Toward the end of the summer that lead into my ninth grade year, our neighbors the Gabas moved off the block. Bobby Frampton gave up and went back to Compton, and Russell Bradley went back to Alabama, sent there by his mother to nurse his kidney and probably to save his life.
I fell back to hanging out on the steps in front of the apartments, watching the goings on without getting involved. Boys were growing fast and some, like Guy Lopez, though a year younger than me, had more acne and more muscles.
My mother left J.C. Penney for a job in the shoe department at Joseph Magnums. We were at the breakeven stage. With each raise exactly the same amount was taken from our welfare check.
Inspired by her efforts, I decided to get a job. I had heard about the Kentucky Fried Chicken most likely from someone in school: they hired every now and then, and it appeared that being of a certain age and having a work permit weren’t necessarily requirements.
My brother still had his bike from Beverly Hills, a copper Stingray with a white banana seat and high handlebars. I had to push hard to get the peddle over the top of the sprocket. The resistance vanished quickly and the seat smashed into my inner thigh.
After about a mile of slapping my thighs with the bike seat, I reached the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Ventura Boulevard, where the next-best-to-everything you’ve always wanted could be found in twenty miles of strip malls and struggling franchises.
I rested my bike against the glass storefront and asked to see the manager. Someone came from the back and introduced himself as Ted. He was in his twenties and had white-blond hair that fell past his ears and a thick white-blond moustache. His eyes were watery and red as if he’d been swimming in a pool of chlorine. He asked if I lived near-by and if I could work nights. I gave the right answers and started working the very next day.
The cashier, a young black woman who appeared to be of high school age told me right away that the store wasn’t making any money, but that while we were supposed to only have one meal per shift, we could pretty much eat and drink whatever we wanted.
In the beginning, I was proud that I had found a job, glad to be in the same stream as my mother, glad that it wasn’t selling candy. Glad not to be standing on the side of a freeway selling flowers or delivering papers that no one paid for or stacking empty bottles at a 7-11. I looked forward to wrestling my brother’s bike to work after school, to having some money and perhaps to one day buying a new bike and new shoes and to not stealing pants from Macy’s.
The first month went by. Ted worked the cook tops and closed out the register. When business was slow, he’d steal into the alley behind the store to smoke dope and drink Coors.
I spent most of my time in the walk-in refrigerator, taking chicken parts out of boxes, pushing their skin back across the meat and then rolling the part in a mix of flour and secret spices. A heat lamp in a glass case next to the cash register kept random chicken parts warm. When that inventory was low or when a customer ordered a full bucket instead of single pieces, a tray of battered parts would get dumped into a 2 gallon pot of lard boiling on a gas burner. A lid would be clamped tight on the pot. After twenty minutes under extreme pressure the lid was pried open, and the oil jumped back to a full boil.
The freezer smelled of cold, wet fat. There were too many chicken pieces in a box to ever think that any were once part of a whole chicken. Instead, I marveled at how uniform the parts were, how each meaty, white-ish chicken leg or breast was almost the exact copy of another.
Toward the end of the first month, if business was slow, Ted started letting me cook. I would batter a few trays, call out to Sandi up front, and when she called back, push a tray into a pot and then clamp the lid. Ted never said at a boy’ or anything like that. He watched the first few times that I stood over the pots and then stopped watching and spent his new free time in the alley or, if it was raining, in his truck.
I got to wear a special apron while I cooked, an apron over an apron that told anyone who might have been on duty that I was the cook. If Sandi yelled back into the kitchen for a 22 piece bucket or for more thighs, I went about my business carefully. Once the chicken was done to perfection, the lid was popped and the grease was drained, dropping the chicken pieces into wire containers suspended over the basin. Grease splashed over the sides and dried into a waxy sludge on the painted floors. Instinctively, I knew to slide my feet in small increments.
One day a tall white man walked into the store near to closing time. He saw Sandi behind the counter, probably dipping a biscuit into a cup of gravy while sipping a Mountain Dew. And then he walked into the back and saw me by the stove. Turned out, he was the new owner.
A few days later a new manager introduced himself. The new owner had several stores, and Mike drove from store to store, managing the managers. After making introductions, he went about telling us how things were going to work. Ted, the cook, was going to cook. I was going back to prep. Sandi or someone else would work the front. We all had cleaning duty.
Mike was from Iran and on the day we met he showed us feats of strength, such as his ability to hold 50 lb sacks of flower at the end of each outstretched arm. He said, “I want to be your friend, but also the boss, and I like organization.”
Ted continued his smoking breaks, well past being warned. One day, Mike stopped by the store at closing time and took Ted into the parking lot and punched him in the face. A new cook was hired. He was a senior in high school and made it clear that he was going to college and was working for the experience.
I quickly grew tired of stories about how strong Mike was and resented having to mop the floor while watching the new, college-bound boy, not much older than me do all of the cooking. I began staying in the meat locker until I could no longer bear the cold.
Often, we’d try to guess at the last customer and get a head start on the cleanup routine. One night, we guessed wrong. The stoves were re-lit. A pot of lard was boiled. I watched with my mop and bucket, having just moved the grease under the new cook’s feet. He slipped when the tray of chicken parts got to the lid and grabbed the pot handle.
I stood frozen as he fell and even as he got up and began to run around the kitchen. He ran passed me. His shirt had lost its color under the oil. It looked like his skin. The customer heard the screams and came back to the kitchen and chased the cook with the hose that hung over the sink. He yelled at Sandi to call an ambulance. I was still watching when it arrived.
The police came and then Mike came. I answered questions and then Mike took me aside and said, “I’m going to have to let you go. You’re only fourteen. No insurance.”
It was dark when I left. I rode my bike past a fire truck, down Woodmen and under the freeway overpass. The air was cool and the lights of cars exploded in my eyes.
I told my mother about the accident. She asked if I was ok. I said I was fine. I didn’t say that I shouldn’t have been mopping the floors while the cook was in front of the burners. And that I hated the cook.
I may have called the hospital to speak with the cook who got burned. Or he may have died.
I trained myself not to think about this.