Saturday, March 11, 2006

BTG: Four on the Floor!

When I left that group Full Stop back in Atlanta, I had to get employed so I got a job as a dishwasher in Little 5 Points and soon moved on to become a cook there. I did that for a couple of years and never forgot the experience. For all intents and purposes, the differences between playing in a rock band and working in a restaurant are few, while the similarities are many. The same dynamics take place, you just don't take your show on the road -- it comes to you. While working there, I met some of the greatest people that I ever would -- I just didn't realize it. Here's another short I wrote in a tribute to them...

Humid mist clung stickily to the skies above the purple-pink rooftop lights of the Atlanta skyline. In Little Five Points the only souls on the streets were a few street kids and hustlers divying up the aggregate handouts from that day's round of panhandling and pick pocketing - they'd quickly spend it on a couple of six packs and maybe a couple of slices of pizza at Felini's Pizzeria. Over at the Jamaica 5 Points Grill, Dennis had already ran through the line-up of the night's dinner specials with the cooks and waitstaff in preparation for an impending dining rush that had never materialized. It was 8:30 on a Friday night but the J5, as the locals called it, was practically empty, only a few regulars eating egg bread and drinking coffee. Thoroughly non-plussed by the goings on in the restaraunt he managed, Dennis balled up his apron,wiped a few crumbs off his whiter than white starched shirt and walked outside to smoke a butt. Where in the hell were they? After inspecting his display window a few seconds with his twitchy New Yorker's eyes, Dennis started slowly thumbing through the "Creative Loafer," the free rag that told Atlantans what was going on in in town. The Loafer came out every week on Thursday and was a valuable tool for gauging how he would assign his wait staff, but last week he let his assistant manager, Carol, do it for the first time. "Hope you didn't screw the pooch, Carol, " he smirked as he robotically scanned through the various listings for Buckhead, Midtown, Virginia Highlands and then Little 5 Points. His bushy eyebrows jerked up. Aha! He'd found his culprit.

Reading through the live music section of the Loafer a tiny grin began to grow under Dennis' nose. If he'd had a handlebar mustache, like one of those old-school villains in an Ennio Morricone Western, he would have stroked it a la Lee Van Cleef -- "I knew it couldn't be just the drizzle" he muttered, half to himself and half to Bingo, one of the street urchins reclining on a cardboard daybed he'd spread out in the doorway of "Abba Dabba's" -the closed headshop next door. Squinting down Euclid Avenue, he continued,"There's a 7:00 show going on down there at the Fox Theaterhouse and it's damn near over. Their Parking lot is attached to ours, " he continued to theorize," so when they walk by and smell our specials they'll be all mine." An image of Van Cleef would fit in here too. While his cigarette dangled from his mouth, he rubbed his hands together like Wile E. Coyote and affected an equally cartoonish cackle - "Bwah, ha-ha-ha-haaa!" As if on cue, the glass doors under the Fox Theater's marquee parted like dog track stalls and a sea of concertgoers poured out onto the sidewalks and into the street. Turning toward the oncoming throng of people, with his arms akimbo, Dennis' gaze shot past the ridge of his brow like a Dodge City gunslinger at high noon. The former line cook inhaled the last of his cigarette, spiked it into the concrete, as if it were a football in his enemy's end zone, and he whispered under his breath; "Here they cu-um." With a quick about face, he stalked back into his restaraunt to position his troops - the blood in his veins began to pump a little quicker.

Although the effects of his 7:00 bong session was beginning to wear off, Daniel was still feeling a tad toasted. He figured he'd utilize this unwanted down time to spruce up the joint and keep himself occupied until the night blew over. He was number one on the waitstaff line tonight so he'd be in the house until the bitter end. Even if all of the other waiters were cut early he'd have to stay until everything in the dining area was set up for the morning shift. In short, he'd be there until the cooks left at 2:30 in the morning, so he had to make the most of it. "One of these days I'm gonna get myself outta this town," he said to himself quoting Travis Bickel from "Taxi Driver." People always thought it was weird how Daniel could always find an obscure quote from a film or song lyrics they'd all but forgotten about. Daniel, found his love of all things Hollywood invaluable in the food service industry as well as when he moonlighted at the Blast Off Video store across the street from time to time. He slid around the bar area with a pot of flowers in his hand decorating the joint to retain the desired Caribbean feel. He gave a flower to Nan, the 40-something bartender, and said "This town needs an enema!" - a Jack Nickelson quote from "Batman." She took the flower and courtsied melodramatically, "Thank yall, Mr. Webb." To this Daniel winked, formed two hand pistols and aimed them at Nan, "No sweat, sugar." Even though the reggae and ska bubbling out of the bar's speakers and the island life motif had gotten stale in what felt like to him like eons ago, the waiter continued sprucing up the front dining area. "Anything for a buck" he shrugged at his reflection in the bar mirror and then he spun to make a beeline for the larger tables in the back of the house.

The rear section of the Jamaica 5 Grill is essentially a climate controlled courtyard covered with colorful planks of sheet metal and decorated with palm fronds and artifacts straight from the yards of Jamaica and Cuba. The brilliant colors always seemed to get visitors into a festive mood and the Red Stripes and Mimosas flowed freely. If one couldn't afford to go to the Islands and were in Atlanta, they could always shoot down to the J5 for a glimpse of it at least. Walking toward the back of the house, Daniel continued nit picking on empty tables, taking pride in the fact that he'd found a way to keep his mind occupied for the moment. The drizzle softly plinked on the copper rooftop as he passed the rest of the waiters, semi-hidden in one of the large booths by the beer freezer. Daniel waved to get their attention and yelled; "Hi there, ere, ere, ere" - imitating an empty canyon echo. The ladies were not amused.

The waiters hated dead weekend nights like this, because those were the bread and butter shifts they'd quibble over while the manager wrote out their schedule on Sundays - a failsafe if Monday through Thursday yielded sub par tips. A good waiter could make a week's pay with just two weekend shifts if the customers showed up -- everything else could be redirected to their beer tabs at the Yacht Club. While Daniel arranged plants and provided comic relief, the waitron; Laura Ann, Janet, Monica, Amy and Wendy were wrapping silver - tightly folding napkins around forks and knives (silverware) for future customers to use. There was nothing left for them to do except watch and wait -- and bitch about watching and waiting. "Don't even think about asking because Dennis never, ever, never cuts anyone before 9:00. Never, the bastard," Laura Ann groused. "I could be at home with my little Nicky instead of paying a baby sitter while I hang around here with my thumb up my ass - give me some more silver," she snapped to nobody in particular. " I can't, Amy whined, we wrapped it all, every piece in the house is clean." Laura Ann quickly popped out of her seat like a jack-in-the-box, her eyes wide and darty. Carrying her silver to a waitstation in her apron, she motioned to the others with her head and whispered, "Look alive girls, look alive. Here comes old yeller" as Dennis stomped in through the door at the other end of the room but the waitresses' misgivings were the furthest thing away from his mind.

Rory O'Bannon, was a cook's cook. He was raised by a wealthy Southern family that had disowned him after he decided to marry his highschool girlfriend that he'd impregnated just before the prom. In his mind's eye Rory considered himself of an Irish-American man of principle, unlike his father, who'd shunned his working class origins and went to NYC to make scads of dough on Wall Street and finally moving to the deep South, where his bucks would have a longer shelf life. To those around him, Rory moved through life like a bull in a china shop, and quite like his daddy, he too was prone to hit the bottle which precipitated aggressive physical outbursts in bars that landed him into the "greybar hotel" in precincts all over Atlanta. He was a hell raiser for sure, but he took pride in what he did, though he shrugged it off in the company of coworkers. Despite the fact that his marraige to Rebecca had long since crumbled due to his affinity for the drink, BASE jumping and playing guitar at Pete Townshend levels at odd hours, he never crawled back to his folks. He was existing on his own terms. Pride's a motherfucker, sometimes. He often said "He'd rather get a hot buckshot shampoo and chainsaw circumcision than retreat from the life he'd chosen and fall back, hat in hand with his tail tucked." He wouldn't go crawling to Pop O'bannon for handouts like his big brother did -- he had a three year old daughter to look after. He always wanted to be able to look her squarely in the eye, like a man of his word. He wanted her to recall a loving childhood spent with a father she could always count on to be there for her - at all costs. Rory, or "the O-ster" which the other cooks dubbed him, embraced the working-class legend he'd erected around himself in the wake of a troubled past, founded on a series of impulsive decisions. He had long accepted the fact he'd never look back, because he just wasn't able to, yo.

Looping a tie-dyed bandana tightly over his dirty blonde hair, Rory cinched the cloth knot behind his head and squinted up toward the cieling of the stock room. The stocky fireplug of a line cook stood in front of the supply shelves that loomed twelve feet above him. Unable to find a ladder, he proceeded to nimbly climb up to the top shelf and grab a couple of 5lb cans of black beans. He threw each over his shoulder and both thumped into a grey hotel pan on the floor below. Although the GA health code prohibited smoking in a food preparation area, Rory lit a small marijuana roach and took a toke. "You want some of this?," he asked Ras Clay, the lanky Rastafarian prep cook. Clay was busy slicing cucumbers into a 50lb container atop an immense oak cutting table. Tucking some of his fuzzy dreads under a tam that sat on his head like a huge, round Ethiopian flag the Rastaman pinched the roach out of Rory's hands as he answered "Well yeah son, big ups. Give thanks!" He inhaled the contraband plant fumes in a long, lung filling hiss which killed it as well. With a stoner's perma-grin, Rory slapped Clay on the back before gathering up his supplies, he opened the prep-room door with a grubby black boot, just as the door shut behind him the broad shouldered cook peeked back in and chuckled: "enjoy the gift that keeps on giving." The door swung closed, Clay turned up the volume on the Augustus Pablo dub reggae booping out of his radio speakers, washed his hands and resumed following the recipe for 50lbs of fresh Island cucumber salad -- contrary to what the nabobs say, Rastas keep are fastidiously clean. "Almost time," he said to the wall clock with reddened eyes, "Almost time."

A couple of minutes after the bell on the front entrance had jingled Dennis in, business began to pick up as crowds of pedestrians filed in - enticed by the smells emenating from inside the restaurant, just as he'd predicted. Nan started seating people from the bar but soon became overwhelmed with trying to pour drinks at the bar and help the new hostess so she left Allison, who'd just arrived, to her own devices. In less than than twenty minutes the J was packed tighter than a drum, with a line stretching out the front exit and a few trickling in from the back. Unaware of the bottlenecks at either end of the house, Rory came strolling out of the prep room with his newly acquired container of wares. As he got closer to the kitchen, however, the deluge became apparent as it got increasingly difficult for him to get around people with his load, so he began to use the pointed edges of the tub as a makeshift cattle prod to lightly poke people blocking his trajectory. "What a buzz kill" he sneered under his breath through clenched teeth, his heart rate quickening. When Rory reached the kitchen he began placing spices and ingredients into their appropriate containers. The ticket printer shuddered to life - server orders had started streaming in from the wait stations outside. Rory automatically began to gather up the strands of streaming paper, ripping apart separate dinner tabs using his mouth as a third hand and sticking them up on the board in chronological order- thirty multi-colored clothes pins hanging on a stainless steel wire that kept the orders in place until they were sent away to their destinations. The board quickly filled up from end to end but this didn't seem to bother the machine which continued spitting a five foot spool of entree orders. Analyzing the situation, the O-ster thought to himself," we're getting hit."

Rory looked over at his assistant cook Simon Sontag, the Design School mama's boy from Connecticut, and barked "Dude!, throw on some more rice!" Simon checked his memory for the correct ingredients for a rice pot together, muttering to noone in particular " 4 gals. of boiling water and oil; add 6 oz. of garlic powder, 3 oz. salt, a cup of bell pepper/ tomato crowns - and oh yeah, a big bag of rice." While Simon measured off a proper rice set up, Rory started slinging slabs of meat on the grill like a blackjack dealer in Vegas. There wasn't an inch of hot black steel left vacant, the smoke began to billow copiously underneath the ever-inhaling hood fans above. Even though his pulse was jacked up, there was nothing for Rory to do but wait until it was time to flip the meat for grill marks. As the decibel level of kitchen clatter began to rise, Dennis blasted through the swinging doors. The manager began whooping and clapping his hands like a sea otter that was completely sixes and sevens, he stared at his kitchen crew while pantomiming cocking a shotgun and screamed "Cha-chiing! Who wants some?!! Turn 'em and burn 'em boys! Turn 'em and burn 'em!!" He lived for moments like this.

Dennis pulled his head cook close and told him what Rory thought was already blaringly apparent: "we're filled to the gills, time to make the donuts."Bobbing his head clownishly Rory retorted "You're such a wanker, get outta my hole." "I'm out tha do', I'm out tha do'!, " the manager yelled back with esprit de corps. Just before exiting he made another declaration of the obvious exclaiming "You the man back here, homey!" As he walked outside and melted into the building fray taking place outside, Dennis took stock of all the activity abuzz throughout the establishment - he was clearly in his element. Back in the kitchen, Rory readjusted the position of the meat on the grill to get those perfectly burned X marks, that had become his signature of sorts. He crushed out another roach he had stashed under the bottom lip of his little reach -in fridge where the meats and sauces were kept. Blowing the remaining smoke up into the hood fans, Rory turned and bellowed:
"Assholes and elbows, boyos! The gooks are in the wire! The gooks are in the wire!"

"The Gooks are in the wire. What in the fuck is that supposed mean?" asked Dave in the dish pit. Rory looked down the line and made eye contact with the newly hired dishwasher on the other end. He pointed a greasy spatula towards the door and shrieked: "Gooks! You know, Diners! Those salad eating faggots out there that are gonna make our lives hell on earth for the next three hours. They're here, they're sat and they're HUN-GRAY!! Stirring up his rice pot, Simon chided the lead cook on with a fake Georgia drawl shouting, "lead us ahwn to vik-tray, mah fayer capit-tayne!" Tim the salad guy chimed in, "Hey Rory, tell the new guy about the fist!"The lead cook considered Tim's request, turned toward the others and held his spatula in a samarai's squat - the weed was kicking in.

Everything got quiet in the J5 kitchen, the only thing to be heard was the rat-tat-tat of the ticker and the loud shish of the fish and fowl on the grill as Rory paused for dramatic effect. Well boys, he began solemnly, "all this kitchen really needs is four on the floor when the gooks are in the perimeter. You need a born again-hard lead cook, a competant plate man, a straight up salad guy and a dirty-dirty dish dawg." ( Simon and Tim started to bark and bay like bloodhounds hot on the trail at the latter). "Four on the floor!" he continued, while flipping meat and holding up four digits with his free hand, "When running like a well oiled machine we are not unlike four fingers on a hand. We join together with a thumb - the servers. To this, Simon and Tim batted their eyelashes at each other and effeminately lisped " The way-tresseths." Rory went on, "Four fingers and a thumb! When pressed tightly together, they form a fist!" he exclaimed while tightly pursing all of the digits on his hand together. The stocky grill man then reached up for the kitchen radio, perched on a spice rack to crank up Jimi Hendrix' "Stone Free." Looking over to address the others with the booming voice of an evangelical Baptist minister he bellowed, "and with said fist-uh, let's do this-uh!" Throughout the entirety of Rory's stove- side sermon, the ticket machine continued to do its thing, like a miniature gatling gun.

The cooks had snapped into action while the clatter of pans, utensils and rock 'n roll rose to deafening proportions. As they placed the first couple of steaming orders under the serving lamps and garnished them, the servers bum-rushed into the kitchen and began hurriedly grabbing their orders and placing them on huge serving trays on the other side of the line - adding their own finishing touches just before carrying them out to the hungry crowds waiting outside. In Rory's mind's eye those meals were fading in the rearview mirror, he was focused on pulling the paper rectangles denoting meals that were gone from their clothespins with soggy fingertips. He then tore each ticket on the bottom and impaled it on a metal spike - indicating the meal was cooked and gone. Nights like this was why the O-ster was always at the helm. He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk and it seemed, over time, that the cooks who worked on shifts with him only got better at cooking themselves which is why they always wanted to be on his crew. They'd loyally follow him to the very end of a grueling shift and give it their all, even the dish guy. Simon looked over at Rory and asked him in a sonorous New England twang, "So tell me Rory, which finger on the hand are you, anyway?" Placing a new handful of tickets into vacant spaces on the board, the lead cook looked over at his wiry Yankee plate man and dryly replied as the printer continued stuttering, "You know which finger I am Simon," he held up his hand to gesture with a wry grin..."I'm the middle one."

*Note: Many of the characters in this series of shorts are composites of people I've met in life and this too is, sort of, a compilation of moments that took place while I was in the room. Names like Clay, Tim, Simon, Rory and Dennis were real peeps I befriended back in ATL (above is a picture of the storefront in Little 5 Points where Dennis would stand and smoke Marlboros -- it's been closed for quite a while but the last time I was in town the memories still oozed out of that door.)I think these were great people to know and they came into my life when I really needed them (again, I didn't know it at the time) and everything I've learned from interacting with them sticks with me to this day. I can't say that I knew what I was doing or where I was going at the time, because I didn't. And I won't fake the funk, pretending that everything was always keen and groovy back in Atlanta, because it wasn't. But I will say that people like the ones above really do exist and it gives me hope; I feel blessed to know that there are still real people out there, we just have to really look around to find them...Laters..

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