This is about a high school job.
It’s also about accidental cannibalism.
It’s about having your internal clock attuned to the time it takes to cook a burger. Your body — ears, nose, and whatever part of you counts your own heartbeats banging out the passage of time — tracking the time until the patty cooks to the desired done-ness. It’s a matter of heartbeats, some near-imperceptible change in the tenor of the sizzle that signals it’s time to flip.
I was used to the rhythms of the river by the time I started work on its US shore. We were located at a narrow, smuggling-heavy crossing at a point where you could see Canadians on the other side, wave to them. Sometimes you could shout and they’d call back. In spring, the Coast Guard releases the ice from the boom that keep the frozen river contained above the falls. Ice tumbles through water and churns it up to gray peaks in the early spring, while snow still rests on the ground, while unthawed snowmen with windworn bodies stand like ancient statues in yards. The fish in season go from smelt in April to salmon in September and colder months and on and on. The power plant churns out electricity below the falls, and the water sometimes emerges, frothy from its tumbling through the rapids, with bubbles on rapids that’re toilet-bowl-cleaner too-blue from some chemical dump up stream. On hot summer days, it smells of dead fish. The odor creeps up the streets like a mist, and I cover my nose and think that there were reasons the people who lived close to the water used to be called “river rats” before tourism and “waterfront dining” were a thing.
I got the job by walking up to this casual burgers-kind-of restaurant on the edge of the river and asking if they were hiring. That’s it. The owner — a tall, skinny white guy who favored baseball caps and whose dad owned half the commercial property in the town — was always hiring fresh meat, but I didn’t know that yet. He told me to come back tomorrow. I texted my dad, who was living in his saddest divorced dad apartment. He wouldn’t get off my back until I got a real job as soon as it became legal for me to work. We were both happy.
When I showed up, the boss had me fill out my W-2 and set me up at the ice cream station. The boss was snobby about his offerings, insisted on Hershey’s, told us it had less air, fewer bubbles. The ice cream station sat across from the kitchen, and each was an opposing semi-circle with a walkway in between.
The restaurant was in an old coal silo, the interior walls streaked with old black stains that bloomed like mold across the walls and couldn’t be scrubbed away. The basement level held a bait shop, down on the docks. This was where we also stored our extra ice cream in the back, in a freezer. I’d have to go past the tanks of fish breeding to be fed to other fish to haul the ice cream out. Around the top of the concrete cylinder, where the restaurant was, was a near-complete circle of a deck that hovered out over the docks and had a clear view onto the water. That was where customers ate after they ordered inside.
I scooped and rang out ice cream customers, kept the till in order and the peanuts stocked. I cleaned the bathrooms, which was mostly fine, and finally, after my first paycheck, I had the money to buy clothes I actually wanted. I bought tight shirts in blacks and neons, low-rise jeans, obscene thongs, and bulbous scene kid baubles in plastic (and stole a few things, too). I upped my penciled racoon eyeliner game with liquid I drew into huge cat eyes.
On busy days, two people worked the ice cream area. That’s where I met A. She was fired after two weeks. It didn’t really surprise me. She barely worked. Her absolute resistance to laboring hard for an employer was so foreign to me, but it was also respectable. We remained friends and became inseparable after we were assigned the same home room that fall.
One night, I was working ice cream with another person, a girl. Ice cream wasn’t all “girls,” it was just reserved for people without kitchen experience. This was an oddly egalitarian business. Men and women, boys and girls — and whatever I was — occupied roles irrespective of our assigned genders, which would not be true when I worked elsewhere. Ever after, I’ve held a pretty low but simple standard: I expect to see gender diversity in a kitchen. And barely any place delivers. The girl I was working with lasted a week or two. The night we worked together was a hot, humid, muggy night — unusual at that time when evenings, even in the height of summer, got cold enough up there to warrant a jacket. We had propped the doors of the restaurant open, hoping to capture a breeze, fanning ourselves with pieces of cardboard while we prepared for close. A cloud of insects swarmed in. Before we could shut the doors, they’d coated the inside of the freezers. Their delicate, tiny bodies and wings were no match for the ice cream. They drowned. They covered the inside of the glass and the tops of the gallons.
We had to clean it up. The girl freaked out and gave up, so I wiped down the interior. I scraped away the insects and a couple inches of ice cream out of each flavor and threw it away for good measure. While I was cleaning, alone, J, a guy who’d come from Brooklyn to live with his girlfriend and who worked the kitchen, leaned over the pick up area and said, “She’s made you her bitch.” Which was rude, really none of his business. He was a muscular, short king with a shaved head who said chocolate like chawk-laht. The rest of us just had Buffalo accents.
“I don’t mind.” I reflected on the shameful and specific teenage bisexual predicament of being a person who girls my age could get to do just about anything for them — no matter if they were straight, no matter if they were mean, basically no matter what. I reminded myself to try and be better about that while I scraped bugs out of the freezer and the girl got ready to leave for the night.
There was something about having my own wages that took my bisexuality out of the woods, out of unused school stairwells and into the public sphere. The economic freedom and the adult-adjacent responsibility of having a job, having my own schedule, lent itself easily to breaking out of the secret places in schools and into the rest of the world. My kind-of girlfriend had gone off to a military academy and was in her first year, where they didn’t allow any communication but letters. No phone, no Facebook, no email; they could only send and receive paper missives. It was still Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the academy opened all of the freshman letters and read them before passing them off. In those letters, we wrote around our desires. It seemed too easy for her to conform. I struggled, wanting to burst out of the page, scream about loving her, to write “FUCK GEORGE BUSH” in huge letters. I never did that, though, because, mostly, I didn’t want her to get into trouble. If the cadets got in trouble, they had to do things like spend all night scrubbing toilets, which, look, it’s fine when you’re scrubbing one or two restaurant toilets…but a dormitory’s worth? More?
When she came into town, she told me blithely about boys she’d hooked up with and a girl from her squad who’d hit on her the moment they’d gotten drunk. I traded my own stories, admired her cadet muscles. I bought a skirt from Hot Topic, and she took me to a Korn concert [she LOVED Korn] where we made out on the grass. We ran through mosh pits, and I lied about my age while we accepted Smirnoff Ices from strangers. We finished one night together by having sex in the back of her parents’ minivan while parked on some dark sidestreet in Buffalo’s gayborhood.
She left, and I resumed my usual solitary summer movements, going to work, going for long walks, and cajoling the older girls at the restaurant into buying me cigarettes. One day, J called across from the kitchen where he worked alone. He asked if I wanted to learn to prep. It was me at ice cream, C, the girl who usually bought me cigarettes, at the register, and him running the kitchen alone. C usually had her brown hair slicked back in a tight, high ponytail and wore sparkling eyeshadow, penciled liner all around her eyes. She reapplied lip gloss at an alarming frequency. J asked C if she wanted to learn, too, but she said, no, she liked doing register and only the register. She went to the pop machine to get herself one of our favored mixed drinks — Loganberry [a raspberry/blackberry-ish flavored, thick and syrupy, tart and sweet juice only available regionally] and Sprite.
He showed me how to make the salads. It was a lot like making a salad. Then, J demonstrated the various sandwich preps and how to operate the fryer. No one came in. C sipped on her drink and watched us. He took me over to the grill, got out a piece of chicken, a patty, and a pile of beef and showed me how to make one of our grilled chicken sandwiches, a burger, and our signature sandwich which featured shredded beef, onion strings and mayo on a French roll — which, I realize, is a little strange but the owner made it up, okay?
“We’ll split them,” he said and C nodded. It sounded good to her.
J was actually a good teacher. He didn’t just rush through in front of me and expect me to learn by watching. He asked me to try to do the things myself, pointed me toward the recipe book, and offered helpful tips as we went — only flip the burgers once, never put the anvil on them, when the chicken’s done it looks like this, and this is how you shred the beef and clean the griddle and the grill between orders. He showed me the fryer, the heat lamp, and the ticketing system. We were a baskets kind-of-place. I spent some time prepping red plastic mesh containers with their little wax paper liners. While J was explaining more stuff about the kitchen to me — where the Gardenburgers were in the freezer and the refrigerated drawers where the chicken thawed — the boss came in to grab J. He needed help unloading a truckful of supplies he’d brought in.
“If an order comes through, just take care of it,” he waved at the grill. The place was still dead. I looked through the recipe book and chatted with C.
A person came in. My stomach dropped. C raised her pencil thin eyebrows at me. I nodded, like, ‘yes, I will cook this man’s food’ and waited for the ticket to come through. I took the ticket, stuck it in the holder above the grill, and made my first order.
Then, something happened. When I looked up, there was a line out the door, people engaged in that eternal struggle of trying to figure out whose job it is to be holding the door open for the other people standing in line. C looked at me. I shrugged. She started taking the orders. The tickets printed all heat ink and hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken fingers, roast beef, fries and fish fries, onion rings and sweet potatoes and steak and chicken and maybe a veggie burger. I dove into the sizzles and spurts and grease. I dropped fries and laid bacon out on the griddle and prepared buns with our special seed mixture for beef on weck. It became ticket-grill-griddle-prep-serve-call while I moved back and forth through the narrow kitchen. I’m not sure if I breathed. It might have gone on an hour or more. C dropped behind the counter and started making side salads for me whenever she could, but people just kept coming, wanting food, staring at me like who-the-fuck-was-I but not minding once they got their stuff.
I instinctively reached for the next ticket and grasped only air. I looked at C who gave me a smile. It was over. The rush had slowed back down to nothing.
I looked behind me. Out the back door of the kitchen, which opened up onto the river and Canada beyond that, my boss stood, watching me, arms folded.
“What?” I’d really lost the ability to comprehend language at this moment. It was like when I used to draw. Your brain switches to a different mode, and you can’t actually hear what anyone’s saying anymore.
“He says you’re alright. You did good. That’s what he means.”
My boss nodded.
When I checked the next schedule that came out, I was entirely in the kitchen. My ice cream shifts went to someone else.
I took to the dry erase markers and would illustrate the day’s specials. When we served “Steak in the Grass” I drew a snake slithering through grass below it. It led to more than a few people ordering “the snake.”
To understand this place, you have to also understand that we were a big tourist spot. We could have also been a great breakfast spot, except the boss hated breakfast, and if anyone brought it up he shut them down and hard. Fishermen would often be at the door when I went to open at 10 a.m., blowing into wind-chapped hands and asking why we hadn’t been open at 6 or even 7 a.m., and if there was coffee on, and yes, if there was breakfast. All to which I’d think, sir, I would not want to be without coffee for five hours so I get it but as you can see we are literally putting the key in the door here.
Bikers were my favorite customers. This was before I’d learned to look for signs of white supremacist affiliations on bikers and when I was easily wooed by their appreciation for the simple food and their big tips and patience, likely a matter of working class solidarity. They’d swarm the parking area with their bikes and come in covered in leather and tattoos, with long beards and ponytails like my grandpa’s, order something un-fussy like a medium cheeseburger and fries, and stuff big bills into the tip jar.
If you were a tourist who made it to that part of the river, you likely went through that restaurant. It was easy, cheap, satisfying, and the most general, familiar American fare, except for our beef on weck and Loganberry. You could get a beer and watch the water. You could get ice cream for your kids. I heard the deepest southern accents and helped tourists whose languages I didn’t speak to communicate their order by pointing at things I held up from the kitchen. Locals made it in occasionally, too, sometimes kids from school. We’d say ‘hey’ and I’d sneak them in some extras if we were friends.
There were a lot of people I got to know while working there. There was K with a regional accent so strong that she said coffee like calf-eeh with the hardest A-sound you can imagine. She’d come in at the crack of dawn, do hours of prep, then pour herself a cup of coffee and with satisfaction say “a caffee and a cack, that’s all I need in the mornings.” There was the guy who was a senior at the school I was going to go to. He took my dropping my bisexuality to him in stride and gave me rides home in his ridiculous vintage Mustang, roaring well above the speed limit while I smoked a cigarette out the passenger window.
He was also a scuba diver who swam to the depths of the river. One day, he told me about the worst thing he’d ever seen. It was a man who’d gone missing weeks before, trapped under some rocks at the bottom of the river. He was swimming through seaweed, didn’t see it coming until he was face to face with the man.
When he saw him, he screamed so hard it dislodged his scuba gear. The man was partially eaten by fish. Whoever’s job it is to surface underwater bodies recovered the man’s corpse. The guy I worked with said he’d woken up sweating, wailing for months.
The rapids there are strong and, beyond that, they’re a winding, interconnected maze of underground water currents that can pull a body under and take it miles down river without ever once letting it surface. A body might never surface.
It took me ages to get used to helicopters after I left. There, helicopters almost always meant that someone had fallen in, that they were looking for someone. The longer you could hear the helicopters, the less hope there was. I thought about the fishermen and the fish they were catching.
That boy also told me about the sturgeon, fish that can get up to nine feet long and live to be 150 years old. The sturgeon in the river then could have been alive in the 1850s. They know how to survive the rapids. They’d eat what they found.
There’s never been a day the river didn’t remind me of death. Not that my coworkers and their hidings would ever let me forget. There was the slow day everyone raced down the paved hill to the docks on push carts. There were all the times we were too lazy to drag the trash down the hill and would try to aim it off the edge of the deck, hovering over certain death, the railing pressed into our bellies, swinging the garbage bags under and toward the dumpster.
My friends and I would climb down the gorge, down the edge that tumbled stories upon stories above the river that looked like less than a hand’s width below, the power plant just a building in the distance up river. We’d duck down into a cave, on the very edge of the US, and smoke weed while staring across the border, our backs to the entire country. One time, one of the boys showed off by hanging off the ledge by one arm. I had to crawl my way out of the cave from the second-hand vertigo.
My hands developed heat resistance as I worked. Nerve endings acclimated to the grill. I became acquainted with our boss’s mercurial personality. The same man who promoted me screamed in rage when I accidentally served a veggie burger he wanted for his lunch. I thought he had to be joking until he started pelting me with frozen veggie burgers as hard as hockey pucks, barely able to yell “You have enough veggie burgers NOW!?!?” through his raw throat, veins popping out on the side of his head.
It was nothing compared to what other people told me he’d done. One day, the pop machine leaked downstairs and destroyed his computer. So, he came upstairs and smashed all of the computers onto the ground. When the cash register was off once, he’d torn it out of the counter and hurled it across the room at the woman who’d been on it that night. She said it hit the wall just above her head. He was clearly, frequently on cocaine. At night, he’d count the register. More and more often, he started to scream up the stairs, to throw fits about missing cash. He’d interrogate me. I’d throw up my hands. I hadn’t touched the register. I was in the kitchen, I’d tell him, and he’d back off. He installed a camera above the register. We made fun of him, swapped stories. Still, he paid a few dollars more per hour than anyone else, so we ultimately didn’t do anything about it, whether out of some perverted sense of loyalty or just that’s-the-way-it-is-ness. The woman who said ‘caffee’ had worked there for years and was one of the few people who’d yell back at him if he got out of line. She’d brag about it, how he could never run his restaurant without her.
Some people might have felt like dealing with a person as unstable as he was would have reduced my confidence. If anything, it heightened it. I was surrounded by nothing but unpredictable people. I was steadier than him, but at the same time, I knew how I was perceived. I was constantly on trial for my untrustworthiness, my sexuality, my greed. When someone told me bisexuals were greedy, I’d reply that, absolutely, I was. Because I was, because I was greedy for knowing other people, for connection, for drugs and love — and I didn’t care who knew it.
At the time, I wrapped any and all gender feelings under bisexuality. When someone commented that I sat like a boy or acted like a boy or liked things that boys liked — I chalked it up to bisexuality. My boss and my coworkers never questioned and also never judged how much I could carry. They never cut my legs off before I could run like everyone else had. They just let me handle the kitchen, smoke my cigarettes, make my off-menu items. It’s also true that this paid off for them as much as it did for my confidence. In my tenure as a line cook, I only remember truly fucking up two orders. This is shockingly few considering the slew of tickets I saw every day.
The way I wish I could still hold one of those receipt-thin tickets in my hands, leave a fingerprint of grease, call out an order. I loved all of it, even taking apart the pop machine and extracting the dead bodies of wasps that had contorted themselves up toward the source of the sweetness, even the yelling and the worst, most unending rushes and the longest, dullest rainy days.
*My boss also blew my mind by outfitting his car with an engine modification that allowed him to run it on the used soy oil. J told me he’d ridden with him in that car, and that it smelled like French fries.
Until it all came tumbling down. It was my second summer at the restaurant, and a girl I’d hooked up with only once in a threesome came in with some friends. I really wanted something like an actual date. We flirted. They ordered and then went outside to wait for their food. I did the prep for the next order, added a patty to the grill.
My foot slid on some grease. I couldn’t get purchase on the mat. My face was headed for the hot iron lines of the grill.
I swung my right arm around and hit the hot grill with my forearm instead of my face. All my weight pressed my bare arm into the grill while I ran in place in grease. Before my arm could cook any more, I made the decision to put my left hand flat down on the hot griddle and use that leverage to get myself up, to pull my sizzling forearm off the grill.
I burned my palm, but not nearly as bad as I’d cooked my arm.
A whole lot of my skin stayed on that grill.
I was on my knees on the floor trying not to scream. C ran to get the boss.
He took me back down into the basement, which did not seem like the direction we should be going. He put my arm under the faucet of the slop sink and ran the cold water. There, he opened up this massive first aid kit and told me stories about how bad someone else once got burned when the fryer overflowed.
“He was standing in that sink while I was hosing his skin off his legs. It just sloughed off into the sink.” I looked at that dirty, scratched up slop sink, “It was way worse than this.”
He bandaged me up and, honestly, I went back to work. By the time I got back up there, someone else had fulfilled the orders for my one-time-hookup and her friends. Months later, I’d offhandedly mention to her that I hoped they cleaned the grill after so much of my skin came off on it.
She just widened her eyes and nodded, slowly. [Insert joke about the fact that she’d already eaten the same thing anyway.]
If we’re being honest, too, we’ve all probably eaten something we didn’t want to from a place like this, from a diner, a dive. That kind of chaos is the spice that gives the food that irreplaceable quality. It might not be high art, but your heart still knows it when you’re eating it. It’s food for people.
That night, my dad picked me up for Divorced Dad Thursday. He asked me what the fuck happened to my arms and then was out of the car and pinning my boss to the outside of his own restaurant before I knew what was happening. I cringed until my dad’s screaming ended. Though, to be clear, I wasn’t super surprised, and my boss deserved it.
My dad got back in the car. “He should have taken you to a fucking hospital.” At home, he re-dressed my wounds with the actual expertise he had from being a nurse, and one for the Army at that. I’d already developed a peculiar comfort with having a dad who would just, like, do what they’d do at a hospital but at home and for free.
I quit after that. I wore burn salve and bandages on my arms for well over a month, changing them out several times a day. I chased my friend’s [remember the one who got fired after a week?] little brother and sister around her house pretending to be a mummy while they giggle-screeched.
Remember the camera and the cash register and my boss hollering from the basement? Well, turns out J was stealing from him the whole time. I stopped by one time when the boss’s car wasn’t in the lot for some gossip from old coworkers. Turns out, after I quit, he filed an official accident report. He wasn’t going to, but he got scared when I quit. He’d never required the no-slip shoes of us that would have helped prevent the accident. I’d never heard of such a thing at the time, not until I had to wear them when working future restaurant gigs.
That work experience followed me wherever I went. People wondered why I was so calm when talking an Exacto knife pointed at me out of someone’s hand or how I was able to filter through noise and just concentrate on what needed to be done in a classroom. I tolerated my bosses to a certain extent, and then, just existed kind of separately from them in my own bubble whenever they got too shitty. I was disdainful at every nonprofit job where the men couldn’t even find the level of respect for women that a coked-out capitalist like my old boss could manage. I found my bisexuality in practice and the power in my independence, and I clung to it.
I miss that job, and I’ve filled that hole with cooking for other people, for my whole life, as much as I can. My off-menu item experiments have become a kitchen filled with jars of different colored liquids, none of them labeled, each of them a different cold brew or syrup or kombucha, a spread of vessels with things growing and fermenting, a stash of homemade jam. I’ve laid down commercial anti-fatigue mats because I stand so much in the kitchen.
And when I’m lucky enough to dig into a pile of burn-your-mouth piping hot fries that some other soul made, I tip my heart out. Flesh and blood went into those fries, and I’ll never forget it.