Jif-E Home Repair, Conroe, Texas–1980–3 months–Full-Time House Painter and Handyman, working for my paternal grandfather’s contracting firm.
The summer I was sixteen it was decided I needed to have a job. Indeed, my parents seemed to think it was scandalous that I was well into my teens and still hadn’t held a job. All of my paternal grandfather’s grandsons—except, I think, the mentally retarded one–had spent at least a few summers working for him. So my parents and grandparents felt it was my turn.
Never mind that I didn’t see the point in having a job at that age. I wasn’t really in need of money, and the bullshit chores my father kept assigning me kept me busy.
Still, the job wasn’t a wholly unpleasant prospect. I liked Pappy. I wanted at the time to follow in his footsteps as an architect. And unlike some people in my family he was fun to hang out with.
Most of the work involved scraping and painting the three buildings on Pappy’s lot in town—the one-story main house, a two-story building containing a machine shop, office, and paint storage room downstairs and a garage apartment upstairs (where I’d lived when I first moved to Conroe in 1973), and a small rental house. We did a one-day repair job at a house off-site, and we replaced the tar and pea gravel on the roof of the paint storage room, but the rest of the time I just painted.
That was the summer Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing, the summer George Jones had a hit with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and the first summer I remember that the temperatures in Texas regularly reached and surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was very hot outside, and Pappy was convinced I never sweated. I did sweat—just never at the times he came around.
Pappy’s house was surrounded by an old-fashioned ornamental wire fence that probably dated to the 1920s or before. Because the tree canopy was so dense no sunlight ever got down to the ground. And Pappy never watered his yard. As a result, there was no grass—the “lawn” consisted of of hundreds of thick, dark chunks of hard, dry, cracked sod—like an enormous pan of brownies.
The whole summer was spent with me moving around my scaffold or my ladder, invariably and inevitably knocking the radio on which I listened to country music to the ground.
Pappy had the apartment rented out to a Vietnamese couple, and the rent house to the man’s younger brother and some friends.
The couple had recently had a baby boy. Strange odors issued from their windows. And a large white duck lived in a cage in the kitchen. I assumed the poor creature was being fattened up for some feast.
On one particularly hot day, the wife reached through the bathroom window and handed me an icy green bottle of Coke. She nodded vigorously and spoke in broken English:
–For you…For you.
The Coke was so refreshing—just what I needed. But more than that I was touched by that lady’s kind gesture which bridged a vast cultural and linguistic divide.
The highlight of the work day was lunch. Pappy and I would watch the midday news while Mammy would cook. (I’d have to look out for the tiny roaches that tended to die in her tea glasses.) And while Pappy was enjoying his dessert, which was often cornbread crumbled into a big glass of milk, he’d hold forth on any number of topics: Japanese architecture, family genealogy, his school days, the Qur’an….But I only had an hour off for lunch. If I stayed longer and let him talk on into the afternoon, which he was more than capable of doing, I’d not get paid for the time I missed.
My chief problems with the job were getting hot and dirty, and worse, being seen in dirty clothes in public after work. It made me feel like a peon and the lowest of the low.
Concord Yacht Club–1981–6 months–Part-Time Busboy.
There are a great many parents who believe that forcing their children into taking dead-end, low-wage jobs “Builds Character” and “Teaches Important Life Lessons.” My parents were especially fervent believers in this…. And if there is anything to be learned from spending countless, exhausting, boring hours doing useless tasks for little money and no respect, then I suppose it will be revealed to me when I’m upon my death bed, because I can assure you, those lessons have surely not be shown to me in this life.
And so I suppose it was with the mission of Building Character and Teaching Important Life Lessons that my parents insisted I take a job in the spring of 1981, towards the end of my junior year in high school. After a short search I landed a position as bus boy at the Yacht Club of the Concord resort and subdivision on the man-made Lake Conroe.
I had been to Concord once before, to a celebrity tennis tournament, where I’d met Eva Gabor, Lyle Waggoner, former Texas Governor and First Lady John and Nellie Connally, and consumer watchdog Marvin Zindler. I remember when I came home from the event commenting that Eva Gabor had played tennis without wearing a brassiere, and my indignant mother wondered how I could possibly tell such a thing.
The Yacht Club was at the far end of the resort, probably two miles from the main gate, which in turn was quite a distance from the main road. The club was made of timber and stone veneer—very Seventies in appearance. There was a broad porte-cochere, and a flight of steps that lead up to the second floor lobby.
Inside, there was a staircase to the left and a maitre d’ stand to the right. Beyond that was a huge dining room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the lake and swimming pool, a lofty ceiling, and three skylights. Despite all these features the room was very dark. A piano bar and fireplace was tucked to one side, and the kitchen, service elevator, and other service rooms were on the landward side. On the ground floor was the office of the Food and Beverage Director (a pompous man with an eye for the ladies, a pompous, over-dressed wife, and a spoiled, over-dressed little son), a larger bar lounge, a meeting room (I think), and storage rooms for extra tables and chairs.
I forget the size of the staff, but it was reasonably large. I went through three managers. The first was an older woman, thin, wiry, who took no bullshit. She’d served as a WAC under General Patton in World War II. She was a tough woman to work for, but she was fair and I respected her. Unfortunately she was soon replaced by a useless blonde who everyone said was screwing the Food and Beverage Director.
Blondie didn’t pay much attention to what was going on, and tended to scold her staff without reason. Many was the time I’d be making my way through a busy dining room with a tub of dirty dishes or a tray of food and she’d stop me, turn up her nose, wrinkle her forehead, squint, and stammer,
–J___?…Whu-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh…What are you doing?
And I’d reply,
–Busing a table.
Then she’d look frustrated and wave me on.
She was eventually replaced by a tall, clueless, goofy guy.
The Head Chef was an aloof, arrogant Asian and was referred to only as “Chef.” Occasionally he’d be summoned out into the Dining Room to be complemented by some customers for the crap he’d just prepared. The Assistant Chef was a sweet-natured older black man named Lindsay. The other kitchen workers were either black or Hispanic. Soul music was always pouring out of a radio back there, and I was always struck at how lengthy the songs seemed to be. I was unfamiliar with soul music then, but I have long since become a fan, and I wonder how many songs I love now that I turned my nose up at then.
I remember some of the waiters. One had dirty blonde hair and an even dirtier sense of humor. Once, as we were setting up for a seafood buffet, he grabbed two decorative plastic crabs from atop a table, held them up to his crotch, and yelled to another waiter,
–Hey Doc! Ya gotta help me! This is the worst case I’ve ever had!
Another waiter was a gay graduate student, who wanted me to help him research his thesis on the Spanish-American War (or more likely, just plant the flag atop my San Juan Hill). At night he used to look out at the swimming pool and speak dreamily of what it was like to have sex while floating in water. All and all, I was creeped out by this guy and kept my distance.
Then there was John, the most successful of the waiters and the most nauseatingly obsequious. Indeed, if a really important group of dinners were presented to them, he’d raise his eyebrows as if waiting to be told the great wisdom of the ages, hold his fingertips in a steepling gesture, and would then bow repeatedly, to indicate that he understood everything and was honored to serve. He disgusted me.
There was a fourth waiter. I remember nothing about his appearance, but he did make the prediction I’d one day write a book called “The Easy Way Out.”
All the heavy work, such as breaking down and setting up chairs and tables, was done by the housemen, a group of strong guys in their teens and twenties. These were the boys who were too rude and unpolished to make it in the dining room. They almost always worked behind the scenes.
And below all of them, even below the dishwashers who didn’t even speak English, were the busboys—all male and all adolescent.
Our clientele consisted of property owners, as well as short-term guests at the resort—often rich Mexicans who’d fly up from Mexico City on a Thursday, go shopping at the Galleria in Houston during the day, have late dinners at the Yacht Club, and would then fly out again on Monday morning. I heard stories about celebrities coming by—an R. J. Reynolds tobacco heir landing his helicopter on the lawn or Farrah Fawcett’s sister passing another one of her bad checks—but they were never around when I was there.
Our busiest days were Sundays and holidays. I started work on Mother’s Day and was run ragged. I begged my parents to let me quit there and then, but they refused. On Sundays we had a lunch buffet, and I would either be assigned to keep the food stocked on the buffet line and the dessert table and light or replace the cans of Sterno under the chafing dishes, or I’d work tables, bringing out ice water and non-alcoholic drinks (as a minor I wasn’t allowed to serve booze), help the waiter bring out plates of food, and then clean up all the mess after the people had left, strip the table, clean it, and reset it. Bus boys did much of the waiters’s dirty work, but only got a fraction of their wages and a very small percentage of their tips.
The one customer we could count on every Sunday was Jefferson Davis Snow, a former judge who had once owned most of the land upon which the resort was built, and who still owned a home or condo on the property. Everyone was expected to make a big fuss over him, but he was always nice to me. He was a caricature of a Southern politician, and spoke in a Senator Claghorn/Foghorn Leghorn drawl:
–Son, I say, son, could you kindly hand me another servin’ of that there breaded shrimp?…You got anymore of them honeydew melons, there boy?
I learned very quickly that people from old money tended to be polite to the staff, whereas the nouveau riche were loud, vulgar, and rude, and felt that abusing minimum wage service personnel made them look important. I found that the quickest way to judge a person’s character was to see how he treated service workers and animals. Once I learn those things there’s nothing more I need to know.
I saw that simple courtesies that I assumed were common to all people everywhere were actually sometimes in short supply. Once a large group of rich teenagers finished eating and left me to clean up their mess. They had dumped their plates and bowls and glasses onto the table cloth, rolled the cloth up, and pressed down on it here and there, to make a big, gooey, sloppy mess, and lots of stains.
Another time a group of rich vacationing Mexicans came in fifteen minutes before the Dining Room was to close, ordered a huge meal, then stayed about two more hours, ordering bottle after bottle of wine. None of the staff was allowed to leave, so we had do what we always did in slack periods: fold napkins and polish silverware.
The best laugh I ever got at Concord was when I walked up to a table, asked the party if I could be of assistance, and one man said,
–Yes, I’d like to order lunch for me, my wife, and…[nodding her way] my mistress.
Everybody laughed, but I noticed the wife seemed to be faking it.
During every shift, before things got too busy we were all given a small, indifferently-prepared meal—usually a small hamburger with fries. But if you were around the aromas of food and worked hard for hours on end you’d develop a real appetite, so I learned some tricks for swiping extra food.
I figured out how to give the impression I was adjusting a chafing dish or rearranging its content, but in the process I would pass a napkin over a section of food and grab a serving or two, hide it in my pocket or apron, turn my back to the crowd, lean into the decorative screen next to the wall, and then munch away. Or I’d put out ten shrimp into a chafing dish and keep back two, or put out eleven slices of chocolate pie and keep back one.
Best of all was when we’d run low on chocolate eclairs on the dessert table: I’d go into the second walk-in refrigerator (the one that did not have the window looking into the kitchen), fill up a tray with eclairs, then take two of them into the walk-in freezer that adjoined that, shut myself inside, and shaking violently, cram the eclairs into my mouth.
Once in a great while some of the Yacht Club staff would be driven over to another facility on the property—the Conference Center—to work a banquet. The biggest banquet I ever worked was for the alumni of a national sorority, so the attendees were all rich women. After all the attendees left, late in the evening, the waiters and bus boys set about cleaning up. The housemen were largely standing aside, waiting for their turn to break down the furniture, and put away the lectern, microphone, and audio-visual equipment.
A couple of the housemen asked me to stand guard and make sure no one went into the kitchen. It turns out they’d gotten access to the locked room where all the beer, wine, and liquor were stored. They either got a key, broke in, or someone left the room unlocked. At any rate, I managed to sneak a glance and saw about a half-dozen of the housemen loading case after case of alcohol into the back of a pickup truck. I wasn’t given any bottle as payment—I couldn’t have gotten them past my parents anyway—and I wasn’t given any money for taking that huge risk. But I enjoyed helping the housemen stick it to our employers.
At Concord I developed many of the fears and aversions that were to stay with me the rest of my working life. I discovered how painful it is to have to stand in one spot for hours on end. I discovered I was not suited to working in a fast-paced, hectic setting. And I quickly learned to dread the posting of the work schedule. I’d approach it with fear, wondering what huge chunks of my life were going to be violently taken away from me and never returned, and what tiny portions of relief, what few days of rest, I’d be granted.
Most people, I’ve found, even those with bad jobs, are able to compartmentalize their lives. They leave their bad jobs at the job site and are able to forget all about them and enjoy their time off. But I’m not like that. When I have a bad job, it stains every corner of my life. I might have some time off and might even find a way to enjoy myself a bit, but when I’m in a bad job happiness is not possible. It is an all-consuming condition for which there is no temporary cure or respite.
At Concord I developed my lifelong hatred of serving others. I found being a servant degrading. It might be okay for someone with no mind or education, but not for me.
My kind and well-meaning grandmother had spoiled me and taught me, either directly or indirectly, that I was superior to everybody else. My father, conversely, tried to …[force] me into believing that everyone else was my superior. So I grew up with a very split sense of self, which included a huge ego as well as poor self-esteem.
Almost every job I’ve ever had has made me feel degraded, has made me feel as if I was slime running through the gutters. And few of the jobs I’ve had have utilized my actual skills—they have instead required me to do tasks for which I had no ability or interests, and consequently my work on these tasks has been shoddy, which has in turn inspired abuse from my supervisors.
The work at Concord disgusted me on a physical, as well as mental level. I’ve always, more or less, been a germophobe. My condition then was not as severe as it is now, but even then I couldn’t stand having to clean up the contaminated articles that had been left behind when these creatures had finished eating—the glasses, the china, the silverware smeared with opaque spit from their wet, dirty mouths or made sticky and gummy by their greasy hands, the napkins streaked with dried orange and brown crusty matter in the corner, soggy, damp, red, and grey in the middle.
It was at Concord that I learned what would become a standard coping technique for my bad jobs: when things got too crazy, hectic, or stressful, I’d hide out in the restroom.
Time dragged on. I watched rich people cavorting happily in and alongside the swimming pool or boating on the lake. Once I emerged from the kitchen to see the view from the Dining Room windows almost entirely taken over by a large Chinese junk with red, slatted sails. Everyone was looking on, gasping, not entirely convinced the ship was real, but rather had emerged as a strange, colorful dream born of indigestion.
Everyone was having a better time than I was….
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