When I was twenty-two, I moved into my sister’s vacation cottage on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with the intention of writing poetry. It was winter and desolate. I was flush with cash after working on an offshore drilling rig. Three-thousand dollars in the bank gave you a lot of freedom back then.
I’d write in the morning and then I had to face nineteen more hours in the day. Sleep, jogging, meals, shooting hoops outside with gloves, and reading took up slack, but after a few weeks, too much leisure time was killing me, so I decided to get a part-time job to add structure to my life. I thought a restaurant would be perfect.
The nearby Hearth and Kettle offered family-style dining. Two specialties were baked scallops in a slurry of butter-soaked breadcrumbs and French onion soup with a thick mantel of cheese on top.
I applied for a job as a short-order chef. In high school, I had worked as a counter boy for Howard Johnsons, and the cooks had let me make scrambled eggs and bacon during slow periods. After college, I had worked as a cook at an egg restaurant in California, where I learned how to crack two eggs in one hand. Hearth and Kettle hired me as a dishwasher.
The first week was fun, filled with discovery. Retirees arrived at 3 pm for the blue-plate specials. A slightly younger crowd and families packed the five-to-eight slot. Sundays a harpist serenaded diners. On weekends, a bar crowd arrived around eleven pm. Most notable was the ‘Cape Cod Cowboy’, a guitar troubadour who after his gig would bring over his posse of fans and crew for eggs, bacon, pancakes, and hash browns at 11:59 pm, one minute before closing. He was a local celebrity. He had a big posse.
I developed new respect for dishwashers and the hard work required of them. In my days as a counter boy, if someone puked in the bathroom, you called the dishwasher. In addition to washing pots, pans, silverware, and dishes — burning hands on the plates and glasses off the conveyer belt — I was responsible for cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floors, and taking out the trash. I helped the harpist wheel her instrument to her car. She tipped me a dollar. The dishwasher and manager are always the last ones to leave a restaurant at night. The Cowboy and his posse usually stayed until two a.m.
The professional dishwasher I worked alongside during peak hours said I was “slower than death chained to a stump.” It was beautiful to watch him work. He was a machine. He taught me how to pick good food off the plates. When the scallop specials left the kitchen, each casserole dish had a smooth layer of brown crumbs hiding the scallops. When the dishes returned, you dredged the undisturbed crumb areas to find untouched scallops. This pro ate a hundred scallops or more a shift.
After a month, the agitation I felt on the job had become greater than the agitation I had felt from having too much free time. I am not a quitter, so I had hoped they’d fire me. I was very slow. After two more weeks, I expected to be called in to see the manager at any minute.
One Friday night the cook went home sick at eleven pm, and for some reason, there was no manager on duty. Then the Cowboy and his posse rode in right on schedule. The waitress scribbled the orders and came to the back with a panicked expression. We were leaderless and cookless.
I took command of the grill and single-handedly saved the night, thinking nothing of it. After I had rustled up the grub, I returned to my assigned post and cleaned up, last man standing.
The next time I reported to work, the manager and wait staff looked at me with awe. They’d all been talking about me. I was a hero. Even the pro dishwasher viewed me with newfound respect.
As my legend grew by the hour, I realized the odds of getting fired had dropped to zero. A few days later I gave notice.