Once Upon A Time, back in the late-80’s. I worked as a kitchen manager at a newly-opened pseudo-restaurant called Willi’s Chili and BarBar. The restaurant had been installed in a newly remodeled, two-story woodframe house on a busy street just a couple blocks down from the campus of an Unnamed Southwest Missouri University, in a medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri. In its former, pre-pseudo-restaurant days, the house had been what was known at the time as a "party house," i.e., an oftentimes money-making operation set-up by some enterprising student, where, for a small entrance fee, one might consume a limited amount of keg beer (limited because usually there were too-few kegs for too-many people) and pursue additional opportunities in the worlds of Sex, Drugs, and Rock&Roll.
Not a whole lot changed at the house after the remodel and the Grand Opening of Willi’s Chili and BarBar. Willi, I discovered after I came to know him, was kind of a party boy himself. At that time I was teaching a couple of courses at the Unnamed Southwest Missouri University as a member of the adjunct (low-paid) faculty, but, because I had a lot of bills to pay (my girlfriend had moved out and left me with a house payment and $4400 worth of equity to cough-up, and I had a new-car payment to boot) I was also cooking full-time at a pseudo-French place (you might say that, back then, all the restaurants in the medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri were pseudo) called Patrick’s, over on the south side of town, where the richer folks lived. Patrick’s was okay, I learned a bit, but the pay was low (and some of it was in cash), and Patrick was, well, we won’t go into that. Let’s just say that he was predictably unpredictable.
So I was looking for another, higher-paying, less-stressful cooking job, preferably with a more predictably predictable owner.
I heard about Willi’s Chili and BarBar while it was still in the gestation stage, and one night, after I had taught my classes, I went over to the see Tina Louise (not her real name), who was a member of the Psychology faculty (she was also one of the more liberal members of the not-terribly liberal local city council) and was also Willi’s consort. Her husband had died and his wife had died, or there were divorces in there somewhere. Anyway, they were together, shacked-up in the parlance of the time, and they were doing the restaurant together, though in reality Willi was the driving force.
Anyway, I told Tina Louise of my interest in the new restaurant and she invited me to meet Willi, over at their house, and have a get-acquainted interview.
Okay, long story short, I met Willi (he was a florid-faced middle-aged fellow who had also been a city councilman, but who had been recalled by his constituents when he insisted on doing a favor for a developer that his constituents vehemently informed him they didn’t want him to do. He had also been a successful businessman, but was now being sued by some outfit in California over some legal matter, a legal matter that he was most vehemently not culpable in the commission thereof), told him about my cooking experience (over the course of two, or maybe more, drinks(now that I think back on it, it was more than two, and I remember being pretty thoroughly sloshed when I left their house that night)) and soon enough found myself hired as one of the two kitchen managers. One guy was the day guy and one guy was the night guy. I think I was the night guy.
The restaurant opens and is wildly successful. In the medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri, all the restaurants may have been pseudo, but some were more pseudo than others. What Willi’s Chili and BarBar had going for it was crazy Willi, and the decor that Willi installed. He had been a World War II fighter pilot in the Pacific and had collected numerous Air Force related artifacts,
drawings and photographs and other momentoes, Flying Fortresses cruising and P-51 Mustangs diving and Jap Zeroes (that’s what Willi would have called them) engulfed in flames and heading downwards, towards oblivion.
So while I kept my cooking job at Patrick’s and continued to teach my classes, I began to help out at the now late-term, soon-to-open Willi’s, working on recipes, planning prep lists, conducting interviews for the kitchen staff.
At last, opening day was at hand. The building inspector arrived, surveyed the premises, gave us the okay for the fifty-one seats that were installed, signed the Certificate of Occupancy, and left. Willi promptly had another forty seats installed, twenty inside and twenty outside on the front patio. Since the kitchen was about the size of two bathrooms on a ConAir commuter jet, any fool could see that things were going to be tight. And I was any fool.
From the git-go, we were super-busy . The number of local avant-garde hipsters in the medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri was large, and those ninety-one seats only went so far. Almost from opening day, the line stretched out the door, around the side of the building, and into the parking lot in back.
Willi designated one of the waitresses, one who looked especially fetching in short-short short shorts and a little handkerchief-kinda-bikini-top-thing, to go out with her order pad and take drink orders. The stout drinks, the short shorts, and the handkerchief-kinda-bikini-top-thing kept everybody happy.
The primary menu offering at Willi’s Chili and BarBar was grease. Willi even specified that all the chili served must have a quarter-inch of grease floating on top. Just about everything had cheese in it, and every item on the menu had a name derived from Willi’s World War II glory days. I don’t remember all the names, but I can tell you that there was no entree called the "Enola Gay," and the vegetarian burrito was called "The Glider." Ribs were a popular seller, and barbequed chicken was a popular seller. Both of them spent some time in our little quartz oven (about the size of a microwave oven), and that quartz oven ran, night and day, at 800 degrees. Since the ceiling in the kitchen, on the cook’s line, was seven feet high, and since, just to remind you, that kitchen was about the size of two bathrooms on a ConAir commuter jet, it was hot back there. It was hot as The Hot Place.
But in the beginning, when a restaurant is brand-new, when it’s more of a Platonic Ideal than a Grubby Reality, it can be a heck-of a lot of fun. There’s a Mickey Rooneyesque, Let’s Put On A Show magical feel to it all. Everything’s new, everyone’s putting on their best face, hope reigns supreme. All the waitresses seem available, and alluring (at least until you get to know their stories). One night one of the waitresses came into the kitchen and, in the course of ordinary conversation, said something about something being "capricious." "Ooooh," I said, all mocking and condescending, "big word." "Did you think I was stupid?" she said. I looked at her. I hadn’t paid much attention up to that point, perhaps because she was wearing glasses. She didn’t look stupid, she looked rather smart, and she was plenty cute enough. Soon, we were out in the hall, chatting each other up. Not long thereafter, we were on a date, a date that segued soon enough . . . Well, I won’t describe what it segued into, but it was pleasing, and left me with a lasting affection for the word "capricious." Of course, that word cuts a lot of ways, and not too many days passed before we were at a party, and my Capricious Lass turned to me (we were standing outside the bathroom in a hallway of a little two bedroom house) and said, "I lost my virginity right here." She meant right there in the hallway, on the floor. I should have known that my days were numbered, then and there.
In those early days at Willi’s ,the pace, and the hours, were phenomenal. I had my two classes at the Unnamed Southwest Missouri University to teach (in the morning) and I also had another class that I was teaching at an Unnamed Southwest Missouri College on the other side of town (that was one night a week), and, my job at Willi’s (I had quit at Patrick’s, and, miraculously, made it out of there on good terms). That first week, I taught my two classes at the University and immediately rushed over to Willi’s, where I worked past mid-night. On the days when I didn’t have classes to teach, I worked all day. That first week, I worked 102 hours at Willi’s.
It wasn’t a schedule that I could keep up for long, and soon enough, for one indiscretion on another, and because he didn’t want to keep paying me overtime, or at least as much overtime, Willi demoted me, stripped me of my rank as kitchen manager. There was a hefty, horse-faced middle-aged head bartender named Stella (as usual, not her real name) and she had quickly determined that I stood in her way of advancement. She undermined me with Willi at every turn. What astounded me was that when he demoted me, Willi informed me that he was also giving me a raise, of a dollar an hour. I still haven’t figured that one out.
Stella took control, but I was still an integral part of the operation. I could have contributed more, but since neither Willi or Stella ever asked me, I never spoke up about the gaping leaks in their operation. They thought that hiring fraternity boys as bartenders was a good idea, because the frat boys would attract their house mates as customers. But night after night, after Stella and Willi had gone home (in Willi’s case, he went upstairs—he and Tina Louise had fixed up the second floor as a one-room pied-a-terre), the frat boy bartenders entertained their brothers at the bar with free drinks. Everybody who worked there, in fact, got free drinks. The waitstaff got theirs, and, in return for cheese fries or a burger, us guys in the kitchen got ours. Not that it really mattered, because just about everyone in the restaurant, everyone working there anyway, was high most of the time anyway. There was a chest freezer down in the basement, and the locked liquor cabinet was down there, so just about everyone had an excuse to go down, at more or less anytime. What Willi and Stella didn’t know was that there was an exhaust vent, over by the furnace, and you could light up a joint, take a hit, and blow out the smoke into the vent, and it went all the way up and escaped through the roof of the house. I would have been the worst offender, gladly, but I had learned, cooking omelets in front of the customers at Patrick’s on Sunday morning, that being high and cooking didn’t go well together, at least for me, so I limited myself to the odd Screwdriver, when the kitchen was closed and we were cleaning up to go home. Half, two-thirds, maybe everybody else, was either drunk or stoned or both, most if not all of the time. One Sunday afternoon, I remember, two of the waitresses were so drunk that they had to sit down at the tables with their customers to steady themselves so they could write their orders. They came into the kitchen and laughed about it. Another time, I remember one of the waiters bragging that he had worked the previous day while doing five hits of acid.
Of course, if Willi had been on top of the situation, he would have picked up on the problems. If he had been more liked and respected, someone would have made him aware of the disfunction. But he started his day at ten in the morning with an eight-ounce juice glass full of vodka, every day. For a long time, I thought it was water, but then I figured it out. He had a rather winsome dog, a big Standard poodle, named Jack (not his real name) and sometimes in the morning, Willi would coax (well, after a while I guess he didn’t have to coax too much) Jack up on a bar stool, and Stella or someone would give Jack a saucer full of Kahlua and cream. Finally someone, a disgruntled employee no doubt, called the health department and they put a stop to Jack’s libations.
So now you have the scene, Willi’s Chili and BarBar, a wide-open, Hellbent for Leather, anything goes kind of place, already in decline but not keen to the news. We’d been open maybe ten months, so it would been around February. A new guy started working at Willi’s, another frat boy, named Stewart. He was tall and imposing in a I’m-throwing-my-weight-around kind of way, with a tall brow, a face of flat planes, and an arrogant, droning, nasal bray. I would have guessed that his family had some money, but still, he was waiting tables, so perhaps they didn’t have that much money. Perhaps it was Stewart’s air of superiority coupled with his physical bulk , his complete lack of elegance, grace, intelligence, decency. whatever, but soon enough, Stewart and I had become enemies in the kitchen. One day we squared off and mutual threats of physical anhillation were exchanged. Neither of us had the true tough guy’s indifference to consequences (and, I might add, the physical courage) to go first, so we backed off, a mutual stand-down. But I’ll say this—Stewart was someone I detested. When he was working and I was working, the whole atmosphere of a job I had formerly liked was now different.
It was about this time of year, towards the middle of March, Spring Break Time. On the Friday before the break began, almost the whole campus cleared out. That night, there was a freak, unexpected snowstorm that dumped four or five inches of heavy wet snow over the western half of Missouri.
I guess I was off that weekend. On Monday, after I taught my classes, I came in to work and found the restaurant completely changed. No one was talking, everyone was going about their appointed tasks in the most desultory manner, no looking up, no smiling.
" What happened?" I finally asked someone. "Why is everyone so depressed?"
"Didn’t you hear? Stewart’s dead. He ran his car head-on into a snowplow."
I won’t say that I was saddened, but shocked I certainly was. Soon enough, the details started coming out. Stewart and one of the other waiters had gone back to the waiter’s apartment and done some drugs, pot probably, or acid, perhaps. How much,
I don’t know. Then Stewart had gotten into his car and started home for Kansas City. He was going to see his family for a day or two and then head down to Fort Walton Beach for the break. He got about half way home, somewhere up in central Missouri, around Sedalia, when he met the snowplow, on a bridge.
By Wednesday, the story had changed. Stewart hadn’t been with the other waiter, and, as far as the other waiter knew, no drugs had been consumed. It’s always funny when people’s stories change. Do they think you forget, from one version to the next?
The kicker to the story of Stewart is this: He couldn’t have been a guy who was much loved by his fellow frat brothers. He was a winning combination of obtuse, overbearing, bullying, and dumb. Even if they were like him, they couldn’t have reveled in his companionship. And now, dead, he pored gasoline on the smoldering pyre of their detestation. As his frat brothers, they all were obligated to attend his funeral. It fell in the middle of spring break week, so they all had to buy plane tickets and get to Kansas City for the service. Whether they went back to the beaches after that I never heard.
Certainly the Stewart that exists for me is a one-dimensional character. I never saw another side of him, but most probably there were some worthy traits. I would like to think that even Stewart, who burns in my imagination like the purest of elements, contained some trace minerals that would surprise me. I don’t want to say that I was glad to see him go, but I will admit I never caught myself missing him.
Before I moved up to the medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri, I had heard two things said about it. The first time was one afternoon in a fiction workshop. Jim Whitehead, loud, large, wonderful Jim Whitehead, subtle as a ten-pound sledge and now gone, was leading the workshop that semester. Someone had submitted a story that had for its setting [a medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of] Springfield, Missouri. Whitehead leaned back in his chair (or leaned foreward—how would I remember) and said "Ha Ha, He He, Ho Ho (insert your own Jovian interjections), [a medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of] Springfield, Missouri, it’s a typical midwestern American city." Pause for dramatic effect. "Rotten at the core."
Then, a few years later, I was getting ready to move to the medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri. I was in my final days in Fayetteville, getting my bags packed, cleaning out my apartment. On Sunday morning for some unknown reason I went up to the English department. Ben Kimpel, the department chairman, the smartest man I ever knew, (but to get a proper visual you have visualize an elderly Tweedledum, or Tweedledee) was coming out the door of the building that, now that he’s gone, bears his name. He looked at me. I guess he knew where I was moving. "Awh, Van Noate," he said, "don’t be so down at the mouth. [The medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of] Springfield, [Missouri] is not the asshole of the universe."
I lived there for eighteen years, and I can tell you that, though the medium-sized city much like the medium-sized city of Springfield, Missouri is not really a midwestern city (it actually has more of the Wild West, and more of the Ante-Belllum South in it), in all other respects, both statements are true. It’s rotten-at-the core, but it’s not the asshole of the universe. You can, most definitely, get a good meal, if you’re willing to make it yourself. And for my flickr friends who might be out there in the vicinity, remember, they’re always exceptions to the rule. You yourself are one of them.
Tagged: , snow , snow plow , road , slick , dangerous , death , accident , sudden , instantaneous , Stewart , finito , muerto , mord , tot , high , tripping , stoned , spring break , frat , frat boy , waiter , fraternity , funeral