Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Day the Music Died

1995 was an awful year: Selena was murdered; the world lost lost Peter Cook, James Herriot,  Howard Cosell, Wolfman Jack, Orville Redenbacher, Louis Malle and Mickey Mantle, to name a few; Oklahoma was bombed; twelve people were killed and over five thousand injured in a Sarin gas attack  in Tokyo; the Unibomber was in full swing; Christopher Reeve fell off his horse; O.J. was on trial and later acquitted; Serbia and Croatia were at war; I hadn't had an acting job in over a year; I was newly single;and, in the first week of August, I took the worst job I have ever had.

After many interviews at large chains like Houston's, I landed a waitressing job at a new sports bar that was "opening soon". As much as I despise sports themed dining establishments, I was trying to move away from the catering/indie coffee shop scene and into something more consistent-"normal", if you will. The sports bar was called American Pie, and it was the antithesis of everywhere I had ever worked: I was "Party Down" and it was Hooter's without the cleavage. (If you haven't seen the show-"Party Down" is a brilliant show about being a cater-waiter. I say brilliant because the creators captured that strange world perfectly, but the show was cancelled after two seasons, while the practically unwatchable "According to Jim" -aptly referred to by a reviewer as a "television cockroach"-which exemplifies the demise of Western civilization, ran for eight seasons).

The first training day at my new job, we all convened in the large spacious restaurant/bar with televisions covering every square inch of wall space. I can't really describe its banality, but the vibe was pretty much "generic chain restaurant", with a bar on one side and a row of booths and ten or twelve tables scattered on the main floor. Every seat had a view of at least six televisions or more if you were willing to turn your head in any direction. Our new employer-I'll call him John-hailed from Utica, New York. He was in his late twenties and wore a collared shirt and plaid shorts. He was attractive in a wimpy frat boy sort of way, and his behavior was generally sullen disguised as cool. He was a reluctant and slightly punishing boss. For example, there had been a "tell me something about yourself that makes you unique" section on the initial application, the contents of which, one would assume, was between  the applicant and the employer. However, he  had decided,  with no notice or permission, to read the answers aloud in front of everyone- an "ice breaker". Other people wrote stuff like "I can stand on my head" or "I make really good pancakes". I  had written that I had been raised in a log cabin that my father had built by hand, which was true. It does make me unique, but  I might as well have told them that my favorite movie was "Deliverance" and that I played a mean banjo because there was this huge uncomfortable silence after he read mine. He even smirked a little as he said "log cabin". Evidently people who actually built things with their hands were not American Pie material. It had running water for fuck's sake, and Glen Frey was our goddamn neighbor. My red hair and freckles did not help my cause, but my angst at acceptance  in the "normal" world was short lived as we soon moved on to the next person and their amazing ability to burp the alphabet.

After the "get to know you" session, we broke into teams and oriented ourselves with the kitchen, learned the stations and the basic system of the restaurant. I also learned that the "cook",who was an Australian youth hostel dweller named Nick, could have been a trained monkey, as not one fresh item was ever going to be served. All of the menu items were frozen or prepackaged, all the way down to the lettuce for the salads. It all got unwrapped and put on a plate or deep fried/grilled  and put on a plate. I like jalapeno poppers as much as the next gal, but I swear that working there gave me contact diabetes.

I was hired on a Thursday and the restaturant was to open on the following Monday. We had four days to learn the complicated, password based, digital register with no delete button (a theft deterrent). However, the three times I attempted to come in to learn the register, it was either broken or the managers were programming it. I was given many trial runs with the facilities but zero time on the register, so as long as none of us made any mistakes, the place would basically run itself. Yeah, right. People never make mistakes, so make sure to not have a delete button. 

The big soft opening was,well, soft. Downright flaccid, to be honest. The managers had passed out hundreds of "Eat for a dollar if you fill out the survey" flyers at the open air mall a few blocks away, so by five o'clock on Monday every homeless person, old person and just plain freakish person was lined up outside waiting to fill out some surveys in exchange for a plate of deep fried vileness.The doors opened and they swarmed  in, filling up the sections like cockroaches in a New York co-op. The first half hour was surprisingly manageable considering the chaos. The main problem was that the relentlessly classic rock music was turned up so loud that communicating was difficult, which naturally resulted in some orders that weren't entirely correct. To fix this, we had to have the manager put his code in, void the mistake and then we could re-enter the order.
Often the manager wasn't standing near the register, so it could take a few minutes and quite a bit of yelling over the loud music to track them down,get the correction made, and get the order in-all while people waved and gestured with their empty water glasses like a bunch of Somali refugees.
It is hard for me to not care about my job, but it is even harder for me to feel bad because some morbidly  obese person who is eating for a dollar isn't getting their onion rings in the tower formation that the menu promised. Several customers requested to have the music turned down so we could hear each other. When I brought this to John's attention, he demanded to know who asked the question and went over to the table to condescendingly explain that "this is a bar and bars have loud music". People were baffled, some even left without getting their spongy chicken sandwich or their dry, tasteless burger. The other issue was that some diners were trying to use their  leverage with the survey the get more stuff. Free refills, extra helpings, my phone number.

Enter the creepy little troglodyte whose resemblance to the Rodents of Unusual Size from the book/film "The Princess Bride" was uncanny. He was about five feet long with ROUS good looks, a slight hunch and terrible acne all topped off with a receding hairline leading to shoulder length greasy hair and coke bottle glasses. He might have had an extra short leg,too, which caused him to walk oddly and forced him to take  the bus everywhere. (I do need to clarify that that making fun of handicapped people or unattractive people is NOT something I do. There before the grace of fate go all of us and far be it from me to poke, lest  I become the pokee. However, this man had such an unctuous and disgusting personality that I literally felt molested just standing next to the table.) He would say "yessss.....hmmmm, what have we here? and your name is?" with a slight Vincent Price affect, as if I  were being served-apple in mouth-on a giant platter and he held the fork. I told him my name for the purpose of the survey only, and he wore it out quite nicely for  the next forty five minutes in an annoyingly sing-song sort of way. He also peppered me with demeaning questions about my personal life and  professional choices in such a way that I was openly rude to him towards  the end of our waitress/mooch experience. He lapped it  up like the  masochistic little freak that he was, grinning and nodding and furiously writing as he ogled me. He seemed oddly familiar, and I remembered that I'd seen him out at random premieres before this lovely encounter. He must have been "in the business"  in some way, but who the hell would hire him for any normal job? As fate would have it, I pulled up next to a bus stop months after I left American Pie. He was sitting alone on the bench getting sunburned. Our eyes met. I  pointed in horror at him through the window of my sister's car. He waved enthusiastically and hollered "Can I have a ride?" as if we were old friends. People are strange and quite forgetful, really.

It suffices to say that  the opening was a monumental disaster. The next day we all got an earful. No one mentioned the fact that the lack of the void button was the main culprit. Their catch phrase was " I am tired of hearing 'I'm sorry'", so not only did we have to work in impossible conditions, but we were not even allowed to apologize for our mistakes in a normal manner. Were we supposed  to say "Regrets, but I've chosen fish instead of chicken" or " It's lamentable, but they wanted a cheese burger"? Seriously, sometimes "I'm sorry" is all a person has. John must have tired of our untrained ineptness because by the end of the week they had installed a delete button. Conditions improved significantly despite the fact that they were watching us like hawks, as if we couldn't wait to give away a bunch of inedible food to our friends disguised as customers. My attempts to make the place a little nicer, like putting a slice of lemon in the bleach scented tap water, were scoffed at (" I don't put fruit in my water"-as if I had shoved an entire pineapple in his stupid asshole glass). I am certain he sensed my disdain for his mediocre aspirations as a restauranteur, but I couldn't  help it, and neither could he.

After a couple of weeks, things became more routine. I had three or four evening shifts per week and was coming in at four and leaving around nine or ten most nights. I started having  my regulars who were nice enough and tipped well. The music was  always an issue, but John never backed down. He would rather lose  customers than have the music played at a conversational level. He also had the brilliant idea to play the restaurant's namesake song every night at midnight, which I had occasion to witness only a handful of times. I detest the song myself, but I am pretty sure Don McLean would have been mortified watching a clammy, wussy frat boy in a Kelly green Izod  pump his fist to a song that celebrated musicians that he had probably never even heard of. 

Three and a half weeks into my stint-it was a Thursday- I had a table of five come in at six o'clock for the popular happy hour two dollar drink specials.They asked to have the music turned down and also expressed interest in having the dinner special, which started at seven. I took their order and kept their request about the music to myself.  At six forty nine, after serving them several rounds of drinks and many appetizer specials, I placed the dinner order so they would get their food by seven. I think I must have delivered the food at two minutes after seven, or something like that, because they ate and left by seven thirty. I finished my shift  a few hours later and went to cash  out. John  was sitting at one of the tables with a pile of receipts in his hand. He demanded to know who served the dinner special at six forty nine. I told him it was my ticket and explained my reasoning. He listened, staring angrily at the table and nodding while I spoke, and then  informed me that I would  be paying the difference, which was something like thirty dollars and eight cents. He waved the receipt at me and said it would be coming out of my next paycheck. I attempted to reason with him, using trite phrases like "customer service" and "work ethic" and soon realized that it was an  impossible argument to win. I quit on the spot, saying something clever like " I quit!". I took off my apron dramatically, said a sarcastic "buh BYE!" to the few people I encountered on the way out and walked. I drove home elated that I would never  have to look at his weak chin again or watch him denigrate some poor French fry eating schmuck who just wanted to keep his hearing intact. I was upset because I felt that I had provided customer service, which was my job. Perhaps a warning would have been in order if he felt my infraction was that serious. Luckily, I had a friend  who explained to me that he wasn't legally allowed to do what he did in threatening to take the money out of my paycheck,. It made me feel better in the moment, but it didn't make it any easier when I picked up my paycheck the next week and saw the deduction. I had gone down there to play nice enough, get my check and return my lame t-shirt (which he suggested I keep as a souvenir). He handed me the envelope. I opened it on the way out the door and returned white lipped and likely steaming from the head to mention through clenched teeth that it was ILLEGAL.  He shrugged. I left so mad that I could barely walk straight, so mad that I might have defecated on his car if  I 'd had to go or smeared menstrual blood all over his windshield if the timing had been right. I was "Network" mad. I was "Rambo" mad. I was really, really, really MAD.

I woke  up the next day and called the Labor Board. I set  up a meeting that was three weeks away to contest the deduction. I didn't care that the cost of the gas to drive to Long Beach was more than  the amount of my claim. I didn't care that it would take up half a day to deal with it. I refused to let  him win. In the meantime, I deposited my meager check into my ridiculously low account and was shocked to discover a few days later that it bounced. I had to pay the bounce charge to the bank and to the creditor whose payment failed. I called John from a pay phone and inquired about the bounced check. He replied with a blase answer about having just put in fifteen hundred dollars and how it would clear that afternoon. I explained that I had been double charged for his failure to keep his account current, and he told me that it wasn't "his fault that I couldn't keep my banking straight". Just like that, as if his bounced check had no bearing on my  situation. I really wanted him dead.If I had the funds to do it, I might have gone down to Venice Beach and sniffed around the basketball courts,really. It is quite possible that the only thing between me and capital murder was seven to ten thousand dollars.

Three weeks flew by in a haze of squinting,  venomous rage. I was Dirty Harry on his worst day, I was out for vengeance as my 1986 Subaru carried me down the Long Beach Freeway in the slow lane, a childhood jingle inexplicably running through my head "Pete Ellis Dodge, Long Beach Freeway, Firestone Exit South Gate".

I hated that asshole. My only salvation would be to get my thirty bucks back, to make him pay.  I arrived at the court house in Long Beach, paid ten dollars to park and went to the third floor as instructed and waited. My name was called. I followed a fiftyish African American woman into a cubicle. She  went over the file and asked me some questions,which I answered passionately. She listened, wrote some stuff in the file and declared John a "no show", which means that I won by default. I found myself overcome with joy and sweet vindication. I was doing the happy dance in the elevator on the way down and singing like Jerry Maguire to the radio as I drove home in bumper to bumper traffic. Nothing could rain on my parade. I actually sang a few bars of "American Pie", emphasizing the "bye bye" part for effect.

I got the check for thirty dollars and eight cents a few weeks later and gazed at it for  a spell before depositing it. His feeble signature was scrawled like a "personally signed" Thomas Kinkade- as if he had somewhere else to be that was so much more important, like tending to his hideously lame establishment was kind of a hassle, like treating people with respect was a big drag. Well, I got him  to write the check- no, no, pardon  me- the state of California got him to write the check, which cleared I might add, or I might have added arson to my list of talents on my outdated resume. 

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