On Mother’s Day that year, we did 1500 covers. It was a store record. Henry Lee and I had cut meat all day the day before, from early morning when we’d gotten in straight up to the lunch service and from right after lunch up to the dinner service. Henry Lee worked late into the night by himself since I was upstairs doing the dinners.
Even the Saturday night before Mother’s Day was busy. We ran a full broiler from about seven on up to just passed ten. Mary had made sure to prep enough food not only for the night but also to give herself a good start on the holiday. That she was a mother and it was her day didn’t matter any. Anyone who has ever worked restaurants knows weekends and holidays belong to the bosses and over the years I’ve known cooks, even good cooks, to get fired for purposefully missing a holiday or for not showing up on a Saturday night.
That Saturday night, Grandma spent all her time breading chicken. I’ve never written much about Grandma. She worked the night shift, after Mary was done for the day, although they saw each other every day when Grandma came in and Mary was going home. Mary would show her what she had left her, what Grandma had to do and anything special or unusual that needed taking care of. I’ve always said that I was the only white kitchen worker but Grandma was white too, and so was Jimmy, a high school senior who worked the line with me for the dinners.
Grandma reminded me of my own grandmother, Fannie. Fannie was fat, very fat, and she sidled more than walked. But she was always happy, always laughing a loud, boisterous laugh from the gut that you could hear a block away. Like my own grandmother, Grandma was short and wide and always laughing. I never knew anyone who had more pride in fried chicken than Grandma. That’s mostly what she did every night, fry chicken. The first night that I worked there she made me taste hers, and damn if it wasn’t really good. If smiles could light the world, Fannie’s and Grandma’s alone would’ve done it.
Mother’s Day morning was hopping. We started at seven instead of six since we were doing only one service all day long. Mary, Bee and I stripped to our underwear outside the linen closet and Bee threw us uniforms. We were long passed being shy since we’d done this a couple of hundred times already and this day there was no time for fooling around. On a regular day Bee might cop a feel and chuckle, or she might take my hand in hers and give me a feel of her. Mary always had a comment or two for that kind of stuff, but she never said much when I felt her up even inside her drawers. A family that plays together, stays together.
Alfrieda, Henry Lee’s wife, got there with the truck by seven-thirty. She brought two dishwashers with her to load the meat, and this was just the first of three trips she would make. Henry Lee, who changed by himself in the bathroom because of his artificial leg, cut meat all day long, working as he always did for both stores.
By nine everyone was in. Bee and Esserine did the salads and desserts, Mary and Grandma did the prep work. Mr. Jim, Jimmy and I were on the line although Robert came by later in the day when our managers reported to the owner that we were running full and there was no let-up in sight. We had limited the menu by not serving lunch items. Our Mother’s Day menu offered all kinds of steaks and prime rib as well as fried fish (deep-fried on the line) and fried chicken.
Mary replenished the line all day long. Grandma fried chicken all day long. Mr. Jim cut prime rib all day long, and he helped me plate things too, more than a few times. Jimmy fried shrimp and pickerel and made French fries, and he helped Mary and Grandma run food pans to the line when he could. A couple of times we had to wait for clean plates because the dishwashers couldn’t stack them fast enough in the plate warmers.
But when all was said and done, we made it through. Personally, I went through three kitchen shirts and four aprons. I’d call for a new shirt when it was so sweat-soaked I couldn’t stand it anymore and I’d call for a new apron when the blood had so saturated the one I was wearing you could ice skate on it.
Robert got there about four, I think, but no one could actually tell time since we were nonstop hour after hour. Bebe, the barmaid, sent sodas in regularly; Henry Lee was drinking downstairs, but I wouldn’t even touch a beer until the rush was over.
Lillian and Tommy alternated calling orders. We only used an expediter on Fridays and Saturdays when it got really busy. Lillian, like Mr. Jim, was retired and worked part-time. She had a horrible habit of only wanting to pick up orders. Any good broiler cook can tell you that they need to control the flow and there are times when you simply have nothing to pick up so that the expediter has to order then. Lillian and I would fight sometimes about ordering and picking up. Really, we were fighting for control. At crazy-busy time, there’s no time for fighting, so when I didn’t want to hear her picking up orders that I knew were due but weren’t ready, I’d ask her a “how-about” this or that or even turn my back to her, pause a moment, and then ask her what she had to order. Tommy was easy to coordinate with because he kept a pretty good sense of the whole picture.
While Robert stood in for me, I went downstairs and put a completely fresh uniform on. The only thing I couldn’t change was my underwear which was so wet it was as if I’d been swimming in it. I didn’t stay downstairs long, just long enough to change, take a long sip of Henry Lee’s beer and take a whiz. Then it was back to work.
Robert didn’t stay on the line for long. He’d given me a break, his main goal, and then maybe forty-five minutes after I was back on the line we had our first lull in the influx of orders. Then they started to come in more slowly so Lillian could be handed them personally and call them as she got them instead of the waitresses clocking them in and spearing them on a spindle. By about six we were pretty much done.
In the end, we did fifteen-hundred dinners, twelve hundred of them steaks. I had four, and I emphasize FOUR, burned steaks, steaks that were literally near charcoal. I had lined them on the front ledge of the charcoal grill, but Robert set them up on the top rim when he knew the owner was in the house. The owner came through the kitchen and checked everything out. When he saw the burned steaks he walked over to them and picked one up, examined it front and back. He gave me a look but Robert quickly reported that that was all that was lost of twelve hundred and he knew it was twelve hundred because Henry Lee had the inventory. The look changed to a smile, to a “great job” comment which he extended to everyone.
Robert had come over in the truck. After the owner left, he did too, but he took some meat back with him so they’d have a decent start on the west side the next day. Mr. Jim left and then Grandma, then Bee and Mary. Mary gave me a big wet kiss on the lips before she left. The night crew finished out as if it were any ordinary workday. Finally Jimmy and I scrubbed the line, changed the fryer grease and went home leaving the kitchen empty and dark.
I remember the 50s. I remember the 60s much more clearly. In school we ducked under desks in case of nuclear attack and lined up against the wall outside the classroom where no glass could splash on us. This was the Shelter Drill. We were told then there were lines everywhere there and there was nothing in the grocery stores, that you had to wait on line for food. This was life in the Soviet Union. Worse, you couldn’t be what you wanted to be; you had to be what they told you to be. You couldn’t practice your religion if you were Jewish or if you were anything but their religion, you couldn’t go to college unless they chose you to go, and you couldn’t speak out in any way against the government. Any infraction and you were sent to Siberia for life, where you froze to death, or you simply disappeared in the middle of the night never to be heard from again.
My aunt and uncle had their own business, a flower shop. The store did very well. They had a nice, private house and they drove Cadillacs. My cousin, their son, was so cool! He drove a Thunderbird convertible. My next-door neighbors had their own business too, Ace Lacquer. They drove Cadillacs as well and changed cars at least every three years but mostly sooner.
My family was working-class. My father was a WWII veteran, a POW in Nazi Germany for more than three years. He dropped out of high school during the depression so he could help support his family. I never heard him complain about these parts of his life and on the plus side, his boss before the war gave him back his job and with hard work and perseverance, despite my mother dying and leaving him with a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, we did okay. We had a semi-attached house and he drove Chevrolets and finally Buicks. We didn’t have the luxuries of the business owners, but we were pretty well-off, considering everything. We went where we wanted, practiced our religion unfettered, said what was on our minds and never had to look over our shoulders to see if anyone from the government was coming after us.
The freedom I enjoyed: I thought that was what my father had fought for and suffered for.
Shoot forward to 2015, 70 years after World War II. Many of the kids in school couldn’t figure that out (If World War II ended in 1945 and now it’s 2015, how many years have passed?) without a calculator. These same kids don’t know anything about Hitler, totalitarianism, fighting for our survival. They don’t have any context for the Civil Rights movement, for segregation, racism, or even real oppression. In the midst of the Kool-Aid they’ve been served up by the likes of the Jane Fondas and Sean Penns and Al Sharptons, they celebrate dictators like Mao and the Castros and mock true statesman like Benjamin Netanyahu.
Okay! 2015. Been to the post office? Seen the lines? David Axelrod recently said that he was proud of the Obama administration for having gone six years without a major scandal. Benghazi, the IRS, Fast and Furious, Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, need I list more? How can he make such a statement with a straight face?
But this is not really meant to be political. Honest. 2015. 70% of the American people want the Keystone pipeline. 86% don’t want the immigration action the president took when looked at in the context of the American people’s polling on whether or not immigration should increase, decrease or stay the same as it is/was before his action. And worse! You can’t say “Merry Christmas,” have a nativity scene, wear pro-American T-shirts to school on certain days, etc. etc. etc.
When did America become like what we were taught the totalitarians did? When have the voices of Americans ever been so suppressed and their rights so limited? When have we as a nation become so “Kool-Aided” that we allow our leaders to completely ignore what we want and do what we know is not good for us–like spend us into oblivion, into debt so huge we can never recover from it while telling us they are reducing the deficit? (And by the way, unbridled debt has been the downfall of most republics.)
The Supreme Court is hearing a case about Obama Care. It was argued yesterday and one of the justices said you can’t take the certain words in question as they are but you have to look at them in the context of everything else to make it all harmonious. So, in harmonious context, the Castros aren’t bad because they didn’t kill as many as Mao and Mao wasn’t so bad compared to Hitler and given the overpopulation of the earth genocide is really okay because we are more harmonious when the Earth’s population is controlled. In harmonious context, eating babies is really quite okay, and all of this is quite okay, even if Iran eventually nukes some countries, Israel first, of course, because it is all in the context of keeping the ebb and flow of the earth’s population in harmony. Sing We are the World.
Who knows anymore what means what? Does anything mean anything? Aren’t specific words specifically clear?
Not too long ago I moved from one state to another. When I got my new drivers license, I declined to register my political affiliation because I was afraid I might get audited by the IRS. For the first time in my life I’m afraid of what feels like totalitarian and dictatorial forces in America, the country my father fought for and suffered three years in a Nazi POW camp for. He fought, as did so many, to keep us free. Just look at us now!
But… as one of the ones up for the Democratic nomination in 2016 says, you know that one who epitomizes the essence of what we were taught when they taught us that they have rules for the people and then special rules for the leaders, “what difference–at this point what difference does it make?” [if we become Soviet America here and now]. In fact, given the way Putin is acting, it would be really harmonious.
We were on our way to Virginia Beach during the Easter break. The senior advisor had organized and set in motion a fabulous senior trip this year and we’d taken a short stopover in Washington DC which had left us with a few hours to roam around. I had decided I wanted to see the Capitol building given that we were limited to walking distance from where the bus was parked, and some of the seniors, mostly thinking they could mess around, had decided to go with me and my wife who was also one of the chaperones for this trip. Mess around meant they wanted to get high and they thought they could sneak off long enough to do so. They didn’t get the chance actually, not then, but if you’ve ever dealt with high school seniors, you know that nothing deters them from what they want to do and by the time we were back on the bus they’d hooked up with their friends to accomplish their real mission.
Good thing they didn’t get the chance on our little side excursion, too. It was quite by happenstance that we actually met up with Senator Moynihan as we approached the Capitol building. I don’t think that the good Senator from New York would have liked to have encountered a group of students all bleary-eyed and smelling from marijuana. Perhaps, if some in my group had wandered off to get high we might not have met the senator at all, but then you never know.
It was a truly beautiful day in DC. We had all had lunch at Union Station where the bus had parked, and after a bathroom break and a careful counting so that the senior adviser and the chaperons knew who was where, my wife and I and eight students set off for the Capital. Now seniors on senior break when put together in a group on holiday for four days, no matter how academically rigorous they are individually, like to let loose. Two students with me were on my debate team, very smart and extremely sharp-witted, savvy arguers, but they had already shed their professional, braniac demeanors and deferred to their boyfriends’ wild and rowdy ways. Three of the boys were wearing their baseball caps (at least they were Yankee caps) brims off to the side and at various angles, and they all had shirts out, name-brand shoes on and jeans down to…you know where. One pair of students were lovers and no matter where we went, they were always lingering behind, hand in hand or arm in arm, twinkle-eyed without any enhancement inducements, the perfect commercial for the “I Only Have Eyes for You” song. Ah, to be young!
So there we were. We had just crossed the street and started on our way up to the Capitol steps only to see that there was a long line of tourists waiting to get in and that we had no chance of ever making it inside the building given our time restraints. However, outside the tourist barricades a group of men were descending the stairs from inside. One of those men was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. No one in my group recognized him, but I did, and in what ended up being perhaps the most memorable and wonderful moment of my whole teaching career, I led my group up toward the senator. Almost instantaneously, Secret Service agents who had been at his Suburban at the curb and those surrounding him on the stairs descended upon us, but the senator quite coolly waved them off because he must have heard me calling out “Mr. Senator, Mr. Senator.”
Regardless of politics or anything else, the Senator did something so absolutely fantastic it warmed my heart and warms my heart still as I think of it. He let us approach and I was able to introduce the group of students with me as his up-and-coming constituents, a group of high school seniors from the Bronx. He was kind enough to shake hands with each and every one of my students, but when he got to the first boy who was wearing his hat, before he shook hands he said “Take off your hat when you speak to me, son.” The boy was so taken aback that he whipped that hat off his head without even thinking and so did the other boys. They looked like their wings had been clipped, meek and actually respectful. Good thing their shirts were out and the Senator couldn’t see how low they were wearing their pants.
He went on his way and we went on ours, but it was nice to see that my kids were as awed as I was. I don’t know what they say about this event, even if they remember it at all, but I do know that it was the single most fabulous moment of my career as a teacher, and Senator Moynihan, may he rest in peace, did one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen by simply teaching my kids to respect their elders and their leaders.