Preview : LET’S EAT!

“Hey, honey, where would you like to eat tonight?” The next time you utter that sentence give me a call first. I can’t rate the chef, but I can let you know what type of animal life dwells in the kitchen’s walls, ceilings, backrooms and basements. If it’s a type of establishment that deals in food, it’s to be expected. Be it a quaint little place or a high priced bistro it’s a good bet there’s a mini zoo behind those swinging doors that lead to never-never land – as in never, never let the customers back there. In the world of food preparation invading insects and rodents are expected. Keeping their populations in check is the problem.

Countless times on restaurant jobs I’ve been offered that elusive oxymoron, the mythical free lunch. Free just as soon as I perform a couple of favors for the manager. Favors that will be conveniently left off the work order. So, with my lunch carrot swinging before my nose I move that fax machine to another desk or replace that short handset cord on the wall phone in the reception area with a long one. When your mouth’s watering you can have an amazing burst of energy.

Some eateries get my stomach in high gear just from the fantastic smells emanating from the kitchen. A good Italian place can have the saliva glands working overtime with one whiff. As I finish up my list of little extras for the restaurant manager I already have my lunch all picked out in my mind. Fried chicken! And why not? The place is famous for it. On completion of that one last task of remounting a kitchen phone that’s falling off the wall I can look forward to chowing down to my heart’s content while also refilling my bottomless Coke from the bar tap. I head into the kitchen through a door that says IN across the front. As I swing it in I instantly spot the wall phone hanging by a large 16d nail. The phone looks like its hit the floor a few times. The phone is hanging just above a busy chopping board with two Spanish-looking fellows hard at work on food preparation. One man is busily chopping the fat off some pieces of meat he’s pulling from the top of a halved cardboard box sitting on a shelve to his left. His partner is doing the same.

As I hang my tools off a projection on a large metal shelf that ran above the sink, I nod to the man who’s chopping meat closest to the phone. I then point to the phone with a flat blade screwdriver in my hand to emphasize what my intentions are. He gets the picture and moves over a little so I can reach the phone. As he moves he keeps working on trimming fat off the meat. He still has quite a large box full of untrimmed meat awaiting the knife.

With such a crowded work area the phone was tricky to reach, not only from the three of us jammed so close together, but some big tubs of lettuce were on a narrow shelf just above the sink. They projected out over the chopping tables forcing you to duck down as you worked if you were over five four. So, ducking my head I reach across the man working on my left and pop the cover off the wall phone to start my repair. At such an awkward angle the phone’s plastic cover flew at me as the phone came off the nail holding it up. As it clanged onto the chopping board flying into pieces, some of the pieces started running for the hills. Some of them were pretty large. I suddenly realize I’m looking at dozens of COCKROACHES! Startled by their new surroundings while exposed to the bright lights they begin running, jumping, and skittering crazily across the chopping board. Some flew. Most leapt into the sink or tried to escape by wriggling under the already trimmed chicken meat.

The guy chopping meat on my left spots one of the larger ones and cuts it in half with his large knife. After he nails one he goes after some others. Each time he chopped a cockroach he would let out a loud, “Ole!” After the slaughter of the innocents, he used the very same trimming knife as a sweep to scrape the various guts and body parts off the chopping block and onto the floor. Then he went right back to busily trimming fat off the meat in the pile.

He never washed the knife off. Yep. That’s what I said. He went right back to work on the raw meat USING THE SAME KNIFE! I cut the phone wire that fed the phone then picked up the set with my long nosed pliers. Disregarding the cries of baby roaches screaming for their moms deep within the recesses of the phone’s inner workings, I carry the bug-filled set to the trash and tossed it in. After replacing the phone with a new one, I decide to skip lunch at that place and have an apple and a container of cottage cheese at the park instead. From that moment on I became very suspicious of just what was going on behind those swinging doors. Sadly, the more I learned, the less I wanted to eat out.

Over time this little incident turned out to be NOTHING compared to things I witnessed all over town. Even the most famous eateries had some pretty bad situations going on in the back no one would believe. If you think I’m stretching the truth check your local paper’s lists of restaurants that have been closed in one week for rodent and bug infestation or for no potable water. The majority are closed for basic stuff like filthy kitchens and jammed up grease pits and sewer pipes. Happily the sewer and grease problems have gotten better because of strict new monitoring laws imposed by the health department. I know this is true from the lessening of gunk and goo coming out of the sewers into the storm drains and L.A. River. A lot of our cable vaults are located in and around the dump out channels.

One particular channel near Dodger Stadium used to always be filled with seagulls and other birds because of all the crud and yuk floating in it and gunking up its side walls. Boy, did it smell! When you walked above and looked down from about fifteen feet you could see the swirls of blue and black in the pools of greasy waste water not yet evaporated. It’s not that way anymore. Someone actually got on all the illegal dumping and put a stop to it. The last time I was by that part of the channel, repairing freeway call box circuits, it had green slicked water across it. A huge improvement. The few pools of water I gave a little closer inspection to had tadpoles in them.

The restaurant owners themselves feel they’re being nit picked. If you bring up the fact that they were closed with a “Closed by the Dept. of Health” sign stuck on a window the last time you stopped by they’ll give you an ear full on how the county is hassling them with too many codes. I side with the health department. I’ve been in the back of thousands of restaurants, coffee shops, and eateries. The owners who are shut down by the hundreds every day who reopen the next after their infractions are cleared, should be happy the county uses numbers for the violations instead of plain English. Well, now most aren’t in English. From Spanish to Tagalog is normal now-a-days. If a place has a C, it deserves it.

Few people take the time to follow the numbers to see what the corresponding notes say. If there’s more than one number it might behoove you to check into that notice a bit closer and read the fine print. Especially if you’re a regular. One day while working an installation load for Pac Bell I’m given a swap out job for a swanky restaurant. From looking at the address on my service order while heading towards my first job, I figured it had to be just past Laurel Canyon off of Sunset Blvd. I couldn’t picture it in my head while in transit, but it came to me in a flash about a block away. It came to me just as a man in a red jacket jogged past me while I was at a red light by the Standard station. The French bistro! I had driven by it hundreds of times, but I had never entered the establishment. It was too rich for my wallet.

I knew it was really popular with the status hungry crowd from all the expensive vehicles being run all over the nearby neighborhoods by red jacket-wearing valets frantically looking for just one more spot to park a big Mercedes. An overflow crowd spilling onto the sidewalk always looked extremely well dressed and bejeweled. You could see at a glance it catered to the very rich or, at the least, well known. Lots of places employ valets. This place had a dozen parking attendants just for handling the cars that stacked up at the curb and, from an over abundance of accidents, it was a very long, red painted curb.

The fast moving valets usually had to park cars up and down the twisting narrow side streets to accommodate all their customers. The big tippers had regular parking spots in the tiny rear area of off street parking behind the restaurant itself. Cheapskates or ‘wannabes’ had to take their chances getting their rides side swiped or taken on a short joy ride in a search for a parking spot on very narrow streets.

These valets had no chance to rest. They were kept running to and from lines of waiting cars left in one long red zone. If they weren’t moving cars in and out of the lot to help out the on-the-premises parking lot attendants, they were sprinting for cars stashed anywhere they could put them to stave off a parking ticket. The woefully inadequate premise’s parking was well known to traffic and parking enforcement officers. Local homeowners constantly complained about cars at a lot of other similar places, so I had to figure this one was no different. The long red zone said a lot, too. On a busy shift, who bothers about a car partially blocking a driveway or sticking out a bit on a curve? Plenty of people, my friend, in Hollywood. Some people make deals with businesses and allow cars to be parked in their driveways for a little side dough. This isn’t the norm, though. Usually it’s guerrilla warfare on a daily basis.

During the lunch rush you could see the valets everywhere within a five-block radius of the place either coming or going for a customer’s ride. They had better run. Rich folks in expensive cars don’t like to wait. If you put them out too much they’ll just go somewhere else. Of course the guys made great tips for the extra hustle.

One night I filled in for a pal as a car attendant at a place called Kings Four in Hand. I made over a hundred and fifty bucks in one evening. It’s not as easy as it looks, though. If you haven’t driven a lot of foreign cars they can toss you for a loop while you try to release a brake or find a gear. In slow lulls I smoked weed with my coworkers and ogled hot babes while they taught me some tricks of the car parkman’s trade.

If time allows you always check ashtrays for left over marijuana joints before anything else. Then glove boxes and under seats. Some guys would even use credit cards they found to run over and fill up their personal cars or buy whatever. As long as the card was put back before the owners finished dinner it was an easy scam. The best you could hope for was a blitzed drunk staggering for his car. If you could get his keys away and drive him home the restaurant looked the other way. With a pal following for a ride back in some other customer’s car you could have a lot of fun. Drunks tip huge. When they pull out a wad you can pick out the bill you want.

This place was in a class of its own for attendants on the move. Complaints from some competitors had parking enforcement cruising past all the time like three-wheeled sharks. If any car was left in a red zone or parked for just a second illegally it was instantly ticketed. Ditto for that last chance place, a parking meter. You can kiss off a customer for life if he finds out weeks later from a warrant notice that his car had received a parking ticket, a ticket not far from the owner’s favorite lunch place. A ticket that had been hidden by a freaked out attendant.

These valets were hep. From the same customers showing up day after day they knew who the big tippers were. Like their counterparts working inside behind the bar or waiting the tables you quickly learn who tosses the most money around. Whoever has the most money waits the shortest amount of time. It’s the name of the game in any big city.

No high roller wants to have to wait at a standing room only bar. This place had a lot of people waving money at the same time. I had passed the frantic car lot men many a time on my way to other jobs and laughed to myself on how glad I wasn’t put in such a pathetic position. My waterloo came with a bang. My swap system job turned out to be the very same place one morning. With a constant crowd jamming the entrance and entryway the maître d is making a ton of dough while trying to placate all the big spenders jostling for the limited tables.

As soon as the well-dressed folks climbed out of their statement vehicles and strutted to the entrance the valets would zoom their cars to a rear parking lot way in the back of the long building that housed the establishment. Let me emphasize. An extremely long driveway. If your car didn’t meet show off requirements your vehicle was shuttled to a parking spot on a close by side street. If you were well known or well connected you would be rushed past the lesser known of the common rabble and taken right to a table. Since you’re a regular your drinks would most likely be awaiting you when you arrived.

As I show up to do my change out order I realize I’m in the presence of one of the biggest assholes France has ever produced. This maître d from hell puts me in my place within five minutes. Not only is he rude and condescending he also tells me I can’t use the front entrance to bring in my equipment. At first I thought he was joking. As the realization sank in that he was actually going to make me walk a quarter of a mile to the rear of the place about thirty times my jaw dropped. As he blew me off with a curt, “Now stop blocking the entrance. The front door is for the clientele only, Monsieur!”

Now, not only was the back door a long way from the street it also dumped you right into the middle of an extremely busy kitchen. A kitchen that was designed for food preparation for maybe fifty people for lunch and was actually serving two hundred or more. On top of this fiasco my telephone truck is parked about three long blocks away. The valets have every single gap on Sunset blocked with expensive cars they’re shuffling in and out of the lot.

After my first trip through the jammed hectic kitchen I have an easy ten kitchen workers that want to stick a knife in me. With my tools over my shoulder and carrying large boxes of phones and wire I’m disrupting an already tenuous situation.

After my third trip through, some muttering can be heard in Spanish. It wasn’t hard to figure out who they were talking about. Me! Naturally the internal wiring of the older prem needed a complete redo from one end of the long building to the other. As I rewired every phone I had to go through the kitchen on each long trip to the terminal.

As I carry my tenth heavy box of equipment and wire past the front window of the entry I catch a quick smile through the glass from the maître d . Thoughts of how to kill him the slowest and most painful way seep into my mind as I have to fight my way through a crowded bustling kitchen each and every trip. Try pissing off ten or more low paid workers with big knives in their hands already mad at their hot jammed working conditions.

After my last “excuse me” the guys wouldn’t move out of the way anymore. They ignored my repeated requests to step aside as I tried not to drop a heavy box of telephone equipment. Sensing discord in the troops I went back to my truck, filled a card board box with long cords of various colors and shapes for wall phones and handsets, then brought it into the kitchen and dumped it onto the lettuce chopping table. As the cords disappeared I became a good gringo again.

I’m able to finish up most of the phones before the lunch rush started in earnest. As I go to work on the bar’s phones and credit card machines I have to deal with more and more crowds of people jamming the aisles heading for their tables. Most are being led by my pal, the smirking maître d . With the place really starting to hum, a kitchen I could barely get through in the early morning is now impassable. I literally had to carry my equipment and tools over my head like an African porter on a safari.

Now that it was impossible to get through the kitchen without getting knifed, I again try to use the front doors. Hiding along the front of the restaurant I time the French prick as he takes a new group to the rear of the dining room to place them at their table. As he leads a new group I make my move. This actually worked a couple of times. On my third attempt I get into a battle royal with the snail sucking jerk-off. As he tries to dress me down in front of a large party of well-dressed customers I say nothing but keep using the front door. Now its war.

I’m almost finished as the lunch rush ends and the dinner crowd starts piling up. Being the good phoneman that I am I left the most important phone for the last swap out. The front desk reception phone for the reservations and guest seating. This particular phone was a big, heavy, twenty-button call director circa 1950. Not only is it really heavy, it’s fed by a hundred pair cable that connects to it with Amphenol connector screw downs. To reach the connectors I have to place the big call director onto a booking calendar that sits at just below chest height by the main entrance.

As noted, this phone is pretty old. The large plastic cover only rests on the base. It’s held in place by decades of grease. The tiny holding screws which are supposed to hold it in place fell out years ago from over one hundred phonemen changing line lamps. Since I’m down below his line of vision disconnecting the five cable connectors my mortal enemy, the maître d’, spots the phone on the ledge while escorting a new group of chosen ones to their fresh linen-covered table. Stopping his pack of lemmings he spots me crouched down behind the entry area and says a threatening, “Remove that filthy phone now!” under his breath. Then he continues on with his group.

It’s impossible. The feed cables were too short to place the big set anywhere else while I tried to install the new set so their service wouldn’t be interrupted. So I ignore the arrogant prick. As I struggle in an extremely tight area to connect the new set my maître d’ pal comes by with another group of diners. As he points the way to the large group he’s escorting he once again stops by the ledge. He then lifts the heavy call director off the ledge and slams it down on the desk that holds the reservation calendar. To show me who was the boss he really let it slam onto the small table’s top. On impact the phone’s large cover flies off and hits the wall.

As the plastic cover hit the white drape-covered wall HUNDREDS OF COCKROACHES run for the hills! Off the desk, over the desk, up the wall and across the white lace curtains. There were so many roaches they streamed off the table top in waves as they escaped from the huge phone. Maybe a thousand generations of roaches suddenly homeless.

The roaches that had run up the white drapes knew they were totally busted, so they headed for the ceiling. As they lost their grips they began to fall into the hair of the now totally grossed out customers crammed into the foyer waiting for my pal to escort them to their awaiting feast.

As the elegantly dressed women start to scream while slapping roaches out of their hair I spot a huge rogue roach, obviously a bull, skidding to a stop on the mini counter top defying one and all to mess with him. Snapping into action I use my long thin yellow handled screwdriver like an ice pick. Bringing the screwdriver down with a hard, “thwack” I drive the pointed end right through the roach’s back pinning his now scuttling legs to the counter top.

Just as I pin the rogue the maître d’ returns to see what all the screaming is about. As he tries to stem the flow of customers now running out the front doors en mass he looks down at the still struggling-to-escape roach pinned by my screwdriver. At his amazed face started to twitch I do a French sounding voice as I say, “Ah, Monsieur, we have the first catch of the day!”

Then, as I pulled my screwdriver out of the desk top with the roach still wriggling on the blade, I flip the roach onto the maître d’s jacket while finishing my phoney French routine. With a smirking face I then say, “How about a little dip in some batter and we deep fry that monster, hey Pepe?”

Adios crowd. Everyone within sight of the roach migration went out the front door like the place was on fire. As the place emptied out I smiled at the now stunned maître d’. Using a clean satin napkin as a tool cleaner I looked him in the eye while cleaning off my screwdriver blade and said, “Hey, how do you like those apples, froggy?”

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