Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pantry Girl, Part One

Current events caused my 72 year old mother and I to talk on the phone the other night more frankly than we usually do. We are both David Letterman fans and the thought that he might be sued for sexual harassment made my mother and I look way back in time, to a time when there were no such legal protections for women or men, for that matter, in the workplace. She and I shared a few war stories and had a good laugh.

My mother was one of the first few girls to work on the New York race tracks back in the late sixties. Thoroughbred racing was a man’s world back then, still is in many respects today, but in 1969, a girl was really on her own on the backstretch. My mother had come from a family of horsemen and women and she had made a good name for herself as a professional show horse rider. So when she showed up looking for work on the race track, she carried with her an impressive resume. She was there out of desperation -- her divorce from my father had left her in dire financial straits and the race track was her best hope for making a career and a future for herself.

But my mother’s talent and knowledge didn’t seem to count for much when she got to the track -- sure, it opened some doors, but then those doors were closed when she found herself in the unfortunate position of having to fend off powerful men who wanted her not just for her ability with horses -- as she said the other night, “They would say ‘its this way, baby, or you can go work in someone else’s barn.’ ” And so she would go work in another barn. The dirty old man factor in the horse show world was mild compared to what she found at the track. The backstretch society was home to all walks of life, from the classiest and richest horsemen to drunks and drug addicts and low-lifes who were desperate for work and my then 32 year old slight-figured pretty blonde mother didn’t exactly fade into the background. Any girl who worked on the track back then ran a daily gauntlet of cat calls and serious advances...a girl had to expect to be cornered in a stall or a dark tack room once in a while -- it came with the territory. But she fought it off somehow.

When my mother landed her first really good gig as an exercise girl for a Hall of Fame trainer, she faced another problem. The trainer became a true friend to her and my family and was always the consummate professional when it came to working with my mother, but the 57 black and Hispanic men who worked for him considered my mother to be on the bottom of their totem pole. They ignored her for the first three or four weeks that she was on the job -- they wouldn’t speak to her or even acknowledge her presence. They complained to the boss if my mother was assigned to ride one of their charges, they wanted exercise boys to ride their champ, not some little girl. She had to show up seven mornings a week and endure the silence and the idea that she might never be accepted by these guys. And the ironic thing was that she admired them -- these men, these horse grooms, were poor and flawed in a myriad of ways, but there was one thing they excelled at and that was taking care of their race horses. They knew their horses' moods, their ailments, they iced their legs and rubbed down their muscles with secret liniments. The horses made them better men, by giving them a job and by giving them dignity and status in an America that robbed them of those things. Their ways with horses were magical.

Eventually the gang of 57 would accept my mother -- they saw she wasn’t leaving and they gave in to her because of her tenacity. She earned their respect by just showing up every day. They became some of her best friends and greatest teachers -- she laments that they are all gone now, that people like them don’t exist on the track anymore. The tough details of my mother’s life on the backstretch were a mystery to me until I was grown -- her war stories were clearly too hard for her to share until she felt ready.

And me? I learned in my own way how to protect myself at work and in life, albeit not in the same solitary and dire manner as my mother. My life lessons began when I got a job as a Pantry Girl in a seafood restaurant in the mid-eighties. I was a painfully naive teenager and joining the kitchen staff of Allen’s Clam House was not unlike joining the crew of a pirate ship. Allen’s was a fish shack of a higher order -- it was situated on a mill pond that stretched into the Long Island Sound and the old clapboard building hung its dining room out over the water, which thrilled diners, but irked health inspectors -- you could actually hear the water slapping up against the floor boards and it was not an unusual sight to see a muskrat scurry across the kitchen floor late in the evening hours when we were closing the place for the night.

Allen’s was held in high esteem though, being a seasonal beach dive for wealthy New Yorkers, stuffy old Westporters and the occasional celebrity like John Travolta and his parents or Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward -- the old place was open from May 1st until Labor Day and it was probably one of the best places to eat Steamers -- a thing I consider closest to the food of the gods (whoever they might be). Steamers with Butter...enough butter to clog your arteries before morning. The Lobster wasn’t anything to be avoided either -- and then there was the Scampi, served on the little metal dish it was cooked in that was still glowing like a blacksmith’s iron tongs when it was handily placed on a pure white platter straight from the broiler. A waiter would take careful possession of the Scampi, spin it onto a tray and whisk it out the swinging kitchen doors. As the little dish passed us all in the kitchen, it audibly announced how good it was going to taste by this sparkling sizzle.

Good food is noisy...sure, good food can entice you with its aroma, but to me, the sound of food being cooked makes me the hungriest. The kitchen in Allen’s taught me that -- it was a cacophony of knives splitting live lobsters open, the slap of a fat red snapper on a cutting board, the boiling of oil, the traffic of pots and pans ringing in your ears, the ladling of chowder into a cup, the metallic rip of the shucking knife splitting oysters and the clang of their shells dropping into the stainless steel sink. The slam of the oven doors, the opening of the walk-in freezer...the cold escaping in a noisy fog, and then there were the more subtle noises that occurred in the early afternoons before the restaurant opened -- the shuffle of one’s fingers breading frog’s legs in a pile of flour, the tender peeling of shrimp and the quietest of all, the removal of a soft shell crab’s lungs while his ink blue eyes addressed you as his executioner.

Allen’s was managed by two Italian brothers -- Wayne ran the kitchen and his brother Ronnie ran the dining room. Wayne was barrel-chested with a ram rod posture and his eyes sparkled in this lovely dark way. His white chef’s jacket was always clean. He never lost control of his kitchen -- even on the busiest of nights, such as Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July, when we were all like mad men and women, Wayne seemed to never sweat. The steam coming off of a hot lobster fresh out of the oven never touched him. That man was always dry. The Uccellini Boys ran their restaurant in a very traditional way -- men were waiters and busboys, the hostess was always a pretty girl from my high school complete with big tits and round hips, Ronnie’s wife was the barkeep, the chefs were young men who had attended CIA and the Pantry, which made salads and deserts, was run by Pantry Girls.

Everyone who was hired always started as a dishwasher, everyone, no exceptions. Well, there was one exception, for my friend Kathleen, who by the graces of her good looks and the fact that she babysat Wayne’s two daughters, managed to skip dish washing duty! But I am pretty sure she was the only one. So when I got my coveted position as a Pantry Girl, I began my illustrious career as a dishwasher. This had to be the filthiest job in the world and I was terrible at keeping dry. By the end of the night I was soaked in food and wine and soap suds. The Haitian boy that I worked with, who spoke maybe three words of English, would work silently and he remained clean like an angel...he would scowl at me at the end of every night. I was really an embarrassment to the profession of dish washing. And what was worse was that he knew that I was only paying my dues for a few weeks. He would continue to wash dishes and I would be moving to the other side of the kitchen to a better paying position and a cleaner activity, that of chopping lettuce and putting whip cream on top of sundaes!

Finally, after what seemed like a length prison term, I was relieved of my dish washing assignment and I think the Haitian boy and the bus boys were glad to see me go -- I was the worst they had ever seen and I was an unsightly smelly mess at the end of every night, and this just made everyone feel bad. Even the waiters, who were above even speaking to dish washers, noticed my ability to embarrass myself. Fortune smiled on me though and it turned out that I was much more suited to the work of a Pantry Girl. I could handle lettuce and tomatoes and mix salad dressing, even on the worst of days. I learned to make a proper house salad, and was loyal to Wayne’s rule, cutting the lettuce up into bite sized pieces so that diners didn’t have to cut their salad. Its bad etiquette to use a knife in your salad and Wayne was adamant that we did not put anyone in the position of compromising their table manners. To this day I cut up lettuce for salads and consider anyone who takes a knife to their salad plate at the table to be uncouth.

Wayne fed us all a proper supper every evening before the dinner shift started. This came of course after spending the afternoon doing prep work -- we would all be in the kitchen cleaning shrimp, shucking clams and oysters, breading frogs legs, taking inventory of the walk-in freezer, and my favorite? Mixing a large vat of chocolate mousse and then ladling the mousse into individual desert glasses to be chilled in the freezer...inevitably mousse got on your fingers and well, of course, ended up in your mouth! While we were all prepping for the busy night ahead, Wayne would cook us a good hot meal to be served in the dining area behind the bar. We would all belly up to the table -- the waiters, the busboys, all the kitchen staff including the Haitian dish washing boy, and even the Hostess who looked too beautiful to be sitting at the table with all of us misfits. We were like a large dysfunctional family. There was lots of ridiculous conversation and jostling. It was the early eighties after all - drugs and sex abounded in our pirate ship -- it was an incestuous group in which all secrets were badly kept.

There was a bathroom in the kitchen...really it was a broom closet with a toilet and a sink - it was directly across from the Pantry area. For weeks, my friends Kathleen and Katina and I would watch the waiters go in and out of the bathroom with the frequency of men suffering from enlarged prostates. Finally, one night we asked one of the busboys, “Why are the waiters spending so much time in the bathroom?” and he gave us one word, “Cocaine!” You see, we were always learning something.

The waiters came in two kinds - there were the Fixtures, as in the guys who had been there for more than a decade. The Fixtures were Fred, Ray and Tony. Fred looked like John Cleese and rode a bicycle to work - he did not drive, and had in fact been stopped for drunken driving on his bicycle on numerous occasions. I adored Fred - he was at least 15 years my senior and I thought he hung the moon. Ray was a redheaded operator -- he was always, I mean always up to something. Tony was the Italian waiter from hell - he spoke with a terrible accent and I was forever messing up his orders...but he was patient with me because I read the Daily Racing Form with him and helped him pick winners! Tony loved to bet on the horses and when he found out that I had a connection to the track he was in my pocket every day, “Kid, you gotta horse for me?” Then there were the younger waiters who were just passing through, some were older school mates making money for college and you knew they weren’t going to become Fixtures.

So there we would all be and Wayne would be at the head of the table like our big totally-together Italian father and we would eat and eat and eat. Our dinners usually consisted of day old fish that wasn’t fresh enough for the restaurant patrons and rice almondine and a salad. Sometimes a baked potato or a hard pumpernickel roll would be offered up. But once in a great while Wayne would treat us to a big pot of steamers and we would partake in an orgy of butter and steaming shellfish. Wayne would sit back and enjoy our bliss. He liked to keep us all happy, if the family was happy, then the kitchen and the dining room would remain in harmony. But harmony was not always the case with our merry band...

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