And still more from “Withholding.” (Farr’s and Silsbee’s Fried Chicken.)

Farr’s–1981–1 month–Part-Time Seasonal Stockboy.

At the beginning of December 1981 my parents decided it was time for me to get another job, I suppose so I could buy Christmas presents. I was hired as a part-time, seasonal stock boy at a variety store called Farr’s, which had previously been called Tilden’s. (I believe a variety store is is a rather smaller version of a department store.)

A few days before I started the job I found red spot on my crotch. I had no idea what they could be, and decided to wait and see what happened with them before I mentioned them to my parents. Within a few days the spots spread to other parts of my body. The school nurse wasn’t sure, but thought it might be chicken pox. My family doctor thought it might be an allergic reaction to either a new brand of bath soap or bad peanuts, and I was given some medication.

My first night on the job I was put to work hanging Christmas decorations. I remember I was on a really tall ladder, hanging stuff from the ceiling, when my back began to itch painfully. I reached up under my shirt and felt boils, and when I punctured them with my fingernails I felt a slight relief. When I went to the restroom I found I had these boils over most of my body.

I went to school the next day and by now had these boils all over my face. People recoiled from me, as if I were filthy or had a nasty case of acne. I was scheduled to meet with the school nurse during First Period and she quickly confirmed that I did indeed have chicken pox, as she had originally suggested. My mother put out the word to the student body that anyone who had not already had chicken pox once in their life and had been in contact with me that day should get a shot or else they were in danger of getting chicken pox. She added that the symptoms were not immediately noticeable and could take up to a week to develop.

I was sick for a little over a week, and returned just in time for the last three days of school before dismissal for the Christmas holidays. I was delighted to learn later that many of the people who had scorned and insulted me wound up spending their Christmas with chicken pox.

Strangely enough, the folks at Farr’s said my job would still be available for me when I got well. This impressed my mother a lot more than it did me.

I don’t remember much about the staff. One of the ladies in the sewing department was named Mary Lee. My immediate supervisor was a young Hispanic guy who was serious, but pleasant to work for.

My supervisor’s chief protege was a slow-witted red-headed white trash kid. You could always tell what section of the store he’d been in from the lingering smell of Vitalis hair oil. Every day this guy’s entire overweight family showed up to take him to work, and would return a few hours later to pick him up. Ma, Pa, and Sis all looked alike—they were shaped like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Pa wore overalls and a squint. Ma and Sis wore mumus, flip-flops, and looks of ignorant indignation.

(Five years later, I was in the Farr’s in Bellville, Texas with my mother, and saw my former supervisor and the red head working there, and Ma and Sis milling around. I guess Pa had gone to the big moonshine still in the sky by then.)

The store carried clothes, fabrics, school supplies, records, toys, small pets, craft supplies, small appliances, and the like. The people who shopped there were inordinately fond of putting things on layaway, and I spent a lot of time lugging boxes of bicycles in and out of the truck trailer behind the store. I also kept the shelves stocked and did sacking at the registers. The job was very monotonous.

One day while I was working as a sacker word got passed around that there was a shop-lifter in the store. Some of the stock boys shadowed the guy. We contacted the cop who was working security at our strip center, and just as soon as he walked out the front door the cop grabbed him. A crowd gathered in front of the store while the cop called for a patrol car, and someone propped open our front door so we could hear what was going on. The exterior of the store was covered with corrugated concrete blocks, and the cop had the shop-lifter’s face pressed against the rough wall. Some pain-in-the-ass female bystander started whining:

–Officer, you’re hurting that boy! You’re cutting his face! You’re hurting him!

Finally the cop got so annoyed he wheeled around, stuck his finger in her face, and barked,

–Lady, mind your business and shut up!

Farr’s was secretly a house of horrors. They sold small pets, such as fish, hamsters, gerbils, and mice. But in the shadows in the back of the lower level of the two-story stock room was a neglected terrarium where “extra” hamsters and gerbils lived and bred. They were not well cared for; their water bottles and food dishes were filthy, and most of the poor creatures had large open sores on their backs. I asked some employees about this disgrace, and received shrugs in response.

I learned at Farr’s that in retail stores and other businesses the powers that be are fanatics about keeping background music on during business hours and even afterwards, but that not many people who work in these places notice the music. I was an exception. I not only noticed the music, but I noticed that the same goddamn music would be allowed to play all day long, in a continuous loop. And repetition drives me up the fucking wall.

Farr’s almost killed Christmas music for me. The tape that got played most often was “Christmas with Conniff,” a Christmas album by the Ray Conniff Singers. The album was filled with annoying gimmicks and tics, but the thing that annoyed me the most was the Conniff version of “White Christmas,” wherein the singers belted out one line as “May your days…be merreeeee…and BRYYYYY-UHHHHH-IIIIGHT!!!….”

Once Christmas had finally come and gone the store was closed for a few days for the annual inventory, a most tedious task. And yes, they played that fucking tape then as well.

My last night was New Year’s Eve. I knew I had to set something right before I left. There really wasn’t anything I could do for the animals, or so it seemed to me then. Fifteen minutes before my shift ended I went in back to the restroom. Then I climbed the stairs to the second level of the stock room, making sure none of the bosses could see me from the open door of the office. I sneaked over to where the store stereo was set up, in the shadows in a corner on the floor. Right next to it was a tiny window that looked out over the sales floor. I dug around among the cassette tapes, found “Christmas with Conniff,” pulled a knife out of my pocket, and sliced the magnetic tape in three places. No one would have to be subjected to that idiotic noise ever again.

*******

Silsbee’s Fried Chicken—1982–3 months–Part-Time Side Order Cook.

I was allowed to finish my senior year of high school in peace, but shortly after graduation in May 1982 my parents announced I had to get another job. God for-fucking-bid I get to spend my last summer at home hanging out with my friends.

I had become a dedicated reader of such men’s fashion magazines as “GQ,” and I wanted to remake myself and buy a flashy new wardrobe for my freshman year of college, so I was told I could use my earnings to buy those clothes.

I landed a gig as a part-time side order cook at Silsbee’s Fried Chicken. Part of a regional chain, this restaurant was located on the busiest street in Conroe and was easily more popular than Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was responsible for preparing all non-chicken food items, such as coleslaw, and assisting in the filling of customer orders.

I was deeply ashamed of this job. One afternoon the kid brother of the prettiest girl in my senior class came in and I was just sure he’d go home and tell his sister he’d seen me in that degrading position and silly polyester uniform.

The staff employed a specialized slang to communicate in front of customers. When, for instance, the manager yelled out, “Bird check up front!,” he was not telling the guys in back that we were low on chicken, but rather that an attractive woman had just walked into the restaurant and we should come out and take a look.

The only thing I enjoyed about the job was it gave me access to an unlimited supply of the fried batter that fell off the chicken when it was placed on a rack to cool. I’m a vegetarian now, but back when I ate chicken, the batter was my favorite part. In fact, I liked the batter better than the meat, and the only time I’ve ever gotten to eat enough of it to suit me was when I had that job. I’d make sure no one was watching, then I’d cram handfuls of it into my mouth.

My father liked that fact that if I worked the night shift I could take home any food that was left unsold at closing time. As a result I provided many late suppers for his poker-playing friends.

It was at Silsbee’s that I learned how dirty restaurants and restaurant food can get. I remember one hot afternoon after the lunch rush I was in the back part of the kitchen, mixing several gallons of coleslaw in a huge tub with my bare hands. The back door was open to allow a food delivery man access into the store room. Humid air blew in with big powerful gusts.

My polyester and plastic cap was making my head sweat, and the sweat was running down from my forehead and sideburns down my cheeks and into the tub. A fly kept buzzing around my nose and I finally swatted at him with a slaw-covered hand. He did a nose dive into the tub. I looked up, smirked at an imaginary camera on the fourth wall, and dropped a handful of slaw onto the fly, burying him in the mixture.

If people knew the sort of things that happen to food in restaurant kitchens, they’d never eat out again. If restaurant managers knew what things vindictive teenagers did to food in their kitchens, maybe they’d treat them better or at least give them more than minimum wage.

My schoolmate Frank S___ worked in the kitchen of the Pizza Shack a mile up the road from Silsbee’s. One night he came to work with his finger wrapped in a dirty bandage. A few hours later his manager was offering effusive apologies and handfuls of coupons to the family that found the bandage baked in with the pepperoni and Canadian bacon of their pizza. Was it an accident? Who’s to say?

My college friend Jon C___ was able to top that story, though. He and his friend Artie were cooks in a Houston restaurant. Sheila, the head waitress, was an angry, demanding, ball-busting bitch. One day she was being particularly difficult, and barked to the guys,

–HEY! I’M GOING ON MY BREAK SOON, AND I WANT A BURGER, FRIES, AND A COKE, AND YOU BETTER MAKE IT SNAPPY! I DON’T HAVE TIME TO WAIT!

Artie went back behind the wall that separated the stove from the rest of the kitchen. He scooped out a half–pound of hamburger meat and squeezed it together in one hand. Then he dropped his pants and his underwear. He wiped the hamburger meat around his asshole, making very sure to get all the shit crumbs, the tiny, day-old fragments of rolled-up toilet paper, and the flecks of undigested peanut, then pulled his pants back up, flattened the specially-seasoned hamburger meat into a patty, placed it on  the griddle,  pressed it down once with a spatula, flipped it, cooked the other side, plated it up on toasty brown buns with the fries Jon had just cooked, some caramelized onions, fresh lettuce, three bright red juicy beefsteak tomatoes, and a big, whiter than white dollop of mayonnaise.

Artie placed this, with a frosty glass of Coke, on a red plastic tray, went around to the serving counter, and caught the eye of Sheila, who was scurrying around the dining room. Sheila went back to the kitchen, took off her apron, and carried her tray to the table in the back corner of the kitchen where employees ate their meals. As Artie and Jon watched from a distance, Sheila took a big bite of the burger, chewed a few times, licked her lips, then bared her teeth, revealing a kinky hair sticking out from between her two incisors.

At Silsbee’s we sold half-lengths of corn on the cob. These were displayed on a sort of shallow metal drum. There was an axle in the middle of the drum, with metal blades, like those of a fan, branching out from it. The blades spun around slowly in a circle. The top of the drum was covered in liquid butter, and the half-lengths of corn rolled around between the blades, soaking up the butter. They were kept warm by a heat lamp. On at least one occasion I happened by the wheel and saw several dead flies floating on their backs in the butter. I decided to leave them where they were.

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