Except for five years writing for Penn, I've been working in kitchens for almost twenty years. From 1983 to 1989, I did mostly dish dog and low-end work. I became a cook sometime around 1990.
I think that what this story will boil down to is "how I became a cook, long version".
In 1989, I was just out of high school, up to my eyeballs in marijuana, and beginning to dabble in ye olde cocaine (for some reason, I wasn't too hot on booze yet). I had tried the stuff during senior year once or twice, but until my senior prom it had no effect on me. After senior prom, I'd snort the sugar off a powdered donut.
I was dishwashing that summer at an Italian restaurant called Scattones, named for the owner, Robert Scattone. The place was relatively high-end cuisine. My buddy Brundle got me the job. Brundle's real name was John Fitzpatrick. Brundle was short for Brundlefly, the half fly/half man that scientist Seth Brundle turns into in the remake of "The Fly", and who Fitzy resembled. Our mutual friend Johnny Eberhardt worked there too: his nickname was Eggbone, but I have no idea what that referred to. Brundle's brothers Kenny and Terry worked there too.
There was all sorts of psychodrama going on between the three brothers and Bob. For starters Terry, the eldest, was carrying on what seemed to be a very public affair with Robert. He drove around in a Saab that Robert had bought him, and the two had traveled to Italy together twice. During summer, they often spent the day on Robert's yacht. On top of this was the suspicion that Terry wasn't so much gay as he was willing to blow the boss for valuable prizes and cash. Johnny would fly into a rage if the subject was brought up; Kenny ruthlessly mocked his older brother to his face, calling him "FitzTrixie". At the same time, no one was supposed to know that Robert was gay. It was all very (make quotes here with fingers) "hush hush".
Kenny once told me, "When I started here Bobby-boy took me to Italy." In his Rhode Island accent it came out "I'lly". "I had a good time, but he tried that shit on me and got put off quick." Kenny despised Robert even more than he despised his brother. He hated that he owed his job to this lecherous man, who had indeed paid for him to go to Johnson and Wales, which he expressed by giving our boss private nicknames: Bobby-boy, Scabutthead, Fuckwit.
Bob himself was an alcoholic, perched nightly at the end of the bar drinking wine or scotch until his eyes rolled in his head, opaque as marbles. He lived upstairs from the restaurant, and at least once a week I'd watch Trixie haul Bobby-boy up the stairs as I hosed off the heavy rubber kitchen mats in the alley.
One night Robert got so drunk he passed out standing at the urinal, with his dick in his hand. Kenny thought that was hysterical, and after Robert had been led up to bed, he scrawled the words "Scabby's Rest" in permanent marker on the wall above the toilet. When Robert saw it the next morning, he went ballistic, yelling and throwing plates around the kitchen. It was one of the only times I saw the man get visibly angry: he was a small but athletic man, deeply tanned, and almost completely bald. With his neatly groomed beard and mustache, he looked like someone's kindly old grandfather.
The restaurant was also knee-deep in cocaine: everyone was on it, from the waitstaff to the cooks, to the managers. One of the managers had a particularly vivid reaction to the stuff. His name was Jay, a tall man of about 30 with a fleshy dewlap, slicked back black hair, and a beakish nose. He wore cardigan vests to work, pulled over a buttowndown shirt and a tie: he looked a lot like the 80s TV character Mr. Belvedere, but without the mustache. When he wasn't on coke, he was very funny guy, all hail-fellow-and-well-met; when he was on the stuff, he turned into a character we called the Jaybird.
Jay would start hitting the coke around 9:00 PM or so; by about 10:30, he'd be good and zooted on the stuff and the Jaybird would emerge. His posture would get very straight, so straight that he actually puffed out his chest. His arms would hang stiffly by his sides, and he would sort of lean forward as he walked. He also developed a prominent stutter, which made his dewlap and jowels jiggle. He would strut into the kitchen to inspect my cleaning before I went home. "Ah, you you you you you you have to uh uh uh uh uh clean the clean the clean uh clean the stove the clean stove the uh clean stove the clean yeah uh..." Between the stutter, the walk, and his beaky nose, the man looked and sounded exactly like some sort of cartoon bird. The Jaybird!
One night I was cleaning up and saw an enormous carpenter ant crawl out from under one of the stoves. The thing's head was the size of a caper. I trapped it under a ramiken, and ran out to the bar "Jay." I whispered, "You gotta come back in the kitchen with me, we got ants."
"Uh ants uh ants, uh uh I don't think think uh it's not a prob a uh problemn uh," he began before I grabbed his arm.
"No man, you gotta come back, it's a big one." He followed me to the kitchen, babbling and squawking the whole way, until i lifed up the ramiken and there was an ant the size of a quarter.
"HOLY SHIT!" he screamed and nearly jumped on the stove. It was too much for his coke addled brain, and he began to pace back and forth muttering to himself. "Ok ah we'll ah well ahh extermin ah extriminator ah yeah, ok and..." He bolted out the waitstaff's exit to the dining room and immediately returned their entrance to the kitchen. He did this loop at least six times in a row, like a dog does before lying down, before calming down and heading off to do more coke.
Scattone's had a nice bar in the front room, deep mahogany tones accentuated by the low lighting, lots of brass. Like all restaurants, the place attracted a host of other hospitality industry employees, most of whom were on coke like everyone else. One of the regulars was a manager at a local hotel. He had a round face, pasty, pocked skin, and always wore an untucked tuxedo as he woun down with beer and cocaine after work. Sometimes he's sneak back into the kitchen as I was washing up and take a fake ballpoint pen from his pocket and pour me out a couple of blasts. I never knew his name. Good times.
Another regular was Jack, a musclebound Italian guy from the city. He drove a ridiculously expensive BMW, wore workout suits and medallions, and everyone knew he was in the mafia. He and Brundle had taken a liking to each other, and Jack was getting him into all sorts of places the kid wasn't even old enough to get into. At this point Johnny was still three years too young to be drinking booze legally, which didn't stop any of us from getting the liquor store next door to sell us cases of Budweiser which we'd throw into a heavy duty plastic bag filled with ice and drink down on the rocks at Belmont Beach after work.
One afternoon, Johnny came in looking like death warmed over. "What the hell happened to you," Eggbone asked. "You look like fuckin death Fitzy." Ya look like fackin' debt Fitzy.
"I went out with Jack last night," Fitzy said. "And we were in the car and he handed me a packet of coke. He told me to take it easy cus it was pink."
"Wuzzat mean," I asked.
"Pink, it means there's no cut. Don't you know fucking anything? So I don't give a fuck you know, I wanna get a good blast, and so I chopped out a HUGE fucking line. And the next thing I know, Jack's pulled over slapping me in the fucking face because my eyes rolled back in my head and I nearly had a seizure. 'Jeezis Fuck I don't wanna have to leave you somewhere off the highway in Lincoln' is what he said to me when I was coming to." Eggbone and I were in awe that there was coke that strong. Even the best stuff we got had some amount of cut in it, whether it was baking soda or baby laxative.
I was putting as much coke up my nose as I could when I worked at Scattones. Like pretty much everyone else in the restaurant, I got mine from the head chef, Larry Beebe. Larry was a cocky motherfucker: he had a way of playing with people's minds and held vendettas against his employees. His way of fucking with me was giving me impossible hours and witholding the cocaine I was buying from him. I didn't like him, but he was a great source for blow.
"Skwire, look on the top shelf before you go to work," he would say as i walked in the door. "I got a little something on the plate for you up there." And so it went, day in and day out, right under drunk old Bobby's nose. I don't think the guy knew what the fuck was going on half the time, wobbling on his stool.
If you've never lived in a tourist town, you may not grasp the odd rhythm at which we live. The tourists are both the source of our income and the target of our disdain. Robert's relationship with Terry and with Kenny were a microcosm of the average townie's feelings about the tourists who swamped our city every summer, clogging our streets and spending money in our ticky tacky shops all summer, then abandoning us to near poverty every winter. We were ashamed of the people who really sucked tourist dick, even as we depended on their largesse to carry us through the off season.
And so it was that we worked hard and partied hard all summer long, then barely worked and suffered through the long winter. In summer, the drugs of choice were pot, booze, acid and cocaine. In winter, the flow of marijuana always seemed to go dry around December, and it was too cold to go outside and chase moonbeams: thus we drank and did coke. Winter sucks in Newport if you work in the tourist industry: business dries up and with it your hours and wages. Between the bills, the coke, the cigarettes, and the pot, I barely had enough money to live on. I'd been busted 3 months earlier for refusing a Breathalyzer, and had no way of getting around except my bike. Larry doled out hours as if they were favors, picking and choosing who would get the privilege of earning $5.50 an hour to wash dishes.
I was living with my sister's ex-boyfriend Rob and his best friend Eric in a one bedroom apartment on Van Hannes Avenue, which is another story entirely. I played in a local metal band at the time called Wicked Bitch. The band was named for our singer Dim's ex-girlfriend who had gone crazy after they got in an accident driving home drunk from a party. Dim had steered the car across the median and into oncoming traffic on a state highway. He still had broken glass embedded in his face five years after the fact; when you rubbed his forehead, you could feel the jagged crystals.
Dim's real name was Tim; he got the nickname because he wasn't too bright. Ba-da-bing!
Like everything else in my town, coke was popular in the rock scene, and Dim liked coke more than just about anybody I ever met. He liked it so much he had gotten into crack and freebase.
On one notable occasion Dim along with Eggbone's brother Frank "Frenchy" Eberhardt had gone into the projects at Tonomy Hill on a late night run for foils, $20 rocks of crack so named because they came wrapped in aluminum foil. They were approached by a young hoodlum, and an $80 transaction was made. When they got home an unwrapped the foils, they found that three were empty. Cursing their luck, the felt the last one before opening it. "Something's in there," Dim muttered, and they opened it up to find they had paid $80 for a few bits of Super Sugar Golden Crisp cereal. Dim was a real genius.
One night I was hanging out with Dim, his brother Tommy-Tinks, Dan "Candle" Mandel (who had an odd way of talking, as if he were a robot), Roy Zim, Johnny Saint, and Ted Crooks. We had just played an afternoon gig and were hanging out in my kitchen after unloading my stuff. My kitchen was very ugly: an overly bright greasy yellow with a bare 75 watt bulb that dangled from the ceiling over the dinette. The conversation turned to a run later that evening up to Crystal City to pick up some coke.
"Or-maybe-some-base," said Candle, who, like most of the guys there, preferred smoking base to doing lines.
"I don't like smoking that stuff," I said, so just get me some coke." Crooksie was fronting the money for this little adventure. "I promise I can pay you Friday."
After soem degree of bickering, the whole gang hopped in their car to head for Crystal City around 9:00. I stayed behind, waiting nervously. there were no cell phones in the 1980s, and I just had to wait. Two hours later they got back. We all chopped out some lines on my formica dinette and zooted up. I was feeling good until everyone started arguing about how to do the rest of the coke.
"I say we do lines!" said Roy.
"No, bumps," said Dim.
"Yaeh, bumps of base," said Johnny Saint.
"No, just gimme a few lines," I said.
"Bumps!" "No lines!" "No, how about SOME lines and some base!" "No let's just do lines!" "No base!" Finally, it was decided that freebasing was the thing. Now all that remained was to derive freebase from powdered cocaine.
"Drop-it-in-a-glass-of-ammonia" said Randall.
"No that doesn't work," said Crooks.
"Yes it does," said Dim and Johnny together.
"No it doesn't.. or is that rubbing alcohol?" mused Crooks.
"No, use ammonia, ammonia!" everyone yelled as the bulb swung around above us. Someone filled a wineglass with ammonia.
"Pour it in" "No don't pour it in" "Pour it" "No don't pour it into the.." "Aaaagh, you poured it in what now!" "what-if-it-doesn't-work!!!"
But work it did, and the cut floated to the top and the rocks of pure cocaine precipitated to the bottom of the glass. Or was it the other way around? Anoth hysterical argument ensued, followed by an argument about which to scoop off the water and smoke, and then another about whether to cool the freebase in the freezer or simply on a chilled spooon. To be honest, it must have been 12:30 when we finally smoked the stuff.
It was the first and last time I smoked freebase, and it was utterly disgusting. Besides the baboonlike bickering of my comrades making the whole situation an ugly anthropology experiment and the yellow wallpaper making me feel paranoid, the actual act of smoking base is horrid. You take an empty beer can and dent in one side forming a shallow depression. Using a safety pin, you poke holes in the bottom of the depression, making a screen of sorts: this is the bowl. On one side near the base of the can, you poke a larger hole to make a carburator. Then, because freebase can eat through aluminum you cover the screen with fresh cigarette ashes. A couple of pebbles of base are is placed in the pile of ashes and lit, as you inhale through the spout at the top of the can with your finger over the carb. Then, once the can is filled with smoke, you release the carb, and a huge amount of cocaine smokes wooshes down your lungs, and all your blood rushes to your head. These were called "bellringers", after the carnival game, and they lasted about 5 minutes leaving you desperately wanting more.
The base was smoked up in about 1/2 an hour, and we all stood around that kitchen lookign at each other silently with pursed lips, grinding teeth and googling eyes.
Crooks was the first to speak. "Last call's coming in half an hour, we oughta get out of here."
Last call? But I wasn't old enough to go to bars! And the liquor stores were closed! And I had nothing in the house to help ease me down!
It was hopeless. Within minutes, everyone was gone and I was alone in my living room, staring at the paneling as I jittered on the sofa. I must have stared at the wall for two hours before I fell into a herky jerky sleep interupted by spasms and nightmares.
I woke up the next morning terrified of myself. I've gone too far, I thought. if I don't quit now I'm going to turn into a crackhead. I vowed that minute to stop using cocaine, and stuck to that vow for almost 10 years. It wasn't a decision that earned me any friends however. A number of the guys at work treated me differently, among them my vendetta carrying boss Larry.
"Oh so now we're not doing cocaine are we?" he taunted me one night in front of Brundle and Eggbone , who were headed over to his house after work to play poker and get railed. "Well then, you'll have to work late I guess..." It was humiliating. It was very difficult to work under these circumstances, as my so-called friends at work ostracized me, but I sucked it up and pressed on because I had no other choice and was desperate for money.
Winter soon became spring, and with it Saint Patrick's day. I was scheduled to work on the very day that I usually spent getting hammered on the hill in Morton park with my friends before going to the parade. "I don't want you getting drunk Mr. Skwire," Larry told me the night before. "Don't get drunk, or you'll be sorry."
Well, I suppose I brought it on myself, but the next day at the park one beer turned to two, which turned to three, which eventually turned to a six pack and a couple of joints before showing up fucked up at Scattone's. It was painfully obvious I was drunk, and Larry wasn't going to let me forget it. Pan after pan after pot came down for me to scrub, some barely used, and at the end of the night he led the cooks out of the kitchen saying "let's go have some beers fellas; oh, and Skwire, I'm gonna make sure you don't get any shift beers this time. You already had yours." He stuck his head back in the kitchen. "By the way... one more fuck up and you're out of here."
One more fuck up? This was the first time I'd ever been incapacitated at work; some of the other guys came in visibly drunk on a regular basis. The message was clear however: Larry wanted me gone. I needed the money though, so I whipped myself into shape. I stopped getting high before work; I wouldn't drink before work; I went in straight as an arrow every night and didn't accept drugs or alcohol until I was clocked out.
Then, two weeks later, he fucked me over. About a half hour after getting into work one evening, I got terribly sick in my stomach. I puked once, and had diarrhea the whole night long. The waitstaff gave me seltzer and bitters to settle my boiling guts, but it was no help. The night was miserably busy; I got overwhelmed with dishes because I spent most of my time in the bathroom, and didn't leave the place until almost last call.
The next afternoon when I showed up at work, Larry was waiting for me. "You fucked up Skwire. You're fired."
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"Last night you were fucked up at work!"
"No I wasn't." I said. "I was sick as a dog last night and still stayed on until it was done."
"Sick my ass," Larry said. "You were on mushrooms and couldn't deal." It WAS a well-known fact that I was selling mushrooms, but that had nothing to do with work. So far as Scattone's was concerned, I might as well have been a monk.
"That's not true and you know it Larry. Don't you even fuck with me..."
"Me not fuck with you? That's a goddamn LAUGH Skwire. Here's your pay," he said, handing me a wad of bills. "Now get the fuck out of here, druggie." Brundle and Eggbone were snickering. Assholes.
I took my money and stalked out of Scattones, red-faced and boiling over. I'm not gonna take this, I muttered to myself over and over again as I got on my bike and headed home, I'm not taking this shit, I'm not taking this fucking shit.
I rode home muttering to myself the whole way, and decided that if I was fired, then Larry was gonna catch hell. I got home, picked up my phone and called Richard.
"Robert, this is Brendan calling. Listen, Larry just fired me and I didn't do anything to deserve it. He's been after me for weeks, and I haven't done anything wrong."
"Well, come on down tomorrow morning," he said. "I'll ask Larry why he fired you and then get your side of the story."
"He's not gonna be there..."
"No; it'll be just you and me."
So I went down the next day; explained that while I had come in drunk on St. Patrick's Day, it was the only time I'd ever done something like that, and that I had cleaned up my act since. "What I do outside of work is my business, Robert, but I keep it outside of work. In fact," I continued, "If you want to see who's really doing drugs at work, take a look up on the top shelf in the basement on the little plate. That's not my stuff." Fuck you Larry, I grinned. You wanna fuck with me?
Robert listened sympathetically and told me there was no way Larry was going to let me back in the kitchen. He'd just opened another restaurant for the upcoming season, and could get me a dishwashing job down there.
The place was called The Ship, and it was built into.. well, into a really large ship. There was a lounge and dining room in what had been the hold, a dining room fore and middle on the main deck, and another dining room on the second deck. The kitchen took up the entire back end of the boat. The head chef was a demanding woman named Marge; she would sometimes drop by Scattones, and had a reputation for having a really shitty attitude. She and her husband had been the head chefs at a neighboring restaurant before, and during, their divorce and her kitchen was rumored to have been a warzone.
My friend Jeff worked there cooking and doing prep: he looked and talked as I imagine Neanderthal man would. He was short and stocky with a low, heavy brow and spoke primarily in monosyllables. Later he went on to go to NYU and become and environmental scientist, but in 1990, he was crucifying lobsters alive on skewers and laughing at their twitches before throwing them into the pot.
Have you ever ripped the tail off a lobster while it's still alive? It is a crazy sensation. We offered whole lobster of course, but also served a surf and turf special that included only tails and claws. It made no sense to fill up the pot with whole lobsters, so we would rip off the tails and claws and discard the carcass. As you wrench the tail from the lobby with a firm twist, an electric shock zaps through its body and up your arm, as water squirts from it's mouth. We used to call it the death shriek, even though it wasn't anything you could actually hear.
Lobsters are territorial, solitary creatures who get together only to mate. Between the pain and proximity, our wastebackets were filled with angry thoraxes thrashing their antennae in unfulfilled, impotent, senseless rage. I saw Larry once over the rest of the summer, maybe twice. In both instances, he barely acknowledged my existence.
Marge turned out not to live up to her reputation as a witch. Outisde of a few tantrums, she was generally a pleasure to work for. When the lunch and dinner rush slowed down, she had us doing prep work, which was a lot more interesting than slogging. I spent the rest of the summer pulling doubles at the Boat and drinking at the beach.
Between getting away from cocaine and Scattone's, things were going well until fall, when the Boat closed down for the season. Out of work again, and winter approaching, I found myself biking three miles in each direction to dishwash at Andy's at Westfield, out on one of the main roads out of town. His restaurant was named for a nearby condo complex..
Everything about the place sucked: the commute sucked; the location sucked; the decor sucked; the food sucked; the pay sucked; and the people sucked.
Andy had been the head chef at le Bistro on the Wharf downtown before venturing out on his own. He was bad caricature of the worst of Billy Joel crossed with the worst of Jerry Seinfeld, and all he cared about was money. He wasn't a bad guy to work for, except he was completely selfish and spoke only in catchphrases and cliches. I can't even begin to imitate the way he spoke because it was so bland and unmemorable. Just like his food.
The other head cook was another matter entirely. Her name was Genevieve, and the first words out of her mouth to me were "That's pronounced Zhan-vee-ev NOT Jen-uh-veev." She was a female version of the Comic Books Guy from The Simpsons in appearance, attitude, and even the way she spoke. I kept expecting to hear her refer to the "worst entree ever." She was simply hideous; if there was one television character she resembled more than the Comic Books Guy, it was Grimace, the McDonalds character. But she was an angry, bitter Grimace who trusted no one and stabbed people in the back before they could get her. She started fights with people at work over petty things: I found myself at the receiving end when I dared to suggest that Black Sabbath was more metal than Led Zeppelin. The woman refused to send me pots and pans to clean until the very end of the evning that night, adding at least an hour to my shift. And she kissed Andy's ass as if it was made of spun sugar.
"Oh Andy, i thought your pot pie was especially good. POTS! PICK UP FUCKING POTS! Oh it sold sooooo well during lunch. Oh it was- HOT POT! HOT POT! FOR FUCK'S FUCKING SAKE! Oh and I made this dessert..." Blah fucking blah dee blah.
The kitchen was a long recatangular room: on the western wall was the line of stoves and convectors where Genevieve and Andy worked, on the eastern wall was the dish station, where I worked. Between us was a table, where the waitstaff would pile their dirty dishes, and a long counter, where the cooks would put up orders for the waitstaff to pick up.
Andy's offered a number of pasta dishes, and like many restaurants, we would cook off the pasta early in the day and then keep a large pot of boiling water on the stove to reheat the noodles before serving them. About once an hour or so, Andy or Genevieve would yell "Hot pot!" which meant I had to replenish the pot of boiling pasta water. The concrete floor between the counter and my table was always a little wet, and there were no rubber mats on the floor. One night the inevitable happened, as I slipped and upeneded the pot, pouring about a half gallon of boiling water all over my right arm. I jammed my arm under cold water and wrapped the burn with ice packed in a dish towel, and then finished off the next 2 hours at work, because neither Andy nor Genevieve was willing to let me leave. Later that evening the doctor at the hospital told me that i had soem second degree burns and would have to stay out of work for two weeks. I was eligible for workman's comp, but Andy tried to weasel out of giving me the forms, and then proceeded to call me every day to ask why I wasn't coming into work. "What'sa matter, you mad at us? Is that why you won't come in?" To this day I have a scar down my arm from that restaurant.
And still I worked there. I was paying off DWI debts, going to community college three days a week. Genevieve was intolerable as the winter wore on, insisting on driving me home because it was too cold out to ride my bike, and then keeping me at the restaurant late coming up with cleaning projects. I got turned down on a raise.
And then one day, when I thought I was just going to be stuck at Andy's for the rest of the year, my old boss Marge called. Larry and Robert had had a falling out, and she was running the kitchen. She needed a line and prep cook, and thought I'd be fine. My lack of experience wasn't a problem; she thought I'd be fine. The thing was I would have to start immediately, within the next three days. I would have to work with Brundle and Eggbone but they didn't hold grudges: nobody really like Larry all that much anyway.
I have no idea why I told her to give me a few hours to think on it. I don't know why I felt I owed assholes like Andy and Genevieve two week's notice. So I thought about, weighing the pros and cons. It took twenty minutes.
I called Marge back and told her I'd be there that night. I called Andy's and got Genevieve. Her shrieks were the scariest and most delicious I have ever savored. "Who is it that gave a you a job? Tell me! tell me! We've done a lot for you! You have to give us two weeks!! Who gave you a job, i want to talk to them!"
"Fuck you you fucking fuck," I replied, which set off a howl of rage the would have done Rumplestiltskin proud.
Two hours later, I walked in the back door of Scattone's. Full circle, fresh slate.
That's how I became a cook.
ADDENDUM: Looking back, I have no idea why I thought Robert was oblivious to the flow of coke through his restaurant. Some have suggested the reason he kept me on was that he was worried that I'd go to the police with my story, and that transferring me might be enough to keep me satisfied. Talking to the cops hadn't crossed my mind for a second (although when I was arrested for DUI the year before the police specifically asked me about coke when I told them where I worked); and anyway the matter was never spoken of again, and Robert seemed genuinely happy to see me back in his kitchen.
Robert is now the mayor of my hometown.