Wednesday, January 18, 2012

First Job

As a teenager, I worked in a Bonanza Sirloin Pit. This was a franchised steak house where I had to wear a burnt orange, polyester shirt stenciled with horses and covered wagons and a chocolate-brown chef's hat. In comparison, this made the ravages of acne seem compassionate.

My friend Glen and I had this thing going on at the time where we would answer the phone (back in the days before caller I.D.) with a long, drawn-out "Hal-owwwwwwww?" in a stupid voice just to make each other laugh. Since, mostly, we were the only ones who called one another it was a pretty safe bet. But of course, the day Bonanza Sirloin Pit called, responding to my application for employment, I did the usual:


At this point you would think, recognizing a strange, female voice, I would have shifted strategies. But you would be wrong. At sixteen, I was an idiot. Not that much has changed.

"Hal-owwwwwwwww?" I repeated.
"Uh, this is Shannon Doherety from Bonanza Sirloin Pit. May I speak to ChaCha Puddlewinks?"
"Um, uh, yeah, hal-owwwwww, I mean hello, it's me."
"We'd like you to come in for an interview on blah blah blah" and so it was arranged. I did,I was hired and supposedly it was my first job. As it turned out, it was just another opportunity to spread my overreaching sense of Puddlewinksness to a wider audience. Not what they, nor any other employer since, had in mind.

The manager and I were poles apart. He was a surly, middle aged man of few words. I was a flamboyant sixteen-year-old who would not shut the fuck up. He liked wrestling. I liked hand puppets. We did not see eye to eye.

My best friend from junior high, Larry, had left our crazy Christian school and had moved on to a competing crazy Christian school and I hadn't seen him for a few years. Imagine my delight to find he was also working at the same Bonanza Sirloin Pit. We reconnected and it was fun all over again.

Thing is, Larry's parents fucking hated me. They had a daughter who had died, tragically, of cancer and the grieving father had printed up several thousand copies of a gospel tract called "Gerri's Wish For You" which was a folder with the daughter's school picture on the front and inside was the story of the girl getting bone cancer and on her deathbed wishing that everyone would know God's plan of
salvation...basically saying "my daughter died of cancer so if you don't adopt my religious opinions you are a heartless bastard." Personally, I think if there is a God he took her so that siblings wouldn't have to go through life being known as Larry and Gerri. But seventh grade me took an ink pen and blacked out the eyes on the cover photo so that they were hollow sockets and drew flaps of flesh
sagging off her face so that the picture looked like a rotting corpse. Larry thought it was funny but like a fool put it in his pocket and forgot to take it out. His mom was doing the laundry, found it and was not amused. Can't imagine why, but Larry's parents labeled me a bad influence and we were forbidden to be friends anymore.

So Larry didn't tell his folks I was working at Bonanza Sirloin Pit.

Another friend, Donavon, was in my class at school and also worked there. Donovan was funny and appreciated the concept of taking an obscure non-joke and running it the fuck into the ground. His father was somehow involved in distributing the Tastycake line of products, which were not available in our small, West Virginia town, so he would constantly sneak Tastycake promotional materials into my desk, book bag or whatever and wait for me to find them, which I found hilarious.

My first day at work: I am in the back room. Donavon is loading steak into the freezer. I see a couple of salad tongs, grab them and start clicking them like castanets while doing a mad dance. Suddenly Donovan freezes mid-laughter and I know someone is behind me. It's John Hunt, the surly manager. "Get out there and bus some tables when you're done doing the calypso..."

So then Larry and I come up with this great, customer-disorienting thing. When you arrive at Bonanza Sirloin Pit, the first thing you do is place your order with the nerd in the chocolate-brown chef's hat at the front of the line, who repeats your order into a microphone so that the cooks can throw your cheap piece of meat on the grill and cook it to your precious, exacting specifications.

I was the idiot at the microphone. But when I said, "May I help you?" it was actually Larry, crouched behind the counter, saying that while I mouthed the words. It came off as a live-action version of a badly dubbed foreign film. Customers knew something wasn't right, but could not put their finger on precisely what it was and the resulting expressions were priceless. The standard follow-up questions: "How
would you like that cooked?" "Do you want fries or a baked potato" "Salad or a vegetable?" were given the same treatment. The customers became more and more flustered, and in some cases visibly hostile (because dumb people always react with anger to things they don't understand.) If you can find a way to mess with the general public's sensory experience, I highly recommend it.

Other incidents were a little more overt. In order to make the strawberry shortcake, you had to slice fresh strawberries into a vat of red, industrial polymer that passed as 'glaze'. I had on rubber kitchen gloves, was mixing the stuff together, then raised my hands out of the bucket, dripping with red goo. My friend was at the microphone, and I burst out of the swinging kitchen
door, in full view of the customers, gooey gloved hands raised, shouting, "Congratulations, Larry! It's a boy!"

There were complaints.

We had our company Christmas party and I got two gifts: A blow up sex doll from Secret Santa and a Rocky Horror Picture Show poster of Frank-N-Furter in front of the RKO tower from Donovan. I took them home and Mom and Dad laughed at the sex doll and I threw the poster in the back of a drawer, forgetting about it. Some months later I came home from school and there was the poster taped to the front of my bedroom door. Crazy Christian mom had scrawled across it, in black
magic marker, "Avoid all appearances of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22)" Uh oh. I was staring at it and she came popping out from around the corner like something from a slasher movie, no doubt lying in wait for an hour or so until I got home to see it and started in on her carefully rehearsed tirade. A blow-up naked woman, hey, we'll laugh it off. A fully dressed man in fishnets: ABOMINATION!!!

Oh god, it was dreadful. Scripture references projectile vomiting from her mouth one after the other; threats of eternal damnation, and worse, getting grounded. While I've never harbored a desire to be a sweet transvestite, maybe in that poster she saw in terms of deviant sexuality, which way the wind was blowing. Too bad I didn't.

Donovan came home with me after work. We went down and hung out in our basement. I had not yet put words to my impulses, but knew I wanted to get his medium-rare T-bone out and do things with it, even if we were wearing burnt orange polyester shirts. My confused, clueless and clumsy strategy was this:

"The itsy-bitsy spiiiiiiider...."

Here I did the usual thing of putting your thumb and fingertips together, splaying your other fingers wide open and wriggling your hands back and forth in hopes it resembles an arachnid.

"Climbed up the water spout..."

My finger spider crawled up his pants leg.

"Down came the rain..."

It moved across his crotch. He definitely had a hard-on.

"And washed the spider out..."

He got up, left without speaking, and continued to not speak for the rest of our time at Bonanza Sirloin Pit, our remaining year at school, or forever. He did paste a Tastycake thing into my senior yearbook, but refused to speak. I'm told at university he immediately enrolled in ROTC.

Back at Bonanza Sirloin Pit, I had burned my finger on the grill and had a blister the size of a Good N' Plenty. I'd pricked it with a needle, and when customers would approach me with attitude for no reason I would squeeze it and cause the lymph fluid to squirt out and hose down the back of their neck and shirt. I would then meet them at the drink fountain and if they demanded extra ice I would say "I only have ice for you" then give them a second squirting from the blister of vengeance as they made their way down the line.

Larry got caught jerking off into the Ranch dressing vat used for the salad bar. People knew we were friends and came to me, expecting some sort of explanation.

"Hey," I said, "It's Larry's wish for you."

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