:Chloroform in Print
I want to go to the top of a really tall building, take a leak, finish, zip up, and then have my pee hit the ground. I want my entire pee to be airborne. Man I love beer.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Railroaded: Don't fuck with the chef
For three decreasingly glorious summers, I worked on the Alaska Railroad during the summer tourist season, cooking for herds of ungrateful, unbearable Midwestern bluehairs and their ilk. I have a million stories from those days. This is one of them.

All this happened the summer I worked the Fairbanks run. Each work shift lasted two days; we would depart Anchorage early in the morning and arrive in Fairbanks about 8 in the evening, spend the night in a nasty little basement apartment, and return the next day. The crew consisted of 5 people - a "chef" (me), a prep cook/dishwasher (The Vasky), 2 servers (Evil Allan and Mistress Vickie), and a busser (Shannon). Although the situation rarely called for it, the crews were designated in a crude hierarchy, with the chef on top and the busser at the bottom of the totem pole.

As such, I had the theoretical authority to make decisions affecting the entire crew. In practice, the situation was almost totally egalitarian; the servers were seasoned professionals who I had no business giving instructions to, even if I had the inclination. The Vasky, one of the world?s most challenging co-workers, simply had to be worked around. Situations calling for delegation or ordering around were rare, so there shouldn't have been any issues.

However, Shannon the Busser had other ideas. A lifelong Alaskan, she had the characteristically Alaskan combination of a warped grasp of reality coupled with fierce determination and unshakeable ambition. At the seasoned age of 18, she had already formulated - and announced to anyone who would listen - her plans to one day head the entire Alaska Railroad. Accordingly, she was already working overtime, attempting to put her stamp on the organization whenever the opportunity arose.

As a busser.
On a passenger train.
That ran 4 months a year.

It was a little --- presumptous, which is pretentious by way of Alaska.

Before I get too uncomplimentary, it needs to be said that for the most part I got along with her fine. She was a hard worker, the servers liked working with her, and generally she was a pleasant young woman outside of work. Unfortunately, she was also a member of the self-appointed Morality Police, at least as far as conduct on the train was concerned.

I'll be frank - our professional conduct often left much to be desired, primarily in regards to sobriety. One of the few remaining vestiges of Old School Alaska on the train was an unlocked, un-inventoried liquor cabinet. We had free access to several varieties of beer, wine, and the hard stuff. (Generally we stayed out of these except for in the evening during cleanup, and occasionally a Kahlua-and-coffee, or Baileys-and-coffee, or Kahlua-and-Baileys-and-coffee, for breakfast. Unless you're a true alcoholic, working drunk is simply not fun.) We would frequently hit the bars in Fairbanks during our overnight layover, and working the second day of the shift with a hangover was common.

And nearly all of us smoked weed, lots of it, throughout the day. When your workday is 14 hours long and frequently balls-to-the-wall busy, anything to take the edge off is greatly appreciated and frequently returned to. Duck your head inside one of the refrigerators, take a quick toke, blow the smoke through a bar towel wrapped around orange and lemon slices to kill the smell, and you're golden.

All this was merely keeping up with long-standing tradition. Until the ARR introduced random drug testing in the 80s, many of the train crew - by this I mean the conductors, engineers, brakemen, etc. - were operating under the same code. Indeed, they had established it. I heard many stories of outright debauchery that took place during the 70s, when Alaska was a much wilder place and everyone was swimming in pipeline dough. Stuff like running a line of cocaine in one of the floor grooves of the dining car, all the way from one end to the other, and passengers and crew alike taking turns snorting it up. So our transgressions were pretty minor in comparison. The train crews were aware of what we were up to, but since we were discreet and never caused any trouble they didn't bother us about it. And I can truthfully say that the partying didn't get in the way of us doing our jobs. We took pride in doing our jobs well, all of us, and we did them well.

Shannon of course took part in none of this, and apparently felt justified in assuming an air of morally-offended superiority based on the notion that we weren?t properly respecting the image of the glorious Alaska Rail Road. Curiously, despite the fact that Evil Allan (one of the servers) was the biggest weed fiend of all and entirely dependent on the stuff to get him through the day, this condemnation was focused almost entirely on the kitchen staff, most especially me. We got frequent mini-lectures that wouldn't address the issue directly, but were full of hints about behavior unbecoming of The ARR, and a few veiled threats that essentially boiled down to "I'm telling on you. Maybe." And most of all, backtalk and attitude. In a word, juvenile.

Now, snotty passive-aggressive bullshit like that has always set me off, no matter who's slinging it around. The fact that it was coming from someone at her point in the crew food chain, and therefore directly challenging my authori-tay as Token Person in Charge, made it all the more intolerable. (Somehow, the fact that I held this so-called leadership position in no regard whatsoever made a challenge like this even more irritating.) Mix in the driving force behind it, namely the attempt to stamp her influence on train operations - as an 18-year-old who wasn't even employed by the ARR itself (foodservice was contracted out) - and all this adds up to a situation I wasn't about to tolerate. So, I made it clear that this conduct was not acceptable.

Of course, as is always the case with Morality Policepersons, she couldn't let it go. So I struck back with what turned out to be an unusually effective weapon: music.

Tunes were essential to getting through the often-brutal workdays, and since the stereo was in the kitchen area, the cooks controlled the soundtrack. Both The Vasky and I have eclectic tastes, so we had a wide collection including funk, various flavors of grunge and alterna-rock, jazz (mostly hard boppin' stuff), alt-country, blues, and even some classical in the form of Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries, which we would blare at top volume during particularly heavy rushes, donning homemade tinfoil Viking helmets and breaking out the gigantic Battle Pans that could cook several entrees in one go.

I had contributed the most oddball tape in the collection - Bitches Brew, the crowning jewel of Miles Davis's fusion period. If you haven't heard it before, it has a dark, heavy groove, sinister and sensuous, and more than a little bit creepy. Unsettling, even. Voodoo jazz all the way. And not really the kind of music people generally like to work to, if they like it at all. But I've always dug it, especially when stoned, and Vasky didn't mind, so I'd put it in on occasion, usually near the end of the day when we could relax a bit.

Early in the season, I put it on one afternoon. About a third of the way through the tape, Vickie came back to the rail.

"Can you guys change music?" she asked.
"OK, I guess," I said. "But why?"
"It's really bothering Shannon," she said.
"What, she doesn't like it?"
"No, it's really upsetting her. She's getting kinda freaked out."
"Oh. OK. That's pretty weird, but whatever, we'll change it."

This was before Shannon started becoming a problem, and for a long while I forgot about it.

But she was getting bolder in her challenges as time passed, and I was getting pissed. The train season is an exercise in endurance, and later in the season the group dynamics get increasingly tense. Being locked up in a confined space with the same damn people for months on end -working as fast as possible for 12 hours a day in a hot, steamy, swaying, stinking dining car while frequently hung over, sleep-deprived and stoned - will do that to people. Add in several confrontations with my idiot boss, who had zero comprehension of the grim reality of a typical workday but insisted on trying to impose stupid rules that benefited nobody and made our jobs harder . . . and I was not in the mood to play nice.

The next time we clashed, it was a good one. Although I?ve forgotten what sparked it, I clearly remember our facing off on either side of the rail that separated the server's area from the kitchen, and the typically Alaskan feisty, stubborn, I-will-NOT-back-down attitude she radiated.

Now I was really pissed off, filled with cleen, green northwestern anger, and also aware that if left unchecked she probably would have grown bold enough to actually rat us out.

"Get the fuck out of my kitchen," I snarled. After a tense, glaring moment, she did.

And then I remembered my secret weapon.

"Hey!" Vasky yelped as I cut off Lyle Lovett in mid-yodel. I jammed Bitches Brew into the tape deck, stabbed play, then cranked it and serenely retreated to the back of the kitchen to resume setting up for the dinner rush. I probably also ducked in the cooler to take a hit. I can be a real asshole that way.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Shannon venture into the servers area a few times, and retreat quickly, her body language growing increasingly tense and distressed. I stared straight ahead at my work, pretending not to notice, but wearing a tiny, secret, evil smirk.

Ten minutes passed, and Vickie came back to the rail.

"Guys, you need to change tapes."
"Oh yeah?" I called from the back of the kitchen. "And why is that?"
"You know why. That music is really upsetting Shannon."
"Well," I said, "she needs to think about that next time she starts throwing me attitude."
"But she's really upset!" Vickie protested.
"It's just fucking music!" I shot back. "She's got problems if it bugs her so much. I'm not changing it."
"Fine." she snapped. "You're being an asshole." She spun around and left abruptly before I could respond.

Vasky gave me a long stare. "You are kinda being an asshole," he told me.

"I don't care. I've been putting up with her shit for a long time now, and I'm not going to let a fucking busser try to order me around."

Vasky is a pretty practical guy, and he could tell I wasn't going to budge, so he let it drop. But ten minutes later, Vickie returned, this time in full, domineering Mistress Vickie mode.

"OK, that's enough. Change the tape NOW," she commanded. "Shannon is crying now, you asshole, and we need her for the dinner rush."

That was all I needed to hear.

"Geez, OK, fine. I'll change it."

"I hope you're happy," Vickie said over her shoulder as she left.

Happy was overstating it, but I was definitely satisfied with the results.

I didn't have any more trouble with Shannon that summer.

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I like brown liquor, strong beer, barbeque, and brunettes. Also, you suck.

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