Off The Eaten Path

November 17, 2006

Every time he would make a trip to the grocery store my grandfather would say, "I guess I’d better buy some food. I haven’t figured out how to live without it yet." I think he was kidding, but I thought about that expression a lot the summer I worked in a restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a fast food place–it was one of those places where you sit down and get real utensils, so it wasn’t exactly "fast", but what they gave you wasn’t exactly "food" either. Mainly it was known for its breakfast and salad bar. Actually that was the only thing it was known for, the pride and joy of the place, or at least the pride. They had a big bottle of Joy, but the guy in charge of washing the dishes never used anything but hot water and a piece of fabric torn from whatever shirt he was wearing at the time.

But I digress. When I was hired, a college student with no restaurant experience who was only going to stick around for a few months, they naturally put me in charge of the breakfast and salad bar. Maybe they’d heard I had a lot of experience with bars but didn’t realize it wasn’t the kind you go to for breakfast, unless your idea of breakfast is a Bloody Mary.

But I digress. Working the breakfast and salad bar was the perfect job for someone in college, if your definition of "perfect" is broad enough to include "lousy". I had to come in five minutes before dawn to give the bar enough time to heat up so when the cook came in two hours later the containers that held the eggs and pancakes and sausage would be warm enough. The only people who came in earlier than I did were the guy who hosed down the parking lot, which is so important it had to be done even when it was raining, and the guy who put the letters on the outside marquee. The marquee guy was the only one whose job was worse than mine: he had to come in first thing every morning and put, "COME IN FR OUR BREKFAST BAR" on the marquee, and then come back in last thing every night and take the letters down. He had to do this because once he left the letters up overnight and vandals came and spelled, "A BACKBITER REFORMS FOR NU." I can’t tell you how much trouble this caused. The guy who hosed down the parking lot was from Finland, and, when he was done, always came in to have a cup of coffee and tell me I was very nice, which is the kindest thing anyone from Finland has ever said to me.

But I digress. While they were doing their jobs I was busy putting together the salad bar. The restaurant manual explained that the salad bar was to be set up first, and then the breakfast bar had to be put on top of it. That way after the breakfast rush was over the eggs and pancakes and bacon could simply be removed and the lettuce and sliced vegetables and salad dressings would be nice and hot in time for lunch. Also I had to make fluff, which was artificially processed whipped topping substitute mixed with the liquid from a jar of maraschino cherries. For some reason people ate this stuff. Actually one of the most valuable lessons I learned working there is that if you put it on a bar people will eat it. I once left my towel on the bar by mistake and came back to find someone putting syrup on it. The other valuable lesson I learned is that everything restaurants serve can be powdered. When I told people where I worked they would always say, "Oh, I love their gravy! How do they make it?" I would tell them it was a powder that came in a bag. No one would believe me, so I finally started photocopying and handing out the gravy instructions from the manual: "First shake the bag several times to make sure the cockroaches are evenly distributed." Pretty soon people stopped asking me about the gravy. I also learned never to eat at that restaurant again. In fact the whole experience was almost enough to put me off food entirely, but I never could learn to live without it.

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