I only lasted four nights in the factory. That was forty-eight hours of pushing nothing more than three buttons as an endless amount of aluminum cans rolled past me. My shoulders ached as I stacked the cans on pallets, throwing sheets of hard plastic over every row so they wouldn’t fall in shipment. I grew up in a factory town; a good chunk of the families survived off of wages earned by handling the nuts and bolts of washing machines at Whirlpool just outside of the city limits. I knew that some of these people enjoyed the routine and monotony of a factory lifestyle, even if it was out of necessity. I was amazed the first couple nights, watching all the worker bees make their way around the hive. These men and women had every moment of their shift calculated. They sat in the same chairs, arranged their lunches on the break tables the same way, and never seemed to waste a single footstep. The middle-aged man that trained me said, “When you get really good at it, it’s like being on autopilot for twelve hours, easy money.”
I had a feeling that if I tried to make it through the summer palletizing beer cans that they would have to install suicide nets outside the windows like a sweatshop in Malaysia. By my third shift, I was watching the caged clock that hung on the wall more than I was keeping up with the cans. When I clocked out at six in the morning on payday, I immediately called the temp service I used, and told them I would not be returning.
My father was surprised when I told him I had quit. At my age, he was a hungry carpenter trying to find labor work during the Reagan Administration. The luxury of being choosy over a job was one not afforded to him until much later in life. Between him and my mother, our nuclear family couldn’t be considered middle class until around the turn of the century. Fortunately for me, only a couple of years old at the time, my father found a spot in a carpenter’s union, which meant better pay, longer breaks, and health insurance. Due to his work history, my father was apprehensive about me utilizing a temp service in the first place.
“Fuck that right to work shit, Charlie, giving you half of what they pay those permanently miserable bastards just because they can get away with it.”
While my father loved to use colorful carpenter language to sing the praises of unions, and denounce the tenets of conservative economic policy, we both knew I needed another job. It was essential that, while I stayed at home for the summer months of my undergrad program, I saved some scratch. It would be practically impossible for me to return to my pricey college town without clocking in as many hours as I could, somewhere. Luckily, my brother came to my salvation later that fateful day. My brother is thirteen years older than me, now in his mid-thirties, a lifelong restaurant savant that is currently running a gastropub in Northwest Ohio. Fortunately, he was down a couple bodies on the food line.
“It’s tough work, man. Long hours, crazy colleagues, lots of cleaning, fast-paced, and thankless. But if you want, you can come live like a pirate for the summer. Drinking, smoking, and cooking your way through whatever the place throws at ya.”
The text certainly didn’t sugarcoat it, being a cook wasn’t an easy gig. I closed my eyes to think about the offer, and saw the endless conveyor belt of cans again, so I texted back “I’ll take it.”
Now, I was not a complete novice to restaurant life. For a couple of years in high school, I worked as a busser in a swanky seafood joint in downtown Toledo. I cleared every bisque-caked bowl, cracked crab shell, and lipstick stained wine glass from every sticky table. They quickly moved me to a food runner position after the guy before me quit. I found my place on the food line, opposite of the cooks. At first, the only help I could offer was to just stay out of the way. The kitchen ran smoothly, almost like a Busby Berkeley musical that revolved around the culinary arts. The cooks worked the line together with absolute efficiency in movement. The chef conducted them by correctly calling out food ticket after ticket, the runners gracefully swept the trays off of the line, and the servers followed right behind in unison of step with fresh drinks. On a seemingly non-stop loop, shrimp coated in a golden batter, whitefish with a creamy lemon beurre blanc caper sauce, and piles of steaming crab legs wrapped neatly in white linen poured out of the back directly to the tables. The runners placed the massive plates in front of the patrons, while the server jetted in between the gaps of the chairs, littering the table with freshly uncorked bottles of Pinot Grigio, while simultaneously replenishing the fresh water supply to all the guests’ glasses. The synchronization of the entire staff was impeccable. It wasn’t until I started working for my brother as a cook that I realized the graceful, flawless, and smooth operation I had observed was actually one of anger, pressure, and degradation.
I came in early for my first day work, long before any servers or eaters would be around. The place was located in the middle of one of those outdoor shopping complexes, surrounded by high-end retail stores. This made me nervous. If I had learned anything from my last restaurant job, it’s that wealthy people are a nightmare to serve. Nothing ever seems to come out right on the first try, and it’s difficult to decide if the way they stick their nose in the air is because of their own snobbery or the cuisine. I could tell by a car count in the large parking lot that only opening cooks would be inside. Amidst the shoppers’ luxury branded sedans and SUVs, there were beaters peppered in. Dented fenders, busted lights, and advanced age gave away the cooks’ cars. It made me feel better as I pulled into a spot with my 2001 dinosaur. Though I still made sure to park next to a particularly damaged silver Honda, just to give me a little edge if one of the wealthy shoppers happened to glance in its direction.
There is a strange peace to a restaurant before it opens, like an open crop field with a mischievous looking cloud just a short distance away. The only noise in the place is the sound of knives hitting cutting boards, mixers beating thickening liquids, and the occasional expletive let out by the prep drone who realized he didn’t make enough ranch dressing the night before. When I walked in, they all looked up at me from their silent stations like I was fresh meat that had just gotten its foot stuck in the lion’s den.
“Alright, guys, meet Chuck. Chuck, this is Rory, Adam, and your Kitchen Manager Ridgeway.” The men all looked at me with a nod and went back to working. I returned the favor, but it was clear that my brother hadn’t told them we were related. The guys were a rough looking bunch. Rory’s arms were covered in fading tattoos; he had on street clothes, and the nicest article he seemed to own was the single fake diamond earring protruding from one of his lobes. I couldn’t tell if Adam looked really good or bad for his age. He was extremely thin, with buzzed blonde hair. His face, neck, and arms also contained skin art. The one that stuck out to me was the German phrase etched across the top of his eyebrow. It was clear that Ridgeway was a twenty-first century hippie, his hair long, his eyes reddened with the assumed friendship of a newly acquainted stranger.
“Adam, would you mind showing Chuckie around? Start him on the basics.” Ridgeway never put his requests in the form of an order, which was quite a change of pace from the last chef I worked for, who would only ask something politely if he had just recently told you to go fuck yourself earlier in the shift.
“Yeah, someone has to learn how to cook this fucking food around here.” Adam squared up on me, seemingly an attempt to size me up in a single stare. His eyes were bright blue, but streaks of red infiltrated the whites of his pupils. His forehead was covered in countless individual beads of sweat, all begging to fall off, but never seeming to actually make the move to new real estate. It was clear that he had a little too much Red Bull, or perhaps something stronger, earlier that morning. Without saying anything, Adam began walking from the back of the kitchen toward the food line, so I thought I better follow. As we turned the corner, I could feel the immediate change in temperature, the heat radiating from the grill, fryers, and vents.
“You ever cook before?” Adam refused to break eye contact with me.
“I’ve never cooked on the line, but I ran food for a couple years at a joint in Toledo. A little prep work, a lot of expo.” I stretched the truth a bit on the prep cooking. In reality, I had only cut up lemons and pickles before the dinner service when I was at the seafood joint.
“That’s alright with me, I’d rather you come in here ready to be sculpted than you come in with useless experience that makes you think you’re Big Dick.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that, average at best.”
“Hey, you’re funny. My brother was funny when he worked here.”
“Your brother worked here too?” It started to seem the cooking staff was dynasty driven.
“Yeah, but now he’s in the can. Robbed a 7/11 with no mask and a gun.” Adam began to casually stock his mise-en-place as he told me such over-personal information. I hadn’t even been clocked in for an hour, and I felt more like a probation officer than a cookie.
“That wasn’t very smart.” I opened my mouth before I thought of what I was going to say. Adam looked up at me with his strained eyes.
“Well, Chuck, you don’t do a whole lotta smart shit after you shoot up heroin. That’s why I had to give it up. I miss my brother, but he’ll be out in January. Last thing I need is to go be his fucking cellmate.” Almost simultaneously as Adam started to treat me like his NA sponsor rather than a new trainee, the tickets started to come through the printer. As Adam started taking on the orders, I feared that I had made my second poor employment choice that summer. The little white papers popped out one by one, never letting the printer breathe. Adam began to move like he had skates on the soles of his non-slip shoes. He would take a single glance at an order, and suddenly seem to grow five extra arms as he started whipping everything up all at the same time. Wedge salads appeared out of thin air, a ghost must’ve put those flatbreads in the impinger, and breaded chicken found its own way out of the fryer baskets onto plates in the blink of an eye.
A little more sweat seemed to accumulate on top of Adam’s head, but this was the only sign of stress that could be noticed by the untrained eye. There was no physical possibility of me working as fast as Adam could, and no mental capacity for me to leave the warpath of a mess he left at every station on the line. The cutting boards were covered in whatever had last been chopped, the mise-en-place seemed to evaporate from the ladles he wielded, and Adam’s idea of cleaning up seemed to be pushing everything on to the floor with a rag. It was a mess, but his ticket times were impressive to say the least. The severs came to the window one by one, not uttering a word as they finished up their plates, swiping them away with the usual anxious vigor. I was mesmerized, and I was scared. I knew that when I came in there would be a hell of a learning curve, but as I watched Adam, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to participate. For most of the lunch shift, I didn’t. They stuck me in the back portioning up shredded cheese, cutting lettuce, and chopping up salad toppings that would inevitably be eaten by a suburban woman with dyed hair. As the two-ounce bags of mozzarella started to pile up, so did my anxiety, until the dinner shift guys rolled in.
“Hey, man, you new? What’s your name?” A guy about my age came up to where I was bagging pounds of chicken cutlets. He wore a backward hat, had a sizable nose piercing, and one of the most random assortments of tattoos that I had ever seen. On a single limb, there may be a dinosaur next to a pirate ship, or a yeti next to song lyrics written in small print.
“I’m Chuck, just started this morning” I gave the guy a strong handshake like I hadn’t just done prep work and played spectator all day.
“Good to meet ya, Charles. We had an asshole that worked back here last year named Chuck. I’m not gonna call you something that I find to be synonymous with asshole. I’m Ring by the way.”
“Yeah, Ring. Like the one on your finger, or like what I want some of these waitresses to do to my phone. C’mon, Charles, let’s get going.” I followed Ring back up the line, where just a couple hours ago Adam made me feel that making gastropub food was equivalent to aerospace engineering. Ring tied his full length apron off at the waist, and immediately started cleaning up whatever mess Adam had left behind.
“Ring, why do you wear your apron so low? Aren’t you going to ruin your shirt?” I asked out of genuine curiosity and a half-hearted attempt to make conversation.
“I’m claustrophobic, don’t like the loop around my neck. Plus, Charles, I work clean, baby. Just watch me do these tickets, and I’ll start explaining shit when we’re slow.”
I did as he said. After a few minutes, I realized there was an entirely different way to go about fielding these orders. Ring worked fast, but every cook has to work fast. The difference between Ring and Adam was efficiency of movement. I could see that Ring was planning every step out in his head before he made it. His hands didn’t move unless he was picking something up, dropping something down, or waving to the next female server that clocked in. All the servers loved Ring. As he slid every plate perfectly to the edge of the window right in front of the waitress that planned to pick it up, he’d give a wink.
“Heather, babe, how are we doing tonight? When are you gonna let us fall in love so we can finally run away to Prague together?” Even Ring’s corny pick-up lines matched the rhythm of his cooking.
He laid his talk on Heather right as a steaming plate of Cajun pasta landed in her impatient hand. The shrimp were the perfect hue of pink, the andouille sausage lightly blackened for a smoky flavor and also to provide a beautiful color contrast to the brightness of the bell peppers.
“Ring, I wouldn’t settle for anything less than Paris, darling.” Heather threw some fries on a side plate and sashayed back toward her table. Shortly after, Ring started to let me cook a little bit. I fumbled through my mise-en-place, looking for ingredients that I couldn’t always pronounce. It was tough to remember all of the things I had going at once. While I was trying to bang out a Caesar salad, the fries would start to get too brown. When I rushed to pull the basket out of the fryer, some of the four hundred-degree oil came with it. I yelped out in pain, as the grease acted as a primitive arm hair wax.
“Hurts right? You’re gonna have to get used to that, Charles!” Ring held up his arms so I could see all the burn scars and healing knife slices.
As I studied his wounds, my father’s voice came into my head: When you’re dumb, ya gotta be tough. I could see that Ring was frustrated with me, but all the guys on the line kept the shit talk as minimal as they could.
“Hey, Chuckie! You sweatin’ yet, bro?” Rory laughed as he flipped burgers on the flat top, cooking eight at one time, all to different temperatures.
“Chuck! I saw my grandmother chop an onion faster than that last week, and she died five years ago!” Adam poked at my novice knife skills as I attempted to restock the line in the middle of the dinnertime push. I continued to try to be Ring’s shadow, but as it creeped toward peak dinner hours, I had to let him take over. By about ten, the printer finally started to give us cooks some breathing room. Root Beers and Red Bulls were chugged, and they all took turns running to the back patio, where cigarettes were smoked right down to the filter. I watched them all bullshit as they cleaned up, all of them debating how much they would drink that night to still be able to make it back in by lunch shift. I felt a large hand clap on my shoulder.
“Not too bad, Chuckie, you better come back tomorrow. Friday is when the real fun begins.” Rory laughed as he unwrapped his third pack of Newports that day. I took off my apron and threw it into the linen bag. As I walked out the back door to my car, I could feel the humid air stick to my grease burnt arms. I was so exhausted. I could see my house like a mirage off in the distance of the blacktop. My retired father yells at the television as the second airing of the cable news goes across the screen, my bed hides in the dark of my frigidly air-conditioned bedroom. I couldn’t wait to go crawl into it, and sleep. Tomorrow would be my second day in the belly of a pirate ship.
Charles is currently an undergraduate student at Miami University pursuing creative writing, in his free time he likes to consider himself a budding standup comedian and podcast host. He hails from a small town in northwest Ohio.