Chapter Two: In Which I Sell My Soul for a Vox Jaguar Combo Organ
I feel it is finally time to unburden myself of a terrible secret. In the late 1970s I participated in the prosecution of a gruesome experiment in which innumerable innocent people were made ill. Countless others would have been sickened to learn the nature of their exposure to this exercise. But I deceive myself. The nightmare that took place that awful summer was no mere experiment. It was a crime.
A crime in which unnatural and unholy substances and secretions were infiltrated into the bodies of thousands of unsuspecting victims whose only offense was to want pancakes for breakfast. A crime so ghastly that I have kept this dark secret lo these many years, tortured by the guileless faces of the victims, their lives unknowingly changed forever. A crime hitherto unfathomed in the chronicles of disease and depravity, forged in the very crucible of culinary perversion: Sambo’s Restaurant in Coos Bay, Oregon.
I have a number of excuses for my participation. I was young and foolish. I was only following orders. If I hadn’t gone along with it, I wouldn’t have been able to eat hamburgers. There was a 5th amendment problem. And I wanted to buy a Vox Jaguar combo organ.
I was 15 when this story begins. In order to become as much like Chick Corea as possible, I had to have some sort of electric keyboard, and the Jaguar was a real dandy, sitting there at Ken Cartwright’s Natural Sound with black keys where the white ones should be and vice versa. That it sounded awful (a lesser version of the one used on “Light My Fire” by the Doors) was of no concern; I was going to have an electric keyboard and would deal with the sound later. But it cost $350, an outrageous sum at that time. I determined that I was going to need a job. So in that summer I acquired a work permit and applied at several restaurants in the Coos Bay area. The only one that got back to me was the Sambo’s on highway 101 in Coos Bay, who had an opening for a “DMO”. I took the job, at the minimum wage of $2.35 an hour. And thus began my descent.
I was no mere dishwasher, mind you. I was a Dish Machine Operator. I was given a khaki-colored muslin shirt with a number of blotches on it and a matching hat moist with the sweat of 1,000 DMOs before me. One couldn’t really wash one’s hat (really more of a visor) because the visor part was stiffened up with cardboard, which would become deformed in the wash. And a crisp line on one’s hat was critical at Sambo’s. Like 1,000 DMOs before me I resolved to wear the hat as little as possible. Like 1,000 DMOs before me I was reprimanded and reminded of my obligation: I represented Sambo’s Restaurants, and the people who came to Sambo’s expected to see the hat. At this time, the national Sambo’s chain was still shilling the idea that they were franchisees of a little fable called “The Story of Little Black Sambo”. Little Black Sambo, who was actually an Indian child in the original turn-of-the-century story, had run afoul of several tigers and, having given them all his clothes to buy his freedom, eventually ran the tigers around a tree until they turned into a big pool of delicious melted butter. According to legend that butter had, in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, made its way into the walk-in refrigerator at Sambo’s on Highway 101 in Coos Bay, and thence to tables where diners could adorn their waffles with it. They had books for children depicting the story of Little Black Sambo and his butter.
And now, for a catalogue of the crimes, at least the ones I remember 30 years later, committed in Sambo’s name. My crime was not a sin of commission, rather one of standing in mute silence in the middle of Gomorrah. I was young and foolish. I was only following orders. I am “coming clean in the hope that others won’t make the mistakes I made”. And I argue that the world was well served by the music I made on my Vox Jaguar organ, including an unforgettable performance of “Smoke on the Water” in the basement of Holy Redeemer Church in 1979 that was worth a few loosened bowels, in my humble opinion. Furthermore, I hold out hope that Sambo’s will one day be recognized for the advances in medical science necessitated by the pioneering work done there.
I reveal my inmost self to my God.
Looking back, I should have thought more of the fact that, in the entire two months that I Operated the Dish Machine, the Dish Machine had No Hot Water. There was no hot water anywhere in the restaurant; the water heater was broken the entire time. The manager had much else on his mind as he toiled in his little office with the door closed. More on this later. So we simply washed the dishes in cold water all summer. No problem. I was not the only Dish Machine Operator, of course. From my first day, I worked alongside “Desmond”, who, though helpful as he could be, understood things very poorly. Think an older, less spirited Hamburglar. And thus one day did I discover not only that Desmond, the very vision of industry, washed the urinal grates in the same sink where the salad lettuce (and everything else) was washed, but that he’d been doing so for years. Rumor had it that Desmond had been at Sambo’s for 2 decades and was making $10 an hour. I found this highly arousing: I could buy not only a Vox Jaguar, but a Micro-Korg synthesizer with that money! For the duration of my tenure at Sambo’s, there was no drain beneath the hanging sprayer we used to spray the dead waffles, syrup residue and sausage ends off of the dirty dishes. It had gotten clogged, and the manager had simply removed the pipe. If thine drain offend thee, pluck it out. So Desmond and I were charged with spraying all the detritus into a large, wheeled garbage can beneath the sprayer which, when it was full, we’d wheel across to the one working sink (yes, the salad one) and dump, one ladle at a time. We had to dump all the goo through a strainer to avoid clogging the drain, but Desmond would clog the drain anyway, fill up the sink, then get me to reach through 2 feet of greasy pink glop to unclog it on the grounds that he was missing several fingers. I never ate salad at Sambo’s.
Salads at Sambo’s were made by lining a garbage can with a clean garbage bag, then slicing up a bunch of lettuce and cabbage and sliding it off the counter into the garbage bag. Leaving aside the teeming biological experiment festering on that counter, there was nothing really that wrong with this idea. Except that that garbage can looked just like, well, a garbage can. And the waitresses were constantly walking by throwing garbage into it, which would then appear as enhancements to some lucky customer’s salad. Every other day or so we’d get a complaint that someone had found something in their salad. The most common offender was a cigarette butt. Glass was found more than once. People found newspaper, ketchup packets, pieces of time cards. And one day someone found a kind of strange piece of stained paper in their salad. A waitress picked it up, puzzled over it, then held it up to the light and could read, written over and over as a texture: “Kotex Kotex Kotex Kotex Kotex Kotex”.
The wise diner avoids eating low-volume dinners at places like Sambo’s. Who goes to Sambo’s and gets a Surf and Turf anyway? Try to order items that get through the restaurant every few days (for that matter, try to order items that will get through you in a few days), although you are far from safe even if you order only burgers (see my Kentucky Fried Chicken addendum; I am a serial Dish Machine Operator). The problem with the Surf and Turf was that it and one other item, I think the prawns, were the only dishes that came with a baked potato, and Sambo’s only sold a couple a day. So the cooks (more on them later) would bake up 3 dozen potatoes at a time in the convection oven, and then there they’d sit, on the top of the convection oven, for the next two weeks. My wife is a biologist, so I’ll ask her, but I can not think of a better medium in which to grow all sorts of fascinating creatures than a 2-week-old, room-temperature baked potato. And grow they did. After a week, the miracle of nature began, and the potatoes began to fill with maggots. The cooks would come back a couple times a day, slice one open and, if they didn’t see anything moving (this constituted “quality control” at Sambo’s), microwave it and serve it up.
Sambo’s standards of excellence were rigorously enforced by the manager, “Edsel”. Edsel ran a very tight ship, at least on those occasions when he emerged from his little office at the far end of the Dish Machine, often surprising all the employees who had no idea he was even in the restaurant. One wall of Edsel’s office abutted the wall next to the cash register in the restaurant so, in fulfillment of his responsibility to meticulously monitor the register, Edsel installed a one-way mirror focussed directly on the ass of the waitress running the register. Edsel would then disappear into his office with several magazines for hours at a time. To “keep his finger on the pulse of the restaurant”. Some waitresses were bothered by the idea of Edsel, his face crushed against his side of the mirror, the glass getting foggier with every pant, ogling them in his little dark space as they rang up the day’s pancakes. I think they were too sensitive; after all, isn’t it kind of a compliment to be ogled by the man at the top?
One standard that Sambo set was that there was to be no smoking by the employees. But actually I think Desmond and I were the only employees who didn’t smoke there. As a sign of management’s commitment to employee relations, our Sambo’s had an employee smoking lounge. Unfortunately, the employee smoking lounge was the walk-in refrigerator, which was kept at a balmy 55 degrees. I’d open the door to get a 5-gallon tub of pancake mix and there, hoving out of a fog of cigarette exhaust, would be two waitresses, or two waitresses and a cook, puffing away. One day, in the tradition of Garrett Morris cleaning up Three Mile Island with his mop, I was sent in to clean up the walk-in refrigerator. All of the 5-gallon tubs were in use, most containing just a sticky crust of ancient pancake batter on the bottom, and my mission was to free up some tubs by combining all this funk into one tub. As the manager was explaining this task to me, a fly alighted on the side of the master tub. In a flash of managerial dexterity, Edsel deftly backhanded it with his omnipresent magazine, and it landed in the pancake batter with a little bloody plop. “What should I do with that?”, I queried, expecting that I’d either throw the whole thing out or, at worst, try to excise only the fly-tainted portion and save the rest. The manager simply grabbed a dirty ladle off of the counter and stirred the fly in. “They’ll think it’s a blueberry”, he explained.
In New York’s Greenwich Village, there used to be an ancient little breakfast spot named Shopsin’s. John Belushi ate there all the time back in the day. On the wall of the kitchen was a sign that read: “THE COOK WEARS A CONDOM AT ALL TIMES.” At Sambo’s, we were not so lucky. “Fess” and “Herman”, the two cooks who were most often on duty when I was working, were two reprobates who I believe ended up in the military, where I fear they did more damage than Moqtada Al Sadr. I had known who Herman was for years, but always considered him kind of a quiet type. Fess was a strange and somewhat frightening person for whom Sambo’s was a 24-hour, pink and orange tuck-and-roll laboratory for his demented kitchen delinquency. Fess and Herman were forever egging each other on with their various culinary outrages. Fess also picked his nose with great elan. I remember once bringing some bus trays out to the kitchen, where that day Fess had picked his nose until it bled. He was giddily dribbling the blood into the scrambled eggs on the grill, with Herman smiling approvingly. One of the “perks” of working at Sambo’s was reduced-price food for employees. I often ate a hamburger for lunch, and one day when the hamburger was much more unacceptable than usual, I mustered the courage to complain to Fess. “This doesn’t taste right”, I offered in my mid-pubescent voice. “It shouldn’t”, responded Fess. “Why?” I asked. “Because I stepped on it”, said Fess, who then just stood there, his face fixed in a noxious smile that still chills me to the bone.
I think Sambo would have frowned on a lot of the doings at his namesake restaurant. There was the waitress who, having gashed open her finger on broken glass in the ice bin, then helpfully made a red “X” on the ice by squeezing her bloody finger on the ice. There was the restaurant policy of re-using those little plastic boxes of jelly and honey; we were instructed to run them through the dishwasher, and thus any opening in the foil top would leave a nice soapy taste on your toast. If you were lucky.
And then, one day, out of nowhere, it came.
About a week before the end of my tenure at Sambo’s, word came that the state inspector was on his way. Edsel wasn’t supposed to know when the inspector was to appear for his “surprise” inspection, but somehow Sambo got word to him. And the whirlwind of activity that ensued was unbelievable. All of the DMOs worked double shifts (even at 15, I worked a few 16-hour days). Waitresses were pressed into service scrubbing a decade’s worth of soot out of the walk-in refrigerator. Desmond, stationed at the sink, polished the urinal grates until they shone like new. I was charged with unearthing the tile floor in the Dish Machine Area. Herman scrubbed at the grill with a filthy brillo pad. Fess picked his nose with gusto. And towering majestically over the whole thing, barking out orders like MacArthur storming the beach with a magazine in his hand, was Edsel, in all his glory. Had there been a soundtrack to the heroic effort, I would think the “Rocky” theme would have been appropriate. I believe some effort was even made to repair the water heater, but I can’t be sure whether it was successful. Having given my notice 2 weeks earlier, my term at Sambo’s came to an end after 3 16-hour days. By some miracle, Sambo’s passed the inspection.
The next time, they were not so lucky. In 1970’s Oregon, it was very rare to see a restaurant with a “B” from the Department of Health on the door. I was only aware of one restaurant in the entire state, the Hastee-Freez in Drain, that had a “C”; my entire family used to point and laugh as we passed it on our way to Eugene. But somehow, about 6 months after I left Sambo’s, the inspector caught them by surprise. And the wheels completely came off. I imagine the inspector walking past Desmond dutifully scrubbing away on his beloved urinal grates, opening the door to the walk-in refrigerator and surprising two waitresses smoking like a furnace and Fess with his finger up his nose. I can picture Edsel shambling out of his office, shirt-tail hanging out of his pants, offering some version of a salute. I heard a first-hand report that most of the staff stood watching dolefully as the inspector scraped off the “A” and put up only the second “C” I’d ever seen in my life. Not long after that, someone finally decided that “Little Black Sambo” might just be a teeny bit offensive, and the name was changed to “Family Sam’s”, then “Seasons Family Restaurant”. It’s now the “Kozy Kitchen”. I took my family there and the cook, a biker-looking fellow, created a really nice little Mickey Mouse pancake for my 3-year-old at our request.
Surely some must be wondering how I can sleep at night knowing what I know. It is my belief that God, recognizing mankind’s need for diners, equipped our brains with a remarkable capacity to rewire themselves. Because far from engendering an appropriate revulsion, the horrors I observed at Sambo’s somehow left untouched my enthusiasm for any restaurant with colorful vinyl upholstery and sparkling clean urinal grates. I continued to eat at Sambo’s, and sought out Denny’s and IHOP at every opportunity. I believe that in this ability of the human mind to delete offensive or horrifying synapses lies the secret to much happiness or, at the very least, our ability to get by. I’m a fairly observant person, yet somehow I can go to one of these establishments, watch the waitress wipe my table with a greasy, gray, foul-smelling rag and say to myself “Well, thank God she’s sanitizing the table”. Or notice the tattooed cook repeatedly wiping his nose on his forearm and think “He’s a trained professional. I know he’s using proper sanitary procedure”. Or get a stack of pancakes in which a few of the blueberries are strangely crunchy and assume “Gee, these sure are some fresh, crisp blueberries.” Besides, in God’s great biological wonderland, who gets to even decide what’s “sanitary”? Who’s to say that eating a dead cow’s muscle is any less disgusting than eating a dead housefly’s muscle? Or that a rancid chicken breast is all that different from Roquefort cheese? If a sausage is already a bunch of ground cow nostrils stuffed into a pig’s intestine, what difference does it really make if Fess steps on it? I was young and foolish. I was only following orders. And I needed that Vox Jaguar combo organ. Surely any one of the hamburgers I ate at Sambo’s is punishment enough for my tacit complicity in these crimes. Yes. Yes, I will sleep tonight. And dream of a big stack of blueberry pancakes topped with puddles of melted butter, rancid from sitting in the sun, in long-ago Coos Bay.