A care package, of sorts – part one

I recently got a package in the mail from my grandmother.  It was actually just an envelope, but it was stuffed with so many things I feel justified in calling it a package.  The contents aren’t what you might expect when you think “care package” and “grandma” in the same sentence, though.  I tore into the envelope as soon as I saw it because there is no mail I like getting better than mail from my grandma.  When I was younger, she sent me things a bit more frequently, but she doesn’t get out as much these days, so there are fewer opportunities for her to find the oddities she used to.

I’ve lived in California since 1995, and even after just a year here, I can say with conviction that I did not feel like a tourist.  For some reason that isn’t totally clear to me, my grandmother began to send me anything that had anything to do with California after I moved here.  I have probably received a dozen cookbooks that had some kind of California theme – the best are those from the 60s and 70s, complete with handwritten notes in the margins from whomever tried to tweak that recipe for Peach Waldorf Salad.

If it said San Francisco, there was no chance she would pass it up.  My grandma is a thrift store shopper.  If there were thrift store shopper jobs, she’d have made a very successful career of it.  Before she retired, she worked in Downtown Sheboygan, within walking distance of three different thrift stores.  She visited each one weekly during her lunch hour – St. Vincent’s on Monday, Goodwill on Tuesday, and so on.  Between the downtown stores and a couple she’d hit on her way home after work, she went to one thrift store a day, every day of every week.  When I was a kid, we occasionally donated clothes to Goodwill.  We soon realized we needed to tell Grandma ahead of time, though, or she would buy back the things we’d just donated and they’d be waiting for us the next time we visited her.

I had a small ceramic planter in the shape of a cable car, a book or two about Alcatraz (in fact, if I remember right, even an Alcatraz cookbook), a set of coasters with pictures of famous San Francisco scenes – Lombard Street, The Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge.  She sent small wooden cable car Christmas ornaments painted garish shades of red and green, a copy of Tales of the City, and the occasional San Francisco or Yosemite calendar, and a cribbage board with a picture of the Golden Gate.

In the past few years, I’ve also started to receive obituaries – a zillion of them.  The genealogy bug bit me a couple of years ago, and Grandma is the biggest fan of my detective work.  I have traced her ancestors that emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, and found her 3rd great-grandfather living in an insane asylum in the 1910 census.  She is always eager to hear any random tidbit of news I find, and I just wish I had more time to spend on research now that I know how much she enjoys it.

The latest package, which prompted this post, was all about my genealogy research – well, almost.  First was an article about an upcoming PBS series about genealogy, then came two horrific stories from the local paper about a relative that attacked his wife because she wouldn’t give him cigarettes and the garage door remote control.  As I said, not your typical care package from Grandma, but since I started all the genealogy work – the family dirty laundry is no longer left hidden…  Finally, there were four obituaries, each with a hand-written sticky note attached.

Any key points of interest in the obits are highlighted in yellow to aid me in following who these people might be.  The note attached to one obituary for a woman whose last name I didn’t recognize, read “Louis is brother to Grandma Emma.”  It took me a second to find Louis highlighted in the newspaper clipping and then I recognized his last name as the maiden name of my grandma’s maternal grandmother.  Another obituary was for someone who was related by marriage, and the note read, “Robert – Married to cousin of Grandpa – Jake & Clara daughter.”  Another was for the wife of a cousin to my great-grandmother.  The one I like the best, though, is for a woman whose married name appears heavily in our ancestry.  The note reads “Don’t know if Walter is family.”

Oh, I almost forgot – she also slipped in a recipe for crab-stuffed portobello mushrooms.

Dish washing rules from a gay man in a Mexican restaurant

In the summer of 1994, I got a job at a Mexican restaurant in the mall in Sheboygan.  It was interesting, in that every employee had to learn each of the three primary jobs – cook, bartender, and waiting tables.  That way, when someone called in sick, there was a larger pool of qualified people to convince to come in on their day off.  The first day I went in to work, I was a mess because the night before was the last night I’d see my girlfriend for the rest of the summer – she was going to Europe for a couple of months.  It wasn’t something I could talk about, because I was still petrified of people knowing I was gay back then.  I wasn’t out to many people – just my closest friends, my sister, and my uncle. Then, when I walked in for that first day of training, I recognized one of the guys that worked there from the local gay bar.  I could tell he recognized me, too, but we acted as though we had never met.  We didn’t speak a word of where we’d seen each other before, not even between the two of us when no one else was around.  That moment solidified for me the feeling of leading a double life in a way I’d never experienced before.

It was one thing not to be out to everyone around me, but generally that just meant I didn’t talk about certain things, or I stayed vague about the nature of a relationship.  It was another thing to look someone in the eye that under any other circumstances I’d have said, “Hey, how are you?” and gone on to have a normal friendly conversation with, and instead pretend I had no idea he existed before that moment.  In the end, I didn’t dwell on it for long, but the first few days were awkward.  I didn’t know the guy well – don’t even remember his name, even after working with him.  He was someone we saw at the bar, but didn’t talk to, for some reason.

He ended up training me on exactly how to wash the dishes when I worked in the kitchen.  There was a real science to it.  Three huge compartments in a metal sink came into play.  The first was filled with water so hot it almost burned your hands, but not quite.  It left them a screaming red, and I had to pull my hands out after every couple of dishes to tolerate the heat.  The second was filled with warm water that had some rinsing agent in it.  After scrubbing in the scalding water, I’d dunk the dishes in the chemically treated rinsing water, then dunk them into the third sink, which was full of plain old cold water.  It was the final rinse station.  As this guy trained me, he stressed just how important it was to dunk in the cold sink.  He explained with the utmost seriousness that the cold water broke down any last soap bubbles left on the dishes faster than warmer water would.  I thought that was crazy, but did as I was told.  I mean, come on, I was washing dishes either way – who really cared what steps I had to take?  Well, my secret gay acquaintance really cared.  He went on and on about it.  His relentless lecturing about cold water breaking down soap bubbles seemed so weird to me – why would anyone talk about it soooo much?

After I’d worked there a couple weeks, I finally felt comfortable enough with another employee to ask about the water thing, and found out that the secret gay guy felt so strongly about it because he thought he discovered this little known scientific fact on his own.  His endless praise of cold water for rinsing was actually his pride in his attention to detail being verbalized – his intellectual ability to look at a common situation that would seem as though it had no room for improvement, and find some way to make it better.  I was never convinced that it made any difference, but I had to give the guy credit for finding some warped sense of meaning in such a crummy job.

As I was finishing this post, I thought I better check to see if cold water does in fact rinse dishes better than hot water – I went to Google and began to type, “does cold water…” and auto-complete suggested that I might be searching for the answer to this question instead – “does cold water boil faster than hot water?”  Seriously?  That’s the most commonly searched for question about cold water?  I give up.

Jobs from my youth – The Downtown Club, 1993

A few weeks ago, I posted about a writing exercise in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories.  It had to do with creating a timeline for some period of your life, to help jar your memory about details and spawn some story ideas.  One of the things I did when I started my timeline was go through old tax records, which reminded me of various jobs I had when I was much younger.  There was a period between 1993 and 1995 where I reported income in two states for each of those tax years.  I moved a lot back then.  I was trying to find a way out of Wisconsin, and it took me a while to make that work.

In 1993, I reported income from five employers in Wisconsin, and one in Illinois.  All those jobs, and my income only came to $5436.18.  I wasn’t great at holding jobs back then.  Nothing made me happy, and I hadn’t developed the will power it takes to stick with something you don’t like.  In one job, I waited tables at what was a new restaurant/dance club in Sheboygan.  During the day, we opened for lunch, then closed for a couple hours to get ready for dinner.  At 9 0’clock, the dinner tables went away and the place turned into a night club.  I learned some interesting lessons at that job.  The Downtown Club billed itself as a fine dining restaurant, and back then, there weren’t many to be found in the area.  However, that also meant that those of us that worked there didn’t really know what fine dining was – not the food, not the service, certainly not different wines.

I did my best, but I remember a wealthy couple in for lunch one day.  I served their sandwiches or salads, or whatever it was the ordered, and they were drinking coffee.  As I made my rounds to see if anyone wanted refills, the wealthy woman nodded that she did.  I picked up her coffee cup, and topped it off.  She told me condescendingly this was not the way to refill someone’s coffee cup.  I should lift the cup on the saucer, so as not to touch the cup itself.  I clenched my teeth and bit my tongue instead of apologizing and walked away quickly, hoping they would soon leave and I would still get a half-way decent tip.  I felt a certain shame that I didn’t know those fine details about how things are done for wealthy people.  All my coffee-pouring skills were learned from the overworked waitresses at IHOP who poured my coffee only occasionally after they left the “Bottomless pot” on my table.  Even then, I was lucky if they didn’t pour the coffee in my lap as they leaned across the table to reach my mug.  I’ve never completely gotten over the bitterness I felt at people who had money, coming from a mostly lower-middle class background myself.  I still carry a chip on my shoulder, even when I choose to go to fancy restaurants now, and money is no longer a big issue in my life.

Another lesson from my job at the Downtown Club was how to tend bar, Wisconsin-style.  I’ve learned since then that the way people make drinks in Wisconsin doesn’t really match the way they make them anywhere else.  For instance, the Old Fashioned is a very popular Wisconsin drink.  Age doesn’t matter – everyone drinks them.  You can order an Old Fashioned with either whiskey or brandy, and order it either sweet or sour.  This is a departure from the traditional Old Fashioned, which calls for no soda whatsoever.  In Wisconsin, though, sweet means put 7-up in the drink, and top it off with a cherry wrapped in half an orange slice, impaled on a plastic sword.  Sour means put sour soda in the drink.  I have yet to find any other place where “sour” means sour soda.  When I first came to California, I’d order a sour drink – Amaretto Sour, Whiskey sour, whatever – and the bartenders put that horrible sweet and sour mix in the drink – the kind you’d find in a margarita.  The first time I took a sip, I almost sprayed it all over the people standing in front of me.  

50/50 was a popular sour soda used as a drink mixer.  It was a grapefruit & lime soda, and all bars had it.  It’s soda, but not as sweet as 7-up.  I have no idea why this soda seemed to be such a regional drink.  The closest thing I’ve been able to find in California is called Collins Mix, and it’s not available in bars.  I eventually switched to ginger ale when I wanted whiskey with something less sweet in it here.  Bourbon and ginger ale was my standard drink for a few years.  Lately, I drink fruity drinks, which I get a lot of crap for from all my friends, because I am not supposed to like girly, fruity drinks.  Maybe I’d drink Old Fashioned’s again if “sour” meant what it does in Wisconsin.