About the middle of May of 2005, Job Corps regurgitated me onto the world with five hundred of my twelve hundred dollar stipend and no applicable job training. Since I was in the Loring Job Corps center at the time, which was in Northern Maine, the plane ticket was for Burlington, Vermont since that is the city I had left from when I transferred to Loring from Northlands in Vergennes.
The remaining seven hundred dollars would not come to me until I had either found a job, or some arbitrary length of time had gone by. And a bed wouldn’t open up at the COTS shelter for another week. (By the way, sometime in the not too distant future, I am going to expound on my respective experiences in both the COTS and Lifebridge so that Lifebridge will maybe learn how a shelter actually operates when it wants to help end homelessness.)
I spent my first week back in Vermont, staying in the crappiest motel in the world. I spent that week pounding pavement and there was a lot of pavement to pound, especially since the Motel California was all the way out on the border of South Burlington and Shelburne, and the magical chariot company of Chittenden County didn’t have a bus running on Sunday.
During that time, there was just one prospect at the SingleMop Superstore across the highway from Price Chopper. Actually, in fairness, this store was loads cleaner than the Salem location, so I imagine they had at least two mops. The corporate interview seemed to be going well, but I was relying on my minimal experience as a dairy clerk at Price Chopper to land the job and unfortunately I didn’t impress the grocery manager on the second interview.
Finally, I got a bed at the COTS night shelter. And with absolutely no help at all from the Job Corps Counselor who was supposed to help me, or the social worker assigned to my case at COTS, I finally found a job as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant called Coyote’s. The funny thing is that it was practically right next door to the night shelter, and I practically tripped and fell on the help wanted sign.
Of all the bosses I have ever had, Jim was probably the one guy in my life that I would classify as a total saint. Because I started off very slowly. Dish washing in any restaurant is a stressful prospect and I was the only official dishwasher on staff four five days out of the week. (Monday and Tuesday became my weekend) There would be nights when I would fall so far behind that Jim or one of the other managers would come in to help me catch up.
I guess my main problem at the time was that I was so meticulous with each dish. The cooks were no help at all. But Jim, ever patient Jim, simply said, “I’m the boss here and you’re doing fine. Don’t listen to them if they’re being jerks to you.”
There was Jim and maybe three other employees I could ever totally count on for their support. Unfortunately for Jim, the majority of employees were not as respectful towards him as I was. The first big hint that my coworkers were not as dedicated to their jobs as they let on was the fact that they were getting high right in the kitchen.
I was still living in the shelter at this time. So, imagine the anxiety I felt when I look up from my sinks and my dishes and I see the head cook doing his best impression of Cheech Marin along with the other two cooks and one of the waitresses. They had improvised a bong out of a plastic container that I assume was used to store food.
I bolted right from the kitchen and complained to one of the other owners, who was not Jim. No, they pulled stunts like this when Jim wasn’t around. But I told the owner, “Look, I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble. But I can’t be here if they’re going to do that back there. What if I go back to the shelter and I have that smell on my clothes?”
The head cook did apologize to me, saying that it was wrong for them to do that in front of me. To date, I don’t recall any other employee of any store ever apologizing to me, so score another point for Coyote’s.
Eventually, I found a place to live that was reasonable for the Burlington area. The universe was really pushing my limits this time, because that place was all the way out on the border of Colchester. One day I will go into great detail about that particular place when I do my Roommates from Hell series. Again, Jim proved his sainthood one night when he offered me money to take a cab home. The walk wasn’t as big of a deal in those days, but obviously when it rained, I appreciated the gesture. However, it didn’t seem like such a kind gesture at first.
I was still falling behind with the dishes. It was raining out and I was stressed because it was another high volume day. I do believe Senator Bernie Sanders was eating there that evening, as he often did.
Ellie, not an owner, but a manager, came into the kitchen and told me that if I picked up the pace, she would give me some money to take a cab home. Well, I took umbrage with this, because the way she presented this offer was as if to say that she had no problem making me walk clear across creation in the rain if I didn’t meet up to her standards. I was doing the best I could, but somehow she believed that if she stuck a carrot on a stick that it would somehow spur me to magically move faster. I had dealt with this particular brand of arrogance many times before and many times since.
Well, I definitely caught up with the dishes, but it was only because business slowed down finally. Because my fangs weren’t as sharp back then I very politely told Ellie she could keep the money. That’s when she told me that Jim wanted me to have the money so I wouldn’t have to walk in the rain. He had asked her to pass that along to me before he left for the day.
Then I found out the next day, from Jim, that there was no special deal attached to the money. He genuinely did not want me to walk home in the rain. Ellie just twisted his words around to light a fire under my ass and Jim probably thought I was throwing the money back in his face when she told him I refused.
It was a long process. Getting shouted at by the cooks when the dishes, pots and pans fell behind was as common as whatever I could expect to hear on the radio that day. But finally, something clicked. I finally figured out the secret. Then it was like lightening.
I lightheartedly titled the post after Coyote Ugly. But do you remember that scene when Jersey finally finds her place as the bar’s musical talent and the montage of her finally becoming a true coyote shows her getting better at working behind the bar as well as juggling her musical career. That was me. I found my stride and on the busiest nights, I was pounding out pan after pan of dishes as rapidly as I could breathe.
There were a couple of nights when I did my job so well that the only reason there were no dishes on the racks for the chefs and waiters to put the food on, was that all of the dishes were literally out on the floor. I actually got to snap back at the chef, “There no dishes to wash, so you’ll have to wait for someone to bring them back in!”
Of course there were nights when I went out there myself to clear tables, even though no one actually asked me to do so. But I only did this on the nights I didn’t get yelled at. Hmmm, not getting yelled at led to my being productive… how come more people don’t catch on to this simple equation?
Eventually, there was talk of Jim selling the restaurant. That talk soon turned to reality and the stress was right back on. I was paying six hundred dollars a month for the privilege of sleeping in the basement of a woman who definitely was not on the twelve step program. But if the job remained steady, I might have eventually found a better living situation. So what happened? I had earned my keep by becoming the best damned dish washer in Burlington, Vermont.
The problem was my coworkers.
As I said, Jim was a saint. But he wasn’t stupid. There were signs all over the kitchen imploring coworkers about the importance of not drinking the profits. Soda was fine; we could drink all the soda we wanted. But employees had to at least pay half price for alcoholic drinks.
I had a drink every now and again. With the staff at the end of a long day, we would have a shot of jaeger to celebrate. I even had my first tequila shot there. But these guys would really just booze it up whenever the urge struck them. There was one guy who actually got fired for drinking all the cooking sherry. You’d think that would be enough, except that the other cooks and waitresses once had a spirited game of beer pong going right in the kitchen. Yes, that same kitchen that those same cooks and waitresses got high in was apparently the best place to play beer pong. And I’m betting you they didn’t pay half price for those beers either.
I think if Jim thought he could hire anyone else, those people would have been gone long ago. But you kind of have this all or none policy in cases like this. Fire one guy and the others might shape up for a little while. It takes time and effort to hire and train the right people for the job and in a place like Burlington that’s known for really good restaurants, you can bet that the right people have already found jobs, or they’ve moved on to somewhere else. Or you fire one guy that’s really tight with the crew and the others might all threaten to leave and the ship will be stuck in the harbor still. I sometimes wonder if Jim wasn’t a victim of his own circumstances, being as generous as he was and placing his trust in the wrong people, only to have it cost him his business in the long run.
This could also be a classic example of why you can’t have friends in business.
Either way, Jim finally sold the place. It would be another month before the new owners officially took over, but in either case, my time was running out. I still had to do the best damn job I could for the busiest part of the week and try like hell to find something else.
An opportunity came to me. It was a job trying to get donations for an energy conservation group. In order to take the job, I had to be the jerk. I had to quit without giving notice and I will never forget the look on Jim’s face that day when I told him I would not be coming to work anymore. If he reads this, I hope he takes this as my sincere apology and I hope he knows I’m grateful to him. I hope he is equally grateful for the fact that unlike his other employees, I had the balls to tell him this to his face and not run around behind him abusing that same trust he placed in them.
For the record, that donations job didn’t work out because I couldn’t convince random strangers that six-thirty came after six o’clock, so what hope would I have of raising money for some energy group that none of them had ever heard of. I did find a better paying job as a dishwasher for the Ice House on the waterfront, but that is another story for another time.
The main thing about this trip down memory lane is that this is a clear case of when I really got screwed over by the actions of my coworkers. As a dishwasher, I really had to get my shit together. If I didn’t, the cooks couldn’t cook and the customers couldn’t eat. The equation was as simple as that and I busted my ass to go from the inexperienced and overly stressed newbie to the confident and competent lynch pin employee of the Coyote’s Cafe. My effort was courteous to the people who depended on the restaurant for their livelihood. But they clearly didn’t give enough of a shit about me to do their jobs well enough to keep the place afloat in the competitive industry.