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:
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!
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.