Monday, April 03, 2006

Potato Head

For five grueling years from the ages of 13-17, I spent the lion’s share of my summer vacation working in the trenches of several large cafeterias. O-town is a government town and there is no shortage of public servants who buy their breakfast and lunch everyday.

My location and job varied somewhat from week to week and year to year. Basically, I did what they asked, which often entailed making 1000 club sandwiches in the span of 90 minutes, or making enough toast to supply my colleague making the clubs, or cooking French fries, which was extremely painful at times, but not as painful as having my searing flesh stuck to the giant toaster after having daringly reached in to rescue a piece of burning toast. I also racked tones of bacon, fried a million eggs, made thousands of muffins….you get the idea.

Sometimes I had to work in the dishroom, which was my least favorite job. Even a decade later, I can’t bring myself to comment on what went on in that dishroom.

The overwhelming majority of my co-workers were first generation Canadian women – almost all Italian and Portuguese. Most of these women spoke very broken English, and had hirsutism and BMIs in the low 40s. They were very sweet - to my face.

I hated this job and admit freely that I was only in it for the money. Even back then, I had an insatiable thirst for independence, and a nasty little shopping habit. The job was unionized and I was able to bring in way more cash than I could’ve working at a drive-in. In retrospect, I should’ve just chilled out or mowed lawns or something.

Those of you who know me (even remotely) know that I am not the best morning person. This job entailed getting up every morning at 5:00 and driving 45 minutes from my parents' place. My dad drove me until the time I was old enough to have my license. God bless that man for all the driving (and psychological counseling) he did during my troubled teens.

I dreaded getting up so much that I would sleep in my pantyhose and slip and wake up in time to put on my white polyester dress uniform and blue polyester apron. I would adjust and fix my hairnet in the car.

Most days I could face my life with a positive attitude and stoic resolve, but about once a week, it would all become too much and I would have a major meltdown in the car, begging my dad to turn the car around and drive me home. He refused - told me I needed to honour my commitment, told me I was building character. I was dying inside.

As I was saying, the majority of my coworkers were Italian or Portuguese speaking women of peri-menopausal age. There was a small war going on between the two factions. I was a complete outsider and I kind of liked it that way. Even though I didn’t relate very well, I always made an effort to be friendly, despite choking down bitter bile almost every moment of every day. We hardly understood each other, beyond the basic “Maria Rosa maka da fries” “You maka da toast” and so on…They patronized the shit out of me at every opportunity.

So, my last summer was particularly painful. I was starting to feel like there might be better options for me, and frankly, I just didn’t want to butter toast and rack bacon for the rest of my life. If nothing else, this job solidified my decision to seek higher education.

One of my jobs that summer (in the afternoons) was to prepare the potatoes for hashbrowns the next morning. This involved pushing a large trolley into the walk-in fridge and loading it up with 10kg bags of potatoes. The potatoes arrived already washed and peeled. I would slit the bags open with a knife, and dump them into large bins, and then into the oven. After they were cooked, we’d cool them, cube them to hashbrown size, and finally season them and cast them aside.

Well on this one particular day, I was feeling especially desolate about my job. It was probably super sunny and hot out, and I was trapped below ground with no windows. As I slit the belly of maybe my 4th bag of potatoes and dumped them into the bin, one potato caught my eye. I don’t know why. Potatoes are not generally remarkable, but it must’ve landed funny, or been cut strangely. I can’t say exactly. It caught my attention enough that I reached down and grabbed it from the pile.

Imagine my surprise when I turned it over and found a perfectly symmetrical sad face etched into the surface of this potato.

At once I felt re-energized. I was not alone. Somewhere in Hull in some potato-bagging factory, someone else was dying inside. A kindred spirit with a similar plight – reaching out! I felt so connected to this anonymous beacon of hope.

Unable to contain myself, I called out to the head chef Carmen as she passed by. “Carmen, look at this. Someone has carved a face into this potato.” The look she gave me was perfectly demeaning.

“Ah, datsa nice. Maria Rosa maka da face in da patato.”

“No” I said. “I didn’t do it. The potato came like this.” I implored her with my eyes.

“Ya, you maka da face in da patato.” By now a few were gathered around speaking Italian and laughing at me.

How could these wankers be so obtuse? I felt rage boiling inside of me, but decided it wasn’t worth freaking out, and went back to my workstation.

I quietly dropped the potato into my pocket. My dad, God bless his kind disposition, swore he believed me when I told him the story on our drive home. He also claimed to understand the significance of this potato - that it had given me hope and bonded me in solidarity with another poor bastard. Sometimes knowing that you are not alone is all you need in order to go on.



Post a Comment

<< Home