The Work Of Summer
You miss summer break? That feeling of glee, danger, immunity?
That skittish feeling at | June | July | August | when you didn’t have to give a shit. What if you could have that today? No getting up to be late for work. No having to do a damn thing except get partied out, sun-kissed, become a budding artist, a hip-hop dance machine…anything you wanted.
All of this would be possible with a little time off. Nobody would call you lazy, slouchy, or measure the weeks of your leave. It would just be high school summer break.
I’m a Muthaf*in’ Busboy
John Dixon’s a real A-dult. His distended belly edged over his belt. His country-singer mustache, 7-day-a-week shorts, hair parted in an attorney-like left. All just make him feel like an A-dult. He cracks gum in a clock-like rhythm and comes up with nicknames for you that stick (for the rest of your life). He beats around the beachfront restaurant Crab City like a king, not just a summer manager.
“KenLee, bus that six-top yet? Get to it!”
“KenLee, you’re spooging crab guts all over the floor! Get to it!”
“KenLee, sea log floating in bathroom 4, get to it!”
‘Get to it’ being John Dixon’s closing remark for almost everything.
‘Get to it!’ indeed, there’s no time to waste, there are people who want their Maryland crabs and goddamnit even if this is technically Delaware, Crab City’s going to be the place to serve them.
During the summer, Dewey Beach, Delaware overhauls from a cooling host of locals, into a swarm of adolescent summer steam.
Rental properties get fool’d over by six packs of college students who sleep on itchy furniture, and store frozen food in rusty, dialed up appliances. Dewey summer nights fill up with college partiers at bars and clubs, music from jeeps and local bands, and massive amounts of beer, tequila shots, morning pizza, and milk-jug puffs of skunky weed.
The summer of my senior year of high school, I bus tables at Crab City. John Dixon commands me and a bus-full of delicate-flowered college hopefuls and dropouts.
We’re a volume business. Most summer nights it’s an hour-wait to fuck up some seafood, so City busboys roll like a NASCAR pit crew.
We close on empty tables; clear mugs, plates, silverware, condiments; ball up crab guts in brown paper table-‘cloth’; clean the table, un-sheath new brown paper, replace salt and pepper shakers. Next. And next. And next. Peak nights, we do over twelve hundred dinners.
I love it. Even though at the end of a shift, my shirt’s sieved with sweat and kitchen scraps and I have a sock tan made of grease and Old Bay. Since I started out on dishwashing detail (the restaurant equivalent of being held back a grade in school), I had to do my time grimed in garbage bins and coiled, metal scrubbers before a busboy spot opened up.
But when it did. I accepted my dark blue City polo with pride. It was all fucking worth it.
“TommyBoy more paper rolls, take KenLee! Get to it!”
John Dixon lays down the order to Tommy L, one of the senior busboys. And my heart jumps.
As you might guess, the brown paper that serves as tablecloth is key to our busboy operation.
The paper comes in large bazooka rolls, the weight of a small tire. Part of the busboy job is to tear lengths of paper from these rolls, specific to fit the 2/4/6/8-top tables in the restaurant. If you run out of these rolls during a shift, it’s death to the busboy flow.
Tommy L nods acceptance to John Dixon, and leads me to an elevator.
Paper rolls are stored upstairs from the City, in dark shelves next to a huge party space called The Lighthouse.
The Lighthouse is one of the premier, epic go-to’s in Dewey. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Without a fake ID, I’ve never been to any parties there. But the stories from the City waitstaff, make The Lighthouse as legendary as scrapple and Ripken. And I get to go see it.
The ding from the elevator is loud, it can be heard over the flock of early dinner-goers. Tommy and I take a silent ride up. I press my chest against the soil of my City shirt. After a couple of weeks on the job, I know that being assigned get-brown-paper-rolls is a big-time, busboy move.
It’s dim in The Lighthouse, flood lights drop on the floor. My eyes adjust, and to my left, I see neatly organized shelves holding brown paper rolls and industrial cleaning supplies.
But what’s in front of me–fuck. The Lighthouse. Like an empty football stadium. A quiet expanse of heavy, shampoo’d carpets, and two stretches of bars in an ‘L’ along the room’s walls. The conditioned air coats like creamy, chowder’d soup. Smells of good times waft in the circulation. Hookups and hangouts, celebrations and salutations. I peak on The Lighthouse’s power. Almost giddy at being underage and getting to experience it even without any people.
“Kenny come here.”
I see Tommy up against one corner of the bar. He holds his hands down, palms open, like he was showing me a fine floor-model subwoofer. There at his fingertips, is the first bar case I’ve ever seen up close. Inside of it, frosted beer cans and bottles.
I nod. Watch as Tommy pulls a can from the cooler case, fills its space with others. Before I can say anything, he cracks the top.
“Fucking so cold,” he says. “You want?”
A second, I’m not sure what to say. I can tell right away that getting up to The Lighthouse was only step one. THIS is the true Crab City busboy rite. And though I know it’s stealing and underage drinking, I also sense that accepting this can is accepting busboy baptism. Not just signaling to Tommy that I’m down, but manning up as a tribute to all busboys who have come before. All who will come after.
I take the can. Tommy pulls out another. He shuts the cooler, pops his top. He smiles a winning smile. We cheers. The liquid burns cold, searing, fine-filtered malt.
“Do it fast, we got to get back,” Tommy says.
I nod, slam down the rest of my beer.
It’s not an alcoholic buzz I feel. It’s a criminal, insider kind of trickery. One that says, yeah I can do this. I am that guy. Tommy and I laugh with each other, he hits my shoulder. We crumple our cans. He shows me how he hides the crushed evidence in his busboy apron for disposal downstairs amongst the other recyclable trash.
“Never throw it in the garbage here,” he says. We pull two massive rolls of brown paper from the storage shelves. Settle one each on our shoulders. There’s a ding from the elevator. We’re out.
Tommy and I hit The Lighthouse a few more times that month. It becomes a ritual, and like any activity, we get bolder as we go. Care less about the runs that pump us full of gas and laughs, as we head to collect our brown paper.
Each time after we take the elevator back to Crab City, we exchange knowing glances as we swing from table to table, clearing and re-papering. Our beer-runs feel majestic in their execution. Never quite planned but perfect in their spontaneity.
It’s not about the alcohol for me. I mean a can of clear beer doesn’t exactly turn anyone inside out. It’s all about the excitement, the devilish detail of doing something that I’m not allowed to. And feeling like my summer job is just where it should be, in fact where my season should be. The opportunity to be bold, live the dream that TV molds inside teenage boy’s heads. It’s as good as any high-school kid could want.
Tommy uses a blue pen from his apron, and with a delicate but forceful hand, wedges a smooth hole into his second beer can. I stash my first empty in my apron, accept the pen from him. We’re pushing our normal limits, shotgunning two beers in a row.
Tommy grins, toasts his second holed beer with mine, and we both go down the hatch. It takes less than three seconds for him to drink twelve ounces, me almost double that. But who’s counting.
The icy liquid feels rebel. Fills veins that run to my toes, through my fingers, into points on my head. The thought of strength, of being everywhere at once, of being able to create or crush on my own accord–doubles in density. I feel indestructible. I’m a fucking Crab City busboy.
The lager coats my insides. Echoes, throbs, goes off. Like criminal chimes.
It takes less than one percent of one second to realize that that chiming is ACTUALLY the elevator ding announcing a new entrant into The Lighthouse. It’s funny how un-in-control my body gets at that moment. Like a jammed ice machine: guts freeze and nuts stick to my insides, refusing to drop.
Tommy’s gone. He’s almost a half-foot taller than me and probably thirty pounds heavier, but he moves like kitchen grease to get behind me. Somehow sensing he should be furthest away from whatever Gates of Hell is about to open up before us.
I face it.
John Dixon moves fast for an A-dult. One second I see him. The next second I feel him slap the empty can in my hand. And three seconds more, he explodes expletives all around me. Destroys pockets of air so I can’t breath.
Apologies and excuses. Remarks and apprehensions. There’s no time for that. I’ve never been good at handling punishment with confidence. I either flip out, fight, or laugh with unease. Which is what I do here, in front of John Dixon–I laugh. Not by choice, but because that’s the face my emotional die rolls.
Turns out, that’s exactly the wrong roll. Rough, chub’d hands grip the collar of my Crab City shirt.
“THIS FUCKING FUNNY?”
John shouts so loud I wonder if all the people in Dewey can hear him. He shoves me three feet to the nearest wall. BLANG. The Lighthouse foundation cripples underneath the long arm of John Dixon. A sliver of unchugged beer seeps out of the can in my apron and drizzles down my thigh.
John pins me to the wall. I’m pretty sure I’m not hanging off the ground, feet dangling like you see in movies–but it feels like it. I catch a shirking but keen Tommy in my peripherals.
“KENLEE! STEALING! DRINKING UNDERAGE! YOU KNOW WHAT THE FUCK COULD HAPPEN?”
Any other quiz during my high school years, and I would’ve tried like hell to get the answers right. But here, slammed against the wall of The Lighthouse, an A-dult of a man capturing me inside my own mix of defiance and guilt, I can only force out three words:
“I don’t know,” I say.
“YOU’RE FUCKING FIRED!”
John Dixon releases me all at once. My feet rubber to the ground. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t know how.
“Fuck out of here.”
John says it quiet.
I cripple. Can’t look at John or Tommy as I sulk to the elevator. Take it down. I don’t say anything to anyone. Not the rest of the busboys, the wait staff, any of the chefs or dishwashers that have been my battalion for the past two months. I pull off my polo shirt. Ball it with my busboy apron. I (almost) cry in the parking lot.
A lot of thoughts go through my head the following forty eight hours. What do I tell my parents? Is John Dixon really that strong? Is this bad for college applications? What about that end-of-summer-party that Tommy’s throwing–am I still invited?
In the end, it feels like a long road to recovery. One of those things that, amongst the rest of your life stories, is so stupid and small and insignificant–but when you’re a kid going through it, seems as important as any war, recession, or election.
I go to talk to Jerry, the owner of Crab City and The Lighthouse. A heavy, successful businessman sitting behind a beat-up desk, dusted computer equipment, and a basket of half-eaten chicken wings. I can see now, the whole time I was asking Jerry to let me quit rather than get fired, he was probably thinking about getting a cold beer himself.
But he listens, slipping chicken meat out of his teeth, says ‘fine whatever’ at the end of my ask. He tries to give me a lesson about why stealing is wrong, how I put the restaurant in jeopardy, why I should feel lucky this time, even though I get the sense that he doesn’t much care except that I seem to.
It was damn near the end of the summer anyways. I imagine we both accomplished our separate missions to wad up money and rack a summer’s worth of stories.
I leave Crab City without goodbyes. I don’t go back to eat on the house, or try one last time to hang with the busboys. The calendar turns with me missing Tommy’s party.
John Dixon, with all of his aggression, goes on my mental hate list. I hate him for catching me. I hate him for firing me. I hate him for picking on me. Most of all I hate him because he made me look weak. I actually can’t wait for school to start again.
Get To It
The scene at Dewey Beach was a little too much for me. That summer at seventeen, I was never NOT going to be a little too high strung, eager, susceptible. Full of expecting-and-wanting, more than actual being-and-doing. And John Dixon knew it. From years of kids before me.
Maybe that’s just what summer break can do to a teenager cooped up too long. Maybe A-dults too.
I went back to Crab City with some friends one summer a while back, as a grown-up with a job. Most things pretty much equaled my memory: the slick walls, unfitting brown paper on tables, particle’d uniforms, soupy food. The ‘I’m doing something you aren’t’ tone of the staff.
Of course all the cans of my past were gone. So was John Dixon.
I wonder if he startled awake one morning. Bullied by the fantasies and worries of bullshit, idiot kids who never got old. Who fiend’d over dollars, shotgunned stolen beers, relished in the unrealistic realism of summer break. Maybe his own life seemed stalled and unchanged, stuck in summer. And the anticipation that came with each advertised season–always fell short of the hype.
Maybe John woke up one morning, and decided that he’d had enough. His never-ending vacation needed to be over.
“BigJohn!” I hear him yell at himself. “Get to it!”