We were at this dive down the street from our place. Some bar and grill that had been recommended to us for its steak. I ordered the chicken. We sat on one of those scratched up picnic tables on the sidewalk. The kind that every dive has all marked up with pens and stickers. Me and my lady.
Sitting there in the early sun of late Spring, Portland just coming back to life from her long comatose, I was waiting for my chicken and thinking about my bank account. I hadn’t stepped foot in a kitchen since the last one I’d worked the line at had laid everybody off when we’d gotten the news that the world was going to the shitter. And I didn’t mind. But now the unemployment checks had stopped and I wasn’t eager about returning to the scene.
The bartender comes out with our food and he’s wearing one of those plastic face shields with nothing underneath. As if that’s accomplishing anything.
He places our food in front of us and then sits down at the table nearby and lights up a smoke. We get to eating and talking. We talk about unemployment running out and the jobs and the never ending pandemic. I’m halfway through my meal when the bartender inserts himself.
“If any of you needs a job, we’re hiring right now.”
I don’t want to but I ask him about it. Seems the right thing to do given the circumstances.
“Yeah,” he says. “The last guy up and quit and now we’ve only got one person working the kitchen right now.”
I tell him that I’ve worked in plenty of dives but I think I called it something nicer. The point being, I have experience. I tell him that I’m not particular about getting back into the industry. Even though unemployment is up, I still have some savings I’m sitting on. I say that I could use the time to find something else.
Then he gets real close and I can smell the artificial mint of his cigarettes. He talks in a whisper.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, but the owners are willing to pay under the table. They’re real desperate right now.”
So despite all of my aversions I was back at another dive. They told me to come in the next week for training and I spent the majority of that week telling myself that I should look for something else. A week goes by and I ride my bike to the place and introduce myself to the lady tending bar.
“I’m so happy to meet you.”
She said this with the kind of desperation I’d seen at other bars I’d worked at and I believe her.
“Chef is running late but why don’t you go back and get yourself acquainted with the place.”
The kitchen was one room. Two if you count the dingy staff bathroom that looked less sanitary than the staff itself. I wandered around the place, checking the line and refilling some tomatoes that look like they’d been sitting for a while too long. I looked over the menu and it was all fried food, minus the burgers. A proper dive.
She showed up an hour later. Hungover and grumpy. She must have been in her sixties. White hair and all.
“Hey there, looks like you’re my new line cook.”
I tell her that I guess I am.
“Well, let me get myself together and I’ll show you the place.”
She showed me the ropes over the next couple of weeks and tried to pressure me to stay by sweet talking me with that old lady charm. Telling me how good I was at the job. How I was gonna be her number two. I would tell her that there were only two of us and she would laugh and keep talking.
I did end up staying. The pay was decent and it was close to my apartment and most days I was back there by myself with time to spare. Since it was still mid pandemic and a recent shooting had happened just across the street, the place was a ghost town. So once I got in, heated everything up, got the fryers going, and all, I’d spend a lot of time reading or writing. And all on the clock. It wasn’t all bad.
The guy who hired me, he’d come back and try to shoot the shit with me as if we were old friends. As if he did me a favor.
“When the government is offering money to take the vaccine, that’s how I know you can’t trust it,” he’d say.
I think that maybe the incentive is because people are being stubborn but he doesn’t seem the guy to listen to that.
“We’re all gonna catch it someday anyhow,” he goes on as he grabs a plate from my line and starts working out a small plastic bag of white powder. “May as well not worry so much about it. I don’t know how you’d trust what’s in that thing anyways.”
He makes a line on the plate with his ID, rolls up a wrinkled dollar, and hits it.
“You want some of this?” he asks. “Got it from this stripper I’ve been seeing. They get the best stuff.”
I tell him maybe later cause I know the owners are due soon. Or because I don’t trust his cocaine. Either way. Snorting, he walks back out front where a couple has wandered in off the street and greets them with an overenthusiastic welcome.
The owners were ok. An elderly couple who had been running the place since the 70s and had changed the name a couple of times. They came in on the odd days to check inventory and, I ventured, to apply pressure to their staff. The woman barely spoke any English, or perhaps just barely spoke it to me. Her husband always tried to get buddy buddy with me. About my classes at the university or his niece who was doing the same. Or just about the kitchen in general. I’d keep myself busy while they were around so that they didn’t feel like they were paying me to loaf.
When they’d leave, I’d get back to writing or reading or just wasting time. If I felt bad about being on the clock while doing this, I’d remind myself that it was deader than dead and it’s not as if they were offering me benefits or job security or anything besides a small paycheck. I was there until I wasn’t. So may as well make the most of it.
Some days the lukewarm regulars would make their way back to my line. I think this started from the lady in charge being overly friendly with them and I was too nice to tell them to stop. This old guy would come back and he’d be there asking me to make his burger in this specific way and he’d give me a fiver. I knew he wasn’t paying the bartender but since he was paying me, I didn’t care.
“I’ll be out at the slots,” he’d say. “Do it like the last one you made. That was the best burger I’ve ever had here and I’ve been coming here since 1986 even though I don’t drink… I just like the vibe and the owners, they know me… so does the chef and…”
And he’d just go on talking like that for a while until he burnt me out. Then I’d make his burger and take it out to him at the slot machines.
“Wow, that was fast,” he’d say. “Like I said earlier, I’ve been coming since 1986… or was it 1985… no no, it was definitely 1986… anyways, I’m not used to the burgers coming out so fast and your burger is the best burger I’ve had since that one chef left a few years back… what was her name… Kate? No no… Maybe Maurice? I can’t quite remember anyhow… No, it had to have been Kate…”
Then I’d amble my way back into my empty kitchen, the old guy’s voice trailing away, and wait another hour before a new ticket showed up.
This is how most of the days there went. It was boring and full of dry spells that were occasionally broken by short rushes that usually happened right before closing time. But overall, it was boring and I was ok with it since I was writing and reading a lot.
Things went on.
It was summer and it got hot. I told the owners that I would need to cut down some of my hours when the school year started back up. I didn’t mind the continued work, but I just wouldn’t have as much time come September. They seemed to sympathize and when there was work to be done, I was good for it, so it seemed we were at an understanding.
One night, it must have been late July, there was the usual last minute rush. I was throwing pots and pans around, keeping the fryers full. The vents had stopped working a few days before and the place was like a damn sauna. I had the door wide open to the sidewalk but it only did so much with all that heat from the grill and the boiling oil.
The guy who hired me, he comes back from the front all worked up and grabs some bottles from dry storage. Before bringing them up front, he pulls his plate from below the counter where he kept his line and his ID and got one nice and clean for himself and hit it. He offered me some as usual but I was slammed and didn’t have the time. He grabbed his bottles and grumbled his way out front.
When things finally died down, the last of my tickets finished off, he found his way back again.
“So the owners just told me that you’re gonna go on call while they train someone new.”
I ask him what he’s talking about.
“This is just what they texted me. They want you to be on call cause they’re training this new guy and he’s gonna do your shifts.”
I curse or something and ask what this is all about.
“I don’t know anything more, man. They did tell me to make sure not to let you quit though cause they like you and your work.”
I’m still confused and angry at that point and he explains it all over but it doesn’t help. From what I was gathering, they were replacing me and they hadn’t the guts to come tell me to my face. Instead, this guy got the honors.
I thought about ditching and leaving the kitchen a mess. I cleaned it anyway. Cleaned out the line. Turned off the fryers. Bricked the grill. All while thinking that these people were getting the better of me. Even though I showed up for every shift and then some, got the food out on time and all proper looking, they were replacing me. I assumed it was because I’d told them that I had to cut back my hours when school started back up. Or maybe because I was getting my own work done on the clock. Not as if it affected my ticket times.
I finished up back there and got myself a free drink and sat at that scratched up picnic table and tried to enjoy it despite feeling like I’d been given the short end of the straw. I nursed my drink for a while, thinking things over. When I finished I brought the glass back to the guy at the bar.
“Don’t go quitting,” he said from behind that flimsy, plastic mask.
I wanted to ask him what the hell he thought that thin plastic was doing. But I knew his answer.
I never came back. I sent a text saying that I quit to the guy since I didn’t have the owner’s number. He never responded.
After only a couple months of work, I was back to where I was. Good thing I wasn’t the only one calling it quitting time. I walked into the next place I saw with a desperately worded “Need Workers” sign out front.