--- D E N N I S M U S T
Buddy Hart was running out of money, fast. By the end of the week he'd be hungry. The New York Post classifieds were giving him no satisfaction. The cattle call for college-educated clerks by the telephone company was one half hour away. American Can, after indicating they wouldn't hire him, told him, "Don't wear a gingham shirt the next time."
He thought it was the philosophy major that queered it.
Too intense. Stop thinking you're Marlon Brando. It makes personnel uncomfortable. Effect a sunny disposition. New York City is primally dark. Brighten the interviewer's office. Imagine you're a sunflower. Back Home in Indiana -- have a tune in your heart.
Uniformed Bell Telephone women clerks herded the applicants into a room the size of the New York City Public Library's reading room. Long collapsible table with chairs on either side had been set up in tight rows. Three hundred applicants scribbled on forms while others awaited seats.
"How many openings?" Hart asked one of the attendants.
"When will we know?"
"We'll phone you within a week -- if we're interested."
I could have worn my gingham shirt. And what's this?
Hart sat down at the table -- ten men on either side -- and was handed a packet of papers. The first couple of pages asked for the standard information: education and work history. But then came the essay question.
"You are in a boat with two best friends. You can swim, they cannot. A storm arises and capsizes your craft. There are two life jackets. Do you:
A: Permit your two friends to have the life preservers? B: Fight for one of the life preservers? C: With a belt, lash the two wearing preservers and yourself together?"
The question perplexed Hart. A self-starter would pick B. However, Bell was jealous of its civic-minded image, so the answer had to be A. I give the life preservers to my two very frightened friends and begin swimming. Yet, it could be the collective approach, C, that required neither crass indifference nor chamber-of-commerce altruism. It underscored the need to work together.
Hart looked about him. Each applicant had his head down and was either concentrating or dutifully acting, except a bespectacled, round-faced applicant (his collar had a yellowish cast to it, as did his teeth) glancing at him from across the table. Hart couldn't understand the nature of the man's mincing smile. Returning to his task, he heard a whispered threat couched in base profanity and shot his head up only to encounter the character grinning ingratiatingly at him.
Hart now became nervous. Each time he returned to the essay, the character ratcheted up his invectives. They assumed a sadistic tone. Cutting Hart with a razor blade in the bathtub while the tormentor performed fellatio. He'd copulate Hart with a Colt .45 while nocturating into his mouth. Each time Hart raised his head, the screed ceased, and the man exchanged that unnerving affectation of his, as if to say, "It ain't me you're hearing say that nasty stuff, buddy. Funny, though?"
Upset because he'd cut down his food intake to one meager meal a day, and now having to contend with a sweating pervert sitting across from him, Hart summoned the attendant.
"Could there be two answers to this essay question, ma'am?"
"Pick one and give your reasons why."
"Of course there is only one answer." The tormentor volunteered. "Any ignoramus can see that," and, catching Hart's eye, swiped his victim's pant leg with a pointed shoe. Hart slid his chair out from the table and placed the exam on his lap.
"Wait until this is over, cocksucker," the redolent character hissed. "I'll follow you home and stick it down your throat while pinching Voltaire's nose, you yellow bastard!"
The multiple choice essay would be a simple one if only you were one of the sailors, thought Hart.
Distraught and wanting to vacate the building before the sadist, Hart picked the community-spirited choice, and wrote a fulsome paragraph to the effect that, "Humankind must rise or fall together." The vitriol of his table partner had now become even more imaginative and terminally graphic. When Hart looked up to confront his tormentor, the smile of denial had assumed a victor's glibness. Pretending to pen an additional passage, Hart waited for the screed to resume, whereupon he shot up from the table, pressed the completed application into the attendant's hand, and, bypassing the elevator, looped down six flights of steps. On the street he sought refuge in a coffee shop, monitoring the plate glass window while huddled in a back booth. Minutes later, the sadist reappeared . . . his face obscenely mashed against the window, squinting for Hart. Unable to see his proposed victim, he suddenly appeared grievously hurt and wandered off.
The advantage of living in a big city like New York. The guy could ruin my life in a small town. What are the chances of my ever seeing him again? But food is running out. Money or one week's rooming-house rent. Car fare for one week. Then the first pint of blood to sell. Maybe if I try to get employment in an eatery. Ah, what's this? "WHITE CASTLE HIRING, ALL SHIFTS. WE TRAIN."
Hart immediately phoned.
"Do you have a prison record?" the receptionist asked.
"Are you free to work any hours any shift?"
"Yes. Days, nights . . . whenever."
The following day, Tuesday, (still no call from Bell) he stepped out of the elevator at the twenty-seventh floor of a Frank Sullivan flat-iron building in the thirties. Dozens of small offices on on either side of the narrow hallway were occupied by lone accountants, lawyers, insurance salesmen, detectives, literary agents-all behind shellacked oaken portals with a rivuleted translucent glass pane advertising the establishment's name in inelegant black letters. Room 143 read "E. A. Tullly, Esq."
Was this somebody's idea of a joke?
A middle-aged woman wearing a cameo broach at her alabaster neck greeted Hart. She gestured he take a seat. The chairs were tubular aluminum with green plastic seats like in a post office. A gun-metal gray desk, empty steel shelves, an Underwood typewriter propped before the secretary on a green felt blotter. Her dress looked like an Egon Schiele print.
"I presume you're Mr. Hart."
The edges of his stiff white shirt were yellow, their armpits soiled.
"I did inquire if you have a prison record, didn't I Mr. Hart?"
"And you said?"
"I have not."
"Mr. Tully will see you now, sir. Go through that door, please."
The door leading to Mr. Tully looked exactly like those in the hallway, an opaque plate glass window covering a third of its mass, but this one had neither letters nor numbers. Hart bowed graciously to the receptionist and entered White Castle.
A tall, black gentleman with an anthracite beard and penetrating blue eyes stood fully attired in a chef's costume and a toque inscribed Big Whitey. Chromium counter stools with red leather seats abutted a Formica counter on which sat a glass case of freshly baked peach, raisin, lemon meringue and apple pies. Salt-white hexagonal tiles inlaid with White Castle in glass-black script covered the floor. Mr. Tully assumed his post behind the counter in front of the large grill, blue and yellow gas jets illuminating its undersides. An orange drink bubbler sat at the far end of the counter gurgling. Posters of Big Whitey hamburgers being devoured by cartoon men and women adorned the pale-green windowless walls, and the coin-operated, chromium juke box selector attached to the counter sat blank except for Charlie Parker's "Repetition."
"Mr. Hart, slip into this uniform, please."
Tulley handed Hart a striped pair of cotton pants, a freshly laundered white shirt, a black leather bow tie, an apron and a toque. He pointed to the restroom. Even that was a mock-up of what existed in every White Castle he'd ever patronized. An "Employees Wash Hands Before Leaving," sign hung above the toilet.
"Call me Professor," Tulley joked, as he made the first hamburger, then had Hart slavishly copy him.
"All Whiteys, big or small, are prepared with finely chopped onions whether the customer wants them or not. It's why they taste so damn good." Tully rolled the ground meat in his thick hands as if it were fresh snow, then he'd slap it flat. Each time another burger was fried, it was tossed into the trash. Soon, he began cracking eggs with the one-hand method. First, a smart thrust to a hard surface, then with index finger and thumb, while the hand swooped to the skillet, the yolk and albumen were released unmarried. Again and again, Hart cracked the eggs against the skillet, arm lifted aloft as if he were a pianist then authoritatively down, dropping the unbroken yokes into the melting a slab of butter-Banjo Eyes.
"By spooning the hot butter over the yokes until they whiten, barely, you make Eddy's Asleep. Tully taught as if he were a maestro of dance.
"It's all in the wrists. Showmanship. Your customers watching your every move." Tully was a stickler for neatness, too. "This is no science, Hart. It's kid's stuff. You're Big Whitey, remember. Now onto Mulligan's Jewels."
Hart had no idea how long he and the "Professor" had been at the grill with the absence of daylight to indicate the passage of time. He presumed it must have been four or five hours. Finally, the mentor removed his apron and toque and took a seat at the counter, opened a menu, looked up at Hart and ordered lunch.
"Two Big Whiteys with Ivories, a side of Mulligan's Jewels, Frank Capras for my wife (he didn't have one), and one Ménage a Trois. Oh, and a slice of Uncle Whiskers. Light on the Moo in our Wake-ups, please."
The student nonplussed stared at Tully. But went immediately to work, attempting to recall the Tully's invented jargon for the various plates on the menu. ("Remember you're in the entertainment business.") And despite his forgetting a step or two, got it all right except the splats. They were a little battery in their centers. Tully sloughed it off.
"The wife won't eat them all anyway. I don't know why the hell she insists on ordering them." He laughed and swept all the prepared food into the rubbish bin.
Hart cleaned up after himself.
"Now you sit, Mr. Buddy, and tell me. You must be hungry."
Jesus, is this God behind the counter? I get to eat already? He ordered exactly the same as the professor, except he passed on the flapjacks and omelet but wanted ice cream on on his apple pie.
"I'll get those dance steps down cold, Mr. Tully, don't worry."
"Oh, I'm sure you will. There's one more very important thing I want to tell you, son."
"What's that, sir?".
"You're no longer Buddy Hart."
Hart looked at him puzzled.
"Whitey . . . always Big Whitey. We come in two sizes-Whiteys and Big Whiteys. (the Whiteys were a quarter and the Big Whiteys 35 cents, 40 cents with cheese or "ivories") When the customer says, "I want a Whitey," you respond, "Big Whitey, sir?" And when they say they want a hamburger, you say, 'One Big Whitey on the Fry!'
"You get it?"
"Yessir," said Hart. He liked this kindly professor. This was a bonafide hamburger school. And when he finished eating, Tully disappeared for several minutes, returning with a diploma that had a black satin ribbon attached.
"What's your first name, Mr. Tully, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Tony's my middle. Eaustis is my first. It's my little joke, Hart. Up here on the 27th floor for the last eleven years cooking hamburgers, spuds and eggs and tossing them into the can. Boring as hell. Two shifts each day, one morning and one afternoon. What did you major in college, Hart?"
"None of my business, son. No prison time?"
"New York University, 1938. Summa Cum Laude. Masters in hydraulic engineering. Strange where the tide of life tosses you sometimes, huh, son? 'Course I don't want to inquire into the reasons how you ended up here. But you won't go hungry. And you sure can be anonymous. Big Whitey, remember? Nobody expecting a philosophy major to be beating his eggs. Do you smoke, Mr. Hart?"
"Well, join me." The two men sat in the lone booth. Tully got up and fed coins into the music box.
"When do I go to work, sir?"
"This evening, 125th Street, eleven-to-seven shift. They'll be having you bubble dancing 'n working the counter for a day or two, then you'll be on the flames."
"Am I a short order cook?"
"Yeah, that's what you are, son. You religious, Hart?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you profess a belief in God?"
"Like now maybe?"
"All those philosophy courses didn't queer you on the notion, huh?"
"I'm a Rosicrucian myself. If you're a critical thinker-like I suspect you are, Mr. Hart-you might want to give it some consideration."
Mr. Tully quietly finished his cigarette, stood, and shook Hart's hand. "I get damn lonesome back in here. It would be a lot more interesting if I had people walking in off the street. You had no idea, did you, Hart, what was behind that door?"
"I expected a man in a dark suit behind another gray desk, sir. I never expected to enter a nobody and exit Big Whitey."
Both men laughed.
"Anonymity, son. I'm Big Whitey, you're Big Whitey. Powdered flapjacks are Frank Capras, Uncle Whiskers-apple pie. Nothing's ever as it appears to be, son. You see the humor in it after you be showing up here every morning for work as I have for the past decade, saying hello to spinster Grace-she's been here at White Castle school for twenty-seven years!-and opening a restaurant that's never had one damn paying customer."
Hart hesitated then asked. "Why do you do it, Mr. Tully?"
"I could ask the same of you, boy." He laughed heartily. Buddy could see his massive chest and biceps straining the White Castle issued shirt.
"You made my day, Professor, in fact my month." He walked into the outer room, then turned to glance back at Mr. Tully who was sitting on the counter stool inserting another coin for the Bird-with-strings tune.
"One more question, sir."
"What is it, Hart?"
"Would you've hired me if I had a record?"
"What'd you do, boy?"
"Nothing. But suppose I had?"
"Big Whiteys got no past. When I slid your Frank Capras into the trash barrel, so went Buddy Hart. You're Big Whitey now. To me 'n anybody else from here on out on the opposite side of the counter. You've just been saved, son."
His first night's work, Hart washed dishes when he wasn't waiting the counter. The eleven p.m. to two a.m. spell saw nonstop traffic. Three to five a.m.-maybe a dozen customers in all. None of the staff spoke to Hart other than to issue orders. At five-thirty the establishment was overflowing.
"Two Wake-ups to go, light on the Moo!"
"One Big Honkey with!"
"Humpty Dumptys with toast."
Tully's colorful substitutes stayed in the 27th floor two-room suite. Each site had it's own lingo. One hour before his quitting time Hart was told by the manager to take all the wooden slat sections on which the counter people walked, outside into the street to hose and scrub down for the next shift. During the slow two-to-five period he mopped the white tile floor. At no time this first evening did anyone call him Big Whitey.
One week passed at various sites: two nights at 125th Street, one at 57th Street on the west side, three in Jackson Heights. (There they called him "Bernie.") Each shift Hart mostly cleaned and did janitorial work, only occasionally getting behind the counter. But he was no longer hungry and the anxiety about having to pay his rent eased.
His second week of work began at the end of the Van Courtland Park subway line. A White Castle stood alongside two Irish bars at the base of the hill that lead to Manhattan College and several Riverdale private secondary schools. Here the traffic flow was more modest, heating up a little before midnight and keeping steady until one-thirty. It became very quiet until six and then remained steady but manageable throughout the remainder of the morning. Hart was summoned to work the grill.
He'd fallen into a pleasant rhythm after several shifts at the same location. Regulars were beginning to refer to him as Whitey. It didn't happen automatically. The customers only used the appellation if they felt a sense of familiarity. Occasionally an inebriated customer would call out Big Whitey as a taunt. And his expertise at the grill was becoming more refined, his technique polished. ("Remember, son, first you're an entertainer.") It was especially important that his costume for the evening be freshly starched, and he took caution to keep it from becoming soiled throughout the shift.
There was an extreme sense of gratification Hart was taking from doing a job exceptionally well. A short order cook, albeit with a limited repertoire. During the slow period he and the counterman might converse, but mostly he fed the Wurlitzer, having bribed the vendor to place the same recordings he had at the 125th Street location in his 244th Street stop.
"The Micks will have your balls, Whitey. You shitting me?"
"Maybe we'll educate the bastards," Hart insisted.
Billy Holiday, Dexter Gordon, The Prez, Bird, Jimmy Lunceford's band, Monk, Duke, Ella, Dizzy, Bud Powell . . . it's how Hart spent his tips.
Until the second month, sometime after two a.m. Hart stood leaning up against the counter, his back turned to the stools, staring out at the traffic on Broadway and listening to his tunes, when a stranger entered, sat down at the far end of the counter, and slid a menu out of its chromium grip. Hart's counterman had retired to the restroom with the Daily News.
"What will it be, sir?"
"I'm thinking. Give me a coffee."
"Cream and sugar?"
"Yessir. One Wake-up coming right up." Jesus, the guy looks familiar. Where in the hell have I seen him before? "Anything else?"
The customer didn't lift his head. "One poached egg on toast," he said.
"Sally Takes a Bath on the Square!" Hart cried, and filled a poaching pan with water, which he quickly brought to a boil, then carefully lowered the egg into one of four rounds. Shortly he stood before the customer with the poached egg of perfect consistency, soon to bleed sun-like on the buttered toast. The stranger looked up and smiled gratuitously at him.
"We miss you at The Bell," he simpered.
Hart turned pale.
The customer lowered his head to eat. "The persimmon trees in the park are lovely in wintertime, Mr. Hart. I'll draw our bath and await you under the El."
The restroom door opened, and the counterman, with the News sticking out of his back pocket, resumed his station. Bird blew the last bar of Ornithology. Hart, stricken, leaned against the grill and stared out into the night.
"Can I get you anything else?" the counterman asked.
"Not this time," the stranger answered. And rose to leave, humming to the chef:
"Bloody Whitey on our Sails, Spinoza. I'll hold the moo."
© crossconnect, inc 1995-2006
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |