Saturday, February 06, 2010

All the dogs you can eat.

At the beginning of my first year in high school I decided I needed to become self-sufficient. Asking my parents for money wasn’t worth the discomfort of listening to them complain about the impossibility of raising four children on a teacher’s salary. At 14 years of age I became a Der Wienerschnitzel employee.

The man who hired me was probably old enough to drink alcohol — legally. He assigned our schedules and made sure we had supplies to serve the hungry hordes. Every morning he accounted the cash we collected the prior evening and every two weeks he distributed paychecks.

We learned to defrost heavy, cardboard-boxes full of frozen dogs before grilling them, and how to steam the stale dried-out hot dog buns so they resembled something edible. ‘Chili’ for ‘Original Chili Dogs’ came in enormous rectangular lumps of unidentifiable congealed greasy brown matter, which got melted on the stove, and sauerkraut came in one-gallon cans.

Our young manager also explained we were responsible for cleaning the restaurant at the end of each day and he explained why we needed to do that ‘off the clock’. We were underage, he said. A person under 16 wasn’t allowed to work an eight-hour shift during the school week. That meant weekdays our shifts started at 4 p.m. and ended at 11 p.m. We were allowed to work until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Company policy was to take orders until closing, so ‘off the clock’ didn’t start until we served the last dog and closed and locked the order window. Most nights we’d finish cleaning well after midnight, sometimes not until two in the morning. This made it a difficult to get to class at 8 a.m., but at the end of each pay period we had almost 100 dollars in our pockets — a lot of money for a 14-year-old at the time.

In addition to $1.25 per hour, working essentially unsupervised in a fast food restaurant meant we could eat and drink as much of Der Wienerschnitzel’s product as we could stomach, and there was no one to stop us from ‘goofing around’. Every day we’d see who could concoct the most disgusting hot dog topping combinations. These we’d give away to our friends or the occasional hungry bum. Mixing chili glop, processed cheese, and sauerkraut with a Polish sausage pushed the limits for us. We weren’t the unruly the teens working at the nearby Taco Bell who collected desiccated ‘dog shit’ from the empty field behind their restaurant and mixed it with their chili sauce. I still won’t eat at Taco Bell.

On occasion things reeled out of control at the hot dog stand. One night a group of drunken high school boys grabbed the cash register off the walk-up counter and tried to stumble away with it. They brought it back when I insisted, and I gave them free hot dogs so they wouldn’t think I was a dick for preventing them from stealing Der Wienerschnitzel’s cash register. Another time, when I was alone in the restaurant cleaning up after midnight, a very drunk young man drove the wrong way through the drive-through, scraping his car against the building and gouging up the entire passenger side of his new white Cadillac. When I told him we were closed, there was nothing to eat, he leapt from the car with a large bowie knife in hand, and ran toward the window screaming: “I just fucked up my dad’s new car. You’re going to feed me!” I quickly locked the window and called the police. Reluctantly he went back to his car, cursing, and disappeared into the night.

Eventually our young manager quit. No one replaced him. We continued along well enough on our own for a few weeks, maintaining the routines he’d established. Supplies came in as scheduled and we would get calls from the head office in California letting us know that a new manager was on his way. But as every day passed without this man’s appearance I started to worry there would not be anyone to give me my paycheck on payday. I decided to take either a $10 or $20 bill out of the cash register every day to cover the hours I worked.

My adventures as an underage corporate employee came to an end one Friday evening when I showed up for my shift and found Salice Jones, my classmate and co-worker, acting miserable and guilty as she explained that she hadn’t been able to get anything prepared for the dinner shift. The place was filthy. A half-melted hunk of ‘chili’ slumped over the edge of the chili pot, dripping onto the prep counter. Stale buns were stacked in the storage room in their delivery boxes, still hard as rocks, as were the frozen dogs in the walk-in. There was nothing to serve anyone but already cars full of hungry diners had lined up all the way from the drive-up window out into Scottsdale Road. Salice disappeared with another apology and I realized it was all over. I closed the order window and called California to let them know I quit. The woman on the phone asked: “Please, would you put the key in the register and lock the door when you go?” I told her I would and tucked one last $20 bill from the cash register in my pocket while our would-be diners sat in their cars wondering what it was they wanted for dinner.

Der Wienerschnitzel never sent me my last paycheck. I can’t say I was surprised.

©February 6, 2010 Fred Dodsworth

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My Earliest Writing Memories

Reading and writing came to me later than most and with great difficulty. Unlike my classmates, I was neither a proficient, nor even a halting reader. In the third-grade, while everyone else was teasing out the pronunciation of words for our group reading assignments, I was illiterate. My inadequate abilities retarded the rest of the class. As I fell further behind the skill-set of my peers Mrs. Mathis, my teacher, made it clear I was not among her favorites.

Sent from a noisy classroom to the quiet, empty school library, realm of gray-haired, be-spectacled Mrs. Mueller, I sat at our librarian’s side hour after hour as she schooled me the ways of the alphabet and the manner in which words and incredible stories could be drawn from the pages of books. Books became my life, a safer place than the chaos and dysfunction of home. Asocial and awkward I retreated into those tales and read nearly every book in the school library Mrs. Mueller later told me.

Writing was different, for despite my love of words my penmanship was mostly illegible and my spelling atrocious. Faced with a writing assignment I would set at a table with a sheaf of clean, blue-lined paper and a stash of freshly sharpened yellow pencils and proceed to create a wastebasket full of crumpled papers. Some were marred by large, ugly smudges. Others had holes worn all the way through. Shredded into pieces or wadded up, none escaped to the classroom. After a while I simply gave up and ceased to turn in writing assignments. I wasn’t a writer.

While in high school I listened attentively, contributed to class, and did well enough to earn a passing grade or better. Dropping out of high school in the middle of my senior year, I coincidently avoided having to turn in the required senior thesis. Even in my first attempt at college 30 years ago I didn’t write. In a class on Shakespeare, like everyone else, I was assigned a written final of ten pages. Without discussing the matter with my professor, I turned in ten pages of hand-drawn illustrations of mythical microscopic agents responsible for Richard III’s divided motivations, Lady Macbeth’s ambition, King Lear’s madness, and Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated love. I was given an A, and the professor used my work as an example of a worthy and innovative academic response to Shakespeare.

As things happen, many years later I ended up on the business side of publishing. As publisher of San Francisco magazine I promoted myself to editor in the early 1990s when my editorial staff walked out in a snit over an aesthetic decision I made. Similarly I became a writer when Dave Burgin, executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner attempted to force me out by relieving me of my position as features editor and assigning me a daily, front-page column in 2001. His plan failed wonderfully. It seems the combination of spite and cash money was more motivating than academic expectations or accolades.

Now at the ripe old age of 59, I've decided it's high time for me to get a college degree. As most folk think of retirement I have re-thunk* my academic career. This time I plan to do it write.

*Thunk (thngk) v. Nonstandard: A past tense and a past participle of think.

©February 2, 2010 Fred Dodsworth