Horatio Alger

My first job was delivering newspapers. I got that job the summer between 6th and 7th grade, for one reason: to earn enough money to buy myself a TRS-80 Color Computer. That’s not the job I want to talk about.

I got my second job when I was a freshman in high school. A restaurant in the small Massachusetts town I grew up in employed many of us high school students. I worked there as a dishwasher for about a year. At this job I learned two things.

One of the cooks delighted in torturing us kids. He called us names (I’d never heard the n- word in any context before starting there, let alone as an insult to lily-white prep-school kids), threw food and plates and sometimes pans at us, wrestled with us, and so on. At the time this struck me as shitty, certainly, but not unexpected or the sort of thing that anyone would want to fix. I was making money, and putting up with an abusive cook seemed like something that just went with the territory. I cannot for the life of me remember this guy’s name or any of his physical traits other than his gut and his mustache. I’ll call him Edgar.

Towards the end of my shift one night, as I was washing dishes, Edgar came up behind me and put me in a headlock.

Let me take a step back and describe what it’s like to be a dishwasher. Washing dishes is easy; indeed, putting aside asshole co-workers, it’s pleasant. Scrape the plates off, stack the dishes in a dishwashing tray, slide the tray into the machine, flip a switch, take the dishes out, repeat. As you open the door to the machine, you’re greeted with a clean blast of steam. The dishes come out sanitary. There’s beauty and order in this part of dishwashing.

Washing the pots and pans from the kitchen is a different game. The restaurant I worked at was nominally French, and preparing the food involved lots of pans, and lots of grease, and lots of heat, and not much time. The basic strategy was to fill up one side of your massive industrial sink with almost-boiling water and tons of soap and let the cooks throw their straight-off-the-stovetop pans into that side of the sink. Attack those things with steel wool ASAP, get most of the crud off, put ‘em on the rack so the cooks can use them again. Sometimes you’d get particularly nasty little items — in the case of this restaurant, there was a baked scallop entrée that was cooked and served in little scallop-shell-shaped ramekins. They were a bitch to wash. Dishwashers resented everyone involved with that stupid entrée contained in that stupid ramekin: customers for ordering it, cooks for cooking it, and waitstaff for serving it and then bringing back that ramekin, dirty, with its nooks to catch melted cheese and bread and grease and pieces of the slimy scallops that we had to move in off the truck in their heavy plastic bins at the start of our shift. Let me be clear. We resented the fuck out of those little ramekins.

Let’s talk a minute more about the sink that the cooks would throw dirty pans into: at the start of the night it contained probably 50 gallons of water and soap and nice clean looking bubbles. Shortly after that it would get a skim of grease across the top and shortly after that it would be absolutely filthy. Disgusting. Full of who-knows-what. In fact, you know that scene in Silence of the Lambs where Clarice finds the rotting body in the bathtub? It is only a slight exaggeration to say it was just like that.

So Edgar comes up behind me and puts me in a headlock as I’m standing at this sink. It’s a busy night. The water in the sink is filthy. I’m in a headlock. And guess what I was doing, before Edgar decided he wanted to play? Sure enough, washing one of those fucking scallop-shaped ramekins. And I’m 14 and this big fat cook with a mustache is choking me, and what choice do I have but to reach that scallop-shaped ramekin into the rancid dishwater and attempt to fling the water in his face?

Now if you were to step back and think about the physics of this move, you might realize it’s not a great idea.

The primary reason it’s a terrible idea is that the trajectory of the water will miss our mustachioed antagonist completely. Indeed it will arc quite a ways behind him, into a very pleasant waitress who’d always been kind to me (despite me being covered with grease and melted cheese and chopped onions and who-knows-what and her being pretty and clean and so on). Up to that point, I mean, she’d been very nice. I heard her yell as she was hit with this geyser of effluvia, but I didn’t see her again that night.

Unbelievably, I wasn’t fired for this. I got a 3-word admonishment from the owner of the restaurant, ongoing peeved (and justified) silence from the waitress, and that was it.

Lesson one: know what’s behind your target.

The next summer I got a job doing data entry and some basic Lotus 1-2-3 “programming” for a different restaurant. This was heaven! I loved computers and I didn’t care about the details of the job; I had the chance to use an IBM PC and get paid. It was — no exaggeration — a dream come true.

I’m not sure if I made this clear yet, but social interaction was not my strong suit at this point in my life. I had to quit my dishwashing (actually, important and germane note: at this point I’d been “promoted” to prep cook, which basically meant I got to chop lettuce and tomatoes before washing dishes) job so I could go work at this other restaurant where I got to type on a computer instead of chopping lettuce and swimming in filth. It was definitely an upgrade. But I had no idea how to go about quitting. I opted for the worst possible solution: I left a note on the bulletin board giving my two-week’s notice.

On my last day, the owner of the restaurant came by as I was chopping lettuce and said, “it’s your last day, huh? Okay. Why’d you quit that way?” I didn’t have a good answer and it was obvious he was upset.

After he left, I continued chopping lettuce and then cut off the tip of my thumb.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever done this or known someone who has, but the take away is that when you cut off the tip of one of your fingers it does two things: it hurts (a lot) and it bleeds (quite a lot). I wrapped my thumb up in a napkin but it didn’t slow the bleeding and it was obvious I was going to need to go the hospital so they could do something about it. The bad news was the only person who could take me was the owner of the restaurant.

I’m glad, in a way, that this happened, because I am pretty sure I got my most awkward ride in a car ever out of the way that summer when I was 15. Awkward: nearly fainting (because you’re a 15-year old computer nerd who doesn’t like the sight of blood), bleeding all over your soon-to-be former boss’s car as he seethes about your clumsiness, your awful way of quitting, the potential for him being sued, and the fact that you’re getting blood all over his car as he misses work at his slowly-going-out-of-business restaurant. It took about 20 minutes to get to the hospital and the only words he said were “Christ, stop bleeding on my dashboard.”

So, lesson two: when you’re cutting lettuce, bend your fingers and thumb so only your knuckles are exposed.

The quality of my jobs has been monotonically increasing ever since.