My Path of Fire, Part 2
Mary-Minn Sirag March 2013
In 1976, during the second recession of the ‘70’s, I graduated from college, armed unimpressively with majors in Classics and Art, and no marketable skills. For the following year, I lived with my college roommate, whose last parent had just passed away, and waited tables at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The following June, I fled to New York City to study life sculpture at the Art Students’ League.
The Big Apple was bankrupt. When I arrived, the streets reeked from a garbage strike, and it was a hot summer. I was living without air conditioning on the 11th floor of NYU student housing at the time of the big blackout during a record-breaking heat spell. True to my good luck, I had not yet gotten onto the elevator when the lights went out. There was looting but not in the Village, where I was living. The Son of Sam, a famous serial killer, was at large and I fit his profile.
Still, I loved New York. It was vibrant, extroverted, and had an invigorating edginess. New Yorkers are tolerant of eccentricity and, contrary to reputation, friendly. They’d start up a conversation in the elevator or in line at the Strand Bookstore on a rainy afternoon. I loved the people watching, the exuberant serendipity of random events, the contrast between high culture and street culture, the exotic food, all the different languages, even the gritty and noisy subway with its graffiti.
I was physically invincible and fearless about everything besides my bleak financial prospects. I was a dismal waitress but had no other marketable skill.
It was easy to find the kind of bottom-feeding work I had on my resumé. I was eager, enthusiastic and energetic. I could feign optimism long enough to get a job.
Having figured out early on that there was too much competition for anything in the wants ads, I’d walk down 3rd Avenue, inquiring at every establishment if they needed help. After an hour or two, I usually would land a job, which would last for 5 or so weeks. Then, jobless yet again, I’d despair for a day and go at it again.
During the next 18 months, I worked for 10 employers: 1) waitress at a Greek diner on Times Square for a non-leisurely afternoon; 2) cocktail waitress for a weekend at a jock bar in the Village; 3) waitress for 5 weeks at a Mexican restaurant in Midtown; 4) waitress for 5 weeks at a sushi house in the Village; 5) waitress for a weekend at a restaurant on the Upper West Side; 6) secretary for a week at an export company across from the World Trade Center; 7) cashier for 3 weeks at the Chocolate Factory on Canal St.; 8) cashier for 3 weeks at Baskin Robbins on the Upper East Side. My last two jobs were working as a fishmonger for 3 weeks at a fish store on the Upper East Side and delivering bag lunches to office workers in the publishing houses.
I was fired from most of my jobs for unremarkable reasons. Only a few stand out.
The Chocolate Factory touted itself as a chocolatier. In the back of the store, where my boss allegedly created his chocolate masterpieces, was a hot plate and a small saucepan with some dusty melted chocolate at the bottom and unconvincing dribbles down the side. The inspectors came by a couple of times during my tenure. The boss hid out in the back while my co-workers talked the inspector into coming back later. I kept mum, not trusting my own powers of persuasion.
Allan Silver was my boss’ name. Priding myself in my “candor” and “wit”—or rather, bluntness and sarcasm–I called him Silverfish.
Silverfish sent his most attractive female employee to Brooklyn to purchase chocolate from the vendors who wouldn’t sell to him. After closing up shop, we tore down the boxes, to destroy evidence that he was not making his own chocolate.
If chocolate fell to the floor, we were to dust it off and put it back in the display case. We threw it in the trash when he wasn’t looking.
After a couple days, I was able to weigh the chocolate precisely to the ounce but was admonished to enhance the order by throwing in an extra piece or two, which chafed at my esthetics of precision.
Before Valentine’s Day, my co-workers and I were sent down to the 2nd-level sub-basement to retrieve some sad looking used heart boxes with dents and faded ribbons, a sad rebuke to the boyfriends who had waited until the last minute to grab something for their sweethearts. We banged sticks to keep the rats at bay.
Silverfish stole from my till and deducted the over-ring from my paycheck. I was sorely tempted to call the police with an anonymous bomb alert on Valentine’s Day, but unceremoniously quit instead.
Another job worthy of further mention was the Mexican restaurant, my most lucrative job in New York. Most of our customers were civilized sorts who worked at the U.N. They took leisurely lunches and left good tips. The staff were fed a delicious and hearty lunch. I made enough tips during the lunch hour not to need a second job. I could take classes in the evening and party.
For the privilege of working there, we arrived early to set up the dining room and clean the toilets. On payday, the boss had us sign our paychecks in the back. He paid us from the register. We weren’t allowed to see the front of the check.
One Monday, I arrived at work and 3 cooks had been deported. Though Mondays were usually slow, there was a line out the door, and only one cook. The food was not coming out. I was circulating around the floor, explaining to my patient customers that we were short-handed.
My boss yelled at me on the floor for being so slow and brought out the orders himself, as though the food had been sitting out the whole time. We got into a nasty argument and I was fired.
My next job was scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins and keeping the “whites” (wall surfaces) spotless and shiny. The boss told me to help myself to as much ice cream as I wanted, even after I warned him that I was a bottomless pit when it came to ice cream. One day, when he was getting rid of some obsolete flavors, I made myself a giant sundae.
The following day he pulled me aside to ask for some advice. He confided to me that he had told a houseguest to make himself at home and help himself to whatever was in the fridge. The guest had the audacity to make himself a giant submarine sandwich.
What would I do? my boss asked me. I told him I’d be fine with it, having told my guest to make himself at home.
The story turned out to be an allegory, with the guest as a stand-in for me. I had taken literally my boss’ generous invitation to help myself to whatever I wanted, especially since he was going to get rid of the discontinued ice cream anyway. I was fired.
When my sleazy boyfriend and I got evicted from my apartment, in December of 1978, I was working at the fish market and at the catering company. These were my two favorite New York jobs. I loved working at the fish market because it was a 2-block commute from my apartment and the customers were pleasant.
Delivering bag lunches was my favorite. I was the fastest delivery person and made decent tips. I loved burning off my excessive energy dashing around in all kinds of weird weather, racing the traffic lights and elevators. I relished the mindlessness and was grateful to be out and about by myself, not cooped up inside, annoying someone every time I turned around.
In a futile attempt to escape my parasitic boyfriend, Gene, and a roiling feud with my brother that Gene had instigated, I ran away to California, where the economy was booming and my sister was living. After only two weeks, I landed a secretarial job in the San Francisco office of Mitsui, a gigantic Japanese trading conglomerate. The corporate world presented a whole new phase of my career—more lucrative, for sure, but socially more treacherous.
(To be continued…..)