By: Neal Lipschutz
I was alone in the apartment on a late Saturday morning and the phone just kept ringing. My mother didn’t get many calls, though at first I thought it was for her when I picked up and an adult male voice came through the line. But no, it was Dan Meyer, who ran the catering hall for the swank reform synagogue in Manhattan Beach where I worked. We got our upcoming busboy assignments in person from Meyer while we worked. “Who can be here Saturday the 14th for a wedding? Arrive at 3 pm. Don’t be late.” That was your invitation to the next gig. We raised our hands and he marked down who would be there. Phone calls weren’t part of the deal. I figured he was calling to say the wedding I was scheduled to work that night had suddenly been called off, though such a thing had never happened in my busboy experience. I was wrong.
“I got a favor to ask,” Meyer said, the gravel coming through the phone as much as it did in person. “I can’t get enough dishwashers for tonight. Busboys I have plenty of, but short on dishwashers. So I want you to switch tonight to dishwashing. You don’t have to start till 6, but you will probably be here till 2.”
“Dishwasher,” I repeated softly.
“Yeah, I know it’s hard work, and messy, no hiding that,” Meyer said. “So here’s what I will do. I will give you $35 for the night, regardless of when you are done. That’s more than we pay the men you’ll work with. They get minimum wage.” The New York minimum wage in 1974 was $2 an hour. I was surprised to hear how little the dishwashers got. We made more than that as busboys. Still, Meyer’s offer meant $10 more than I could expect even from a night working as a busboy. More money for movies.
“Does it matter that I’ve never done it before?”
Short laugh from Meyer. “Nah, no problem. We won’t let you near any of the machines. You just scrape the plates and put them in a rack. Then they’ll get put in the cleaning machines. Like, I said, messy.”
Surprised by Meyer’s thank you – he didn’t usually indulge in niceties – that ended the conversation, I replaced the phone. As many times as I’d worked at Eretz Shalom, I still had a hard time clearly picturing the dishwashers’ set-up. Strange. We carried in the used plates and glasses and knives and forks that were the raw material of their labor, placing our big trays on a designated set of tables. And then we got out of there. Partly because to linger would risk the wrath of the ever-present maître d’ accusing us of malingering, but also because the dishwashers didn’t give the impression of offering friendly company. They looked in the main like bums: unshaven, unkempt and sometimes smelly. It was hard to know if the odor was solely the smelly ones’ responsibility, or shared with the accumulating food leftovers in the giant wastebaskets that surrounded them. I’d forgotten to ask Meyer if I was the only busboy pressed into dishwashing duty. As I walked into the catering hall I hoped I’d find a friend also strapping on a white apron in the kitchen. But no, they were all in their usual white shirts and bowties, standard busboy uniforms, already a few hours into their jobs. Their table set-up was complete. I was in the kitchen alone with the bums.
Meyer stopped into the kitchen just after I arrived. He introduced me to somebody named Joe, boss of the dishwashers. Joe didn’t look less like a bum than the others, but I’d seen him before and that marked him as a regular employee, as opposed to the rotating group of actual dishwashers I later came to understand were rounded up and transported from some church-run homeless shelter in another part of Brooklyn to work when needed. As I approached the area where Joe had directed me through winces, finger points and grunts, I wondered if there was a sudden shortage of down-and-out grown men that had hit New York City, requiring me to take up the slack. It didn’t seem there was a dwindling supply when you walked around the neighborhood. I struggled to put on the much-used rubber gloves and got a tsk-tsk sort of sound from the shaved-headed guy standing to my right. He was squat and squinty eyed and had a Frankenstein like scar running diagonally across his head, stopping halfway into his forehead.
“Those will just slow you down,” he said, looking at the gloves.
I was embarrassed by my perceived genteel manners, but I also didn’t relish the idea of scraping someone’s half-eaten, fat trimmed prime rib off the plate and into the garbage buckets with my bare hands. So I persisted in wrestling with the gloves. To the left of me, a tall thin black man asked me if I smoked.
“That’s good,” he smiled, not in a pleasant way. “Because they only have Marlboros lying around here and I need a menthol.”
“Me too,” I said, happy to have a meeting of the minds that made my dishwashing neighbor seem less intimidating. It did not immediately compute that he was asking/demanding a Newport from me, now that it was confirmed that our tastes matched. Part of the busboy ritual of setting up was to place loose cigarettes in a water glass in the middle of each table for the guests to enjoy. Naturally enough, some of those cigarettes were liberated and smoked by the staff. I was among the beneficiaries. But when I started smoking regularly, I found I greatly preferred menthols and always bought Newports for myself. These days, I passed on the free Marlboros. I pulled my Newport pack out of my shirt pocket and offered one to my neighbor. We would share the rest of the evening.
Frankenstein had another thought. “How you gonna smoke with rubber gloves on?”
He had a point. I started pulling off the gloves. Then I had another thought. How was I going to smoke with hands full of food waste? My fellow Newport lover had a plan.
“You get it up gingerly,” he lingered on that word for quite a while, “up into your mouth, keeping the shit away from it, and then you smoke without your hands. Just let it set there on the side of your mouth.”
Frankenstein didn’t think I could pull it off. “Kid, you ever smoke before with no hands?”
I shook my head. “Nothing to it,” said my man on the left, “give it a try.”
I did and kept blowing the smoke straight into my eyes, stinging them, and wondering when and where the ash was going to fall. “Side mouth, side mouth,” I was admonished. And after a while, I got the hang of it, for the most part.
There were six dishwashers in all, and once the first course was served things got hot and hectic. Hot from the dishwashing machines, emitting hair curling steam, and hectic because for the first time I realized that some plates and glasses got used more than once during the same party. The salad plates were destined to be dessert plates later on. Except for the occasional run to relieve yourself, there weren’t any breaks and you stood on an increasingly wet and disgusting floor. None of us had shoes that were made for the work and as the hours wore on, the complaining got louder. Joe’s response to any complaint or wisecrack or request for a two-minute break, or for a glass of water, was to tell the complainant to pipe down. They did give us something to eat around 9 p.m., not quite what the guests got, but good enough. Meanwhile, my busboy friends thought my dishwashing stint was simply hysterical. On every trip into the kitchen to drop off dishes they mugged at me or made stupid remarks. The Newport man caught onto the relationships.
“Hey, you think one of your little friends in the bow ties could get us a drink from the bar?”
I pretended not to hear. This seemed like a disastrous idea. Occasionally the bartenders would slip one of the busboys a drink, and the union waiters no doubt imbibed from time to time at the beneficence of the union bartenders. I imagined that might even be in their contract. But I didn’t want to implicate myself or my friends in the procurement of alcohol for what struck me as an unstable bunch. I surmised – admittedly without evidence – that many of them had ongoing battles with booze.
The Newport guy persisted in his inquiry. “Nah,“ I said, trying to be nonchalant, “I don’t think the bartenders would give any of them a drink, and even if they got one, I don’t think they could carry it back to the kitchen without getting caught.”
“Nah?” he repeated skeptically.
At that moment, my friend Danny came into the kitchen, carrying a tray full of used drink glasses gathered up from the guest tables. He started making faces at me.
“Hey you,” Newport man called, “Funny faces. Come over here.”
He came over. “Your friend here thinks you can bring a man a drink from the bartender. What do you think about that? Can you get a working man a hard earned drink?”
I was standing behind Newport man, shaking my head no when Danny started mechanically bobbing his head yes.
“Okay, good man,” Newport said.
Much to my concern and surprise, Danny came through. Looking scared and checking all around him, he walked in with a Delmonico glass half filled with a brown liquor. “Good man, good man,” Newport said again, also checking around to make sure the handoff was out of sight of Joe or any of the other bosses. Coast clear, he downed it in one long swallow. “How about another? And one for your boy here,” he said, motioning toward me. I demurred, but he put it on Danny to bring two more glasses anyway, the second ostensibly for my other sideman, Frankenstein.
The plates and glasses kept piling up. One of the dishwashing machines went on the fritz, causing more havoc and an unorganized attempt to repair it. Finally, Joe pushed his way to the machine and got it working again. Joe insisted we speed up our scraping and rinsing. He was red faced and cursing. In the rhythm of the work I lost track of time.
I could finally ascertain that the party was over only because my friends stopped bringing in dishes to wash. But, as Meyer predicted, we still had hours ahead of us in the kitchen, because in addition to getting the dishes ready for the washing machines, we also were to return the clean and dried dishes and glasses to their rightful resting places in cupboards. My feet hurt from the many hours of standing in my flat-soled sneakers. The grumbling among my co-workers grew louder and angrier.
“Who the fuck is he to say we can’t stop for five minutes,” Newport man announced, referring to Joe.
“Yeah it ain’t slavery. It’s 1974,” said Frankenstein.
“What the fuck do you know, talking about slavery like some white fool,” Newport man screamed at Frankenstein right across me. I stepped back from the sink.
“I just want to sit down for a minute, that’s all, just like you,” Frankenstein said.
Newport angrily nodded. I knew his rebellion was fueled not just by the labor, but by the stiff drinks Danny provided. Luckily, after bringing in the second drink, Danny told Newport the bartender said no more.
“Hey, you,” Newport called, presumably seeing Frankenstein’s last comment as an acceptable apology and now turning his attention to bigger matters. “Boss man, you, I’m talking to you.”
Joe looked up and grunted something that did not comprise words in any known language. Then he said, more clearly, “Back to work. It’s busy here.”
“We are grown-ass men standing here,” Newport continued, turning away from the sink to face Joe across about ten feet. “And we been working here hours for some shit-ass pay we ain’t even seen. We need to sit down.”
A couple others seconded the notion in various ways. One guy clapped his hands.
“You see your pay when the job is done,” Joe said. “And the job ain’t done. So go back to work.”
It was nearly 1 a.m. I knew by the routines followed at Saturday evening weddings that the busboys were just about done with their work. We had all the plates, glasses and cutlery in the kitchen. The once white tablecloths and soiled napkins had been stuffed into big laundry bags to be sent out for cleaning. The chairs were again stacked at the corners of the big dining room. Last, they would roll the round wooden tables that accommodated eight or 10 or even 12 revelers when it was a particularly big party back into a tight storage area to await the next affair. I wished hard I was among their busboy number, not caring at all anymore about the extra $10 or helping Meyer out of a jam. Instead, I was in the sweaty kitchen, tired of smoking Newports with no hands, tired of my companions, a little afraid of them, too, and thinking despite it all that the Newport man had an absolutely valid point about how badly the dishwashers were treated.
“A man has a right to sit down for a break. And I am a man and I am taking my break now,” Newport said. A few others nodded. One guy said, “Right on.”
Newport had some problem following up after his righteous declaration because there were no chairs anywhere near us in the kitchen. Finally he spied a three-legged stool topped with boxes that once held vegetables. He removed the boxes and had a seat. The guy who called “right on” couldn’t find anything to sit on, but he defiantly turned his back on the sinks and leaned up against them, arms folded across his chest. He was clearly on break.
Joe was unmoved. “Wise guy, there are two choices. Go back to work or walk out.”
“I’ll walk out,” Newport said, “as soon as I get my pay for what I done.”
“I already said no pay till the job is done. Back to work or walk out.”
It struck me in the silence that followed that this was what was meant by tension. I’d used and read the word plenty of times before but it didn’t have any actual meaning for me until that silent, angry time as the men stared at each other.
After who knows how long, the next voice was mine, a shock to me. “We are almost done,” I said, addressing Newport. Imploring him.
“Hell we are,” was his reply.
“If we finish up, we all get paid and we’re done,” I said. “We’re close.”
“Well fuck you,” Newport boomed, I think at Joe but probably also at me, for trying to get him to back off his defiance. He stood up, tore off his wet, dirty apron and flung it to the floor. “Fuck all of you.” And he headed for the door that emptied on the alley behind the synagogue and attached catering hall. The “right on” guy also stood up, clumsily removed his apron, and followed suit. I couldn’t believe they actually left. What a waste after all that work. How unfair that they weren’t getting paid a cent for this shitty, rotten night in the kitchen.
“Okay enough,” Joe boomed, clearly unmoved by the incident. “Back, back, enough.”
We went back to work.
Because we were two men down it took longer to finish. We ended about 3:10 a.m. Each man got his minimum wage, 6 pm to 3 am, $18 in cash. Since we had been given something to eat as we kept working, Joe told the men they didn’t even have to get as much as they were getting. But he’d still give each $18. No rounding up to $20. When Joe got around to me, he told me to see Meyer for my pay. I found Meyer still in his small office in the otherwise darkened front end of the catering hall. His pre-tied bow tie was pulled to one side but he still had on his tuxedo jacket and ruffled white shirt.
“Tough night?” he asked.
I was always quiet around Meyer and any other boss I had, but I felt I had to say something. How much of a coward could I be? “You probably know this already, what goes on with the dishwashers, but it is pretty bad the way those guys get treated. And when two left around 1 a.m., Joe wouldn’t pay them a cent because they didn’t finish. That can’t be right.”
“Well,” he said wearily. “It’s been a long night. They all are. Those guys are bums, drunks. Joe has to ride them hard, show them who’s boss, or they will turn on us. You saw the guys who left. No discipline. Can’t finish a job. And who knows with any of them who’s got a knife in his pocket. You can’t be nice with those sorts. You have to watch your own back. I don’t blame Joe.”
With that, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. He handed me two twenties from his pile. “Thanks,” he said, “I appreciate you filling in.” That was more thanks than I’d ever gotten from Meyer. And more money.
I took the two bills from Meyer, thought about the $18 all the others had earned for the same work, started to say something but stopped. I walked the couple miles home in the cool, quiet nearly end of the night.