In the sweltering heat of August, when the restaurant is cranking full-tilt and tempers are short-fused, any little thing can set a kitchen-pirate off. Greasy spatulas can do it, frayed apron strings, wilted celery, anything. I fought the urge one day when Elmer informed me that he had just hired Sterling Sprague as a prep-cook. He announced this wearing his all-too-familiar sadistic grin, knowing full well how I felt about Sterling. Our last prep cook, a guy we referred to as ‘George of the Jungle’, had lasted two weeks before he’d been escorted to the town line by the local boys in blue. He had been a renegade wildcatter from Alaska who admitted to us his distaste for what he sneeringly termed “civilized living.” He looked like a grizzly bear, downed prodigious amounts of Jack Daniels, and tried to goad myriad petrified tourists, ex-jock bouncers, and even crazed local fishermen and bikers into tangling with him. Most refused, The few others ended up bloodied and battered. George did his work, got drunk, picked a fight whenever and wherever he could (for reasons, he insisted, of mental health), then made his way to what he called home – a certain large oak tree by the ocean, and tied himself to a large limb to sleep it off.
“You did what?!” I shouted at Elmer. “Not that cretin, Elm’! You know how he is, he’ll be in the way more than anything else!”
“I just knew you’d get a kick outta that.Yup, hired him this morning…look, we gotta have a body preppin’ them rolls, pickin’ the meat outta them lobsters, choppin’ salad mix….YOU wanna do that stuff, eh?”
The crazed French-Canadian had a point there, but I still offered resistance.
“I’ve worked in kitchens with him before, and he’s about as solid as the Pillsbury Dough Boy and maybe half as smart. Once, we ran out of jelly at breakfast, and some kid wanted peanut butter and jelly for lunch. I say we’re out of jelly, he says not to worry, he’s got it covered. I figured he had a private stash or something around, so I go back to knocking out clubs and blt’s and such, until I notice what the damn fool is doing – he’s spreading the mint jelly for the lamb on a piece of bread! He’s got it covered, right? Peanut butter and mint jelly! The whole line comes to a halt while I convince the mule-headed idiot that he just can’t do that and send him running to the store for real jelly….Elm’, believe me, this guy ain’t got a clue!”
“I know that, but we just gotta give him easy stuff to do….if he opens his mouth too much or gets in the way, we just send him down the cellar, clean the meat-saw, stock the shelves, eh?”
Before Sterling showed up that afternoon for his shift I cornered the ‘Old Man’, Saleem Salaam Kahlil Butros Moses George J. Haddad, our semi-retired soup and chowder and bisque maker (he also made lunch everyday for the staff, one of his favorites being split pea soup with hot dog chunks – he called it “Dog-Pea Soup”).
“George” I said, “This new guy coming in today, Sterling Sprague, is about as clueless as they come. I caught him once trying to send out mushrooms DIPPED in Italian Season dressing as “marinated mushrooms”…a cook from another restaurant told me he’d seen a resume Sterling had submitted that listed “Egg Wash” under ‘Sauces and Gravies Familiar With’….the guy’s a real loser, George.”
The kindly ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, steeped as was in kitchen lore, simply said: “He’s probably just young.”, never considering that most everyone was young compared to him. “We had a kid one time” he went on, “.in my place who couldn’t boil water without burning it . He couldn’t measure even a cup or a teaspoon, and we never let him near a knife…but we showed him how to hull strawberries and crack eggs, and he ended up being a great help.”
“But George, Sterling doesn’t even know the difference between a strawberry and an egg! The guy’s a walking disaster looking for a place to happen…I brought him to tears one time and he quit when I calmly explained to him what a sorry example of humanity he was…he’s such a sad-sack wuss that one time….
I was cut short when George nodded his head over my shoulder towards the time clock by the kitchen screen door. There, waddling in wearing his rumpled and baggy cook’s whites, was Sterling Sprague, a sheepish grin on his pudgy face.
Elmer, who had been tending a large pot of chili, helped the miscreant punch in and took him on a tour of the kitchen, introducing him to the scurrying figures who couldn’t have cared less. When my turn came for an introduction, Elmer, the instigator, said:
“you know —-, don’t you? He said you guys usta work together.He’ll show you what needs to be done.”
Needless to say, after I had nodded my perfunctory hello, I quickly steered him to the kitchen’s prep area and assigned him a task I thought even he could accomplish without incident – cleaning and chopping heads of lettuce for the salad mix. Unfortunately, this involved the use of a very large, very sharp French knife. In no time at all (I was later to learn that he was only on his second head of lettuce), I heard a blood-curdling scream from the prep area, and hurried over to find Sterling white as a sheet and clutching his now bloody apron around one of his fingers. I calmed him down a bit, long enough to find out that he had chopped off a fingertip. He was incapable of anything but utter horror, and began to cry.
We sent for Whitey, the restaurant owner, and told Brother Hill, our grizzled, veteran dish-dog, to tear himself away from sorting silverware and prepare to take Sterling to the ER in Whitey’s truck, which was parked right out back. I found the fleshy pink tip of Sterling’s finger under a pile of bloody lettuce, and wrapped it in a clean kitchen towel with ice, hoping they might be able to re-attach it. Brother Hill was none too happy being dragged away from his work, but reluctantly removed his rubber apron and brought Sterling and his fingertip to the local hospital.
A week later Sterling returned to work, a fresh bandage on the remained of his finger (the tip was too small to be replaced), and a latex glove on his hand. Most of us had completely forgotten about the incident, until we saw his roly-poly form and hang-dog face at the time clock. Hoots and cat-calls from the crew greeted him, and he hung his head as if in apology for being the sad cook, and human, that he was. We set him a task or two which kept him relatively removed from dangerous utensils or equipment (not an easy task when everything from mixing bowls and rubber spatulas to pastry brushes and bags could become dangerous in Sterling’s hands).
Brother Hill and Rick, “The Man Who Fell From Space”, our pot-man, shared a small apartment above the restaurant, a place we’d frequent to smoke a bowl and have a few beers after work. I was on my way to the outside stairs with Brother Hill when I ran into “Doctor Who”, a flake-brained waitron, belaboring some assuredly obscure point with Sterling out back by the dumpster….”Wanna blow one with us, Doc?!” Brother Hill boomed, “C’mon up!”….Doc of course was always ready to get high, but we didn’t expect Sterling to ask if he could tag along. We each swept debris from wherever we chose to sit. As we passed the joint I noticed Sterling sitting more forlorn and hang-dog than I’d ever seen him, slowly and sadly shaking his big, shaggy head from side to side. He wouldn’t take a hit or have a beer, his only vice being lasagna, and it seemed the more relaxed and unwound we became, the more uptight and preoccupied he got. We packed the roach into a one-hitter and were about to fire it up when Sterling muttered, “Well, I suppose it’s better than slappin’ rats.”….it was good weed, and we had trouble processing the statement. Doctor Who asked him to repeat it, which he did. Thirty seconds went by, a minute, while Sterling sat shaking his head, before Brother Hill bellowed (he only had one volume), “What the fuck are you talking about?!”….Sterling looked up at us mournfully. “Slappin’ rats…y’know, I mean kitchen work.” …The Man Who Fell From Space politely asked Sterling to explain himself, and Brother Hill added menacingly, “Speak English, dipshit!”….”Well,” Sterling began, “I’m saying that even this kitchen work, even after slicing my fingertip off, is better than my last job. I used to work at the M. Jackson Laboratory (a genetic research center just outside of town), and they had thousands of these white mice and rats in cages. The scientists in my section were researching different genetic strains, and one thing they monitored was called ‘aggressive behavior under stress’. It was my job to observe and record how white rats reacted before and after being “stressed”, y’know, after I slapped them around. I did that every day for two years.”
A beat passed, a few more, until we all exploded into stoned hilarity. We laughed til it hurt. “He’s an ex-professional rat-slapper! I can’t handle it!!”
After the laughter subsided and we went our separate ways, I couldn’t help but think there was a profound message in such an outrageous statement….ever since, I’ve mystified burned out kitchen-pirates with Sterling’s immortal line: “It’s better than slappin’ rats.”