Sunday, November 6, 2011

My First Job

One summer in the late 1970s, I was ready to get my first job. I had my driver's license which greatly increased my freedom, but it also created a huge thirst for cash. So I needed to find a steady stream.

I papered the town of Stillwater, OK with applications and waited. The first interview I had was with the Pizza Hut on 6th Avenue. They needed a delivery driver and was ready to hire me on the spot - until they found out I didn't drive stick shift (this was back when the restaurants supplied the delivery vehicles). Shortly thereafter, a small restaurant south of town offered me a job as a cook. I was so excited that I went right home and told my parents that I started that Saturday night. My father reminded me that my grandmother was coming to town that night and I had promised to go to dinner with her. I drove back to the restaurant and asked for a delay of one day in my start date. I spoke with the owner's son who reluctantly went to tell his father, who fired me on the spot. In retrospect, I think this is a sign of a hothead owner, so it was probably for the best.

A few long weeks later, the KFC on 6th Avenue called and offered me a job as a cook. I took it immediately. It was a family owned location that had been there for years and, as with almost all small businesses, it was a little soap opera all to itself. Since it was my first glimpse into the world of business, it remains fairly clear in my mind these many years later. Here is the story of that little white cinderblock building that started my working years.
Speedy was the owner. He was an older, wirey fellow with salt and pepper hair, black horned rimmed glasses, and a loud boisterous voice. He was slightly below average in stature and was an ex-cop - his cop buddies hung out regularly at KFC. I didn't see Speedy often during my time at KFC, but I remember him as a tough yet fair boss. Being young and shy, he intimidated me quite a bit.

The only conversation I remember having with him was my first day on the job. It was a Saturday where Oklahoma State University was playing football, and therefore it was the busiest of days for all restaurants in town, including ours. All hands on deck, all employees were in to handle the crowds.

One of my first tasks on my first day on the job was to bread the next batch of original recipe chicken. They showed me how to get the chicken from the freezer, take it to the breading table, and wet it down. With the flurry of busy employees all around me, Speedy came up to me to show me how to bread the chicken. "Take this leg, and pull the skin up tight like it was your pecker. There! That's the way!" He gave me instruction for breading each piece in that first batch and then went about ensuring other employees were working at peak performance.

Speedy wasn't around much because his son, Joe Orr, was the manager. Joe was about 30 years old, slightly rotund, jet black hair, and a somewhat Hitler-ish moustache. His beady black eyes seemed to pierce right through whatever he looked at, and he had a biting, sarcastic way of talking to people. Joe was around at least part of the time almost every night I worked. He lived directly across the sidestreet from KFC in a 1930s era two-story house. He had a very pretty wife - tall, blonde, young - who I only saw from a distance when she entered or exited their house. She never came to the restaurant. Joe had a Corvette and had spent a few years in the Navy.

Rick was the assistant manager who worked most nights and was there whenever Joe wasn't around. Rick was a full-blooded American Indian in his early thirties with a balding pony-tailed head. He was missing a few teeth and weighed about 250-300 pounds. Rick was extremely nice to all of us young high-school backroom cooks, and I enjoyed talking with him.

The front counter was almost always staffed with college-aged women, most of whom I do not remember. None of them stayed long, and us cooks where not to be seen in the front of the restaurant anyway, so there was not much interaction between the counter staff and the cooks. The one I do remember is Theresa Paul who had shoulder length straight blonde hair and nice petite curves. She worked there quite awhile, and for some reason I can remember the entire staff going to her home nearby one evening - have no idea why or what we did there. Joe took quite a liking to Theresa, and they talked quite often. As he did with all the staff, Joe gave her a nickname based on her initials: Toilet Paper.

Heading to the back room, the senior cook was named Dodie, often called The Dode (maybe this was because this was the Happy Days era?). Dodie was in his 30s and was always just one paycheck away from being homeless - I suspect he was homeless at certain times. Dodie too was missing a few teeth and was a very rough character who hung out with a very rough crowd. He had many home-made tattoos and was built extremely solid. Being over 6 feet tall, he could no doubt hold his own in any situation. Dodie was always extremely nice and helpful to us young cooks, though no doubt he was a very bad influence and showed us innocent high schoolers the darker side of life...something we probably didn't need to see at that age. Dodie seemed to work sporadically at KFC, being hired and let go multiple times. I have a feeling it was more due to his life being in disarray than anything else.

Hire just weeks before me were the Sexton twins, Ed and David Sexton. They were my age and after meeting them at KFC, they became friends of mine both at school and on weekends. Ed and Dave were tall, lanky fellows with shoulder length hair and an easy-going friendly attitude. They wore the aviator-style auto-tinting glasses that were so popular in those days and were very hard workers. They easily outdid me at virtually every task in the kitchen.

Finally, there was Chuck, and amiable early 20s man with a husky voice, average height, and stocky muscular build. Chuck loved to drink and had a temper problem at times, but it was never directed at the rest of us on the staff. Chuck worked on and off at KFC and tried his hand at other careers with more opportunity from time to time. Chuck lived in a little guest house behind Joe's house, and we went there several times after work to enjoy a little after work wind down time.

There were other cooks that came and went while I was there, but I didn't know much about them. I do remember that Speedy once hired the son of one of his policemen buddies. The son and I were scheduled to open the early shift one Sunday morning, and he showed up to work late, hung over, and with no shoes or socks...just bare feet. To his misfortune, Speedy happened to be there and fired him on the spot.

The restaurant was a simple little cinderblock building with windows only around the customer tables and one over the kitchen sink. Us cooks always entered and exited through the back doors. At the time, I was astounded by the greasy, dangerous conditions in the back room and still am to a large degree. The stove burners constantly held huge pressure cookers filled with grease and chicken, which caused the linoleum floor to constantly be so slick we would simply slide from one location to another. The pressure pots got to several hundred degrees and we knew the times they were to be removed from the flame through use of a grease pencil to mark the time on the lid. When the huge pot was removed, we would have to wrestle with the lid to get it unclasped from the base and then slide on over to the boning station. Using one hand on the short handle and one hand on the long handle, we would flip the pot over so the grease and chicken poured out onto a screen at the boning station. The size of the pots ensured that this maneuver left each of us with a permanent scar on the middle of the bottom of our forearm, as we would all burn that spot nightly. A second person, the "boner", would flip each piece of chicken immediately so as to drain any grease that may be caught in the crevices of the chicken.

A few years after I left, a new KFC building was constructed next door. The old location where I worked was converted to a liquor store called the "Liquor Barn", which Joe owned and managed. Later still, the Liquor Barn closed and the building torn down. Today, that location is a parking lot.


Mike said...

That's pretty cool J. My first job was inspecting wheat fields in rural Indiana, so there weren't any other people to describe. I learned a lot about wheat though.

J said...

You should do a post on wheat! And what inspections involve...

J said...

I should do an epilogue on the People of KFC:

I read online that Joe Orr died 2 years ago, while in his 50s. Speedy preceded him in death. Joe had long ago left KFC and had spent about 20 years as an OSU employee.

Rick left KFC about the time that I did. I remember that while I still lived with my parents, I awoke one morning to see Rick standing in our yard. He had become a city employee and was managing a work crew that was repairing a water line in front of the house.

I am still in contact with Ed and David...Ed works for a large manufacturing company, and Dave moved to the OKC area. They are both on their second marriages, I think.

Chuck moved on to other work. The last I heard, he was living north of Stillwater and had married an American Indian woman.

After leaving KFC, I was no longer in contact with Dode or Theresa Paul.

My last recollection of KFC was driving up in my Cutlass to the back door of KFC one night. My friend and I got out, and there was one of the female counter staff sitting on the back curb, smoking a cigarette. We asked when a friend who was doing the closing shift would be off work, and she said in just a few minutes, so we waited. She was thin and had long black hair in a pony tail. Seems like we knew her pretty well, so she must've worked there alot.

I had parked my Cutlass such that she was looking directly at the side. She took a few drags on her cigarette. "You know what I just noticed about your car?", she said.


"If you take out the middle letter, it spells 'Cut Ass'".