Sunday, August 17, 2008

Terrible Jobs

In the summer of 1990, I worked at a trashy, strip mall record store in Cave Springs, MO. My job was to keep the classical section organized (the very skill that got me hired) and to sell Bel Biv Devoe cassettes. The manager gave me quite a start on my first day when she asked me to talk to her in her office. She was in her late thirties and I could sense that she was more than a little out of her mind. I think she enjoyed scaring the shit out of timid twenty-year-olds.

"Ken, I think I should tell you, that I suffer from PMS and there will be times when you just have to give me some space."

Years later, I now realize that what she was really saying was: "I'm going to mask my hostilities and contempt for everyone in the whole world in the guise of an affliction beyond my control. By absolving myself of responsibility for how I act, I can therefore justify my horrible, bullying behaviors and put you in a position where you have no method of recourse--no matter how hard you try to please me, and no matter much shit I dump on you."

At the time I felt a rush of adrenaline akin to the lion tamer who walks into the cage on his first day, unpacking his hat and whip and hoping to God he is able to sustain his limb count by the time the whistle blew at five o'clock.

People used to try to pull scams there all the time. The burnouts would dig out a Blue Oyster Cult tape from the floor of a '77 El Camino with no case and no receipt and try to con me into a refund. This would lead to a five minute argument, during which I would invariably point out that the tape in question did indeed look as though it had been found on the floor of a '77 El Camino. If they needed beer and weed money that badly, they might have considered getting jobs. Such was the economic infrastructure of St. Charles County back in the old days.

I remember this one kid in a denim jacket who lost one of these pointless, mind-numbing arguments. "You fuckin' suck, dude!" I actually smiled and chuckled. "Sorry, man." I was impervious to Spicolian epithets, however expediently timed.

But at twenty years old, even I wasn't the becrusted and jaded tunesmith who stands before you now. Before the weight of the world put the squeeze on my idealism, I was a comparatively naive kid, and my eagerness to please sometimes led people to the false assumption that it was OK to push me around.

I left the record store to go back to college. My next job was in the Webster University cafeteria. The great thing was that it was a job I couldn't possibly screw up no matter how hard I tried. I put the salad bar out, served food, washed dishes and emptied the suggestion box. The suggestion box yielded many priceless gems of wisdom like, "The mashed potatoes are always cold," "This food fucking sucks," and my personal favorite, "Ken Kase should be required to wear a hair net. He is disgusting and I will not eat food served by him." Since I was in charge of the suggestion box, I dispatched my responsibilities, sending on those suggestions with the most merit. It's good to be king.

The most intriguing character was the head chef, who happened to be French, believe it or not. He was a short guy with a neurotic twitch that seemed to come from his whole body. He walked around in his big white chef's hat and spoke in a silly French accent that betrayed the gruesome truth of his stature and station. He was, after all, a French chef whose primary responsibilities were pizza, industrial soy burgers and tuna casserole. He talked with his hands and blurted out inappropriate modifiers, and walked around as though it was the kitchen of Tavern on the Green, routinely losing his mind over the hot dogs being served at less than optimum temperature or the shoddy way in which the Rice Krispy treats were cling wrapped. What, after all, did we know about fine food?

It wasn't the mystery of how a guy like him got the job. It was the mystery of what job he had to have completely blown to end up as a French cafeteria guy. What culinary crime did one have to commit to traverse the journey from crepes to crapes?

Certainly his fall from grace was due to incompetence, not malice. In years to come, I would see malice practiced on the job, and it was not pretty. For a time, I bussed tables at a greasy spoon on the graveyard shift. I had a couple in a booth nearby the working station and I was dutifully pumping a young woman full of hot coffee. I poured her a cup that sat next to the saucer on the table. She looked up disapprovingly.

"I can't believe you just did that."

"I'm sorry?" I asked.

"That was really bad, pouring it into the cup next to the saucer like that. Bring me a new cup."

"Well, fuck you!" I said. Well, OK--not really. But I was thinking it so loud that it could have been mistaken for speech by even the most dull-witted telepath sitting anywhere in a five mile radius. I apologized again and said I would get her another cup.

"Hey," she said, "just trying to help you get good tips!"

"WELL, F'UCK YOU!" I said. All right, I didn't. But I don't take kindly to bullying, and such an outburst was utterly justified.

I went back to the waiter's station and told one of the overnight waiters what had just happened. "Can you believe that? She's getting all bent out of shape over the fact that I poured coffee into a cup that wasn't on its saucer--and isn't that her responsibility?"

"That bitch," he said. "Fuck her."

He had a glint in his eye that signified opportunity recognized--that mischievous sparkle of inspiration beyond traditionally held beliefs related to good and evil, existing in the realm of moral absolutes and inevitable action.

Ten minutes later, he clasped my elbow and whispered in my ear. "You won't have to worry about her."

"Why," I asked with a slight grin of anticipation.

"I put a little bleach into her coffee. When she gets home, she should be on the toilet for a few hours."

My grin turned into the open gape of horror. "You did what?"

"Just a little bit of bleach. It won't hurt her."

"Well, you really didn't have to do that, man. I wasn't that pissed at her!"

"Don't worry. She'll be fine. Fuck her, anyway."

I then realized what too many years in food service could do to a guy. It could turn you into an absolute psycho. Don't piss off your servers, people. It's a policy that I've adhered to very strictly since that fateful day.

Not that anyone ever worried about pissing me off. There aren't a whole hell of a lot of near blind people working in food service--not, at least, waiting tables. But wait tables I did at the legendary Wabash Triangle Cafe. I was freakin' Superman with a tray full of entrees, able to deal the right dish to the right customer without tripping or spilling anything. I was the blind equivalent of the guy on the Ed Sullivan Show who used to spin the plates, except with food on them.

One day, I accidentally bumped someone's elbow, prompting him to say, "What's the matter with you--are you blind?" I smiled stupidly and walked away, while Calvin, the owner and proprietor gently whispered that yes, in fact, their server was blind. I'm told the look of guilt and anguish across the customer's face was too perfect for words. I got a nice tip. We laughed ourselves sick after they left.

So there you go--one moment of sweet and appropriate revenge that didn't cause anyone to rush to the john or get me punched in the face. Many people work their whole lives without that kind of vindication, and although I may piss and moan about my work history, I know in my heart that I'm luckier than most. A little petty vindication beats a capful of bleach in your coffee any day.