I met a guy named Jim. I was sitting at the bar at the restaurant and I met a guy named Jim. The snow was that grayish, murky slush that is neither pleasant nor entertaining. Late February and nothing is fun. The flurries have lost their appeal. Now the weather is an annoyance and warmth seems so very far off. There is that bone-chilling cold that riddles everything with a nervous anxiousness that simply can not be warmed or comforted even with tequila. It just keeps coming back, that cold. But I met a guy named Jim on a day that I needed to meet somebody to restore my faith in humanity or to refrain me from wanting to leave the gas on in the kitchen and slide a lit pack of matches across the floor as I bolted out the door into the parking lot to watch that grayish, murky slush melt down the sewer from the heat of a burning building. I met a guy named Jim and he needed me as much as I needed him. I may have needed him more than he needed me, he just didn’t know it. I sat up, elbows propped on the sticky bar, leaning over the same computer that I use to scribble these notes, wondering where this asinine job was going to take me when a noise rattled the quiet of the closed restaurant. Dave Matthews was singing to me, or trying to, when I met Jim. The music played but I was not listening for I wasn’t letting anything or anybody into my world; there is a darkness to cooks that have lost their way. They question the purpose of cooking for people that may not care about the food they eat. There is a darkness to cooks that work with other cooks that don’t care about the food they put on a plate and just want their bi-weekly stipend to blow on cheap liquor and even cheaper women. There is a darkness to cooks that work for people that only see the balance at the end of the month and don’t care how that money dribbles into the bank, forgoing your need to do good food, let alone doing really good food with soul, spirit and, hopefully a nod to environmental consciousness and helping others. There is a darkness to cooks that have lost their way. And I met a guy named Jim. I opened the chilly, steel door and in walked Jim.
“Please, man, I need a job. I’ll do anything. I can start right away.”
-“Hang on. Relax,” I said, “what are you looking to do?”
“Anything. I’ll wash dishes. I can start now. Do you need a dishwasher?”
-“Yeah, I do, as a matter of fact. Just had a guy walk out on Saturday night.”
“Really, man? Really? I can start now. Tell me when,” I could hear the excitement and panic, both in his voice. He wanted to start now in case somebody else came along.
-“We aren’t open today. Wanna start tomorrow?” I was hoping.
“Oh, sweet Jesus. Thank you, man! Really, man. Sweet Jesus! I just need a job. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” I wanted to really give this guy a man-hug. He seemed so genuinely appreciative and excited to work. But I also know the kitchen scene; crackheads also seem appreciative as they unload a case of 8-ounce filet mignon into their backpacks to sell for a few dollars to the guy waiting for the bus. Trust is a tough bank to fill in a kitchen. So, no hug for Sweet Jesus Jim, yet.
I really needed a dishwasher and I could finally get some people moved around in the kitchen. I really needed to make progress in this kitchen. I hadn’t been on the job very long and things were not going so well; the schedule was a train wreck, morale was way down, sanitation… wasn’t, and I was in a dark place. Being in a new kitchen makes you miss your old life, whether it was a different company, a different set of rules, or just being a foreigner in a different segment of the industry. The dusty, gray outside weeps inside, deep inside. It is a desperation that leaves behind a hollow lump where contentedness should be. And I met Jim. Just like that, I had a new dishwasher and, what should be a trivial shuffle of kitchen staff could happen. For me it was not trivial, though. Things needed to happen, both for my own sanity as well as to prove that I could get out from under the weight of the his new place, to finally trudge through the mire of new responsibilities and lead a very wary crew into the light. We needed a good kick in the ass! Jim!
Jim worked and worked and worked and worked. The dish area started look less like a giant goat had vomited all over it and more like clean dishes could actually emerge from the hulking beast that swallowed used plates and glasses to burp them out steamy and clean. And then the walk-in cooler looked like order amid ruin. No more carnage of crusted god-knows-what plastered to three of the four walls. The floor was an inch lower as the scummy foot traffic of the last several years had been stripped away to reveal pebbled aluminum. Then the mop closet was navigable. No more empty chemical bottles. The bottles must have been relics of a by-gone era, because there certainly wasn’t much cleaning going on that would necessitate chemical usage. And so it went. One area to the next. And, more importantly, one person to the next. Jim got it started.
Many Sundays, I would arrive early to sit on the patio of the restaurant, just along the river, under the awning and in the cloud that is left from a frenzied Saturday night. And Jim would be there. We wouldn’t open for another few hours, so I would finish my coffee and he would hit another cigarette or two and we would share gentle discourse on work, the future, immigration, the Pirates, recipes. We talked about his travels, in vague geography. We chat about struggles, the past. We reminisce about lower gas prices, better bread and higher standards. Sweet Jesus Jim is a story, not unscathed, as most aren’t with years behind. We talked of rehab. We talked of moving around. We talked of jobs had and shadows of former selves.
“Oh, I have been all over the place, man. I just keep to myself. I just do what I gotta do.”
-“I hear you.”
“I got myself cleaned up. I pay my bills. I do my laundry on my days off. Got an Obama-phone to keep in touch when you need me to come in.”
-“Yeah,” I nod, as I try to figure out Jim.
He’s a hard worker. He has gone down some different paths through a clouded forest before finding his light. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t need to be figured out. He shows up everyday. He works hard. He does not complain. He carries a glass half full. He laughs. He shoveled some of that gray, murky snow out of my path, as well. Perhaps his work ethic is the result of life experience. Or upbringing. Or he is just an honest worker. Whatever ‘it’ is, it certainly lifted, at least in part, the pale that had descended upon the kitchen. And me. No bromance or anything like that. But, I met a guy named Jim, just in time.