February 13, 2013

Side Stepping

I wasn't a very good student in high school, lack of focus was the main reason. I was able to maintain passing grades, all the while I was achieving my grades through no great amount of effort. Mostly I would do homework the morning it was due, often in the hall way of the class I was attending. Reports and things that required pre-work were usually done in the type writer lab, where I would whip out a report or short story or other due material in a matter of minutes. I realize now that if I had been applying myself I would have been a scholar - probably would have been able to attend any university I wanted. That however, was not my destiny. I simply couldn't muster the desire to apply myself to academics at this point in my life.

When I was in high school I worked on average at my various part time jobs 30-40 hours weekly. Besides school I could be found working. My parents instilled a great sense of work ethic, and I have almost never had a time when I was not working. I think I've honestly had a job sense I was 12 years old. I shoveled snow at the church in the winter months, helped my mom clean the church and occasionally the rectory. I mowed lawns, chopped wood for neighbors and did odds and ends jobs where ever and when ever they would come up. My first "regular" job was working for a small mexican restaurant called "The Side Step." It was a dive, with regulars who loved the bar (LOVED the bar). In the summer of 1985 my father insisted dad that I get a job and so I put my application in several places around town. Now in small-towns like Steamboat Springs, you can't imagine how difficult it is find a job especially for a young person like myself who really didn't have any experience. So I put my application in every restaurant and retail store in Steamboat Springs.

Now Steamboat, like most small town in America hosts its own 4th of July parade, filled with fire trucks, police officers and retired military. The morning of the 4th the family and I were all just getting ready to go down and watch the parade. While headed out of the phone ring. Mom answered, "Thomas, the phone is for you."

"Hello," squeaked my teen voice.

"Thomas this is Cliff, the owner at the Side Step. You applied for a job."

"Yes sir."

"Good, if you come right now the job is yours, it pays minimum wage, working nights and weekends required." His voice was deep, angry sounding.

"Okay. Do you want me to come right now?"

"Yes damn-it, my damn dishwasher just walked off the job and we're slammed for lunch. How soon can you can you get here?"

"I can be there in 10 minutes."

"Great kid, wear comfortable shoes, ask for Cliff when you get here, and hurry." Click. The dead handset started to beep-beep-beep in my ear. I returned the phone to its cradle.

My mom was waiting there, "So?"

I had excitement. Suddenly the thought of financial independence swelled in my mind. I would be turning 16 the next february and would need a car! I would have money to buy a car, gasoline, food, maybe even clothes! "I got a job at the Side Step! as a dishwasher!"

"Great job Thomas, when?" My mother always was a supportive person, always offering encouragement and kind words to me.

"I start right now!" I ran to my room, got my clothes and headed out the door. My father was still waiting for us.

"What's happening? Where's your mother?"

"I just got a job!" I exclaimed. "At the side step."

Dad was more smug in his accolades, "That's good, you'd better do a good job or they'll fire you." Looking back historically, my father had been in and out of work for a couple of years following the sale of his hotel in 1983, he was a bit more bitter about work. He had started a new job as an insurance rep, so I'm sure he felt pressure to do a good job too.

"I know!" Out the door I darted and off to my future of independence and wealth.

Now a child's mind is a tricky thing. Lest we forget, a child's mind can turn a couch into a fortress, a box into a space ship, a stick into a gun or a sword. The Side Step sat on Main Street in steamboat springs in a building built at the turn of the century. It was located near a famous cowboy shop, FM Light and Sons, a ranching family in Steamboat who had opened a general goods store nearly 50 years prior. It's still a marked established in town. Now the buildings that face Main Street all had back entrances that opened into the alley. In the alley, the road was lined with trash bins, crates, barrels, buckets, and all the "backstage" materials that businesses and restaurants needed to run smoothly. At this point in Steamboat's history the town hadn't quite become the destination that it is today, and so a lot of the details - clean streets, no garbage every where, etc. just hadn't been realized there yet. I entered the side step through their back entrance, and immediately my life changed.

It was dark and smoky. The restaurant was tiny, with the kitchen immediately behind the bar. Next to the kitchen was the food prep area and storage for root vegetables. Down the hall was a small walk in freezer and then was a bathroom and across a narrow hall, just before the back door entrance was a dirty red door marked "office". I went to the front of the restaurant which was completely full of customers. A woman with a long brown and grey streaked pony tail was running from the bar to the restaurant dining room. Looking around I didn't see anyone else working. I walked back the kitchen area and a small young man was there cooking food, a line of order tickets stuck to the top of a large grill.

"Excuse me," i piped.

"Ya what." he sounded foreign, British at first, but later I would learn Australian.

"I'm here to see Cliff. I'm here to work as a dishwasher."

"Shit kid I don't know where Cliff is, go fucking ask Bonnie." I backed out of the kitchen and back to the bar.

As I wandered out into the dining area, I heard what sounded like a roar come behind from down the hall, "Bonnie, where's Lloyd?"

Bonnie came stood above me (not by much as by this time I was as nearly as tall as she). "Cliff, he's probably in the bathroom." She looked down at me and smiled, "What do you need sweetie?" She reached over me and grabbed a pitcher of water from behind the bar. Seemingly ignoring the 20 or so patrons for a moment to pay attention to me.

"Um, hi, I'm Thomas, I'm here for the dish washing job. I'm supposed to see Cliff."

She smiled and pointed behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and standing above me was a huge man. He had a large mustache, jet black. His hair was dark black with streaks of grey, thick and slicked back like Elvis. A cigarette hung from his lips, and his eyes were a blurry red.

"You Thomas?" I merely nodded, "Thank fucking god. Come on kid, we're drowning." He spun around and walked back down the hall towards his office. "Now listen kid, my goddamn afternoon dishwasher walked out on me, son of a bitch. I can't find Lloyd anywhere." he stopped just past the food prep area. A small room was attached. It was filled with steam, and dishes sat everywhere, huge pots, and ladles. An old man stood next to a large sink with a hose that was spraying water everywhere. A small radio sat on a dirty shelf above the sink.

"Goddamn it Lloyd where the hell have you been?" Lloyd didn't respond or turn around. He was wearing a sony walkman and I could hear even above the noise of the radio, the sink and a dishwashing machine in the corner the music faintly playing from his headphones. It sounded classical. "Turn that damn thing off Lloyd. Now show Thomas here how to operate the dishwasher." He turned to me, "Kid this ain't rock science, we gotta get these dishes done. Lloyd here is nice, but slow plus he has to leave to go back to his group home in about an hour." He looked at his watch, "Damn it's only 1, this is going to be a long day." he ran his hand through his hair, picked his cigarette out of his mouth with his other hand, flicked the ash in the sink, "How long can you work today?"

I shrugged, "As long as you need me."

"Music to my ears kid." He smiled a crooked smile, "I already like you. Aren't you Bob's kid?" I nodded, "yeah he comes in sometimes. Alright, Lloyd'll show you the ropes, it's not complicated, focus on the plates and glasses first so we can serve food, then get those pans clean. I'll check on you in a bit." He tussled my hair and went back in his office.

This, my first job, was chaos. Lloyd as I learned was a patient of a group home in town for special needs adults who lived in common and each were offered an opportunity to work at various jobs around the city for a few hours a week. He rarely spoke, gave me a few tips on how to run the dish washing machine, which could wash 20 or so plates at a time, glasses separately and utensils. It was a slow machine, designed for a business that had much fewer client than this restaurant. The work was labor intensive, as the machine couldn't clean the cooking pots or ladles. Those were all done by hand, and after having sat on the stove and grill for 6 or more hours, the bottoms were caked with a thick layer of slug, made of tomato sauce, grease, and oil. They only came clean by chiseling them to the bottoms. That first day I worked 15 hours, the bar closed after 2 am, I stayed until nearly four finishing the dishes, pots, pans, knives, utensils. I was exhausted, covered in a thin layer of grim, grease and various food particles. Plus, every employee smoked non-stop, and the walls were thick with grease and smoke grime. This would explain why some years later the place burned to the ground.

I would see Lloyd around town sometimes, he always had his radio on, I learned he loved classical music, Rachmaninov was one of his favorites, and he wouldn't speak much, did as he was told, but when his shift was over, he would immediately turn from the sink, gather his things and leave to go home. He never acted like he knew me outside of Side Step, not because he wasn't friendly, he just never interacted with anyone. To my eyes, as a 15 year old Lloyd was an old man. In reality he was probably in his late forties, just aged beyond those years due the circumstances of his life. I never knew if he had autism (I hadn't learned what that was yet), had a mental disability, or some other trauma in his life. After I left Side Step nearly a year later I saw him maybe once or twice around town, but beyond that, I never knew what became of him. All I remember of him was he was the gentle man who loved classical music in a chaotic world who washed dishes.

As I worked at Side Step I learned that several things happened there. Bonnie, the head waitress had worked there for as long as the place had been open. She took no shit from anyone. Once in the summer a table left her a penny tip under a glass of water. She discovered the penny, ran out of the restaurant with the glass in tow. She followed the patrons down the street, threw both the penny and glass at them screaming, "Don't you ever fucking come here again, shove this fucking penny up your ass." The entire staff watched her, and when she came back in, she smiled with her eyes at me, "you don't have to take shit from anyone sweetie."

I not only washed dishes there, I learned to make rum and cokes for one of our local drunks, Alex. Alex lived not far from my mom and dad's. His house was significant in local kid lore because he didn't actually live in his house, he lived in a small tow trailer next to his house. Rumor was because his wife got the house and he got the trailer, he just never bothered to move the trailer off the lot. Plus it was only a couple blocks from the bar sot it was easy for him to stumble home. Alex was an older white man. He had stock white hair, red runny eyes, blotchy red skin, and a nose swollen from alcohol. He however took a liking to me (I did make drinks for him whenever he asked). He taught me to make rum and coke, whiskey and coke, gin and coke, vodka and coke and how to pop a glass beer bottle top without an opener (table edges are good for this if you're wondering). As a 15 year old serving alcohol, the place could have been shut down, but honestly, this was a common practice in those days in town. I don't think anyone even cared. I certainly didn't, and since Cliff was known to allow his regulars to run a tab, it was a favorite haunt for the local drunks. Most of whom were older established townies. Bonnie would smile often while I ran the bar so she could stand out front on main street smoke, and she described, "Shoot the shit."

Cliff was not the most generous employer. Everyone made minimum wage, but he was generous in that he would hire on the spot. Lots of ski bums worked there. They came and went out of the restaurant, cooks sometimes as frequently as 5 times a week. Cliff hired people whether they could cook or not, and as a result, if they screwed up, he'd fire them, and hire the next guy who walked in the door. Most of the kitchen staff it turned out, as I later learned were Australian kids who came to the mountains in Colorado to ski for the winter, but spent all their money on skis, skiing, booze and drugs. As a result, they didn't have money to leave town, were stuck in town, and would take any job they could get. Of course, not one of them was there legally, and because of this, Cliff would pay in cash, under the table. I don't know what he paid, but it wasn't much. Most of the time his staff would steal his food before heading out - especially his frozen steaks, fish, and meat.

At one point the stealing was so bad Cliff pulled me into his smokey little office. "Kiddo, I need your help. These assholes are robbing me blind." He took a deep drag from his cigarette. "I want you to watch who does it and then tell me." He took a deep drink from the glass of whiskey on his desk. "Can you do that for me?" I just nodded at him. "Great kiddo, I like you. Now get the hell out of my office." I turned to leave, "Thomas, listen, don't tell the guys I asked you to do this." I didn't meet his eyes, and scurried out of his office back to the dishwasher. I never reported anything to Cliff even though I knew the kitchen staff was stealing steaks every day. Eventually Cliff caught one guy and literally threw him out of the restaurant onto the street. It wasn't too long after he asked me to be his spy I quit. I felt so guilty for leaving him, but the job was dirty, and I was working 40 hours a week plus I was in high school. The day I quit Cliff just looked at me and shook his head. "Kiddo I'll miss you," and without missing a beat screamed over my head, "Bonnie, where the hell is Lloyd?" and brushed past me. I never saw Cliff again.
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