A young man starts his working life where others’ lives end.
“We worked well together. We hustled. We batched. We finished our tasks quickly, all the while head-banging to Alice in Chains or nodding to the Ray Brown Trio. I thought I’d finally found my stride.”
I Got Grown
In the year 2000, I was sixteen and six-foot-one. I slouched around with a saxophone reed in my mouth. With a black pork pie hat stuck on my head, I read Howl, Atlas Shrugged, and books that claimed to “up my productivity 10X!” At school, I struck elaborate poses like I was too grown-up for this shit and talked about how someday I’d be roaring down distant highways in a Toyota Supra while a big-breasted beauty squealed and quaked from the twelve-inch, window-splitting, Charles Mingus — spitting subwoofers banging away under the seats.
In reality, I puttered around my Navy town in an Eighties Isuzu P’up. On weekends I cleaned my room and mowed the lawn for a four-dollar-a-week allowance and got swamped by my parents’ bad-old-days-callused-hands-climb-out-of-poverty tales, which always ended with “When you get grown, you’ll know how good you have it now.”
So I decided to get grown. I decided to get a job.
However, no one wanted a teen with a clip-on tie and a silly hat. Not the Kentucky Fried. Not the Hot Topic. Things were looking dim until my mother got me a break: Her friend worked at a nursing home, and they needed a dishwasher.
Denise had fatigue rings around her eyes and a chewed pencil behind her ear. She was the boss. We teetered on a pair of crying metal chairs in a small dark office beside the kitchen while she read my résumé. The punch clock clicked out of time with the radio tuned to the best of the Eighties, Nineties, and today!
She asked what hours I could work and how soon I could get a food handler’s permit.
She finally looked up when she asked, “You got a car?”
I nodded. I teetered.
“Did you lock it?” she said.
“No one would want to steal a P’up,” I said.
“Always lock your car.”
Then she gave me a tour of the kitchen: stainless steel countertops; speckled walls; a sad stereo missing a cassette door, sitting on a high shelf above white labeled coffee cans of vegetables with names like VEG MEDLEY and TOMATOES. No brand names here. Along the walls stood stainless steel dining carts. Denise would tug on their doors in-between pointing at different appliances and say, “Lock everything.” The air smelled like it had been torched and cooled with lemon juice and pasta water. Not all that unpleasant, but it would haunt clothes forever.
“Congratulations,” Denise said at the end of the tour, “you’re a dishwasher.” She showed me the door. “Don’t forget to lock your car. Just last week a resident borrowed one of the nurse’s four-doors. Was trying to drive home. Ended up staying at a McDonald’s all day.”
I was stoked. I was employed.
“Patricia’s the best in the business,” Denise had said, “been doing it all her life — a pro — the best dishwasher in the state. She’ll train you.”
I had never considered what a professional dishwasher looked like, but Patricia had cauliflowered ears, cantaloupes of muscle that connected her biceps to her shoulders, and hungry bird-of-prey eyes. Patricia had broken a male nurse’s aide’s arm after a company softball game. Supposedly he had said something about her WWF shirt and she’d hurt him out in the parking lot beside the field, between a pair of vans. But no one admitted to anything.
Another thing I hadn’t considered about dishwashing: most of your time isn’t spent scraping burnt eggs off pans, it’s prepping for cooks. “It’s time to prep’,” Patricia said. “I’m going to show you how to open cans.” Then she grinned. That day she wore an I’m with Stupid shirt with a big hand pointing to her right.
Bolted to the edge of a countertop, the industrial can opener had a metal folding handle connecting the crank to a long metal shaft that she pulled up like a plunger. At its head, under the lip, was a single blade that pointed like a tiny guillotine. Tomato paste stained that blade. Patricia straightened and lifted the arm and shaft, loaded a large white can of MUSHROOMS under it, and plunged. The impact shook a drawer of forks open. She folded the handle over and cranked while MUSHROOMS moaned and yelped. When the lid popped with a ting, she gingerly flipped it to gurgle and drain on a dish rack in the sink.
“Paid attention?” Patricia asked.
“Do five more,” she said. “Don’t cut yourself. A kid bled and ruined prep for everyone. Needed stitches. When you’re done, we’ll get you in the tub.”
I opened five cans, then moved on to the tub, as she’d called it.
In the tub, steel wool cut little bleeding L’s into my soft, limber saxophone-playing hands. Steaming dishes burned my wrinkled cuts. I asked if I could use gloves.
“Whimp.” Patricia snorted, making a wh sound. “Wimps always complain. Grow up and deal with it. You’ll lose feeling soon enough.”
Next, we filled large, refrigerator-sized boxes with trays for the residents in the wings who couldn’t go to the dining room. It was the dishwasher’s job to prep the trays with utensils and little name cards with acronyms that said things like, “I’m a NSMECH!” meaning, “No salt for me and please blend everything to the consistency of pulled pork floating in yogurt.” A cook would carefully match the meals to the cards when he loaded the trays afterward.
“Never, ever, load the meals yourself. You got that?” Patricia warned. “We don’t get paid enough.”
Usually, Mike the Cook loaded the meals. Mike had a mullet and the word COOK shaved on the sides of his head, like a neon sign in a diner’s window. He brought his own set of knives to work. Over the stoves, Mike didn’t talk, blink, or smile. He chopped with the rhythm of tribal beats, humming as he stirred the pots; and when Patricia left for the day, he tuned the radio to the 90s grunge station.
Sometimes he punched bags of potato soup and cried out, “It’s like they’re trying to kill them with this shit!”
In better moods, he would head-bang, swaying the mullet under the hairnet. “All of this is a training ground, Joe. Practice. Temporary.”
“Practice for what?” I said.
“A joint in Seattle and a Michelin star.”
I had no idea what a tire had to do with meals we mushed into the consistency of baby food.
Batch what matches.
That phrase motored through my books on upping my productivity 10x! The simplicity of batching — putting together the small, easily repeatable actions — was the soul of Henry Ford’s mass production. His principles could bring greater productivity, time savings, and riches to just about anyone, in any field.
Patricia and Denise didn’t believe in upping productivity. Instead they wanted me to stumble around the dining room with two rattling carts, in a daze, for a half an hour as I set the tables neatly, delicately, and inefficiently.
It could be done in half the time, I told them.
“This isn’t McDonalds’s. This is their home,” Patricia corrected me, as she prodded her delts. “Don’t rush it, don’t fling the tableware, and don’t leave the carts by the doorway.”
I had SATs to take. I had women and jazz solos to daydream about. So, when they finally trusted me to set the dining room alone, I batched. I left the carts at the doorway and hustled. First pass, I tossed placemats and coasters. Next pass, I blitzed with handfuls of forks, spoons, and knives. Final pass, a quick-footed shuffle with glasses and cups. I was spectacular — done in under ten minutes! Which meant twenty minutes for lurking, studying, and dreaming in a secluded corner, feeling proud and productive.
One night, after my first pass, I went back to the carts and found that the spoons were gone. A clank came from the hallway: Beside the wall, on the tile floor, was a pair of spoons; a few feet farther, another. Around the corner and down a hallway of scuffed wheelchair bumpers, padded corridor handrails, fake wood veneer, warm portraits of tropical leaves, and abandoned barns, a bent man in a red hoodie was pushing a walker. He dropped a spoon but kept up his shuffle, tableware clanking like hi-hat cymbals with each push. He clutched them in his hands. They dropped from his pockets.
I was being robbed.
Denise and Patricia had gone home. There were no nurses in sight. A canyon opened in my stomach and I felt alone and small and stupid. No one had said anything about this, whatever this was. My only guidance was a moment when Patricia had punched me in the arm and said, “When in doubt, remember this is their home. Not Sizzler.”
Now I braced myself against the handrail, hoping for a plan. The red hoodie picked up speed to a stroll and escaped to room beyond the empty nurses’ station.
The only other time I had been robbed, I scuffled with a couple of snot-sniffling kids and lost my money, got bruises the size of golf balls, but kept my pride. This time I did nothing. I wasn’t even sure why I was doing nothing. Was I afraid of the suddenness of his caper? Of being caught cheating with productivity? Or was I shocked at the fact that an old man could do such a thing?
My first complete thought: Pretend it didn’t happen.
My second complete thought: In the morning, when the nurses took the residents in for breakfast and found only forks with which to stir sugarless sweetener into their coffee, I would be found out.
So I did the only thing a young man knows to do: I called my mother.
“Do you have other spoons in the kitchen?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“But the dishwashers in the morning will see that spoons are missing.”
“That’s why you’re going to talk to the nurses.”
When I got back to the dining room with extra spoons, the butter knives were missing. Red hoodie had struck again.
I took the carts to the safety of the kitchen and went to the nurses’ station. “A red hoodie? Yeah, that’s Mr. H.,” the nurse told me. She kept looking through charts.
Could she go get the spoons and the knives? Tomorrow, she said. Okay, I said, and stood there long enough to realize that she wasn’t going to say anything more.
I said thanks and felt vaguely reassured that I’d done what I was supposed to do. And after the nurses did what they were supposed to do, everything would be okay.
The next day, Denise hollered until her chewed pencil fell from behind her ear. “We. Told. You. Don’t. Leave. The cart. Out. In the hallway.”
I defended batching. I quoted Henry Ford: “Improved productivity means less human sweat, not more.”
“Ford didn’t lose spoons,” Denise said. “Ford didn’t cause one hell of a ruckus in B Wing. Did you know the nurses called me at home this morning? Woke me up?”
The nurses had confronted Mr. H. Whatever happened after that had left a whole lot of people saying sorry.
I said it wasn’t my fault. All I was trying to do was work smarter.
This just made Denise angrier. She shook her head and said, “You shit, just say sorry and do what you’re told.”
I bowed my head and said, “Sorry.”
At break, in between sets of tricep dips between the counters, Patricia said she preferred Chevy over a “Found On the Road Dead! Ha!” Then she told me that Mr. H. had been plundering the home for years. Every other month or so, staff raided his room and found all sorts of stuff: pens, telephones, watches, VCRs. “Maybe he hawks them. He’s taking university classes, you know, distance and all. It was in the paper.”
I don’t read the paper, I told her.
“Take the bus, kid. Then you’ll read the paper.”
Later, while I set the dining room, a voice said, “Don’t throw the knives.”
Mr. H. stood in the doorway with his walker and his red hoodie. His big glasses caught the fluorescent glare, making his face seem flat and hard to see, like a sketch of the Unabomber. Even though he was hunched, I could tell that there had been a time when he had been taller than I was.
“Or the spoons. We deserve better. Place them correctly and nicely,” he said. “We deserve better.”
We stood there in silence until I gave him a nod. Then he left, his walker creaking down the long hall.
Mike the COOK and I worked well together. We hustled. We batched. When he fell behind, I helped cut VEG. When I backed up with dishes, he mopped. Weekends were low stress without Patricia and Denise, and we finished our tasks quickly, all the while head-banging to Alice in Chains or nodding to the Ray Brown Trio. It had only been a few months, but I thought I’d finally found my stride.
One evening, just before the dinner carts returned from the dining room, Denise appeared in a wet raincoat. She walked through the kitchen and told Mike to follow her out into the hall.
Mike and I had started slow but made good time that night, so I was lounging against a cutting table reading Charles Mingus’s autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, which was as much about his sex-capades as his bass playing. For example, he claimed to have slept with twenty-something prostitutes in two and a half hours in Tijuana just to win a bet.
Mike was out in the hall for a long time and the carts didn’t come. (Sometimes they were late, which meant I’d be working to the end of my shift without any post-floor-squeegee reading time.) When Mike finally staggered back into the kitchen, he had a shocked look, like he had just heard that the nursing home down the road had gotten a Michelin star.
Denise was in the doorway waving me over.
In the hallway with her was a man in a shirt and a tie. He watched while Denise grilled me about whether I had helped Mike load the carts with meals. I said yes and prepared to apologize. I said that Mike had fallen behind his usual pace; turkey dogs always took a bit longer to get right. And so when it came time to load the carts, I helped.
Denise pointed her pencil at me. “What exactly happened?”
“Mike loaded the special meals and I loaded the ones he didn’t. We were running slow,” I said.
“Did you double-check?” the man asked.
“Check what?” I said. What was there to check? There had been empty spaces. I filled those spaces.
The man turned without a word and just shook his head all the way down the hallway toward the lobby, where he passed paramedics pushing a gurney. Mike stormed past us and out the back door into the rainy night.
“A MECH got a regular turkey dog,” Denise said. “He choked. He’s dead.”
She left me there in the hallway as the dinner carts rattled toward me. I moved them into the kitchen, opened their doors, and saw the name cards on the trays. Yes, Mike or I had put the wrong meal on the wrong tray.
Mr. H. had gotten the wrong tray.
It didn’t hit me then, or as I tossed the leftovers into the trash or wiped the countertops. It didn’t even hit me as I kept one eye on the rearview mirror for the cops. I was dazed. I was on autopilot. It was the next day, at school lunch, after I unwrapped the aluminum tin of TURKEY TETRAZZINI that looked like ground turkey in cat vomit. This was what Mr. H. was supposed to get: mush. And he died because I wanted to be productive.
A lump sank from my throat to down below my gut, into that spot where guilt weighs so heavily that it’s hard to get up from your seat. It was my fault.
And I told no one. Not my friends, not my parents, nobody. I waited for judgment to come and get me.
Six-Fifty an Hour
Mike was off the scheduling board. Now on weekends I worked with a pleasant woman who hummed hymns. For weeks I waited for Denise to fire me or the police to come and cuff me. When Denise finally called me into the office, she asked when would I get my food handler’s permit. She never said a word about Mr. H., as if what happened to him were normal.
When I saw the obituary in the newspaper, I learned that nothing about Mr. H. had been normal: over a hundred, fought in two wars, started as a lumberjack and became an owner of franchised fast food joints, beat two types of cancer and was battling a third, and was taking distance classes from a university. How does that guy choke to death on a turkey dog?
Later, Patricia, sick of seeing me mope around the kitchen, said, “Kid, knock it off. Everybody drops dishes. This wasn’t your fault either. And don’t think for a second that when he was eyeball to turkey dog he didn’t know what he was doing. This is a nursing home — what do you think happens here? Go do some pushups and grab a can of VEG MEDLEY the back.”
Patricia was right. I hadn’t thought about it before, but there were parking spaces by the side doors for the ambulances, and a hospital and a mortuary up the road. This was a place few people left alive. Besides, it wasn’t just me. There was Mike, the nurses, the nurses’ aides who would’ve fed him, none of whom saw the error, and there was Mr. H. himself. The weight lifted. And after a while I stopped thinking about it.
Months passed. I worked slower, put all the utensils parallel, didn’t move a single meal into a cart, and kept scrubbing, opening, cranking, mopping, and stacking until my pillowy hands hardened. Every shift became long, difficult, and dirty. Somewhere along the line, maybe at the mall or the movies or while pumping gas into my P’up, I opened my wallet and realized how little six dollars and fifty cents an hour really was.
Ihad wanted to get grown. My parents had wanted hard work to teach me how good I really had it, and Denise had wanted a body that showed up on time. For a whole year I worked at the nursing home. The sirens of ambulances came and went but I never got called back out into the hallway. Outside the nursing home, Mr. H. stayed my secret. For years, it stung me silent whenever a conversation turned to capers never caught.
On my last day, I don’t remember Patricia saying anything. I just remember her hairnet swaying with the weight of her ponytail as she stacked plastic dish racks on the other side of the kitchen, moving solidly in the way of the self-assured, the fit.
Years later, suicide started claiming people I knew personally. That was when I began to seriously think about what must’ve gone through Mr. H.’s head while staring at that turkey dog. Maybe he had a moment when he forgot that he couldn’t eat what he wanted. Maybe he thought that this was as good a way to go out as any, a liberation. He might’ve been tired of feeling control slip out of his hands like those spoons clacking out of his hands in the hallway and those carelessly thrown knives on the dining tables morning after morning. I don’t know. Maybe we all just screwed up.
I guess that was the moment I got grown: when I was able to keep all those ideas about what happened to Mr. H. in my head — and accept that there’s no way I could ever know.
Work by Joe Milan, Jr., has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus; F(r)iction; Blarb, the blog of The L.A. Review of Books; The Kyoto Journal; and BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016anthology.
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Chad Hunt’s photographs have appeared in Time, Popular Mechanics, andThe New York Times.His Afghanistan photographs received a Military Reporters and Editors Award and are in the permanent collection of the George Eastman House Museum.