Monday, January 28, 2008

Yeah, That'll Work

Even though I was a fresh-faced 19-year-old, I felt I was a hardened and experienced restaurant veteran by the time I moved to Ohio in late 1979. I was as down-trodden as a Michael Vick reject, battle-scarred, tail between my legs, but ready to use my wits and resources to rise back to the top. Ready to show what I could really accomplish away from the dreaded chain fast-food restaurant. And ready to do it at a privately owned establishment.

Shortly after arriving in this rust-belt town, there was an ad in the paper for a deli worker in a new, exciting concept. An 'important' local TV celeb was starting his own chain of delicatessens. It would have TV references, with cutesy names for the sandwiches and 'Hollywood' lights around the mirrors, and, well, you get the idea. A big ego, with the backing of a local "family man" (nudge,nudge,wink,wink). Always a good idea. Even better, put the son-in-law in charge. What could be better to re-establish myself?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Moving Up the Food Chain (Kinda)

Twelve hours after graduating high school in Mississippi, I hit the road. There was nothing anchoring me there. And it was the easiest way to escape my high school girlfriend. Yeah, I'm bad, but this is Mississippi remember. The only gays were hairdressers and florists. That I knew of. I'm sure there were a few Broke-back moments happening. They revealed themselves at risk of life and limb. The KKK was still very much active. My high school was 50/50 white/black and we were not allowed to have a prom. Blacks and whites might mingle or something.

I went to live with my dad and step-mother (who I adore) in South Carolina. Still in the South, but quite a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from the sticks of Mi'sippi. There was quite a lot to get used to. They actually sold alcohol here, unlike the dry county I came from. (Actually the same small town Oprah escaped from. She's done a little better than me, though.) There were discos where you could drink and dance. I was a small town boy in a big (well, biggish) city. And I needed a job. Gas was like 75 cents a gallon, cigarettes were like a buck, and T.J.Swann wine was all of $1.50 a jug.

I first started in the shop area of the manufacturing company my dad was an engineer at. My job was in what was called the de-burr section, where everyone started out. That's where all the metal parts that came in had to have all the sharp parts taken off. Even with thick leather gloves, my hands were always sore from metal shavings getting embedded. Something had to change, and I had all that restaurant experience under my belt.

I applied at a new Burger King in a wealthy suburb and was hired on the spot. For breakfast cook at O'dark thirty every morning. I loved everything about it except the early hour. This was the first time I had ever had a female boss, but June was the best. She knew what she was doing, she was cool, and she drove a kick-ass black Grand Prix SJ. I drove a Mustang II Mach I MPG with a four banger and four on the floor. I wanted to be June; smart, good-looking, suave, and master of the universe. I worked my ass off for her and we got along swimmingly.

After mastering the art of cooking eggs in a metal ring, and then throwing together Whoppers in 5 seconds (special orders did upset us!), I was invited to move up in Whopper-World. And now that I was management, I was invited to party with the management, and a whole new world opened up. Anyone who has worked for a franchisee with a lot of branches knows that it's easy to become friends with managers from other stores. You run low on buns and get on the phone to your nearest brother-store. You soon develop relationships. It soon became the usual routine to call the other branches half an hour before close to see who was working and where the party was that night. I grew up fast. I was having a blast. And I thought I was hot shit.

I had moved to a hip apartment complex, I installed a new-fangled cassette player in my car, and I was living the high life (literally). Then I got transferred to the worst store in town. It was around for a long time and had been run into the ground. The broiler broke down every other day. My new GM was a pretty-boy asshole (although he drove a cool car too, a Fiat X1/9 Targa. It seems when you become a GM, you MUST drive a cool car). Suddenly, things weren't so much fun anymore.

Eventually, my dad moved to Ohio, and I became frustrated with my job. Another clean break seemed the best, although I had made many good friends there. I soon followed my dad to Ohio and started a new adventure, this time with a privately owned restaurant. And a new post to write.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Birth of a Restaurant Addict...

I was 14, with no Hilton family fortune to ensure my future, let alone the next tank of gas for my moped (25 cents a fill-up in those days). My dad had an O.K. job, my mom spent money like he was C.E.O. of Tiffany's. And a new chain hamburger joint, Jack's, had opened in town, a major happening in this sleepy burg of 5,000 in the middle of Mississippi No-Where-Land. Way before there was a Wal-Mart, Walgreens, or Starbucks on every corner. Not even a McDonald's for 60 miles. Imagine!

Back then, the law said you could work at 14 in Mississippi. No rules about limited hours or how late you could work. Managers had free reign about how they could schedule the school-help. At first it started out part-time, maybe 3 shifts of 4-5 hours. Further on, with more experience and regular turn-over, it turned into more full-time and closing shifts. It soon became a 40+ hour a week job for a 15-year-old. I still don't know how I kept a B average through all of this.

I started dating my high school sweetheart during this time. (I was young, inexperienced, and did I say this was in Mississippi?) She was a cashier and I was a cook (mostly, but toward the end I did 50/50 FOH/BOH). This was, way before I knew I was gay, obviously. Anyway, we were a formidable team, and basically ran the place for a couple years. Our high school yearbook forecasted us getting married and starting our own restaurant in the future. Yeah, they were a little off.

It was way, way too many hours for a high-schooler to be working. That, and the long distance I lived from work, made it impossible to continue and I quit starting my senior year. I really didn't want to lose that paycheck, since my mom, who I lived with, wasn't a real big provider.

I really grew up and learned a lot in that first job. My first romance, my first taste of Independence, my initial contact with "customers", my first doobie in a car out back at the Christmas party.

I also learned the following:

Even back then, customers are NOT always right

Managers being friends with employees is not a good thing.

Politics at work means more than hard work. This lesson has followed me for almost 34 years now. Study it, learn from it. If I had, I may have taken a different route in life.

School kids should not work more than say, 20 hours a week. And maybe not at all during the week.

I was terribly addicted to the adrenaline rush of the Restaurant Biz, which would follow me on my move to South Carolina after graduation, and on to my second Restaurant Job, the mighty Burger King!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Face From the Past

I spent part of my day today, driving around, seeing what the rental situation is in my area. I've got less that two months to decide if I want to stay in my present abode. It's not a bad place, but I think I can do better for the money.

While driving, I happened to drive through the neighborhood where my ex-Kitchen Manager lives. I hadn't been there before, was just following For Rent signs. Turning a corner I caught sight of his truck, and a second later, he was raising his garage door.

Should I honk? Should I pull over? I wanted to stop and talk, but I had things to do (lame excuse). Thing is, I didn't know what to say. I left the job at 3 in the morning and didn't say good-bye to anyone. He knows the reasons I left, and we've chatted a few times on the phone when he called in an order for smallwares or for service. The last time we talked he said, "It's a shame you left, we could have accomplished a lot."

He was a good Kitchen Manager and we worked well together. I just couldn't work there anymore. And I'm sure he understands. But, still.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Notes on a Plane (2003 version)

It was very late October, 2003. I lived in Massachusetts... far, far away from family, save my Aunt/Sister Pat. My grandmother was in a nursing home in Mississippi and not the sharpest, mentally. I had just visited some months earlier, and was shocked to see her like that for the first time. Now it was her physical health that was faltering. "Be prepared", came the phone calls at work.

My Grandmother was the biggest influence in my life. Born and raised in the South to parents of little means, she continually yearned to a better station in life, and dragged everyone along. Which meant dragging a husband and two kids (one my dad) 1200 miles north to the Rust Belt and jobs. Then dragging her sisters and brothers and associated families, also. It really was for the best. Or my little egg would have wound up down a sewer somewhere.

The call came while I was getting ready for work. It's time to catch a plane and head South again. Riding in that plane, I decided I would speak her eulogy. And with the help of some cocktails at 20,000ft, I wrote the best eulogy ever written. It put my grandmother in her true light, vices and all. The flight attendants must have thought I was bipolar, alternating from tears to chuckles as I was.

Here, copied from the original I found a little while ago, is what I wrote on that bittersweet flight:

We've all come here today to pay our respects to a remarkable lady. O*** was a woman who didn't take kindly to getting older. I've always called her O***, because she didn't care for the word "Grandmother" early on. I spent much time with a pair of tweezers, pulling gray hairs while she put on her make-up. But she did get older, and with a great deal of grace and charm. She's what I imagined Scarlett O'Hara would have become, with a little Endora and a smidgen of Mrs. Cleaver.

She tought me how to shop, how to sew, and how to curse at ignorant drivers. She was the best at creating dramatic outfits for not much money. She could charm any sales clerk or reduce one to tears just as easily. She called me handsome when I was a fat 12-year old. She always kept the world's worst candy, circus peanuts, until finally getting something better, those individual Mounds bars, which probably helped me become a fat 12-year old. She probably could have given Shirley Muldowney a run for her money, but always got us safely to Panama City and back.

She kept the makers of Vienna sausages, buttermilk, and Sanka afloat long past their usefulness, but I actually saw her try escargot and like it (until I told her what it was). She had a knack for banana pudding, buscuits, and brandy balls, but I never saw a recipe. Red was her favorite color, and she wore it better than anyone I've ever known. It sure did match her personality.

She was an icon, our Matriarch, and no one could ask for a better Grandmother.

[When I finished, there were as many smiles as there were tears. And that's how she would have liked it.]

[And that's one reason why the Holidays aren't as Happy as they used to be. And why I haven't posted in a while. But I'm back, yall. (God, that sounds so Brittney)]