(Popeye, the fry-cook)
Z! asked me yesterday if I had ever really worked at Popeyes. Yes, the semi-famous fast-food fried-chicken place from Louisiana. I had. When I was between the ages of 15 - 18 I had a series of drive-thru McJobs. York Steak House, Ponderosa, G.D. Ritzy's, Popeyes, etc. I often like to tell people that where I work now is the first job I've ever had, which is a partial truth. It's the first adult job, one that I'd prefer to lose only by my choosing. The others I didn't care about. I got fired or quit on a very regular basis, almost on schedule. It took slightly longer than it did for the managers to get to know me, then it was usually time to go.
When I was working at Popeyes I met this guy, he was the manager. I want to say his name was John, but I can't remember. In the short time that I worked there we had a few memorable experiences. I'll try to relay some of them here, if I have the time. He was extremely dedicated to The Marine Corps, he and his brother. He had once made it through boot camp, earning some sort of commendation for excellence in doing so. He told me the name of the minor honor, but now it escapes me. Perhaps it was only that his mini-platoon was first in their group, or highest graded, when going through. The night before graduation he got drunk on mouthwash with a few other guys, got found out, then got kicked out. It was one of the crushing blows of his life. In my naiveté I asked him if he would ever be able to go back through again. Was there any time limit on the mistake, could he re-enlist? Nope.
He was going through life as if he was still in "The Corps" though. He kept his clothes regulation, his head boot-camp shaved. He walked everywhere as if the sergeant was watching, and he in formation with a legion of marching ghosts. He seemed ready at any moment to do a hundred pushups, or more. But he was nice and likable enough. If you could break through his grim toltec exterior he actually had a great sense of humor, but it took some effort. Semper Dry, I used to call him.
Once, I was giving him a ride home after work. He had also lost his car and his license. He walked to and from work, our manager. But it was late and I was tired. We were talking and I was barely paying attention to what he was saying, which is how I missed the first "Stop" that he slipped into a sentence. The next was unmistakable because he was screaming it at the top of his lungs. I did. I stopped. I slammed on the brakes just in time. There was a guy whose car had apparently broken down and he was pushing it in the driving lane directly in front of me. I stopped about 5-7 feet behind him, another split second and I would have stopped about 5-7 feet on the other side of him, where his car was. We both hopped out and helped the guy push his car, my heart beating wildly with guilt and dread imaginings.
Another time I had some sort of crazy pimple on the back of my arm. I suspected it was a spider bite. Bites were common, for me. I had also already started and owned my own little landscaping operation, one that I wrongfully thought I was fazing out as I wanted a "real" job, one where there were girls, and where I got paid by somebody other than myself. I was, of course, wrong and foolish. I went back to landscaping and stayed there until other independent operations took over, an import/export operation of sorts.
In any event, this bite/boil/blister/pimple on the back of my arm was hideous, the biggest thing I had seen up to that time on anybody that had survived. He and I decided we would "pop" it. Looking back now I realize that it required more of a lancing or an actual surgical removal, but we were going to employ the "pull the skin away from the pimple" technique rather than the "squeeze" method. One look at it determined that squeezing was useless against such a thing. We sat down at the back table and he went to work on my arm, grimacing and contorting his face with effort. Everybody else left the back area except those that were required to work. Those making the biscuits and preparing the chicken batter.
After several minutes of trying we both felt that we were right on the verge of success so we carried on. I was trying to keep the skin around the area dry so he could get a good grip on it and he was trying to avoid having it explode in his face. The thing was much too large to explode in his face though. The skin eventually ripped, making a sort of wet tearing noise with it, and the mass of dead white blood cells emerged remaining pretty much where it had been before, but with the skin separating around it now like little bloody flesh curtains. Ouch, ah, success.
He fetched the first aid kit and then scraped the dead cells away from the living ones, leaving a scar that remains to this day, almost 30 years later.
Of all of the crazy experiences we shared in the short time that I worked at Popeyes, possibly as much as 2-3 months, the most memorable by far was a night when he and I were the only two people to come into work. A normal shift consisted of 7 or 8 people, maybe more, to manage the drive-thru, the dining room, the registers, the prep, the deep-frying of the chicken, all of it. I was much more for just locking the place up and letting one evening go as a loss. He was of the other mind and he got me convinced that he and I could run the place by ourselves. He bolstered my confidence with a plan he had made up as to who would do what. He would be running the registers and interacting with the customers and I would be doing all of the cooking and prep. The cleaning we would both do when the night was over.
Ok, I said.
Things were going along pretty well, we were both rushing around, jabbering wildly at one another, and he at the customers. But there was a definite sense of camaraderie, one that I supposed he missed and gravitated to much more than me. But the sense of teamwork was palpable. It was like we were locked into a very close basketball game, one that didn't end at 21, but rather ended when the other team had died or left the courts for good. I was rushing from the back of the restaurant to the front, making sure that the chicken was being dropped and the timers were being set, then rushing back out front again when the timers went off, to dump the freshly deep-fried chicken under the heating lamps so he could fill the orders. Simple.
The dinner rush was on, our system was beginning to show signs of weakness. He was sending customers out to their tables without their food, promising that he would bring it out to them. The line kept growing longer and the cars in the drive-thru became increasingly impatient. Then "it" happened. I was throwing the chicken in the fryers so fast that one hit the far squared corner of the fryer, opposite of me, just right, so that a drop of boiling grease flew back up and hit me in the eye. The effect was instantaneous. My screams were such that all customer complaints stopped immediately. John (I really do hope that was his name) ran back to find me holding my face, staggering around the fryers, wobbling in pain. He directed me away from the vats of boiling oil and surveyed the damage.
There was no other choice. He screamed for everybody to get out of the restaurant, NOW!!! One guy who had paid for his entire family and hadn't gotten their food yet was understandably not in accord with this new plan of operation. John grabbed two $20's out of the register handed it to him and told him to get out, and to please hurry up, that he was sorry, there was no other choice. He ran around the dining room locking all of the doors, then closed the drive-thru window, then led me out the back door where my car waited. He drove me to the emergency room as if my little Renault Alliance was an Apache helicopter. We got there. There was no permanent damage, the oil had burned a layer of the surface of the eye off. There would be some pain but my vision would be unaffected. I had to wear a patch over my eye for a few days.
Now that Popeyes is a Miami Subs. Progress...
When I was driving him home from the hospital he told me that he had only recently found out that his mother was a lesbian. He had suspected but then he finally "caught" her being intimate with another woman. He knew that he had to move out of her house soon, that he wouldn't want to stay there, and that his mom was probably just being nice in letting him live there after the Marine Corp boot-camp mouthwash debacle. I pictured his mom getting it on with another woman. My barely post-pubescent mind grasped the severity of such a thing. It grasped it from several angles. I turned the issue over in my head, considering the subject carefully, repeatedly.
Later in life, when I would think back to the few jobs I had when I was too stupid and young to realize that they were hardly jobs even worth having, I would often think of the lesbian mom. She must have still been in her late 30's. She was an attractive woman, or so I thought. To be honest, I found almost all women attractive at that age. I mean my age, not theirs. If a woman acknowledged me then she had my complete attention. If a girl, even more so.
There are more stories to tell from that time. Another day.