Summer Time Blues
I have been working fairly hard since coming back from vacation and, between that and trying to wedge in some drawing (and absolutely hating my ultra-expensive-from-the-tube watercolors as opposed to my tried-and-true Grumbacher set) and not doing enough guitar practice or going to the gym or telling my wife that I love her (in fact, she left yesterday morning to fly to Los Angeles for the Poseidon Adventure convention ( don’t ask) and various new book matters including signing my new contract and gearing up the Change Your Underwear publicity tour (apparently, I’ll be on CNN morning news, Good Morning America, Today Show , etc. after Labor Day), this blog has moved to the back of the pack. So, sorry about that.
A propos of nothing much but the fact that it’s summer and I’m working, I’ve been thinking about summer jobs I had as a kid.
My first summer job was when I was eleven, and wanted desperately to be a veterinarian. I got a job working for the town vet (this was in a small Israeli town called Kfar Saba) who worked in the pound and the adjoining slaughterhouse. My job was basically to clean out cages and feed the dogs and cats but I also helped out where needed. I remember the sickly sweet smell of the gassing room and the stiff dog limbs sticking out of garbage cans in the back.
Someone once brought in a skinny dog that was entirely covered with shiny green ticks. He looked like a bunch of grapes and we had to shampoo him and pour kerosene on him then shampoo him again; slowly the ticks dropped off, squirting his blood onto the cement floor. A week later, the dog joined the others in the garbage cans in the back.
I was as ghoulish as any prepubescent boy and loved to hang around the slaughterhouse. The cows would be herded up a ramp and would meekly follow the cow ahead until they got close enough to smell the blood of the abattoir. Then they would raise their heads and roll their eyes and try to back down the ramp or climb over the rusting railing. One could have painted a line on the floor to mark the point at which they all realized their fate.
Once inside, men converged up on each cow and shackled their hooves. Motors mounted to the ceiling raised the shackles on chains and the cows would soon be dangling upside down and then lowered into a long metal tub. A board was put under the cow’s head and a rabbi stepped forward to slit her throat. To be properly kosher, the knife had to be so sharp that a piece of paper dropped onto the blade would be cleaved in two.
Next, the shackles were removed from the dying cow’s front hooves and the motor would hoist her up to be dressed by the butchers. A minute or two after crossing the imaginary line, the cow would be unrecognizable, a side of beef.
Occasionally I would help out in a two-story shed behind the slaughterhouse. Cow intestines were brought in by the barrelful and we would slide them through v-shaped boards that would squeeze out the contents into gigantic metal sinks, leaving us with empty sausage casing. The cow shit would run down to the first floor and into a cart tethered to a balding donkey. Without looking over his shoulder, the donkey knew when the cart was filled and would then trudge out of the shed and across the courtyard to a deep pit. He would back the cart against a pole upending the contents into the stinking pit. Then the donkey would trudge back to its post in the shed.
One afternoon, the rabbis discovered they had unwittingly processed a pregnant cow. I was called in to haul the purple fetus away and carve it up. The dogs ate it with relish, untroubled that the meat wasn’t kosher.
The vet’s thirteen-year-old son would occasionally hang around the office, snacking and picking his cavernous nostrils. One day, he announced that his father didn’t like me ‘ as a person. I was so upset by this first ever job review that I never returned to work. The vet called my parents, who were a little horrified by my daily descriptions of my job, and they decided for me that it was for the best that I spend the rest of the summer playing marbles and swimming.
At sixteen, I went to work at the McDonalds that had just opened on Court Street, rotating through all of the jobs in the restaurant. I worked the grill making Big Macs and burgers, twelve at a time during the lunch rush, toasting and dressing buns, searing frozen patties and stiffing them all into Styrofoam clamshells. Every few hours, I would scrape down the grill and then slide out the steel grease traps and carry them through the back door and into an alley. I would pry open one of the three steel oil drums that stood in a cloud of flies and dump in the grease and chunks of burnt meat. A seething bed of cream-colored maggots floated on the entire surface of the liquid within and would converge quickly on my offering. The smell was thick and alive and I would frantically slam down the lid.
I worked the register too, filling bags for sullen customers and praying that my register drawer would balance at the end of the shift. I made French fries, my arms slowly roasting under the heat lamps, my grill-burns stinging under showers of salt. Every week, an 18-wheeler would pull up to the curb outside and I would have to empty it contents into the freezers in the basement. I would pull a case of frozen burgers out of the refrigerated truck, carry it across the scalding July sidewalk, then down the stairs and into the store’s freezer, then up the steps, back out into the heat, into the frozen truck, back and forth, forty times. It was like training for a Rocky movie or the Iron Man triathlon.
The job I dreaded the most was working the lobby. The first part wasn’t too bad ‘ I pushed a little broom around and emptied the trashcans every ten minutes or so. I would drop the full bags through a steel door marked ‘rubbish’ and into a chute that dropped through to the basement. But twice a day or more, I would have to go downstairs and gather up everything that had come down the chute. This included all the bags I had dropped but also all the detritus that customers, confused by the sign on the chute door, had tossed down. Half eaten burgers, cups of ketchup, sodden French fries, dirty napkins, and diapers floated in ankle deep greasy water. All of this mess went into the trash compactor in the corner. Sometimes, I was so overcome by the smell and the vileness that I would rush over and throw up into the compactor, push the button to compact it and continue working. When I was done I would have to wrap wire around the bale and muscle it out of the compactor.
One day the owner took me a side and told me that since I was the only white employee, he had decided to send me to McDonald’s University to train to become a manager. I explained that I still had another year of high school to go and he told me I could get a GED later. I told him I was flattered but my parents had their hearts set on my going to an ivy league college. He looked at me like I had crawled out of one of the oil drums in the alley and told me to go down and compact the trash.
The next summer, after senior year, I worked in a record store. It was the summer of ‘78 and hald the albums we sold were the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. More modest hits that summer: George Benson’s Breezin’, Steely Dan’s Aja, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.
I spent a lot of time studying the bins of records and soon knew the inventory cold. I developed a roster of regular clients who would come in on Fridays after work and they would usually walk out with a half records I’d recommended.
There were two phones next to the cash register and Peter, the owner was adamant that I not answer the white one. Occasionally, by accident, I would. The callers would invariably say they would like to ‘order a limo’. Whenever I passed such a message onto Peter, he would be irritated with me and tell me not to answer the white phone again. Other wise, our relationship was decent and he would give me occasional spot bonuses when I he saw me moving a lot of merchandise to my regulars.
Towards the end of the summer, Peer took me aside and asked me about my plans. I told him I was going to college. ‘Forget that, man,’ he said and told me that he would make me an assistant manager if I stayed. Besides the various girls who worked the register, I was the only employee so the promotion didn’t seem reason enough to cancel my plans to go to Princeton. ‘Come on, man,’ he hissed, ‘ I didn’t go to college and look at me now.’ I thanked him for the tutelage and again blamed it all on my parents. They had their hearts set on me going to an ivy league school. Peter glared at me and told me to get back out front.
The next morning he gave me an assignment. He had a wall covered with steel milk crates packed with records and he wanted me to move to his apartment, I spend the better part of the afternoon lugging them across the street and up to his fourth floor walkup. Halfway through, I realized that I would probably only be working for him for an other day or two and that if I quit now I could stop this back-breaking work.
Peter was in his bedroom with the door closed. I knocked and he said, ‘Don’t come in,’ so I went back to moving crates. After three more trips, I knocked again. ‘I need to talk to you,’ I said through the door.’ ‘Don’t come in!’ Three more crates. ‘Listen, Peter, I have to tell you something important.’ I said and turned the doorknob. Peter was sitting on his bed, which was completely covered by hundred of joints. He had a machine on his lap and was in the middle of rolling another one. Apparently this was the true nature of Peter’s ‘limo’ business.
‘Why’d you come in?! You’re fired,’ he roared. ‘I came in to quit,’ I said. ‘Well, you can’t because you’re fired! Just finish moving those crates.”
I went back to the store, selected copies of all my favorite albums and left the crates where they were.
After my freshman year, I got a job working for my congressman, the Hon. Fred Richmond. Fred had been arrested a couple of years before for soliciting a young boy but, in a style that would seem very out of place today, admitted his guilt, did his time, apologized to his constituents if he’d embarrassed them and the following year was reelected with a huge majority. I was his assistant press secretary, writing press release on how appropriations were being spend in the district and inserting various ridiculous things in the Congressional Record: “Mr. Chairman, the 14th district of the great stat of New York would like to acknowledge 23 years of productivity from the Waldman Tool and Die plant on Nostrand Avenue….”
The next summer I became an intern in the White House. My joke about the experience is that Jimmy Carter lusted after me, but only in his heart. I worked for National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski and occasionally helped out in Vice President Mondale’s office. The coolest thing about the job came each morning as I pushed past the tourists, waved my pass and strutted through the huge iron gates.
Despite the glamour, it was a shitty time. Each night I would take the bus way up north to Chevy Chase and sit in my rented room listening to my landlord scream at and then mercilessly beat his children. I was restricted form the main part of the house beyond my room and so I cooked on a small electric plate and washed my dishes in the bathroom. It was the summer of ‘80n and Carter was getting whooped in the polls. All of the political appointees were busy updating résumés and so I had only career bureaucrats to learn from. I spend most of my time in the White House library writing a paper on the War Powers Act that described how the president could commit troops to battle without congressional permission. This was during the Iranian hostage crisis and when the helicopters that Carter had secretly sent over the border crashed into the Iranian desert, my project tanked.
I decided to leave my internship but my mother and second step father were adamant: I was not allowed to come back to New York unless I had a paying job lined up in advance (I didn’t know it at the time but they were in the last months of their marriage). I was furious and decided to stay in DC and get a job.
I went to Georgetown and walked into the first French restaurant I saw. I was interviewed by the owner: “Have you any experience?” (I lied). “Do you speak French? “(Mais, oui) have you a tuxedo (I’d brought mine to DC in anticipation of the State diners I’d be attending). I started the next day, poured an entire dish of Boeuf Bourguignon on a patron’s Chanel suit and was immediately dismissed.
The next day, I went to a French restaurant on the other side of Georgetown. Same questions. with one addition: Where have you worked? I mentioned the place I’d worked the night before but not the terms of my departure. “Tres bien!” said the owner. ”That’s my cousin!” As he dialed the other restaurant, I slunk out the door. The following day, I was hired as a busboy at a Spanish restaurant. After lunch, the all Chinese kitchen staff asked me what I planned to do until the dinner shift. “Come with us!” the dishwasher said magnanimously. He had just bought a Camaro from the other busboy who had acquired a new Corvette from the waiter. I discovered their secret at the racetrack where they turned my $12 in lunch tips into $200. Clearly, I was onto a good thing.
Back at the restaurant, I discovered some sticky politics. The Maitre d’ who’d hired me was th partner of the chef who had been absent during the lunch shift. It turned out they absolutely loathed each other. When the chef discovered I’d been hired by the maitre d’, he fired me on the spot.
My next job was at a sandwich and ice cream store. I worked my ass off and ate all my meals for free at the restaurant. I didn’t speak to my mother for the rest of the summer and ignored her letters. By Labor Day, I had put aside $600, all in one dollar bills which I packed in to a suitcase and took back to New York. When I arrived home, my mother and stepfather asked me where I had been. With a dramatic flourish, I unlocked the valise and flung the contents into the air. “I’ve been making money like you told me to!” I cried, gesturing to the shower of green. They weren’t terribly impressed by my gesture.
The next summer I had one more restaurant job, this time at the chic River Café at the the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was celebrity hangout of sorts: I peed in the urinal next to John Belushi and watched a waiter perform the Heimlich maneuver on Elizabeth Taylor’s escort.
Once a month or so, this mobbed-up guy would come in with a thick wad of bills and announce to the maitre d’, “I’ve got sixteen large on me. Help me spend it.” He sat with the stack at his wrist, tipping every member of the staff that came by. Each time he flicked his cigarette, a busboy would present him with a fresh ashtray and he would reciprocate with a fifty dollar bill. He even went into the kitchen and tipped the dishwashers and the sous chefs. By the time the night was through, his stack was gone. He thought he was big man. We thought he was a dick.
Our shifts would sometimes stretch from lunch till 4 am and the restaurant soon became my whole world. I was buddies with the Chinese busboys who would sleep on metal shelves in the pantry, nesting on the fresh linen. They lived together, squirreled away by the dozen into tiny walk-ups in Queens, and saved every penny they earned. After a couple of years, they planned to return to the Mainland to open restaurants of their own. My pal Phillipe was the valet and I would nip out when I could and we pile into a Rolls or a Bentley and cruise the BQE.
Tokoyama-san was the sushi chef and he would make me secret spicy tuna. One hot afternoon, as I worked on the outside cocktail deck, he made me a bowl of sashimi which I stashed under the bar. I would return to pick at the snack, not noticing that the raw meat had spoiled in the August heat. Soon I had a near hallucinogenic case of food poisoning and didn’t eat Japanese food again for a decade.