16 04 2008
how i am not myself
On Sunday’s you had to make sure you had enough melon, because often, it was the only thing on the plate that didn’t get sent back. If you ran out of melon, the other cooks would freak, morale on the line would collapse.
“Dios mio,” they’d say, spatula’s and tongs dangling from their hands, the frantic cacophony of the kitchen cross-faded to a whisper if they saw you picking sprigs of parsley, or cutting juice oranges into swans. “No se puede.”
When I was hired, Al, the owner, made me swear on my balls that I’d always have enough sliced melon for the weekend brunch.
“It’s more than just a garnish, it’s a statement on the affirming role inanimate objects play in our lives,” he told me.
He held up a sliver by the rind and began slurping it. “A melon slice connects breakfast to lunch, it dams the fried potatoes onto the plate, it gives the appearance of generous portions, it accentuates the overall appearance of the… sorry, this is really juicy.”
I took the job because at any time, if you needed to, it was ok step outside for a cigarette. At my old job you had to wait until it was your break.
Al had assembled a crew that had almost no experience in the restaurant business. The chef was either in or had just dropped out of culinary school. He was only slightly older than me, spoke zero Spanish and was supposed to manage a kitchen staff that consisted of me and a bunch of boisterous, hard drinking Mexicans.
“Ok,” he said, first day, making wax-on, wax-off motions. “El sponge for el cuchina si clean toot suite.”
Only Cindy, the lunchtime waitress, had ever had another restaurant job.
“A place by the college,” she said. “Cute guy factor. Not like here so I better make good tips.”
Behind her back, nobody liked Cindy because Cindy was the type that couldn’t keep herself to herself; she opened her mouth and you instantly understood the etymology of shut the hell up.
“It’s called being a powerful woman,” she said, swinging her breasts.
Like how I found out she and I grew up in opposite ends of the same state back East and moved out to California within a year of each other. After that she always tried to pinch her vowels and play the tough New Yorker chick, but fuck man, she was practically Canadian.
To her face she was my friend because I was the type who never chose his friends wisely and who was prone to say,
“I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Each day, after our shift was over, Cindy would come to the house I shared with some anarchists and smoke up all my pot.
“When we can finally sell our stock, first thing we get is a q.p. of Humboldt’s finest and a new glass bong,” Cindy said.
That was another thing- Cindy and her husband were waiting around to get rich. He had gotten in on the ground floor of a booming Internet start up. Any day now, were the rumors. Until the options panned there were free chip and soda vending machines, a room with a ping-pong table and a masseuse who came on Thursdays.
“The funny thing,” she said, exhaling. “Is that I always thought computers were only for playing video games. Like tic tac toe.”
“People need computers for that?”
“People need computers for everything now. That’s the whole thing,” Cindy said, rubbing her thumb across her fingertips. “In five years no one will have to work at all. The Internet will do everything for us.”
“Then what will we do?”
“Fuck, god.” She stared out my open bedroom window, through the ficus plant and down to the empty, gravel driveway. “All I know is that I’m going have to get involved with some charity or something because, having that amount of money will be kind of embarrassing, know what I mean? Like I’ll feel bad.”
The house that I lived in with the anarchists was on a side street a couple of blocks from downtown. Downtown was basically a street. There were little shops and cafes and a pet store. Don’t ask me anything about the shops or cafes, I wouldn’t know, I never went into any of them.
It went without saying that my roommates weren’t even real anarchists; they were more like people who wanted to complain for a living. Everyone in town knew them and said hi whenever they saw them. The townspeople thought it was funny that my roommates had purple hair and safety pins stuck through their noses. And in a weird twist of fate, some of the kids around town started showing up with dyed hair and store bought Rancid patches sewn onto jackets and my roommates got frustrated with the whole thing.
“Suburban scum!” they’d heckle the teenagers from across the street.
“How can you talk about punk rock with that silver spoon in your mouth?”
But when your style becomes the style no one wants to hear how you were there first. Gradually, some of my roommates like Spills and Curtain left the house and the whole scene, moved back in with their moms and began studying math at the community college. Curtain always carried around that Bucky Fuller book and figured the geodesic dome a good place to hide out. As the years went by, those that stayed at the house spent a lot more time in front of the tv and became heavily involved in the sale and distribution of meth. I had moved up to the city long before that.
I was working double shifts six days a week at Al’s place because no one could stay hired on there. He had cycled through the local labor pool until all he could bring in were some day laborers he found standing in front of the paint store.
The biggest problem was, the chef couldn’t keep it together. He was only like twenty or something and nobody respected him. Half the time, the dishwasher wouldn’t show up and often, when he did, he was drunk. The line cooks prepared food according to recipes they made up on the spot. Someone claiming to be a customer with food poisoning was calling the chef’s cell phone for laughs.
Cindy kept threatening to quit.
“You guys are fucking up my tips,” she’d accuse us as another pissed off customer walked out the door. She pointed at him. “He said his burger tasted like salmon.”
It was around then that Al decided to put a melon slice on everything. Fish and chips, pasta primavera, burgers, whatever, each got a fleshy pink sliver of cantaloupe.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he told us during an emergency kitchen meeting. “This is a business of repeat business. Jeeze guys, we need a gimmick, something to keep them coming back, because a lot of the customers don’t like the food.”
Al was on edge and it affected his thinking. Once, he almost threw down with a customer over a gin martini. I guessed it had to do with Al’s flakey, meth-mouthed girlfriend who was hanging around all the time, punching buttons on the credit card machine and stealing linen napkins for bandanas. She was the skinniest person any of us had ever seen and that included those Ethiopians from back in the 80’s. After meeting her, we all realized why Al consistently made bad decision after bad decision. She had three kids by three different guys and was always agitated at someone for something.
Once, she had accused me of denting her car doors by repeatedly ramming into them with my car. Only, I had a skateboard.
“I can see the paint!” she shrieked, jabbing a bony finger at the side of her thirty-year-old Honda. “That’s white! My car is blue. Blue! Who else coudda done this? I’ve never parked next to a white car in like forever. Are you calling me a liar? Are you calling me a motherfucking liar motherfucker?”
One day, Cindy showed up late to work excited, blushing and out of breath. She did a little jiggily dance in the doorway.
“Don’t tell Al,” she told me. “I want the satisfaction of dropping a bomb on him.”
“When are you going to do it?” I asked. “Today?”
“The I.P.O happened this morning. On paper, we’re rich. The only thing is, there’s like a mandatory holding period for selling employee owned stock. Ninety days. We’re looking into taking a loan out against our holdings. Mark your calendar. Three months from today, I’m outta here.”
“I’m really happy for you.”
“I can’t wait to quit this place.”
“It’s totally awesome, you guys deserve it.”
“I mean, Al’s a complete putz, you know what I mean? Even if he begs.”
Just then Al came walking up.
“What the hell are you two doing? There’s no silverware on the tables. Where’s the salt and pepper shakers? What’s burning on the grill? Why didn’t anyone tell me the ice machine is broken?”
“I don’t need to take that from you, I’m rich,” Cindy said.
“So you quit? Like that?”
“No,” she said. “But I’m going to. You just won’t know when.”
From then on, Al let everything slide, like the time Cindy told a customer to fuck off after she spit in his food. Behind her back, the rest of the employees hated her even more.
“What do I care,” she said. “I’m practically a millionaire.”
“But Cindy,” I told her. “You’re pissing people off.”
“It’s called being a powerful woman.”
When the loan happened, Cindy and her husband moved out of their one bedroom to a house in the next town over. They got rid of their futons and milk crates and bought a five hundred dollar puppy. Now they wanted to know if I knew somebody.
“You live with all those kinds of people,” they said.
“You shouldn’t judge people on their appearance,” I told them.
“Who else can we buy a quarter pound of pot from,” they asked. “A suit?”
I knew lots of people who were good at getting things. Those kind of people seemed to just show up on my doorstep and stay on my couch a few months before heading off to places like Pueblo, Colorado. Often, they were running from somebody or else trying to catch up to them.
At that time, Dirtbag, a tattooist friend of my roommates had come from Texas for a visit. Dirtbag brought an autoclave, some black, green and lavender ink and opened up shop in our kitchen. He listened to G.G. Allen and tattooed people off the street who had thirty-five bucks and a sixer of Guinness. It wasn’t all bad, some days you’d come home to find a girl in a g-string on the kitchen table getting an ass tattoo.
Dirtbag had made the acquaintance of a skinhead called Happy for an incident involving a nine iron and somebody’s cat. Happy rode a Ninja and had the self-proclaimed best connections of anybody.
He wanted fifteen hundred bucks up front and I said that was a lot of trust for someone who was a white supremacist but rode a Japanese bike.
“Dirt’ll vouch for me,” Happy said.
I looked at Dirtbag, he stood up from his chair. “Well,” he said, and walked in to the bathroom.
The next day at work, I told Cindy it was a mistake and that I wouldn’t be responsible for what might happen.
But she just flaunted the money, fanned her face with the stack of bills, folded them in half and stuck it down her shirt.
“As if they couldn’t get any bigger,” she said.
There were a like million people at our house when I got home. Some were waiting for tattoos, but others, I imagined, had heard about the deal and were waiting around for a free high. People were hanging off our front porch, pounding Olympia, whipping unripened key limes plucked from our tree at each other.
“Somebody’s gonna call the cops,” Curtain said, but didn’t look intent on doing anything.
I waited in the kitchen with Dirtbag and some girl with rings stuck all in her face until I heard the severe whine of Happy’s high rpm bike.
“Ok, so where’s this bitch,” Happy said, upon entering the house.
She was on her way.
To her face, in the middle of the living room in front of like fifteen people, Happy told her he hated to be kept waiting and that she was a nobody and that she should be thankful enough to show up on fucking time. Cindy tried to laugh it off, but was only able to make a face like someone farted. He took the money from her hand and counted it right there.
“I ain’t getting shorted by a broad,” he said.
A couple people laughed.
He announced he’d be back in two hours. He was driving over the mountains to Santa Cruz. He had to go alone, the dealers trusted only him. He drove off, blowing the stop sign at the end of our block. Cindy smiled weakly giving a thumbs up.
As we waited, chasing tequila with cheap beer, it became obvious no one really expected him to come back with her pot. One by one people left, or fell asleep on our couch, until it was just me and Cindy, flat on our backs in the front yard, sharing the last of my shake, staring at the stars.
It went without saying that Happy never came back that night, or the next, or the next. He completely dropped off the face of the earth, people who used to know him now claimed to not remember him at all.
“I’m gonna get back at him, I’m gonna get back at him,” Cindy kept saying, but it was bullshit. She was never going to do anything because there was nothing to do.
“You should learn from this,” I said, trying to be helpful, but these were lessons we already knew. We were young and we already knew everything, yet we did it anyway. We were all living the same kind of life, destined in the way that some people win the lottery.
“I’m going to kill him, I’m going to run him over with my car.”
“Just forget it. You’re not going to do anything, even if you find him. That’s not like you. Murder isn’t what you’d do.”
Cindy clenched her jaw and made a fist. “How do you know what I’d do?”
“I only know what I would do,” I admitted.
Then came Black Monday, or was it a Tuesday? The stock market crashed and nearly everybody I knew was out of a job. In homage to the dot com’s demise, my roommates burned dollar bills and set odds on mass suicides.
“So close,” Cindy’s husband told me as he packed their things for back East. “Do you want a dog?”
Al’s place, hobbled by debt, closed down not quite a year before it opened. Closing night, he walked out of the restaurant with the ovens on and the doors unlocked. Last I heard he was doing time in Chico and his girlfriend had just given birth to their son.
Unemployed, I decided the best thing was to move to the city. My last night in town, my roommates and I were all hanging out at home when we heard the irritating, high-pitched revs of Happy’s Ninja come up the street. He walked into our house as if he had just left for a pack of gum.
“Where’s Dirt?” he asked.
“Texas,” somebody said.
“Alright, I’m out,” Happy said, turning for the door.
Spills, who was closest to the door, got up and closed it. “Please,” he said, pushing Happy to the couch. “Sit.”
“Where’s the money?” I asked him.
“Where’s the money?” he repeated. “What the fuck are you talking about? Who the fuck are you?”
“He lives here,” someone said.
“And we figure that if someone perpetrates a crime in our house, the members of this house are all owed equal shares of the takings. It’s called narco-communal living, motherfucker,” Curtain told him. “You got twelve hundred dollars in your wallet?”
Happy scoffed, flipped his hands in the air and stood up to leave. Spills shoved him to the ground. Happy landed awkwardly, kicking the coffee table over, sending years of collected dust, magazines, beer cans and cigarette butts flying through the room.
“This is going to be a lesson on how ultimately, greed hurts,” Curtain told him.
Happy dug into his pocket, he pulled out a couple of dollars and a wrinkled baggie with a small amount of pot in it.
“This is all I got.”
It was hard to say who took the first swing, or the second, but by the time I hit him he had probably had enough. He covered himself and curled up on the dirty carpet while we kicked him until the room was all dusty and we were out of breath. Someone began to pour a beer on him until they though better of it and drank it instead.
We stood around him, our hands on our hips, lighting cigarettes and flinging the burning matches at his arms.
“Get up,” somebody said.
He was still awhile, except for the blood that trickled off him and the shallow rise and fall of his chest. Finally, Happy struggled to his feet and staggered out the door. Like a gut shot cowboy, he draped himself onto his bike, and with a painful groan, lifted it from the kickstand and turned the engine over. Letting the clutch out too quickly, he took off from the curb with a jerk and swerved wildly to compensate. Fifty feet down the street his bike began to slalom in wobbling, tired arcs until he fell over and skidded on his back through the intersection.