March 4, 2022

FTV: Life In the Dish Lane


     On those occasions when my students would complain the work I had assigned was boring, I would play the ‘Helen Toivonen Card’.  As an educational mentor, they didn’t come much better than Helen.  If her students complained, she would agree with them and say, “You are right.  This is soooo boring, why don’t you just not do it?”  This confused them immensely:  “If we don’t do it, we won’t get credit . . . right?”  I learned from Helen that the correct response to this question was, “True, but you won’t have to do all this boring stuff.”  When I used this tactic. some students would sense a loophole.  They figured if they could turn it into some sort of ‘student’s rights’ debate, it would be my fault they didn’t get their work done because I was taking up their time with a group discussion.   My exit strategy from this loophole was always, “Yeah, teaching is SO boring.  If it had paid better, I would have stayed with being a dishwasher.”  None of them ever figured out how washing dishes was less boring than the work they originally complained about, so the debate would end.  Anytime I pulled out the ‘Helen card’, I would report it to her, even after she retired, she would smile and nod approvingly.

     I never intended to be a dishwasher.  The call came for me to start work as a busboy at the Huron Mountain Club in June of 1971 because a couple of the kitchen crew quit after working less than a week of the summer season.  Having had no luck finding a job the summer before I started college was a rather strange experience.  I applied at the Ramada and Holiday Inns only to be told they were reluctant to hire me for kitchen work if I didn’t have any experience.  I asked the Holiday Inn manager, “How much experience did you have when you applied for your first job?” knowing full well it wouldn’t help my prospects.  He looked at me blankly and returned to his office without answering my question.  I chalked it up to ‘I am glad I won’t have to work for you’ and kept looking.

     Shopko had only recently opened the first big box store in Marquette, so I gave them a try.  The guy I interviewed with said, “We don’t have any openings, but I will take your application just in case.”  Then he asked me if I knew how much Michigan’s 4 percent tax would be on a $100 purchase.  When I hesitated, he pressed me and asked if I knew how to do the math.  I replied, “Sure, it would be $4.  I just wasn’t sure why you were asking as I thought the cash registers took care of that part.”  Needless to say, he never called back and I again filed it under, “Okay, I am fine with not working there.”  I shared my story with a clerk at the same store once when she was waiting for someone to check the price on an item I was buying.  She asked, “So what kind of job did you end up getting?”  I told her I became a JH Geography/Earth Science teacher.  In answer to the next logical question (“What do you teach?”) I said, “JH Geography – Earth Science and she laughed – “Oh I would have figured you were going to say a Math teacher after all that.”

     Dad had mentioned that he had coffee every week or so with the former Marquette County Sheriff who was now the resident manager at the Huron Mountain Club.  I had stowed that info underl ‘last resort’ but finally followed his advice to put in an application at the Club’s main office in Marquette.  They gave me the standard, “The summer crew is filled, but if something opens up, we will give you a call.”  If I was disappointed, there wasn’t enough time for me to dwell on it because they called me the following day and instructed me to be at the club at 10 AM the next morning.  I called dad at his office and said, “Okay, I got the job.  Where is the Huron Mountain Club and how do I get there?  All they told me was I would have one day a week off.” Dad said, “Well pack your suitcase and I will drop you off.  When I pick you up on your first day off we will figure out the transportation part.” 

     I arrived at the club in time to drop my bag in my room and get directions to the kitchen.  I was told to find Grace, the head of the dining room crew.  She in turn pointed me to the head busboy, John MacDonald, who greeted me with a cheery, “What in the heck are you doing here?”  We had sat next to each other in high school physics the previous year.  At that point this was all new to me and John was the only familiar face in the room.  I suddenly felt a little less like a fish out of water –   “I’m the new busboy,” was my snappy comeback.  Everything I learned about being a busboy I learned from John and there was more to it than just toting heavy trays of dishes out of the dining rooms.  It isn’t rocket science, but trays loaded with dirty dishes had to be carried on one’s fingertips (not with a hand flat on the bottom of the tray).  This provided more control while navigating the maze of tables and chairs on route to the dish room.  We also set up, lit, and fed the fireplace in the club room when a fire was requested.  We did flag duty out in front of the clubhouse porch (raising in the morning, take down and folding in the evening), swept the beach sand off the same long porch, swept and mopped the dining rooms, hauled the kitchen garbage to the loading dock, and any number of other chores that popped up.  There were few idle moments when we were on the clock.  If one of the cook’s in the bakery or pantry saw you sitting down, they were always glad to find you something to keep you busy.

     A couple of days later, three new kitchen workers joined us.  They were cousins from the Ishpeming area and one of them ended up as my roommate.  Our schedule revolved around breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a couple of hours down time in between.  Our routine got busier as the summer wore on and more people showed up at the club.  We occasionally were sent to pick up new arrivals at the Marquette County Airport in a club vehicle.  Unloading the supply truck (for the club store and kitchen) was also on our list of chores.  The regular club delivery guy was recovering from a recent surgery, so I was dispatched with him to pick up a refrigerator from the kitchen manager’s old house in Deertrack Village just outside of Marquette.  I don’t know how far along Andy was in his post surgery recovery, but he pretty much hoisted the dolly holding the unit we picked up with me adding not much more than moral support.  The truck bed was a good five feet off the ground.  When he lifted the fridge (he was standing in the truck bed), he almost yanked it out of my hands as I ‘assisted’ from ground level.  

     While most of the kitchen help didn’t like getting extra duties added to their day (we got paid the same rate per day no matter how many hours we worked), I kind of liked the break in routine.  After helping Andy retrieve the refrigerator, I earned the job of driving his truck around the club grounds making deliveries to the kitchen, garage, and workshop.  Driving this large panel truck across the wooden bridge over the Pine River in the middle of the compound took some getting used to.  On several occasions, I was dispatched in the club van to Marquette, Negaunee, and Ishpeming to pick up supplies when Andy had other duties to attend to.  I had never driven a van before and this was one of those that had the engine housing between the front seats and the driver seat was actually a little ahead of the front wheels.  It took a little to get used to how it handled, but skipping a lunch shift to make a pick up run was fine with me.

     How did I get to be the dishwasher after my illustrious beginnings as a busboy?  We worked six days a week and when the pot washer or dishwasher had their day off, one of the busboys would rotate over and take their job for a day.  I only did the pot washer’s job a couple of times over the three summers I was at the club, but that was enough for me.  It was a higher paying job, but starting each morning with a criss-crossed pile of bacon grease covered pans taller than me wasn’t a great way to start the day.  It isn’t a head scratcher why we went through three pot washers in three summers – it was tough duty.  We did the same rotation for the dishwasher’s day off, but for some reason, I liked that job.  Once the other busboys found out I liked it, they usually offered to swap with me on their rotation days.  It became a full time gig for me early in August when the three cousins and the dishwasher had enough bolted for home instead of finishing the last few weeks of the summer.

     We were expected to work through Labor Day weekend.  I answered an early morning phone call on one of my days off in July and found myself talking to the NMU Marching Band director. Somewhere on my college application I had indicated a possible interest in the band so he rang to recruit me for their drumline.  I explained I was working out of town until Labor Day and would not be able to do their band boot camp in August.  He was dangerously enthusiastic about me needing to be part of the marching band, but I told him a) I would really like to get my summer job back next year and that wouldn’t happen if I left early and b) I would think it over.  By the time the phone hit the cradle, I knew my marching band days were over.  I would be playing the drums in the future, it just would not be with NMU’s marching band.  My first year out of high school, I took a furlough from playing in any bands while I acclimated to college life.   I did buy a small reedy sounding organ which helped me a lot figuring out new songs and improve my understanding of guitar chord figures, but that is as close as I got to being in a band until the fall of 1972 when I joined ‘Cloudy and Cool’ (soon to be renamed ‘Knockdown’).  

     With the kitchen staff now whittled down to two busboys and me (now washing dishes full time), the kitchen manager gave us a little pep talk.  He said, “Boys, it is kind of late in the summer to be hiring new staff.  If you guys can handle it for the rest of the summer, I will see you get a little something extra when we finish up.”  John and I had talked about this possible scenario and had already decided that we could make it work.  The dishwasher I replaced was as slow as molasses in January.  We had already noticed we were getting out of the kitchen thirty to sixty minutes earlier per shift on his days off.  The waitresses agreed there were enough of them to help us if we got behind clearing the dining rooms so we geared up for the stretch run.  August was always the busiest month of the summer and for some meals, we were pushing the dishes for 160 in the children’s dining room.  The kid’s meals would finish up slightly ahead of the main dining room hours so we would clear the decks, have a quick cup of coffee and then sling dishes for 250 or more adults who would invade the big dining room.  It got a little tricky when one of us had our day off, but we wasted very few steps and got more efficient.  The other thing I liked about John:  he was always looking for the most efficient way to get things done and this attitude was a big help time that first August.  If there were too many tables to bus, I would throw a jacket over my apron and tote trays for a while.  When John got caught up, he would come and stack the clean dishes.  A mournful look while drying a pile of silverware was usually enough to get one of the waitresses to step in to help.  We were a well oiled machine by the time Labor Day rolled around.

     The kitchen manager kept his word about us getting a little ‘something extra’ for going above and beyond so he did not have to hire anyone else.  We never asked what the ‘something extra’ might be.  We just assumed we would get a little bonus in our last check.  The night we finished our last shift, the manager walked into the dish room, clapped a hand on our shoulders (the dish crew was down to just John and I the last weekend of the season) and said, “You boys did a great job.  Thank you.”  That was it.  Apparently he ran the kitchen operation a little looser than the club’s Kitchen Committee wanted it to run and he was let go, presumably without getting his bonus, too.

     Not long after the summer was over, Ted, the head chef, got a hold of John to let him know he would be taking over as the kitchen manager.  When John passed the information along to me, we were happy as clams because Ted was a younger guy and a lot of fun to work with.  The ‘little something extra’ we had been promised for working our butts off in August turned out to be, literally, a pat on the back but we didn’t hold Ted at fault for the slight.  Ted was gungho about the next summer and he wanted to make sure John and I would be on the kitchen crew so he wouldn’t have to worry about training all new kids.  We assured him we were and had already planned on being roommates the next summer.

     In Part 2, of Life in the Dish Lane, we will look at my third and final year manning the Hobart dish machine at the HMC.  It would be my last summer working as a ‘Scrubber Brother’ but not my last working in a kitchen.


Top Piece Video – Very few songs about dish washing, but Joe Walsh gives us a peek at what inspired the title: