During a brief period after college, I worked as a dishwasher at Aladdin’s Natural Eatery in the odd campus penumbras known as “College Town.”
Aladin’s may have been the best restaurant in the “town.”
It put pesto on things, for example.
I only took the job after I got fired after a day as a waiter at a barbecue restaurant on a canal.
My manager caught me shouting “Are you OK?” to my only table and terminated me on the spot.
I never got paid for the morning and spent the afternoon crying.
Aladdin’s was a step down, but I was determined to do the right thing.
I was in love with a girl who lived in a little wooden house on Valentine Avenue. I’d taken a room in the A-shaped attic of a divorcee named Nancy, whose well-appointed home boasted a hot tub and a thoroughly stocked kitchen.
Rent was $150 a month.
I remember thinking it was perfect until a friend—I don’t remember who— told me that odd-angled rooms had been linked to insanity.
I don’t remember a lot from that period.
I don’t remember, for example, the names of Aladdin’s kitchen crew.
I should call, one day, and ask.
I bet they’re all still there.
They ran a pretty tight ship.
The cook that worked the hardest was the lowest on the totem pole.
He was skinny and ratlike and always talked with great energy about how he was using all of his wages (paid in cash) to build the perfect gaming computer while dodging his court-ordered child support payments.
The man over him had snarled stained teeth, a scraggly beard and icy blue eyes. He was always making the main cook feel bad in backhanded ways.
One wild evening, I ended up at his grandparents’ farm house on the edge of town.
The walls were bare wood and contained little more than a litter of Pit Bulls, a girl with a broken arm and a giant metal safe, which he claimed contained lots of high-quality marijuana and all the guns you’d need to protect it.
A yellowed photograph of his Czech descendants dressed in austere farm clothes hung on the wall.
The boss and him were somehow friends.
The boss seemed a friendly enough sort— big and burly and distracted. When things got too heavy, he’d leave the blue-eyed Czech in charge and drive around getting stoned.
All of us wore the same white aprons and backward baseball caps. I had a pair of thick rubber gloves.
I’m not sure, but I think my predecessor had gotten arrested for smoking crack cocaine.
Anyhow, that information came from the Czech guy with the cabin full of guns and pit bulls. So it really isn’t fair—even to hang on a nameless character.
I had some dumb knick-name. Was it Kankles?—short for knee ankles?
In any case, I think I ended up liking that job more than any other I’ve ever had.
I wasn’t writing then, which meant I didn’t worry about work that I had or hadn’t done. I just had crates of dirty dishes which were resolved by hitting them with a spray washer and slamming them into the big steel box with a red button on it.
One press left them all hot and warm and squeaky clean.
One night, I remember, the girl on Valentine street came to see me. I should have been embarrassed out on the sidewalk in a wet stained apron and a baseball cap left over from the guy who’d got caught smoking crack cocaine.
But I wasn’t. I was proud.
In the end, she fell in love with an incorrigible hipster who gave her a railroad spike in a jam jar for her birthday while I smoked lamb chops that I’d locked in the trunk of my car.
I remember making a joke about what a meaningless gesture it was, but I think we all know what it meant. She ended the relationship a week later.
My heart fell into my feet.
I watched 48 straight hours Simpsons episodes without sleep or rest—at the end of which, I bought a ticket home to Los Angeles to see my family for a week.
I didn’t have the heart to go back in to Aladdin’s—even to pick up my check.
It was a pretty depressing blur for a while.
Somehow, I took a job at a Wegman’s in the cheese aisle.
Though we were dressed up like doctors, my three co-workers seemed sadder and more desperate than even the Aladdin’s crew.
Two were stout women (one with a husband in the marines) the other was a tall guy who had cornered the market on handing out all the cheese samples.
I recall seeing him as a shopper and thinking he looked distinguished—with the air of a male librarian. Perhaps he’d given up his academic career to pursue a passion for cheese, I thought, as I picked a cube of Gouda off his tray.
In the end, he was a moron—as dumb as they come.
After a week of blinking through eight-hour shifts, I told the manager my grandmother had died in a horrible accident and I needed to quit immediately.
I never got paid for that job either. Instead, I packed up my car and drove to northern Florida, to begin my adult life.
Somehow, joking around with the dishwashing crew at this restaurant in Dalat made me miss them all.