Sunday, June 11, 2017

Dish Room Stories


When the machines were roaring, we could not speak.  The room was fairly small with 6 of us working continuously for about 2 hours.  The floors were covered with rubber mats to prevent falling and the walls were floor to ceiling white ceramic tile.  The room had a conveyor belt that emerged from the ceiling. The noise created a sense of urgency. The room was screaming. Go faster. Go faster. Keep up.

This was the University dish room. Nothing very spectacular, it was the place that thousands and thousands of dishes, glasses and  piece of silverware were washed every day.  We workers, each had a specific job.  Like automatons we trained our minds and bodies to quickly grab, stack, sort and load the machine.  Feed the machine is probably a better term .  The machine was filled with steam and chemicals and it spewed out dishes and heat.

Outside this room, long lines of normally dressed students moved through 6 or 8  serving stations.  Depending on the menu du jour, the smell of roast beef or macroni and cheese filled the air.  Students emerged with their food into a huge dining room.  This was a social event.  The room was filled with happy chatter, or at least I imagined that.  I never moved through those lines.  Occasionally I would walk past the dining room but that was not my dining room. That was part of where I worked. 

I stood next to Chen who was my partner. He was from China and spoke English with difficulty.
Chen: Grabbing a half eaten turkey sandwich and placing it on a stainless steel shelf above our workstation. – “Yumm, this looks good”.
Me: Thinking: “He does this every day.  He is eating garbage.”
Chen: Grabbing some chocolate cake: “Yumm dessert”

If we could not keep up, we could stop the line. There was a big red button near our workstations. If anyone pressed it, the machine would stop and a loud klaxon horn alarm would ring.  We almost never stopped it.

Nearby I could her Ronald singing at the top of his lungs. He sang opera.  He was a black man and a full time non-student employee. Unlike the students, he was dressed in a white coat with black and white checked pants. 

Suddenly he lifted a rack of glasses and threw it across the room.  Glass shards flew everywhere.

“This is bull shit!” he screamed. Tearing off his apron and throwing down his hat. He ran from the room.  We did not wonder what was wrong. We knew he was a talented operatic singer trapped all day in this room.  No one went after him. No one called out to him.

Chen pressed the button and  stopped the machine, the horn sounded and a supervisor appeared.

“What the hell happened?”
“Ronald just quit” I muttered to Chen
The Supervisor dressed in a business suit said:
“Well turn the
machine back on!”
“But the dishes will tumble onto the floor”
He looked puzzled and then disappeared, returning later in an apron over his suit coat.

I giggled to myself.
Chen laughed aloud.
Other workers were pleased.

We turned the machine on and the manager very lamely tried to juggle the trays, plates and racks of glasses as they came off the steaming machine.
“Ow! This hurts!” He cried.
“Wear gloves” we yelled” (Of course we knew that with gloves on he would be even more inept.  Burning your hands was part of that job.)

Meanwhile, Chen and I pulled dishes and trays off the conveyor belt and dumped food into the yawing mouth of a huge garbage disposal.  We worked very, very fast.
Suddenly, the disposal seized up and jammed.  We both knew what had happened. We pressed the big red button and stopped everything.  The horn again blarred.

WE had a 2 foot diameter disposal filled with food. In fact it was overflowing. The next task was for me to stick my arm into the pit and find the fork or knife down in the blades of the disposal.

I thought: “Never put your fingers near the blades, they will grab you and chew up your fingers.”  This message brought to you by my mother.
I thought: “This is all food from peoples plates. Ick.” Again, this message was from my family.  We avoided germs. We were a family of germ-a-phobes.

How could I, a child brought up in a family fearful of germs, stick my arm up to my shoulder in a pile of food scraps from other people?

Insane or not, I had decided after a few days on this job that either I got over my fear of the unclean or I would not earn my $1.75 hour.  I did wash up carefully after work and I did not eat the food, but I was practical.  My fears took a back seat to my paycheck.

Before I went away to school, I lived in my family  home where nobody shared food. Where my father rinsed the bathroom sink with alcohol every day.  I thought everyone did that.  Only years later did I learn he had had TB and was always afraid for our family. We never kissed on the lips.  Didn’t everyone avoid that?

Now in the  Dishroom, I proceeded to do my job.
Chen looked at me.  I said: “Make sure nobody turns this thing back on”
Chen stood vigil by the power switch.  I trusted him.

I reached in, deeper and deeper until my fingers gripped a greasy knife.  I struggled to pull it free and finally pulled the knife up.
I yelled “ Excallibur!!” Remember, I was 18.
Chen cheered as did my co-workers.


There were 5 of us jammed into a very small dishroom.  We worked at a dormitory cafeteria.  Chef Charles Legrande presided over the food, but we were at the other end of the food chain so to speak  We washed dishes.

The dish machine was loud. It hissed with steam and made grinding noises as it pulled a belt of trays and dishes through.

Since we could not talk, we would sing. The noise level was so high that no one outside the room could hear you. We liked a particular song .The first line was: “They say don't go …on Wolverton Mountain”. It was a country song, and we would elongate  on Wooolllllvertonn Mountaaain. (Listen) To we 5 it was hilarious and we did sang it almost every day. Usually, we would convulse in hysterical giggling laughter at our own sound. This happened 7 days a week.

My job was to immerse hundreds of spoons, knives and forks in a pool of thick green liquid. 

“Hey Micky” I asked, “why do you think my skin peeling off.”

“Oh it is the green slime we use to clean things.  You should wear gloves but have you every tried to sort silverware with gloves on?.”
We laughed about the absurdity of our situation.

I pulled a strip of skin off and went back to my task.

As a silverware person, I developed an odd skill at rapidly sorting and stacking spoons, etc. I could do it with my eyes closed and sometimes did.  Practice does make perfect. I was very fast.

I was 18 years old doing my first year at Berkeley.  We lived in converted WWII wooden barracks on the top of a hill.  At night we would hang out of our windows to look at the lights of San Francisco as the fog rolled in..  We were far from campus, so our social lives were quickly focused on this tiny space at the edge of the Berkeley Hills.

My work paid minimum wage and I needed what I earned.  Like the other fellows in the dish room, We envied fellow students with cars and more spending money, but we liked our job.

To earn extra money, I also worked in a little snack bar that sold hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream. We had a large grill that was turned on once a week to make dinner for Sunday night.  We had a counter with red leatherette stools and a soda fountain. I met Sarah there. 

She was coming through the snack bar line with a huge group of friends. I knew at once she was one of the “popular girls.”  Shy as I was at the time, I  didn’t make eye contact. I took Sarah's order, turned my back to her and put her order on the grill.
“Are you Alex Brown?” she said.
(I looked very much like another tall thin dark skinned fellow, Alex Brown)
“Yes” I replied.

So now Sarah, who would become my wife in about 2 years, knew me as Alex Brown.

What seemed funny and clever to me, quickly became weird as she would greet me as Alex . I told the real Alex Brown what I had done and agreed to play along.  So for about a week, Alex and I  pretended to be one another when talking to Sarah.

I dreamed of Sarah after the first day we met.

Later, Sarah told me that she not only dreamed of me, but she dreamed that we would be married.  Since she didn’t even know my real name, this became a strange and classic family story.

You are the one !

It was Midnight at the hospital.  I imagine it was 24 hours after the surgery.  I was  in line for some food at San Francisco General. I had my regular comfort food a grilled cheese and lots of pickles.

As I entered the seating area, I found a table with only 1 person sitting nearby. His badge showed  he was a Surgery Resident. I didn’t know him, but I had seen him once before.  After repeated attempts at Sarah’s bedside to start an IV, the nurses called this resident. They said he worked with children and had amazing abilities with tiny veins.

So remembering him a bit, I began to chat with him. 

His questions were gentle. “What brings you here”
 My wife was having most of her liver removed. Suddenly the conversation stopped. He cried out:

“Oh my god, you’re the one.”  “It was your wife.”
I nodded.

“Yes,” I said, not pleased to be a notorious case.

“Does that happen very often,” I naively asked. 
“God, no!” “Everyone is talking about it”.

A few days before, I was driving with a paper map in the late afternoon.  Fog from the San Francisco Bay was rushing down the streets, chilling the air. The streets were becoming wet.

I was searching for The Blue Mansion B&B. It was right on the edge of the Haight Ashbury.  In fact it was ½ a block from Haight Street.

In the 60’s Haight Street was a focus of a hippie/drug life.  I had not lived that scene, but I knew about it.  It was a street I passed on my way to Golden Gate Park.  Now it was counter culture attraction. Huge tour busses passed by as folks behind smoked glass looked out.  There was still tie die and a ragtag of street musicians.  From my car window, I could smell a mix of pizza, beer and patchouli oil. The streets  were depressing with piles of trash/ pizza boxes, beer cans, some broken glass.   As I drove I saw in a glance, a few small groups sitting on the sidewalk. I wondered what they were doing. Why were they there?  The bars blasted rock music.  I imagined what this area was like at night.

I pulled off on to a side street and called the B&B for directions.  The music was loud enough to make it hard to hear.  A panhandler approached me. I waved him away and he moved on.  

The my phone call was answered:

“Where are you?”
Frustrated and tired, I snapped:”I don’t know where I am, but I think I am near you.”
I’m at the corner of Haight and Scott.”

I felt  and then heard a loud I group of teenagers approaching from behind me.

My phone call continued: “OK go towards the park on Haight and turn onto Steiner. You are close. I’ll come out on the porch and look for you.” I put the idling car in gear and rolled up my windows. Surely, I thought, that would make me safe.

It was now 1990. Thirty years since I drove through here in the 60’s.   It was better but still not a place I would voluntarily visit.

An hour earlier, I had dropped my wife Sarah off at San Francisco General Hospital. Part of my mind was still at the hospital. The unfamiliar streets confused me, juggling a map and looking for numbers on  the old residential homes and apartment buildings. 

I had previously  talked to the owner who had warned me about parking, but I quickly realized this was urban San Francisco and there was no place at all to put my car.

The B&B had a narrow driveway that lead to a little garage. I was annoyed, and sweaty as I tried to maneuver the car.   The owner came out:

“Hey, are you Mike?  I’m Jim.”
I rolled down the window. “Yes that’s me.”
Jim offered: “I can park it for you.”
I jumped out of the car. I was so relieved that someone would help me. 

Sarah and I thought this would just be a short hospital stay.

So far, the day had been scary. We had done the admissions tests, filled out the forms and met with Dr. Bennett who again warned us very explicitly of the danger of the surgery.  We were jammed into a tiny exam room. The Dr. brought in a student to witness our conversation. Sarah did not hesitate despite the doctor’s repeated and solemn warning. She said:
“Let’s Do It!”

 After Sarah was in her room, I felt somewhat relieved when I finally left the hospital.  In the past I had constantly stayed at Sarah’s bedside, but I was so tired. I staggered a bit when I stood up to leave.
“I’ll be back early the morning,” I said.

 I found  my car from the giant hospital parking lot. I thought, I’ll go to the B&B and rest a bit. I gave my self permission.

 We had driven over from NAPA via the Golden Gate Bridge.  Typically, the traffic was in close and tight.  I gripped the steering wheel tightly.  I was extra vigilant as we headed for our pre-surgical appointment. 

Afteer Jim parked my car. I retrieved my bag and followed him up a long flight of wooden stairs. This house was one of the old mansions with many rooms.  Jim showed me the huge common kitchen and explained the drill.  Coffee and breakfast was help yourself. If you got up before 5 am, you could make your own coffee.

Jim offered me a tiny cottage away from the main building. It was in a courtyard filled with flowering vines and some ferns. There were wind chimes.  You could see a patch of sky if you looked straight up. At this moment  all you saw a patch of fog. It looked very private and safe.  I wanted that. Privacy and safety.

Once inside and alone,  I sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. I turned on the heat. There was a skylight.  No tv, no radio, no  phone… no  cell phone coverage!.  No phone!  I was in a virtual canyon down in my cottage. I ran back up the main house stairs.

“Jim!”  “Can I give the hospital your number in case they need to reach me.
“Of course.”  “How long do you think you’ll be here.  You told us 3 days.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Ok, just le me know as soon as you know.”

He touched my shoulder. He said: “We won’t make you leave if you have to extend.”

That little exchange meant each day as I returned to my room, often at night, I would check in with Jim and extend my stay a few days. Eventually it was 16 days. 

The morning of the surgery, I awoke before 5 and tried to be quiet as I climbed the stairs back to the main kitchen. I knew there were about 20 other people sleeping throughout the big house.  I made my coffee and had perhaps the very best part of the day.  I was alone. 

After about an hour, men and women came into the big kitchen. They helped themselves to cereal or coffee cake and poured themselves coffee. My solitude was over.

I listened to the banter of business people travelling for work. These were not tourists. I was the only person waiting on a hospital patient.
The men ignored me, but the women wanted to know why Sarah was in the hospital.
“She had uterine cancer?” “Didn’t she have routine tests”
“Now she’s having even more surgery?” “Another new cancer” “Oh wow”
 “So how did you find out?”
“Oh wow”
After the brief interrogation,  I retreated to the front door and headed back to the hospital.  The day had begun.

Looking back to the night of the first surgery, I suppose I should have known it was unusual.  After the surgery, while I was sitting with Sarah in intensive care, two technicians who seemed in a hurry, brought in a portable x-ray machine.  Sarah groaned as they rolled her about.
A tech said: “Would you please step out. You can watch from the door.”
They spoke to Sarah although she was still unconscious from the anesthesia.
“Now Sarah we need to roll you over a bit”
Sarah cried out in pain.
 They took some x-rays.  This seemed a bit odd.  The surgery was over.

Soon after the x-rays, a young surgeon, Dr. Mary Green came to talk with me. She explained she was the lead surgeon for Sarah. I had never met Dr. Green.

Sarah was still not yet conscious.

At first Dr. Green stood while I sat on a chair.  Suddenly she took a chair and sat near me. She began to speak but seemed so very hesitant. Words seemed to fail her.
With halting breath and tears,
“We counted all sponges and knew one was missing, but we couldn’t find it. So they decided the initial count was wrong. “
“ I kept worrying about it so we just did another x-ray”

“The x-ray showed the  missing sponge. “

Dr. Green continued, “It was a 12 hour surgery.  I’m so sorry.” The whole team was so tired.”

I tried to make sense of this news  as Dr. Green  explained the error.

I asked, naively: “Do you have to go back in and get it?”

Dr. Green who had initially been tearful, was now fully recovered and back in proper objective doctor mode.  My question helped her to remember she was the expert and I was the family.

She said, “Of course, we have to open her back up.  I know just where it is. We’ll be in and out quickly.” 

I sat looking at Sarah with a huge bandage across her abdomen area. I imagined what these words meant. “Open her up.” 

Dr. Green said: “I’ll call you just as soon as I finish.” “Give me your cell phone number.”
I replied that I worried my phone would not work inside the hospital.
Dr. Green said: “Wait in the main waiting room, by the big doors. It will work there.” “We are starting right away, I have a surgery ready.”

I went to a couch in the main area. I held my phone almost as a talisman.  I stared at it. I was afraid to call my daughters to tell them what had happened.  I tried to imagine when Dr. Green  was  starting the surgery. What were they were doing? It was 11 at night.

 In front of me a large group of toddler size children were playing.
“Why are they here so late at night?”, I thought.
I normally would have loved such a scene, but tonight I wanted to be away from the noise. But, I was afraid to leave. I had not eaten  since the morning. I feared my phone would not work if I moved.

I held my phone and waited. I watched the laughing children. No reading. No radio.  Just breathing and waiting. 

It was about 1 AM by time I was called back up to intensive care. Sarah had now had 2 surgeries in the same day…. Both with general anesthetic. With reassurances that Sarah would sleep for hours and apologies from the staff, I went back to my little cottage. I went to my refuge.

The streets were dark, no traffic or people at that late hour. It was cold and the fog felt like rain.  I felt very unsafe on the street, but did what all urban folks do, I pulled my jack hood up, walked with determination and speed, first down a steep hill then quickly across Haight street which still had plenty of action going on.  I could still hear the music and loud probably drunken people.   I took out my key to make a quick entry in to the The B&B. The front stairs had broken glass beer bottles strewn near the steps as I struggled with the key and quickly darted inside.

I walked through the hallways of the big house. It was dark everywhere.  I got through the kitchen to the back door readying myself for a dark decent down into my canyon cottage. As I walked down the wet stairs, large security lights began to click on. I felt like a prisoner darting away from the spotlights.

In the cottage, I layed down and tried to relax.  I trusted the nurses on the ICU, so I didn’t feel too guilty for leaving. I staired up at the skylight.  The security lights were like the sun. I could see wet leaves all over my view of the night sky.  I wondered if I was seeing fog or rain.

 The next morning, ss I climbed back up the hard, hard steep hill to the hospital.  At the crest of the hill, I stopped to catch my breath. I imagined  that I was on a carnival ride. Perhaps it was a very complex roller coaster.  This was the top of that first climb where you feel the most fear.  I was breathing hard , I did not know if I would plunge down or make a high speed turn. I didn’t know what was around the turn.  No matter how hard I strained and thought, I did not know what was around that turn.