Nobody who works in a restaurant really expects to be there for very long. Even the ones who’ve stuck around for the last decade see it as a temporary position on the way to do whatever it is they really want to do. Waiters want to be actors, cooks want to be chefs at better places, dishwashers want to be DJs, head chefs want their own establishment, and the ones who do have their own place want more time off to open a new restaurant or pursue a different line of work altogether. Especially if the restaurant is a lousy one, coming to work can start to feel a bit like being in detention or a hotel in a tourist destination.
This can tend to make you simultaneously more and less accepting of your fellow employees: if they’re a pickpocket or a pedophile off the job… well they’ll likely be gone soon; if they put the order chits or a glass in the wrong place, they’re a black-hearted scumbag who deserves to suffer an agonizing death.
Even so, some co-workers have been truly startling. Because it tends to be something of a job of last resort for many, I have worked with a few people who could not conceivably do anything else. Ed came on as a line cook seemingly straight out of prison without any of the social skills that would prepare him for life on the outside. He was in his early 30s and the sort of man that sees a neck tattoo as a worthwhile investment. He always walked in that loping stagger that made it look like he was wearing a full diaper. He was always simmering. In my town there are blocks and blocks of these angry sluggers in cul-de-sac lives going around and around without end. Not unlike myself.
The restaurant aspired to greatness though. It was located in the far wealthier neighboring town where jowly executives drive the muscle cars they’ve always dreamed of owning and bored younger women bristle with high self-regard beside them, and the food was “gourmet,” made in-house from scratch, served on chunks of wood, the menu in untranslated Italian. Unfortunately, this put Ed at odds with the décor because he tended to respond to incoming orders with untranslated obscenities delivered in something like a bark. “FISH!” there were no customers in the restaurant and he was “FISHING bored!” “OH FISH!” now there were customers and they’d want to eat!! “FISH!” they ordered the spaghetti! It sounded as if his mouth was constantly and violently struggling against his brain’s limited vocabulary.
The problem, of course, was that, to borrow Irving Goffman’s terms, the backstage of the restaurant was just adjacent to the front-stage where the servers gave their regular performance, with or without the semi-rhythmic obscenity chant emanating in the background. This soon put Ed at odds with the head chef and owner, who were probably more tolerant than they would have been in any other line of work- it’s hard to imagine the same behavior wouldn’t lead to immediate firing at, say, a hospital or funeral parlor- because they were short-staffed and he would, undoubtedly, quit before long. Ed was clearly incensed that a cook position involved either preparing food or not preparing food, and without the announcement making any headlines, he soon gave his two-week notice.
Probably the weirdest kitchen conversation happened right around the time he gave notice. It was a slow night and we were chatting in the kitchen while cleaning up. A younger cook was talking about the fraternity he’d belonged to in the states. Canadians, in general, don’t care about frats or know much about them.
Ed: I don’t get it- what’s a fraternity?
Cook: Well, it’s sort of like a brotherhood.
Ed: Oh, okay. I’m in the Aryan Brotherhood!
Cook: …. Oh… Aryan Brotherhood, huh?…
Ed: Oh, yeah! Let me tell you- if you’re going to jail, you’d better be in the Aryan Brotherhood! Ha ha!
So, after that, he was called “Nazi Ed” whenever he wasn’t around, which became permanent a few weeks later. While he had suggested that his was a sort of defensive aryanism, he soon told a joke that could only be described as horrifically racist and made a few other comments that cleared up any confusion on the matter.
I didn’t say anything. I could imagine my 15 year old punk rock kid self being very disappointed at my silence in the face of Neo-Nazi cookery. As a kid, I would have mouthed off at him and work would have been uncomfortable until I got beat up or quit, which would have been within a few days.
Things change, though. They seem to matter less as you get older. On the one hand, yes, I kept my mouth shut because Ed looked like the sort of person who has worn body parts as jewelry at some point. The other thing, however, is that my 15 year old punk rock kid self never distinguished between power and ideology. When you’re that age, it seems like all adults have, more or less, a base level of power, which is simply greater than your own. Ideologies, therefore, seem more important, like clouds of toxic pollution that could potentially infect innocent people and harm us all if we don’t stop their spread.
Now, I realize that someone like Nazi Ed will never have power outside of perhaps isolated acts of violence, and hopefully not even those. He simply hasn’t the intelligence, social connections, or access to capital that might give him power or influence, and so he’s essentially a disgruntled loser. I suspect it’s the level of power that makes a professor or police officer with vile beliefs strike us as more threatening than, say, a goat herder with vile beliefs. I think we recognize, on some level, that it’s not so much what someone would like, in their heart, to do that threatens as much as what they can do.