Wednesday, February 20

Shoe Pinches Other Foot; Film At Eleven.

DID I ever tell you the one about the garlic bread?

I was a junior in college. I'd given up my downtown apartment that summer to come home and work, and I wound up living way out by the mall, on the opposite side of town from my old school-year job. I had no car. I needed a job. I took one at a franchise "Italian" "restaurant" chain. There probably should be two sets of quotes around each. The only thing about the place that wasn't cheesy was the cheese. Plastic grapevines ran around the top of the booths, for that touch of Old World elegance.

I quickly found myself running the pizza ovens, which was, like, the single skill position in the place and the only one where you had to Give A Shit, since it meant repeatedly plunging your arms into a 550º oven. The oven guy had to coordinate the activities of all the other line workers--pizza makers, sandwich makers, the guy who dropped the pre-measured, pre-overcooked loads of spaghetti, or "spaghetti", back into boiling water for a minute. The place was generally busy, because a) it was a chain restaurant and b) this is Indiana.

It was run by an early-thirties couple who had two screaming brats and who had fallen for the franchisee pitch somewhere. They'd had the place about a year. They had no idea what they were doing, except Being Their Own Boss, and no desire to get their hands dirty or spend any more time than necessary in the place. Which meant that most nights they occupied a booth in the corner while their brats ran screaming though the kitchen, and every so often Dad would turn up to complain about something. They loved me, because I worked hard and was too naive to realize that anyone who worked hard in that situation should demand his hourly wage be tripled.

As such things go, this one went. With that first year under their belt, and probably the chain breathing down their neck for increased profits, they soon decided they weren't quite making enough money, despite the solid business. The boss turned grouchy. He'd jump onto the line for ten minutes "to show people how to move faster", apparently without considering that these were college students, and thus reasonably aware that anyone could work fast for ten minutes, provided he could go sit down again and never clean up after himself.  Also around this time somebody on the day shift got fired for coming to work high. What the hell did you imagine any of us was working there for?

And so, in the flick of a switch it went from being a not-real-pleasant job to an unpleasant place to work, but, hey, it was a paycheck.

Then they bought a Dymo Label Maker.

What I think may have happened is that he'd written notes and stuck them up around the place, and some college wise guy defaced them or tore them down or something. So he availed himself of the high-tech solution, like any good American who wants to avoid making the effort to personally solve a problem. Overnight those little motherfuckin' tape labels are everywhere, and they're telling you to do stupid shit you do automatically, every day, like SET OVENS TO 550, or CHANGE PANS AT NIGHT. It hadn't been codified, but even back then ALL CAPS was perceived as boorishness, even with no real typeface alternatives.  

This being a restaurant, the major weapon to hand was Extremely Hot Metal or Liquids, and within a week most of those labels looked like a battalion of plastic Army men that had unexpectedly encountered an enemy with magnifying glass technology.

I wasn't a ringleader. Honest. I think I melted one particularly obnoxious label. Of course getting a direct refutation of the Non-Communicative Control Method just made the boss madder. So he called in the big guns from Corporate, and called a Mandatory Meeting. Now, to me the definition of "Mandatory Meeting" is one that I don't want to miss. So I skipped it. Firing would cost them more than it cost me.

And I turned up for my shift a couple days later, still employed, and the boss puts an avuncular arm around me like I'm his co-conspirator, because everyone else has now gone from thinking he's an asshole to actively hating his guts and plotting his demise.   And he starts to fill me in on all the Exciting New Changes around the place. The prep line sports a series of sawed-off red translucent picnic glasses of various sizes with two Dymo labels each: the weight in ounces of shredded cheese each one holds, and the size pizza that volume of cheese is designed for. There's a similar set for meat (Board of Health on Line 2!).  There's a DYMO label for each size pizza with the number of pepperoni that are to go on it. He's showing me these things like they're a combination of the latest economic breakthrough and the most attractive perks of a lodge he's trying to get me to join.

"Now, one thing we talked about was this problem with the garlic bread," he says after the tour is done.

And, see, to that point I'd never heard there was a problem with the garlic bread. It was mini-sub loaves sliced and slathered with butter and garlic powder and popped in the pizza oven, and it went out with every "spaghetti" order. 

"You know how you've been getting it too done?" he asks. No, I didn't. "Well, what you need to do is put your finger in the middle of each loaf. When it's hot in the middle it's done."

Okay, first of all, you and your corporate overlords are fucking nuts, even though I knew that before.   I haven't been getting garlic bread "too done." I've never heard a single complaint about garlic bread. And if I'd heard a hundred it's not gonna get me to stick my finger in everyone's food. It's a fact that you people want to bake it 100º too high because that's what the pizza ovens are set for, and you don't want to spring for aluminum foil to wrap it in, so you have to push it to make sure it gets warm in the center.  It winds up brown,  but it's never "too done".

Of course I didn't say this out loud. I just stood there like I was interested as he set up an empirical test. Garlic bread was brought out and placed in the oven.

My recollection is that it was pulled out three times for the finger test, since he had no sense  of timing.  The second time it was done, and warm in the center, but not sufficient for the new digital penetration standard. The third and final time it The color of your toast when it's started to smoke before you take it out. Except shiny from the butter.

"There. See, it's hot all the way through, and it's a lot lighter than you've been getting it."

I looked down at that smoking briquette for a moment, and then I looked him square in the eye. I'm a twenty-year-old corn-fed Midwestern boy, and despite nine hours of psychology credits  I had no idea anyone would ever lie to someone like that. I took off my apron, draped it over the sheet pan he was holding, marched back to the time clock, punched out, and went through the back door while he yelled, "Hey, where you going?" at my back.

I think something broke in my head that evening.

Black is White! It isn't that I'd never run into that before; I'd just never seen someone consciously risking soul-death for the sake of some trivial advantage up close and personal. I've seen it twice since--both times cops; it's why they wear shades whenever possible--but the power to shock was gone.

MY intermittent DSL service over the past couple weeks (Solved! And This Time We Mean It!) distracted me from blogging about Marine Lt. Col. Gomer "The Accidental Mayor" Ballard's embarrassing performance before the World's Third-Worst State Legislature™ last week, in which a guy who basically, if anonymously, ran for mayor on a platform of jumping in front of the Giant Teabag Property Tax Revolt and his Secret Plan To Cut Taxes and the Budget admitted, in broken English, that he had no plan other than asking the State to cover any shortfalls, and explained, approximately thirty times, that this was due to his being new on the job. The irony of this was not lost on the Tax-Revolt Pimps on local news; you could tell because they carefully avoiding covering his testimony beyond his prepared statement.

But the real square-in-the-eyes moment came from the Indianapolis Racist Star, first when political apologist columnist Matt Tully reviewed the performance last Wednesday under the headline "Mayor Steady Under Grilling On Tax Relief".  By Sunday Tully had apparently dug himself out of the pile of rotten vegetables, to where he could offer Charles Foster Kane Defeated! Fraud At Polls! this:
Ballard's average-guy persona, and even his sometimes-stammering method of public speaking, is in many ways refreshing in this era of smooth-talking politicians. It goes well with Ballard's back-to-the-basics pledge to focus on everyday issues such as crime and potholes.

Yup. Been a long time since we've seen a stammering politician who can't articulate a single thought in public.   A real treat.

And suddenly state legislators "seem to be going too far", because they're moving to enact the 1% cap the governor was rounding praised for offering up six months ago.

That was just the sideshow, though, as the three-column front page graphic read: Prepare For CUTS. With scissors graphic. Marion County is spending more than it takes in! This was known in the previous administration! Somehow the bastards managed to keep it secret from the Racist Star, which would have been sure to splash a three-color warning on the front page last summer right alongside all the dramatic snaps of protestors. Suddenly, property taxes "pay for things like schools and police and fire protection". And suddenly we need those things.

Suddenly road salt costs money. Suddenly our fleet of DOT trucks is aging and needs replacement.

This year the legislature is overreacting to an election-year issue. Last year a Revolt of the Peasants of Meridian-Kessler kicked the tax-raisin' bums to the curb.

So how do you take your steak, Mr. Tully? Burned to a crisp Rare, or burned to a crisp Medium?


heydave said...

Please don't take it personally if my son and I cruise through Indiana as quickly as possible on our vacation this summer. We need to go on the opposite side, you see...

Actually, I may drop a few bills at the Indy train station hotel, but only cuz I'm a sucker for All Things Train.

Anthony Cartouche said...

Loved the garlic bread story.

I've added you to my blogroll, a gesture as overdue as it is meaningless (I don't have too many readers).

Donna said...

In college, I was with a traveling carnival between terms and a nude model for art classes during the semester. I think it was a strict requirement, for both jobs, to be high at all times.

Anonymous said...

I, like most folks, have had jobs like that. But somehow my brain didn't work like yours, not for the longest time. My brain knew in its brain-guts that it wasn't allowed to break; it always had to bend, or pretzel itself, or somehow accommodate an endless variety of lies and cupidity. (And obviously, I'm not talking just about my Brain In The Marketplace.)

It's weird. I doubt if I'd have stuck my finger in the bread - I'd have figured out an as-good-as alternative. But I'd have looked at that perfect bread, I'd have seen that it was charred, I'd have known it wasn't a good product...and somehow I'd have come to the conclusion that (a) I had to try harder and work smarter, or (b) I'd encountered yet another situation in which it was impossible for me to excel on account of something being real wrong with me.

I swear.

It took nearly 30 years for my brain to finally break, and it was pyroclastic and permanent, and I shoulda sold tickets, because in retrospect, it was an excellent disaster.