Mozzarella Sticks & Revenge
**This is the first draft of a memoir-esque piece I've been working on. I was recently talking to Ryan about how I used to love working after school/summer jobs. They seemed like so much fun in contrast to the jobs I've held as an adult. I say "memoir-esque" because I can never remember things with the accuracy of some writers so things like dialog and order of events are being filtered through my only halfway decent memory. So think of it as a short story based on actual events, just like "Law & Order" or something. Feedback welcome.
I started working summer and after school jobs when I was 15 years old. I didn't have to work to help support my family or anything like that. But my parents wanted me to learn about earning and saving money, having responsibilities outside of school or household chores and, most likely, not have to pay for my comic book habit anymore.
I don't remember the application process for most of these jobs. This is most likely due to the fact that once you fill out one or two job applications your mind goes into a sort of fugue state and you fill them out while on mental automatic pilot. I think my mother might have been involved in helping me get my first job - an unremarkable stint as a dishwasher at a local restaurant that I would work at as a waiter 8 years later during a semester off from college. The one thing I took away from the dish washing job was the indelible odor of food service work. Whether you work as a dishwasher, a busser, a waiter or a chef, your hands will always smell like a combination of grease, bleach and wet food. The smell makes anyone into an instant Lady MacBeth, furiously scrubbing his or her hands with hot water and heavily scented soaps. But it's a fruitless effort while you're still working at said food service job. Only a change of employment and time can remove this smell from your skin. But just a whiff of it, even decades later, will trigger memories faster than the scent of a lover ever could.
The first job that really made an impression on me was the summer I spent working in the snack shack of a swim and tennis club near my house in Amherst, New Hampshire. Amherst was one of those towns that seemed to only contain people spanning from middle class to owning class. It always felt like no one was poor or working class in our town, which is more than likely not true. But there was definitely a difference between families like mine who lived very comfortably and didn't have to worry about finances and the people who owned multi-million dollar homes and gave their 16 year old children new Mercedes as birthday presents and then replaced them without a moment's hesitation when they were totaled in some typically teenage car wreck. These were the families who also bought pricey memberships to swim and tennis clubs and to whom I served cheap junk food for an entire summer.
My tasks at the snack shack included grilling burgers, hot dogs and various melts-type sandwiches, frying things in the fryolator and serving candy, soda, ice cream-based confections and other sundry, cavity-inducing treats. I usually worked with a second person, crammed into that tiny bungalow alongside the grill, the fryer, the freezer and the soda machines. But I really only remember working with Liz. Liz was a lanky blonde with a big, unapologetic laugh. I did some community theater with her brother Doug but Liz was the one who left a really lasting impression.
Liz helped me get acclimated to the many faux-cooking aspects of the job which included introducing me to the wonders of mozzarella sticks. How could I have lived for almost 16 years and never experienced such junk food perfection? And I considered myself a connoisseur of the medium. But these fried, breaded sticks of cheese that I could dip in the traditional, canned marinara as well as ketchup or mustard or any condiment my grease-loving heart desired? It was as if I'd only had half my taste buds until the moment I bit into one of those crunchy-melty sticks of magical goodness. I consumed foods other than mozzarella sticks that summer but every time I did it felt like I was cheating on someone. And cheating myself. But I had to make sure that there were sticks left to serve the other patrons, whom I resented for depleting my supply with each greedy order.
One afternoon Liz and I prepared a hot dog, french fries and soda for a young boy swimming at the club that day. A few minutes after he walked away with his lunch in hand his mother came stomping up to our shack, all brown one piece bathing suit with a tasteful, matching cover-up skirt and a look I could recognize from a thousand miles away: dissatisfied customer face. To this very day, even when I am witnessing at as a fellow customer, it fills me with a white-hot hatred for all humanity. "You served my son a raw hot dog," she exclaimed before even reaching our window.
"We did," I asked, taken aback by the force of her glare. I wasn't sure how to handle this and instinctively turned to Liz for assistance. I had cooked the hot dog and now assumed this would spell the end of my career in summertime snack service.
"Actually ma'am," Liz said in a sunshiney voice that was not-so-subtly dripping with condescension, "hot dogs are a pre-cooked food, so there's no way we could have served your son a raw hot dog."
Momentarily silenced, the mother replied in a less forceful tone, "Well...it's cold. It's too cold to eat so I need another," she said, passing the bitten hot dog in it's bun to me. "And I think I should get a free soda for my troubles!"
"No problem ma'am, we'll do that right away," Liz replied, her ghoulishly fake smile still plastered across her face. She turned to me and whispered "Get the soda and follow me to the grill." I grabbed a large soda cup, filled it with ice and pushed the button for "Coke", wondering what Liz needed to whisper to me about it. She was clearly planning something and, if the mozzarella sticks were any indication, Liz always had the best ideas. I fixed the plastic lid on the soda as I approached her at the grill where she was busy heating up another hot dog, pressing it to the hot metal surface so it sizzled loudly. "Is she watching us," she asked, peering towards the dual windows at the front of the shack.
"No," I answered, following her gaze. "She's out there talking to some other woman."
"Probably telling her the tragic tale of her hot dog," she grumbled, flipping the it and pushing it into the grill again. "God, I hate her and all those other Stepford wives that come here. They think they're so much better than us because they've got more money than God."
Amherst was full of women like our cold hot dog-bearing customer. Women who were married to men who made boatloads of money and left their wives to endless days of childcare, long lunches, lounging at the pool and shopping. It sounds luxurious on the surface but I always thought it would be akin to living as a bird in a very big, very expensive cage. A few years before our summer at the snack shack, Liz and her brother came home from school to find their mother hanging from a homemade noose in their basement. Maybe she felt she couldn't keep up with these ladies who lunch. Or maybe she got sick of trying. Liz never said so but I always assumed that her bitterness towards most of the patrons we served had something to do with her mother's suicide, at least partially. Maybe she saw them as contributing to the dismal world that her mother chose to exit prematurely. Or maybe it was for nothing more than they were alive to complain about the temperature of their children's junk food.
"Hand me that soda," she said, a smirk crossing her lips. She pried the lid off and took one last glance at the windows before she spit right into the dark, fizzy liquid in the cup. I was astonished. Like the mozzarella sticks had awakened my taste buds to amazing new flavors, Liz's spitting opened my eyes to a whole new world I'd never even knew existed: service worker revenge. She handed the cup to me, a gesture that seemed to come from some ancient, primal initiation rite. "Your turn," she smiled. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if we could be fired or even arrested for such an act. But then I saw Liz staring at me expectantly, her eyes goading me on, reminding me of the disdain our customer had in her voice when she informed us of the "raw" hot dog we'd dared to give to her spoiled kid. I gathered the saliva in my mouth and spat it into the soda, where it mingled with Liz's. She reached for a straw from a nearby shelf, yanked the paper wrapping off and dipped it into the soda, stirring in the evidence of our mutual rebellion.
We walked in unison back to the front of the shack to hand our customer her piping hot weiner and her free soda. She tossed us a "what took you so long" glance and muttered "Maybe next time you can cook it right to begin with" and stomped away, further proving how justified our actions against her beverage had been. I turned to Liz, my mouth turned up in a goofy grin, and whispered "I've never done that before!"
"I know," she beamed back at me, "I could tell. Wasn't it awesome?"
"Oh, totally," I enthused. I almost couldn't wait for the next cranky customer so we could once again secretly retaliate against them via their food and drink. And there were no shortage of them that summer, believe me. And the same goes for every food service job I held after that. But at each one, I took the seed of vengeance that Liz had planted in me that fateful summer day. That's not to say my saliva could be found mingling with the meals and beverages of every rude diner I encountered. But it was always good to have the tools necessary when a customer pushed me to the point that I was gritting my teeth haw-achingly hard so as not to release a torrent of obscenities at them for their appallingly entitled behavior.
Near the end of the summer I was taking a dip in the pool during my lunch break on a particularly hot day. I was lazily swimming laps and as I did I splashed a bit of water on some muscular jock and his tiny-waisted girlfriend. Before I could even apologize for what I did the jock grabbed me by my scrawny neck and held me underwater. I panicked for a minute, my asthmatic-induced fear of dying because I couldn't breathe kicking in. But a second later I started squirming in his grasp and, realizing I couldn't break free, rammed my knee as fast and as hard as I could into his crotch. He let go immediately and I emerged from the water, coughing and breathing hard. "What the hell bro," he cried, wincing in pain. "I was only joking!"
"I couldn't breathe you fucking asshole," I shouted, making my way towards the ladder at the side of the pool. "Don't ever fucking do that to me again!"
He continued to yell after me as I made my way back up to the snack shack, shaking and spitting out water as I walked. Where any of the overpaid lifeguards was at that moment was anybody's guess. When I told Liz what happened she flew into a fury, calling our manager instantly. By the time I had dried off in the bathroom, gotten dressed and came back to the shack, Liz was handing the phone to me so I could tell our boss firsthand about the near-drowning. He sounded as mad as Liz and told me he'd speak to the club managers about it immediately. I tried to put the incident out of my mind for the rest of the day and prayed that my athletic assailant wouldn't come to order any food from us. I was worried he might have retaliation on his mind for the abuse his testicles had suffered.
I had the next couple of days off and when I came in for my shift that Friday Liz was there with the news. "He's been banned from the club for the rest of the summer," she exclaimed, smiling like the proverbial cat with the canary. "Can you believe that?!"
"Wow, no way," I murmured, amazed that his punishment was so swift and exacting. He attended a different high school than I did so my fears of possible requital on his part evaporated. I'd somehow won in a situation where it was skinny, sickly me versus someone buff and sports-oriented. I knew this was a rare occurrence and that I probably shouldn't get used to it. But at that moment I was reveling in my triumph. And I celebrated it as any downtrodden person who'd risen up against an oppressor would. I ate a shitload of mozzarella sticks.