From my freshman year in high school in 1963 until I joined the Army in 1968, I worked at five different restaurants or snack bars. For those too young to recall, health department inspections were rare and cleanliness didn’t seem to be a priority, at least in the dives where I was employed. If you didn’t want to be a paperboy or mow lawns, you usually ended up working in minimum wage food joints washing dishes or sweating over a sizzling grill while frying burgers.
My first stint as a busboy (doing all the crap jobs nobody else would do) was at the Plaza Restaurant on the corner of Prospect and PCH in Redondo Beach. The owner, Carl, made Charles Manson look like a choirboy. I lasted seven days in this maximum-security labor camp. My schedule for the summer was from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Oh, I did get one fifteen minute lunch break and two five minute breaks during my 10-hour shift. The only memorable highlight I still recall is when a cute waitress caught me eating onion rings off of a customer’s plate while hiding in the storage room. I was hungry! Also I do recall receiving my first and last paycheck from Carl. I believe I worked seventy-two hours and cashed $70. It wasn’t all bad; my lunches and dinners came with a one dollar discount, and if I broke a glass or dish, the cost was deducted from my paycheck.
My favorite place of the bunch was the Sea Star Snack Bar on the Redondo Beach Pier. After 6 p.m. most of the managers and owners of the pier’s numerous snack bars would head home. That’s when the young bloods working the counters revved things up. Over the course of three months, my six best friends and I had all gotten jobs at the Sea Star. We freely traded food with the other greasy spoon places lining the pier and often switched positions with other establishment workers for a few hours. The perks were fantastic. Since only guys from our motley group worked there, we were guaranteed free grub seven nights a week. One Saturday night Lenny and I unfortunately decided to close a few hours early so we could go to a beach party. Regrettably we had failed to notice that earlier when Harry “The Hat” and his wife Mary, the Sea Star managers, took off for the day they had gone to Tony’s for dinner and drinks, lots of drinks. Just as I began closing the last window Harry appeared from around the corner. He looked at his watch, glanced at a tipsy Mary then unloaded a string of obscenities directed at the culprits (us). His final words echoed up and down the pier, “You are fired and I should kick your a_ _es! Come in tomorrow to get your checks.” They drunkenly stumbled off with Harry still firing off verbal darts as he proceeded towards the parking lot. Lenny and I were really bummed out since it was such a great job. The next day at the Sea Star, to our utter shock and delight, Harry apologized for cussing us out, offered us our jobs back, and gave us a ten cent an hour raise. I like to think that is was because we were such fantastic employees; however, I believe the duo was so drunk they didn’t remember what had happened and felt guilty for our firing.
If you are old enough you may remember the short-lived fast food chain from the 60s and 70s called The Twin Castle. Their gimmick was naming their hotdogs after royalty such as The Duke, The Earl, The Prince, etc. Their specialty items were hotdogs but they sold all types of fast food. It proved a tough place to goof off in since the manager lived just across the street in a 2nd story apartment and could see into the place from his living room window. I would often catch him peering at us through binoculars checking to see we were wearing our Twin Castle crowns (an absurd paper hat) and yellow t-shirts festooned with a variety of cartoon-like hotdog caricatures. My most unforgettable episode came when a family of four ordered a meal that included one hamburger. To soften the buns we would place them in a steamer, give it a couple of hand pumps then remove it and build the burger. A minute after delivering the grub to the table the father returned to the counter with the top half of the burger bun, open faced, in his hand. Directly in the middle of the bun rested a disgusting cockroach that had apparently been steamed to death, unnoticed by me. Repulsed at the sight I profusely apologized and of course offered him a full refund. I will always remember his composed response; “That’s okay, just fry me up another burger but please wash the steamer before steaming my bun, thank you.” Thank me, really? In an unexpected shocker, about a week later the cockroach clan returned for another hygienic, healthy Twin Castle meal…minus the roach of course! Ever since that day I instinctively always check my roll or bun before taking a bite out of a sandwich.