- Jim Campbell illustration
My first teenage job experience gave me a cautionary lesson about the lust for the almighty dollar. Or in my case, the lust for an extra 15 cents an hour.
As soon as I was of legal employment age, I jumped on a dishwashing job at a Mexican restaurant owned by the parents of a classmate. I used that personal relationship — which I would later learn is called "networking" — for landing the sweet gig of scraping crusted, burned cheese off plates and shooting beans and rice down a massive disposal with a firehose-powerful sprayer of hot water that made the kitchen as humid and sticky as an equatorial jungle in August.
As excited as I was to be earning some money, it didn't take long to realize that washing dishes for six hours at a time is awful. And seeing what an Enchilada Platter looked like coming back to the kitchen an hour after it left was seriously compromising my love of Mexican food.
I started scoping out the local paper's want ads mere weeks into my job at El Matador, and as luck would have it, I found a better job. Granted, it was still washing dishes for hours on end — after all, that was officially all I had on my résumé as a "skill" and "prior experience" — but it would mean a serious jump in pay.
Denny's paid $3.50 an hour, not just the federally mandated minimum wage of $3.35. Suffice to say, I jumped at the chance to start making that serious coin.
Little did I know that my particular Denny's was known as "the worst Denny's west of the Mississippi," information passed to me about a week into the job by the young manager who was bound and determined to turn that Denny's around.
He had a lot of work to do to achieve that goal. If memory serves, most of the waitstaff stole money from the till, when they bothered showing up for their scheduled shift. Every member of the dishwashing crew — save for my 16-year-old naïve self — was fresh out of jail and living in a halfway house within walking distance of the restaurant. Some of them were cool, teaching me how to get the last possible pull out of a cigarette butt, but some were clearly on a one-way street back to jail, and soon.
I'm pretty sure one of my fellow dishwashers was pimping women by having them sit on the barstools out in the dining room to showcase themselves while he washed dishes in back. And he was doing it during the Sunday morning "church" shift. I had one late-night customer open his jacket as I bussed a nearby table to showcase a bunch of dangling watches he had for sale, like he had just stepped out of a '70s-era detective show. Even I wasn't naïve enough for that; I watched a lot of television.
The worst part, though, was the uniform — brown slacks and a white shirt, covered by a heavy brown leather apron to keep the dishwater from soaking you through. The apron made you so hot during your shift that it was preferable to be drenched by floating bits of a soggy Moons Over My Hammy breakfast than your own sweat generated by that damn sheath. I've hated the color brown ever since.
The job didn't totally ruin the enjoyment of a Grand Slam for me. But I've eaten a hell of a lot more Mexican food than Denny's in the years since. ♦