Sunday, November 17, 2019

Wayside Wonders

Kenny was like the Fonz.  You know, the Fonz from Happy Days?  The cool guy, who was small, yet seemed tougher than everyone else.  He was cool.  Kenny was just a kid, as I look back on it now – maybe 19-20, but for a fifteen year old getting into his first ever job, he seemed to be in complete control.

Kenny was the dayshift/prep manager at Gianelli’s Pizza.  I had joined the coveted Saturday afternoon shift as the dishwasher.  I had heard about Kenny, but had yet to work with him.  I generally worked evening shifts after school or weekend nights.  I had just tied on an apron to start my shift and was scrubbing a few random leftover dishes from the previous night to run through the machine.  Kenny came around the corner, in faded Levi’s, and the black Gianetti’s t-shirt, hopped up on the counter next to me, propped his feet on an empty garbage can, revealing worn black Converse high-tops.  He had a Frusen Glädjé ice cream container in his hand.  Remember Frusen Glädjé?  It was the copycat fake Scandinavian fancy ice cream trying to horn in on the other fake Scandinavian ice cream, Häagen-Dazs.  It came in a pint sized plastic capsule container.  Kenny popped the lid off with the thumb of the hand he was holding the capsule with, while twirling a spoon with the other. 

“Did you eat a nutritious breakfast?” Kenny said without looking at me.  I assumed he was talking to me, since no one else was around.  I nodded my head side to side.  I had literally been in bed asleep 30 minutes ago, before rolling out of bed, getting dressed and walking the mile or so to work.  He poked the spoon into the container revealing a quiet crunch and scooped out a small bit of cereal into his mouth.  Between chews, he continued: “I expect everyone to be ready to go.  Get yourself one of these.”

That is where my training began.  Every moment with Kenny contained teaching moments.  Not all of it made sense at the time, and a lot of it still doesn’t make sense, yet I still feel like those lessons are still to come to fruition 35 plus years later.  Being the Saturday dishwasher really meant that I would be doing prep for the evening rush.  Saturday nights were the busiest and we would have to prep the cheese, the pepperoni and salami, cook the ground meats, and slice the tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and green peppers.  Everyone helped with prep, but dishes were light duty during the day, so it was mostly up to the dishwasher to get this stuff done.  I learned these trades from Kenny.  He was a master.  Everything he did oozed quality.  He was neat, efficient, and in his hands, all of the prep work was immaculate. 

I remember him showing me how to use the slicer.  He fastened on a big heavy metal tube and we poured about 10 pounds of raw yellow onions inside and turned the switch on.  The thing jumped to life with a stutter and then jolted violently back and forth.  I was terrified.  He tightened a knob on this jerking monstrosity to adjust the thickness of the slices.  We would collect the booty into a tub, seal it when full and date it.  Eventually, my intimidation with this beast wore off.  When slicing onions, the air of the entire restaurant would fill with that eye burning toxicity.  Often I would handle the run off by approaching the slicer with a makeshift blindfold.  It feels incredibly stupid in retrospect, but after learning the trade from Kenny, I had an intimate knowledge of that machine and total confidence.  It was like Jedi training.  I could mentally feel the machine.  I only learned years later that a 15 year old should not have been working the slicer at that age, nor should any of us been working 75 hour weeks during the summer like we often did. 

The stove tops near the slicer would be on simmer all afternoon cooking ground beef or sausage, which we would flavor with seasonings when ready.  Every so often, someone would have to check the meat by throwing the massive pot on the floor, and mashing and stirring the brew.  The meat mashers became our guitars.  Whatever horrible songs would absolutely blare from the one speaker transistor radio out of the dough room was generally emitting from KSKD 105 (an early Top 40 station with no DJs, which then became the hair metal leaning Top 40 station Q105), if there was a guitar solo, someone was likely performing it on the meat masher.  Kenny taught us the importance of this.  To be an effective performer, one could not simply put their hands in position and move their fingers around.  One had to play with passion.  One had to contort their face with pained expressions accentuating each note.  It was important to look like you mean it.

The dough room was an isolated long hallway that was parallel to the front kitchen, which was out in the open public area.  The dough roller would make a lot of each size of pizza dough and store them in a two-sided refrigerator, so the pizza makers could grab them from the other side.  They worked the day shift.  I never knew who the dough guy was, but he was cool.  He had long sweeping bangs, wore surf shorts and band t-shirts, wore a lot of those fluorescent colored rubber bracelets around his wrists, which were all the rage in my mind, and was always covered from head to toe in flour.  He reminded me of Peter Zaremba from The Fleshtones.  He and Kenny would nod to each other occasionally, but otherwise, they never seemed to communicate.

One of the things I appreciated most about Kenny is that he wanted everyone to know how to do everything.  He would spend the time to make sure you were comfortable at each stage of learning.  When I was taught how to put together a pizza, it was simply having me learn all of the toppings for the combos on the menu.  The business had no limitations for toppings.  We didn’t weigh ingredients or count pepperonis or anything like most places.  People just piled on a lot of stuff and the result would often be a mess leading to a pizza that would have burnt crust and a doughy middle.  Kenny taught moderation.  His skilled hands would wrap around the pizza and each effort would be a perfect balance of toppings and little to no run off.  He guided the toppings onto the pizza looking like a potter working the wheel.  He was an artist.  He insisted that we shout orders and commands randomly.  He had seen a restaurant TV commercial that had all of the chefs shouting back and forth with urgency – likely displaying the busy yet smooth running kitchen.  Know what you’re doing, and look like you mean it.

Over at the ovens, it was the same thing.  Kenny had the ability to cook the pizzas to the perfect crispness and taught us what signs to watch for that would signify when a pie was ready to pull.  More importantly, Kenny took me aside out at the ovens one afternoon and showed me what to do during any downtime.  There are some open minutes after putting a pizza into the oven.  Again, our kitchen was up front.  The crew worked away right behind the counter where the customers placed their orders.  The wall by the ovens displayed pans representing all of the pizza sizes available.  Below these was a stool – about knee high.  He put one foot up onto the stool and leaned into his upraised leg.  With his arms crossed casually over that leg, Kenny looked out towards the counter and did a subtle one finger wave and a head nod.  It gave me chills.  He looked like a movie star hero.  Kenny was teaching me how to do this.  It took a lot of practice, but I began to get the correct nuances.  This, he taught, was the proper way to acknowledge our fans.

It didn’t take long to become a devoted disciple of Kenny’s teachings.  As my skills increased, the training led to more excursions.  One afternoon, Kenny took Nick and me outside and had us lug a 50 pound bag of onions up and down the hillside out front of the building by the Gianelli’s sign.  The landscaping was more fitting to the high desert with its red lava rock and big sagebrush and Idaho fescues, than what one would generally see on the constantly damp and dreary coast.  This military style training wound up bringing in a few curious customers.

As the Christmas holiday neared, Kenny had Nick and me out on the roof of the building stringing lights.  The slippery roof was incredibly hazardous with the coastal wind whipping us around and blasting the driving rain into our faces.  As I look back on it, it feels like maybe Kenny was trying to kill us.  It felt different at the time.  I was terrified of heights, but he instilled in me a confidence that I didn’t know I had and felt I could accomplish anything.

On another outing, Kenny, Nick, and I, suited up in our Gianelli’s shirts, took a handful of pizza pans down to the beach access (D-River Wayside) and tossed them about like Frisbees.  When not engaged in some sort of acrobatic diving catch, we would employ the casual ‘stud’ wave to any curious on-lookers.  The local kite shop, who employed teenagers to fly kites on the beach as advertisement, were getting annoyed at our invasion.  We were a curiosity who were taking attention away from their wares.  We began planning to make our own t-shirts, as we were now known as the Wayside Wonders.

Late one Saturday afternoon, as our shift was winding down, Kenny was sitting on that counter where he liked to eat his morning cereal, he looked exhausted.  He was tussling his hair and taking deep gasping breaths.  This was about the time that Kenny announced to us, that he was packing up his young family and moving to California.  It was an uncomfortable emotional moment.  He continued to look spent as he described to us all of the effort he had put in to this job.  “Sometimes you tell the day, by the bottle that you drink,” he continued.  After a beat, we realized that he was mimicking his favorite music video: “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi, which was the ultimate example of how to look like you mean it.

I continued to work at Gianelli’s all through High School.  Things were never the same after Kenny left.  Several months after he moved away rumor had spread that he had become the head chef at some fancy restaurant in the Bay Area.  This was no surprise to any of us.  All of us who had learned from Kenny tried to keep the teachings alive, but it didn’t translate.  None of us had the Fonz-like charisma.

A couple of years later, one busy evening, I was working the ovens and standing out by the size display pizza pans and a fan.  I was lost in thought.  I looked out at the building crowd hanging around the front counter queuing up to place their orders.  A pretty tourist girl with a Slippery When Wet t-shirt and tight jeans with slits cut into the thighs caught my attention.  She was looking at me, even though I looked like a few discarded clumps of leftover dough balled together, rolled through some pubes, and stuffed into an Echo & the Bunnymen shirt.  I locked my gaze on hers and gave her a slight nod, along with a little finger wave.  She smiled. 

* Wayside Wonders drawing by Arlon Gilliland