Monday, December 27, 2004

Scabby's Rest

Scabby's Rest

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.
Work Update

My day job made me a reasonable offer; not perfect, but reasonable.
I put in my notice at the night job.

I am enjoying cooking a bit more now that I am making more money. I need to look at my 401K this week.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The best part about the recent spew of Christ, Christian, Christmas and shopping and consumerism is that the google ads will totally change. please click on them, make me some money!!!!!

I don't know what ads you're seeing, but I'm seeing links to books titled "How to Write Letters of Complaint". Oooh, but "refresh" gave me restaurant guides...

Saturday, December 25, 2004

I'm going to keep going with this religion and Christmas theme because I've been harping on it all day.

As the previous post demonstrates, I'm having some issues with Christmas this year, issues I normally don't have.

I don't know how long ago it was, perhaps ten years back: my father had gotten into an awful fight with my mother as the holidays approach. I was still in college then and the prospect of driving six hours to New Jersey, where I knew no one, only to be trapped in a house with my sulking father and drinking mother was not appetizing.

"He does this every year," my mom said on the phone. "We don't even believe in this stuf, blah blah blah. And maybe we don't but he ruins it for me. I like it." My mom was right; he did do this every year, and for the sake of family peace, I finally decided to do somethign about it.

"Don't worry about it Ma," I said. "I'll talk to him."

We hung up and I dialed the phone. "Steve Skwire speaking."

"Dad, it's Brendan. Look, we have to talk."


"Look, you're annoying Mom with the Christmas sulking. No wait, let me finish."

"What do I do to annoy her other than being alive?" He spit these words out like an asp.

"You know what you do. I said. The sulking. The bitching; the moaning. I justw ant you to keep this in mind. I make $7.00 an hour as a cook, and I don't get paid time off for Christmas. Plus I have to drive six hours. You on the other hand don't have to travel, you're having your kids come to pay you a rare visit, AND you get the holiday paid. So you know what you're going to do? You're going to shut the fuck up with the moaning, you're going to eat your fucking turkey, and you're going to appreciate your three kids on federal Hang Out With Your Family Day. And you're going to stop annoying your wife. And I'm goign to call her back now, tell her what i told you, AND I'm going to tell her to calm down with the Christmas hysteria, which I'm sure drives you even MORE nuts."

Ever since, Christmas has been relatively peaceful. Until this year. I have turned into my dad, 1994 model.

I don't know what it is: surely the bitterness is driven in part by the difficult turns my life has taken this year. But this year has also seen the triumph of the Christian right and the Free Marketers, and together, these two forces have made an already expensive holiday the most unpleasant time of the year for me. Because I DON'T believe in Jesus in any meaningful way. Because I CAN'T afford it. Because what I DO know of Jesus Christ's teaching lies so far outside the scope of the holiday as it's now celebrated the cognitive dissonance is too much.

I have no problem with Christians exchanging gifts on Christmas, as I have no problem with Jews eating horseradish on Passover or Muslims fasting on Ramadan. There is no expectation that I too will fast or eat bitter herbs. But for some reason, EVERYONE is made to feel like they should participate in Christmas. You wanna talk assimilation, the only reason kids get gelt on Hannukah at all is because their parents felt they were left out of the fun the Christian kids were having.

My nephew Floyd, who's in fourth grade, met me at my parents door as I got out of the car. Jokingly, I said, "Did you say your prayers to Jesus yet?"

He stared blankly and said "What?"

"Jesus!" I said. "Did you say your prayers this morning, did you go to church to celebrate Jesus?"

"No!" he exclaimed, as if to say Stop being silly Uncle Brendan.

"Well, you know it's Jesus's special day. it's his birthday," my brother piped in. "Are you going to say 'Happy Birthday Jesus'?"

"Happy Birthday Jesus," we all said. And that was that. As I think about it in retrospect, I wonder why is Floyd participating in this? It may as well be Tet.

It makes me uncomfortable, this meaningless giving. It's more like Potlatch, but with out the explicit competition.

The old man and I were talking about this all day. Speaking about these Christians who are boycotting stores that don't include the word "Christmas" in their seasonal advertising he came out with a great line. "When you put Jesus in the mall, you don't elevate the mall: you degrade Jesus."

Floyd got a bunch of toys today. He didn't learn anything about the Christian religion that is the inspiration for those toys. It meant even less than Flag Day.

It makes me uncomfortable. I wonder if Christians feel the same?
Holiday Greetings From Angstville

Date: Fri, 24 Dec 2004 18:50:04 EST
Reply-To: "Bluegrass music discussion."
Sender: "Bluegrass music discussion."
From: Dave [name and email redacted]
Subject: Santa Claus and Christmas
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="US-ASCII"

What is this world coming to?
Spending the night in an auction barn in Franklin, Indiana, I had plenty of
time to discuss Christmas and Santa Claus with the other people that were
A shock to me was the reply that I got from a 13 year old boy, the son of the
auction owner, when I asked him what Christmas and Santa meant to him.
He was overjoyed with the things that Santa was bringing him. More expensive
toys than our entire family of 12 kids ever experienced in four or five
combined Christmas's.
I asked him what we were celebrating on the 25th of December.
His reply was that he thought it was the Boston Tea Party or something like
What is this world coming to? A 13 year old boy that knows nothing about
Christ and that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, not the Boston Tea
Something else that I've noticed this year. I am an avid fan of Christmas
decorations on and around homes and drive around several times a year just
enjoying the beautiful lights and all the nativity scenes. What happened this
year? About one out of ten homes seems to have any decorations at all in our
city. Used to be that every home celebrated Jesus's birthday and Christmas the
whole month of December and even through much of January.
Who's to blame?
What's this world coming to? Xmas instead of Christmas. No Lord's prayer
anymore in most places.No pledge of allegiance...Government buildings, schools
and others being forced by the court's to take Christ out of our lives.
If I could only go back about 40 years and enjoy, once again, what made our
country so great......The pledge, Lord's prayer anytime and anyplace, Nativity
Bah humbug.

Date: Sat, 25 Dec 2004 13:26:28 -0800
From: Brendan Skwire
Subject: Re: sant claus and christmas

Of all the twittery I have ever read, Dave rants

"What's this world coming to? Xmas instead of Christmas. No Lord's
prayer anymore in most places.No pledge of allegiance...Government
buildings, schools and others being forced by the court's to take Christ out of our
lives. If I could only go back about 40 years and enjoy, once again, what
made our country so great......The pledge, Lord's prayer anytime and anyplace, Nativity scenes......??????????????????? Bah humbug."

OK, first of all, you are familiar with the concept of democracy? The
rules, OUR rules as set down in our CONSTITUTION, say that because the taxpayers are a diverse lot of christians,
jews, muslims, hindus, etc etc you can't give preference to one religion
over the other. The government here is secular and everyone is treated
the same. The minute one group gets special rights, (all this whining
about Christian prayer in schools is nothing more than a plea for
special rights) the government ceases to represent everyone impartially. if
gay people can't have special rights, why should anyone else?

Like Dave however, i am very much in favor of prayer in school: kids
can pray to jesus on Monday, face east and offer prayers to Allah the
next, prayers to Ganesh next, etc etc. that's the only way it can be fair,
otherwise you get kids who are excluded.

This may be easy to forget when one is in the religious majority, but
countries with state-sanctioned religions are not fun places: think
Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. Hell, if you consider US history, one
of the main reasons the puritans came over here to begin with was to
escape persecution from the anglican church.

By the way, do you know what the puritans, the original
fundamentalists, did when they got here? THEY BANNED CHRISTMAS from 1659 until 1681.

Christianity today is in some ways a victim of its own success.
Christmas and Christ will be here for a long time: the profit margin's too
damn good. This whole idea that christmas is being steadily excluded from
public life is bullplop of the stinkiest order: turn on your radio,
your tv, or open a newspaper anytime after halloween and you're
overwhelmed by holiday ads. For a lot of people, Christmas is the equivalent of
a president's day car sale. You never see Passover sales ("We're
slaying our competitors' first born and passing over the savings to you!
It's gonna be a plague of deals!") or Ramadan sales. Even my Jewish
friends exchange gifts and buy trees, calling it "fake Christmas." For many
of us, it's a meaningless orgy of gift-giving. The holiday has
superceded its original intent and has become something more similar to the
state holidays of imperial Greece and Rome: devoid of meaning. those of
us who aren't even the least bit religious are under extreme pressure
to participate in buying material goods (most made in secular communist
) in celebration of the birth of a deity we don't believe in, lest
we get called "Scrooge". This deity, ironically enough, instructed
us to "sell all we have and give it to the poor," that it was "easier
for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to
enter the gates of heaven," that "what good does it do to gain the whole
world and lose your soul" yet the average American spends something
like $700 each Christmas buying unnecessary gifts for people who probably
don't need or deserve them.

The other day at work I was driving the delivery van, was scanning the
radio stations in a futile attempt to escape the Christmas juggernaut.
What I finally settled on if you can believe it was the Christian station, where a minister was decrying the materialism of the season and urging people to put the
Christ back in Christmas. Now, I agree with right-wing christians on oh... just
about nothing, but I found myself cheering this man on. I'm with the
Puritans and with the radio preacher: ban anyone from making money off
the holiday and put Christmas back in the churches where it belongs. The
same goes for Valentine's Day, Easter, and St. Patrick's day, three
other Christian holidays that everyone, regardless of religious belief, is
basically expected to participate in. Why isn't everyone expected to
take part in Passover or Eid?

"If I could only go back about 40 years and enjoy, once again, what
made our country so great"

Maybe if you read the constitution you'd enjoy what really makes our
country so great instead of your narrow-minded hallucination. And maybe
you'd stop whining about how persecuted you are. I don't shove my
religious beliefs down your throat: why is your religion always being
shoved down mine? WWJD?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Complainin' Clyde

Nicolo Machiavelli works at my night job, and his name is Clyde: Complainin' Clyde. Clyde's about 45 years old or so, a black man who wears thick coke-bottle glasses. He comes to work everyday wearing an immaculate black cook's jacket. He's the tallest and best dressed guy in the kitchen. He's been a cook for God knows how long, but lost his job at the stadium a year or so ago. He's worked for some of the other restaurants and bars our boss is involved in.

And, as his nickname implies, he complains. A lot. Vociferously.

At first his complaints were valid: god knows there's room for improvement in that kitchen. Clyde would complain about the general cleaning to Pat, the head cook, and then to the owner of the tavern: things would get done. Clyde complained about the lack of prep for the night shift: prep increased. Positive changes.

A few weeks ago Clyde began what i suspect was a concerted campaign to usurp Pat's position. He began to get nitpicky, and instead of complaining to Pat about his issues, he complained directly to the owner. This led to Pat getting called on the carpet. Then Clyde would complain about something else. As remarked upon earlier, the owner has an almost obsessive tendency toward quibbling himself, and Clyde has been pretty much successful in grabbing his ear. He's been so successful in fact that Pat doesn't even quite realize he's been usurped.

As I said, at first I had no quarrel with Complainin' Clyde's litany of wrongs. But two weeks ago, something changed my mind. I had three burgers on the grill, and was cooking a few sausages as well. It's been five years since I've been in a kitchen, and it had only been a week or two cooking at the tavern. I didn't even have my second job yet. The owner came back with a burger. "Brendan, the customer ordered this well done and it's red in the middle. You ARE familiar with cooking to temperature, I'm correct?"

"Oh shit," I said. "I'm sorry, let me fix that up..."

"Man, your timing is all sorts of bad," Clyde piped in. "I never seen someone with such sloppy timing as you." This was new to me: Clyde has never said anything like this before, and why of all times was he bringing it up now, in front of my boss?

"Brendan, I think you ought to listen to Clyde," said my boss. "You need to work on your timing."

No sooner was he out of the kitchen when Clyde looked at me and said, "Man, that stupid motherfucker doesn't know shit about restaurants. Who he think he foolin? Man, this place.. it's all fucked up. I mean he's always saying one thing and then.."

"Order up," said Ted the bartender banging through the door and out again.

"We got two burgers, one done well, a sausage, and a fried oyster," I read. "So let's see... the well done is gonna take a few minutes so gimme.."

But it was too late: Clyde had already thrown all three burgers onto my grill and dropped the oysters in the Fryolater.

"What are you doing?" I yelled. "Man, those oyster take 30 seconds, those burgers are gonna take 10 minutes each! And you're busting on my timing?"

"Relax, relax," Clyde said. "It'll be ok."

The following Monday it happened again. I had been working with Gary over the weekend, who's leaving in a few weeks and could give a rat's ass about the job. A chicken was roasting in the oven, prep for our homemade chicken salad.

"Dude, the thermometer won't pop out and it's been 4 hours," he said as I put on my apron. "Do you think it's done yet?"

I looked at the bird. it certainly looked done. If anything, it looked a little overdone, the skin dried out and crunchy. "I don't know," I said. "Put a thermometer in it. I did a chicken with Clyde last week, and he said as long as it's between 165-175 degrees, the chicken's done." We poked the thermometer into the sizzlign breast, and the needle shot up to 170. "That sucker's done." We set it aside to cool and to make salad with.

Now it was Monday and the owner was bitching at me about the chicken salad as Clyde stood by putting up an order. "I didn't cook that chicken, Gary did," I said. "I'm not gonna get blamed for his mistake." Gary is legendary for questionable cooking and sanitation skills. What the hell does he care, he's o-u-w-t OUT in a few weeks. "It could have been anything really."

"Well, what was the temperature when you took it out? The texture was all wrong, it didn't tast right. Customer complained."

"Look, I helped Clyde do a chicken last week. He said to take it out between 165-175. That's right isn't it?" No response from Clyde; he might as well have been deaf. The owner was going on that the chicken had to be up to about 190 (which is rubbish), and Clyde had nothing to say in my defense.

"Look, you have to do this stuff right, OK?" the boss said as he went out the door.

"Man, the motherfucker don't know nothing about nothing," Clyde said. "Man he dumb as a.. whatever. Hey, is Pat still out there drinking?" He likes to bring up Pat's drinking a lot too.

I didn't say anything, but I began to have more sympathy for Pat when he called Clyde "the Superstar", with a sneer crossing his face. At first I thought it was jealousy, but the fact was that Clyde's whole MO was to complain about other people in order to make himself look good. Meanwhile, he wasn't exactly proving to be a role model to aspire to: last week, as he went through the cold station checking his prep, I watched as he dropped an unwrapped slab of butter on the dirty slimy floor I had yet to sweep. The butter fell into the black muck, and without a moment's hesitation, Clyde picked it up and put it back in the box. It would have stayed there too if I hadn't yelled at him. "Hey man, what do you think you're doing? That shit's disgusting! People gotta eat that!"

"Hey man, relax, relax. It's cool," he replied as he threw it into the trash.

"Relax" was getting to be a refrain. "No it's not cool, it's just fucking gross."

It's an odd thing: by all accounts I have heard, I'm doing really well at my day job. The head chef is happy with me, or at least relatively so. I get criticism, but it is always constructive. The things I don't remember how to do come back to me, and I have more responsibility every day.

At my evening job, I have been pretty much demoted to dishwasher, but with no one telling me. Gary confirmed this for me over the weekend. Clyde has taken on more of Pat's responsibilities and Pat is taking more of my initial role. Meanwhile, Clyde boasts behind the owner's back that he's got resumes out to 10 different restaurants. "How he know I'm even stayin'? Why's he askin' me to do the order? One of you should do it or he should. Man, he don't even know if I'm gonna be here tomorrow, dumbass. The minute I get a job with benefits, I'm outta here."

It's pathetic Machiavellian behavior like this that makes what should be a pleasant, if slightly mind-numbing job into a miserable chore.

Later that evening, just before my shift ended, Clyde got a brief rush. All of a sudden, the guy who'd been de facto demoted to dishwasher was needed on the grill, which I did without complaint (I had not at this point said anything to Clyde about my suspicions). As the rush ended, the little hand reached nine. I scooped my last spoonful of jambalay from the saute pan to the bowl waiting at Clyde's station, took off my apron and prepared to leave.

"Hey, man," Clyde said. "Clean that shit up." There was a small blob of jambalaya ont he side of the stove. He reached over with his towel and wiped it off. "You motherfuckers are all slobs man, you gotta learn how to be cleaner."

I looked up at his goggled eyes. "Man, Clyde since the day I met you, all you have ever done is complain, complain, complain. About everything. You always gotta have something to bitch about."

"Hey hey, now relax," he said. "I'm just trying to teach you." He smiled at me condescendingly and got a nostalgic look on his face. "Hoo boy, I taught many a cook in my day..."

"You know Clyde," I said, taking off my apron. "Clyde, this is a glorified burger-flipping position. They pay me $8.00 an hour with no benefits. I got a lot more going on at my other job, so don't tell me."

"Oooh," he said. "I didn't know they were only paying you $8.00 an hour."

"Yeah well, that's that dude." I said. "So I don't give a shit about a little splot of jambalaya. I'm gonna go have a beer, have a good night."

I forgot to remind him about the butter. I should have mentioned the damn butter.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

It's amazing how a man can work so much and have so little to show for it.

Last week, I started at another restaurant, and worked 4 12-hour shifts in a row. This week, I have worked 2 9-hour shifts already, with three 12-hour shifts to come.

I like my day job better than my night job. The work is a bit more interesting and there's a lot to do. The restaurant does a good deal of catering to UPenn, deli platters, sandwich orders, and the like, and most everything is made from scratch. There's also a good deal of prep work for the evening shift as well. I want to learn how to work their line so i can have a bit more flexibility with my schedule and command more money. I get to wear a white coat at the day job instead of a greasy teeshirt.

The dynamics are different in each kitchen. The evening job is in a very small space: you could fit that kitchen into mine at least 4 times, and perhaps even 8. On one wall, from left to right there is a 2 burner grill, a four burner stove/ oven, a small 2-basket Fryolater, and a small cold station that fits about tows of about 5 six-pans each. On the opposite wall, going right to left is a swinging door, a small hand sink, the trash barrel, and a triple sink. The pipe below the middle sink leaks badly so we rarely use that one. Storage is tight. Moving around is even tighter, and everyone's stepping on someone else. The back stairs serve as a sort of storage area for our plastic, but lights have never been put in back there. As a result, it's a treacherous messy pile of plastics that collapses abou three times a night. We serve a hot menu limited to a hamburger, done three ways; a vegan burger; 3 types of sausage; an oyster po' boy; and jambalaya (made fresh). We do two cold sandwiches, and two salads.

The owner who is most frequently there was either a bartender or bar manager at another venture the partnership owns, but I do not know how much experience he has running a kitchen. Some of his practices are just not kosher: for instance, he doesn't believe in roatating out bread. That's just common sense. Another time he got rid of a batch of jamabalaya, about $300 worth of sales, because it had kielbasa in it instead of andouille. We're not fine dining, and the odds a customer would have noticed the change in one batch are not even worth talking about. And he nitpicks, which drives me crazy. Every day, without fail, we're reminded to do the dishes or to sweep the floor. It doesn't help that one of the new guys complains about everything to our boss: I don't know if he's trying to curry favor or what, but it brings misery on the rest of us.

The kitchen at my day job is a joy to work in. It is a long, open rectangular room. Going from left to right is a complete dishwasher's station; a triple sink; a prep area; a pasta station; 2 6 burner stoves and overhead broiler;a fryolater; a convector oven; and another prep/ bakery area. Opposite are the doors to the dinign area, the walk-in and freezer, and the refrigerator. There's a waitstation further down the wall. Between the stoves and the walkins is a long counter which is made of stainless steel like everythign else int he kitchen.

The restaurant is owned and run by three very effeminate gay men in their late forties/ early fifties, who have been working together for the past 25 years. One of the delivery guys told me "Over the years they've gotten totally sick of each other's bullshit." While I've seen them make pointed and snide remarks to the staff on occassion (as any boss does), they save their real wratch for each other: the result is some odd cross between the Three Stooges and Christopher Guest as "Corky" in "Waiting for Guffman."

"You're SUPPOSED to be wearing rubber gloves when you work with CHICKEN, or have you learned ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in 25 YEARS of restaurant work?" yelled one guy yesterday.

"I found the gloves, I found them so stop BARKING at me," yelled the other guy.


The delivery guy shot me a glance. "See what I mean? It's like working in the kitchen with three bitchy high school girls!" He added, "Last week they threw ramikens at each other."

The chef at this place drives you pretty hard: last Saturday, after being employed with them for 4 days, he had me run an entire catered event by myself. He's had me stay late the past two days as well. I enjoy it though, because I am relearning things I'd forgotten over my five-year hiatus, and I am learning a bit more about proper set-up too, which will be a good skill to carry on. I like working with him though.

On the other hand, neither job pays enough, and I am dog-tired for at least an hour when I get home from either. I just finally decompressed from work, and it's 10:00 at night. I want to go out and get a beer, but it's so late...

Sunday, December 12, 2004


As you can see, I am now harnessing the capital potential of my blog by adding Google advertising on the sidebar.

As I understand it, Google's ads use keywords in my blog to generate ads relevant to the people who may read it. For example, overuse of phrases like "hardcore double anal kickfuck" may result in some interesting ads.

Some may call this whoring (another potential keyword that might bite me in the a-- oh shit, there I go a-- fuck, I mean FUDGE, I did it again)... some may call this selling out, but I'm a firm believer in making some money.

Please click on any ads on the sidebar. You don't have to buy anything. Just click on 'em and Google gives me a nickel.

Democrat progressive politics Howard Dean.
Oh hell, I don't even have to to that. The links are enough to generate the right kind of ads.
Update: Holy heck that was fast! They're already running Unicef ads!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The rain's beating a steady tattoo on the tin roof outside my window. All morning long it's gone on, never letting up, never slowing down. It's warm and misty outside now and the streets are shiny and slick. The weatherman said snow was on the way yesterday, but it hasn't arrived yet. That's to be expected at this time of year; we never seem to get a real snowfall here in Philly until sometime in late December or January. I did little other than my laundry today, and went into work for two hours before realizing I wasn't even supposed to be there. I think I may have pissed off my new boss. I don't know. I hope not.

I have a first day at another resturant tomorrow at 9:00 Am. The guy who interviewed me said the job was 8-4, now it's 9-5. I want to keep both jobs. The 8-4 hours are better and have to stand. I hope I can work this out. Anyway, tomorrow will be 9:00-4:30, then 5:00 to 9:00 at Grace. It'll be a bear, but good money. Depending on how things work out, Thursday may be 8:00-4:00, then Grace 5-9:00 then Fiume. I'm going to try to get Thursday or Saturday evening off for practice, either by taking thursdays off from Grace, or working the day shift on Saturdays.

I am less than enthused about working for less than $10.00 per hour anywhere, although I am willing to tolerate it for a month or so from both places. I have been out of the kitchen for 5 years, and expect a lower-paid evaluation period. But not for more than a month or so.

The rain was just beginning to let up, a fog rising from the river as I opened the door to the tavern, pulled on my work togs, began slicing, dicing...

I'm looking forward to work tomorrow, even if it is just deli plates like the day chef says. There's a lot of presentation that goes into platters. Just gimme the money, and I'll do whatever you want with the food.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I am watching what may be the most maudlin TV movie I have ever seen.

So far as i can gather, this guy Griffin, played by a guy who looks like Ray Romano, is going through a difficult divorce. He's dating this woman.. but maybe he's not? Anyway, her kid is freaking out because her ex, his father, is in jail? Or something? Meanwhile Ray Romano-guy is having nightmares about his ex-wife? Or something?

What a rich life we have here in world of the 21st century.

I guess the flick has a half hour to go. i predict: ray romano and his soon-to-be ex-wife will break up amicably; RR-guy will also hook up with the hotty whose feelings he hurt, providing a real father figure to the kid whose dad's in jail. Also, the daughter will come to terms with thne divorce.

Or something like that. the show is about to come back on.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

May I suggest that this year
more than most,

I will offer some examples: some of these are Philly-centric, others not so.

Here in West Philadelphia, there is a GREAT small business
called The Last Word Bookstore.

It's all used books, some in nearly mint condition. You can even get collectables and rare books there. By supporting Last Word, your money goes to a small retailer, and not to a corporation. 215-386-7750

Another great second hand shop is Firehouse Bicycles,at 50th and Baltimore. You can get all sorts of good deals there, practically new brand-name bikes for super cheap. Again, since it's all used, no money goes to a giant multi-national corporation.
(215) 727-9692

Ken Rosso, who is one of my favorite people, has started a business called The GreenkeeperEco-Cleaning Service. For a reasonable rate, Ken does house cleaning, using biodegradable and nontoxic cleaning supplies. He just won a local contest for innovative new businesses: 215-432-6105.

More generally:

Tickets to local theatre are always nice.
Local produce and local beer make fantastic gifts.
Antique stores are a good source for jewelry,furniture, and brick-a-brack.
Walmart can suck it,
but the fact is,
no matter WHAT "new goods" store you shop at,
you're probably buying something that was manufactured inChina or Korea.
You're just changing the outlet where you buy the item.
Unless it's something that NEEDS to be new, like a stereo or a computer or boxer shorts,
to buy NEW.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Back In the Kitchen Again

... back where a knife is your friend,
Where Fryolater oil
Fuels your zits and boils,
Back in the kitchen again.

Prepping and chopping once more.
Is it two tablespoons or four?
Oh, yes a quarter cup,
I guess I fucked that up,
But nobody will notice that's for sure.

I'm back in the kitchen after a five year stint at writing. I never minded cooking for a living; it's a great trade, moderately tedious, that doesn't pay well enough. But now that I'm getting back in the swing of things, I'm pretty psyched to be swinging a knife again. Two nights ago, I nicked a finger nail, and the night before that I dripped some hot oil on my thumb. I say this only because I noticed it. In another few weeks, my hands will be callused and scarred from nicks and burns I won't have even noticed. I'm already getting used to lifting heavy objects again. It's preferable to sitting on my ass all day.

When I was working Mexican in '96, this dyke used to call me "The Ant" because I was so skinny but could lift things that looked twice my weight.

I don't mind the work. It's a nice feeling banging saute pans around, setting up sandwiches and platters. I never stopped cooking even during my five year hiatus. Julienning peppers, chopping romaine, peeling potatoes? All good. Grilling burgers, roasting chickens, making salads? All good. Eating all fucking day for free? ALL GOOD! Today I ate garlic bread,a small salad, some fresh cut french fries, a small cup of homemade jambalaya, and a locally made chicken-feta sausage with some more salad.

I wrote the previous three paragraphs earlier this week. since then, I've added two new cuts that have no clear origin. My hands smell like garlic and bleach.

At the risk of sounding like a Dungeons and Dragons geek, it's nice to feel the heft of knife again. I'm hoping a seond job that I've applied to pans out. It's a day prep/ catering position, lots of sandwiches and deli platters.

I was never able to adjust myself to the slow pace of office work, nor have I ever been able to adjust myslef to blogger's bad habit of sometimes being unable to publish, leading to entire posts being deleted but hey who am I to complain?

The point is, or rather was, that the food service industry attracts more weirdos, art farts, musicians, and professional failures than any other industry. My next few posts will be food service related stories.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Andy and the Roaches

Back when I was living in New Haven and knocking on doors for Greenpeace (Clinton hadn't even been elected back then), I knew this guy named Andrew, Andy the Greek. He wasn't from Greece. He was from 3 miles away in Branford. He was on the slender side, medium weight, with long hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and a warm toothy smile that usually managed to mask the seething rage that boiled inside him. I was 22, I think he was about 30. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes: Lucky Strikes, Camels, Pall Malls, you name it. "Filters," he explained to me once, smiling as he crushed out one smoke and lit up another, "are made of polyester fiber and are bad not only for the environment, but for your lungs."

Andy lived on Chapel Street a block or so from Mamoun's Middle Eastern (which today is nowhere near as great as it was in 1992) in a one- (or two-) bedroom apartment with a similarly smiley-but-angry guy named simply Gabor. I learned later that Gabor's given name was "Rob"; Gabor spelled backwards was Rob, plus the first two letters of Rob's last name. He had decided to unofficially change it after some run-in with the law or some personal embarrassment from years past. I never got the story straight. Neither did he.

Anyway, their apartment was a mess. Clothes and newspapers covered everything. The stove was covered with grease, and the whole place stank like their cigarettes.

I say I'm not sure if their apartment was a one- or two-bedroom because it was impossible to tell where Gabor's stuff ended and Andrew's began, and vice-versa. The bedroom they seemed to share had hammocks suspended from the ceiling. "I store all my clothes in one of them," Andrew explained to me, grinning. "Or at least the clothes I don't throw on the floor. Same with my books."

"And I sleep in one of them," added Gabor with a smile. "It's great for my back!"

The worst part about the place was the roaches, which were everywhere. Unmolested, they freely roamed the walls, the sinks, the drawers. They frolicked and supped in the grease on the stove. They sat on the rim of the toilet, daring you to piss on them. They hung out in the cabinets in little cockroach conferences. They had lost all fear of humans. Turning on a light in the middle of the night didn't faze them at all. When you watched TV, they would drink your beer, take over the remote, and turn on the game.

There was a reason for this.

"I decided a long time ago that I didn't want to deal with poisons anymore," Andy said with a shrug one day while making lunch. "I'd wipe 'em out and they'd just come back. Finally I decided to make an agreement with the roaches. If they left me alone, I'd leave them alone. If they left my stuff alone, I wouldn't try to kill them. Shoo!" he said with a sheepish grin, as he shook off a couple of little brown ones crawling up his spoon, and dug into his bowl of ramen noodles. "Besides, roaches are actually really clean little animals, and they're very closely related to lobsters," he continued, slurping soup out of the spoon that had just been used as a see-saw by the swarming vermin. "Want some noodles?"

Sometime later that year, Andy the Greek moved out of his apartment and moved in with Tracy, who also worked at Greenpeace. She was renting a bedroom from another canvasser named Brian, and had far more stringent standards of cleanliness. Andy's smile grew tighter in those days. When they moved out of the room, heading for New Mexico to get married, I took their room. They stuck me with a $75.00 phone bill.

So far as I know, the roaches may still living in Andrew's old apartment. There may be some old waterbug still existing quietly under the vanity in the bathroom telling the young bucks "You'll never know what it was like, those years living with Andy the Greek. You'll never know that good life."

And now a message from Eric Idle. (Thanks to auerhahn for the link).
Recent Letters, part 2

Racel Buchman, a close friend and reporter at WHYY-91 FM, lost her job this week after angrily responding to spam from a radical right-wing website called "". I won't link to them, but google them if you wish. They're your standard right-wing Christian types, gay-bashing, you know the drill. The type of people who made me decide to turn off my comments.
Anyway, Rachel called them on her own time, but mistakenly left her work number as a callback. Here's the article in the Philly Daily News. Here's the Inquirer's (much poorer) version. Here's my letter, sent this AM:

To the Editor:

According to Chris Carmouche, Rachel Buchman, andWHYY, the message left on laptoplobbyist's message machine was a personal message from a private citizen. Ms. Buchman was not acting as a representative ofWHYY. So why should the station apologize?

For that matter, why should Rachel Buchman apologize? is nothing more than a litany ofattacks on gays, democrats, and anyone to the left of Genghis Khan. For Pete's sake, they call Arlen Specter "a liberal". They are little more than loudmouthed, right-wing cranks and should be identified as such.

It seems there is a double standard here: Mr.Carmouche seems to think it is his right to send out hateful spam (the very definition of "repeated emails"), but that no one else has a right to respond in kind.

If WHYY owes an apology to anyone, it is to RachelBuchman: the station should have stood behind their employee, who has done good work for Philadelphia. As for Mr. Carmouche, there's a word for people like you, but it's unprintable in a family newspaper.

I also wrote to Rachel's boss, Elizabeth Perez-Luna:


I am very disappointed with WHYY for not choosing to defend Rachel Buchman. According to every story I have read, including the account offered by, Rachel made the call on her own time after getting spammed at her personal email address. Other than leaving her work number by mistake (an understandable error considering how much time WHYY reporters spend on assignment), she was acting as a private citizen and not as a representative of the station. Laptoplobbyist's call for an apology from WHYY was a silly and unwarranted publicity stunt. The station should have said so.

With journalists under unprecedented assault by the right wing, Rachel deserved backup. The station failed her. While I will continue to support WHYY, I will make a point of targeting my donations to shows like "You BetYour Garden." I cannot in good conscience give my money to a local news desk that can't stand up for its own reporters.

Recent Letters, part 1

Christine Flowers, a right-wing lawyer living in Philadelphia, wrote a column for the Philadelphia Daily News belittling the possible demise of Roe v. Wade, claiming that if overturned there would be little effect on women in general. I disagreed and wrote this letter.

Subject: "If I don't get my way I'll die"

To the Editor,

In her latest column for the Daily News, Christine Flowers is dead wrong in belittling the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade. "If I don't get my way, I'll die" is not melodramatic hyperbole from the abortion rights movement. If Roe is reversed women, and in particular poor women, will again be forced by circumstance to seek illegal back-alley abortions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), illegal abortions are a leading cause of death for women, especially in developing nations: in Latin America for example, illegal abortions account for almost half of all maternal deaths.

US policy toward contraception and reproductive health is decidely hostile, both abroad and at home, ironically driving UP the number of women forced to seek an abortion. Ms. Flowers does not acknowledge efforts made by the right wing to limit access here in the US to reproductive health information and contraception, which help prevent abortion. She does not acknowledge the fact that the recent omnibus spending bill specifically bars states from enforcing abortion access statutes, a provision up for repeal inMarch. Nor does she acknowledge the growing number ofdoctors and pharmacists who refuse to prescribe the Pill to their patients, often for religious reasons.

Overturning Roe will limit, and will most likely prohibit, access to legal abortion. Illegal abortions will then ensue (we've already seen how successfullyProhibition worked, and its cousin the War on Drugs).

The result will be that women will die. It won't be women like Christine Flowers, who as a lawyer most likely has the assets to travel to Canada or Europe or Mexico to get an abortion. No, it will be the poorest and most vulnerable among us, as usual.