There’s No Fire in the Kitchen

Note:  This is the third in a series of memoirs about the crazy life I’ve lived.  Most of it will focus on growing up in Buffalo, but this story was screaming to escape!

Spring, 1989.  Ten years removed from the North Side of the “Queen City of the Lakes,” I was now a world citizen.  I had lived in Adana, Turkey.  Washington, D.C.  San Francisco, California.  For four glorious months, I hung for the weekend in Dallas-Fort Worth.  I’d been to most of Europe, and had seen things about barrio life in the Phillipines that I’m quite sure not too many people who live outside those barrio communities get to see.

Heavy-duty overhead fire sprinkler systems like this one shoot tremendous quantities of chemicals at fires.

But, after leaving the United States Air Force for various reasons not the least of which being the extremely wise “I’m sick of the uniform,” I returned.  Not to Buffalo, but to the food business.

It was Friday evening.  I was the shift manager in a big Mexican restaurant.  Mothers’ Day, the busiest day of the restaurant year, was just two days off.

Our cantina closed at 1 A.M. on Fridays.  Restaurants located on major thoroughfares have large lease payments, and alcohol sales contribute mightily to a restaurant’s ability to pay.  So you never close the cantina early.  You pour drinks until the nanosecond at which it becomes illegal to do so.  Cocktail servers tired and cranky?  Tough.  Thirsty men are waiting.  Go out there and sell it.  “Last call” isn’t a warning to our patrons that they have to leave soon.  It’s our last chance to crush our numbers.

After the place closes, bartenders, servers, and bus staff count on me to referee the distribitution of the tip pool.  The place has to be cleaned well enough so there’ll be no sickening bar stench the next morning.  The nightly numbers must be totaled, the credit card activity must be reconciled, the bank deposit prepared, the cash drawers readied for the next day’s lunch.  Feelings must often be massaged so my ultra-mature 21-year-old actress/model/drama queen/tough guys won’t quit en masse, making my next day’s life hell because we’re short-staffed.

On this particular Friday night, with Mother’s Day closing in, I had just let the last person besides myself out the front door.  It was a few minutes past 2 A.M.  I was exhausted, and alone.  Time for me to engage in my ritual theivery.  Nothing too extreme: a big, heaping tablespoon of Kahlua chocolate mousse from the walk-in cooler.  Okay, two tablespoons.

I stood in the big, quiet kitchen, checking it over one final time.  Did Fernando’s night crew miss anything important when they cleaned up?  I yawned and stretched my arms out over my head.  Feeling suddenly lightheaded, I grabbed onto something overhead to steady myself.

I had grabbed onto the valve that turns on the sprinkler system.  The one that releases fire-dousing chemicals from all the hood fans in the kitchen.  A fine, white powder.

A very loud alarm sounded.  It was so loud, it knocked me to the floor.  I scrambled to my feet and noticed the tremendous force with which the white powder was being shot all over the place.  I wrestled the valve back to the “off” position.

Too late.

A couple inches of the white stuff now lay atop our char-griller and our broiler.  And the red ceramic kitchen floor.  And the counter where the line cooks assembled the dinner plates.  And in the deep fryers.  And the food prep area.

I went out to the cantina to pour myself a large, cold beer and to ponder my next move.  Or so I thought.  The cantina was far enough away from the sprinklers to escape the brunt of the blizzard, but there were flurries in the air.  I was breathing the stuff, and it was beginning to coat the bar, the tables, the chairs, everything.

That’s when I heard sirens.  The alarm must have been connected to the Montgomergy County Fire Department.  Good, I thought, maybe they’ll help me clean up. I went outside and waited.

Two trucks responded.  I explained the situation to one of the guys. “Well,” he said, “once we’re here, we’re required to have a look.”  He followed me into the kitchen, and began to chuckle.  “Good luck,” he said to me.  “No fire here.  No one’s injured.  Can’t help you.”

I called my boss, who always said he would be there for us shift managers whenever we needed him.  “Robin,” I said, “I’m sorry to call you in the middle of the night, but I have this problem.”  I explained it as calmly as possible.

“Hmm,” he said.  “It does sound like you have a problem.  I like you, Dave.  But if we have to close for Mother’s Day because of this, I’ll have no choice but to let you go.”

“I don’t think I can clean this up myself,” I whined.

“You’re probably right,” he said thoughtfully.  “Sounds like you should get the employee roster out and start making some phone calls.”  Robin had this thing about holding people accountable to fix their own problems, to clean up their own messes.

I looked at our employee roster.  Hmm.  Shannon might help.  She always had a pleasant word or two for me.  And Mike, the bartender.  We spoke proudly to each other about our shared Italian-American heritage.  And Fernando, our kitchen manager.  We lifted weights together, got along well.  I started making calls.

Funny thing about calling people at 2:30 AM on Saturday morning.  Often, they don’t answer.  After making some calls with no responses, I decided to suck it up.  I knew where the brooms, the trash bags, and the cleaning supplies were.

Fernando called the restaurant at 5 AM.  He had just woke up and listened to my message, and he’d be right over.  He was there by 5:30.  I had been working feverishly on the cleanup for three hours, and he provided me with his perspective on how much progress I’d made and how much work still lay ahead.

“My God, Dave.  When you apply for jobs next week, you can use me as a reference.”

Fernando began to make phone calls, and screamed at people in Spanish.  I recognized some of the words.  I had often heard Spanish-speaking people use these words when they were agitated.  Soon, we were a crew of six, seven, nine people.

My boss dropped by at about nine in the morning and saw the progress we’d made.   “Good job, Dave,” Robin said.  “I thought I was going to have to let you go, but you pulled together a team.  If we miss lunch today but can open for dinner, it’ll be good enough for me.”

“But it was Fernando who…”

“Good job, Dave,”  he interrupted, putting a finger on my lips.  “I’m glad you admitted what happened.  Then you stayed and didn’t run away.”  His face was kind.  I quaked with emotion.

He put his hand on my shoulder and gave a little squeeze before he turned away.  I watched him walk out the front door, pulled myself together, and got back to helping with the cleanup.

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