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Work is Right

“It says here that you worked for a soup kitchen?”

 

“It was a volunteer position,” I replied, smiling, with an amicable nod, feeling the sweat up against my collar begin to soak.

“For two years?” she asked, looking over the rim of her Sarah Palin glasses. She had her photograph smile on. It took work not to read into what she was suggesting.

“Yeah… yeah, I was out of work for a while — two years,” I chuckled, trying to be charming. “And I just wanted to keep some solid experience under my belt.”

“Oh yeah?” said the younger woman. “What was it like?”

“It was…” I nodded slowly. “Busy. It was just, all the time.”

“Well downtown…” said the younger.

“Yeah, right. Exactly. It was just… always on.”

The elder snickered. “Well, the homeless do like to eat a lot.”

Cringe. Hide it. Hide it. “Ha! Yeah… they do…”

“And, to ask a personal question, if you don’t mind,” said the elder one, making the kind of eye contact where you let your eyes rest on someone else’s eyes but let yourself loose focus, “how did you manage to make ends meet in that time.”

Welfare. “Well, you know, I have family in the city and I just stayed in my aunt’s guest room and kept looking for work.”

“While you were working at the kitchen?” said the younger one. Even with the younger one’s pretty, straight hair, and her thorough make-up, it was hard to tell her apart from the middle-aged ‘proud mom’ of three with the feathered, red-dyed ‘I’d like to speak to the manager’ haircut.

“Yeah.”

“That’s pretty impressive.”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

As a matter of fact, while collecting money from the government because my prior employer cheated me out of Unemployment Insurance, I was paying my aunt rent to sleep in her unused spare room. But I didn’t usually tell people that, because the assumption was always that I’d done something to deserve it.

“And then you worked for House of Pho Fury?”

“Yeah,” I said, with a smile, “But the manager was very insistent that we pronounced it Phở.”

(‘Fuh.’)

“Phuh?” said the elder woman, with a blank expression. “As in?”

Shit. Shit. Shit. That correction probably disqualified me. Nobody liked to be made to feel stupid, and certainly not hiring managers.

“As in… how you pronounce it,” I said, suddenly regretting having brought it up at all. Maybe they’d think I was confrontational? Well… I was. But would they think it in a bad way? I mean, I had a library of useless factoids floating around in my head, but that didn’t make anyone special these days.

“Well, no…” she said, looking at it, as if to point out how stupid I was to think you said ‘O’ like ‘U’.

“I know, there’s an O there, but there’s like a little…”

She nodded, her face lit up as if this was the most darling thing she’d seen all week. “Is that what the little—”

“Yeah!”

“Adorable! Well, you learn something new... now, don’t ya?” She settled back into that comfortable forward-directed stare.

“Exactly. Hey, I said it as ‘Pho’, at first also. And my manager, he said…” shit… “he said, he pointed at me, and he said, ‘hey watch it, or I’ll wash your mouth out with suhp.’ You know because… soap, and suhp… Phở and pho?”

“Oh!” the older woman leaned back to snicker to herself. How charming. Okay. Recovery made. Relax… one… two… three…. de-tense those shoulders…

“And what was that like?”

“Hm?”

“Working for the House of… 

...

…Fury?”

“Oh! Right. Yeah, it was… just. Really chaotic. We were just off the market. Did a lot of kinda, take out orders. So those pans were always going through the dishwasher.”

“Lots of hand-washing?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah! Yeah, a whole bunch. Had the skink constantly filled. Taylor — the manager — he was retentive about cleaning out that dishwater.”

“Oh! Well that’s good.”

“Right?” I smiled. Common ground. This was good. “I’ve been at some places where they just keep the same water in the sink.”

The older woman scoffed. 

The younger woman rolled her eyes. “So gross.”

“Absolutely. Because,” I was using my hands to talk, I needed to settle down, “by the second load, you’re just washing dishes in grease. And then there’s this kinda… film over them.”

“I know, it’s deplorable,” said the elder. “We don’t do that here, we’re very keen on hygiene standards.”

“Oh! Absolutely.” Backpedal. “I mean, the hardest part about those gigs are that they ask you to go against three years of education.”

“Nope, you’re right. It’s best to just let the professionals do their job.”

I sat back, leg crossed, and shrugged. “Well thank you.”

The three of us found that hilarious.

“Good that you mentioned that, I did want to bring it up. Our standards here are to have our dishwashers use the sud-bucket method. Are you… familiar—”

“Oh yes! It was one of the… very first methods I really…” I gestured with my hands. Stop it. “That I really got the hang of.” It was also one of the most straightforward techniques for cleaning. Required as little soap as possible, maximum suds volume though. It was more for giving the appearance of being clean. “Where do you get your soap from?”

They looked between each other. 

“I think we just… swapped out our contract.”

“Yeah?”

“Who’s the new provider?”

“Let me check.”

I cleared my throat. “Oh no, it’s okay, just curious.”

“It’s no trouble,” said the younger, going through some files in the desk. “Oh! I just remembered. Platinum… something?”

“Platinum Varnish?” I said. Please no.

“That’s it!” said the elder.

“Oh great!” I said. “They’ve got a really… robust kind of product.”

“I’m not sure, I’m afraid the owner handles those kinds of contracts.”    

“Well,” I said. “You made a good choice.” They didn’t actually. Platinum Varnish almost seemed like a watered down product before it got mixed in. I also assumed my potential employers had regulations about how much soap they were allowed to use.

“So, you’ve got quite a diverse resume,” said the elder. “Could you let us know why you think you’d be a good fit.”

“Well, I’m quick, I’m courteous. I never throw a fit when a server clears a table halfway through a load,” I said. “Back in Phở Fury, I had a coworker who threw a fit because they kept stacking on dishes.” I sighed. “And yeah, that is annoying, sure. I mean, we were trained to track our load sizes very meticulously… And that kinda throws you off…”

They looked very stern. Or resting bitch face?

I smiled. “But it’s part of the industry. You know?”

“Right.” said the elder.

“Just gotta… deal with it, get over it… and you know, do your job.” I was off track. “And yeah, working here? Well, you know, Phở Fury was a zoo, a lot of the time. In a good way! Sure, absolutely, in a good way. But I think I’d be a lot more use where there’s more chill, right? I mean, slower pace doesn’t mean less work.

“Well,” said the elder with a smirk, though maybe even a little offended. “Well, it can get pretty fast-paced around here too.”

Literally everyone you work for says it’s a ‘fast-paced environment’ — you’re not special, bitch. “Oh! Oh yeah, absolutely! But, I mean, you guys go for a leisurely atmosphere… and that does require a lot of focus from the staff to keep that up. I mean, a lot of people can function really well in a busy kitchen, and a lot of people prefer that. And sometimes I really like when it’s busy.”

Meanwhile, I was given no indication if what I said was appropriate… or if I’d said enough. Blank expressions of ‘oh… is that’s it?’ So just keep talking.

“But you know, I’m one of those dishwashers… I like to set the mood for the kitchen, right? You know, in my experience, I find that the dishwasher is always the most consistent person in the kitchen, so a kind of unspoken responsibility is for the dishwasher to keep the mood high. Morale. Right?” I nodded, and smiled as best as I could. A few moments passed before either of them moved.

 

“Okay!” said the younger. “That sounds about right?”

“Right…” said the elder, looking over the resume, and then her question sheet. “Can you tell us about a specific time that you faced a problem, and how you managed to work through until you overcame it?”

“Aside from every Friday at rush?” That was a joke. Only the younger one laughed. Though really, the rush here was probably nothing I hadn’t seen before and then some. But every employer thought their job would be the hardest challenge. Because that meant that they worked hardest for their success.

I went on.“Well right… the rush, the fast-paced times. In my experience, there really isn’t any… particular strategy. You just gotta buck up and keep your head down and get through it. And then…” I paused for dramatic effect to make it seem like it was more of a joke than it was, “cry in the freezer when the rush is over, you know?”

That got a few chuckles.

“Alright,” said the elder to younger. “You want to go?”

The younger nodded and read from her clipboard. “Can you tell us about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker, and how you resolved it without having a manager waste time on resolving it for you?”

“Erm… just a second… just need to… think…”

Because I was just supposed to bank every bad day? Hold on to them and just seethe over the times in my life where I had a problem with someone? Save it for late at night when I can’t sleep and need to feel angry or sad? Right… refuse to let go to any negative experience, carry it around on my shoulders, so that I can pass a job interview?

Remember, smile.

“That… coworker I mentioned? The one who threw fits? He wasn’t… well I don’t want to say he wasn’t the best at his job, but he did leave the skink a mess for me when I had a shift after him. It was just a huge trouble to clean it out while dishes stacked up. And then I’d get behind…” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, mounting dishes is still totally my responsibility, and I wouldn’t blame anyone but me for being behind schedule… but I was trained very thoroughly. So… that’s kinda something I’m very meticulous about…”

Focus…

“So I did, get sick of it. And we had a shift that overlapped and I kinda spelled it out to him. Just like… ‘hey’ — very matter of fact. I, you know, wanted to communicate very clearly. And be very straightforward about what he was doing, and why it was creating a problem for the whole kitchen.”

“Right,” the elder nodded. “You know what they say… A squeaky wheel…”

“And you know… it worked…” I smiled. It didn’t. “You know, until he got fired for mouthing off to the servers.”

More snickers. I tapered off. Even though I thought I said all I needed, they looked like they were expecting more? What was I supposed to do? Develop some characters? Throw in a red herring and two plot twists?

“Alright,” said the elder, scrolling down the sheet. She passed over a few questions, dismissing them in a mumbling voice. “Describe a specific time when you had an issue with a coworker that you just had to let go for the sake of doing your job.”

Did I not just—

“Hey,” said Shawn.

I nodded. “Hey.”

He sat down beside me, on the grass on the hill beside the football field. “Not answering your phone.”

“Huh?” I did, just then, check my phone to see a number of texts from him. “Oh yeah, sorry.”

“It’s okay… I, uh…”

“You heard.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “You okay? What’s up?”

“Ah… I’m fine. Just sitting here, you know. Thinking.”

“Well shit, that’s never a good sign.”

“Shut up…” I said, throwing my weight into him. “Not that bad actually. I figure I can still put in time with dishwashing. Then I can start my own place even. Or I can re-apply for advanced bakery later. And if you start your own place, you don’t even need a certificate, because you’re your own employer.”

“I don’t even know…” he said. “You’re great at baking.”

    “It’s my fault. Didn’t put enough work into it. The commercial tray-oven courses killed me.”

“You’re a baker, what do you care about glorified microwaves.”

I shrugged. “It was a compulsory course. I should have worked harder.”

“Well… You’ve got a plan.” He smiled. The setting sun catching his dimples.

“I do! Give me five years in a good spot, I’ll have the time and money to put in for an application. Start up my own bakery a few years after.”

He patted my back. “Good. Glad to see you’re not spiralling.”

I sighed. “I just wish I hadn’t wasted my time with that… Should have stuck through with dishwashing. My grades were always better in those courses—”

“Stop!” He threw his head back. “It wasn’t a waste of time! You learned shit that you’ll need to run a zombie-pastry bakery! That shit’s useful. You can use that, even if you don’t have a piece of paper saying—”

Eight years later.

“Alright, that just about wraps it up,” said the pear-shaped woman wearing a blouse with oversized frills coming off the buttons. Who seemed to favour pictures of herself featuring her kids from when they were much younger than the graduation photos set up beside her computer monitor.

“What about…” said the younger. The elder leaned over and scanned for what the younger was pointing her pen at, on my resume.

“Oh right!” The elder looked back to me. “I almost forgot! Can you tell us a little bit about your diploma in Culinary Hygiene?”

“Oh! Absolutely! My focus was on industrial cleaning, obviously.”

    “Quincy College? In Pittsburg?”

“Yeah, not too far from home, but far enough, right?” I snickered, the elder looked personally wounded, but trying to hide it. Shit. Shit. Shit. “It’s an industrial services college, a few kinds of management and business positions, but I, you know, went for what I was good at. And paid a solid fifteen-grand a year to learn that I was good at it.” That joke landed a little better.

The younger laid down the resume and pointed to the years I listed as having gone there. “It says your diploma was five years?”

“Yeah. Yep.”

“Aren’t most programs three years?”

“Most, yeah, but that… I dunno. It was kinda common to do it all in five years. Draw it out a little.”

“Why’s that?”

“You know,” I said, “just part of the structure of campus.”

 “They draw out their programs for five years?”

    “Well, no. It’s kind of a thing where you get there, check things out, maybe you start to try something else. I, erm... for instance, a little way through I decided I wanted to try my hand at Industrial Baking. You know, for the kind of chain bakeries that get all their pastries and doughnuts shipped into them, and then you pretty much stick them in a glorified microwave and heat them up?”

“Oh yeah…” the elder woman nodded absently.

“A lot more complicated than just what it sounds like. You guys bake all your desserts in-house. Which is… totally cool. I’d be more than willing to try and branch out into that if you need an extra set of hands.”

“Well,” said the elder, with a sigh. “We only really offer cross-disciplinary training to employees of two years or more.”

“Oh! Sure. Absolutely! I mean, even something off the clock. I just love learning new skills like that.”

Skills I already had. Their desserts weren’t really much I couldn’t whip up over a weekend. They looked fancy though… really big on presentation. Even if you had experience as a baker, you could totally use that experience over a certificate.

The younger woman cleared her throat. “So why did you leave the Industrial Baking? I had a friend who really liked it. Works at a little cafe outside of Philly. Loves it.”

I had to break a pang of jealousy by turning my gaze up to the ceiling, where the flame-retardant panels had air holes running through them like cheese.

“Oh… you know… I just really wasn’t feeling it, you know? Not really where my passion was. So I decided I’d stick with dishwashing, and finish that up and see where I go.”

The elder one leaned forward with her hands folded. “And plans for the future?”

“You know…” I shrugged. “I’m just trying to get on my feet, get settled. And then after that, then sort of… figure out my next move.”

 

The elder smiled warmly. “A journey of a thousand miles…”

“Right!” I nodded.

The elder exchanged a glance with the younger. She said that was about all they had to say. The younger agreed. We shook hands. My last few interviews had been with men so I had to soften my grip way more than I had grown used to… or maybe the elder woman was looking for a firm grip?

Be assertive? Maybe she would have been intimidated by it and wanted that dainty grip I used. Maybe it wasn’t the right kind of dainty grip. What kind of handshake was she looking for? What kind of person was I supposed to be? Because you could bet your ass that if I gave the wrong handshake, out of thousands of variants, that would be the end of me.

When I left, they pretended to look over the notes they’d made on my question sheet.

“She was s sweetheart,” said the younger.

“I know…” said the elder. “It’s a shame we can’t hire her without intern experience…”