Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Incident At Milepost 49

The HoJo at Oakmont looked just like this

             Lately, I haven't been posting much for reasons that really don't matter but have resulted in my going through some of the essays and other writing that I've had laying around for a long time. Over the years, I've accumulated a trove of mediocrity that I once thought was pretty good. At some point, everyone even semi-serious about writing imagines their masterpieces being featured in the New Yorker or some other lofty publication and I was no different. But most of my stuff was written with no idea where it could possibly find the light of day. I paid no attention to any of the advice every aspiring writer gets on researching markets and how to appeal to editors or anything else that might have at least gotten me some encouraging rejection slips. So now I've decided that if none of this stuff is ever going to make me a member of the next Algonquin Round Table, I'm foisting it off from time to time on whoever runs across this blog accidentally in the course of surfing for pornography.
           The first of these I've rewritten so many times I can't stand it anymore. It was intended originally for some now defunct online magazine in Pittsburgh and I think I was encouraged by most of the previously published pieces being worse. I'm not sure Thurber would have gotten very far, either, if his mantra had been, "Shit, I'm not that bad."

Now it looks like this
            A few years ago I drove past the Oakmont rest area of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It had been completely rebuilt and, except for the structural footprint, nothing remained of the Howard Johnson’s that once stood there. This was where got my first real job the summer of 1969 and since teenaged people like me had always staffed the place, it’s a wonder the whole works hadn’t become a smoking hole a long time ago. It was the opening act of my wage-earning life, where I learned most of what needed to know to survive the next four decades.
            Until around 1980, every rest stop on the turnpike included a restaurant owned and operated by Howard Johnson’s and despite, or possibly because of the monopoly, the food, at least by today’s turnpike standards, was positively gourmet. In fact, there were people who sprung for the tolls just to get fried clams. Travelers had the choice of eating at a counter on one of those spinable round stools or in an actual sit down restaurant. There was a soda fountain that served milkshakes the way nature intended – with real ice cream and syrup that probably included chocolate. Plus, you were waited on by kids required by company policy to give a shit.
I started out as a busboy for the minimum wage of $1.30. Anyone who says they were ever happy to make this kind of money was either desperate or full of shit. Then, as now, they less you made the harder you worked and when not loafing I worked my ass off. We all wore dorky, heavily starched uniforms of gray hound’s-tooth check trousers and a white shirt like the ones doctors and dentists used to wear. This getup was topped off by a paper hat and was a good lesson in one of things you have endure for a paycheck.

             Busboys were responsible for policing the counter area, washing dishes, cleaning the restrooms and parking lot and doing anything else Mel, the manager, could think of if he saw you standing around. The dining room was the exclusive domain of the waitresses who cleared their own tables, probably to keep the busboys out of their hair.
 Dirty counter dishes and trash were thrown into heavy plastic containers the size of a large kitchen sink that when full weighed a ton. The first time I wrestled with one of these things I though of all my mother’s warnings about getting a rupture.  Teachers used to tell us the same thing but requests for clarification tended to be a little vague. So around the age of 6, along with all the other irrational phobias, I added the fear of exploding testicles and it could have been why I never let those bins get too full.
            A large portion of each workday consisted of trying to steal the place blind – a bit ironic considering my future career would be law enforcement. A weakness of ice cream led me to keep spoon in my shirt pocket for trips to the walk-in freezer.  If I didn't have one, I'd just stick a bare hand into whatever five-gallon carton of the 28 flavors struck my fancy and cram my mouth full. You couldn’t stay in there very long without freezing or arousing suspicion, so it was really important not to talk to anyone for a while after you came out.
             My favorite contraband, however, was ice cream cake roll but it presented more of a challenge. Although pre-sliced and pilfer-ready, these special treats were kept out in the open inside a smaller freezer in the kitchen. It was easy enough to sneak a slice when nobody was looking; the hard part was covering it in the chocolate syrup that no ice-cream cake roll should be eaten without. The syrup dispenser being at the fountain made it a bit tricky but I had to have it. For lack of a better idea, I waltzed out to the fountain like I owned it, loaded up and retreated to the employee restroom and locked the door. This worked so well that after a couple of slices I got bold enough to add whipped cream and a cherry. Fortunately, I never got into drugs.
            For years I was kept from atheism by feeling I'd survived beyond the age of 18 only by divine intervention.  An illustration also provides, to this day, the finest example I've ever seen of thinking on ones feet and deflecting blame.
             One of our chores involved the then legal burning of paper trash in a large incinerator placed a safe distance behind the building. Guys love a good explosion and we discovered that real satisfaction could be had from blowing up a few empty whipped cream containers in the fire. Like any addiction, you build a tolerance so we began to stockpile empty canisters in increasing numbers. Jeff McCoy and I finally loaded the fire with so many that when the majority went off at once (sending a truly impressive shower of sparks out the chimney), a large chunk of the incinerator’s cast iron door blew off and whizzed past our mostly empty heads. A few remaining cans cooked off in festive secondary explosions that blew flaming bits of paper through what was left of the door as Mel ran out to see what the hell was going on. Before he could say a word, Jeff deftly and instinctively started denouncing them fuckin' waitresses who we told a million times not to throw those fuckin' things in the fuckin' trash but did they fuckin' listen - fuck no. He pointed to the still smoking hunk of door and added, truthfully, that it was a miracle we hadn’t been fuckin' decapitated.
            Speaking of waitresses, HoJo’s was a big part of the reason why I never had any trouble working on an equal footing with women. Once upon a time, boys were taught never to swear or otherwise be disgusting around girls because they were more delicate and refined, or something like that. From the start, every woman in the place occupied a higher rung than I did and the idea of feminine equality took hold on my first day. Right off I had noticed this cute dark haired girl who, in addition to looking and smelling fabulous, conducted herself like a debutante in a waitress outfit. After being issued my geek costume, as I was being instructed in the finer points of industrial dishwashing, this enchantress burst through the nearby dining room door. She stood beside me, regarding a coin in her outstretched palm like it was a fresh dog turd. In a softly modulated voice of angelic timbre and flawless enunciation she announced, “That mother-fucker left me a nickel! A fucking nickel, that prick!” From then on I believed women could excel at men’s activities without sacrificing their femininity.
            It’s not always clear why men decide to mess with somebody. Mainly, it’s just a guy thing and some people, like me, who once believed what they were taught in Sunday school, were too trusting and easily susceptible to what’s generally referred to as ball breaking.  So who knows what he was thinking when Dave, the veteran soda jerk, zeroed in on me. It was just one of those ideas that rolls around the thick, teen-aged skull.
            In a room behind the kitchen stood a huge stainless steel crushed ice machine. Next to it was a small concrete wall about 3 inches high and 4 feet square where we filled buckets. In the center of this square two copper pipes, about 2 inches apart, came out of the floor and ran over to faucets mounted on the wall. Dave, pretending he had gotten his foot stuck between the pipes, asked the first gullible boob (me) to help get him out. I suggested he just take his foot out of his shoe but he insisted the pipes be pried apart so I reached down and tried to separate them. After a couple of futile attempts, I finally grabbed one pipe with both hands and pulled on it with increasing force. Suddenly this pipe separated from the floor, immediately sending a geyser of, fortunately, cold water bouncing off the 10-foot ceiling. I frantically tried to stick the whole thing back into the floor but this only blew my paper hat away. Dave began laughing hysterically as the water beat the hell out of my face and blasted up my nose. Finally realizing it was hopeless, I surrendered and joined Dave and the now gathered staff in gaping at the blowout.
          As the flood spread into the kitchen, somebody suggested that “uh, maybe we ought to get Mel,” who had been out at the counter, quietly eating lunch. When the former navy man walked in and saw the decks awash he sprang into action.  Grabbing a stockpot from the kitchen, he inverted it and, like a Medal of Honor winner on a grenade, threw himself on the gusher and tried to cap it. The flow, however, continued unabated and now threatened to swamp the whole building. A frenzied search for the shut-off valve ensued and in the process, I fell headlong down the basement steps. Back at the wellhead, another busboy had been ordered to sit on the stockpot and I now added to Mel’s woes by telling him my arm might be broken.
         Returning from the hospital hours later, I learned the full extent of the disaster. The pipe had broken flush with the floor and the only way to stop the flood had been to shut off the water for the entire rest area, including the adjacent Gulf station. Fed up with the growing number of irate travelers, the State Police had barricaded the off ramp to prevent unsuspecting motorists from entering the now useless facility. Families in VistaCruisers and Country Squires, who had been holding it all the way from Terre Haute because Dad was making good time, had to just keep going.
         Nobody ever mentioned how much all this ended up costing Howard Johnson and Gulf Oil but sometime after the figures came in I was banished from the food service industry forever.           

             If you're still with me, I usually add an appropriate music video but couldn't think of one so here's Jack Teagarden playing his trombone with a water glass over the slide.



  1. I remember that story!! Send it out!! Now!!

  2. Very entertaining story...loved it!

  3. Bruce that's the summer worked together there for a while. I remember Jeff, and Mel whose last named rhymed with his first. He was never quite the same after that. He panicked at the drop of a hat. HAHA

  4. I once watched an admittedly small spider crawl across a HoJo salad at one of those places. Put me off roughage for a number of years