A Game of Chicken on Red Hill Avenue (an Original Recipe for Disaster?)

04Sep09

The media dubbed it the “Summer of Love.”  Scott McKenzie (where is he now?) sang that “If you’re goin’ to San Francisco… be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” 

Well, I spent the summer of 1967 in Marin County, only a few miles north of that Mecca of Hippiedom.  I even went to San Francisco fairly often, but never wore flowers in my (relatively short) hair.  I did, however, spend a lot of that summer with flour in my hair… working for a well-known fast food chain whose front man was a southern gentleman and honorary military officer. 

And how did that happen?  Let’s see… my parents were active in a little theatre group called the Ross Valley Players.  They were friends with a fellow in the RVP who owned a couple of that chicken purveyor’s franchises.  He needed a part-time employee; I needed a part-time job between high school graduation and going off to college.  So, even 42 years ago – and just to get a dumb summer job – it was all about who you knew

“The store,” as the franchise owner called it, was on a stretch of Red Hill Avenue between San Anselmo and San Rafael, known locally as the “Miracle Mile.”  There didn’t appear to be anything the least bit miraculous about this place – no evidence of supernatural intervention that I ever saw – just the slightly surreal, life-sized plastic statue of the chain’s founder in the window. 

My first morning on the job, I walked in the back entrance and heard melodious, full-throated singing echoing from a storage room:

“Oh what a mis-ruh-ble mor-r-r-r ning. 
Oh what a mis-ruh-ble day.
I’ve got a mis-ruh-ble fee-e-e ling,
nothing is going my wa-a-ay.” 

It was at that moment I discovered that the owner was a profoundly unhappy man.  He possessed an superb voice, perfectly suited to Broadway musicals.  He could sing like Howard Keel or John Raitt, but he looked like… Jimmy Durante.  In short, he definitely was not leading man material.  The only role I ever saw him play with the RVP was Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.”  He didn’t even get to sing. 

The owner handed me an apron and a cap made of paper.  He then walked me through what would become my work routine for the next 2½ months:

  • Move blocks of frozen chicken from the walk-in freezer to the walk-in refrigerator to defrost.
  • Take the defrosted chicken – which had been sitting overnight in a stinking puddle of chicken blood diluted with ice water – out of the walk-in refrigerator and rinse it off.
  • Whip up a wash of eggs, water and powdered milk.
  • Pour the pre-seasoned flour (containing those famous “11 secret herbs and spices”) into the prep table.
  • Dip the chicken pieces in the egg wash, then roll them in the flour and set them on a rack to let the coating set.
  • Melt huge bricks of lard in the pressure cookers.
  • Dump the chicken pieces into the pressure cooker full of hot lard, then put the lid on, turn, and lock it.
  • Place the regulator on top of the steam release valve, set the timer, and let the pressure cooker do its thing.
  • Turn off the heat when the timer rang and slowly release the steam from the pressure cooker.
  • Pluck the cooked chicken out of the grease with tongs and set it in the warmer, where my colleagues would put it in boxes or buckets. 

Nine hours later, “the store” closed and I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was.  I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror.  I was drenched in sweat and, absurdly, the dusting of flour on my face gave me a slight resemblance to a mime. 

Then I looked down at my feet… my taupe suede Hush Puppies were caked with chicken batter.  I attempted to clean them, but it was pointless.  The shoes were ruined.  I realized that any shoes I wore on this job would be ruined – I would have to wear this pair at work for the rest of the summer. 

Four days a week, I went to “the store.”  For minimum wage plus all the chicken I could eat (an offer that quickly lost any appeal it might once have had) I went through my ritual, while the owner belted out nihilistic parodies of show tunes.  Each evening I went home with another layer of batter coating my shoes.  They soon took on the dimensions of clown footwear, and I had to drive to and from work in my socks. 

Every week there would be a different mishap.  Once, while releasing a regulator valve, I scalded my hand with high-pressure steam.  Another time, I splashed my fingers with hot grease and, instictively, put them in my mouth to cool the burn – forever altering my interpretation of the company’s tag line “finger lickin’ good.”  

One day, I whipped up the egg wash and noticed it was much frothier than usual.  I thought nothing of it until that afternoon, when I had to make a new batch.  I broke the eggs, poured in the water and went to stick a scoop into the powdered milk… except that it wasn’t the powdered milk; it was the powdered soap for washing the pressure cookers.  Someone – not me – switched the two bags.  That certainly explained the frothiness of the morning’s egg wash!  Having not eaten lunch yet… I made sure to have chicken from the new batch.  That day and the next, I lived in dread, wondering what would happen to the people who had eaten the soapy chicken.  Amazingly, we didn’t get a single complaint!  Either nobody got sick or their projectile diarrhea was so severe, it prevented them from calling the store. 

As the summer passed and my departure for college approached, I devised a plan.  It was not for nothing that my shoes were called Hush Puppies.  Now caked in 9 weeks’ worth of batter, they were not unlike the southern food of the same name, except that they weren’t deep fried… yet.  On my last day of work, as a farewell gesture, I decided I would fry my shoes

My final work day arrived.  It passed without incident until just before closing.  I slipped off my battered shoes.  With my left hand, I lifted them above my head with a dramatic flourish; with my right, I fiddled with the knob on the timer. 

“So… how long do you think it’ll take to fry these?” I asked a colleague. 

I realized that he wasn’t looking at me.  The owner was standing at the back of the kitchen. 

“Oh, you think that’s funny, huh?” 

“Well, actually…” 

“You think you’re so goddamn smart… goin’ off to college.  Well, you don’t know shit from Shinola, kid.” 

Well, I knew neither was on this pair of shoes.  “Come on… what’s your problem?” 

“You’ve got a final paycheck coming, don’t ya, kid?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Cook those shoes and I’ll dock you for ruining a pot of lard.” 

I lowered the shoes to my side.  “It’s the end of the day… you’re just going to throw it out.” 

“You’d be destroying company property.” 

I couldn’t believe this.  “So?  How much could used lard cost?” 

“Whatever I say it costs, smart guy.” 

“That’s not fair.” 

“Fair?  Fair??” He turned to my colleagues in disbelief.  “Joe College here thinks it’s not fair.”  He turned back to me “You really don’t know shit from Shinola… LIFE’S NOT @#$%ing FAIR!” 

This certainly wasn’t going the way I’d imagined it.  I thought the humor of the situation was obvious… but I wasn’t looking at it from the point of view of a middle-aged man whose dreams had putrefied. 

I made one final argument.  “These shoes were ruined from working here… they’re worth at least as much as that lard.” 

“I’m calling your father.”

Ah, calling the parents… the nuclear option when dealing with a teenager.  Ironically, my father would have seen the humor.  It was my mother who, when talking to me, always pronounced the word “comedian” as she was describing a particularly vile child molester. 

Well, as any comedian knows – when a joke falls flat, you move on.  I picked up an empty cardboard bucket.  The stylized face of a white-haired coot with glasses, string tie and goatee grinned inanely at me.  I dumped my shoes in the bucket and headed to the parking lot.  

As I approached the back door, I heard cackling.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the owner making barnyard sound effects, culminating in a boisterous “chick-UHN!” 

I pondered this for a moment – the guy had told me not to do something and then, when I didn’t do it, he mocked me. 

“How soon can I pick up my check?” 

The owner crowed like a rooster at daybreak. 

“I’ll come by on Friday for it.” I said and walked out to my car, listening to a grown man clucking. 

It turned out, that was not quite the end of the story.  That Friday evening, I was hanging out with my friend Bill Anixter.  We were riding around in his Mustang convertible with the top down, and I realized I hadn’t gotten my check.  We headed down Red Hill and saw “the store” brightly illuminated in the late summer twilight.

Bill and I walked in the door and my former colleagues went nuts.  At first I thought it had to do with my confrontation with the owner.  Soon, however, I realized it was something far more bizarre.

“He was HERE!  He was HERE!” they chanted.  A Polaroid picture was produced.  At first I thought they were just crowded around the statue in the window – but the background was wrong.  And the old man was a real old man… although he was dressed exactly like his plastic likeness.  The man who had spawned this chain of greasy chicken stands was renowned for traveling the country, visiting each “store” to promote the franchise… for a fee.  And yesterday, he’d been on the “Miracle Mile.” 

“Shit!  If I’d just worked here one more day I could have fried my shoes for the Colonel himself!” 

“But ya didn’t!”  The owner had appeared and he handed me my check. 

“That’s true.”  I said, walking out the door, “… but you know what else is true?”

 “What, smart guy?”

 “I’m leaving here… and you’re not!”

 So… what can we learn from this? 

  • Timing is everything.
  • “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.”  This line, from Virgil’s Aeneid, is – if not suitable for all occasions – certainly suitable for many of the situations I describe in this blog.  It is translated either “One day it will please us to remember even this” (which, believe it or not, is the title of a 2006 album by The New York Dolls!) or “Perhaps someday we will look back upon these things with joy.” 

Joy?  Not yet… I’m just glad it provided me with material. 

Later…

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4 Responses to “A Game of Chicken on Red Hill Avenue (an Original Recipe for Disaster?)”

  1. 1 Jim Laffan

    Dorn:

    I stepped up on the platform
    The man gave me the news
    He said, You must be joking son
    Where did you get those shoes?
    Where did you get those shoes?

    Now we know. Great story. Jim

  2. 2 ted

    I laughed so hard I coughed up my Taco Bell Gordito

    Don’t coat
    your wings with soap
    Hot grease –
    don’t use too much
    Don’t deep
    fry your shoes too much
    People will say you can’t cook

  3. Dear Michael,
    Having worked for the “Colonel” in the mid-sixties I was transported back by your
    tale of hot oil , secret spices and ruined shoes. Now… we had to cut up our chickens. Wings – legs – thighs (crack the back) and the dreaded keel bone. I too wore the hush puppy; however I left them at work and put on my good pair when leaving for the evening fun which usually meant heading to the drive-in with my friend in his ’54 chevy he had named “Wally a-go go.” The stench (yes stench) of the work place was still embeded on my clothes so picking up chics usually didn’t happen. The upside of the job was I starting saving the hearts, livers and gizzards and sold them to a local bait shop for catfish stink bait. Oh yes. Harlen visited our site also…on my day off.

    Greg

    • Glad you enjoyed the post.
      I don’t recalling having to cut up the chickens… it would have been yet one more opportunity for self-mutilation.


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