Mind and Body

A personal meditation on the nature of work on Labor Day 2017

Addicted to work: finding the human courage to survive and heal, harnessing the drive to overcome greed and corruption, and recognizing the irrepressible human spark to forge a better workplace

Photo courtesy of Richard Asinof

A blurry portrait of a young man as a cook in the basement kitchen at Rocky Raccoon's Saloon in 1975 in Washington, D.C.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/4/17
What we do often gets lost in the maw of history. What we remember often gets blurrier as we get older. If we can define ourselves not by our work, but by who we are, the ability to survive takes on new meaning.
Is there any job that is worth risking your health and well being as a condition of work? How does risk get compensated in the workplace? Is there a way to tell stories, a most human activity, without relying on the so-called great men theory of history? How do we acknowledge and recognize the worthiness of colleagues engaged in similar endeavors? In the workplace, what value is placed on asking questions rather than following orders?
The writer Tom Wolfe once hypothesized in 1973 that within the human brain, there was a status switch that played a critical role in human interactions. While I disagreed with the premise at the time, I find it harder and harder to argue against his hypothesis today: it seems a natural human artifice to seek advantage through status.
How much money you make, what kind of car you drive, the clothes that you wear, the people who you hang with, particularly in the workplace, define the way in which respect is often divvied out, particularly in the age of Trump.
The reality is that you can’t take it with you.

PROVIDENCE – When I was 23, in the summer of 1975, I found myself in an underworld ordeal of restaurant work and survival in Washington, D.C.

Years later I would discover that it was similar in nature to what George Orwell had once described in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, and his travails of daily survival working as a dishwasher, a plongeur, a pearl diver for hotels in Paris in 1928.

That dismal work experience in a basement restaurant kitchen hell without any source of natural light has forever shaped my understanding of the American working world.

It taught me the importance of the human spark that is necessary to stand up together to fight back against the greed, corruption and racism that is often an endemic part of American enterprise – and a respect for how difficult it is to escape the crushing nature of poverty, even while employed.

Almost every workplace where I have toiled since then – from kitchen to newsroom, from law office to community agency, from state agency to quasi-public – seemed to have as its mission a desire for a greater altruistic good, under the guise of teamwork.

And, at the same time, there always seemed to be an unspoken strategy to exploit workers to the fullest extent of their talents, often for the lowest possible wage.

The choices faced by workers were often complex: what would you do if your job was on the line? Would you speak up or look the other way? Were you willing to be fired and lose your job? Would you lie to protect your boss from an investigation into his alleged malfeasance, or would you tell the truth? Would you stand up on behalf of a reporter who was bullied by the publisher? Would the workers, in turn, be willing to stand up for you? Sometimes.

It also offered me a constructive way to think about and to re-imagine the workplace and to reinvent the nature of work relationships as part an emerging innovation ecosystem in 21st century America.

Descent into hell
The weekly alternative newspaper that I had been recruited to work for as an editor had failed to make its targeted launch date that spring, leaving me with a title and no weekly paycheck.

Working as a freelance journalist in Washington proved a difficult way to survive to make enough money to pay the rent, despite some success in selling stories to Rolling Stone and Harpers Weekly – as well as a notable failure with The Village Voice.

Having run out of money, on July 4, 1975, responding to a want ad in The Washington Post, I applied for and was hired for the position of sous chef for a new Mexican restaurant, Rocky Racoon’s Saloon and Rosa’s Cantina, the latest of five restaurants that had been opened by three long-haired sons of vice presidents at Riggs National Bank, who somehow appeared to have an endless supply of cash to throw into the opening of a new restaurant. [Decades later, news reports would reveal that the bank had been allegedly involved in laundering money, long after the restaurants had faded from existence.]

The restaurant construction had not yet been completed; the opening date was two weeks later, and the construction crew was lead by a former CIA operative who bragged that he had been a principal in the Phoenix program in Vietnam, which used targeted assassinations to kill more than 10,000 Vietnamese.

The overall chef for the entire restaurant operation was a friend of the owners named “Hoppy.” The head chef at Rocky’s was a former cryptologist with the U.S. Army in Vietnam named Tyler; he turned out he had a serious drug problem with speed.

The kitchen crew included an overnight prep cook, Ray, who worked from midnight to six a.m. He had been a former Green Beret in Vietnam, in charge of interrogating Vietnamese prisoners.

There were two dishwashers: Eric, a brash recent high school graduate from the District; and Louis, quiet and serious, a Nigerian immigrant, with a wife and two kids. This was a second job for Louis; he worked nights as a cook at a Burger King.

The line cook was a former hairdresser who had recently lost his wife to cancer and was now trying to keep his financial world from collapsing, while caring for his six-year-old son.

The broiler cook, James, had been a former U.S. Army veteran, who served in Germany.

The night cook, who liked to be called “Big Bad Bob,” was a former policeman in Virginia who had been removed from the force for alleged police brutality. He drove a red Cadillac Eldorado.

We were all American as apple pie.

Out, out damned spot
Because the kitchen tile floor had been installed before the ceiling was installed and painted, numerous drops of acrylic paint had splattered the flooring. So Hoppy bought some industrial strength acid and steel wool and ordered the kitchen crew to remove the paint droppings. [For whatever reason, the construction crew was never asked to correct their mistakes.]

The kitchen crew rebelled; using acid with steel wool to remove epoxy paint without protective gear, even gloves, seemed a workplace violation. Hoppy bought gloves; the gloves kept disappearing, having been “eighty-sixed” by Tyler. Hoppy bought more gloves; those also “disappeared.”

The question soon became moot as the rubber kitchen mats needed for the kitchen soon graced the floors.

Bought and paid for
The litany of screw ups may seem normal for those working in the restaurant industry: the failure to pay workers overtime; the two-week delay in getting paid; and the decision of the construction crew to turn off the exhaust system in the midst of a busy lunch hour, requiring me to wrap my arms in wet towels to cook the food.

There was the incident where a fired waiter apparently contaminated the refried beans with his own excrement, requiring an emergency preparation of new beans to be served. The huge walk-in acquired a new lock.

When Hoppy insisted on calling the crew his “kitchen boys,” Louis complained bitterly that he was a man, not a boy. I confronted Hoppy, asking him politely not to call the workers “boys” anymore.

“What are they going to do about it?” Hoppy demanded. “They know I don’t mean anything by it.”

I responded, in my most polite voice, knowing that the entire kitchen crew was listening in rapt attention: “Well, then perhaps it would be okay if they called you a m-f white honkie bossman, because they wouldn’t mean anything by it, either.”

Hoppy sputtered in disbelief. “Then they can haul their asses out of here because they would be fired.” He stalked away.

Back in the kitchen, the workers beamed. I wondered how long I would survive.

But the next day, Hoppy started to call the crew his kitchen boys, and stopped, instead calling them his kitchen men. One small step for mankind.

The breaking point
A few weeks later, Tyler arrived late; he was carrying a brown paper bag, from which he pulled a revolver and put it to the head of James, the broiler cook, and pulled the trigger: it was not loaded. Tyler thought it was a funny joke.

It was scary. That afternoon, I resigned, leaving the next day. I knew that Tyler would begin most workdays injecting himself in the thigh with speed. On the way up, his work was amazing; on the way down, it was dangerous.

Moral of the story
I had learned, in graphic fashion, that the workplace was not a safe place. I had also learned that there was a possibility, when permitted, where a team working together could achieve remarkable outcomes. It depended on mutual trust.

We are all survivors from work and family histories. How we choose to overcome the difficulties is not a simple task; it requires both letting go and allowing the need to control things around you to dissipate.

It also requires the willingness to remove yourself from a dangerous situation, to say no, to walk away.

All too often, we define ourselves by our work products, rather than by our relationships.

Finding a balance between life and work priorities is no guarantee for happiness. But remaining in a toxic situation will only fester.

© convergenceri.com | subscribe | contact us | report problem | About | Advertise

powered by creative circle media solutions

Join the conversation

Want to get ConvergenceRI
in your inbox every Monday?

Type of subscription (choose one):

We will contact you with subscription details.

Thank you for subscribing!

We will contact you shortly with subscription details.