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The restaurant owner was a short fireplug of a woman with close-cropped hair bleached to the color of rain-soaked cardboard, and her voice carried across at least two zip codes when she was angry, which was half the time, and when she was laughing, which was the rest.
Her husband was a bear of a man; the type who only wore denim coveralls, chewed cigars and did things outdoors with bulldozers. His neck was thicker than his head, which made him look a bit like a voodoo victim. His voice was unnervingly quiet no matter the mood, which would always leave some quivering laborer entirely unsure whether he’d shortly be given a raise or taken out to the back forty and shot.
These were my first employers after I had come to America. They could be generous when they wanted and brutal in the same breath. They introduced me to the American short-order kitchen. I learned quickly how to wash a lot of dishes, cook eggs and pancakes, what on earth hashbrowns were, every imaginable variety of cheeseburger, and something mysteriously called Salisbury steak. I learned shortcuts and practices that shouldn’t become public knowledge. I was pressed into after-hours service as general cleaner, repairman, window washer and parking lot sweeper. At night, I opened the lounge bar that my kind employers had furnished with thrift-store couches and swag lamps, and I learned the names of all the American beers and liquors.
By 1 a.m., when I could barely stay on my feet, I’d push the last of the drunks out of the building, close the place up and retreat with a cash drawer to a poky little office behind the toilets to do the books and prepare bank deposits.
If I was efficient, I would have a little over four hours’ sleep before the whole rigmarole started again. Fortunately, I lived in a run-down motel directly beside the restaurant, so the commute was manageable.
For $1.65 an hour, 80 hours a week, life was alright. I had free food if you count peoples’ leftovers, and the motel room was also free if I did all the laundry and ran the front desk on weekends.
Minimum wage at the time was $3.35 an hour, but I was considered foodservice wait staff, able to keep tips.
Oh, let me tell you, I was mighty proud of my real American job. For an immigrant with nothing to my name, I had certainly hit the jackpot. This was the life.
One day, my employers told me I’d be training a new kitchen worker. I agreed that it’d be a good thing. We could use the help. Most of the time, I was the only one working back there, anyway.
The next morning a huge old green Chrysler station wagon full of people pulled up in front of the restaurant and the smallest person climbed out. A girl who couldn’t have been older than 14, dressed as though going to holy communion, was to be my trainee.
Sylvia didn’t speak a word of English.
I didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
I left her standing in the kitchen looking nonplussed and went to mention this obvious language barrier to my employers. They told me I was to do as instructed and not to say anything to anyone.
I understood, of course, that young Sylvia was an immigrant just like me, but with the notable exception of being forever in fear of capture by the authorities. That was why her entire family – grandmothers and all – traveled everywhere together. They would not be separated from each other in the Promised Land. No one ever said anything about a 1971 Chrysler with twelve brown-skinned people in it being a bit obvious, and that’s just the way things stayed. Sylvia earned her fifty dollars a week for cutting salads and scrubbing pots, and the whole family came and collected her every day at sundown.
For people trying to carve a foothold in the American Dream, we might not have been at the very bottom of the ladder but we could see it from our rungs. We appreciated the opportunities we had been given, worked at improving our lot, and knew full well what would be required to earn our places.
I’ve no idea what happened to that slip of a girl who labored under desperate conditions for her piece of the pie all those years ago, but I know that the outlook I have on American life today might well be due in some part to the lessons I learned the hard way. I am further comforted by the knowledge that, while it may be frightfully hot in Texas right now, it’s an awful lot hotter where our first employers have gone to spend eternity.