Sara Pinto has been working since she was eleven years old. This piece is an excerpt from a memoir she’s writing about her thirty-seven years of being on the job.
After showing up, again, without wearing pantyhose, I was asked to go home before my shift even started. It is the policy, in the linen department, in fact in all departments of The Denver Department Store and its affiliates, that the women wear pantyhose at all times. So I quit. Well, I didn’t really quit so much as I just never went back with, or without, pantyhose. That was my fourth job in about as many months. So I was job-hunting again because having no job wasn’t an option. This was the deal I had with my Dad, who my younger sister and I were living with during high school. He provided room, board and moral guidance but no cash.
My little sister worked in the movie theatre. This was the best job in town and you had to wait until an employee died to get place there. Tickets and popcorn. The boss was very laid back and was hardy ever around. I think he was probably doing a lot of cocaine. In Boulder, Colorado in the seventies, most grownups were doing a lot of cocaine. My sister even had her own set of keys to the place. My little sister. She would regale me with stories of the antics that went on after the movie had started. She confessed that she and her colleagues played a kind of cocktail dare game where each person would take turns with the beverage gun, trying to make the most disgusting drink combination they could think of, with the winner of the game guzzling the most. They stopped doing this after one of them threw up after drinking a large cup of coke and liquid butter, no ice. They stuffed themselves with candy which they took out of the boxes and replaced in the display case, making sure that enough candy was showing through the plastic ‘window pane’ of the box to trick movie goers (these were the days before all things were hermetically sealed in plastic). They threw popcorn at each other. Of course then they had to take that sweeper thing (the bastard child of a broom and a vacuum cleaner) and go over the carpet to clean up, but even that seemed like fun. They took turns working the midnight shift when The Rocky Horror Picture Show came to town, and they all saw hugely inappropriate movies for their ages (Caligula with Malcolm MacDowell!!) She had that job for years.
I was finally taken in at Nikola’s Greek Diner. Nikola’s was nothing exciting but it was on The Hill, a hip student neighbourhood across from the University. I had a friend who waitressed there and she made a ton of money plus she did a lot of flirting with the college boys. They needed a dishwasher. Joanne assured me that I’d get moved up to waitress in no time at all.
I have nothing but compassion for my brothers and sisters who are at this very moment manning a huge industrial dishwasher. The heat and steam act as an amplifier, making a fairly gross job, revolting. You sweat. You are wearing a wet, ill-fitting apron with food adhered to it. You are stuck in the small place at the far end of the kitchen by the back door so people are constantly trying to get past you so they can go outside and smoke. No one says hello.
The stuff to be washed comes back in bus tubs at an alarming rate and if you don’t have a rhythm down, you’re finished. The dishwasher itself is at the bottom end of a kind of conveyor belt, counter height. It’s a huge steel box with a sliding panel that goes up and down like a garage door on the front side. It has one large red button. The ‘on’ button. It has a loud buzzer to let you know when its cycle is up. When this goes off, you open the door and get the clean dishes out. There’s a deep sink with one of those giant industrial hoses hanging from the ceiling above. One section of the sink is always filled with hot, dirty, soapy water. This is where the silverware is dumped to soak. Under your feet are thick black mats with holes in them. This design means that you can haul them outside and power hose them clean. It also means that so much disgusting food and liquid filled up those holes that they are unbelievably sticky. Sometimes the sound your shoes make, trying to release from the mat, can be heard over the din of the dishwasher.
So the full bus tubs came in, overflowing with the aftermath of a greasy, diner lunch. It seemed to me, from the amount of food left on these plates and the amount of soda left in the glasses, that no one was really eating much out there. They were smoking a hell of a lot though, that was for sure. Cigarette butts spilled over those orange plastic ashtrays and I guess when the customers ran out of room, they had to put their cigarettes out in their hamburger buns.
The plates had to be scraped and then rinsed with the hose. This hose was so powerful that no matter how lightly you tried to squeeze the handle, or control the blast, you and the whole room were sprayed with a fine mist of grease and ash.
Things went down hill pretty fast after Mrs. Nikola started to hate me. Every time Mr. Nikola passed by me (which was a lot), instead of saying, ‘excuse me,’ he said, ‘squeeze me.’ Believing I was on the road to Waitress, I smiled weakly. This was a pretty small infraction considering the things he could have done, I suppose, but it really got in his wife’s craw. On my second day, she came back to say that the silverware was not clean enough. In a silent, brusque pantomime, she went over the steps of dealing with the silverware. I tried harder. Later that day, she came in with a fist full of forks and shook them at me and threw them in the soak. On the third day she hurled a spoon at me and I walked out. So much for a waitressing career.
On to John’s Bakery, at that time Boulder’s coolest place. It embodied everything that Boulder would eventually become. It looked like a hippy establishment to the naked eye, but it was really run by fascists. This marriage, hippy/fascist, is actually a really good business model. People are drawn in by the good vibes and easy-going attitude of the staff and the other customers. There’s the smell of fresh bread, some ancestral memory of well-being, and the good coffee. But underneath the easy-going façade was a powerful efficiency. This is not a hippy strength. Behind the closed doors were well-trained, serious bakers, managers and a team of graphic designers. They were beavering away back there to give you the impression that they were not. All the menus and labels looked hand written and done on the fly. Not so. They were branding themselves way before anyone really knew what that meant. Naturally, the place was expensive but that didn’t really matter because most of the Boulder hippies were loaded.
I worked at their satellite shop across town, a tiny affair, no tables or coffee, just the goodies to take out. There was the main room with a large refrigerated glass case and some shelves (bread, muffins, pastries, cupcakes) and a spot for the cash register, a small room in the back with the mop, the bathroom and stacks of cake boxes and bags and the back door leading to the alley. The place was very tidy and well designed. It had a glass front and was very sunny. It just looked clean and happy. There was a cheery awning out front. So far, the classiest place I’d worked in.
The baked goods were brought by truck early in the morning while I was at school. The place did a very brisk business but wasn’t so busy that they needed two people in there at once, so I was always there by myself.
On my first day, I was taken through the procedures by one of the managers. She was a good-looking older woman. (She was probably only 26, but at 16, she seemed old to me.) She came from the Mother Store and exuded a kind of confidence and grace that made me feel like a barnacle on the bottom of the SS John. The job wasn’t hard, so the training was short. But at the end she said something that I didn’t quite hear right.
“And we mow away all your clothing.” Oh my God, this is a cult! No, that can’t be right… “Sorry, what was that?” … “We hold everyone at bay in cloving” What? ‘WE THROW EVERYTHING AWAY AT CLOSING!’”
For a while, things went smoothly. Then came the Wedding Cake. A woman had ordered it at the main store and it was delivered to little John’s so she could pick it up there for some reason. It came during my shift and was brought in by two bakers, who maneuvered it gingerly through the door, around the glass case and placed it gently on the counter in the back room. Only then did they breathe. It wasn’t your traditional tiered cake but it was a huge flat number with stunning sculpted flowers, birds and ribbons. The colors were exquisite and the craftsmanship flawless. It seemed strange to me to leave such a work of art there overnight, just sitting on the counter, so, with only the best intentions, I covered it with clingfilm.
The job during working hours was fine. I put things in bags, rung up sales on the register, and cleaned. The hard part was what to do with all the food at night. Of course, in the beginning, I brought it home. At first, my family thought we’d won the lottery. Why, we were the luckiest family alive! Free John’s Bakery stuff four days a week! A whole carrot cake, a dozen pain au chocolates, a bag of bran muffins and three loaves of bread. Then, six cupcakes, a blueberry pie, ten bagels and 14 chocolate chip cookies. Bear claws, chocolate doughnuts, raisin bread. Strawberry and custard tarts, lemon meringue pie, pumpernickel bread and another carrot cake. And this was just my first week. We tried to eat it all, really we did. Two weeks in, my father begged me to stop bringing it home. There was no room in the fridge for real food. Even the neighbors lost interest. So, I tried throwing it away. For a couple of days, because I worked there alone, I tried out a kind of Marie Antoinette approach.
After closing, I would position a huge plastic garbage pail between me and the glass case. I would lift out a cake, take a bite out of the middle and throw the rest in the garbage. It was insanely fun. It was so much insane fun. But slowly the insane part felt bigger than the fun part and I had to stop. Once, as I was turning the ‘open’ sign around to ‘close,’ I spotted Matt, a kid I would occasionally baby-sit, walking down the street with one of his friends. “Go ahead; you can eat anything you want in here, anything at all. Or you can punch these cupcakes.” He’s 38 now and I’ve heard he still tells this story at parties.
I ended up getting fired for ruining the $500 wedding cake. But I suppose someone had to hang for it.