Writing a memoir gives me a odd kind of self-reflection. There are people and there are memories of people and there are memories that flash through your mind everytime you see those people. This chapter is for my girl friend, Mary Sue. I recently saw her on-stage, after a number of years. She’s captivating.
You all know I have a dishwashing fetish. This is how it all began:
Dinner was over, and I’d put in my requisite hour on the piano, while Mom did the dishes. It was a weeknight, school was out, and I had the car. That could only mean one thing.
“Is Mary Sue there?” I asked. Her grandmother had answered the phone.
“Hold on,” she said. Then I heard her say, “It’s for you dear.”
“This is Mary Sue,” she sang into the phone, putting an extra ew on Sue.
“Coke and smoke?” I asked just loud enough for her to hear, but for my folks to ignore.
“Sure! There’s a party at John Tracey’s tonight, but it doesn’t start until late,” she said.
“I’ll come get you,” I said.
“I will be waiting,” she sang.
This was, by far, my favorite thing to do. I’d head out, pick up Mary Sue and we’d drive down Fourth Street, around Ben Goodman Park, out to the turnaround at the Armory and up commercial to either Main Street or up as far as Cedar Street, where we’d loop back onto Fourth. The entire loop around Anaconda would take about fifteen minutes. Twenty if we hit the light at Fourth and Main. We’d cruise the drag and smoke and talk and sing to the radio.
I always described Mary Sue as my girl friend, whenever anyone asked about our relationship. Then I’d say, “In the truest sense of the word. She’s a girl. And she’s my friend. She’s my girl friend,” I’d say. We were completely platonic. A tall, red-haired vixen, Mary Sue and I were interested in the same things. She had tons of soundtracks to movies and Broadway shows. We were in band together (Mary Sue was the drum major), and we had been in plays together at school and at the Anaconda Community Theatre.
We thought so much alike, we’d often finish each other’s sentences.
Mary Sue had one thing I didn’t have, though. She had friends. Tons of friends. She was the type of person who made friends easily. I think she actually liked people. I was quite the opposite. We were a pretty odd couple, but I loved being with her. We’d stop at Lu’s Drive In and get fountain Cokes. Then we’d drive around and around town.
“Oh! Listen to this song. I love this song. It’s country, I know, but I just love the lyrics,” she said when she climbed into the front seat of the Hornet.
Eddie Rabbit was singing I Love a Rainy Night. It wasn’t my favorite song. I didn’t like many of the songs on the radio. But Mary Sue had a really great ear for music, so I pretended to think the song was good.
“We have to pick up Mary Shaun at the Hideaway before we head to John’s,” Mary Sue said.
“Did she go out to eat?” I asked. The Hideaway was the new restaurant in the remodeled Marcus Daly Hotel. The history of the hotel was a paradox. An interesting mix of fact and folklore in Anaconda.
Marcus Daly built the Montana Hotel in 1889 as a premiere European-style hotel. It was a place for visiting dignitaries and mining executives. In its day, the Montana Hotel was one of the most oppulant, civilized places west of the Mississippi River. On the corner of Park and Main Streets, it was four stories tall, had a huge dining room, a coffee shop and a big, ornate bar, carved out of a single piece of solid oak. The Tammany Lounge was named for Marcus Daly’s favorite racehorse, the face of which was in-laid into the bar floor, using tiny wooden tiles. Depending on who you talked to, it was either good luck or back luck to step on Tammany’s portrait.
In the sixties and seventies, the hotel had fallen into decline. The dining room closed. The hotel rooms were rarely rented, and a motel was built in the back parking lot. The succession of owners renamed it the Marcus Daly Hotel long before I was born. In the late seventies, a developer bought the hotel and started ripping it apart. This was looked on with both favor (as a sign of progress) and disdain (so much history gone to waste). The original shell of the building remained, but the main floor was split between retail shops and the Hideaway Restaurant—a brand new, state-of-the-art kitchen, dining room and bar, built in the far corner of the ground floor, where the banquet facilities had once hosted elegant balls and lavish dinners.
“What?” Mary Sue was busy listening to the radio.
“Did she go there to eat?” I said. “I hear the food’s pretty good.”
“No! She works there,” Mary Sue said.
“Yeah. She got a job there washing dishes,” Mary Sue said.
“Wow. Cool. OK,” I said. “What time do they close?”
“You know, I don’t know. I think she said we should stop by around 9:00,” Mary Sue said. “This song reminds me of a beatnik kinda song. I mean I can just snap my fingers to it, you know?”
She really loved that song.
We drove around for about an hour before stopping in at the Hideaway. The place was really nice. The furniture was new, and the developer had taken all the interior walls of the hotel down and sand-blasted the brick. There were huge, arched windows in the dining room with long sheer curtains covering them. The kitchen was all new. All the appliances were stainless steel. The big Hobart dishwasher had a levered door you could pull down with one hand. It looked like you loaded the dirty dishes on blue grates, slid the grates into the Hobart, pulled down the doors and waited for the cycle to end. I’d never seen anything like it.
Mary Shaun O’Leary was fairly buried in bus tubs of dirty dishes. The cook was gone, having closed the restaurant at 8:00. There was a single bartender on duty in the lounge. Apparently Mary Shaun was supposed to finish the dishes, haul out the garbage, sweep and mop the floor. Then she was supposed to tell the bartender she was done for the night. But from the looks of it, she was far from ready to do that.
The deep sinks were filled with hotel pans and dirty pots. There were five or six bus tubs stacked with dirty dishes … filled to overflowing. Mary Shaun pulled down the Hobart doors, the water whooshed into the machine and she spun around to face us. A lock of curly brown hair had fallen across her forehead.
“This totally bites,” she said. “I’m not going to be ready to go for at least another hour, maybe two.”
“Wow. You must have been busy, huh?” Mary Sue said.
Mary Shaun looked around the kitchen and squinted. “Not really. It’s always kind of like this at closing. The bus boys just keep coming with the dirty dishes and the cooks just keep piling dirty pots and pans in the sink!” She was clearly overwhelmed.
I looked over at the gleaming, flat-top grill. The make table and deep fryers were pristine, compared to the dish area. The whole room wafted fried chicken. Like someone had make dinner and turned the volume on smell up to high. I squinted like Mary Shaun. I could easily see how two people had stood between the grill and the make table all night. I could see how the bus boys had brought their loads of dishes in one door and left by the other door which led to the wait station. This is so cool, I thought.
“This job sucks,” Mary Shaun said. “I’m not going to be able to go to Tracey’s. I probably won’t be home until midnight at this rate.”
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Tell me how you do this?” I asked.
“Do what?” Mary Sue asked.
“This. All this. Tell me what you do,” I said to Mary Shaun. I gestured out over the field of dirty dishes. “Show me how to wash these dishes,” I said. I pointed to the tub of soaking silverware. “Do you sort that before you wash it, or after?” I asked.
Mary Shaun turned her head slightly to one side, looking at me out of the corner of her eyes. “What?”
“Before or after? They seem to just be thrown into that tub every which way. There’s a sorter, right? Do the bus boys not sort the silver when they put it in there? Or do you leave it soak unsorted, then wash, then sort, or do you sort, then wash?”
“You’re putting me on, right?” Mary Shaun said.
“No! I want to know! In fact, why don’t you let me clean these up and you go to the party,” I said.
“But this is my job,” Mary Shaun said to Mary Sue.
“Oh, yeah. I know that, but I don’t want to go to the party, and you do. And you don’t want to wash these dishes and I do,” I said.
“But I’m getting paid to do this,” she said.
“I know! You can keep the money. I just want to wash the dishes.”
“OK, you’re clearly shittin’ me, right? No one wants to wash dishes,” Mary Shaun pushed her hands into the front pockets of her smock.
“I do,” I said.
“Grant …,” Mary Sue started to say something, and stopped herself.
“You can’t do it for me,” Mary Shaun said.
“Well, what can I do to help you?” I asked.
Mary Shaun looked at me sideways again. “You want to help me?” she asked.
“Sure! I’ll help you. We’ll help you.” I pointed between Mary Sue and myself.
We all thought about it for a few seconds.
“Well, if you sent through the tubs and sorted the plates by size and stacked them there, that would be great. Also, once the silver-sorter gets full it’s time to drain the machine and refill it with new water. You’re not supposed to wash the silverware in used water. If I can get you started on the dishes, I can take a whack at the pots and pans. Mary Sue, you can dry, I guess,” Mary Shaun said.
“Let’s go!” I said. Try as I might, I couldn’t hide the fact that I was thrilled at the thought. Within a half-hour I’d broken into a sweat and the three of us were working in perfect, synchronized rhythm. By the time 10:00 rolled around, the dish area sparkled and I was an expert.
The next night, Mary Shaun continued training us on how to close the restaurant. We had to sneak past Kevin, the bartender, who was likely to tell Ruthie, the owner, that Mary Shaun had help closing the kitchen.
After three more shifts, Mary Shaun had almost a week off. I found myself getting antsy around 8:00. I’d drive by the Hideaway and slow the Hornet to a crawl, stalking the place. I checked whose car was in the parking lot, who was bartending. Who could possibly be using my Hobart? I asked myself.
Two more days passed with no dishwashing. That afternoon, a Thursday, the phone in the kitchen rang just before General Hospital started on the TV. My entire circle of friends were completely absorbed by Luke and Laura, and it was one of the few things B.J. and I didn’t argue about. We knew where we’d be at 1:00 on the weekdays. Since B.J. had her own line in her bedroom, I knew the phone was probably Mom calling to tell me what to do to start dinner. I was surprised when Mary Shaun said hello.
“Hey! What’s going on?” I asked.
“Can you do me a big favor?” she asked. She skipped the niceties and got right down to business.
“What do you need?” I asked. Mary Shaun hardly ever needed a ride anywhere.
“I need you to work for me tonight,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I asked. My heart started racing a bit.
“I’m stuck at the lake and my shift starts at 4:00. I can’t come in. It’s the only shift I have this week and I can’t get fired from this job. Please work for me. Please.”
“I can’t just work for you. I mean, I can do the work, but I can’t just show up and start working there like I have a job or anything,” I said.
“Look. I already called Ruthie and explained the situation. I told her you knew what you were doing and let her know that you knew how to close. The cook tonight is Robin. She’s really nice. I think you’ll like her.” I heard a car honk somewhere behind Mary Shaun. “Look, I gotta go,” she said. And the line went dead.
“Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable,” I said.
“What’s that?” B.J. said.
“I think I just got a job at the Hideaway,” I said.
“No. I don’t want to be a waiter. I think Mary O’Leary just gave me her job washing dishes,” I said.
“Eeew,” B.J. said.
“I couldn’t be happier,” I said.
Ruth Perinni looked up from the four-top she had set up between the kitchen and the salad bar. I had nothing but respect for her. She’d been a fixture at the hotel, working there for as long as I could remember. Mom and I used to go to breakfast after church at the hotel with Margaret Bubash and her daughter Cynthia. If Ruthie didn’t wait on us, she was in the kitchen making our breakfast. When the hotel closed and started getting ripped apart, we stopped going there for Sunday breakfast. Eventually, I stopped going to church altogether.
“I’m Grant. Grant Byington,” I said.
“Oh I know who you are,” Ruth said. She smoked the same kind of cigarettes as Mom. She spoke slowly and deliberately. It was clear I would have to choose my words wisely around her.
“My dad is Bob Byington,” I said.
“I said I know who you are,” she repeated.
“Mary Shaun said she talked to you about my working for her tonight,” I said.
“She said no such thing,” Ruth said. She stuck a match and touched the end of her Virginia Slim.
“She called me around noon and asked if I could work for her. She told me she’s squared it with you, or I never would have come here,” I said.
“Are you the man who’s been closing for her?” Ruth asked.
“I haven’t been closing for her, but I have showed up a few times at the end of her shift and helped her take out the garbage and stuff like that,” I said.
“You know know how to run the machinery?” Ruth asked.
“Oh the Hobart? Yes. I know how to do that. I know how to stack the dishes and use the rubber ring. I rinse before I load. I find the dishes are cleaner that way. I am a bit rusty on how long to soak the pans, though. Mary Shaun usually does that part. And I know about the oil in the broaster and the solution to mop the floor. I guess I know how to close, but I’ve never closed for her. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s the secretary of the band, did you know that? She’s really a responsible person. I don’t think she would have called me if she wasn’t in some kind of jam,” I said.
“She didn’t tell me she was in trouble,” Ruth said.
“Oh? I don’t think she’s in trouble. I just think she’s stuck out at the lake. Her car is probably stalled or something. He’s really a responsible person,” I said again.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Ruth said. She looked around the dining room. Ron Cron, the bus boy, was setting up the salad bar. I could hear Robin the cook talking about the specials to Ron’s mom, who was the waitress for the night shift. Ruth looked up at me again.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t like it one bit.” She ashed her cigarette. “I make the schedule and she’s supposed to follow the schedule. There’s twenty girls I could call to take her place tonight, but instead she sends you. I haven’t even hired you,” Ruth said. She inhaled deeply and rolled her eyes a bit when she said, “I don’t suppose you’re a member of the union?”
“Me? Union? No. Not me. I mean, I’ve never worked in a restaurant. Except, that is, to help out Mary. No. I don’t think I need to be in the union do I? I mean, I have a pretty strong anti-union background, so I can’t really see joining something I don’t believe in. Well, it’s not that I don’t believe in unions, it’s just that I don’t see the future of labor as a union situation. I think it’s more of a free agent society we’re working with, I mean … .” It was one of those times when I could hear myself talking, but I had no idea what I was saying.
“Hon. Stop. No. Hon. Grant. It’s OK. You know, it’s OK. Dishwashers don’t have to be union. Especially if it’s part-time. I only have one full-time dishwasher, that’s Barbara. She’s in the union. But you don’t have to be,” Ruthie shut me up.
“So I can work tonight?” I asked. I tried not to sound too hopeful.
Ruthie looked around the room another time. She looked out the window and inhaled. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Seventeen. A year older than Mary Shaun,” I said.
“Well, I have no choice, do I? OK. I’m going home and changing out of my work clothes. I’ll be back to open the dining room. Until then, go back and help Robin get ready. I’m going to stay here tonight and pay attention to how you’re doing. If at any time you think you are in the weeds, you have to let me know,” she said.
“Weeds?” I asked.
“You’ve got a lot to learn. Aside from what you think you know, this is the shittiest job in restaurant work. But you must remember, if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean. You should never find yourself not doing something. And ‘in the weeds’ is what we say when we’re overwhelmed with work and can’t seem to get ahead. Your friend Mary was probably in the weeds when she called you today,” Ruth said.
“Thank you,” I said, “you won’t regret this, I promise.”
Ruth looked me up and down. “Takes all kinds, Grant. Takes all kinds of people to make the world go around,” she said.