Lessons learned in the kitchen of a Holiday Inn.
In a state of near-delirium, around 8 a.m. on the second day of June, I pulled my car into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn near an exit off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. To my left, a steady stream of businessmen entered and exited the front doors of the hotel, getting in and out of taxicabs and shuttles, briefcases in hand or rolling luggage in tow. To my right, cradled in the passenger seat, was a Hammermill paper box filled with framed photographs, artwork from my three-year-old son, a pencil holder I received as a Christmas gift one year, and my diploma from the University of Pittsburgh. More boxes were stashed in the back; one wedged in my son’s empty car seat, the other resting on the floor. Each contained memories—paperwork, press kits, media passes, and other assorted trinkets—collected during my five-year tenure as a magazine editor, a job that ended the day before when I received a phone call informing me that my position no longer existed. I was with my wife and son when I got the news, on vacation at a cabin in the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands.
In the hotel lobby the smell of coffee and air conditioning was overpowering. Several men dressed in suits stood talking to themselves, Bluetooth devices in ear, occasionally stabbing at the air as they spoke. Other hotel guests circled the continental breakfast bar, stacking fruit and bagels, yogurt and miniature jelly packets on their plates. An employee from housekeeping emerged from a back hallway, pushing a stainless steel cart loaded with bath towels and a fresh supply of toiletries. The scene was familiar but foreign, a composite memory of the countless business trips I’d taken the last decade. This time around, however, I had no business.
As I approached the front desk, the clerk, a young woman with dark hair pulled back tight in a ponytail, smiled.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“Do you know what time the bar opens?” I said, motioning with my hand toward the darkened lounge to my right where a row of empty bar stools sat dressed in geometric-print fabric, a design aesthetic embraced by both low-cost hotel chains and European mass transit.
“Oh,” she said, “not until 4 p.m.”
“That’s a shame,” I replied, feeling somewhat embarrassed for asking.
In the normal world it was too early to consider getting drunk, a realization that had just crept into my mind. Given the circumstances, however, it was the temporary escape that I wanted. To let the alcohol blur the edges of reality and blunt my anxieties, remove the panic that had crawled into my chest like a cold. Before returning home to my wife and son, jobless and ashamed, I wanted to find comfort.
As I turned to leave, I noticed something about the hotel that hadn’t registered when I first walked in. It looked different since my last visit in the summer of 1994. The dingy carpets and late-1970s color schemes were gone, and so was the smell of stale cigarette smoke. In the intervening years, nearly two decades, all traces of that era in the hotel’s lifespan had been erased, retrofitted with chrome lighting fixtures and Muzak, hyper-modern paintings and mahogany woodwork. Like so many other chains—retail, fast food, or otherwise—a corporate sameness had been adopted, which, at that moment, disappointed me.
My urge to visit a familiar place is what guided my car into the parking lot that morning. The turmoil that started the day before, after receiving that phone call from my employer, is what led me to the hotel. For whatever reason, it felt like a safe place. On my ride across the Pennsylvania Turnpike I imagined sitting at a stool in the hotel’s rundown bar, seeking advice from a barkeep I had conjured in my head. I pictured an alternate, less tidy version of the ghost-like bartender played by Joe Turkel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a spirit doling out spirits. But even as I drove with a destination and intent, I wasn’t sure what I hoped to find. I knew that 1994 and all its messy joy and heartache would not be waiting for me. But if some remnant of that time was left behind it might have been enough to anchor my mounting anxiety, provide a temporary sense of calm. I wanted to hide and quiet my mind by drowning it in alcohol, and I wanted a familiar place to do it. Much like my job, however, I had returned to something that no longer existed.
* * *
I worked one of my first jobs at that Holiday Inn, washing dishes in the kitchen of a karaoke bar called The Cheatin’ Heart Saloon. Back then it was a dive bar for disenfranchised suburbanites — drunks singing Garth Brooks and Clint Black songs into a beer-soaked microphone; men and women dressed in their best acid-washed denim purchased at the local mall; a revolving door of belligerent alcoholics; and overpriced bar food prepared by an assemblage of down-on-their-luck cooks. It was a thankless, bottom-rung job. But I didn’t work there because it paid well or offered a promising future. I washed dirty dishes to fulfill a promise.
In January of 1994, as part of an agreement with my parents, I was allowed to quit high school. But the deal came with two stipulations: I had to find a part-time job and I had to begin studying for my GED. So halfway through my junior year, just a couple weeks after my 17th birthday, I dropped out. It was a decision more pragmatic than it sounds, the result of a years-long struggle with clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a caustic long-term relationship with a girl that I loved. Those problems, alongside bitter feuding with teachers, suspensions, run-ins with police, and frequent absences, had all but destroyed my academic record, leaving me in a perpetual game of catch up. I was young and overwhelmed, so, at the time, breaking free from school seemed more realistic than the prospect that I could somehow magically fix it all. Compared to the hellhole that high school had become, working as a dishwasher for a few months while I took GED prep courses at a nearby community college seemed simple.
Most of my co-workers at the Holiday Inn looked a decade or two older than their actual ages—the result, I assumed, of too many bad times and not enough good.
Mark, my boss, was a pleasant enough man in his early forties. It was his job to manage the hotel’s disinterested staff of cooks, dishwashers, waitresses, and bartenders. Like the rest of the kitchen staff he wore an all-white uniform, though his was accessorized with a floppy baseball cap that attempted to disguise a thinning coil of salt-and-pepper hair. And while Mark never came across as particularly unhappy, his face signaled a quiet distress that often betrayed the smile he wore, and for that reason he reminded me of the antithesis to Tex Avery’s Droopy the Dog: happy on the surface, but miserable when no one was looking. His unease may have been due, in part, to the hopelessness involved with managing a workforce of dead-enders, which wouldn’t have been an altogether implausible reason. Any stranger who entered the kitchen would have noticed the general lack of interest and motivation among the staff.
Cameron, who worked room service, was in much the same league as Mark—not thrilled with his station in life, but plodding along nonetheless. It was a situation I could relate to since I was stuck in a similar limbo, a high school dropout washing dishes at a Holiday Inn.
An overweight man in his early thirties, Cameron’s skin was always slick with sweat, from his clammy handshake and dew-dotted forehead to the wet-ringed armpits of his ill-fitting t-shirts. He carried a small and bloated notepad in his back pocket that he frequently accessed to jot down details worth remembering. As a joke on my first day, Keith, a friend of mine who worked room service and helped me get the job at the hotel, told Cameron that I was learning disabled. This news worried Cameron almost immediately, mainly because it seemed to trigger a certain obligation on his part to provide me with remedial instruction on the safe and proper way to rinse plates, sort silverware, and operate the large, industrial-grade machine that processed all the restaurant’s dishes. He seemed convinced that I would somehow hurt myself on the job, either by spearing my hand with an errant steak knife or scalding my face in an accidental steam bath.
“Does he understand what I’m saying?” Cameron whispered to Keith loud enough that I could hear.
“Sort of,” Keith said with a wide smile.
Cameron looked at me, then back at Keith, before pulling out his notepad to scribble down a few words. Though I couldn’t make out what he wrote, I assumed his note read something like: “New dishwasher is retarded.”
My first day on the job, a middle-aged man named Dan trained me. He was the Cheatin’ Heart’s full-time dishwasher and worked the daylight shift Monday through Friday. I was hired as his part-time relief. Dan was short and balding, the outer edges of his scalp ringed in a greasy ruffle of dark hair, with a dozen or so loose strands bridging the gap between the left- and right-side of his head. He had a cleft palate that affected the way he talked, and the scar on his lip was visible until it vanished in a seam of skin beneath his nose. Dan was one of the most pleasant men I had ever met. As he walked me through the kitchen, pointing out my station behind a slop sink and explaining how things worked, he smiled between bouts of laughing at his own jokes.
“One perk of the job,” he announced, rinsing off a plate, “you get to eat all the free food you want.” And then, as if on cue, he grabbed a half-eaten piece of breaded fish from a small stack of dirty plates one of the waitresses had just cleared from a table, and shook it in my direction as an offering.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”
“Your loss,” Dan said before taking a bite.
Each afternoon when I arrived at the hotel, Dan’s wife, an obese woman who often had a cigarette in hand, parked her minivan in the fire lane while she waited for him to emerge from the back exit. Keith told me that Dan had eight kids, which seemed an impossible number to support on a dishwasher’s salary. But as I walked past the minivan each afternoon, I heard the voices of children playing in the backseat, evidence of at least part of the large family Dan was rumored to have.
Aside from a surprisingly small amount of money, my job at the hotel provided a simple structure to my weeks. I would work three or four weeknights and almost every Friday and Saturday night, usually getting home a little before midnight. Most mornings I woke late and played guitar for hours, ate Lucky Charms by the box, and watched cartoons until my brain hurt. In the window of time between the end of the school day and when I had to start work, I sometimes saw friends as they arrived home. On good days my friends would skip school so we could all hang out together. We’d drive downtown to buy tapes and comic books, the same ritual we observed before I dropped out. On my nights off from work I attended my GED prep course at a nearby community college, taught by a high school teacher who was moonlighting for extra cash and seemed indifferent about his students’ prospects for the future.
When I got to the kitchen each afternoon, I looked forward to talking to Dan before starting my shift. He was odd and funny and seemed to go out of his way to make me laugh. He was often running a load of dishes through the machine while we talked and stayed busy scrubbing the large stainless steel sink we both shared, all in preparation for the dinner rush. He believed in leaving the place better than he had found it, which was a trait that I admired. But not all of my Holiday Inn co-workers were as tame or kind as Dan. Some, like Larry, were downright rotten.
Pale-skinned with bulging eyeballs and a bloated stomach that poured over his waistband, Larry oozed grotesqueries. When we worked the same shift he would ridicule me for being a vegetarian, arriving at the daily conclusion that I must be gay or stupid, or probably both. Trapped at my slop sink while rinsing table scraps and ketchup blobs from an endless stack of plates, there was nowhere to escape. So I took all that Larry lobbed at me, telling him to fuck off at those moments when I couldn’t tune him out any longer. My reaction always sent a smile across his face. In the lull between insults, Larry talked about deer hunting and the arsenal of weapons that he owned. He had traditional hunting rifles, knives, crossbows, a variety of pistols, and assault rifles. He would have been more terrifying if he weren’t so oafish. Yet he still reminded me of a man I might eventually see on the evening news, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and bookended by police officers.
Ken, the other line cook who worked the same shift as I did, was a kinder, more humane version of Larry. Even though he wasn’t the most adept cook, the long ash from his cigarette often threatening to contaminate each order that he prepared, he did so with comedic ease. He also regularly diffused Larry’s vitriol, which made him more likeable by default. When Ken wasn’t quarantined to the kitchen at the Holiday Inn, I liked to imagine that he spent his free time at Ladbrokes drinking watered-down rum and Cokes and losing his paycheck on ill-advised bets. And at the end of each shift, a different woman, often rough-around-the-edges like Ken, would be waiting for him in the parking lot. The reunion was usually the same. They would hug or kiss or exchange small talk, then get into a beat-up car and race off. By that point in life I assumed Ken’s penis looked like the hand of a Cabbage Patch Doll, sizzled down to an unrecognizable lump of dick and balls so disfigured by venereal disease that he had to sit down to empty his bladder. But unlike everyone else in that kitchen, at least he was having a good time.
In August of 1994, three months into my job as a dishwasher, I quit. I called Mark from a payphone at the local wave pool and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back. He tried to persuade me otherwise, even told me to take the day to think about my decision. But I had made up my mind. I was set to take my GED test soon. And if everything worked out, I’d enroll in classes at the local community college that fall, when I would have just been starting my senior year of high school had I not dropped out. After a spring and summer spent breathing bleach, deep-fryer fumes, and secondhand smoke, it was time to move on.
Nobody in the kitchen of that Holiday Inn was doing work that they loved. Instead, they were doing work that needed to be done—not only for the hotel to operate, but so that Mark could pay his mortgage and Cameron could make rent. So that Larry could buy more guns and Ken could take his girlfriends on dates. And so that Dan could work the impossible magic of supporting his wife and eight children, give or take a few, on a dishwasher’s salary.
Almost by accident my hotel experience became more valuable than I understood. It taught me to work with other people, no matter how strange or crass they might be. It helped me discover my work ethic and the idea that you can and should take pride in what you do, no matter how inconsequential it seems. And, perhaps most notably, it provided the tough lesson that menial work did not pay well—and, most likely, never would. I also witnessed, firsthand, that the struggle doesn’t necessarily get any easier with age. If anything your experience with work just evolves as you get older. My co-workers were proof of that. They were each strapped with more advanced versions of my own problems, just substitute high school dropout with depressed, mid-career manager or underpaid husband and father. We were all the same. Only difference at the time was my own teenage ignorance: I believed my future would be different.
* * *
As I pulled out of the Holiday Inn parking lot, I drove in the direction of the nearest liquor store. It was still early and morning commuters were massing on the roads and forming into long, single-file lines at traffic signals near the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Some of the people were impatient, beeping at the car in front of them the moment a red light turned green. Others were oblivious to the noise and chaos around them, talking on cell phones or putting on make up. As I drove through a large four-way intersection, on my way to a nearby strip mall, the box in the passenger seat of my car that contained the contents of my former office slid forward. I braced my arm in front of it, the way my mom used to do to me when I was a kid and she had to bring the car to a sudden, unexpected stop. As all of the items shifted, a black-and-white framed portrait of my three-year-old son peered out from the box.
Carrying around these boxes felt, in a way, like I had become some itinerant white-collar drone searching for a new cubicle where I could nest. Looking for some place with a shelf that could neatly display my framed photographs, a desk where my wooden pencil holder could rest, and a bulletin board where I could pin up a calendar and start crossing off the days, weeks, months, and years until retirement. That’s not what I was searching for, of course, but I felt listless aside from my impulse to find a familiar place to consume alcohol. What I really wanted was a place to feel comfortable again. And as I drove into the strip mall where the liquor store was located, it finally occurred to me that place was at home in my personal life, with my family.
It turned out the majority of what I saved from my office was just that, personal, things I kept at work to make it feel more like I was at home. There was a photograph of my wife and I on the beach at Assateague Island in Maryland, where we camped on the sand and watched as wild horses played under a full moon. And there was a group portrait taken with friends while playing paintball on my 30th birthday. And there was also a photograph of my son on the day that he was born—his face turning red as he cried for the first time, moments after delivery.
When I arrived at the liquor store I could see it was closed, just like the bar at the Holiday Inn. I parked my car in the empty lot and walked toward the store. The lights were off and the doors were locked, though I still pulled on the handle just in case. The sign on the door said the store wouldn’t open for another half an hour. By that time all my interest in getting drunk would be gone. It was already fading. I stood there for a moment, the only person in sight, staring inside. The aisles of rum and bourbon, vodka and wine were each cast in long shadows and tucked neatly behind a bank of plate-glass windows. Cardboard stand ups with palm trees advertised wine coolers; displays with travel-size whiskey bottles were placed near the cash registers. It was all so close, just a few steps away, separated by thin panes of glass. But without breaking the glass and walking right in, the way you would grab a fire extinguisher from an emergency box in the event of a fire, it was all off limits. I sat down on the curb for a minute and bowed my head in my hands. It was time to go home.