Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood
Hit the beautiful blonde in the side of her head with a dirty dish in the kitchen at Applebee’s while attempting to dump appetizer scraps into the garbage--she spins around on rubber mats connected like Escherichia coli infested pieces of a phony bleached jigsaw puzzle--seventeen years old--nostrils flaring, porous from cocaine--furious. You are the worst waiter; everything breaks apart and gets shoddier by the day; not the golden boy of the taco palacio, now an outcast with black apron ridiculed by pedestrians and uniformed servers mocking from polluted ice cream stations. In their hands are scoopers crafting vanilla pyramids as if they were sandcastles in silver aluminum bowls; with cherries and chocolate sauce, maybe a whip-it if the boss is not watching. You are mesmerized by the soda fountain machine that spits out high-fructose corn syrup disguised as beverages as the cool kids blindly shovel crushed ice into their pint glasses after leveraging their legs, swinging their arms like Australopithecus, picking pieces of shredded chicken from the floor behind the line.
“Five second rule,” they say.
“You go to a tanning salon?” they ask.
“Those marks around your eyes are from the goggles.”
“He hit me in the head.”
Looks diminish and so do serving skills. Did you need to nail her for your thirteen dollars take-home pay for four hours of work; less than minimum wage because the prices are so goddamn cheap so the sales seldom add up to two hundred dollars, not even after a double shift; the secret mediocrity of the American dream?
“Sizzling Skillet Fajitas!”
“Bourbon Street Steak!”
“Chile Cheese Nachos!”
“Sizzling Asian Shrimp!”
Applebee’s was rotten. You didn’t show up one day and never again; except to pick up your twelve dollar check, despite the frozen stares from the hostess:
“Oh yeah, I remember you...”
No you don’t; but a couple years ago I was king of the kitchen.
“You have a chance with her,” they said. “If anyone does you do.”
They were talking about the deaf bartender, the tan one in the clandestine closet where she prepared drinks for the waiters and waitresses working their stations on the second floor above the helium tank, beside the hostess stand and the balloons. She was new and had that thick New Jersey accent and the rouge that made the boys blush. Her dimples could have been pimples and middle-aged men and teenagers would have still salivated when they saw her sweat. Even when we got slammed she served you Sex on the Beach, Amaretto Sour, and White Russians in plastic children’s cups with the lid during evening shifts so you could suck the straw, get drunk to muster the confidence necessary for asking customers what they wanted for dinner as you delivered their beverages: iced tea with lemon wedge, beer with coaster, wine with toaster, Coca-Cola for the kids who wish they were sitting on a rollercoaster.
“You are not working out here,” the Applebee’s manager had said; same tone as the other dozen restaurant dictators: The Rusty Pelican; Houston’s; Black Angus; the steak houses and seafood shacks which have since been painted over and lost their names. Some have been razed. America’s bar and grill my ass.
A couple owners, employees, and managers were fantastic--human beings that gave a shit…others were garbage who only cared about lining their pockets before being buried in lavish coffins and driving decadent whips: foreign vehicles they often positioned strategically or secretly before their wives, husbands, children, and the U.S. government. What the atavistic IRS agents and administrative penny-pinching bureaucracy cretins did not know would not kill them; but the filet mignon might.
Restaurant proprietors often bear an eerie resemblance to “Boss” Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard; they pinch pennies at every opportunity, usually neglecting the walk-in refrigerators to the point of moldy vegetables and soggy cardboard covered in fungus. They pay off the food inspectors. Moss grows on the vegetables as the bosses walk toward their exorbitant cars--plastic bags full of Caesar salads and the high-end items (seafood and choice cuts of meat) that employees are not permitted to enjoy for free--headed to the fancy homes (sometimes mansions) they mortgage their dignity to afford. Or they phone the spouse and lie about how busy work is, explaining they will be late; so they can go bang the whores and gigolos after placing their wedding rings in the glove compartments next to the antacids and edible condoms.
(Though never any spite directed toward the first manager who died of lung cancer and chained smoked at Charlie Brown’s; the greatest boss ever who was surprised to see good teens smoking with the other servers in your first restaurant job in Tenafly--where the worst waiter was still learning--too shy to talk to the bartender who offered his recommendation as a friend of a friend to your parents, so for months you would just sit and stir, only opening up to those like a slow-blooming flower: Puya raimondii; though it often takes many months, if not years.
Why couldn’t you tell that godlike manager you were stealing from the establishment; because he taught you to count money with the faces forward even if he sometimes forgot to collect those coupons during check out? This was when you met in the diminutive smoky office and listened to his mellifluous voice: so deep from tobacco and approaching mortality--he should have seen it like an oncoming freight train in the cool Colorado rain--must have known it was barreling around the corner--could hear that Casey whistle blast--but Jersey never talks about its weaknesses?
Should you be the dead guy who crashed into the stone wall when he was eighteen and woke the whole neighborhood or the obese second manager who ate four prime ribs every shift and his only legacy is putting up that fancy marker board in the kitchen? How many times must we write “86” on it? How many French onion soups can you steal or comp?
Is there really any difference; it’s all just waiting for the cheese to cool, melted with another plastic children’s cup with the lid? Is it the Chinese cooks who speak not a word of English but wield the butcher’s knives like homicidal maniacs? Drunk driving home with the girls who know better, until the restaurant closes and that woman has no scar from when you stepped on her toes on purpose during a Saturday evening shift; and you are neither close to being perfect nor eating at a restaurant in the United States ever again?
Like the nomadic Pericú natives before him, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives and writes in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.