Working in food service is a bitter prospect that gnaws at my psyche. Rising like a thick fog amidst my financial concerns, it weighs on me, presses on my back, and shoves me into a small dark space with my teenage self. There, a smell clogs my nostrils. Mildew from a dirty industrial mop. Wet garlic bread. Rancid grease mixed with stale cooking odors. This smell belongs to a pair of knock-off Reeboks I discarded a lifetime ago.
My mother bought them at Payless the day after a manager offered me employment while I attended the San Diego Zoo’s job fair. The shoes were white and resembled the ill-conceived byproduct from fusing a sneaker and a bowling shoe. Calling them ugly would’ve been unjust, but they were functional for my needs and nothing more. As the cash register whined and rattled, I couldn’t stop staring at them, at the ankle collars and paneling and languid shoelaces, as I tried to divine their heartstrings. The interview tugged on my focus. I worried the shoes weren’t white enough. Not good enough. Already ruined.
I worked at the Treetops Café in the San Diego Zoo the summer I was sixteen. Employees wore an assigned button up shirt—a black background with muddled leaves and flowers that disguised the foulest stains—paired with our own khaki pants and white shoes. The latter seemed antithetical to working in food service. We were bound to spill something on them, blurring the illusion of cleanliness and decorum. Making it worse: I hated stains. Dirt. Spots. Triggering my obsessive-compulsive behavior, they wormed into my imagination and addled my capabilities. These writhing thoughts stalled me the first time I stood in my hallway bathroom dressed in full uniform. I stared at the white tops, afraid to move and spoil them, wondering how long until I couldn’t wash away the inevitable filth.
Crossing the zoo before my shift was like entering a time machine to a long-forgotten childhood memory. Sunlight shattered across the canopies and fell to the ground in amber patchwork. Colorful banners fluttered above people dawdling on the paths, gazing at their park maps. Children raced around them. Their footsteps clattered like thunder, scaring the rest of us out of their way. I paused at the primate enclosures to soak in what would be a summer-long free pass to marvel at exotic animals lazing in their dens and whooping in the trees.
My coworkers at Treetops were mostly adult teenagers. Our Team leads, however, were two men in their late twenties. They chatted about sports or gossiped about a woman from our sister restaurant as she crossed through the café after her shift. They materialized from the back kitchen only when we needed assistance. I had a passing relationship with the one other Black girl on staff. Seizing a rare opportunity away from the others, I leaned over the counter toward her. Did they talk to you? About your hair? My eyes flicked up toward the burgundy stripe cutting through her sew-in, which was pulled under her ball cap into a loose chignon. She cocked her head. No. Why? Her eyes became cartoonish in their roundness as I explained. No, they didn’t say anything like that to me! But I worked here last year. Maybe it’s ‘cause I didn’t have to interview again? We stared at each other. A fraught history recited itself in the quiet expanse before we shook our heads and parted ways. I never brought it up again.
The work was quick. We served customers buffet style from a preset menu that allowed them to choose Italian-inspired meals like parmesan chicken, pizza, spaghetti, or soup bread bowls. The meals came with either a side salad or a garlic bread stick. Not both, but customers often argued for both or extra breadsticks free-of-charge. Families rushed into the restaurant on a tidal wave of euphoria. They giggled in line, eager to soak up the premium zoo experience by just being there. Joy dripped from them and lit up the room. It was impossible to look at them and not be happy too. These were the park visitors who genuinely asked about my day and sought advice about the best exhibits. They sometimes asked me what it was like working at the zoo. My heart ached at the ruddy-faced kids who leaned against the sneeze guard in rapt attention.
A line snaked out the door when the lunch rush hit. My pride ballooned as I ladled sauces and soups at lightning speed. Customers grinned as they watched. You’re doing a great job! Their compliments reinforced my resolve and embellished the well-worn responsibility that draped from my shoulders.
Closing the café provided a welcome reprieve. The Team Lead on-duty cleaned the concession stand while I, and sometimes another coworker, sanitized the buffet line and the kitchen. A grey, soggy mop served double duty as a broom. The mop yarn drooped over the crumbs as I struggled to sweep them into the dustpan. The lingering food waste clumped together in the scummy water and clotted the floor drain. My arms burned from the intensive work, but I kept going, thankful for the quiet, my still thoughts, and the opportunity to be alone.
When I left at night, well after the park emptied, the faint breeze and blanketing quiet imbued me with a greater duty. I was guarding the sacrosanct. A watcher woman protecting a cradle of wonder. This was the family-friendly utopia the interviewers alluded to in my job interview.
The shine dulled after a week. The happy, smiling families became grim-faced hordes as I slapped overcooked lasagna onto their plates. The lunch rush swelled as the week progressed and the summer grew. Customers murmured and toe-tapped their impatience while they waited.
There was an occasional agitator, always a white man, who complained about being unable to Frankenstein the menu options. It doesn’t make sense! How hard can it be! These men called me stupid and slow. Their mouths opened into a sharp-edged abyss as they shouted down at me. We made exceptions for them. A Team Lead would appear from the kitchen with his face screwed up in false concern. Why, yes! Sir, that’s not a problem. She can do that for you. I served the cobbled meal as these smug men scrutinized my every move, smirking as I handed them their meals. Forced to smile and say thank you as they snatched away their food.
I retreated to a downstairs patio far-removed from the public to take my breaks. I plopped into a chair ensconced by large tree fronds and stared off into the distance. I had hoped to walk away from that summer job more assure of my place in this world. Every day at work refuted the possibility of that dream. I recomposed myself in the restroom before resuming my shift. I studied myself in the mirror. You’re not stupid. An obscene smile stretched across my face as I assumed a mask of normalcy. Giving myself a final check, I buffed my shoes and pinched the lines in my khakis before heading upstairs.
As a young girl, my father taught me how to press creases into my pants. He coated his slacks with starch while I sat cross-legged on the bed he shared with my mother. Steam snorted and hissed from the iron as he flattened out every wrinkle. His pants were scalding hot and buttery when he finished. Gotta stay sharp. Don’t give these motherfuckas a reason. Yet there was always that one reason we couldn’t suppress with clean, neat clothes and good diction. But I still tried.
I worked harder. The coffee pots were always filled. The counters were wiped clean and the floor swept. The food was presented in an appetizing manner when we weren't serving customers. I did so much that there weren’t any other tasks for my coworkers and me to do on our down time. You can’t just stand around! The Team Leads ordered us to clean everything again.
Misplaced expectations muddled my mind and pooled together with the feeling that I always had to be doing more to be enough. I pressed sharper creases into my khakis and tucked my shirts tighter until my uniform became one fluid-moving extension of myself. Yet, I could not shake the acrid smell that clung to me after I left work. I shampooed and conditioned my hair then repeated the process three times until a light floral scent blessed my locks. I emerged fresh from the shower only to follow the smell to my closet. It had burrowed into my knock offs. The stench wafted up at night and clogged my nose until I buried my head under the covers. I washed the shoes each weekend and set them outside to dry, hoping the sunlight would obliterate the hidden decay I was sure had nested in the spongy soles.
As I rolled off my futon one morning, I stopped short at the sight of my shoes. Their stitching swirled and morphed into different patterns. I must be dizzy. I laid back down, closed my eyes and counted to ten. I inhaled and rose again for a better look. My hands slapped across the vinyl flooring as I crawled out of bed and into the closet to confront the undeniable truth. Ants scrambled in and around the shoes in spidery trails that flowed from a gap beneath a baseboard. White and brown lumps bobbed above their heads. Their antennae scanned the greasy soles and greying laces.
I restrained an urge to smash them and obliterate evidence of their existence. I was disgusted, not at them but that, despite my efforts, something foul had managed to take root, and the ants were now dragging it out for me to see. A bitter taste rose in my mouth the longer I watched the lines weaving around the floor. The ants were just trying to make a way out of the dirt and grime. Out of nothing. But I couldn’t leave them there. I had been taught that they were a pestilence; their presence signified a greater corruption. I retrieved Raid from under the bathroom sink. The ants tumbled off in clumps as I tapped the shoes against the floor. Then they jerked and seized when the spray rained down on them. A few stragglers ran toward the baseboards in a futile effort to escape the poison that had already tainted them. Minutes later, my shoes wiped clean, I swept up the broken black bodies and threw them away; then I dressed for work.
Cynicism bloomed then choked the picturesque vision I once had. Children screaming in the park annoyed me. I hustled by the monkeys swinging around their fake habitats. The smile I gave customers wavered. Disdain grew with each customer complaint and returned meal eaten in full but somehow wasn’t good. Each refund was a slap in my face, a peremptory judgement of my ability to perform.
At closing, I scrubbed my hands until every raw cell hummed and begged for mercy. I left for the day, refusing to wipe down my shoes, ignoring the slow putrefaction happening beneath my feet. Every limb on my body hanged exhausted and threadbare as I walked toward my father’s car waiting beyond the zoo’s entrance. Every breath clotted and scored against my airways. I tried to ignore the finality that came with this. That I was over it all. But ever a completionist, I had to see the job through to the end.
While walking to the café’s kitchen elevator one afternoon, I crossed paths with the restaurant’s supervisor. He smiled and asked me how I was doing, if I had any concerns. I hear you’re doing a great job. My mouth opened and closed. What I said must’ve made sense, but my thoughts sizzled and snapped as I talked. I worried that he was testing me. Trying to assess my worthiness. I spoke faster, hoping to outrace the stench wafting from my shoes, myself, the past. My supervisor patted my shoulder as he left. Keep up the good work!
His smile lingered as the elevator doors closed behind me. I shut my eyes and fell into a memory summoned by his pearl-white teeth. We first met at the zoo’s job fair earlier that spring. My brother and I waited in line with what seemed like half the city to be interviewed by various managers seated in tents lined up in the zoo’s massive parking lot. My palms left dewy prints on the folder protecting copies of my resume as I waited my turn. A man beckoned me to a seat. He sat across the table from me beside another white man. Delight tinkled between their words as we spoke. They wanted to hire me. One of them would be my supervisor.
You’d be perfect for a job I have. They told me I was wonderful. Impressive. Different. Articulate.
But there was a problem with my hair.
It’s too...ethnic. My not-yet supervisor pointed to his scalp and feigned scratching his head while looking at mine. The other man looked as if he were listening to my eulogy. Can you change it? Their next words fizzled in the deafening roar in my ears. Have an image. Family friendly. Appropriate. Will that be a problem? Keep in mind, this will make a difference if we hire you.
A few seconds passed before I answered, but a lifetime lived and died within them. My body warred against itself. My nerves jumped and begged me to run from the tent. I tightened my muscles to rein myself in, but then tears began to rise. I blinked them back and clenched my stomach against the rage roiling in my gut. The men pursed their lips and waited.
That morning I had gathered my crochet braids into different hairstyles, opting for the most professional. Though they were installed a few weeks prior, I borrowed a jar of Let’s Jam from my sister to slick them down. I knew the image that braids conveyed in the wider world and I hoped the gel would bring any loose strands into submission. I couldn’t give the mothafuckas a reason. I still asked my mother if my hair was okay, if it would be acceptable. I knew that she would tell me the truth about the thin platinum stripe on either side of my brown hair. She rolled her eyes. You look fine.
Yet there I was, seated in front of these two men, being asked to change. To be more acceptable. Anger swarmed in my mouth. My parents had impressed upon my brother and me that we needed these jobs. Money don’t grow on trees. I thought about my parents and what they would say if I rejected their offer. I twisted my face into a smile and nodded. Yes. I can do that.
I signed the necessary paperwork and shook their hands. The employment packet crinkled as I clutched it to my tight chest and exited. The blinding light halted me for a second, forcing me to take in the scene. Overworked people queued outside the tents in crooked, endless lines. No one looked eager, but everyone was in need. I swallowed the compliance souring my tongue and continued forward. The words stuck to my dry throat and tore at my withering pride as they eased downward.
DW McKinney serves as the creative nonfiction editor for The Tishman Review. Her work has appeared in Stoneboat, TAYO Literary Magazine, Cagibi, Sidereal Magazine, and elsewhere. Visit dwmckinney.com for her current projects or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.
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