There’s a six hour orientation I have to sit through before I am entrusted with the task of running clunky ceramic platters through an industrial dishwasher. The chef running me through the course is affable but a little absorbed in himself. He’s tearing through the workbook at twenty miles over the speed limit, and the bartender nearby jokes that I can’t possibly remember everything he’s saying. It’s nothing I haven’t heard countless times from every other restaurant I’ve worked in. If this seems tough around here, I should be fine.
The first night I have a really sympathetic trainer, who shows me where everything goes multiple times, and carries the brunt of the workload while I learn my way around. After two hours I’m put on the fry pit, where a nice fry cook runs me through the timing that goes into deep frying the greasy meat that subconsciously suicidal patrons will be shoveling down their gullets. I don’t intend to be frying much but the managers want me to cross train in something, so here I am. The cook I’m with is a master of timing, and he cooks twelve batches at a time with the four fry baskets he’s given. I’m told I need a menu matrix before I’ll be able to hold my own in here. The restaurant won’t have new matrixes for a month.
I go back to the dish pit before closing, and watch the trainer break the machine down. We scrub our corner, then hit the lights and leave. I smoke a cigarette and listen to Roy Orbison as I drive home. I barely stay up long enough to shower. My GRE workbook sits untouched in its Amazon box.
Rolling silverware is the easiest job you can possibly have in a restaurant. I know this from personal experience. It literally doesn’t get any easier than rolling silverware. I’m actually amazed that in some places it’s a shift all by itself. Here there aren’t even any special folds required. You just wrap a napkin around the flatware and go.
Naturally, the teenager given the job bitches about it ceaselessly. She’s horrifically rude to everyone around her, and has already been called aside twice tonight by the equally bitchy manager on duty. He’s given her two warnings but she’s sixteen, so what’s she gonna do? Modify her behavior?
I drop off fresh forks and she blithely says: “Hey, can you take that back with you?” She sweeps generally at me.
“Take what with me?”
“THE THING IN YOUR HAND!” she snaps, meaning the dish rack. She’s seething, hissing the words through her teeth.
“What the fuck did you think I was gonna do with it?” I ask her, then immediately forget about her once she’s out of eyesight.
I ignore her through the night. I don’t do it consciously. It’s just that she’s sixteen; my default action around teenagers is to just not care. I don’t mean to not notice them. They’re just so…boring. Caring would require a greater man than me.
She drops off my radar until around ten, when she starts begging other people to come help her. At one point she offers twenty bucks…half a shift, without taxes…to anyone who’ll help her. No one takes her up on it.
“You mean help you with your own work?” a friend of hers snickers as he walks past.
“You’re such a little bitch!” she snaps back, but without the good-natured tone of her friend. She sees me, and comes over.
“Hey, I’m sorry I was mean to you.”
“I don’t care,” I tell her. I don’t say it to be mean. It really doesn’t bother me. It’s amazing how little you can care about things when you’ve legitimately grown up.
“Really? Cuz you’ve been ignoring me all night.”
“Not ignoring you,” I tell her. “Just not caring.”
“You really take shit personal, don’t you?”
“Pretend my answer is whatever you want it to be,” I say, and unload the last platter before retreating back to the dish pit.
The cooks and dishwashers want to play football after work. I don’t want to join them. I will stop caring about this place the second I clock out.
The people here think I have a son I take care of. They think this because I have a habit of calling my best friend “my boy,” and also because I’m old enough where, this far below the Mason-Dixon Line, pretty much everyone my age has a kid. I’ve never corrected the assumption, as it gives me a convenient excuse to just head home at night without what seems to be the requisite socializing.
I don’t mind hanging with coworkers after work. In the city I lived in before, I did it almost every night. But Perry, GA is a place where only bitterness and boredom come up in conversation. When the sun sets, I want to be around the few people I know who aren’t desperately chasing distraction until morning.
“Hey man, how you like it?”
The silverware roller is a guy tonight, the same guy who actually referred me here. He’s really nice, actually, so I feel bad when I reactively I blurt out: “I don’t, but I didn’t expect to, so it’s all good.”
He laughs at that. “Yeah, I get that.” I could actually hang with this guy without minding. He and I met through his sister-in-law. I guess he’s reading my mind because when I remember that he asks me how she and I are doing.
She and I have our own lives. We’ve gone out once, but only once. We’ve basically been opposite sex dude-bros for a decade, give or take a couple years here and there. Not best friends but good enough.
I tell him she doesn’t want to go out again. “Aw, damn. Don’t that suck,” he says.
I shrug. “Could suck worse.”
“Coulda got married.” And I can see myself hanging out with him because he laughs at this. Everyone else in this church infested area would wonder what my beef against the holy union of marriage is. This guy just laughs.
I’ve been at it a couple weeks now. I’m falling into a familiar rhythm, one I remember from my days at the hotel. My arms are swelling and my stomach’s flattening. I fancy myself a worker-scholar on days when I don’t have cigarettes waiting for me in the car.
It’s late on a holiday, and we’re running every removable piece of equipment through the washer. The manager, who’s sat and talked the entire night, looks us over and curtly tells us that we “need to move it up about ten notches.” She walks away before she can see that we give her instructions less than zero regard.
The line cooks help us break down and clean up. We hose off the kitchen, squeegee the water, and hit the lights. The manager grumbles that it’s after midnight when she locks up behind us.
Cigarettes are lit immediately. Applications are emailed. Eight hours later I’m back inside, opening up the kitchen. The grill cook also had a turnaround, and he comes in after me.
“You did a good job last night, man,” he tells me, putting on his apron. I thank him, praying the compliment doesn’t become an endorsement, and roll the first rack of plates through the machine.