Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Adventures of the Big Boy
My family waves goodbye to her as she steps through the security line and heads off towards the gates. I don’t think my mother in law will be coming back to the US again. I only realized a couple of weeks ago what a time bomb she is. Chencha, who we lived with in our Panama years, my son’s only living grandparent, has diabetes and heart problems and god knows what. When she ran out of diabetic medicine the pharmacy said we needed the prescription from my doctor. We paid the office visit in cash because the insurance didn’t cover her. Stroke? Heart attack? They didn’t cover anything. So we treated her very carefully and now she’s on her way.
I love my mother in law, I have a lot of respect for her. But now that she’s gone I feel a wave of relief. We missed the bullet, all of us. Now I want to do something different.
The Atlanta airport is next door to College Park. College Park was where I spent two of the most formative years of my life. I feel like a hamburger.
“We’re going to Shoney’s Big Boy.” I announce to my bunch. “Home of the ‘Big Boy Burger’. That was the first job I ever had. I was a bus boy.”
“You drove a bus?” says my kid.
“No, I cleared dishes off the table and brought them to the kitchen. It’s called ‘bussing’ a table. I don’t know why. Actually I really liked that job. It wasn’t the job, it was the people I worked with.”
I pack them up in the van and dig out my road maps. All I need to do is get to the main street and I’ll know all the rest from memory. Probably.
I find my way to College Park after missing the highway exit twice and making a couple of illegal and arguably suicidal U turns. Thirty eight years is a long time to try to remember how to get somewhere you used to live. Even with a map.
On Main Street I decide to make a sentimental journey to the apartments where I used to live. This is off the map. This is pure navigation by déjà vu.
I park the car at a fancy Simones Steak and Seafood restaurant and we cross the old railroad tracks.
Navigation by déjà vu is a genuinely mystical experience. I stand on the loose granite gravel at the side of the MARTA railroad tracks and just listen to the inside of my head. A little nudge that way. I would imagine it must be like this for one of my story characters, Nixie the vampire, when she tracks someone by sense of smell. You sniff the air and make a move. It isn’t so much a sensory experience as a meditative nudge. I cross the street with my bunch whining about heat and food. They follow me like grumpy ducklings. Hawthorne Street. That was where De Etta lived. I don’t see the walk up apartment she lived in but it would be around here. And Davis Road – that’s how you get home from DeEtta’s place. Many nights in a past life, I walked in the dark up Davis Rd. I don’t remember it, I just know it was so.
I walk with my head dipped slightly, listening to the still voice of imagery of this not that. This is reincarnation. This is a man from another life smelling the trail of a young man from a past life, losing the scent and picking it up, back tracking by the still voice of intuition.
And there it is. The old apartment complex. The last place where my mother and brother and I lived altogether as a family more or less.
I show it to my wife and kid, the way a Civil War vet might show off a battlefield, but the fact is they’re more hungry than sentimental. I walk in and take a look around. There is a grassy flat ground with some bushes and a water pipe sticking up in the middle. After a moment I realize that was where the swimming pool used to be, where my brother Dave and I used to spend our summer days. Filled over and sodded. I take a couple of pictures and we start the short hike back to the van across the tracks.
Now there’s a cop car parked at Simone’s. The cop is drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and doing paperwork. I go up to him and he looks up.
“Hi. I’m looking for Shoney’s Big Boy. Can you tell me where it is?”
I look over at Simone’s. My Spidey sense tingles. Yeah, the shape is familiar. “That’s Shoney’s?”
“Used ‘ta be. Went out of business about, oh, maybe fifteen years, give or take. Keeps changing hands. It’s been Simone’s now a couple years or so.”
I look at my family. They have those refugee eyes. Daddy’s sentimental journey is not their journey. “Hungry?”
“Okay, thanks sir.” I wave to the cop and we go in.
Sonuvabitch, it really is Shoney’s. As soon as I walk in, the cool air, the bright aquarium of exotic fish, the fancy tables with real linen tablecloths, it’s been reincarnated too as something way classier. But the ghosts are all there. In this shaded silence I hear the long gone clatter of china dishes. Plastic hardened menus with a picture of a fat kid in checkered overalls running with a hamburger. The ghostly chatter in my skull of hard working people, mostly white men, ordering burgers and sweet tea and coffee. There’s DeEtta with that silly smile and the bright eyes that don’t miss a thing balancing five plates of food on her arms like a circus performer heading for her section. There goes Little Vicky who found somebody’s bra in the back seat of her old man’s car and threw him out of the house. There goes Big Vicky, tall and slender, bawdy and good humored, who used to come back and pull her nylons up when I was drinking coffee and brag about how happy she was now with her new husband and I help felt happy for her.
They loved me and I loved them. I didn’t steal their tips, I was the only busboy they trusted. I could clear a table and wipe it down in less than a minute and leave it looking like new. I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for the ladies with a craftsman flourish. In return they sat with me over coffee and taught me about women and what they worry about all day.
The ghost of Salem the assistant manager goes by. He hated my long hair. We got in a shouting match in front of the customers, which was stupid and he fired me. As I unfastened my apron Big Vicky hauled me into the back dining room and sat me down. “Stay there.” she said. “Don’t even take off your apron.”
The waitresses went on strike.
They refused to clean the tables. All through lunch hour the dishes piled up. They swept them up against the wall and took the orders. They brought the food and the dirty plates stayed where they were. Finally Salem had to come out and bus the tables. When Bob the head manager showed up he was appalled “What the hell is this?”
“Salem fired Chris!” Yelled Little Vicky, “We’re not cleaning any tables until he’s hired back.”
“Look at this!”
“I don’t work here anymore. I was fired.”
Bob gave Salem a murderous look. “Garcia – you’re hired. Get in there.”
My family is seated at a nice booth against the wall with thick red napkins. Where the big fish tank is, I remember now – that’s where the salad bar used to be. Probably uses the same plumbing and wiring.
All around me the ghosts come and go
talking of Michelangelo . . .
Damn. This place is expensive.
My family orders some fish and some soup. I order coffee and pie. They have sweet potato pie, made in house, which is a real treat. Even with this modest fair, I tally up the check in my head and it’ll be around fifty bucks easy. We ain’t in Shoney’s anymore.
The pie arrives and its okay. Not as good as the sweet potato pie I make, with Jack Daniels. But it’s all right. The coffee’s good. Shoney’s, right here in this very room, is where my life long love affair with coffee began. I always thought coffee tasted burned and acidy. I couldn’t figure out why people drank it. My first cup of Shoney’s Big Boy coffee was a religious revelation. I discovered it was only my mom’s coffee that was burned and acidy.
A special ghost comes up to me and whispers in my ear “Not as good as pumpkin pie?”
Oh my shit – I got you so good.
Alice. I totally nailed your ass. I guess you’ll be somebody’s grandmother by now.
November of 1972. Thanksgivings coming. Early morning I go out with Mr. Armstrong the old dishwasher to help unload the freezer truck that’s arrived from out of state filled with Shoney stuff. I haul off the turkey slices and frozen vegetables, and a couple of big boxes of frozen pumpkin pies. I bring them into the walk in cooler and unpack them in the freezing air and stack them up. This time of year it’s still pretty warm in the deep south, so working in a walk in freezer is kind of nice. I’d eat my lunch in here if I could. The pies come with these little squares of wax paper which I’m supposed to peel away. I like to lick the traces of dark pie filling off them.
At the end of the day, my last job is to clean out the toilets and then Alice the dining room manager has to inspect them. I don’t go home until the toilets pass inspection. And they never pass inspection. Alice always gets a perverse thrill out of finding something wrong every time and sending me back in with the mop and disinfectant.
At the end of the day a devil whispers in my ear.
Ten minutes until four in the afternoon. Mop and bucket. Spray bottle of Lysol. I clean out the men’s room, same as always. Spray the mirror with glass cleaner. Wipe the walls. Women’s toilet. Yell in the door “Anybody there?” No one. Women’s toilet is always cleaner than the men’s because women being what they are, don’t piss on the floor. Not even on the toilet seat.
That’s why it has to be the women’s room.
A half hour later I’m stashing my stuff. “Alice! I’m gonna go!” My apron is off and in the locker and I’m half way out the door when she yanks me back.
“You can’t go until the toilets are clean.”
“You know they’re clean. I always clean them good.”
“And I always find something. You’re not going anywhere.” She goes off to the toilets to check. I watch the men's room door close behind her. Open. Women toilet. Door closes.
Goddamn. I just love it. We’re like an old vaudeville team. Jones and Sanchez-Garcia.
DeEtta comes up to me and looks in my face. I smile.
She sees it instantly. “Jesus Christ.” She whispers. “What did you just do?”
What can I say? The woman knows me.
The door to the women’s toilet flies open. “Get in here! Now!”
I tie my apron back on and go in. “Alice, I need to go.” I step in and shut the door. “What?”
There’s something brown and nasty on the mirror. Something brown and nasty on the wall. Something brown and lumpy and very, very nasty on the white porcelain rim of the toilet bowl, which in fact I had cleaned especially well for the occasion.
Alice points at the brown gunk streaked on the toilet bowl rim. “What’s that??”
Hat and cane.
A little of the old soft shoe.
Yada da da dah da –
(“A funny thing happened on the way to the toilet . . . “)
I reach down and scoop the brown goo on my finger. “Jesus, Alice. I can’t believe it.” I stick my finger in my mouth. Smack my lips. “It’s shit! Mmmmmm.”
Alice screams and runs all the way to the parking lot. A couple of customers go out to see if she’s all right, after she stops crying.
She doesn’t fire me; everybody knows now that waitress strikes are a pain in the ass. And surprisingly we become really good friends. She doesn’t inspect the toilets anymore, especially when there’s pumpkin pie in the freezer.
“Anything else, sir?”
“No thanks. It was good.”
The waiter, dressed like a philharmonic conductor, comes back with the check. I pay by credit card, something that didn’t exist the last time I was in this room.
My family gets up and heads for the door. Another thing that didn’t exist the last time I was in this room. I look at the dirty dishes a second. I look at the spoon I was eating my sweet potato pie with. There’s some left on the underside.
A devil whispers in my ear.
Hey kid. Long time, no see. All growed up?
“I gotta use the bathroom.” I call out to my wife and kid as I pick up the spoon. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”
Hat and cane.
Ah one . . .Ah two . . . the old soft shoe . . .
a doo doo dee oooo doo oo doo dee oo dee oh
Did you hear about the blonde who put lipstick on her forehead?
No Garce! Why did the blonde put lipstick on her forehead?
Because she was trying to make up her mind!
(Drum roll. Rim shot.)
What did the blonde waitress at Big Boy say when the customer asked for only a little lettuce?
Gee, I don't know, Alice. What did the blonde waitress at Big Boy say when the customer asked for only a little lettuce?
She said "I'm sorry sir, we only have iceberg!"
(Drum roll. Rim shot.)
A blonde was driving down highway 20 to Augusta when she saw a sign that said "Clean Restrooms Next 10 Miles". She showed up ten hours late for her appointment.
That's too bad, Garce. Why was the blonde ten hours late for her appointment?
Because she had 26 toilets to clean!
(drum roll. Rim shot. Soft shoe. Canes tap.)
You've been a lovely audience! Say goodnight, Alice!
Good night Alice!