Things back home were not great. My parents rocky relationship did not withstand the houseful of independent minded teenagers and all the stress that sex, drugs and violence brought with it. The bonds of my close knit family broke in February of 1993 when my father moved into an apartment in town. Both my parents, and several of the kids, started smoking, drinking and eating meat. The foundation of our lives disappeared and our home was soon to follow.
In April of that same year it rained for 40 days and 40 nights till all the mighty rivers in the Midwest overflowed their banks and swallowed up thousands of homes, ours being one of them. The water rose so fast that we had to walk out ½ of a mile through the fast moving muddy water teeming with all manner of drowned animals and debris. We were allowed to take one bag of personal items and, being 14, I chose clothes, a curling iron and shoes. No one grabbed the family photos, or the box of keepsakes deep in the closet. We didn't move things to the upper floors, as we had before when the river got high. We lost everything. In a matter of hours our pink house with a red heart on the side was a partially submerged island in the middle of the Kaw River. The water reached five feet inside the house and stayed for over a month leaving behind a mud so fine and toxic, the smell never really went away. There were also all manner of dead animals in the house who sought refuge in the upper floors of our house, only to die of starvation.
With no home to call our own, we were all split up. For a while myself and two sisters stayed with Patti Norman, a close family friend, who I refer to as one of my godmother's. Later myself and a brother moved into my dad's apartment, as he never stayed there, preferring his girlfriend's house. My younger brother and sister stayed with my mom at her boyfriend's house, and my older sister moved in with her boyfriend where I would later join the household.
This was the time of darkness for my family. I believe that both my parents were experiencing midlife crisis, and the children were all somewhere on the suicide spectrum. I was in my junior year of high school, working at Taco John's, and taking a hefty course load at school, and fighting off serious depression. I lived on bean burritos and nachos, lucky to have that food. I remember making a pot of beans, which I then left on the stove for days. Waiting for the grownup to take care of the that seriously awful smelling mess. That was the day that I realized, that I was the grownup and it was going to have to be me.
I came to work at Taco John's out of necessity. When I as 15, and a freshman, I got into a fight with a middle-class girl. Now, having grown up in pseudo-poverty, fighting was something that my peers did, and it was never very serious. My older brother and sisters fought and it was always over in a few minutes, egos either damaged or inflated. But beating up someone from the middle-class was different, they called the police and the police filed charges with the court. All of a sudden, I was be charged with assault and was propelled into the court system, where I quickly racked up over $1000 in court fees and doctor bills,and was forced to complete 10 hours of community service. I know it sounds horrible when I say that I had to pay doctor bills, but this was another difference between the classes. Poor people did not go see a doctor because they had a couple of black eyes. They knew that they would heal. This girl's mother acted as if her poor child had permanent damage, which was hardly the case.
My parents decided that since I foolish enough to get into a fight, I should be the one to pay the fines. I had always worked, since I was 11, cleaning houses and babysitting, but I needed a chunk of money, I needed a real job. My older sister had worked at Taco Bell, as her first job, but I liked the food at Taco John's better, so I applied there. I still remember sitting in the restaurant filling out the application. The last question filled me with disgust; it was , “Is there any reason you would not be able to fulfill you duties within the next nine months”-a question that basically discriminates against pregnant women.
Taco John's was a my first real foray into the food service world. I had a uniform of polyester gray pants, a turquoise cotton top, a visor, and a time card. I was paid $4.75/ hour which was minimum wage at the time. My duties initially were prep, register and cleaning. I would wipe down tables, change the garbage, bring the trays back into the kitchen and reline them. I also learned how to wrap each item in the thin paper and how to stack them in the bags for carry out orders.
I liked working the register as it gave me a chance to interact with people and it didn't take long to remember the regulars and their orders. We wrote down the orders in short hand with a grease pencil and stuck the orders on the line. The shift supervisor then assembled the order and we sent it out either on a tray or packed in a bag for the drive through. Prepping for the day was also part of my job. I would come in at 9 or 10 and slice up a 25# box of tomatoes, being instructed for the first time in knife skills. Shredding lettuce and onions, emptying 10 lb bags of shredded cheese into white cambros and making the ground beef. This was the very first time that I cooked meat. Taco John's bought 100 lbs of ground beef from a local supplier that came in bloody 10 lb bags. The site of that blood repulsed me, as did the smell of it. We had a steam kettle that we would place a bunch of onions in with the bloody beef and a Taco John's beef seasoning packet and cook it till it was done. We had this giant potato masher that we would use to break up the meat as it cooked. Every time someone lifted the lid off the beef, the smell of it would permeate the air, making me nauseous. In time I got over my repulsion, but those first few weeks were a culture shock, to say the least.
Anyone with half a brain can move up quickly in fast food. I think I worked there 6 months before being promoted to supervisor, at which time I was 16, and past the restrictions in the child labor laws. Supervisors opened and closed the store, counted out the registers at the end of the shifts, delegated the duties of everyone on the schedule and were the principal “cooks”. There wasn't any real cooking at Taco John's outside of the beef and chili. Beans were dehydrated and were combined with hot water. The chicken came frozen with grill marks already on them and only needed a small amount of water in the rectangular hotel pan to be set on the steam table to heat to temperature. The only person who did much “cooking” was the fryer, who made the chips, taco shells, and fried flour tortilla salad bowls. Cooking at Taco John's was more about assembly of predetermined ingredients in predetermined weights contained in either a crispy or soft shell. Occasionally Taco John's inspectors would show up unannounced posing as a customer and proceed to weigh and take the temperature of all the food they ordered. Oh how I would fret over the sight of the scale on the table in the dining area.
The best part of working at Taco John's, or any place, for that matter, is the people. Working at a restaurant is like being on a team, except I spent way more time with my co-workers than I did with my team. Having good friends at work, made the long hours enjoyable. Busting out the lunch rush with efficiency and good humor was simply satisfying. I made great friends with the people I worked with and the fact that each one of us could and did do every task required to keep the place, clean and stocked, from washing every single dish in the place at closing to cleaning out the bathrooms, created equality between the workers. Not that there wasn't a hierarchy, but the manager could easily be taking out the trash as be counting out the cash registers.
My favorite person from my Taco John's days was Chris. A tall sweet Navajo guy who was a student at Haskell Indian Nations University, which is one of two federally funded institutions of higher learning that satisfy certain treaty requirements made between the US and Indian tribes. It always pisses me off when people think that Indians get to go to college for free, let's not kid ourselves folks, they paid for everything in spades. Chris had one of the best attitudes about work. He worked steadily, never complained, and was always eager with a smile. He was raised in a two room house on the Navajo reservation in Window Rock, AZ with his grandparents, who had 11 daughters. His mom was the oldest and Chris was older than his youngest aunt, growing up together like siblings. He and I spent a lot of time together and became good friends with eachother's families.
A few times a year Chris' grandparents from Arizona would load up in the king cab pickup and drive to Kansas to visit Chris and his sister-cousin who was a student at Haskell, too. His grandparents would come with any number of grandchildren who would all file into the restaurant during the slow part of the day, where we would make a feast for everyone family style. His grandma, whom I loved, called me Chris' white girlfriend in Navajo, since he had a Navajo girlfriend and a baby. This always slightly confused me that they used this name for me, even in front of Rita, the real girlfriend. His grandma didn't speak English, but it never stopped her from talking to me.
When Chris and Rita got married back at Rita's parent's home in Defiance, AZ myself, an assistant manager and one other co-worker all went to the wedding. It was the coolest wedding that I have ever been too, although the groom's party, of which we were a part, were two hours late! There is no daylight savings in Arizona, except for certain parts, and while being 1 hour late is acceptable, 2 hours late meant that people had started to eat thinking that weren't coming. The grooms family all parked at the end of the long drive way. Everyone got out and put on their wedding finery, which for Chris was leather leggings and white shirt and trousers tied with a colorful scarf. It was late August and hotter than Hades, but this seemed to bother no one so much as me, who had on the thinnest cotton summer dress. Chris' grandpa was wearing a yellow turtleneck, black jeans and cowboy boots when we arrived at his house the day before! It is a Navajo tradition that the woman's family must be honored with bride gifts, the negotiation of which had been done by the family some months back. Many sheep, goats and turqouise had already exchanged hands. All that was left was the cash amount, of which Chris did not have. He could not go to the ceremony without the money. We were all standing around in this big circle with all of Chris' aunts and uncles and myriad of cousins, just kind of waiting, when all of a sudden the children rushed Chris, money flapping in their upraised hands. It was beautiful. Then we all walked to the ceremony which was held outside in an open-sided dwelling with a pine bough roof. All the elders from Rita's side sat along one side and Chris' on the other and Chris, Rita and their daughter Christina sat where the two families met.
The ceremony, which took place in Navajo, consisted of the elders of the families giving advice on how to be married-practical advice about what to do in times of turmoil, and how to be good to eachother's family. Then we all scooped up some blue cornmeal from a woven basket and drank water from a dipper, and they were wed!
I didn't last too much longer at ol' Taco John's. It was the first and only time that I was fired in my life. I have a pretty good work ethic, not a Yankee work ethic, but a solid Midwestern one, and I am loyal far longer than is usually healthy. I had started college and was still working the dead end job among the high schoolers and 50 year old ladies who were content to work minimum wage and skim off the registers, something that I never did. I gave enough bean burritos away to feed ½ of Juarez, but I knew what the food cost ratio had to be for the store to make a profit, and no matter what we gave away to our friends and family, it never made a dent. In the end I was fired for cursing to co-workers about a customer who, during the lunch rush, ordered something that took 3 minutes to fry, not when they ordered, but at the window when they paid pushing back all the orders, letting everything cool, and believe me, that food was hardly palatable hot!
This was the first time I had to evaluate my self-worth in relation to how others viewed me. It was such a crushing blow to my self-esteem, to be seen as lacking by my employer. I overvalued people's perceptions of me, but I was paying for college on my own, and I had to get another job pronto! I ended up getting a job at the Financial Aid office at KU, which as it turned out, was way more helpful to me in my current life than slinging tacos!
I did not miss the cloying scent of fry oil that stuck to my hair and clothes long after my shift ended. I had a friend who used to call it job perfume, teasing me that all the hungry, poor men would seek me out for free food. I was ready to do something more challenging with my brain, than assemble mediocre food on the fast food line.