reinforcements. When they raided, kids escaped into the woods in all directions, leaving cars and purses behind. Those who weren’t swept up that night were corralled the next morning. School was pretty quiet while they all served their three day suspensions. John was cited for supplying beer to minors. Of course, this is all hearsay, as I was working in the restaurant that night.

Dishwashers working for Grace didn’t last long. She did, however, inspire this:

Grace

I eat in the corner.
I sit on a 5 gallon plastic bucket,
the kind that mayo comes in.
I hold my plate on my lap.
No table –
I’m just the dishwasher.
The waitresses eat at a table in the dining room,
the one by the kitchen door that nobody else will take.
But me, I’m a machine –
Fuel ’em up and get ’em back on the road.
I don’t need the good food,
or a table to sit at,
or even a chair to sit on –
that would take too long.
Sometimes she takes the bucket away.

“Dishwasher” she calls me.
“Busboy” on days when I’m lucky.
Some days she leaves out the “bus” part.

“Busboy! There’s a table out there!”
One day, I was “steve”.
Just once, I had a name.
In Grace’s world, names aren’t given
to busboys and dishwashers.
They’re parts. They get changed pretty often.
Leslie has a name.
He’s been here more ‘n two years. A record.
Me, I’m next in seniority.
I’ve been here a whole year.
Pretty impressive in Grace’s world.
If I make it ’til graduation, I might break Leslie’s record.
I might get a name.
The other dishwashers will throw a party.
We’ll take Warren’s dad’s convertible and drive around the square…
try to get somebody to buy us beer.
Wait! I’ll be 18! I can buy the beer!

“Busboy!”
How long has she been yelling?
“Table out here!”
We’re not allowed into the dining room
unless there’s a table to clear.
But when there is one, she yells like we were supposed to be there already.
I still haven’t figured out how I’ll know
when there’s a table to clear
Unless I’m in the dining room to see it.
I guess that’s when I’ll get a name.
For now, I try to cheat.

As I clean the table, I scan the room.
Table 4 is just getting their coffee.
Maybe 10 more minutes.
Table 17 just got their check.
Could be any minute now.
Then I can check 4 again.
I try to keep track of every table in the place,
how far along they are,
so I can time it just right
and get to the dining room just as they head for the door
so it will look like I just knew.
Then I’ll get a name.
Then I’ll be “Steve”.

Then one day
Like Buddha, I’ll know.
I’ll smile serenely
as I grab my tray and rag.
I’ll go straight to the table that needs clearing.
No thought. No doubt.
No need to look, to keep track.
I will be enlightened.
I will be the busboy buddha.
Grace won’t know what hit her.
She’ll try to figure it out.
She’ll stand gaping as I clear the table
she was about to come and tell me to clear.
She’ll see me out of the corner of her eye
as they bring their check to her station,
and wonder how I knew they were leaving
when they hadn’t even gotten to the hostess station yet!

She’ll try to catch me at the kitchen door, peeking
out into the dining room.
But I’ll be helping the dishwashers,
a serene smile on my face.
My buddha nature content as I dry the silverware so
it doesn’t spot.

Grace will call me Steve.

Les died March 13, 2019, at the age of 67. He was also the guy who taught me how to fold newspapers.

So Vikki, that’s where Al and I spent our Friday nights, dreaming of our cross-country motorcycle trip, while you were out drinking beer. (Did you get caught that night?)

I found out, as the previous post went to press, that Dr John, Mac Rebennack, died Thursday, June 6, 2019. In his alter ego as “Dr John, the Night Tripper”, he wove a mysterious tapestry of psychedelia, jazz, and Louisiana voodoo (not the same as Haitian vodou). As Mac Rebennack (or just plain Dr John), he was a pianist in the mold of Professor Longhair.

Singing harmony on this recording are The Neville Brothers. Brother Charles Neville, saxophonist, died April 26, 2018.

Devil’s Delight!

When I was in high school, I had a riding partner. We’ll call him Al, which is a good thing, since that’s what his parents called him. We rode motorcycles together. We also washed dishes together for the infamous Grace. If I haven’t written about her before, she’s another story all together. Let me know in the comments if you want to hear about her some other time.

Al and I graduated from motorcycles to bicycles when we turned 21. We were perfectly matched. We would ride side-by-side, mile after mile, in the same gear at the same cadence. When we came to hills, I would ride up the hill, turn around and ride down, then ride back up a second time with Al. It seems arrogant now but, at the time, it was just a lot of fun – I loved climbing hills. Gels and energy bars and Shot Bloks didn’t exist in those days. I carried dates (and sometime figs) in my handlebar bag and, when a big hill loomed, I’d eat a date for energy for the climb.

One day Al and I were riding in the Baraboo Hills. We were flying down a steep descent. Suddenly, the road turned 90 degrees and simultaneously turned to gravel. There was no way we would make the turn. There was no way for either of us to warn the other. We both aimed for a gap in the trees and hit the brakes. We came to a stop in the woods. We’d missed all the trees, we hadn’t flatted, we hadn’t crashed. We dropped our bikes, hugged each other, took a deep breath, and got back on. When we reached the bottom, we saw the road sign – “Devil’s Delight Road”. No doubt how it got its name.

I came to discover that Devil’s Delight was more fun to go up than down. It is one of the few roads around here steep enough to require switchbacks – most climbs are short enough that they just carve the road right up the hill, no matter how steep.

I began to fantasize a route – the Devil’s Delight Double Century, or El Diablo Doble – I wasn’t sure which I’d call it. Maybe after I retire I’ll finally set up the route. Don’t hold your breath. But it’ll have to include the 18% pitch on Terrytown Road.

But that’s not why I asked you here today. Today was the Lodi ride; from Lodi to the Merrimac Ferry, across Lake Wisconsin on the ferry, up Devil’s Delight, to the top of Devil’s Lake State Park, flying down through the switchbacks to the lake, then back to the ferry and back to Lodi. We also crossed the Ice Age Trail multiple times.

Devil’s Lake
Switchbacks ahead!

If you want statistics, you’ve come to the wrong place. How many watts did I put out? Attach a lightbulb to me and see if it stays lit. I can tell you my heart rate remained in the optimal range throughout – that’s non-zero. How many miles did I ride? Enough to get me back to where I started. I might tell you how many fawns darted across the road in front of me, and whether mama was on the other side scouting out the territory or darted out into my path after the baby as I was flying down the bluffs in the park. (Mom went first; I was safe, as was the baby.) I might tell you how many sandhill cranes I saw in the marsh along Marsh Road. (Zero, because there were trees between us – but it was either a really noisy crane or a lot of ’em.) I might tell you what flavor of ice cream I ate as I waited for the ferry. (None – I didn’t want ice cream in my belly before climbing the bluffs, and on the way back I didn’t have to wait for the ferry – I arrived just as it was unloading and walked straight on.) Anyway, that’s the life of a half-fast cyclist – I’d rather tell you what ice cream I ate than how far or fast or hard I rode.

First rosebud, front yard.
Peony, back yard – ants love ’em for the nectar.

No Hope/Ride Your Age

I spent a recent Sunday morning exploring the area around the towns of Hope and Cottage Grove. The ride started with a minimal plan. Head out of town. On the way out, I decided Buckeye Road was the way to go. On the way out Buckeye, I decided to ride south to Stoughton. On the way to Stoughton, Sigglekow Road looked too pretty to pass up. And so it went. I rode on Hope, South Hope, Vilas-Hope, and No Hope Roads. It was the first day to give a hint of summer, with the temperature in the 8os and a brisk southerly wind. With that wind I figured I’d have a tailwind to push me home, but my loop ended up going more northerly than I thought it would, so I started and ended with a headwind. As I rode past a pond, I saw hawks circling. That put me in mind of Kate Wolf.

Too late…you missed the hawks.

Cresting a hill, I came upon this glasswork in a front yard. I wondered if it’s the work of Dale Chihuly, who studied glassblowing here under Prof Harvey Littleton, who was known as the “Father of the Studio Glass Movement.” It may be a student of his or a copy of his style (or someone with a lower budget than the other works of his I’ve seen). We also have a scientific glassblower in town, Tracy Drier. Having once plumbed a wall that I wanted to encase in plexiglass so others could see it, I understand the aesthetic appeal of work not meant as art.

It was only a hint of summer. More chilly and rainy weather followed.

The following Sunday saw me on the Bombay Bicycle Club‘s “Martinsville Meander”, and meander we did. The route included an “Alpe d’Huez option” with three steep climbs over a ridge arranged back-to-back-to-back. The climbs didn’t seem too bad this time. They were downright fun. I thought I might even be ready for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds. Then I realized I still had 35 miles to get back to town. I ended up riding my age. I still have a long way to go to match my State Senator, who rides his age every year for his birthday. Fred Risser is now 92.

It seems that all roads lead to Vermont Church, even though Vermont Church Road is the only one that goes by there. The church sits at the top of a hill. That was one of the many hills we climbed Sunday. It seems that Christians think God is in heaven and heaven is “up there”, so building your church on the top of the hill brings you closer to God. I don’t know what the speed of prayer is, but it seems the difference between a hill and a valley wouldn’t affect transit times all that much.

Speaking of religion, I’ve been watching MASH reruns lately. Anybody else notice that Father Mulcahy is pretty hot in a tight t-shirt? Must be some heavy lifting saving souls in a war zone. He’s got some nice arms there.

My daughter stage-managed a production of Sister Act (the musical based on the movie – how’s that for backward?). When Deloris decides to go straight and Sister Mary Robert considers entering civilian life, Deloris bequeaths her “FM boots” to the young novice. Sister Mary Roberts asks what FM means. Deloris replies “Fu..ather Mulcahy!) Being a college production, no one knew who Father Mulcahy was. They did know what FM means.

We also passed a church at a remote crossroads. It got me to wondering…we build our bars right in the center of town, but our churches at a remote crossroads. Does that mean we’re more embarrassed to be seen coming out of church than out of a bar? Is that just a Wisconsin thing? Just thinking out loud here…

Blessing of the Bikes

I just had a bizarre epiphany about a traumatic childhood experience. I was waking up from a dream. The dream had ended with a scene of some adult men unloading gear from a car full of boys. One of the men found a backpack and asked mockingly who it belonged to. (I don’t remember the graphics, but it was something deemed unmanly.) I was an adult me standing nearby. He made an off-handed comment wondering if I as a child had been bullied for such things. As I began to answer, one of the boys asked about my current experience and I replied, “Adults are much nicer”, meaning that I no longer feel bullied by peers. In retrospect, that seems ironic, as it was an adult mocking and bullying one of the boys for his perceived femininity.

The dream took me back to one of my childhood experiences of bullying. I ran into three or four of my friends down by the lake, on my way to make collection rounds for my paper route. The guys saw me coming and thought it would be funny to throw me in the lake. They picked me up, carried me to the water’s edge, counted “one…two…three” as they swung me back and forth. On “three”, as they threw, I grabbed one of them tightly. I got one foot wet.

They dispersed and I made my way home, feeling humiliated, and feeling the squish of my waterlogged tennis shoe with each step. Collections would wait for another day. I thought these were my friends, and they had ganged up on me. On the way home, the gravity of the situation built in me. I then began to fear that my parents wouldn’t take my experience seriously. I took off my glasses and broke a temple piece, where it had previously (not that day) cracked. Now they’d take me seriously! These kids broke my glasses!

I got home and told my story. Because of the glasses I was taken seriously – mostly because of the expense (minimal, in retrospect) of fixing them. My father demanded to know who these bullies were. I wouldn’t tell. He didn’t push very hard. I think he admired my unwillingness to rat the kids out.

Until this morning I experienced this as bullying. I rejected the “boys will be boys” argument. I woke up this morning with a different experience. Was I bullied for being me? Or was it a spur of the moment thing? Had one of those four been the one walking along, would they have done the same to him? (One might ask, “would that make it better?”) Under other circumstances, would I have found it funny? 

At any rate, this morning I realized that “bullying” may not be an objective thing; that it may be in the eye of the beholder. It was clearly my experience that afternoon. I felt betrayed. People I thought were my friends no longer felt like my friends.

I felt powerless, but was that “their fault”? What was so terrifying? I was not afraid of the water. I lived on and in the water. They weren’t trying to hurt me (nor did they); they were goofing around. (Does the concept of “goofing around” include the experience of the victim? Did they consider whether it would be “fun” for him?) What made that moment an experience of terror? Was it because I felt powerless in my family and, at that moment, the one place that felt safe felt safe no longer? How were they to know?

The today me (I hesitate to say “grownup me”, as it just changed today, at age 66) feels very differently than the 12 year old me (or even the yesterday me). It feels much more complex today. When I felt betrayed by friends, I turned to family for support – the very family in which I felt powerless and unseen; and which was the source of much bullying.

Now that is bullying.

It seems to come back to the obvious(?) If we are going to label, we label the behavior, not the person. Were those boys “bullies”? I don’t think so. Was their behavior “bullying”? Yes, though it did not start that way. It was a “boys will be boys” moment until I reacted in terror and they did not stop. Was my terror about them, or about me? What might have happened had I named names and those boys been called out? Would they have been branded as bullies? Would my dramatization of the incident been brought out? Would I be victim or liar? Could I be both? Is our world big enough to accept both of those truths and deal with them?

Today’s ride

I woke up this morning and checked the weather – thunderstorms blowing in around 10 and sticking around through mid-afternoon. The ride to Vermont Church for the Blessing of the Bikes looked unlikely. I wrote the post above, did a few loads of laundry, and prepared to settle in for a day at home. I checked the weather again and there was a big red blotch on the forecast map, blooming from the little green area moving up from Illinois. I did some other stuff but couldn’t resist checking the map one more time before it was too late – the big red blotch was now a bunch of scattered spots – scattered showers and thundershowers…what the hell, let’s go!

Vermont Church (in better weather)

I headed to the starting point, thinking I was nearly ½ hour early – plenty of time to chat with the other riders and think about what we’d do about the weather. Surprise! surprise! The start time was ½ hour earlier than the website said. They were just heading out of town. I told them I’d catch up. The next surprise was that the road out of town was closed. They took a shortcut so I didn’t catch them until about 8 miles out.

We ran into scattered showers – chilly enough that I was glad I had shoe covers and a rain jacket on, warm enough that I was glad the rainpants were in the jacket pocket. We shortened the route to get to the pancakes faster. The folks of Vermont Valley Lutheran Church were waiting with a spread that included pancakes with choices: maple syrup, blueberry, strawberry, or rhubarb sauce – I guess someone out there has a sunnier rhubarb patch than mine. They had sausages for those of the meat persuasion, as well as OJ and church basement coffee. After we ate, the minister blessed our bikes. It was no hurried blessing – he blessed our gears for crisp shifting, our tires for smooth rolling with no flats, and our brakes for quick stopping, too. He asked for some sunshine, which arrived after about 15 miles.

After the blessing we retreated to the basement, as the worst of the weather was just arriving. We waited out the thunderstorm and I was glad to have rainpants for the trip home. At the edge of town, the sun appeared as a tailwind blew us home.