Monday, September 6, 2010

My Worst Job. Ever.

I'm lucky and I know it -- I get paid to write.   But I didn't always have it this good.  If it weren't for a certain individual who came along and steered me in the right direction I wouldn't be where I am today.  That's why I like to celebrate Labor Day every year by giving thanks to Mr. James Joyce.

I don't mean James Joyce the writer.  I mean the James Joyce who managed the A&W Root Beer franchise on Santa Monica Boulevard near University High School in West Los Angeles.  Mr. Joyce was my very first boss after I turned 16 and joined America's workforce evenings and weekends for minimum wage, which in those days was the princely sum of $1.25 per hour.  We kids who worked there at A&W also kept a tip jar on the counter that we greedily divided up at the end of the night. Which didn't didn't take long.  It's not hard to divide zero three ways.

Mr. Joyce, or Jimbo as we called him behind his back, was fat, bald, cheap and mean.  A tyrant.  He hated everyone.  He hated his customers, his employees, his wife, his kids. If he'd had a pet gerbil he would have hated it.  The only pleasure in his life came from terrorizing the pale, knock-kneed high school kids who worked for him.  He was the only man I'd ever met who was meaner than a gym teacher.

The A&W on Santa Monica was a small fast-food outlet by today's Golden Arches standards.  We sold mugs of the famous root beer, of course, and a few other beverages like lemonade and coffee.  We sold soft-freeze ice cream for cones or root beer floats.  And we cooked up hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and onion rings.  The place was mobbed after school -- it was one of the primary hang-outs -- and did a brisk business on sunny weekends.  There were about two-dozen tables outside if customers wanted their order To Stay.  A lot of people, like members of the LAPD, always took theirs To Go.  There was a police station not very far away and the A&W was popular with cops -- not so much because the food was good but because all cops in uniform ate for free.

A&W employees did not.  If Jimbo ever caught any of us sneaking a frosty mug of root beer or a burger he'd dock it from our pay.  He also believed each and every one of us to be thieves. We were guilty until proven innocent. I know this because when he totaled up the receipts after my first night of work he discovered that we were $10 short.  One of my co-workers had swiped $10 from the till knowing Jimbo would blame it on the new guy. And he did.  I was docked $10 even though I denied I'd taken it.  I spent the first eight hours of life in the fast food business working off that debt.

There were usually three of us on duty per shift.  All of us were guys.  Jimbo never hired girls. Probably thought they'd distract us. We needed a fourth man.  Actually, we had a fourth man --  Jimbo.  But Jimbo didn't work. He just sat there and barked orders at us.  We would rotate stations hourly because it was really, really hard to perform any one job at a high rate of speed or efficiency for much longer than that without collapsing with exhaustion.  The counterman took the orders from customers, handed them off to the cook, got the drinks himself and worked the cash register.  That was the hardest job.  You had to be organized and polite and not lose it when customers became abusive and, gulp, asked to speak to the manager.  If that happened then Jimbo would make you sorry you were ever born.  The grill man made the burgers.  That was the scariest job.  If you overcooked a burger or undercooked a burger or -- God help you -- flipped one onto the floor, Jimbo would make you sorry you were ever born.  The fryer man made the French fries and onion rings.  That was the worst job.  I hated being the fryer man. Have you ever stood over a deep fryer inhaling boiling, spattering grease for a solid hour? I don't recommend it.  The grease doesn't come out of your pores or your hair no matter how long you stand under the shower when you get home.  And, hello, burns?

The fryer man also had to work the parking lot.  If there was ever a lull in business Jimbo would bark at you to "clean up after the pigs," meaning sprint out to the outdoor tables and throw away all of the half-eaten food, dirty napkins and greasy wrappers that our customers had left behind for us.  A lot of people, I quickly discovered, really are disgusting pigs.  To this day, I never leave a wrapper or a coffee container behind anywhere. I always clean up after myself.  I have Jimbo to thank for that.

We were not allowed to ease the grueling tension by speaking to each other while we worked -- other than to convey food and drink orders.  Anyone caught cracking jokes or talking about last night's Dodger game or in any way having the slightest bit of fun was automatically docked an hour's pay.

As brutal as our high-volume rotating shifts were they weren't even the worst part of the day.  The worst part was the before and after.  Saturday and Sunday mornings we'd arrive at 8:00 on the button -- if you more than two minutes late Jimbo would dock you for the entire hour -- and spend three solid hours doing our prep work. That might mean filling the deep fryers with fresh, yummy oil.  Or making the condiments, such as the yummy gallon tubs of Thousand Island Dressing for the burgers.  Trust me, stirring a big tub of mayo, ketchup and pickle relish is not an appetizing job at 8:00 a.m.  Nor is chopping onions.  One Saturday morning I chopped onions for two solid hours. I could not get the smell out of my fingers until my mom suggested I soak them in lemon juice.  But the biggest prep job of all was making the famous A&W root beer.  In the back room we had a giant stainless steel vat that resembled one of those locker room whirlpool baths that NFL players dunk themselves in after games.  Into the vat we would dump a 100-pound bag of sugar (it took all three of us to hoist it up and in) followed by a gallon jug of special A&W syrup.  Maybe it was two gallons. I don't remember. It looked like molasses.  After that we would turn on the cold water and fill the vat up, up, up to the top.  Then we would lower the lid, seal the vat shut and hit the switch that would aerate it, positive it was about to explode and send all of us flying out into Santa Monica Boulevard.

After I'd been working at A&W for a week I stopped drinking root beer.  To this day, I still can't stand the taste of it.

Still, I haven't even gotten to the worst part of the job.  The worst part was clean-up.  We had to scour the whole place with cleanser and disinfectant after we'd served our last customer of the night.  That entire place had to sparkle before Jimbo would let us drag our weary bones home at night. Do you have any idea how dirty a fast food grill is by the end of the day? How dirty and disgusting the deep fryer oil is? How filthy the floor and walls are?  Everything had to be white glove clean.   Again, Jimbo never lifted a finger to help.  Just barked orders at us.

I would be too tired to shower standing up when I got home.  I'd just sit there on the floor, limp and greasy, and let the water beat down o me.

Truly, my stint at A&W was the worst job I've ever had in my life.  But it was the single most important, too.  I was 16 years old then.  I would be starting college soon if I wanted to.  Working for James Joyce taught me a critically important lesson: I wanted to.  Because if I didn't go to college and make something of myself then ... cue the drum roll ... I would be spending my whole life working at places just like A&W for mean fatsos like James Joyce.  This would be my life.  This was what I had to look forward to.

No way, I said to myself.  No way.

So thank you, Jimbo -- wherever you are.  And Happy Labor Day.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, worked at an A&W back in the day. I was a car hop. All the girls were car hops and we learned from the first day to never let another girl be alone with the manager/owner -- another Jim, oddly enough.

    We were allowed free drinks, but we had to pay for our food. The smell of the cleansers still haunts me, but unlike you, I developed a passion for the root beer. No idea why.

    Still, I was so pleased to have a reason to dump the job, and to this day, no matter what I always tip the car hop. Always.

    Love your books, especially the Berger and Mitry series! Thanks for all you've given us!