"I now held the power, however small, fleeting and insignificant it was. And they knew it. They knew that I had gone and joined the shitkickers, and now they were on my turf..."
I’m glad I’ve had a lot of random day jobs. Through them, I’ve learned a few unlikely skills, gained a sense of self-discipline and been exposed to a cast of characters ranging from the brilliant to the despicable. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I switched jobs after just a few weeks, and the job where I landed could not have been further away in atmosphere, sensibility or attitude from the one I left. I went from a pretentious fine dining establishment featuring haute cuisine to an off-freeway truck stop dominated by born again Christian shitkickers. To my mid-teens brain, a job was a job, and I didn’t fully appreciate the yawning money/education/class divide I was about to jump like a sociological Evel Knievel.
My parents had decided to move when I was fourteen, from a close-in Boston suburb to the other side of the state -- a rural area that drew a summer tourist crowd for the Symphony Orchestra series, the leaves turning color and the home of Norman Rockwell, who painted sterile, robotic caricatures of the kinds of stolid, small town WASPs who once dominated the area, and most of America. You know, before diversity. My Dad, especially, had an idyllic vision of what country life would be like. A gentlemanly writer’s paradise, like Solzhenitsyn’s Vermont or Hemingway’s Africa. Once there, he felt more like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining or James Caan’s in Misery. OK, he wasn’t exactly chained to a bed and hobbled nor did he try to murder his family, but he did experience some existential malaise and a bad case of cabin fever.
I was hired as a busboy at Le Petit Pois, an upscale French restaurant catering to a certain class of tourists who thought nothing of spending half a month’s New York rent on dinner for four. The place was extremely formal, aspiring to recreate classical French service and cuisine, except in a tiny American village of 1,000, where most of the locals hadn’t had pheasant or quail, but had shot a woodchuck off their front porch.
Servers had to wear a traditional black and white uniform, which was basically a tuxedo without ruffles. We were trained extensively in the minutiae of arranging cutlery. There were multiple forks and spoons that absolutely always had to be arranged in the proper formation. We needed to approach the diners from the correct side, lift the plate or bowl the correct distance and at the correct angle and address the diner with the correct language. This was a far cry from McDonald’s, where I worked exactly one day in high school in Boston, and quit, out of a paralyzing fear that if any of my classmates saw me behind the counter I would’ve had a quadruple coronary and dropped dead on the spot.
At McDonald’s, or most any other food establishment that an American 16-year old might work at, the rules of decorum would be: 1.) Don’t throw food; 2.) Don’t tell the customers to go F themselves, and 3.) Don’t forget the ketchup. At Le Petit Pois, our rules and regulations, if written out, would’ve looked something like the Catholic Catechism.The managers, a few early-middle-aged men, were uptight, effete and had an air of detached superiority. The saving grace, having to work in this place, was the kitchen crew. The top chefs were white guys, at least one of whom was a graduate of the CIA -- the Culinary Institute of America. But the lower kitchen positions -- prep chefs, dishwashers, etc. -- were filled by a team of energetic, high-spirited Columbian guys, who worked together like the Latino, kitchen-utensil version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
With a few years of Spanish class under my belt, I was able not only to converse with these guys, but also to trash-talk the Yanqui gringo managers right behind their backs. But the best thing about the Columbian kitchen crew is that very soon after they befriended me, they invited me to hang out after work and party with them. The restaurant was on the ground floor of a country inn and the managers put the Columbians up in a couple of rooms upstairs. I’d hang up there after work with Hector, Luis, Jesus, the whole lot of them, in their rustic, New England, duck-wallpapered guest room, drinking Captain Morgan’s rum and Coke, smoking Columbian pot, listening to their favorite and only record -- Van Halen’s Diver Down and somehow have hours of exciting conversation, in their horrendous, sub-pigeon English and my marginally passable high school Espanol.
I’d always come into this little after-work party with the Columbians tense and revved up from hours of running around the restaurant taking orders and nasty attitude from the maitre d', waiters, chefs and customers and I’d always leave there tremendously wasted, with an astronomically improved mood and a serious inability to walk or ride my bike in a perfectly straight line.
We lived on a full-on rural street that had only ten houses in the one mile stretch from the east side, where it originated off of Rt. 41, to the west side where it turned to a hilly, rock-strewn, back-country dirt road as it crossed into upper New York State, just past our house. I was able to ride my beautiful black Ross Super Gran Tour bicycle the 4 miles each way to work and back, most of it on the small highway Rt. 41 which led into town. Besides getting a good bit of exercise, I completely side-stepped the drunken driving issue. I remember the peculiar feeling of wobbly pedaling down the dark road after work, somehow maintaining my instinctive equilibrium so that I didn’t fall over and crash, and enjoying my perfectly crafted high-a blend of just enough rum and just enough pot to distort my vision, numb my extremities and fill me up with pure, uncomplicated happiness. I also found amusement in the thought that I was driving a wheeled-vehicle on a roadway important enough to be designated by a number, completely obliterated and way over any sort of legal maximum blood alcohol level, even back in the relatively lawless, libertarian days of the early '80s. Any cop who stopped me would have had to throw me back like an underweight fish, because being drunk on a bicycle was legally like being drunk walking. Kind of humorous, but not legally actionable.
Once I was sitting in our kitchen with the guy who had recently bought the house next to and above ours, an idyllic, large country retreat on a hill. He was a substantially successful writer, whose novels were prominently covered in the media. One of them was made into an iconic feature film in my childhood, which made him one of the first, if not the first semi-celebrity I had ever met. He and my parents, all being creative big city types, hit it off pretty well. A longtime New Yorker, this guy had lived some life, as they say. I was telling him how one of the Columbians had offered to get me some “blue rogue”. “What the hell is blue rogue?”, I pondered out loud. A brand of wine? A flower? A type of kitten?
“I think what he was saying”, answered my older novelist friend, “Is blue rock. That’s cocaine. Really powerful, good Columbian cocaine.”
After that I recall that I sort of circled one of the Columbians in an extended, diluted negotiation to get me some of that blue rogue -- I mean rock -- but that it never came to fruition, which showed me that rum and marijuana were one thing, but that high powered coca powder was way out of reach for a 17-year old gringo busboy.
Probably because of a general vibe I was giving off of shifty mischievousness and moral turpitude, and possibly also because of my general incompetence, I was fired from Le Petit Pois. Like with a lot of firings, I think I sort of sensed in my bones that it might be coming. I had no choice but to pick up my chin and move on. And that meant getting another job.
After a couple of days of being driven around by one of my parents, stopping at establishments and applying, I was offered the position of diesel jockey at a truck stop off Interstate 90, just across the state line in New York. This was around two and a half hours north of New York City, so the style there was more akin to New Hampshire or Kentucky than it was to Manhattan.
A diesel jockey is really a gas station attendant -- back when gas station attendants put the gas in your car -- except that you’re dealing with giant trucks that can take up to 100 gallons of diesel fuel at a time in their massive tanks.
Every single employee in this truck stop -- which included the regular car gas station, diesel pumps, repair garage and restaurant with store and showers -- was a born again Christian, except for maybe three, including myself. More than that, they belonged to a very specific cultish church compound in nearby Lenox, Mass., called “Bible Speaks”, which since disbanded when its leader was embroiled in a huge financial scandal.
There was the middle-American looking, mustachioed Rick, who resembled a classic Western cowboy and who would politely, diligently try to convert me to his religion almost every single day with a patient, friendly conversational approach. There was Paul, the chunky, jovial computer guru who occasionally used a more far-out approach. One time he told me in his flatly accented, boisterous delivery: “Adam, one day I may disappear. Just disappear into thin air, right here at work. In which case we gotta’ teach you how to operate the credit card machine.” “Where are you going to go?” I naively asked. “It’s called the rapture, Adam. It’s when all of us true believers get taken up by Christ.” I loved how even more than telling me the good news of the rapture -- a thing that I too could enjoy, if I started believing -- Paul was concerned with the worldly goings-on of the truck stop and would remain concerned, even during his residency in Heaven.
There was a curly haired, smiley goofball who the other guys had nicknamed “Boo Boo”; a leathery, literally red-necked Josh Hartnett-looking guy named Bill who constantly entertained with his salty, rough 'n tumble stories and once impressed the absolute living hell out of me by showing me his .357 handgun; and the middle aged Hugh, who was gentlemanly in a WASPy New England sort of way and reminded me of Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.
The manager of the place -- who I assumed might also have held a higher rank in their spiritual group’s hierarchy -- was an enigmatic guy named Ted. He was a gaunt man and his face was beyond weathered, it was almost shriveled. And yet the skin was also a little shiny at the same time. He always wore big dark glasses and a baseball cap and his voice was eerily hoarse and kind of high pitched. All this added up to give him the air of a mysterious burn victim, an ambiguous transsexual or a relocated government informant.
One day Ted delivered to me the most salaciously captivating speech you can get from a born again Christian -- the “what I did before I was delivered” speech. “Adam, before I found the Lord Jesus Christ, I was doin’ speed, pot, acid, coke, mushrooms. I drank like a fiend, got into fights, had all sorts of wild women all the time. I was doing all kinds of crazy, bad outlaw stuff, living life hard, parting like a mad man.” I didn’t think about how Ted got delivered from all that, but rather how Ted managed to do all that cool stuff in the first place, and how I might be able to get in on some of it.
You wouldn’t really think it when meeting them, or even when working with them for hours on end, but all of these varied characters were fully immersed religious fundamentalists. It was weird, because not only didn’t their born again ideology seriously bother me, I found it a little fascinating and I found them a lot easier and more laid back to work with then most of my previous co-workers.
I recall the atmosphere of that job as earthy, slightly gritty, sun-drenched and feeling like authentic America. I breezily paced back and forth on that paved piece of land jammed between thickly-forested hills, filling a car here, a diesel tank there, chillin’ by the service counter, getting lunch at the diner and chatting with idiosyncratic, large-than-life truckers from exotic places like the American South and French Canada.
One day, I was sitting behind the counter and looking out the plexiglass windows at the automobile gas pumps out front, when I saw two smartly dressed, city-slicker looking guys standing by a luxury car and motioning to get my attention, because I had to hit a switch inside to make their gas pump run. It was the managers from the restaurant, those arrogant bastards! I had definitely found their vibe to be cold, devious and underhanded when I worked there, so I sat and did nothing for a few moments while they got increasingly frustrated and began waving frantically at me.
Finally, one of them came inside and was slightly startled when he recognized me. “Oh, Adam. Hi.” I acted sort of underwhelmed, if not a bit cold and finally hit the switch to turn on their pump. It was one of those few sweet situations in life which allows psychic retribution. I now held the power, however small, fleeting and insignificant it was. And they knew it. They knew that I had gone and joined the shitkickers, and now they were on my turf.
Writer, comedian, actor and native Bostonian Adam Gropman lives in Los Angeles. His short film "Insight Into The Enemy" is in the HBO Comedy Arts and Montreal Just For Laughs festivals. He performs with the group Sketch Armstrong and more of his writings can be seen at http://www.maximumlaughs.com .