I got my first real job when I was 12 or 13--six hours of washing dishes at Caron's Restaurant on Friday nights, courtesy of my best pal, Ronnie Caron. His father, my boss, a very short, stocky but powerful little man with glasses and huge shoulders, was known around town as "Shorty" Caron, as in, "Don't mess with Shorty," who had a tall, kind of elegant wife. Being pals with Ronnie meant not only that I got a job, but that I could shoot pool down the hall from the expansive bedrooms in his big house and listen to the discarded antique jukebox from the restaurant, free, which had only about eight selections in it, enough to make me happy by far. On Friday nights, Ronnie ascended to "assistant chef" while I clattered the dishes. The best perk, though, was the free meal, prepared by Ronnie, usually a huge pile of fried clams and fries, coleslaw on the side and a glass of milk heavily sweetened from the front fountain.
The dreaded moment on Friday night was when Shorty paid a surprise visit to the kitchen, which shouldn't have been a surprise. I always hoped he wouldn't arrive at mealtime, when we appeared most idle. "Where's all the milk," he'd growl, after inspecting the premises. A restaurant doesn't really need much milk, but I'd hunker down and shut up because--yes--I drank a lot of that milk, with sweet syrup enough to kill a moose.
My duties included preparing the coleslaw, peeling the potatoes and operating the french fry cutter. I was amazed by how coleslaw is made. I prepared it with carefully washed hands on an expansive butcher table, plunging my hands into a massive mound of shredded cabbage and carrots to add huge gobs of mayonnaise from a gallon jar, holding my hands up sometimes like glorious pitchforks of hay from my grandfather's farm. Meanwhile, however, I might have left the potatoes in the peeler too long. I sometimes rushed into the rear kitchen to rescue potatoes. The peeler consisted of a little barrel that automatically ground the spuds around inside a gritty surface, and if you left them in this vortex too long, they would peel to the size of marbles, no use as french fries. As I threw these marbles into the garbage and loaded another batch of big potatoes, I prayed, "Don't let Shorty come now."
There were real idiots at Caron's Restaurant. Senior assistant chef, "Sonny" Michaud, was a true jackass. He bet someone that he dared to plunge his hand up to the elbow in the deep fryer, where food gets browned and smoke lingers.He walked around with a bandaged arm for weeks.
Most surprising, Shorty bet someone that he could drive a spike (a 12d nail) into a slab of wood with the palm of his hand. Okay, he wrapped his hand with several cloth napkins, and after several whacks with little result, he gave it his all and saw the head of the spike penetrate the cloth and erupt on the topside of his hand, blood and all, right through.
They're all stupid, I thought. But, I didn't mind. It was fun, especially when I could hang out at Caron's Restaurant any time I wanted, spending half my paycheck on the jukebox, listening to stuff like this: