The First of Forty JobsBy Hank Tanqueray
I was hired at The Forum restaurant because my mother was a waitress there. I was 16, very shy, with almost no initiative. I don’t recall an interview. I do remember an application with many blanks where information was supposed to be. I remember my mother working very hard. She wore a red and black dress that had elastic ruffles that bunched up around her chest. The lower part of the dress had creases in it. It looked as though you could fold it up like an accordion if you separated the seam on the side and stacked it on end. She was always in a hurry. The Cuban guys in the kitchen said she looked like a chicken with its head cut off when she raced around the dining room. They said this in Spanish. I only heard them chuckle something that I couldn’t decipher. I heard one of the waiters that understood Spanish translate what they were saying and agree with them and laugh. What they said was true. My mother was always overwhelmed. Five kids, a vicious husband, and a restaurant job had expended her nerves. But she looked young for being fifty-two. Her hair was still Irish red and her frame very sturdy. She did the best that she could. The family needed a second income.
I really didn’t need to get a job. I could get by on next to nothing. But it was evident to my parents that kids my age got jobs. Most everyone else my age had already gotten themselves part-time jobs months before I did. I put off things like getting a job very well. I hadn’t the courage to walk into an establishment and inquire about getting one. I didn’t know what I was qualified to do. I didn’t, well…I was young. I was, however, very perceptive. I think being shy and quiet makes you listen more, the same way deaf people learn to see more. The sad thing is the fact that to exist in this world one needs to have a job. And that word job by definition entails more than Webster could fit in his entire book. It has been the death of man to lose his job. It has been to the death of man to get a job. And it has been the eternal struggle for him to keep it. This is a whole lot for a kid of 16 to take in and I never thought of it then like the way that I do at this point in my life. The fact is that I didn’t need that job. I lived with my parents, but it was my baptism into the world…my first job.
The kitchen was shaped long and wide. There was a corridor that the servers used to pick up their food and drop their dishes off. There was a swinging door at both ends of the kitchen. They would come in with trays and set them on a stainless steel counter and put the glasses up top in the glass racks, the dishes on the counter, and the silverware in a bus tub. I worked next to an old man named Fred, who was the full-time dishwasher. His wife had recently died, so he took a job hoping to keep himself busy. My mother told me, “If he isn’t friendly it’s because of this.”
Fred was very neat and clean. His black apron was not wet from the dishwater, or stained with food. Even the bow that tied in the back of his apron was perfect. He told me how I should wash dishes. “You take the dishes and you wash them off with this hose in the sink. Don’t get too much water on the floor. Then you make sure that there is no food that is really stuck to them, because the dishwasher can only do so much. It really only sanitizes them,” he said. Then he paused and asked, “Are you getting all of this?” I nodded up and down. “Then you put them in the dish racks and send them through this machine,” he continued. This went on for a few more minutes, and then he would repeat parts of these instructions throughout the day as I made mistakes.
I tried to do what he told me, but it never seemed good enough. He told me that I made too much noise. “You need to set the dishes down, not just drop them. The dining room is right there,” he instructed as he pointed to the swinging door at our end of the corridor. “And don’t get anymore water on the floor,” he added. Fred left early that night. He went home to an empty house. I could just see him staring, cradling framed pictures of his wife. I didn’t think that he was a very nice person, but I still felt sad for him. I didn’t want to get old and lose my wife, and start washing dishes to get keep my mind off her. It was a long ways off for me, but I couldn’t help thinking about it.
I took over the whole operation. I saw the manager come in and check up on me. Dishes piled up faster than I could wash them. By the time I was caught up, the Cubans brought over giant pots, large bowls, and steel spoons. I was frustrated. I wanted the night to be over.
It was about 10:30pm. I was almost done with the pots. My mother had just finished rolling her silverware and setting the tables. She came back behind the dish counter and started helping me. She scrubbed and rinsed them. I loaded them in to the machine and put them away. After we were done she mopped up the floor. I went outside and waited for her in the car. My chest was soaked with dishwater. I was also soaked from the ankles down. My socks were soaked and gray from all the water that fell off the counter. They bunched up around my top of my shoes. I took them off and through them on the back seat.
We drove home. On the way my mother told me that I didn’t have to work at The Forum anymore. “The boss talked to me about the noise you were making with the dishes. You can try and get another job,” she said. I didn’t like washing dishes anyway.