Eating Garbage

Eating Garbage

Hey. I’m the Bossman. That’s book, baby.

Naismith Hall, Kansas University, Fall 1966

“We will never run out of food,” stated a brochure for Naismith Hall, a newly opened, private dormitory named after basketball’s inventor, James Naismith. I was a big basketball fan—one of the reasons I attended KU—and in the fall semester of my freshman year, Naismith Hall seemed like a good place to work. This would be my first job in the food service industry. I had no qualifications other than the fact that I was a student with a pulse who had properly filled out an application form.

The promise of delicious, plentiful meals was a motivating factor for choosing to work this gig but once hired, I was given a choice of compensation: either $1.00 per hour or free meals. Though $1.00 an hour was below the federal minimum wage standard, the state of Kansas didn’t bother with such trivialities. I chose the money option. What 18-year-old didn’t want an extra $10 or $15 bucks in their pocket in 1966?

It rankled me, though, when I witnessed trays of perfectly good chicken fried steak, that moments before had been served to the darlings, now must be thrown out. These were the rules. But rules are for fools. When nobody was looking, I planned on feasting.

One of my duties was trash detail. I was instructed to throw out everything that had gone un-eaten except pie and cake, which had a two-day shelf life: A costly lunch item one minute, became garbage the next minute. My system was simple: I lined the inside of an empty five gallon can of vegetables or fruit with paper napkins, nonchalantly filled the can with uneaten cheeseburgers—the most popular lunch item—carefully placed the can in the trash barrel, wheeled the trash out to the garbage dock, pulled out the can of cheeseburgers, then took one bite of 25 different burgers. Seemed less wasteful then eating two entire burgers and throwing away 23 whole ones. I also ravaged the day-old cakes and pies.

When the staff bakers made banana bread for the dorm, I requested they save the peels for me. Time magazine (I think) had published an article about various methods that “today’s youth” were experimenting with to catch a buzz. The inside of the banana peel was purported to have a psychedelic component. The baker ladies thought I was crazy, which I was just beginning to realize—I was. I scraped the insides of a dozen peels, put the scrapings on a tray, baked them for a few minutes, emptied the tobacco from a filter cigarette, filled it with the baked inner peel stuff, went out on the back dock and proceeded to give myself a sore throat. Much more pleasure could be derived from actually eating the banana. The same magazine article also suggested cigarettes soaked in vanilla extract and some concoction of rotted green pepper were buzzworthy. They weren’t. Obviously, I had no weed connection yet.

The food service manager at Naismith was a short guy with a crew cut named Preston. This guy was an archetype of a square. There was not a molecule of hipness in his DNA. I’m sure he went through life without listening to Miles Davis, visiting Amsterdam or ingesting DMMDA. He had a white face and rosy cheeks and always wore a gray suit. Or maybe every suit turned gray when he put it on. I had just turned 18; he was about 28. He thought I was some cool guy because instead of saying “cool,” I would say “boss,” a term I had picked up listening to WVON (the Voice of the Negro) in Chicago. Then he found out my nickname, recently given to me at my fraternity, was Bossman. He called me Bossman and thought he was cool by doing this.

During one back dock feast, after I had shoved an unbelievable amount of food into my always hungry mouth, Preston burst through the back-dock door. I jumped off the dock with my back to the boss. “Hey, Bossman,” he said. “Do we need to do something about all the sweat bees out here?” My mouth was too full for a reply, so I began to furiously swat at imaginary sweat bees while flailing around the dumpster, where I bent down low and spit out the contraband. “Yes, the bees are bad today,” I answered with a straight face, licking a smear of chocolate from the corner of my mouth.

Being a wise ass, I decided to coin a new adjective just for Preston—book. Man, that’s book. I wanted to hear him exclaim that something was “book.” When one day he informed me that he was feeling book, I felt that I had learned something about human behavior but wasn’t sure what.

I Meet Keith

(from my memoir, Hardly Working.)

The advertising industry is fueled by seminars, conventions and cocktail parties. At an after-work Holiday cocktail bash sponsored by a now-defunct cable channel, I ran into a friend who worked for MTV. Between sips of punch, we commented on the general lameness of everything in sight, how shallow and full of shit so much of the industry was, especially most of the anointed rising stars. This is what you do when you are not a rising star yourself and are generally skeptical at the power dynamics that have passed you by, even though you wanted to be passed by. That was the goal.

This exercise in mockery eventually meandered into a discussion of things that we considered to be worthy of our praise. That’s when we discovered our mutual love of the Rolling Stones. We settled into animated chat of our favorite Stones tracks. Sway. Spider and the Fly. You Got the Silver, Moonlight Mile. I relayed my story of speaking to Bill Wyman on the phone while I was in high school. My cohort had a story about a Mick encounter. Then she dropped the bombshell: How would I like two passes to the live taping of a Keith Richards and The Expensive Winos concert that VH-1 was producing locally at WTTW’s soundstage? And maybe an after-show introduction to Keith! This is why we work. It’s not just for the money, it’s for the opportunity to meet Rock Gods. If offered the chance to meet any musician from any era, if Robert Johnson was busy being chased by a hellhound, I would have chosen Keith.

On the day of the taping, Linda contracted stomach flu but was going to give it a try anyway. After all, it was Keith! Sadly, on the way to the show we had to turn the car around and return Linda home to deal with her gastric misery. This lost opportunity amplified her illness. She was now both sick and devastated. After dropping her off, I didn’t have time to think about anything other than threading through expressway traffic and getting to WTTW on time.

The studio held about 200 standing fans. A low-key, pre-concert buzz filled the room, emitted by rock fans in the know, sharing stories of other times they had seen Keith or the Stones or other famous rockers. We were the chosen ones and we knew it. This wasn’t some stadium show with 30,000 anybodys in attendance. This was a hyper exclusive event to witness a legend. I wormed my way to the very front, pressed against the stage. A small camera tethered to a cable zipped behind me. The director was practicing a shot that would swoop over the crowd, right up to the Winos. Just before the band appeared, I heard my name over the studio public address system. “Bain! Move to the back. Your bald head is in my shot.” I knew the woman who was directing, and she had recognized me. I moved about twenty feet back. Still a great spot to see the band smash through Take It So Hard and about ten other tunes including Time Is on My Side, sung by Sara Dash.

The set ended with no encore because it was a television taping. I headed for the stage door where my MTV friend had told me to meet her. As I made my way to the backstage door, I said hello to Winos drummer, Steve Jordan and sax legend, Bobby Keys. “Great set, guys!” What else could I say? The rock royalty was looking for the room where the buffet was. Because of the small, private nature of the show there wasn’t much security. I walked in. Backstage was a non-descript, dark-ish room with drapes on the walls and a few overhead lights. The gathering was just me, the MTV gal, the President of VH-1 and a guitar maker with a custom guitar for Keith to autograph. As we waited for Keith, we were all equals.

I was making small talk with the VH-1 President when a hush seemed to settle over us, a barely discernable change in atmosphere like the pressure drop that precedes a tornado. From the shadows, Keith materialized and noiselessly glided our way. He simply appeared, as if waved in by an unseen wand. I swear I detected an aura surrounding him. He seemed in good spirits but how would I know? Had he just smoked hash? Had he just looked at his bank account? Had he just had a plate of bangers and mash? In any case, there was no pretense. I could tell that he had done this meet and greet hundreds of times. It was the retail part of his rock star god job. He was polite, gracious, at once both all-knowing and oblivious.

What do you say to an icon? I hadn’t rehearsed any questions. I thought that a prepared question would seem hokey. Do stars ever get tired of being told how much we love them? Or how many times we have played their first album? I settled on blurting out, “My wife got sick this morning and she’s going to die because she didn’t get to see the show and meet you.” Without missing a beat, Keith says, “What you want from me mate? To pay for her funeral?” He was busting my balls. “That won’t be necessary,” I replied, “but could you tell her to get well soon?” An assistant who had slipped into the room handed Keith an event invitation postcard and a sharpie and Keith scribbled, “To Linda. Get well soon,” and signed his name. I posed for a quick photo with Keith and the others. For reasons known only to God and Elvis, I never got a copy. It slipped through the cracks of my life. What I most remember was the handshake. Keith’s hands were incredibly soft.

My Brown Suit

by Roger Bain ©2019

Consider the business suit. Wrapping up in one of these once or twice a year for some special or somber occasion is fine, but to do so every day, for me, is overload. I view the suit as a costume. A fancy uniform. But that’s just me. You might feel differently. You might be among the millions who love to play dress up.

When you wear a suit, you are frequently in the company of others wearing suits. Part of the club. It signifies that your job does not require digging, heavy lifting, sawing, mowing or a tool belt. In a nice suit and tie, as you step off the train, enter an elevator or get seated at a restaurant, the world sees a person that can at least afford a suit, who is going somewhere and whose drudgery is more likely mental than physical. In the preferred job of my dreams I would dress for work the same as I dressed for a Saturday afternoon with the kids. Work is no more important than family, right? Why dress differently for it? Yeah, I know. On the job, you dress to impress. You dress for success. But what if your definition of success doesn’t require a business suit? Mine doesn’t.

When I accepted an offer to work for the Centel Corporation (not a fake name), it went without saying that a suit would be standard attire. During the previous ten years, my jobs had never required a suit. My work apparel had been some combination of jeans, boots, sneakers, khakis, aprons, work shirts, collared shirts and even a Santa Claus outfit. Now, things would be different. It was time to play dress up for real.

I would need at least three suits to rotate through the work week. I already owned a tan, summer weight number, and one other now forgotten garment. Let me tell you about my third suit. I found it at Irv’s Men’s Warehouse, sort of an outlet store for suits. (Note: Irv’s Men’s Warehouse no longer exists but has been reincarnated into a luggage outlet.)

The lighting at Irv’s was a bit dim, either to cut down on the electric bill—after all, this was a discount emporium—or because the merchandise was better viewed in crepuscular light. I was searching for something of a different color than the two suits I already owned. After swiping through the racks that were in my size and price range, I settled on a cheap brown thing made of some indestructible material that claimed to be wool but was more like thick burlap. At the very least, this wool was from a scrawny, low grade sheep. There were better suits at the Warehouse but not in my size or price range The brown one would have to do. Leaving the store, I felt that I had done something terribly wrong.

To say that this suit was vapid would be an understatement. Its hue was similar to chewing tobacco or dog do. It had no give. It didn’t drape. It was stiff and could almost stand up on its own. It was the opposite of fashionable. The suit would have been banned in Italy. When I looked in the mirror while dressed in this third suit, I actually felt embarrassment. It was hideous.

This nasty garment came to symbolize the oppression of my job. I never donned the suit outside of work. The only time I wore it was in my cubicle, in the bland office on the 6th floor of a featureless office building near the airport, home base for this rather boring corporation where I was trying to fit in. I went through the motions clad in brown. While wearing the brown suit, I felt mirthless, but I continued at the job because I had two kids. I had rent, obligations and now a cheap, brown suit.

Removing the suit was a daily highlight. On my after-work dash to the car, I tore off my suit jacket and loosened my tie. Soon I would be in jeans and a t-shirt. Upon arrival home, the kids often hid behind the draperies as I wondered aloud where could they be. When they could stand it no longer, they came bounding out. I was surprised every time. They didn’t seem to mind the suit.

When I left Centel, I vowed to never again wear the hideous brown suit and I have kept that vow.

I Meet The Champ

I Meet The Champ
The summer of 1965, my 16th year, a friend of my parents had snared me the exotic job of car hiker for Z Frank Chevrolet in Chicago. Every workday Mr. Burr picked me up on Blodgett Street in Clarendon Hills and drove me to a six-story garage on Federal Street on the south edge of the loop where Z Frank Chevrolet had leased some space. My singular duty was to shuttle (hike) rental cars from one Z Frank rental spot to the next.
One morning while shooting the breeze with some fellow hikers, a white convertible Cadillac with red leather upholstery pulled into our garage on South Federal Street. Moments before we had been tipped that The Champ was coming and here he was. Hardy, a short dude with a limp, the head car hiker, instructed all of us to not call him Cassius Clay. His name is now Ali.

With great controversy, Cassius Clay had recently changed his “slave name” to Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim name. The name change didn’t bother me. He had just beaten badass Sonny Listen for the second time a couple months prior, this time by a knockout in the first round, another controversy. I thought he was impossibly cool. As the big white Caddy convertible whooshed into the garage, the five or six of us car hikers gathered around. Ali sat alone in the middle of the back seat with both arms spread out on the red leather seat backs. A driver and a bodyguard—sure looked like Black Muslims to me—sat in the front seat. Ali looked extremely relaxed when he got out of the Cadillac. He was all business but gracious and rather soft-spoken, quite different than his public persona. We all briefly crammed into the tiny garage office and he shook everybody’s hand. Not a crushing handshake. Just a regular shake.
For a second I looked into the eyes of the most famous person on earth.
And that was it. I have no idea where he was going or why he parked his car at our garage but I had met the Champ. It never occurred to me to get his autograph. Who had a camera handy in 1965?