I began working at age 14. Before I made a career for myself in magazines and publishing, I held many different positions in a wide range of fields… I drove a tow truck. I worked as a house boat instructor, teaching German and Japanese tourists how to pilot 50-foot death machines on Lake Powell. I was a janitor at a ski resort. I sold knives door to door (Cutco cutlery). I worked construction. I shoveled snow. I waited tables. I bailed hay. I shucked oysters… The experiences I gained through these various positions, and the people I dealt with, were much more valuable than the minimum wage I took home. Of course at the time, I just needed some cheddar.
One of my more memorable jobs lasted just one shift. I believe I was 15 or so and my mom got me a job as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant in my home town. The restaurant was named Chan’s, which was the last name of the family that owned it. This was circa 1989 or so. The town I grew up in, a well-to-do waspy Connecticut suburb, did not have many restaurants and the ones we did have were individually owned. There were no Olive Gardens or Applebees in our town, in fact, the only McDonalds was on the interstate.
Going out for dinner was more of an event than it is now. At least it felt that way, and Chan’s was a legit, sit-down Chinese restaurant. The food was good, and traditionally prepared. It was no take-out joint.
The kitchen at Chan’s was armed with a bevy of cooks that lived in Chinatown in New York City. They worked four- or five-day stints at the restaurant. When their work week was done, they’d take the train back to the city for a few days, and then come back to the restaurant in Connecticut. They slept on the second floor of the restaurant in a family-style halfway house that scared me to death. The door to the staircase leading up to the living quarters was grease-stained, dark and streaky. One of the waitresses told me to never go up there. I told her she didn’t have to worry about that.
No one in the kitchen spoke any English, well except for me. And every time one of the chefs had something to say to me, it seemed like they were screaming, with their hands flying mad as if they were waving off flies or about to karate chop me. Guys smoked those extra-long cigarettes as they worked over the food, and threw knives around like circus acts. Instead of placing cooking utensils in the sink next to me, they’d throw them from wherever they were in the kitchen. Ladles came flying at me like scud missiles. One small guy, who looked to be about 90 years old and weighed in at maybe 85 pounds stood at a worn butcher block with a cleaver as big as his head and deboned chickens for hours on end. He had a small, one-speaker boom box that played old doo-wop songs with Chinese singing dubbed over the beat. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Chan, was a Chinese guy who had married a caucasian woman. They both worked in the restaurant and they were friendly enough to me, but they’d get in these nasty screaming matches which always culminated in more utensil throwing.
It was a very weird and scary place and I was a bit afraid to speak to anyone.
I had run large commercial dishwashers before. Their operation is pretty simple, just wet and messy. The plates and silverware would come in and you’d hose them off, set them on a rack, slide the rack into the dishwasher, close the large stainless door and push a button to kick off the wash cycle. When the cycle was over you open the door, slide the rack of steaming clean dishes out and put another rack of dirty ones in. The pots and woks were washed by hand and all of the cooks took care of their own woks. I never touched one, thank God. I couldn’t imagine a chef tossing a hot wok at me like a big black frisbee.
I came in on a Saturday afternoon to work the dinner shift. My mom told me that after the shift the staff would get together for a family meal. She said this was the best part of the night because the cooks would serve authentic Chinese food that wasn’t on the menu. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it that far.
There was one chef with a bad perm who tried to show me the ropes as best he could minus our obvious language barriers. He pointed out things like the “start” button on the dishwasher, the rack where all the clean dishes were stacked, and showed me a supply closet where I could grab a plastic apron to keep myself dry, brooms, paper goods for the bathrooms and the dreaded mop bucket. He spent maybe 20 minutes with me before he left me on my own to wash all of the knives, cutting boards and giant soup pots the chefs had dirtied during their prep work. We had about two hours before the dinner rush set in.
Things were rolling along swimmingly. I even started to enjoy the Chinese renditions of songs like ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’ As the night waned on, the dishes came in more readily. Before too long, I was officially in the weeds. Stacks of bowls and plates grew like skyscrapers on the stainless-steel table. Ladles and wooden spoons flew in from all angles of the kitchen. Men began to yell at me in Chinese, but no one offered to help. Then the dishwasher went on the fritz. Dishes were not coming out clean so I had to run them through a few times, which caused the leaning tower of dirty dishes to grow even higher.
I realized that the dish soap was empty. There was a gallon-jug of soap that fed into the dishwasher via a flexible tube. I unscrewed the empty bottle and went looking for a new one in the supply closet. Of course, I couldn’t find an exact match and was digging around in the closet for a good 15 minutes when the little 90-year old man with the big cleaver showed up. He grabbed my shoulder and screamed at me. He yanked me out of the closet. I tried to explain that I needed soap, but it was to no avail, so I just grabbed the closest thing I could find.
When I got back to the dishwashing station, I screwed on the new bottle of soap and inserted the little tube to feed soap into the machine. The mountain of dirty dishes was insane by this point. They hardly had any clean silverware or dishes left. Waitresses were bringing things to the bar to hand-wash them there. And then the attack happened. Apparently I had attached a bottle of hand soap to the dishwasher, not dishwashing soap. The dishwasher churned the hand soap into a sea of soap suds. The suds were thick, like something you’d encounter at a rave. I opened the door to the dishwasher, a terrible mistake, and a foamy white tidal wave poured out and onto the floor. The tiles underneat me turned into a slip-and-slide once the soapy suds met the greasy floor.
The suds quickly caught the attention of the kitchen staff. A screaming chef threw a push broom at me and I tried to sweep the suds away, but I didn’t know where to sweep them. Before too long there was at least six inches of soap suds on the entire floor of the kitchen. I swept and swept but it didn’t do much good. The cooking was halted. A chef got in my face, screaming like a crazy person and pushed me. I nearly fell over and fought the urge to smack him in the face.
I paused for a second, looked around and took in the scene. It was ugly. Soap suds covered the entire floor of the kitchen, and they kept pouring out of the dishwasher. Chefs were slipping and sliding as they attempted to sweep the suds away with brooms and squeegees. I made a decision, and did what most 15 year olds would probably do. I told the chef to fuck off (which I am certain he understood) and I walked out the back door, parting the suds like Moses.
I kept on walking until I found a payphone (remember, this was 1989). I called my mom and asked her to come get me. It was the only time I ever walked out on a job, and in retrospect, I think I made the right decision.