Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Ladder of Success by William Ogden Haynes

Larry Leonard takes a break from University to visit Colorado, but his summer doesn't go as planned; by William Ogden Haynes.

It was the year that Larry Leonard was taking a break from Northern Michigan University for the summer semester. He had no classes to take for that term and he looked forward to seeing his parent's new home in Colorado. Larry Leonard's father was a Major recently stationed at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy. Colorado, Larry imagined, was a lot like California. They sold 3.2% beer to eighteen year olds, the women looked like tanned surfer girls, the weather was sunny and everyone was cool and laid back. It was a far cry from the cold weather in the upper peninsula of Michigan where the girls were mostly pale-skinned Scandinavian types with Canadian accents. Larry would look out across Lake Superior and listen on the car radio as the Beach Boys sang, I wish they all could be California girls. But absent spending the summer in Malibu, Colorado would be the next best thing. When the boys in the dorm found he was taking a road trip out west, they lined up to give Larry twenty dollars each for a case of Coors beer which was not then sold in Michigan. Somehow Coors had increased value just because it was unobtainable in Northern Michigan and Larry took only enough orders to fill his trunk on the return trip. In the fall, Larry's popularity would soar among those who received a case of that Rocky Mountain spring water.

One of the best days of Larry's life was when he moved away from home to go to college. His father was a martinet who rigidly controlled the family and all those around him. In high school, he would tell Larry how to dress, eat and talk. On the other hand, Larry's mother was a housewife, gentle soul and amateur artist who enjoyed arising each morning to share a cup of coffee and gaze at the spectacle of Pike's Peak through the living room picture window. And Larry, a gentle soul in his own right, was looking forward to a laid back summer of chasing girls, drinking beer and having some enviable experiences he could describe while holding court in the dorm lounge of Spooner Hall back at NMU. But one thing about living with parents again is that old habits tend to re-establish themselves. The Major insisted that if Larry was going to be living at home, he needed to obtain employment. "This isn't a resort where you can just lay around, you know. I want you to get a summer job as soon as possible!" Thankfully, Larry was spared the stories about how his father washed Al Capone's car on the north side of Chicago for only a dollar when he was a boy and how he shoveled coal during the depression for ten cents a ton. So now, Larry's aspirations for a fun vacation were going to be confined to non-working hours, that is if he could land a job. But if he was lucky, at least he would earn some extra money and perhaps meet some girls in the bargain.

The second day home, Larry went downtown to the Stokes Employment Service to fill out the paperwork for obtaining a summer job. The only position immediately available was kitchen staff at the Homestead Restaurant on West Fillmore and he was given a referral letter from the employment service. Larry drove to the restaurant and interviewed with the manager, a Mr. Clyde Stephenson, who wore a white shirt, tie and had thick glasses that made his eyes look like two marbles floating in oil. As soon as Larry said he was in college and his father was in the Air Force he was hired on the spot.

The first day on the job at the Homestead, Larry was assigned duties of bussing and cleaning tables. He pushed around a cart onto which he placed all the dirty dishes, glasses and silverware. Then he wiped down the tables with a towel and swept up any droppings from the floor. When his cart was full, he wheeled it into the kitchen and parked it by the dishwasher conveyer belt for the dishwasher to unload and place in plastic carriers. The dishwasher was a man of about sixty named Bill Dempsey. Bill had been the dishwasher at Homestead for over ten years and ran the washing equipment on automatic pilot while smoking the stub of a cigar. He wore a white t-shirt and jeans with a baseball cap that said "smile if you are not wearing panties" which the manager said he could wear as long as he stayed back in the kitchen and left the establishment through the back entrance. Bill had a red face seemingly ready to explode, dark circles under his eyes and a round belly covered by a large white apron that went from his chest all the way to his knees.

The only thing fun about bussing tables was being able to watch the people and flirt with the bored young girls dining with their parents. But after only three days, Larry proved to be so adept at bussing that the manager decided to move him into the kitchen to assist with food preparation.

The first kitchen job Larry was assigned involved shelling and deveining shrimp. Bill the dishwasher told him that if he had not made any friends in Colorado Springs since his arrival, that situation would soon change. Larry didn't know what he meant by that. He sat on the concrete steps at the back door of the kitchen facing an alley with his knife, a plastic bucket of shrimp between his legs, a second bucket into which the shells and veins were thrown and a large stainless steel bowl into which the cleaned shrimp were placed. The first visitor to peek around the corner was a blue-eyed Siamese. The cat padded cautiously down the alleyway, climbed up the bottom two steps and started nuzzling Larry's leg. Larry gave one of the cleaned shrimp to the cat who began to eat greedily. When Larry looked up again, four more furry heads were looking around the corner of the building and when they saw the Siamese, they ran up to the bottom of the steps. Larry gave a shrimp to each of the new diners and the Siamese was already rubbing up against his tennis shoe looking for more. It was then that he realized that at this rate, his bowl of cleaned shrimp would never truly fill up after all his work at cleaning. So, he dumped some of the shells and veins at the bottom of the steps to keep his new "friends" busy. They rummaged through the shells, licking them and eating the veins just as if they were cleaned shrimp. By the time Larry was done with the bucket of shrimp, there were ten cats looking up at him adoringly from the bottom of the steps. No doubt they would be back again tomorrow.

When Larry went inside, he was told to dip the shrimp in batter, roll them in breading and put them on a tray for baking. He had three other related jobs. The first was making onion rings from scratch. He had to peel the onions, cut them into large slices and disconnect the concentric rings from small to large. Then they were dipped in the same batter and breading used for the shrimp and deep fried. The second job was to keep the French fries coming. This was easier because the fries came frozen in large bags and all he had to do was dump them in the baskets of the deep fryer, lower them into the oil, take them out, salt them and let them drain. The third responsibility was to make sandwiches and salads. There was a workspace about the size of a small salad bar across from the dishwasher that contained cutting boards and tubs full of cold cuts, chicken, bacon, bread, lettuce, tomatoes and all the fixings for salads. This is where Larry spent most afternoons, putting together lunches that didn't require cooking.

When Larry was in his corner with the shrimp, onion rings and fries and when he was at his station making sandwiches and salads, he had a lot of time to watch the head fry cook work his magic on the griddle. Floyd "Rummy" Radowski had been a cook in the Navy for twenty years and got his nickname because since high school he had loved to play gin rummy. He also had a penchant for the gin without the rummy and came to the Homestead every morning with a low grade hangover. Yet, this did not detract from his skill as a cook. Rummy could take two eggs in each hand, crack them on the griddle, squeeze them just so and they would run out on the grill with no yolk broken. Those customers who did not want their eggs sunny side up had their yolks pierced by the edge of Rummy's large steel spatula. His griddle was segregated into little plots populated by hash browns up in the corner, scrambled eggs in the center, bacon, ham and sausage to one side and always an omelet or two in progress. Rummy had nerves of steel. He was never rattled, even on mornings when the customers stood in line out the front door and waited patiently for a table. The spinner with breakfast orders filled up as fast as Rummy emptied it and he could keep up this pace from seven in the morning until noon when the sandwich and burger orders began to come in. A permanent fixture in the corner of Radowski's mouth was an unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarette that stuck to his lips even when he talked and the ashes always seemed to drop in the narrow space between the edge of the griddle and his round belly.

As time went on, however, Rummy became progressively more unreliable. Instead of arriving at six, he would be half an hour late. While he used to look cool and calm, now his hands trembled and beads of sweat accrued on his forehead. Orders were prepared more slowly than usual and sometimes sent back for adjustments. He began to sneak sips of brandy from a pint beneath his apron just to get by. And as every day became just a little worse, nothing escaped the watchful eye of the manager.

Since Larry was involved in food preparation, Mr. Stephenson took him aside and asked if he felt he could fill in for Rummy if he became ill or didn't show up for work. Larry was amazed that he might move up the ladder from bus boy to potentially the head fry cook in less than a month and a half. It actually came to pass, but unfortunately the first creation he prepared on the griddle was vomit.

On the morning of July 15th Larry was making onion rings when he heard a horrible sound; BLAUGHHHHH! He paused in his battering and looked over at Rummy who again threw up a projectile onto the griddle. BLAUGHHHHH! Dempsey turned from his dishwasher, said "Jesus!" and began to shake his head from side to side. Mr. Stephenson who was standing in the doorway grabbed Rummy by the scruff of his neck and threw him out the back door down the concrete steps yelling "You're fired! Don't you EVER come back here or I'll have you arrested!"

Larry looked at the vomit sizzling on the griddle and didn't know what to do. The whole kitchen smelled like throw up. Stephenson slammed and locked the back door and told Larry "the only way to get it off of there is to cook it, flip it over, cook the other side, get it on the spatula and put it in the trash can." Larry did as he was told, just like cooking scrambled eggs.

"Now turn up the heat and get a lot of wet towels. Towel it until it makes steam over and over again. I'll go out and tell the customers that we are having trouble with the grill and we will have to close for the rest of the day. Tonight I'll get everything disinfected and be ready to go for breakfast tomorrow." He pointed at Larry. "You're the fry cook starting tomorrow morning."

Larry cooked breakfast and lunch for the remainder of his summer break. Mr. Stephenson had another cook to handle the evening meal so Larry was off by five o'clock every night. Sometimes he would cook himself a burger at the end of his shift and other times he would go for a meal at home. For the rest of the summer he would frequent the night spots and try to meet girls, but for some reason his heart was never in it. He felt more mature than the average college student, tired from an honest day's work and he knew the alarm would sound at 5:30 AM. He did earn quite a sum of money that summer to take back to Michigan. When he drove back to college he had a trunk loaded with twenty cases of Coors reserved for his friends. Larry had no tales to tell the boys in Spooner Hall of surfer girls, sexual exploits or falling in love in Colorado. But his friends wanted to hear again and again how he worked his way up from busboy to head fry cook in the space of just a few months in the summer of 1965.

6 comments:

  1. Life is what happens when you're making plans!? The pace and playful humour, backed up by descriptive gems e.g 'eyes like two marbles floating in oil', help us to manage the disgust quotient of the climax to the story - the cooking vomit, and to respond well to the 'sick' humour. The characters are wittily constructed and tangible. A very funny narrative: and also a nice reflective piece in terms of the trials and tribulations of a young person returning to the parental home after a period of relative independence. Well done,
    Ceinwen Haydon

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  2. No breakfast this morning! Stretches 'funny' but it works well. A zappy little read

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  3. Speaking as one who worked for 3 summer vacations as a hotel kitchen porter I sense a true story here, and - I cringe to say - authentic to its regurgitated core! Vivid real characters and scene setting, well contrasted with the quiet of the narrator who is busy being caught up in his rite of passage. Thanks for the verbal warning in the 'header' Charlie!
    Brooke

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  4. Realistic and believable. A touch of humor at its core, a nostalgic interlude for anyone trying to go home again and dreading it, only to learn another, maybe greater, lesson.

    James Shaffer

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  5. I wasn't expecting the kitchen horror in the middle there! I don't think I'll ever look at corned beef hash the same way again. A fun read.

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  6. I liked the beginning of this confirming every young man's idea of life, money, drink, sun tanned girls and surfing fun. The story however did bring reality home to Larry, at least he made the money part of his holiday expectations. But what came across here was the work ethic and the contradictions involved, working a hot kitchen is not for everyone. I enjoyed reading this,

    James McEwan

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