Monday, out east, was Bill’s first day as a cook. Robert picked him up downtown at nine where the van picked up the dishwashers and drove him out personally. On the way, they discussed Bill’s needing a car. Robert said Mr. Bowman would loan him the money and he could pay him back with regular payroll deductions. He told Bill to think it over but there wasn’t much to think about. Sue’s father wouldn’t even loan them money for the rent. If his father gave him the loan that would be better, he thought, but he already owed his father and brother money. Mr. Bowman it was.
Only a week had gone by, but he’d worked all seven days. He and Sue had put away next month’s rent, they’d bought food and they’d opened a bank account and made a twenty-two dollar deposit. Things were definitely looking up.
Robert explained that Bill would no longer be paid in cash. He’d be going on the books immediately, making two dollars and ten cents an hour. He would be working about seventy hours a week, if he could stand it. He would be taught to be a broiler cook and that would be his primary function since Suburban East needed a broiler cook. He would be the night man, responsible for the dinners and the running of the kitchen. At lunch he would work the fryers, doing the French fries, fried shrimp and fried fish.
Robert told Bill he was going to learn to cut meat, do the prep cooking and then learn every job they had including the management jobs. Drenovis, Robert told Bill, would not be an issue. Robert said he’d already cleared all this with Mr. Bowman and he was having a meeting with Bowman and Drenovis that afternoon to make sure Drenovis got with the program.
Actually, once Robert explained it to Bill, it was quite simple. Robert was first cook for all of Suburban and all the kitchen help was loyal to him. Drenovis bucking Robert’s position would cause a mutiny Suburban could not afford. Some twenty years later, after Bill pinched a waitress on her privates with his tongs and she complained to the manager, the manager told her to leave his cooks alone. “Here’s the equation,” he said. “One cook equals ten waitresses.” So all the cooks were worth much more than one manager. An assistant manager could easily step up, but they simply couldn’t replace all the cooks quickly enough to keep orders flowing.
Alfreda, Henry Lee’s wife, and Mary, the East’s prep cook, both sang in the church choir Robert led. Alvin, Henry Lee and now Bill, owed their jobs to Robert, as did Mary and Alfreda. Drenovis didn’t have a chance. He couldn’t win the war with Bill and Bill wasn’t even a trained cook yet.
Bill stepped on the line in kitchen whites for the first time that day after meeting Mary, Bea, the pantry lady, and Henry Lee, the meat cutter. He helped Henry Lee carry up the trays of steaks and burgers to set in the reach-in box opposite the Garland on the line. He knew the cuts of meat, thanks to Robert. He also helped Mary by carrying things from the prep area to the line. Au jus, vegetables and soup du jour he took over one by one. Mary asked Bill to check the baked potatoes in the convection oven, and feeling that they were done, he pulled them out and packed them into a steam table insert. He covered the insert with aluminum foil and brought it out too.
By eleven just about everything was in place. Henry Lee had gone back downstairs to the meat room to drink some bourbon. Mary and Bea were sitting in the hallway resting. Bill had gone out the screen door and was leaning against the side of the restaurant smoking a cigarette. Robert had gone over to the west side to make sure they were all set up. He’d told Bill he’d be back to check in on him. Alvin, whom they all knew, was coming over to work the middle, cutting the round for the roast beef platters and plating burgers and bleus.
All seemed right with the world.
Suburban didn’t serve lunch on Saturdays or Sundays. The line cooks could sleep in since they didn’t start until eleven. The prep cooks could sleep late too, but they had to be in at nine.
Bill did not see Eleanor over the weekend. They had had that moment out back, shared a beer, a cigarette and a kiss and then she was gone. He would find out that Drenovis did it. He would find out that Drenovis was mean-spirited and very often vulgar. But he would also find out that Robert was top dog and could not only put Drenovis in his place, but he could kowtow him too.
Seeing that Eleanor was sweet on Bill, Drenovis sent her back east. This punished both of them, Bill because he wasn’t getting any more kisses, Eleanor because she would make less money since East did less business than West.
When she’d first started, Drenovis had tried to get in Eleanor’s pants. She had declined his advances and suffered the penalty for it. She got the worst shifts and the worst stations for over a month until a new girl was hired who became his target. He gave up on torturing Eleanor and she was released from his wrath. Tommy, the East’s assistant manager, quickly gave her good tables and good shifts to help her make up the difference. Tommy was older, kinder, softer. Bill would discover that Drenovis forced almost all the waitresses to have sex with him and those that didn’t he got rid of one way or another. Tommy, married and a grandfather, had never molested any of them. Tommy was nice, too nice, the kiss of death for a restaurant manager.
The Friday and Saturday night dinner rushes taught Bill what real restaurant work was about. The dish machine ran incessantly, rack after rack of dishes that Bill emptied. He filled up one plate warmer then the next then the next. Then he did it all over again. He stacked cups and saucers on each bus station. Then he did it all over again. Robert did not have time to peek out the double doors and Drenovis did not have time to bother with him. Drenovis called orders, served as the expediter. At times he sounded like an auctioneer, one of those guys who called out the bids at an auction and he was equally melodious.
“Ordering, a top medium rare, two Bostons medium and a King medium-well. Ordering, two tops rare, a king and a queen medium-well, two pickerels and a fried shrimp. Ordering two sirloin strips medium rare, a top medium, two Boston’s and a queen bloody. Give me a single top rare with a baked and corn. Give me a Boston well done and two prime ribs medium all with fries and green beans. Ordering two more tops rare, a king rare, two sirloin strips medium and a chop steak well done. Ordering a surf n turf medium rare with a king medium well. Gotta go on a chop steak medium with two burgers rare, a fried shrimp and fried chicken. Ordering three tops. Give me two ribs rare with baked and green beans. Give me a side of au jus and a side of slaw.”
It went on and on. Drenovis sang out, Robert and the other cooks bore down. Bill discovered Robert remembered every steak that was on his broiler, what other items it went with and how they were cooked. It was like a dance and as much as they disliked each other, Robert and Drenovis danced, each knowing that they needed each other to function despite any feelings.
When the nights were over, Bill discovered a new level of tired. His hands ached from the scalding dishes, his back ached from the repeated lifting and bending. At home, with cash, he showered and lay with Sue. Then he slept the sleep of the dead. On Sunday, the game was different. The pace was slow and steady, a family dinner hour beginning around two and ending around seven. Then the week was mostly over. They cleaned and lounged, coasting until ten when the doors were locked and they set up for Monday all over again.
The war was fun for Robert because as he saw it, he couldn’t lose. First, the more Drenovis ran Bill through the kitchen and dining room, the more Robert, who was in charge of the dishwashers, sent Bill on errands that kept him away from the machine. He sent him for meat trays when they were needed. This had the side effect of teaching Bill the different cuts of meat. He had Bill get line refills from the prep station, steam table pans of vegetables and gravy, anything and everything that needed refills. This taught Bill the line setup, and since the line in the East store and line in the West store were identical in everything except their physicalness–one line was the open hearth with one Garland and a charcoal grill, the other was in the kitchen with two Garlands separated by a double charcoal grill–Bill understood the setup and working of the line before he ever set foot on it as a cook.
Drenovis redoubled his efforts. If Robert sent Bill one place, Drenovis sent him somewhere else. Bill, for his part, did what Robert told him to do and then what Drenovis told him to do, always taking care of Robert first. This irked Drenovis endlessly, and finally he blew, screaming at Bill and cursing Robert. Robert simply poked his head through the double doors and said, “Huh Glory.” Then he went back to turning steaks on the broiler.
Late in the evening of day five, Robert sent Bill on a break. Bill stepped outside the back door of the kitchen and was smoking a cigarette when the door opened and Eleanor came out.
“Robert sent me with this,” she said, handing Bill a beer.”
Bill twisted the cap on the bottle and offered Eleanor some. She took the bottle from Bill but made sure her hand touched his. She took a drink then handed the bottle back. Then she reached for Bill’s cigarette, took a drag and held it.
“You’re going to the east side next week,” she said to Bill.
“Yeah,” Bill said.
“Me too,” Eleanor said. “I’m just here doing vacation relief. They sent me over because I trained here so I know the layout and the people.” She took another drag on Bill’s cigarette then gave it back.
“So I’ll see you over there,” Bill said.
“You bet you will. You’ll like it there. It’s different in a few ways. You won’t be rid of Drenovis though. He comes over there too. He’s like the overall manager.”
“Lucky me,” Bill said.
“Well you have Robert on your side. He trumps Drenovis. So you don’t have to worry.”
“How’s that work?”
“I don’t know for sure. I just know Robert is top dog.”
Bill took another puff on his Marlboro and handed it to Eleanor. She puffed it too then tossed it off in the distance.
“I need to go back in,” she said. She kissed Bill, slipped him her tongue, then turned back inside. “See you later,” she said on her way.
Bill waited until she was gone before he went back in. He went straight to the dish machine and assumed his place.
They worked straight through now until the kitchen stopped serving, until the last of the dishes had been brought in and washed, until the dishwasher area was cleaned and shiny and the machine shut down, scrubbed clean and readied for the morning. That was another of the many unwritten rules: no one was finished working until everything everywhere was set up and ready to go for the next day.
Almost all the cooks at Suburban worked split shifts. On Bill’s second day of work, Robert informed him that he would be the pot washer and would start on split shifts the following week, when he would be sent to Suburban East where he would be trained to be a cook. That meant he would be at work at six in the morning, work until two in the afternoon, have a three-hour break, then work until closing. During the week they stopped serving dinner at eleven. On weekends they stopped at one in the morning.
Meanwhile, Robert informed Bill that he would stay close to him and work twelve hour days, from eleven in the morning straight through to eleven or twelve at night. Bill didn’t care. They were paying him a buck-sixty cash per hour and the more he could work the better off he was. He knew he would need a car, and quickly too, since no buses went out to the east side location.
All day two and day three of work, Bill was up to his elbows in pots. The water was so hot it scalded his hands. The large steel wool rings used for scrubbing scraped his skin. But Bill was happy. They played loud rock music on the radio in the kitchen and both Robert and the waitress Bill had stood up for fed him beers at regular intervals. That waitress, Eleanor, became super-friendly, even more so when Robert told her he was going to be the new broiler cook out east. Eleanor knew that even before Bill did.
On day four Bill was moved up to the dishwasher. This machine was a three-man operation, one man to load, one man to rinse and one man to unload and stack. Bill, least senior man on the machine, was the unloader. The dishes coming out from the wash were scalding hot, so Bill’s hands were continually being burned, not enough to be a second or third degree burn, but enough to cause continual pain. Bill was reminded of the workhouse, working at the practice range making bullets, more precisely, sawing through the lead and separating the copper wires inside. Bill remembered the blisters. He remembered the pain.
Drenovis wouldn’t let go. He got on Bill’s case every chance he could. He inspected the pots when Bill was in that station and if he found the slightest bit of dirt left, he made Bill wash the pot over again. Bill did as he was told. He was getting paid. That’s all that mattered to him.
“You know what they call the dishwasher department?” Drenovis asked Bill.
Bill said no.
“The asshole of the industry,” Drenovis said. “And you sure are an asshole.” Drenovis laughed loud and long. Bill wanted to smack him, but then he remembered he had more education than Drenovis and he laughed internally. Bill would come to understand that if the dishwashers couldn’t keep up, the cooks ran out of plates. When that happened, the flow of food to the customers stopped, the cooks fell behind and never caught up. He would come to realize that if he took care of the dishwashers, they would bust their butts for him, for the cooks. It was a simple, symbiotic relationship. Bill would also come to understand, knowing how crappy and hard the potwasher job is, never to dirty a pot unless it was completely necessary.
Of course Robert heard about Drenovis’ antics. Eleanor ratted him out for what she saw. When Bill was on the dish machine, Drenovis ran Bill from one end of the kitchen to the other making him carry stacks of hot plates, making him carry racks of mugs and stock them at the bus stations in the dining room before they cooled down. But Robert wasn’t one to let go either and he wasn’t one to be bested. He got on Drenovis’ case and wouldn’t ease off.
Bill sat at the kitchen help’s table in the middle of the kitchen. He felt like a high school kid in detention. He was sure he was getting fired. He was glad he spoke up because it was the right thing to do, but he was totally demoralized since he needed the job.
About twenty minutes later, Drenovis, the manager, came in with the waitress. The waitress kissed Bill right on his lips and thanked him for doing what she couldn’t. “That was so sweet,” she said. Bill smiled shyly.
Drenovis started by dressing Bill down. He yelled, he cursed, he explained that it cost him dinner, dinner next time for the customer and his party and the cleaning bill for the suit. He was in the process of firing Bill when Robert came in from the open hearth.
Robert spoke quietly, softly. “Mind your p’s and q’s,” he told Drenovis. “He’s my boy. You’ll pay him for the day and tomorrow he’ll work in the kitchen.”
“He’s getting fired,” Drenovis said.
“No,” Robert said. “He’s not. Now take your big butt out of the kitchen and don’t bring it back in.”
Drenovis turned red in the face. He did an about face and walked out of the kitchen. Bill did not understand why, but he would learn in due time.
“They all told me what happened,” Robert said to Bill. “No matter what, the customer is always right. That’s lesson number one. But you did right standing up for the waitress.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Nothing. Drenovis is a pussy. He won’t do nothing. He’ll bitch and moan and he’ll go to the owner. Don’t you worry your mind about it. I got your back.”
Robert went out to the hearth and back to work. Bill sat. Bill sat some more. Bill sat even more. While he sat Alfreda came in from the line and sat with him a moment. Alfreda was the pantry lady and backup prep cook. She was also married to Henry Lee, the butcher for both Suburban Steakhouses, Suburban West and Suburban East. She asked why he was Robert’s boy. Bill said to ask him. She accepted that answer. Bill noted she seemed to be looking at him as if he were a lollipop. He knew it was a crazy thought, but he couldn’t shake it. She smiled sweetly at him before going back out to the open hearth.
At about ten o’clock, Robert brought him a steak with a baked potato. Bill sat eating when the waitress came in with a beer for him. She leaned over him, offering him a full view of her bosom.
“Anything you want hon, let me know. Anything,” she said with a wide smile and a little shimmy.
Drenovis came back in the kitchen while Bill was still eating. He saw him with the steak and was about to throw a fit, but Robert came out from the line.
“You give him the steak?” Drenovis asked.
“Double cut,” Robert said with a big grin. “What’s it to you?”
“Goddamn it,” Drenovis said.
“I told you, leave the boy alone. You got a problem you see Mr. Bowman.”
Dismissing Drenovis, Robert asked Bill if he had enough to eat. Bill shook his head yes.
At closing, after the line and kitchen were cleaned and shut down, Drenovis came into the kitchen. He paid all the dishwashers in cash. He was about to leave the kitchen when Robert stopped him. “Pay the boy,” he said.
Bill boarded the Suburban van with ten hours’ pay, a whole sixteen dollars. He sat by a window and looked at the night while the van sped toward downtown. The van driver said he’d pick them up at eleven in the morning, same place. He reminded them that if they wanted the work they’d be there on time.