Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ships (Westport, CT)


I graduated from high school in 1987, and although I had applied to college (one only, I knew what I wanted) and gotten my acceptance, I deferred matriculation for a year. It was for the best. Teen angst and anger were peaking, I was sick of school, and really it would've been a waste for me to go straight through when all I could think of was living on my own in the "real" world. Well, I got a dose of that. A good dose of what I could expect to do with a high school diploma and—let it be said—a bunch of shifty slackers for roommates, whose only ambition was to get wasted and stay that way all day. Except that I was not a slacker; that's something I never have been. And even if I had wanted to party—illegally, mind you, I was still underage for beer let alone the rest of what was out there to be had—well, there wasn't the time or energy for it. After a somewhat lost summer following graduation, I set about getting a job, a checking account, and an apartment, trying to making a responsible go of it. My credentials got me a peon's job in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant in Westport, Connecticut. Well, I suppose it could've been worse; I could've been busing tables or washing dishes, except that I had legal citizenship and did not speak Spanish. The restaurant was called Ships (or maybe The Ships), and like all the other restaurants where I have worked since that time, it exists no more. I was hired to work the cold station: salad prep, raw bar, dessert prep. I was not responsible for creating any recipes, so don't get any fancy ideas about my being a pastry chef or anything of the sort. And when I say "raw bar," I'd best disabuse you of any highfalutin' ideas: this was not the Grand Central Oyster Bar or Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar or any "Bar à huîtres" in Paris. In fact, oddly enough, most of the "raw" orders had to be run under the broiler for dishes like Clams Casino and Oysters Rockefeller. My job was tough, and the hours were long. I started early, and because my freeloading roommates remained stubbornly unemployed, I soon began working late as well: double shifts almost every day; leaving to go to work on the town bus before anyone was awake and coming back in the wee hours, dead on my feet, to an efficiency apartment that stank of booze and reeked of smoke and was just heating up for an all-night party when I walked through the door. If you're wondering how I let this go on, I'll tell you first that I was simply too exhausted to deal with a confrontation, and second that this stupid frame of mind should be excused with a plea of youthful lack of savoir faire. It took about three months and an eviction notice for things to sort themselves out, by which time the restaurant was already set to close.) But back to the restaurant; I will tell you what I remember. First, cue the cheap black-box stereo with cassette player: Boston's Greatest Hits, played in an endlessly repeating loop. Honestly, I'm not sure I'd ever listened to Boston before working at Ships—almost certainly not, wasn't my taste—but I can still hear that falsetto today, and in a lovely synesthetic mash-up, I immediately smell briny, iodine oysters. First thing I did in the morning was make up a batch of whipped cream to stash in the fridge for desserts. Leaving the cream in the automatic mixer for too long, it was here that I accidentally discovered how to make butter. I plated tray upon tray of skimpy side salads. I sliced meats for chef salads, boiled eggs, washed spinach, and crumbled to bits the bacon fried by the line cooks. I did who knows how many other tasks before the lunch crowd came. I remember that the kitchen was very low-tech by today's standards, but the crazy ticker tape machine over my station spat out orders quick enough to put me in a tailspin on a regular basis. I'd get slammed twice most times a table turned: apps then desserts. As though it were yesterday, I can feel the floor under me roil and suck like quicksand as the tape dictated multiple raw bar orders. The thing about those clams and oysters was that there was no way to prep them in advance; they had to be opened to order. Six at a time, I'd open the clams. For the oysters, I'd shuck and cuss, gouge my hand and suck the sore spots on my palm where a stubborn shell had refused to open, the tip of the oyster knife stabbing my skin instead. This was the job hazard no one really explained; nor the potential for a vibrio infection (which thankfully I never got). I had no gloves, nor did the thought occur to me that maybe I should wear them. I just kept shucking. I'd get a breather, then I'd plate desserts, and at least that task was easy. My other memories are about people, two in particular: the line cook who worked the grill, and the fry guy next to him. We were three in a row throughout the service. The grillmaster acted like he had seniority, whether he did or not. He was a crotchety, foul-mouthed, middle-aged black man who did all he could to widen the traditional rift between kitchen staff and front of house. If an order came through incomplete or fouled up in any way, this guy had a tendency to smack the servers on the back of their hands with his hot metal spatula. The fry guy smelled like smoking fat. He was a very tall, skinny, redheaded guy who spoke English as a second language, but I have no idea where he was from. Someplace in South America, I think, although his looks certainly didn't fit the typical Latin image. One day, I remember, he was late to work. Then more than late. He pulled a no-show and it caused a scandal; rumor was he'd been arrested for stabbing someone in an alley or behind a building in town somewhere. I had a hard time believing it, but saw something in the paper a day or so later. The details I lost sight of, but not the haunting feeling that just maybe he was innocent and getting a bum deal—or else I'd been working in close proximity with a person who'd gone homicidal. Neither thought was comforting. But, heading home at the end of every crazy day—no matter how crazy—I had other fish to fry. As I said, I got evicted from the apartment I was living in. Not a very good start to my new, "adult" life of responsibility. I moved back in with my parents while my roommates (and assorted squatters) scattered to the winds; I have to say I was as relieved as I was ashamed. When Ships closed down later that year, I looked for my next paycheck and started saving money for travel, biding my time until the following September . . . when I'd be more than ready to continue my education—in books, not in barnacles or any other fishy thing.

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