Thursday, May 22, 2008

My First Job - The Barn: Part 1

"You ever shot yo gun?"

The question was posed to me by a fellow busboy who sat crouched next to me in the back of the waiters station. We had our backs to the partition that divided our space from the dining room, squatting below the glass racks and in between the linen bag and the trash can whose rancorous odor I can recall with more clarity than any other detail. The dim light of a single lamp was enough to see the metal sink in front of us and make out the profile of my questioner to whom I turned with some uncertainty. He was a bulky black kid of my age whose name I cannot now recall, but I have never forgotten that question.

"Sure" I said. I have no recollection as to just how convincing this sounded, but I do remember that I although I had a couple of ways to interpret that question, no answer but the one I came up with that sounded at all convincing. After all, I had indeed shot 'a gun' but I was pretty sure that wasn't what he he was asking about. Now if, perhaps, he was asking if I had fired a weapon, I might not have remembered the incident with such clarity, but as a virgin, I think it is fair to say at least that this is what I was hoping he meant but in my heart (and elsewhere) I knew otherwise.

But he didn't press me on details, thankfully, choosing instead to answer his own question for himself and me. This quickly confirmed that we weren't talking about firearms, since he had, apparently, recently 'shot his gun' to his detriment. He said that he'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant and was being forced to marry her. He warned me, in essence, not to do it unless I knew what I was doing. The warning wasn't necessary, as I was really sufficiently terrified by sex at the time to know with some confidence that I was not about to be 'shooting my gun' anytime soon.

I probably hadn't been on the job for more than an hour when I faced this question. What I remember most about my first job is being scared. I was so scared that, in hindsight, it is amazing to me that I even got the job, to say nothing of how amazed I am that I actually survived. And I haven't just survived, I've thrived. The restaurant business has been in my blood, so to speak, since that day. Perhaps I just love being scared.

This restaurant was called The Barn. Owned by a long-time Austin restaurant entrepreneur Jack Ray, The Barn was a classic steak and seafood place way out on the northwest edge of town. Back then, of course, Mo-Pac didn't even exist, and only one road went out that far north, Balcones Drive. At the time, it was so far out of 'town' that it was considered to be a special trek by the many people who ate there.

Interestingly, although this was long before the concept of fine dining had been introduced to Austin, it didn't mean that the food was poor. In fact, as a testament to the quality of the food, the customers were legion; and the place was packed every Friday and Saturday night, with at least three or four 'turns' of every table in the house! It was the kind of place that you took a business partner with money to do a deal, or the whole family when the mother-in-law was in town (or just 'over to the house' as we say). There was also an adjoining banquet room called 'The Silo' where many a wedding reception and family reunion was held.

The Barn was dark and smoky and mysterious, and to me at the time, it seemed like a 'high class' place. There were white tablecloths and red napkins, red cut-glass water glasses (we called them rubies) and when patrons were seated at table, they were greeted immediately with a huge chunk of swiss cheese on a cutting board with a serrated steak knife stabbed into the top. It was accompanied by another cutting board and serrated knife that bore and offered means to dismember at hot, moist miniature loaf of white bread.

It was my job, among others, to deliver these two items along with water to the table, as soon as after the guests were seated as possible. At first I really struggled with the weight because even though the damn block of cheese only weighed three or four pounds, we had to carry it in one hand while we carried the bread in the other. I wasn't very strong when I started, but it didn't take me long to get in shape.

The busboys were were forbidden to eat anything, especially the cheese and bread, and as a consequence of this prohibition I wanted to eat constantly, especially that cheese and bread. I did, of course, with every opportunity. Were we to be caught, we were assured that we would be fired, but naturally this didn't deter our appetites, it only increased them. I use the plural here because it wasn't just me, but all the busboys and even some of the waiters who experienced this odd bread and cheese lust. In spite of--or perhaps because of--the prohibition, we gorged ourselves on the sweet bread and tangy cheese at every available opportunity in the back of the waiters station. We did it on the way back from the table, back in the dish station, the kitchen, the bathroom and anywhere else we could turn away long enough to shove a big moist warm wad of sweet white dough into our mouths and swallow so fast it hurt.

Now, to be fair, I have never been terribly fond of swiss cheese and wasn't even back when I was sixteen. But, for some reason, it was apparently the absolute height of culinary delight for me to carve off a sick chunk of pasty white cheese and wolf it down without even tasting it, all while working and without allowing the manager to witness it. It was quite the feat, actually, and one that we pulled off with considerable regularity.

Of course there were other things to eat. When it came to eating, while bread and cheese were the most easily obtained foodstuffs for us busboys, it was the oft-maligned and ever-denied practice of eating food off customers plates as they were returned to the kitchen that held the greatest reward. There were perfect bites of charbroiled steak to be had, untouched baked potatoes slathered with butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese, bacon and chives. These items not eaten by customers were too tempting to pass up. Even if we knew that someone had eaten off the plate, or even more precisely, eaten off the other side of the plate, it did not diminish in the slightest our lust for the food thereon.

It is worth nothing that this practice, known as 'bus tub buffet' continues to this day in every restaurant on the planet. Denial of it, is of course, de rigeur, but in fact, even the chefs pull a bit off a plate coming back now and then, if only just to see why someone didn't eat it. It's not as if every restaurant employee is starving so much they need to steal food off the customers' returning plates, but it is a habit that is much like families who eat off one another's plate as a way of socializing and sharing food.

This brings me to an important aspect of why that first day was not my last; why I have continued on the journey through the restaurant business for now more than 35 years. It didn't take long for me to realize that this life is not for everybody.

Most people who work in restaurants do so when they are young and inexperienced. They do it because they need the money, but as soon as they finish school or join the marines, they leave and don't come back. Only a few individuals remain in the business past the age of twenty or so, and even fewer decide to become professionals for life. If they do, it is because they really do 'get' all that.

I was sixteen when I went to work at The Barn, and I have been working in restaurants almost continuously ever since. The reason for this longevity in the business has primarily to do with the sense of belonging to a family, but there are also the aspects of hard, fast-paced work, serving people who are (for the most part, hopefully) having a good time, and ultimately, making a living while doing something enjoyable. I've written about this a bit in my essay 'A Real Job' and it continues to be an important thread in this tapestry I have begun weaving about restaurants.

The damn bread and cheese at The Barn, however, almost proved to be my undoing, even before I got started. More in part 2.

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