Like Anthony Bourdain, I spent or that is misspent my youth working in food service and in later years developed a consuming dark void in my soul for which only constant movement and delicious tacos can fill. My life in the trade almost started at a Friendly’s Restaurant at seventeen. I was tired of picking apples on Maggie’s Farm and wanted to make a little more money than seasonal work and was tired of being harassed by my coworkers who dubbed me the “white monkey” due to my ability to climb trees and I can assume my complexion. “Ah, em go dem’ creature da White Monkey da’ bombaclod pussyclodmudafuka.” It took me a while to realize the guy I was assigned to work with, the one the others called Oldcntfck spoke to me in Patios not English since he punctuated every statement with “Yeahritedamuthafukkacker.”
The whites on the farm called me “Spike,” for reasons I could not discern but seemed to have something to do with a total dumbass and wrecked some important machine. At least I wasn’t the guy Ward had caught “jerking off in the huckleberry bush.” When I got my first Ipaycheck, the farmer sat there farting huge explosions of gas and laughed it off, “better on the outside than the inside.” My experience there was not the ideal farm life Eric Slone had proposed in his art, nor a thousand other bucolic works, but a disgusting mess of peasants fingering one another way past the expiration date. I needed to stop doing farm work and odd jobs for the elderly, yet it was a depressing and frightening endeavor to apply for a job at the mall. I didn’t handle rejection well and hated… no, loathed the mall. The mall was where I went to get made fun of and to not be able to afford anything. I remember these girls who had seen me at the Salvation Army looking at clothes. “OHMYGOWDITSTHESALVATIONAMYKID” I always looked at mall work as the lowest form of employment.
I wanted to work on Main Street, be the clever apprentice of some old and trusted artisan building some fantastic cabinet or table. I wanted to work with my hands and build something beautiful. But, we didn’t have artisans up in my area as white kids were still leaving for the city in those days and not founding maker’s collectives in the woods. I hated myself for walking into Friendly’s and asking… can I have an application? I had caught some aggrandizing ideas from my parent and suffered from a touch of narcissism that many do during their teen years. When I was given the application, I struggled. I was mortified that my life had come to this. You don’t understand, at seventeen I was functionally illiterate and some information, such as my social security number and birthday, was a struggle. Maybe you do understand. At that age, everyone has some struggle, even rich kids.
As a homeschooled kid in the 1970s and early 1980s there was no internet, and basically, the institutions of the age were generally hostile to the experiment. This made it hard to ask for help. The schools sucked in our area, and kids came in two flavors – IBM whelps or Welfare Trash. So, it was hard for a kid to figure things out and at 16 I just kept on keeping on. Perhaps with good cause. Bethatasitmay, this led to specific gaps in my skills, aptitude, and knowledge. Homeschool don’t get no funding. Our freedom was more that of Gypsies. We read a lot, played when we could, and were not part of the Main Stream. I only used my birthday once a year, so actually, even at this ripe age, I had to struggle to remember it. Let’s see…. November is… [muttering to myself] As to certain other biographical information, I had to share a number that I was sure I had written on a scrap of paper in my pocket, but seemed to have lost. Then there was the math. I scrawled the best answers to their questions, struggling with the spelling, and became more and more flustered and upset. I couldn’t even work at Friendly’s, and that place was a shithole at the mall.
I attempted a few more tries at server positions, but there were limited options. If only one day I would be able to work at The Red Lobster (TRL). Finally, there was a sign outside of a local Catholic Retreat House close to where I lived that exclaimed that a dishwashing position was open. It wasn’t going to be dropping ACID and having bonfires, but like Anthony Bourdain, I started my professional life as a dishwasher. I was nervous about getting the job, but apparently, the skills involved were neither math nor spelling. I just needed to show up. And I did, about three days after my application was dropped off. I had to tell all the elderly people in town I worked for that I was now unavailable. I had to take a job that paid a living wage and then it was the minimum of three dollars and sixty-four cents. That was one hundred and forty-five dollars a week. Five hundred and eighty-two dollars a month. Before taxes.
That was one hundred and sixty hours of pushing dished through a colossal machine, scraping eggs off of chafing dishes, organizing the monkey dishes, setting endless tables, just like Bourdain. Except that technically I worked for the Catholic Church and many dinners were either serving the Fathers who lived there or serving devout Catholics of various ages and on the spectrum from sinner to Saint. I met a lot of priests who were similar to the Jesuits in their practice of obtaining knowledge (Redemptorists if you would like to know) and had wonderful conversations spiritual, philosophical, and the sundry adventures of these missionaries. I was very fascinated by their stories, their in-depth knowledge of literature and history. This was just at the cusp of the scandals that were to rock the church, so it was a different time.
When I read Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, however, I was somewhat disappointed that my life was not cocaine and sex on prep tables (which who cares since they are stainless steel and bleached each time we used them, so your sex juice was long gone and Forfecksake we cut up meat there… actual meat with blood and bone so a little spittley joy juice from your coitus… ) but cleaning the dishes and pots and pans and setting tables for up to three hundred “retreatans” often including nuns in those old habits you see in The Sound of Music (TSOM) and Fathers from various orders some of which may perhaps today be extinct.
Like Bourdain, after a certain amount of struggle, I got into Vassar College. This was not detailed in KC how he got in or how he got out, but I was so determined to stay in I broke up with a girl that I was very much in love with. I thought we had escaped and won the war, but in the end, life is a complex C-word, and she takes no prisoners.
My parent was hostile to my being in college. Actually, my parent was proud but did not have the means to pay for any bill and was quite offended when bills were sent to the mailbox. I begged the Bursar to stop sending bills, mail of any kind really because at seventeen I got myself emancipated, but Vassar College was not then keen on students who were emancipated as these didn’t fit into their boxes nor were they ripe to pay the tuition up-front. “This is unusual,” the codfaced but very nice lady said, “but most of our students have parents who contribute something and the system just isn’t set up that way…” she may have said.
I needed to pay for Vassar. I needed to take advantage of this lifeline that was tossed to me, I mean, I was given a very substantial scholarship due to the pecuniary embarrassment of my procreators, but there was still a “family contribution” as well as things not covered such as books. I maintain a deep hatred for publishers to this day for what they charged for texts. In order to pay, I needed a job. So in addition to my being in the luxury of college life, I had to work three jobs. One was work-study refhelving books in the library. Perhaps the most ubiquitious job of the work study students. But I managed to stag another. In the reference room. I took the hours no one wanted. I didn’t have many friends and most of them were nerds who studied a lot so while others partied I worked but that was ok… I wasn’t invited anyway. But the real peach of a job I got was in the kitchen of the campus dining hall. Since by my age, I had more years working in a kitchen than even the most super-senior had at college. I fucking really knew how to wash dishes.
I am not sure what Bourdain did at Vassar. I am sure he talked about it in KC (Kitchen Confidential).
What I did was try to work the line with T.C. Not the drug, the person. T.C. was a lifer working at Vassar. A cultural fixture of the campus and the best guy I have worked in both my pre and post-college “career.” He had worked in the kitchen before I was at Vassar and may still be working there now that I have long gone. At that time on the line, he was the king of two things. Serving fools. And notwithstanding fools. As a native of Poughkeepsie, he and I bonded since we came from the Hudson Valley (HV) and grew up in similar financial situations while his was at times more dier and certainly shaped by social forces outside of either of our control. He and I were the worst together.
I fed off of his energy and he moved to higher levels of crazy at my antics. He was like, “Oh shit, you’re crazy.” We invented the double veggie bacon cheeseburger, plated “samples” for the day such as French Fries in a bowl of mayonnaise, and continued to recommend things to people we didn’t like much to the chagrin of the floor managers. Did you try the M&M omelet today? There were many adventures there, but all of them could appear in a Golden Book since all we did was work, serve, wash the dishes, make fun of one another, make fun of the students, and go home or for me, back to the dorm. There was the kitchen, but nothing confidential. At least what I was involved with.
After college, I again struggled. The narrative was still messy and not following Junior – Sophmore – Junior – Senior – Graduate School – Marry – Work – Retire – Die… but resumed the complex shitstorm that is Real Life (RL) ™. Now that I was in RL(tm), I looked for a job and after a few months joined a cult, on accident. It was an educational-related cult but needless to say one should never work for a place where there is a Survivor’s Network. Not even Homeschooling has a Survivor’s Network. Other than a few totally dissatisfied Mindys and Damions.
After my stint in The Cult, I inserted myself into New York City and after another attempt at obtaining College-Level employment fell back into food service with the help of my sister, who had at the time not gone to college but was a very able manager of a lunch place called the Daily Soup. With her help, I got a job serving soup. As not a drop-out of Vassar College, as Bourdain was, but a graduate. I was involved with the Alumni/a/e/us/um network and scooping soup. After the manager of my location was caught embezzling money or some Queens-style crime (yeah, you hear me Queens), I was made manager, except at the time, the Founder, a certain Whatthefuckhisname, came up with his concept to “cross-train” all staff so no one was any job, and rather than have manager he had “shift leaders.” Dwaine and I called the position “Shit Leader” (SL), and it paid, as you may have already guessed, less than being a full manager. So, here I was a Vassar grad and a SL. FFS (For Fuck’s Sake). I worked that job and yet, while the other managers and SL had some amount of drugs, there was no sex, drugs, and rock and rolll as Bourdain had expounded on in his book. There was them telling me to take a different route to the bank reach night with the 12k – 20k till since they didn’t want to pay for an armored car and considering the bank was across the street on 42nd and my store was on 43rd, there were few new routes to go on. My sister was held at gunpoint and almost murdered since the company didn’t pay for security and soon after she quit, and then I quit, but no without putting out a fake memo to all managers that each morning they’d have to gather with their staff and sing Beautiful Soup from [BLANK] which at the time seemed outrageous (several managers said they’d quit) but today with Walmart morning meetings and most jobs needing Survivor’s Networks to further discuss and heal, my abusive use of managerial powers indeed ahead of its time.
In my career in food service, I never got to part the cheeks of a lover and plough in on a cutting board or steam table. I didn’t do drugs other than drinking too much after my shift was over. I traveled the world and have eaten weird shit both at establishments with an address and “street vendors” the latter of which white people of a certain generation are obsessed over. I served thousands of meals. I prepared tons of potatoes. I managed to drink a lot, but not in a way that is more entertaining than the way you drink, if you haven’t gone into Program yet….
I stood in front of the site of the site of Flagship (now a private residence) with mixed feelings. I was in Cape Cod to visit friends and had never been to “P-Town” the Providence that Bourdain had gotten his start. I had read KC some years ago but it took a while to reconcile, or is it realize, that the Parts Unknown guy and that book were the same person. I had hung up my Aramark apron, turned in my EcoLab gloves, and doft my last shirt with my first name on it. I had struggled to get into academia while Bourdain managed to get into the fame business, and now he was dead. Dead as a doornail. And as I stood there looking at the pathetic sign taped to the fence by some family that had bought the place and fixed it up and lalalala and blahblahblah…. Fuck them. And fuck him.
Not in a bad way. Not in a way that dismisses the tape sign on house I can’t afford, the cutting short of a life that could still be lived, the personality that had the trouble and talent, the fun he had I could only dream of, the crazy life that managed to find a level of success where he could touch the lives of so many millions that I will never see….
Fuck him because in the kitchen, that’s how we are. We don’t coddle you for coming in late. We bang on pots when you are hung over. We throw pots across the room when we are stressed. We pee on your food when we don’t like you. We sneak booze when it is unguarded. We don’t fucking care because that is the life and your shitty shift will end late and you will party with the people you have been going strong with for sixteen hours and one day you will be gone and no one will write you letters or look you up because that is how life is you are close as family and you are also dead strangers dying each night breaking down cardboard boxes, cleaning out grease traps, taking in the fresh food and washing the stinking dishes and digging lipstick-stained napkins out of tall flutes you cannot afford to replace if you beak a set and having to be there long before you are awake and long after you go to sleep and chasing cockroaches and the burns of the industrial soap and the steam that hits your face and burns it just to give you green beans you aren’t going to eat and the constant counting of things like chicken wings and small dishes to ensure some shit-tard didn’t take them or break them….
It is perhaps the distance of time that the stage of anger at Anthony Bourdain can be unlocked. For leaving us without showing us yet another food cart in a place we will never know ourselves. For not finding us one more taco we could all enjoy together. We will miss his energy and darkness since we all have a little of that in us, whether we struggled to finish Vassar or not.