First in a series.
A whorehouse was responsible for my nascent career as a lifelong voracious reader and too-long career as an English major, though I did eventually trick Indiana University out of a degree. My stepfatherís family had once owned a bakery, and they still owned the ancestral property on which it had been housed. They wanted to sell it and had to clean it out, and I was recruited to help. The second story had been a whorehouse: my job.
Victoriaís Secret had nothing on these babes. I was awash in an ethereal sea of garter belts, bras, mesh stockings, panties, nightgowns and shoes -- boxes and boxes, overflowing with them. It was a real learning experience for a teenager. But, lest you think that there was no cultural aspect involved in the evisceration of this enclave of iniquity, the walls of the Madameís room were lined with books. She was a reader. She had hundreds of volumes: classics and hardbacks. My stepfather told me to heave them. I asked if I could have them and he just shrugged. I took them all.
In Richmond, my stepfather got me a job. It was January and very cold when I began working for Glen and his son, Stanley Bybee, at the Bybee and Son Casket Company. It was situated in the middle of the block -- I mean, really in the middle, surrounded on all sides by houses, one of which belonged to Glen Bybee. It was just a few steps up from the factory door to their kitchen.
Bybee and Son consisted of Bybee and son, me and a part-time welder who came in occasionally. Letís see, there was Bybee, thatís one, and then there was Son, thatís two and then there was me. Guess who was the turd? I bought a pair of overalls, something I'd never owned. This thing just gets more and more Dickensian, folks.
Richmond, Indiana is something of an afterthought on the species -- except for Earlham College, a nifty place. Jim Jones honed his preaching and Kool-Aid making skills on the street corners of Richmond. I never did drink the Kool-Aid.
So, I made baby caskets during the day and read Strindberg, Ibsen and LeRoi Jones and listened to all nine of Beethoven's symphonies (Toscanini) and Frank Sinatra at night, often falling asleep in my overalls. I was trying to get in the pants of a cheerleader who lived in an apartment in the same complex as did my mother and stepfather. Didnít have much success, just a little making-out. My credentials were scanty at the time -- a third-string field goal kicker could out status me. Not a hell of a lot of panache in being the turd at a baby casket factory.
The snow was to the top of my boots. Promptly at noon every workday, Glen and Stanley would climb the few steps to the warm kitchen (it was cold in the factory.) I put on my coat, gloves and hat and trooped five blocks in the snow (yes, it was uphill both ways) to the Spudnut Shop where they made doughnuts with potato flour, to eat my lunch, which consumed about 15% of my daily wage. I made $1.00 an hour.
There was a sheet metal ceiling here. I didnít see much room for advancement, unless Stanley and the welder died. One of my jobs was sawing little pieces of wood on a table saw. I mean little. Tiny blocks that were wedged into the sheet metal rims of the caskets for the lining to be tacked to. I spaced out one day -- cheerleader fantasy, as I recollect -- and ran my left thumb through the saw -- Iíll show you the scar. Blood spurted everywhere and Glen was downright irritated with me: Down time. Lost efficiency. Iíd no car so Stanley drove me to the emergency room. Several stitches later and doped up I was on the couch with Frank Sinatra. I took the rest of the day off and Stanley picked me up for work the next morning. My days in the baby casket industry were numbered.
Glen pissed and moaned about my speed over the next few days. I saw the mene mene on dirty concrete block walls.
Iíd saved enough money to buy a 1954 Mercury convertible. I quit before he fired me -- just barely, I think. I found the best restaurant in Richmond, Indiana. It was in a motel, the chef was Austrian, the manager German and the sous chef a redneck. I was first cook and dishwasher. Me -- flunky ťmigrť from the baby casket industry, now first cook and dishwasher.
But, it was a real restaurant. I learned some stuff.
Joseph Carey, aka ChefCarey, is the author of Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery and Chef on Fire: The Five Techniques for Using Heat Like a Pro. He cooks, teaches and writes in Memphis, Tennessee.