Washing Dishes For Jeff
The people who make a difference in your life come in all types. Some write on a chalkboard. Some wear a sports uniform. Some wear a suit and tie. For me, that person wore a tie with a Pizza Hut logo on it.
I started working at Pizza Hut in December 1989, when I was a freshman in high school. Parents in my small western Colorado town encouraged teenagers to work in the service industry after school and on weekends. It kept us out of trouble. Having a job also kept me out of the house. I grew up mostly with my mother, and I never knew my father. My younger sister, my younger brother, and I went through a series of stepfathers. My relationships with those men were almost always fraught, and I was always looking for reasons to be away from home.
The Pizza Hut was old, and in the back it had three giant sinks instead of a dishwasher. One basin was for soapy water, one for rinsing, and the other for sanitizing, using a tablet that made me cough whenever I dropped it into the hot water. All new employees started by washing dishes and busing tables. If they proved their mettle, they learned to make pizzas, to cut and serve them on wooden paddles, and to take orders.
On my first night, the dishes piled up after dinner: plates; silverware; cups; and oily, black, deep-dish pans, which came clean only with a lot of soap and scrubbing in steaming-hot water. I couldn’t keep up, and stacks of dishes formed on all sides of me. Every time I made a dent, the call came back for help clearing tables out front, and I returned with tubs full of more dirty dishes.
At home, the chore that I hated most was dishes. A few years earlier, my mother’s then-boyfriend had instilled a loathing of that task by making me scrub the Teflon off a cookie sheet because he believed that it was grease, while he sat on the couch and smoked cigarettes. That boyfriend was gone, but another with a different set of problems had taken his place.
My shift was supposed to end at 9 p.m., but when I asked to leave, the manager, Jeff, shook his head. “Not until the work is done,” he said. “You leave a clean station.” I was angry and thought about quitting, but I scrubbed, rinsed, and sanitized until after 10 that night.
I stayed on dish duty for weeks. My heart sank every time I arrived at work and saw my name written next to dishes on the chart. I spent my shifts behind the sinks, being splashed with greasy water. After work, my red-and-white-checked button-up shirt and gray polyester pants smelled like onions, olives, and oil. I sometimes found green peppers in my socks. I hated every minute I spent on dish duty, and I wasn’t afraid to let everyone around me know it.
One slow night, when I managed to catch up on dishes and clean out the sinks early, I asked Jeff when I could do something different. “Do you know why you’re still doing dishes?” he asked. “Because you keep complaining about it.” Nobody likes to work with a complainer, he said. But, he promised, if I continued to leave a clean station and not complain, next week he would put me on the “make table,” where pizzas were assembled.
A few days later, when I reported for my shift, I saw my name penciled not next to dishes but next to make table. I was ecstatic.
Jeff had a special way of running his restaurant. From a crop of teenagers, he’d assembled a team of employees who cared about their work—and one another. Most of my closest friends from high school also worked at Pizza Hut, and some of my best memories were made under that red roof.
Pizza Hut became not only my escape from home but also, in many ways, an alternate home. In my real home, I felt unstable and out of control. At work, the path seemed clear: Work hard and do things right, and you will succeed. This model had not seemed possible before.
For one of the first times in my life, I felt empowered. When I was in 11th grade, Jeff had promoted me to shift manager. By my senior year, I was an assistant manager, responsible for much of the bookkeeping, inventory, and scheduling. I was in charge when Jeff was away.
Our staff was like a second family to me. We had all-day parties that started with rafting trips and ended with dinner and movies. Most of us played together on a softball team. We went camping. We had water fights in the parking lot and played music on the jukebox, full blast, after the customers had left.
Jeff was the leader of this unlikely family. He was about 15 years older than me and had recently gone through a divorce. I never considered it at the time, because he seemed to be having as much fun as everyone else, but if I was using my job to create the family I wished I’d had, it was possible that he was too.
Senior year arrived, and though I loved that job, I knew I would go to college the next fall. I was an A student in class but probably about a C-minus in applying to schools. My mom hadn’t gone to college, and I didn’t have a lot of logistical or financial support at home. I had a pile of college brochures, but I didn’t know where to start—and, at $40, every application fee would cost me half a day’s pay.
A guidance counselor persuaded me to apply to Boston University, which seemed great, primarily because of its distance from Colorado. The scholarship application had to be in by the end of November—and I could not go there without a big scholarship. But maybe because of the fee or because of my cluelessness, I kept putting off sending in the form.
I still had not mailed it the day before it was due. At work, I offhandedly mentioned this to Jeff. He opened a drawer and took out an overnight envelope. He told me to stop what I was doing, leave work, and send the application immediately. I protested about the cost of overnight postage, but he said he would cover it.
I ended up getting into Boston University with a scholarship, but I had never visited Boston. Though my mom worked hard to take care of my siblings and me, there was no room in our budget to send me on a college visit. I figured I’d see the school when I got there in August.
Jeff surprised me with a graduation present: a trip to Boston. We toured campus, visited Fenway Park, and did some sightseeing around New England. We ate at a lot of Pizza Huts, and we judged all of them against ours. The verdict: None of them seemed to be very much fun.
Before I headed to college, I told Jeff that I would come back to work over winter break. While I was away, he was promoted to regional manager, and
a different person was put in charge of our store. I went back anyway, but the magic was gone. The family had dispersed, and I felt free to shift my mind-set to college and the future.
Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with Jeff. We usually meet for lunch when I’m in town. Sometimes, we even have pizza.
Washing dishes for Jeff was grueling, greasy work. But then again, making a pizza, driving a truck, baking a cake, and any of countless other jobs are not always enjoyable in themselves either. Out of all the lessons I learned from that guy in the Pizza Hut tie, maybe the biggest is that any job can be the best if you have the right boss.