I spent more than twenty years in kitchens and it was like a whole other life. Many of the people I write about in the kitchen stories are real since they exist in real life on some level no matter how they translate into the stories. From the sleaziest manager, and most of the managers were sleazy back then, to the most unassuming waitresses, and most of the waitresses were not unassuming, the people were a trip.
Robert took me in because I did him a solid. It just goes to show that being nice gets you nice. I had an appointment to see my probation officer and he was sweeping out the city hall annex where the probation department was located. He was in workhouse blues; I recognized the uniform because I had just gotten out of the workhouse. I was dead broke, down and out and really needing a job, and he looked so sad, the most droopy puppy dog eyes you could ever imagine. So I walked up to him and offered him a cigarette. I told him I had no money but I had cigarettes and offered him one, and that was the truth because all I had was bus fare home and not a penny extra. He said, “No thank you baby, I don’t smoke.” That was that.
A couple of weeks later, the probation officer called and told me he had a job for me. I went to his office and who should be there, Robert, of course. Turns out he was a numbers runner and had been busted for it, why he was in the workhouse, but he was also the broiler cook at one of the steakhouses in Columbus. He recognized me, and I him, and with a big smile on his face he put his arm around me and said “Come on baby, let’s go.”
That was the night I started as a busboy, and when I spilled the soup on the customer (see “She Wants a Wife”) I would have been fired if not for Robert who kept me tucked under his wing like a mother hen. Before that happened, when we walked in the back door to the kitchen, he put his arm around me again and made a public announcement that I was his boy and everyone was to take care of me. They did.
They taught me to do a grill and a broiler and work a line and cut meat. They taught me how to cook, from Grandma’s fried chicken to all Mary’s soups and specials, sauerbraten to pepper steak. They taught me to get high in the deep freeze and to mess with the kitchen girls and waitresses in the store room and a whole lot more mostly about family and taking care of one another. Mary once told me that you never forget your first kitchen family and she was dead on.
All of what they taught me was important for different reasons and on different levels. But the idea of family and belonging was probably one of the most important things they taught. That first kitchen family was a life lesson in acceptance and tolerance and understanding, in discovering that we all need to love and be loved and accepted.
So as we turn the new year into 2015, I never did forget that first kitchen family and I loved them all. Whether in my life I’ve been good at it or not, they taught me about the unconditional love and acceptance that transcend the racial/ethnic/religious strife we find so blatantly apparent in our current world situation. They taught me that from nice comes nice, that doing good is its own reward but sometimes it brings rewards too.
Do good. Be good. Judge not lest ye be judged. One cigarette that wasn’t even taken, that’s all it took. Sometimes so little means so much.
Kiss your kids and tell them you love them.
Happy new year.