by Christopher Bacas
In 1980, a college music student, I took a job at a Bar-B-Que joint. It was a mile walk from my place. I went in once or twice a week for a closing shift. A full size covered wagon sat on a pedestal in the parking lot. It looked shabby, but functional. I watched it survive North Texas weather over the two years I worked there. The restaurant had two sides, a burger counter and cafeteria-style BBQ. I worked with the pit crew; cutting and trimming brisket, ribs and chicken and serving our BBQ customers. Jim Lake managed the location for Mr Henry Lasalle, the millionaire owner. With his thick mustache, high cheekbones and cleft chin, Jim looked like a composite of Dudley-do-Right and Snively Whiplash. He wore cowboy boots and immaculate denim. I never saw him take off his ten-gallon hat. The day I showed up for training, he was busy out back in the BBQ pit. A guy named Mike trained me. He had an easy way with clientele:
“Whut kin ah git fer ye?”
“Yessir. Slice beef. Ye want plate er sammich?
” Po' Boy er regler?
“Ye want sauce on that?”
“I kin give ye some in one o these sauce deals.”
“Yep. Now, the rib sauce IS sweeter. Yessir”
The step up to the cutting board passed through a pair of louvered saloon doors. They swung tightly on noisy springs. Mike showed me how to remove the top of the brisket with a smooth sideway cut. That left a juicy, stringy slab ready for against-the-grain slicing and a fatty top pushed aside on the white plastic block. Mike swept scraps into a removable steel drawer recessed under the block. The knife had to be sharp. Mike showed me how to sharpen it with a butcher steel. He told me Mr Lasalle had come behind the counter a few weeks before and grabbed a knife away from an employee and “chewed their ass rill good”
“Ya'll are RUININ' these knives!” He shouted.
Mike mentioned the owner was drunk, a description I'd hear often.
The BBQ pit was a shed attached to the building. A zigzag black pipe vented smoke. The meat rotated through the heat on a set of swinging ledges propelled by a variable-speed motor. Manager-on-duty had to monitor the pit temperature and cooking cycles. In Texas summer, the area around the pit, buffeted by wood smoke, was this heathen's idea of Hell on earth.
BBQ sold itself, but slicing meat was theater. In the heat lamp's rosy glow, a customer followed the blade's movements like a burlesque act; each paring bared more toothsome flesh. Cutting meat was a one person operation. A second could work the register. When it got real busy, a third picked up the portioned meat and added sides and drinks. The accompaniments piled into long narrow steel pans which rested over over ice or hot water.
On my evening shifts, we operated a three-person crew: one on each side and a manager to swing, watch the pit and do the money at closing. Once I trained, I rarely worked with Mike. My usual managers were Rick or Charlie.
Charlie's given name was Charlene. Over flannel shirts, she wore denim overalls with a key ring and wide leather wallet on a chain. Her face, a teddy bear's, had dark button eyes set wide and a sewn-on mouth.
She worked with her partner, Heidi, a consumptive who wore sleeveless jumpers with matching flats to drop curlicue fries into hot grease. Heidi felt faint at least once a night and Charlie took care of her. Both were students at the town's Women-only university.
Rick was a regular Texas dude and peripatetic student; always working for survival money. He was too educated to fit in with the Pit guys and they picked on him. With Rick managing, David worked the burger side.
David came from New Orleans. From him, I first heard its proper pronunciation: OR-lee-ins. He was a pianist, small-framed, hands and wrists delicate, almost avian. I never encountered him in the practice buildings or Music Department halls. After seeing “Street Car Named Desire”, I would recognize his voice as Blanche Dubois'. He always gave me a ride home after work in a huge Oldsmobile; its Louisiana plate and heavy, rear-view crucifix, exotic as shrunken heads.
I was the only Yankee on staff and didn't hide it. At flood stage of Izod's alligator, I kept my hair shaggy, wore jeans and open flannel shirts with exposed undershirts. Considering my role, I could have been more circumspect. Holding someone's BBQ in your hand is a delicate proposition.
A drunken cowpoke showed up one night. His face soggy under a big Stetson.
“May I take your order?”
“Y'all got BBQ?”
“Yessir. Brisket, ribs or chicken?”
“Just fix me up”
“Some of each?”
“Fix me up”
“How about brisket?”
I cut, while he leered lower and lower through the glass until a myoclonal jerk pulled him up.
“Nah. Hail, Nah!”
“Fix me up”
“Jus' FIX ME UP!”
“I'm making you a sliced beef plate”
I placed the meat on the scale, watched it steady,then removed a slice.
“Whut the! Put that back on 'ere….Goddam it! You gon' fix me up or whut?”
“I'm trying to, sir. I have to weigh the meat. I…”
“The hail you do! Jus gimme some BBQ, God dammit!”
“My boss told me to weigh each….”
” Ah don't give a good god dam whut your boss said. FIX ME UP! Um gonna kick yer god dam ass if ye don't gimme 'at…”
Through creaking doors, Rick slid next to me.
“Ah kin help ye, sir. You want some BBQ tonite, don't ye?”
He cut some beef and added to my portion.
“That's whut I was trying to tell this god dam sum…”
Rick held up the heavier plate.
“How's this look?”
“Good. Rill good”
Rick walked him through the line, talking up side dishes.
“You want yer sauce on the meat er on th' side?”
“Put it all on 'ere. Evra whirr.”
At the register, the plate piled with meat, potato salad and fried okra (o-kree), Rick said he'd charge five dollars more for the extra meat. The drunk waved him through. That's how to wrangle a shit-faced cowboy: shine him on until he thinks you're his bud, then give him the bill nice n' smooth.
I didn't go to the restaurant on off-days and never made payday. My checks often slept under the clock until my next shift. After a trip, I went to pick up a long-delayed payment. It was early afternoon and the check wasn't there. Jim had no time to help. Mike was patronizing. He did suggest I go to the office. Mr Lasalle and a secretary worked in a one-room cinder-block building on the parking lot. Above its air conditioner, a small window looked over the restaurant, lot and wagon. The owner sat at a simple metal desk. Next to it, Pearl Beer in stacked cases. He could reach across anytime and pull out a warm one. When I walked in, only the secretary was at her desk. She pulled out her ledger to show me my check had been cashed. I asked politely if there were any cancelled checks. The secretary stared at me and shook her head.
“Your check was already cashed. Maybe you forgot.”
“Miss, I'm sorry. Could you show me the checks?”
“I don't know if I can find them right away”
“I can wait. Thank you so much.”
She pulled a Redweld from one of the file cabinets. Her movements were percussive. It took a few minutes to find the checks and remove their paper clips. My cancelled check was near the bottom.
“You cashed it.”
“Miss, would you turn it over?”
She was exasperated.
“Just please turn it over”
She flipped the check.
Someone else had endorsed my check with their name. Their writing was tiny and angular. She turned the check over a few more times.
“I'm going to need cash.” I told her. “Now”
“We don't keep cash in the office”
“Maybe Jim has some”
She quickly dialed the phone. I went back to the restaurant and Jim counted out the money. Face completely impassive, he offered neither explanation nor apology.
“Ok, buddy. See ya later” he said, as I left the restaurant.