I’ve never been the sharpest dresser, the most meticulous with personal style, the parlayer of the perfect pompadour, the namest brand logo on my less than chisel-chested cromag party lifestyle playing in the society pages. It’s usually been more easier being the Wizard behind the curtain, throwing the bash, and collecting the cash, than moon walking and dabbing my way to carnal supremacy.
“I’m just a regular Joe with a regular job. I’m your average white suburbanite slob. I like football and porno and books about war. I’ve got an average house with a nice hardwood floor” – Dr. Dennis Leary – I’m an Asshole
I missed out on the parachute pants, the Izod shirts, the shell top Adidas, the button-fly Levi’s and the knit skinny ties because money was tight tight; wasted on parental divorces, houses overflowing with offspring and other stuff my adolescent brain deemed to be useless.
In the early years (70’s – early 80’s), most clothes were hand-me-downs from my three older brothers. Equally bad were the K-Mart or Sears & Roebuck’s specials that were cruely inflicted. Along with the homemade haircuts with scotch tape used to sort of keep the bangs straight, it didn’t matter that those Tretorn’s were girls sneakers; they were new, they cost money and I was an asshole because I wasn’t grateful for them. I could sport the puke brown extra-flammable plaid polyester like nobody’s business though.
I’ll never say to a store clerk in front of my children, “Where’s the husky kids clothing? He’s a little bigger than most kids his age.” Contrary to the ice cold misery of how these moments felt, shriveling from motherly public embarrassment never actually made you fit into smaller sized clothes. As Cartman famously said, “I’m not fat. I’m big boned G-d dammit!” Mom grew up poor and learned at a young age to sew her own clothes, knit her own sweaters, do other needle work and such. Her grandfather was a tailor and ran a shop in the back of my grandfather’s pawn shop. She was born in a household coping with wartime shortages, Eastern European immigrant frugality and her own conservative sensibilities. Not even God and heavy artillery could save you from the hellfire rained down should you reject one of Mama Judy’s home knitted sweaters, ruffle collar, “high quality” purple and pink yarn not withstanding. I don’t care that there is supposedly no hell in Judaism, because in Judyism, rejection of any of this stuff meant you were flat out damned. I have seen the brimstone, and that shit is real.
I was sold into indentured servitude as a means of discipline when I was thirteen; stuffing hotdogs in buns at the old Big Sombrero; the original Tampa Stadium; home of the hapless Buccaneers and the USFL’s Tamba Bay Bandits. In this environment, food was pay, and there was no limit to the number of cheddarwursts and chili dogs I could stuff down my pie hole. The guys we worked for also ran a catering company on the side and would pay us hard, cold cash for washing dishes, bussing tables and other grunt work. This led to part time gigs with three different catering companies, jumping from one to the next as the weekend work demanded; chasing that cash and getting drunk on the sweet taste of temporary “freedom”. Finally I found some misfits I liked hanging out with.
The first thing my bestie John and I spent our hard-earned dough on was literally more dough; specifically, large pepperoni piggy back pizzas from George’s at the corner of Waters Avenue and Twelve Oaks Blvd, about ¾ of a mile from my house in the working class Deerfield development. This absolutely mystical culinary creation featured two complete layers of doughs, sauces, cheeses and heaps of greasy extra-kosher pig meat discs, baked on the stone of a magical horizontal rotating deck oven.
In a lifetime of working in food and beverage, doing major hospitality design projects, I’ve never seen another oven like that one. The door was glass and the interior was lit up like the disco party it was about to create in my belly. Picture something like a gigantic rotating pastry case, but even better. Steel and glass and multiple layers of circular stone decks coupled with intense heat and none of those air jets you see in today’s anti-christ of pizza conveyor impinger ovens. It was a flat out masterpiece.
We’d sneak out of my window at night, sprint up the road to get there, take the screaming hot pizza to a green electrical box behind the store, burn the skin off the rooves of our mouths, cheese oozing, sauce dripping, pig fat staining and choke that sucker down as if we’d just escaped from Shawshank. Than we’d waddle-sprint back to my house, sneak back in the window, burping, farting, snickering, pulling skin pieces out of our mouths for days.
John was also raised by a single mom, my Mom Away From Mom, Jill, one of the most kind hearted humans I’ve ever met. She took us to our first concert, Golden Earring with Patty Smythe & Scandal opening up at Curtis Hixon hall. It was more awesome than any spectacle I could’ve conceived of; dudes in black acid washed jeans with chains going back to their wallet from a beltloop, hand down the back of their girlfriend’s pants while holding a Schaeffer beer and an actual Bic lighter blazing high. And skin-tight, leopard print, lycra clad big haired hotties with more makeup than a D street tranny undulating in teenage torment. I was in awe. No one looked like the tools at our school; these were rebels and misfits and rock-n-rollers and most important to my puberty polluted mind, chick magnets. It all made so much sense. We’d been wasting money on piggyback’s when we could have been wasting it on clothes (and Velcro closure wallets with the Judas Priest logo on them.)
John further turned the heat up when he introduced me to what would become my high fashion holy grail; the concert shirt. Not just any band logo t-shirt, but the full blown baseball style jersey. I’ll never forget when he got it; his mom took him to see Frank Zappa and his description of the show was near bacchanalian. The shirt itself was “Frank Zappa Pussy & Coffee Tour ‘84”. He kept it in a dry cleaner’s bag hanging in his closet and we used to just stare at it in wonderment and fits of post adolescent laughter. He would rarely break it out, and once, most generously, let me wear it, but usually it stayed out of public view, for the public simply was not worthy of this masterpiece.
When I got deported to New York mid-way through freshman year of high school, my dad set me up with a job at a local catering company / diner before he even enrolled me in the local high school. My older brother worked there, and Pop figured that if any place in town could scare me straight, it would either be a Belarussian men’s prison or this Warren Avenue culinary zoo.
The owner Doc, a big fat farmer type, actually promised to be the toughest boss I ever had. His heart was in reality almost as big as his ass, and seeing him smile was like seeing a pit bull smile (although sometimes it might be right before biting your yam bag) so he could go from zero to stratospheric explosion in 2.3 seconds flat. Physical violence ruled the day; his two sons Jeff and Bill were the enforcers, and usually I loved the extreme chaos of it all. I tried to quit once, but the bastard told me I couldn’t unless my father gave me permission first. I was fucked. But it was my first real kitchen job, my first time on the line and I learned to work harder, faster and with an extreme urgency that is rarely taught anymore in our “everyone is special” society. And to boot, Doc’s sister would make liquor store runs for us if we gave her enough money to buy her own hootch.
You learned quickly that if you didn’t move your ass, there was a high likelihood that someone was going to beat your ass. Now this was my kind of motivation. I also liked the tan leather work boots, jeans, flannel button downs and t-shirt vibe of that pace. It didn’t really matter what you looked like, and no matter what, when you walked in the door, even just to pick up your paycheck, you were going to leave stinking like deep fryer. “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” as Bukowski said. Let your hands do the talking. This place felt like home.
Moving on to bigger culinary challenges, the standard cook / chef type uniforms became as comfortable as shit kickers and jeans. For the next crap-ton of years, through the Culinary Institute of America and working in “better” joints that actually provided uniforms and laundered them for you, this also brought the pall of culinary ego. Chef-ly titles, executive suit type people, fuck ‘em all, I had my Magic Cloak of Invisibility and Asshole-Inity. I deemed myself a classicist, whatever the fuck that meant, and once again rejected the popular (culinary) clothes of the day. The baggy chili pepper prints, the Tabasco logo chef baseball hats, the straight black pants that I deemed myself not worthy of, I was having none of it. The Marines would never go into battle wearing Versace “Floral-Essence” blouses and by-dambit, neither was I. Gear me up for war, with a saran-wrap belt keeping my credit card swiper securely hidden in my checks, my monkey knot twelve button coat and those dumpy black shoes that the dog would clean nightly when I got home. This and a pint of Gold Bonds and I was good to go.
From ’89 – to ’96, I wandered a lot, few roots (CIA being one), houses but no home, sometimes houseless and what I refer to as dumbass homeless. (If I weren’t such a dumbass that week, and actually took the time to plan anything, I could’ve had a consistent place to sleep. Living down to the Chris Farley credo, Satch and I even ended up living in a van down by the river for a time period.) Troy, East Greenbush, Albany, Hyde Park, Fredericksburgh, Ketchum, Sun Valley, golf courses, and crash pads, where ever. I have a couple of extraordinary friends from those times; as close to me as brothers, but too much of what we did was defined by the work, virtually living in our cook’s checks.
I migrated to Cornell as a twenty five year old January freshman, joined the Deke house and the world opened up to me. For the first time since high school, I was surrounded by guys, geniuses, certified meteorological nerds, jolly good fellows and such who were not nut deep in hospitality stuff; most being engineers, computer science, engineering drop outs, liberal arts, Ag Ec, industrial and labor relations, hum ec and such. This wayward old dog finally found a home. (More on this another day.) Standard issue frat wear ruled the day. Comfort was king. Mark me please with a stencil plate. Fortunately there were few events that necessitated anything more formal than shorts and a t-shirt, even in the brutal bluster of an Ithacation winter; that wet dog, fluffy fat snowflake, slush dump that seemed to happen every Sunday from November to April.
When I was bludgeoned into looking for real jobs as graduation neared, I didn’t even own a suit to interview for these Ivy League worthy positions. I never took the S.A.T.’s in high school. My theory was that I would never want to attend a school that arbitrarily judged me based upon them. I never claimed to be a genius, but I did make it into Cornell without them or any other standardized test. They have some sort of reciprocal agreement with CIA, and my GPA there must have been worthy enough to cover for my barely-graduated high school grades. The short point is, for the previous bunch of years, I had a very similar theory about jobs that required suits. I was who I was, and if what was the external me wasn’t you, you were clearly deranged and not worthy of my work anyway. N=1.
Upon hearing about my literal lack of fancy pants, my Mr. Miyagi, aka Perfesser Dave, suggested that we go down to some place in Syracuse where they made suits for Brooks Brothers and had a retail front end. They could custom make me some suits he said, and it wouldn’t leave me bankrupt. When we went in, he said I needed a navy pin stripe and a grey pin stripe to pull off the professional look expected. He also suggested black, cap toe wing tips and a classic white button down shirt. He picked a tie that would match both materials, they measured me and we agreed on a cut.
They asked me if I wanted to use a belt or suspender straps. Being the style retard that I was, and thinking that Wilford Brimley and Michael Douglas both looked sharp with the straps, I opted for the suspender straps and picked out a set of red, silk ones that would make me look cool. In his three-cupped way, Dave gave me the nod of approval. They wouldn’t be seen under the jacket when I was wearing it anyway. We capped it all off with ordering a long, black, wool overcoat to complete the look. I was sure that I was going to look the part in this get up. They said come back in two weeks to pick the stuff up, which was perfect. I’d have it on time for my upcoming interview and to use for my girlfriend’s brother’s wedding that prior weekend in Las Vegas.
Me being me, I waited until the absolutely last minute to go back and pick up the stuff. When I got there, they nervously looked at their watches (it was close to closing time) and asked if I wanted to try everything on. I wanted to be accommodating so I told them I’d skip it. I trusted the thoroughness of what they’d done. If my faulty memory serves me right, we actually went from the factory store to the airport to go to the wedding, the timing was that close.
I busted out the blue pin stripe in Las Vegas and it looked perfect. I had to leave the wedding early in order to take a red eye back to Ithaca to go to my interview on campus for a job that was in Las Vegas ironically. I partied at the wedding and then slept on the floor of the airport waiting for my connection flight in my new blue suit, so there was no using it for the interview.
When I got back home, I opened my garment bag and went to put the gray suit on. It had a massive crease across the front of the coat from me hastily stuffing it into the bag. Also, when I went to put on the pants, I found out that they forgot to put the suspender strap buttons into them, and I didn’t even own a belt. Not a dress belt, not a brown crappy macramé hippy belt, none of it. I asked all over the house if anyone had a dress belt I could borrow, but I was shit out of luck.
I did convince a friend to drive me down to a dry cleaner where I begged them to iron the coat for me. I didn’t know anyone that owned an iron either at that time. The lady at first refused, but when I offered twenty bucks and told her my sob story, she agreed. When I took off the coat, she said, “Your shirts a mess. Give me that too.” So I was standing there in the dry cleaner, holding my pants up by the belt loop, baring my bulbous belly for the world to see. When she came back with the freshly pressed clothes, I got re-dressed in her lobby and then Buck dropped me off at the library in which the interview was going to take place, with me still holding my pants up by a belt loop.
I went behind a stack of books near the interview room, hitched my pants up a little, puffed my belly out and prayed that it would all stay in place. I’m a boxers kind of guy and sometimes the piss flap can be a little unpredictable, so the last thing I needed was to inadvertently drop trough with a Free Willy side note on these unsuspecting bastards. I walked in the room quickly, introducing myself, keeping my left arm tight against my coat and pants, shaking hands with the right and casually grabbing a belt loop as I sat down.
I made it through the interview, and at its conclusion, when I stood up, I again discretely grabbed a belt loop with my left hand, shook with my right, and got the fuck out of there as quickly as possible. Despite all this, I got offered the job anyway and ended up taking it. They never noticed my little pants issue. I never attempted to use the f’in’ suspender straps again. A belt would be fine.
Up until this point, most of my career had been working in the heart of the house (kitchens), bartending or in snowmaking. Even in the high end ski resorts, the executives all dressed business casually. The casino world was different, and image was everything. It did not matter how incompetent some of the corporate kiss-asses were, as long as they dressed sharp and licked a good hiney hole, they were movin’ on up. One company I worked for even brought in image consultants to help you attain that “perfect look”. During my first appointment, the guy suggested to me that I grow a soul patch. I skipped those appointments after that.
I spent almost 17 years working in the casinos, and while business casual ruled the dress code for my last several years, image issues never escaped me. Too many times, I’d watch as the rats made it further, faster, not because of what was between their ears, but because of more superficial stuff, like puffery, image, or occasionally gratuitous knob diddlings.
As the new owners were preparing to take over my last property, whenever they were in town, everyone did the buttermilk bath, busted out the shine-o-la and waxed their ear hair. After the transition, the executives were given the rundown on how to dress when all of the various so-and-so’s were in town. This one gets a tie, that one gets a dress shirt, with her a golf shirt’s okay. “And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply…..” FUCKKKKK. Why?
It’s next to impossible to find qualified culinarians in Western Pennsylvania, but under the thumb of the new guys, even if they were qualified, visible tattoos now somehow made them not worthy of employment. Same goes for earrings and long hair on guys. But, you could now grow a full beard, which was nice.
Please sir, can you advise me how to man-scape me nether bits? I wouldn’t want to lose me gig because I opted for a landing strip versus the more aerodynamically pleasing full Brazilian. I must concede that the extra smoothness is right nice though.
I will never understand gauge-type earrings or bull ring nose piercings on anyone, and probably would never hire the guy with the, “Jew Baby Blood Is Deli-Shus 666” tattoo on his neck and the tear drops tatts at his eye. Hell, I can even be freaked by a big, fat facial mole with the three hairs hanging out of it. (I usually nickname this things Nigel, imagining it talking to me in heavy cockney accent.) We all have our limits. I’ve never gotten a tattoo, and once got screamed at from Kennedy Airport all the way to Paramus, New Jersey when I got home from Israel with a pierced ear the summer of 1984. (Dad, I was fourteen, the girl was stunning, she wanted to pierce my ear and Moses couldn’ta talked me out of it at the time. I hope you understand by now, and promise I won’t do it again, maybe. Like I said, she was stunning.) Not a huge fan of the boob tattoo either. The image gets whacky as gravity does its job. (Ever seen an oval Steelers logo? Trust me, it’s not a pretty site.)
The real long and short of it is that I want to work with folks who are allowed to be themselves, to show their uniqueness, who proudly have the marks and scars of experiences, sporting the scribblings and staplings of free expression if they so choose. That to me is human, at its finest. As long as it doesn’t denigrate our ability to produce an outstanding product and our ability to take care of our customers and co-workers warmly, with competence and professionalism, or violate any laws or true moral codes, be who you want to be. I’ll save the suits for weddings and funerals thank you (until I’m sixty), and then I’m just going with shorts, a t-shirt and some g-d damn flip flops. Anyone who truly cares about me would want me to be most comfortable anyway.