Finding my Work Ethic

by Richard Passov

Our uniform was a shirt tucked into jeans. Sandi stretched the smallest size over well-proportioned breasts, her black bra peeking through a run of buttons. Mine hung long in the sleeves and fell over my waist.

I was trying to work my way through college in the kitchen of a teaching hospital on the campus where the ARPANET, precursor to the internet, was sending single word messages between the five nodes across the country capable of receiving messages. I was also trying to stay away from drugs. But when Sandi, in tight jeans, smiled over her shoulder, I chose to follow.

“You cool, right?” she asked.

We went through the seating area, out the front door, around to the right, into a curve in the architecture where some thoughtful gardener had planted the rose bushes that Sandi used as a shield. “Here,” she said, after taking a hit from a joint.

The dope tasted like street dirt I had undercut in South Central. A soft weight came over me. My host brought her palms together then shimmied to silent music.

When she stopped and looked past me, I turned to see a young black man with a small head wearing a ribbed wife beater over beady muscles. His colors, stuffed into a back pocket, crept around his leg.

“Hey Pea,” she said walking to him. “You know I like it when you come see me while I working.”

*       *       *       *

Earlier that morning, a tall white woman gave me the beginners tour. She had curly hair, like a giant Shirley Temple doll.

Everything brought a smile to her; the greasy prep surfaces, the big fridge with its broken handle, the broken light fixture above the sink, sticky floors, even the cook who ignored her when she said hello. She was maternally positive, and I liked her.

Across the day, I would watch Nurses eat from Tupperware containers; tuna fish for the dieters, leftovers for the mothers. Only doctors waited for what came from the kitchen. Down the first leg of a rectangle sat aluminum pitchers of water or already-poured orange or tomato juice. From the next leg, doctors chose from ready-made plates of chicken or meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas. On the last leg, hamburgers and hot dogs dried under heat lamps.

*       *       *       *

Back inside, waiting for my high to wear off, Shirley Temple found me. “How goes it?” she asked.

“Ok!” I answered.

“Have they shown you how to use the yogurt machine?”

No, I wanted to say, just how to hide behind the rose bushes and get high.

“I told Gelson to show you. Sometimes he just forgets,” Ms. Temple said as she made her way past the kitchen out to the seating area.

“We have to work around him. Cooks are like that, you know.”

I didn’t know. During the morning tour, Gelson glared my way. His pasty skin, sweaty forehead and unruly, prematurely grey hair gave him the look of a man just freed from a drunk tank. “Oh, don’t mind him,”Sandi said, “he just looks mean,” then sassed him with her smile.

“Have you ever made soft yogurt?” Ms. Temple asked. “Don’t worry. It’s easy.”

A machine the size of an industrial dryer sat on a table. Under the table a cabinet held boxes of powder and a large plastic bucket. Ms. Temple hoisted a box up a step ladder, peeled the top back as if it were detergent, then dumped the contents into the top of the machine.

“Go fill the bucket,” Ms. Temple said.

I had trouble getting the bucket up high enough for Ms. Temple to grab. With a surprising mix of strength and grace, she tipped it over the rim. We heard the flat splash of water falling on dried yogurt.

“Tomorrow you’ll have to clean out the tub.”

We went around to the front of the machine.Through a glass plate, we watched a mixing arm tumble yellow powder into the water. “That’s it. Takes about thirty minutes to freeze.”

I understood why astronauts needed Tang but not who needed powdered yogurt.

Over the course of the day, Ms. Temple told me how we were going to make the future better. “We can do a lot. You’ll see.” There was a touch of conspiracy in her talk.

At the end of my shift, Ms. Temple found me. “I hate to do this on your first day but I have to ask you to work the close shift. Can you come back at ten?”

It was four in the afternoon. My typical evening plans involved staying clear of the room I was renting for as long as possible. “Yes,” I said.

*       *       *       *

Back at the cafeteria a little past ten, the drink area was full of juice glasses waiting for a night shift resident. Brisket, next to green beans and mashed potatoes, sat plated under plastic covers. Gelson was at the last leg, shaking cooked hamburger patties off a tray to rest under the heat lamps.

After an hour of watching Gelson walk back and forth to the kitchen a lone doctor made his way to the food bay. I guessed from surgery as he wore a green cap, like a small chef’s hat. In the grainy light the surgeon looked angry, as if something that shouldn’t have happened did.

Standing in front of Gelson’s greasy grey patties he said, “I want a rare hamburger.”

For a few seconds Gelson was motionless. Not running a plan through his mind. Rather, I think his action was natural, at least to him. With his left hand he pulled his apron from his waist. With his right, he unzipped his pants.

There was enough light coming off the heat lamps to see that Gelson had deftly pulled himself though his zipper and was holding his scrotum tightly, pushing his testicles forward, lifting his package toward the doctor.

“You want something rare?” he said. “Eat this.”

A sigh glistened through the doctor’s eyes, carrying the last of his understanding.

For the rest of the evening, Gelson starred at me as though I were the snitch that would turn him in. When one o’clock arrived, it was just he and I. No more doctors, no nurses, no police.

*       *       *       *

The following morning I expected to find Sandi lost in gossip about the previous night. She was there all right, watching Ms. Temple fill glasses with orange juice, as if it were her first day and she needed to be shown how the work got done.

Holding a trey of juice glasses, backing her way through the kitchen door, Ms. Temple caught my eye. “Don’t forget to make the yogurt.”

I did everything the way Ms. Temple said to. I unscrewed the lug nuts that held the glass plate across the front of the machine, then peeled the plate away from the stainless steel, exposing a rubber O-ring stuck partially to the machine and partially to the glass. Carefully, I freed it.

After scooping yogurt from the bottom of the drum, I fitted the glass plate to the machine. Just like Ms. Temple I stood on the stepladder, first pouring dried yogurt then water. By the time I had climbed down, the yogurt mixture was seeping from under the glass plate, down the face of the machine. I had forgotten the O-ring.

I dragged the bucket by the mop handle because I wasn’t in the present. I was thinking of Ms. Temple’s forced positiveness. Wondering if working around Gelson included allowing him to expose himself. What powdered yogurt could add to life.

As I approached my slick the mop bucket tipped, turning the yogurt sea-grey.

I didn’t want to disappoint Ms. Temple, didn’t want her to see that I was capable of leaking two gallons of yogurt on the floor then mixing that with dirty water from the mop bucket. But I also didn’t want to work another night shift being the only one who knew that Gelson had exposed himself. And I especially didn’t want to clean up the mess I had made.

By the time I found Ms. Temple I was laughing so hard she thought I was crying.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I caught my breath, told her I quit, then walked out with my uniform on.