Several more chapters, full or in part, from “Withholding.” (Luigi’s Italian Restaurant, Moo-Cow’s Burgers-n-Ice Cream, El Condor Pasa Mexican Restaurant, Regal Burger.)

Luigi’s Italian Restaurant–1986–3 months–Part-Time Waiter.

I was in school throughout 1985—the spring semester, fall semester, and both summer sessions. My professors flunked me because of poor class attendance (as opposed to the quality of my work or my test scores), and so my parents decided to pull me out of school for the whole of 1986. I moved back to Conroe to stay with my grandfather, and shortly thereafter my parents told me to get a job.

I found a position as waiter on the lunch shift at a little place called Luigi’s Italian Restaurant. The staff consisted of the owner/cook, a Turk named Kemal, and the manager, an Italian-American from New York, who I think was named Mike. There was nobody named “Luigi.”

Since I was and am a lousy driver my grandfather insisted on driving me to work in the morning and picking me up in the afternoon. And though traffic in that part of Conroe wasn’t very heavy, it was still too much for my grandfather.

The restaurant was in an awkward location at a curve on one of Conroe’s major streets. The diner across the street, on the other side of the curve, flourished. We had hardly any business at all.

When I arrived for work in late morning I’d prepare the pre-made lunch salads, arrange them on a tray, and stick them in the walk-in. Then I’d run across the street to the diner and buy the day’s newspapers. When I got back I’d eat a slice of pizza, then Mike, Kemal, and I would gather around the staff’s table in the back corner of the dining room, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and read the papers for an hour. And yes, I was paid for all this.

(For a time Mike tried to quit smoking using a smokeless cigarette, but he gave it up, saying it smelled like a vagina.)

Lunch was rarely a busy time. If I ever did get swamped Mike would pitch in and take a couple tables.

The only time it got really hectic there was the day the Montgomery County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Department brought in about two dozen retarded adults for lunch on their way down to Houston to see the rodeo. Many of the patients were dressed in western wear, including red cowboy hats with white piping on the brim—the sort I wore when I was three. I found it very difficult to wait on these patients because they all wanted my help at the same time. On the upside, I got an excellent tip for my trouble.

Once in a great while I was pressed into service as a pizza delivery driver. Kemal gave me the keys to his little beat-up car, and I’d get in, stick one of his cassettes of crazy, cacophonous Turkish music into the tape deck, roll the windows all the way down, light up a ciggie, and tear ass around town like a demented cab driver.

I didn’t know much about the people who worked the dinner shift. One day a guy named Richard Hertz came in to interview for a waiter position. I’d never met him before, but after I read his application I realized he was the same Richard Hertz my friend Max had told me about. Richard went to high school with Max and used to sit at the table where Max held court every day at lunch. You can easily imagine that Max often referred to this guy as “Dick Hertz” and made jokes about that at this guy’s expense.

On one occasion Richard sat down at the lunch table looking depressed. Max asked him what was wrong.

–Oh, it’s my girlfriend. Things just aren’t working out between us. She’s just not very…responsive.

–Really? That’s not  been my experience. In fact, she’s like a wildcat in bed. Would you like to see the scratch marks on my back?

And of course everybody laughed. Except Dick.

Well, I told Mike and Kemal this story and when Richard showed up for work that night they teased him about this incident mercilessly. And he never came back for a second night.

Though I always hated restaurant work, Luigi’s was probably the best restaurant job I ever had.  We were rarely busy, the bosses and customers weren’t assholes, and I had no financial responsibilities  at the time of the job, so I was always free to use my wages and tips to buy books and records when Max and I would run into Houston on the weekends.

But for some reason, my grandfather was seriously bothered by having to drive me back and forth and by the fact I went out on the weekends, instead of staying at home and staring at the walls. He complained to my parents, week after week, until finally they announced that I was going to have to move in with them at their place in Bellville. I was distraught when they told me this…. Of course, I didn’t see why I couldn’t just stay in Conroe.

I turned in my resignation in late March….[Ending censored.]

*******

Moo-Cow’s Burgers-n-Ice Cream, Sealy, Texas–1986–2 1/2 months–Part-Time Cook.

Within a few days of my arrival in Belville I was sent out to find a job, and quickly got one as a cook at the Moo-Cow’s Burgers-n-Ice Cream in the nearby town of Sealy. I was to drive myself to and from work. There were three possible routes between our house and the restaurant—my father told me which one I was to take (the least scenic one).

I worked as a cook. Sometimes I made the burgers, sometimes the side orders. Sometimes I washed dishes. Thanks to my rather formal way of constructing sentences and my snooty accent, it was quickly clear to the rest of the staff that I wasn’t from around there.

One afternoon, a co-worker saw my pair of Ray-Bans folded up on top of the first aid box. She approached them as if they were made of solid gold.

–These yours?

–Yes.

–Where’d you get ’em?

–Houston.

–Houston?

–Yes, I used to go shopping there every weekend.

–Aw, man, we never get out to Houston.

One Wednesday night most of the females on the staff—who had nothing more than high school educations at very best—were complaining.

–Man, why does Charlie always schedule us to work Wednesdays. I don’t never get to watch “Dynasty”!

Trying to be helpful, I made a suggestion:

–Why don’t you tape it?

–Huh?

–Tape “Dynasty” so you can watch it later.

–Tape it with what?

–On your V…C…R’s.

–[Snorting] Man, we don’t got no VCRs here! What? You think we’re rich?!

The clerks would take the customers’s orders at the registers, either in the dining room or at the drive-through window, then type in a code on a keyboard. Then the code would print out on a tape in the kitchen and the cook could see what foods he needed to prepare.

Now the majority of customers ordered the same five items off the menu. The first day I worked as head cook, flipping burgers, I got way behind, because a clerk had typed in some codes I didn’t recognize. When I didn’t have the order ready within a few minutes the clerk came back into the kitchen to see what the problem was. The abnormally fast pace of her voice, coupled with her thick German accent, made her very difficult to understand. She interpreted the codes for me—they were all items that had never been ordered while I’d been working there. The last order was…

–A such-and-such with a Fun Bunch Lunch.

I found this ridiculous:

–A Fun Bunch Lunch? You mean we actually sell a food item that has its own rhyme scheme?

The clerk looked at me as if I’d dropped in from outer space, then went behind the counter and prepared the order herself.

I was so desperate to get away from Bellville…and back to Huntsville and my friends  that I tried something truly desperate and crazy—I went up to Huntsville and applied for a job as a prison guard with the Texas Department of Corrections. How I thought I could’ve possibly handled such a dangerous and stressful job is beyond me. What the fuck could I have been thinking? Those convicts would’ve eaten my lunch. Fortunately, I failed the fingerprint test…twice. My hands and fingers were so slashed up from washing dishes at Moo-Cow’s that the TDC couldn’t get a good print. They told me to come back after my hands had healed.

Not long after my run-in with “Little Napoleon,” I worked the lunch shift during a heavy rainstorm. It was still drizzling when I drove home. I took the scenic route, the one I favored, the one my father told me not to take, the one that went past the cemetery where he’d eventually be buried. I was getting annoyed with the radio. None of the stations were playing anything I liked. I entered into an S-curve just as I was fucking around with the radio dial. My attention was entirely on that radio.

I skidded off the rain-slick road three feet past a culvert and plowed through a barbed wire fence. I got out, evaluated the situation, and quickly hailed a ride. I had the driver drop me off at the home of Gladys S____, an old farm lady who was friends with my parents. I called my parents and told them about the accident. They were stranded at their house, though, because the creek that ran through their property had gotten too high to cross. It would be several hours before they could get to me.

Gladys sent one of her grandsons out on his four-wheeler to check out the accident site, and I entertained her with an exaggerated account of how my father would react one he got face-to-face with the wreck and with me.

Eventually someone drove me back out to the accident site. There was a State Trooper on the scene, a wrecker with a driver, and the farmer whose fence I’d destroyed. I discussed things with all parties. The farmer didn’t want to press charges—he just wanted to fix his fence before his cows got out. The wrecker driver pulled the truck out of the mud. He said that had I driven off the road at the culvert, I’d probably have flipped the truck and been killed.

The trooper told me our truck was in the wrecker driver’s custody. Then I made arrangements to pay the wrecker driver and was given permission to leave. I drove back to Gladys’s and waited until my parents showed up.  Surprisingly, all I got for my trouble was a sharp lecture for being careless and for taking a forbidden road.

After putting up with two-and-a-half months of my moping and depression my parents finally decided they had their fill of me. My father said he’d give me enough money to move back to Huntsville and get established in an apartment.

*******

El Condor Pasa Mexican Restaurant–1986–3 or 4 months–Part-Time Waiter.

My mother drove me to Huntsville one day to look for an apartment and a job. We found a tidy little one-bedroom apartment southwest of campus and signed the papers. Then we looked at the job notices in the paper, and hit about three places. The last one was a Mexican restaurant called El Condor Pasa. It was northeast of the Walls Prison. While I was filling out the application the manager eyed my mother with undisguised interest. I got the job with no trouble at all.

In the car I pointed out that the job was only part-time and wouldn’t pay all my bills. My mom shrugged off my concerns:

–Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.

The owner/manager of the restaurant was a slim, humorless Hispanic man. If you’ve ever seen the film “No Country for Old Men” you’ll no doubt remember the villain, Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. That’s what this guy looked like, right down to the laughable wedge cut/page boy/Prince Valiant From Hell/Neil Diamond “Jazz Singer” hairdo.

I was deeply ashamed by the uniform I had to wear for the job, though it was not as bad as the shit brown polyester smock and poofy Jimmy J. J. “Kid Dyn-O-Mite” Walker cap I had to wear at Moo-Cow’s. I had a long, hot walk every day from my apartment, across campus and the southeast part of downtown, past the Walls Prison, to the restaurant, and I was damned if I was going to be seen in public in a tacky polyester get-up, so I kept it in a gym bag and changed in the restaurant men’s room.

The Walls Prison is the main processing facility for the Texas Department of Corrections. It’s the first place you go when being processed into the system and the last place you go when you’re processed out. One day when I was walked to work I saw a large number of reporters and cameramen out front. It turns out they were there to cover the release from prison of singer David Crosby. Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t able to stick around and see Crosby walk out.

The TDC released a certain number of convicts every afternoon, about fifteen minutes before I got off work. One day I got to go home a few minutes early and noticed the newly-free ex-cons stumbling down the street. They were stopped by a white-haired man who pointed them all to the First Baptist Church nearby. Shortly thereafter, I came by, swinging my gym bag on my shoulder.

The white-haired man hailed me and introduced himself as a representative of the First Baptist Church. Looking me up and down, he saw my bag:

–Son, I’d like to invite you to our Men’s Canteen. It’s just down at the end of that block, and turn right.  You can get sandwiches, cookies, coffee, and punch, and good Christian fellowship.

–Thank you.

–No, I’m serious. I know it’s hard for young men just getting out and back into society. We at First Baptist want you to know there are people who love you and care about your welfare.

–Thanks, but I’ve got some place I need to go.

–We’d really like you to stop by.

–But sir, I’m not an ex-con.

–Of course.

–No, really. I’m a waiter over at El Condor Pasa. I just got off work. I’m not a convict. I didn’t just walk out of prison.

He looked at my bag and rumpled clothes and smiled reassuringly.

–Well, we’d love you to drop by, even for a few minutes.

–Well, sir, have it your way. But let’s assume I’m not a ex-con. Would I still be welcome at your canteen?

–Do you love Jesus in your heart?

–Well, sure.

–Then you’re more than welcome.

–Well, all right then.

And off I went. I made like I was heading to the Canteen, then turned aside and walked on home.

One of my co-workers was a haggard-looking middle-aged woman with runny mascara—trailer trash, it would be fair to say. She smelled of Marlboros and sweaty feet. She often spoke of her psychic and paranormal powers. And I got the uncomfortable feeling she was attracted to me.

One day before we opened up for lunch she was holding forth about past lives. I commented,

–Why is it that people who believe in reincarnation always think they were Cleopatra or Joan of Arc? Why doesn’t someone say they worked the drive-in window at the Jerusalem McDonald’s at the time of Christ?

She insisted she could show me a technique whereby I could discern my past lives.

–You have to go into a very dark room, maybe a walk-in closet. It has to be completely quiet. Empty your mind of all thought and stare directly into a mirror. Star directly into your eyes. And if you stare long enough you’ll start to see your past selves take shape on your face.

I didn’t really buy this, but I didn’t want to be just flat-out rude. We had two dining rooms in the restaurant. On slow days we kept the lights off in one of them until traffic dictated that we open the room up.

The old waitress led me into the darkened, unused dining room, next to the bar. She positioned me just inches from her weather-beaten face. I was terrified that was going to try and kiss me.

–Now….Look deeply into my eyes….Look deeply….Deeply….Concentrate only on my eyes….Concentrate….Look deeply….Think of nothing….Just concentrate on looking deeply….Focus on my eyes….  Focus…. Focus…. Deeply…. Now you should see the pattern emerging….You should see it….It will form like an outline around my face, but then it will start to fill in….It will get clearer….Gradually….Getting clearer…. Clearer…. Clearer………… Now…. Tell me what you see…. What was my previous incarnation?

–Umm…a pirate?

Her face twisted in annoyance. She’d not been a pirate in any of her previous lives.

–Well, J___, no. I was never a pirate. But I think you need to go home and practice this, and with practice you’ll actually start to see your past selves.

I hated this fucking job. I was sore from having to be on my feet all the time and rush around like a chicken with his head cut off, trying to fill orders….

Directly behind the restaurant was a rather run-down rescue mission. Twice I had to wait on the strange preacher who ran the place. He was a slim, middle-aged man, with thinning grey hair and a truly disturbing, psychotic stare in his deep-set black eyes. There was nothing of the “Man of God” about him—no love, compassion, or even scholarship and erudition–just brute ignorance circumscribed by superstition and ancient prejudice.

His wife was a slattern—there’s no other word for it. She had greasy hair and a greasy face and kept her nose and lips uplifted in the manner of a rodent. My co-workers said that before she married the preacher she used to sell her ass to truck drivers out of a VW bus she kept parked alongside Interstate-45.

I wondered if he had been inspired by reading of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who was ordered by God to marry a whore as an object lesson to show the people of Israel that they had been unfaithful to Him. Maybe he’d just married her to “save” her from the life she’d been leading. Or maybe he just had a thing for “lot lizards.”

Their daughter was about two or three years old and appeared to have some sort of brain damage. When I’d bring out the food and warn that the plates were hot she wouldn’t move her hands or respond to her parents telling her to do so. Her mother would have to actually grab the child’s hands and put them in her lap.

The preacher was genuinely creepy. One afternoon we were getting him and his family seated and he said,

–Can I get a glass of ice water? It’s hot out there.

I continued to arrange things, set up the baby chair, and hand out the menus, when he stared directly at me, and gritting his teeth, said again, this time in a more mechanical manner, but with a promise of  the violence he was barely able to restrain,

–Can I…. Get a glass….Of ice….Water? IT’S HOT OUT THERE.

I just about shat myself.

My co-workers and I hated to wait on these assholes. The first time I had them the preacher left me the princely tip of eleven cents. The second time I only got seven cents. I wonder what sort of world he lived in inside his head where he thought that was adequate compensation.

My performance was hit-and-miss. On our lunch menus the specials were called “Nooners,” as in “Nooner #1, “Nooner #2,” and so on. Now where I come from, a “nooner” has nothing to do with food. But generally the only customers who knew the sexual connotation of this word were men under a certain age. If I had a table of young businessmen, I’d often smirk and say,

–So, would any of you gentlemen be interested in a…nooner?

And they’d all guffaw and one would invariably say,

–Only if she’s workin’!

On one day, though, we were incredibly busy. Three businessmen had been waiting quite awhile for their lunches. I finally brought them out on a huge tray held up at my shoulder level. I reached for one of those hot, heavy plates and grabbed the wrong one, because it upset the balance on the tray and sent all three plates crashing down, burning and bruising my leg before landing on the dirty carpet like a big pile of vomit.

The men looked at me as if they were about to cry. Another waiter rushed over with a carpet sweeper, which only served to smear the food, and the manager rushed over to apologize and assure the men their lunch, when it was finally ready, would be free. I hobbled off to the men’s room to wash the food off my pants.

One day the manager called me in to his office.

–You know, J___, half of my customers say you’re the best waiter they’ve ever had. And half of my customers say you’re the worst they’ve ever had.

–Okay, so I’m perfectly average. What’s the problem?

That was probably not the answer he wanted to hear….

I was so unhappy at this restaurant I’d started to look for work elsewhere. I interviewed for a job at a sandwich shop that was close to my apartment. It seemed a quiet place, not at all hectic, and the owner seemed like a nice guy. I told him I could start just as soon as gave a two-week notice at my current job and got through that.

The day after I gave my two week notice I woke up with scratchy, red eyes, covered in yellow, gooey matter. I called my m other, who fancies herself an  expert on medical matters, and she said it sounded like I had pink eye. I called the restaurant and my manager said not to come in until I got over it, because he didn’t want to risk infecting his customers or employees.

The pink eye only got worse. It didn’t go away. The two weeks passed and I no longer was an employee of El Condor Pasa. But my new manager didn’t want me coming in either, not until I got well. Two weeks stretched to three. I called my new manager and he said he was sorry, but he’d given my job to somebody else. Finally, after I’d had pink eye for over three weeks with no improvement, my mother said she’d pay for me to go to a doctor. (God knows I couldn’t afford one.)

The doctor looked and talked, to my great amusement, exactly like Christopher Lloyd’s “Reverend Jim Ignatowski” character from the TV show “Taxi.” It didn’t take him long at all to diagnose my problem:

–You have conjunctivitis, not pink eye. Pink eye is a form of conjunctivitis, but not all forms of conjunctivitis are pink eye, if that makes any sense. What you have looks bad, but it’s not infectious. You could’ve been working all this time.

With the loss of my job, or actually, jobs, I now had no income. My utilities were cut off. My friend Greg was now a Hall Director at one of the dorms on campus, with a large three-room apartment. Since he had plenty of room he let me move in with him for a few months. He kept me housed and fed and I kept the apartment cleaned up. He joked that I was his “houseboy.” My apartment became an expensive closet and mail drop.

During my time at Greg’s I accidentally scraped the bumper of his car and dented a University truck while running an errand. Greg felt obliged to report this to the University, especially since he was an employee, but amazingly, I was never sent a repair bill.

When my lease expired I moved all my stuff back down to Conroe. A few weeks later Greg underwent an early form of bariatric surgery, and asked if, as a favor to him, I would move back into his apartment for a few weeks and look after him—running errands, getting the mail and groceries, and so forth–while he recovered. Naturally I said I would….

*******

Regal Burger–1988–2 days–Part-Time Line-Cook.

I went back to school in the spring of 1987, and made so-so grades. My parents made me spend the summer in Conroe with my grandfather, though I went back to school for the terms of fall 1987, spring 1988, and the first summer session of 1988. A few days before the end of the first summer session my folks announced that they’d not pay for the second summer session, thereby forcing me to return to Conroe, unless I got a job.

There was an ad in the paper looking for someone to handle publicity for the two Regal Burger restaurants in Huntsville. Despite the fact I was still an undergraduate, I had enough chuztpah to believe my experience as a writer and political campaigner would make up for my lack of experience in public relations. I interviewed for and got the job. I got the necessary checks for school.

The manager with whom I’d interviewed told me to show up at a certain day and time at the Regal Burger a few blocks from my dorm. But when I showed up, the manager said,

–There’s been a change of plan. That job’s not going to start for awhile, so I think I’ll start you off working the line.

And I was given a brown polyester smock and shown how to assemble hamburgers.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but there is an emptiness that descends on me when I realize I’m stuck in a bad job. I’m sick to my stomach. All hope within me is blotted out. There’s nothing but darkness and emptiness. I’m too sad even to cry. The birds all stop singing and all the flowers throughout the whole world wither and die.

I somehow got through that shift. And I stumbled through the shift the next day. The day after that I didn’t show up. I disconnected my phone and threw my uniform into the garbage….

*******

During the fall of 1988 I lived in Kirkley Dorm on the sly, sleeping on the floor of the room of some friends. The Hall Director suspected I was living in the building illegally, but could never prove it or find where I was living, and the Resident Assistants that worked under him, and who hated him almost as much as I did, refused to rat me out.

The last semester I lived at SHSU and attended classes was Spring 1989. I wound up skipping or dropping all but one course—Creative Writing II. I was one of the few people in the class who could write well, though the short story I did for the course was, by my current standards, embarrassing. I was one of the “bad boys,” who sat in the back of the class, savaging all the sentiment crap everyone else wrote. My comments might have been even more nasty had I not always brought a 20-ounce mug of rum and Coke with me to class every day.

My parents took me out of school. I spent the first half of the summer at Max’s house in Conroe, sleeping 18 to 21 hours at a stretch, getting up only to sneak food out of the kitchen, shower, cut my hair in Max’s bathroom sink, and watch Keith Floyd’s cookery shows. Max’s family worried about me, especially since they never saw me….

Max’s dad jokingly referred to me as “Bad Ronald”–a reference to the title character of a 1974 TV movie about an eccentric boy who lives in the crawlspace of a house. Max referred to me as,

–…an ex-dictator, living in exile, remembering his glory years, his dreams and plans all crushed.

Eventually, though, Max got sick of having me around, even though he rarely saw me. He insisted I leave.

I spent the second half of the summer with my friend Greg, who was working as Hall Director in Belvin-Buchanan Dorm. This was a girls’s dorm, but it was closed to students during the summer. It was open occasionally for girls visiting the campus for cheer leading camp, band camp, and freshmen orientation. I served as Greg’s houseboy again, keeping his suite tidied up and getting the mail. I made one trip to Conroe, to attend Bill Tyler’s dad’s funeral.

At the end of the summer, I helped Greg move into new quarters at White Hall Dorm, then moved back down to Conroe, to my grandfather’s place. He had just recently returned there from Bellville….

[But my grandfather soon had health problems and I was forced to go elsewhere.]

I was stuck out on our property, five miles outside of town, with no car, no job, and no money. My parents decided that since I’d long talked about moving to Austin, that now was the time for me to do so. They gave me enough money to get a bus ticket and to live on for a few weeks, and then I packed two suitcases and headed west. I slept on friends’s couches until I could make enough money to get my own place….

I was determined to one day finish college. I thought that was my only key to success, and in fact, I thought it would be my guarantee of success. I had come to believe that as soon as I got that magic Bachelor’s degree all doors would open for me. I refused to lay a groundwork, as it were, in a career field that didn’t require a degree. I would, in the meantime, reluctantly agree to do grunt jobs, while I waited for my parents to come around and give me the money I needed to finish college, since I could never earn the tuition myself on the low wages I was making.

My sense of myself was tied to the idea of having a college education and always had been. I was not some uncouth, unlettered, knuckle-dragging lout. I was intelligent and well-read—a genius even….I would not build a career in some crude blue collar field. I would finish my degree and prove to the world I was an educated gentleman with a first-class brain, or I would die trying….

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