Note: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive. Author's footnotes have been omitted.
Prologue: Florida, 1998
We had this superstition in the kitchen: on Fridays, no one counted heads. No one counted tables at the end of the night, no one counted covers. When the last table was cleared, the dupes were just left there, mounded up on the spike. You didn't look, not even in secret. No one even guessed. Bad things would happen if you did.
And even though no one looked, bad things happened anyway. Lane died on a Friday night due to complications of lifestyle—which is to say, he was shot by an acquaintance in a squabble over twenty dollars' worth of shitty brown horse. He wasn't found until Saturday morning; no one thought to call the restaurant to let us know that he wouldn't be coming in to work that day. He was just considered AWOL—a no-call/no-show that left the line a man short going into the early-bird rush.
This was Tampa, Florida, in the middle nineties—a bad time for cuisine, a worse place. It wasn't a great time for me, either. Worse for Lane, I guess, but everything is a matter of degrees. Of right and wrong places, right and wrong times.
Eventually, Lane's name was found in a late edition of the Tampa paper. Or maybe someone saw it on TV. I don't remember. In any event, we all found out, precisely too fucking late, that Lane was now fry-cooking in the sweet hereafter. The first hit was due in soon. And while there is a lot of voodoo in the air down in Florida, no one wanted to bet heavy on the long odds of Lane coming back as a zombie and retaking his place on the line. He'd been shit as a living cook anyhow. Being newly undead would probably only slow him worse than the smack had.
"This is why cooks should always have the decency to die in a public place," said Floyd, the kitchen manager and nominal chef. "That way, they make the morning paper and we'd know who isn't showing up for work."
In the kitchen, we discussed the best methods for dying in a spectacularly newsworthy fashion, and Floyd promoted one of the afternoon prep crew into Lane's slot on the line. The FNG—the Fucking New Guy—went on fryers. It was my fourth night on the line at Jimmy's Crab Shack, and no longer the F-ingest NG, I was brevetted to grill/steamer, working beside Sturgis, who was grill/top.
Saturday night, early, no one was able to find a rhythm. We kept getting popped, then stalled, taking five tables like BangBangBang-BangBang, then nothing for ten minutes. The FNG fell into the weeds—dans la merde even at this stuttering half-speed. Jimmy, the owner, was antsy on expo, alternating between giggling fits and bouts of screaming obscenity. Floyd rotated the line out for cigarettes. He had a speed pourer filled with rum and hurricane mix in his rack that he sucked at like a baby with a bottle, and he jumped on every check out of the printer as if it were the harbinger of the rush that steadfastly refused to come. It was difficult to see from the grill station at one end of the line to the fryers at the other because of the wavy heat-haze—the air squirming, like staring through aquarium water.
Five o'clock came and went. It seemed to me suddenly like there wasn't enough air on the line for all of us to breathe. I had chills. Cold flashes skittered up and down my spine while my front half baked. This being Florida and me being too young for menopause, I imagined it was malaria and stood firm, waiting for the hallucinations to kick in. With the ventilation hood going full blast, Roberto and Chachi couldn't keep the pilots on their unused burners going so had to keep kissing them back to life—leaning over and blowing across the palms of their hands to get the flame from one to jump to the next with the gas turned all the way up. The alternative method: smacking a pan down on the grate at an angle and hard enough to catch a spark. They did it over and over again until Floyd yelled at them to quit it.
After that, they fought over the galley radio. After that, they amused themselves by drinking the cooking wine (sieved through a coffee filter to separate out all the grease and floating crap and then mixed with orange soda) and pegging frozen mushroom caps at Jimmy whenever his back was turned.
At some point, Jimmy—in an attempt to catch whoever was throwing things at him, and half in the bag to begin with—spun around too fast, caught his foot on the edge of one of the kitchen mats and went down hard, his head spanging off the rounded edge of the expo table with a sound like someone throwing a melon at a gong. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
There was an instant of shocked silence, then a crashing wave of laughter. Seeing anyone fall down is funny, but seeing a drunken fat man fall down beats all. One of the waitresses ran for the hostess (who also doubled as FOH manager), and she came at the best sprint she could manage in her stiletto heels and stirrup pants. The prep/runner crew treated Jimmy like any other heat casualty, breaking in a wing and descending like Stukas to drag him clear of the flow of service. It took four of them. Jimmy was a big man and moving him was like trying to roll a beached whale back into the sea.
They dumped him, loose-jointed, beside the cooler and calmly went back about their business. Jimmy's T-shirt (Pantera on that day, I think, black and sleeveless, making his thick, pasty-white arms look like they were made of lard) rode up over his hairy, pony-keg belly. His eyes were closed. There was no blood, which secretly disappointed us all.
Floyd spoke to the line. "No one cops to this. No one snitches."
He ordered Roberto to the wheel, shifted Dump, the roundsman, from second steamer (backing me) to second fryer (backing the new FNG), and vaulted the line to take Jimmy's place at expo himself.
As was only to be expected, that was when the real dinner hit finally came tumbling in. With the hostess seeing to Jimmy (and probably quietly looking to see how she could get at his wallet) the floor was left unmanaged. Waitresses double- and triple-sat their own sections in the absence of an egalitarian hand. The ticket machine began to spit. Like a pro, Roberto false-called a half dozen steaks to the grill, crabs to the steamers, and twenty-upped fries to get things rolling in anticipation of steaks going well-done and missed sides down the line, then started working actual tickets, hanging them ten at a time. The machine didn't stop. The paper strip grew long, drooping like a tongue, spooling out and down onto the floor. On the galley radio, the DJ came back from a commercial and kicked into the Misfits doing "Ballroom Blitz," and I—up to my wrists in meat and blood, crouching down at the lowboy trying to retrieve cheap-ass skirts and vacpac T-bones from the dim interior—yelled that I'd kill the next cocksucking motherfucker that touched the dial. After that, we were in it, the machinery in motion.
Sturgis and I sang along with the radio, bouncing on our toes, burning energy while we had it and twirling tongs on our fingers like gunslingers before dropping them onto the steamer's bar handles. We shouted callbacks to Floyd with the strange, exaggerated politeness and house slang of the line: "Firing tables fifty-five, thirty, sixty-eight, thank you. Going on eight fillet. Four well, three middy, one rare. Working fourteen all day, hold six. Five strip up and down. Temps rare, rare, middy waiting on po fries, two well going baker, thank you. Wheel, new fires, please. We've got space."
We yelled at Roberto, at Floyd, at the radio and each other. We yelled at the runners to bring more compound butter and plates of oil (a cheap trick for getting those grill marks to char faster—dragging the steaks through cheap salad oil, which scorched up black and nutty in seconds), and when we weren't yelling, we were muttering, cursing, talking to the meat, the fire; begging and cajoling more heat out of the grills, bricking the steaks with iron weights, throwing them in the microwave to speed them along to temp, constantly poking and prodding and plating them to the rail; waiting for po—for starch—and veg and wrap.
Jimmy regained consciousness and sat glaze-eyed, staring and concussed on the floor until he was capable of standing without help. He retook expo like the marines taking a hill: lurching, wild-eyed and under fire. Floyd came back onto the line at the wheel. Roberto surrendered his position without a word, just turning and going straight back to his burners one step away with no interruption in the flow of orders. On fryers, the FNG was so deep in the weeds and lost that Dump had to crutch him full-time while I racked and emptied the stinking steamers, leaving dozens of pounds of crab legs and freezerburned lobster tails and hundreds of clams to die in hotel pans under the heat lamps. The smell was . . . staggering.
Then the FNG passed out from the heat. The runners plunged onto the line, hip-checking their way through the chaos to drag him off.
Floyd shouted, "Hydrate that bitch!"
The FNG was dumped over a floor grate near the coolers and doused with ice water. He came to with a scream, sputtering and kicking, and while he recovered, another runner stood stage at his station, slicing bags of fries open with a silver butterfly knife he'd pulled out of his pocket and emptying them straight into the smoking fryers; fishing out an order at a time with long tongs and setting up sell plates under the lamps to catch up, his fist wrapped in a wet side towel to defend against the rivulets of hot oil that ran back down the grooves—another good trick, one that the FNG just hadn't had time yet to learn.
The night rolled on. Ice buckets were called for and installed at each station. You bent down and stuck your whole head in whenever you started to see fireworks—sure sign of an impending blackout. A plastic bottle of cornstarch made the rounds, everyone on the line dumping the stuff right down the front of our chef pants to soak up the sweat and keep the tackle from sticking. "Making pancakes," that was called, from the way the starch caked up on either side of one's ballsack.
I went down around nine. I felt it coming—the blackness squeezing into my head like heavy velvet. There was time enough to step back so I didn't topple over on the grill, then just the sensation of falling for miles.
Mark of one's perceived toughness: I was hydrated on the spot, Sturgis upending an ice bucket onto me while Floyd frantically waved off the runners. The floor was ankle-deep in shit—food scraps and packaging and dropped utensils and dirty towels. All the detritus of a killer service in a restaurant where people didn't care as much about what they were eating as they did about its being served fast, cheap and in gargantuan portions. I lay there on my back like I was trying to make a garbage angel, blinking, gasping and spitting. When I stood up again, I had a crab leg stuck in my hair.
Sturgis called me Crab Head from then on out.
I went right back to the grill-not because I was so tough or because I wanted to, but because I was too embarrassed to do anything else. I had to strip out of my chef coat and T-shirt because the water in them started to boil. The guys whistled at me. Sturgis rubbed my thin, bare belly. A runner brought me a dry jacket, and while I was shrugging into it, there was a sudden, odd quiet. The ticket machine had paused—first time since the rush had begun in earnest. We all stared as if it were our own hearts that'd stopped beating.
"Fire all!" Floyd yelled. "Hang 'em and bang 'em. Expo, all call." We ran the rail, cooking everything in sight in one massive push to get ahead of the curve. And when it was done, Sturgis and I cooked through the last half hour of service on autopilot, going on gut and reflex with sore hands and boiling blood and eyes like broken windowpanes. Things were winding down, the siege broken, the fort once again saved from the Indians, whatever. We wiped down, wrapped and stored our station while the last of the straggling tables cleared, then gave the line over to the prep crew, who were also responsible for all the heavy cleaning. Four hours had snapped past like a minute.
This was The Life. The part they can't teach in culinary school, don't ever show on TV. The unscheduled death and disasters and heat and blistering adrenaline highs, the tunnel vision, the crashing din, smell of calluses burning, crushing pressure and pure, raw joy of it all as the entire rest of the world falls away and your whole universe becomes a small, hot steel box filled with knives and meat and fire; everything turning on the next call, the next fire order, the twenty, thirty, forty steaks in front of you and the hundreds on the way. This was what made everything else forgivable. And I knew that if I could just do this one thing, all night, every night, under the worst conditions and without fail, nothing else mattered.
Please, God, just this. The rest is only details.
We retired, with the rest of the crew, first to the dock to pass a bowl around and hammer down cigarettes, then to the locker room to change, then to the bathroom—transformed briefly into a whitetrash version of Studio 54 with ugly men in terrible clothing dryswallowing OxyContin tablets or tying off in the stalls with the proficiency of practiced habit—then, finally, to the bar, where the air tasted of tin and overworked air-conditioning machinery and the hostess stood pouring restorative cocktails of pineapple juice and well vodka into finger-smudged highball glasses.
It took a minimum of two drinks before any of us were able to get it together enough to speak, three before what came out of our mouths approached language. We talked about the night the way impressionists painted, in splashes of color and hard, angular jive; speaking in broken sentences, disjointed bursts of wasted rage mixed with thumping bravado bouncing back and forth while we sat, all clotted up around the service end of the bar in too few chairs as if, even in an empty dining room, we strove to isolate ourselves from where the customers—the enemy—sat and business was done.
Floyd sat slumped over with his arms folded on the bar top, head resting on his crossed wrists. Sturgis and Chachi were chattering at each other like monkeys, grooving on the same Colombian frequency. Roberto and I sat bracketing the FNG (who'd finished out the night standing, which was noble enough), filling him with liquor and trying to name him now that his cherry had been popped; running down a list of funny Spanish words, French, kitchen slang, settling finally on Chupo—garbled Spanish for "I suck."
Jimmy came teetering out of the kitchen like a sea captain negotiating a rolling, rain-slick deck. The entire left side of his head had swollen like he'd caught half a case of encephalitis, but he said nothing about it—seeming to have forgotten the mushroom-cap mutiny entirely, like it was a hundred years ago and never that big a deal to begin with. He squeezed my shoulder in passing, patted Roberto's belly, grabbed Chupo by the back of the neck and shook him like a puppy, telling him he'd done good, that he would be on the line again tomorrow night, and that he shouldn't be drinking because he was only eighteen, but if anyone outside the house said boo to him, to just tell them he'd robbed a liquor store.
Jimmy made the rounds and ended up at the bar beside Floyd. I watched him lay a hand gently on his top guy's back, between Floyd's bony shoulders. They talked too quiet for me to hear, but Floyd would raise his head only to answer direct questions, staring off into some weird middle space between his eyes and the bar mirror when he did, then settling his head back again onto his arms. He looked like some wasted angel, a stick-skinny cherub, a galley saint—white as alabaster, beat to shit, spacey from the junk and exhausted. No one lasted more than a few hours or a few days on the line at Jimmy's Crab Shack. If you made it a month, you were almost like family.
Floyd had been holding down his post for two years.
. . .
Later that night, full of house liquor and smelling like low tide on the gutting flats, I went out back alone for a quiet smoke. Stumbling through the large, darkened kitchen, my fingers trailing, bumping along the tile walls, I went out onto the dock. There, away from the insulating comfort of cooks, away from the furious noise and action of the hot line, away from the familiarity of plastic ashtrays and icefrosted glasses, the language of kitchens, the screwheaded weirdness and zapped-out combat-zone chic of being a working cook at the ragged end of a long, bad night, all of reality came crashing back in on me. Here was only the night, the dark, the green, fecund stink and distant highway roar, the wet pressure of just trying to breathe in this swamp and the fat black cockroaches that crawled along the cement. Here was the realization of exactly how fast I'd fallen, and from what middling height.
Suddenly, the thought of crawling back to my room and my alleged fiancee, of smoking cigarettes, lying slit-eyed on the couch, too exhausted to sleep and watching another Spanish-dubbed version of Red Dawn on Telemundo, was all just too much. Standing rigid, eyes aching, feet throbbing, blood humming in the hollows behind my ears to fill the sudden quiet, I stared up into the night and the stars.
And maybe this should've been one of those big moments. Maybe I should've asked myself the big questions: What's next, Jay? or How in the fuck did you end up here? It's possible that I even did. Tired as I was, beaten cross-eyed like I was and just trying to catch my breath among the roaches, cigarette dog-ends and hot trash stink, the scene was certainly set for all manner of hammy self-indulgence.
This is my story. If I wanted, I could tell it exactly that way. I could make myself appear deep, introspective or wise. If I wanted to seem a tough guy, I'd just have me suck it up, light a fresh smoke and stride off purposefully, bravely, into an ambiguous future.
But I'm none of those things. I'm not wise, I'm dumb. I'm not a tough guy, I'm a coward. And the big questions? They all had small and inconsequential answers that were the same every time I asked them. I'd ended up where I did because of poor life choices and an even worse sense of direction. What was next was another cigarette, another drink at the bar, another rehashing of the night's action.
"Hey, remember when . . ."
"Or what about when Jimmy . . ."
What was next was a swift retreat back into the warm, close embrace of a gang of cooks doing what cooks do best when there's no more work to be done, which is everything possible to stall off having to leave the orbit of their kitchens, the nocturnal world and closed society of this thing of ours. To be in that—to be buried and surrounded by it, regulated by it, protected by it—was a comfort. It meant never having to be bothered by the big moments, the big questions.
So whether I found clarity there on the dock that night is immaterial. Whether I looked deep into my soul, wept and gnashed my teeth over blown opportunities and potential pissed away, or simply stood for a minute or two or ten, lost in the quiet and hot, wet dark. What matters is what I did, and what I did was turn my back on the outside, square up my head and go back to the bar.
What's next? Tomorrow night's shift and tomorrow night's disasters.
And how the fuck did I end up here?
Because I couldn't remember ever wanting anything else.
From Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan. Copyright 2009 by Jason Sheehan. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.