Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Do You Know at 18?

As I consider the life of my 18-year-old son post-high school, I remember my first full-time job, at a small restaurant in downtown San Francisco called Chris' Seafood, founded in 1918.

I remember the giant green fish-shaped sign that hung over Mission Street when I first approached it on my first day.

I was a suburban teenager and had no idea what I was in for. This little place had been around for years, and was a perfect complement to the seedy hotels and denizens they harbored in what is now the Moscone Center and Yerba Buena Gardens. We had homeless guys come in looking for money back when the word "homeless" wasn't invented yet. They were just called "winos." They objected when we offered them crab salad sandwiches instead of coins towards a bottle of Thunderbird.

I mopped floors, bused tables, and washed the dishes. I was taught that when the big hot tray came out of the stainless steel box, to dump the silverware into a large white towel and rub it dry. That basic flatware shone. I can still feel the heat and smell the soap today, 40 years later.

We served fried fish, but specialized in prawns, scallops and abalone, all covered with a homemade Louis dressing. I know--because I helped make the mayonnaise it contained from scratch. We also made the French fries by hand--something you rarely see today.

I spent six months working from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. before taking off and strumming my guitar for five months--and hitchiking to Arizona and back. But that's another story.

Here's my beautiful boy, at the same age as I am in that photo above. His part-time career? Model at a clothing store.


larry green said...

Your memories (it was drying the flatware) of Chris’ brought on my own. I think I might have been your replacement! (if it was ’71 or there a’bouts) Like you I was new to SF and new to everything really. You remember those outside the doors but I remember more the sideshow inside, to which I so rightly belonged.

Chris’ was started by Chris (Bozo) Kriletich in 1918, who died but the family carried on.

At the cash register by the door, running the place with an iron will, was daughter Patty... short, square, tough and scary, no one (“wino”, customer or staff) crossed her. She had also been a jazz drummer who had played the clubs in the previous couple of decades and no doubt saw a lot during that golden time. I noticed that she is still playing backup to guitarists. Look up the Rossmore newsletter archives.

And then there was Cliff the fry cook at center stage behind the counter... Clifford Wildefong in his always immaculate and crisp white cook’s jacket. I am six foot one and remember having to look up into his Arian and godlike face (if God was a mature and graying 1920‘s matinee idol), a large, chiseled face like Neptune’s, with his silver hair as immaculate as his jacket. And that pencil thin silver-gray mustache, every hair clipped and counted, was a marvel. He ran his stainless steel station of deep fryers and flaming fry pans with his broad shoulders and back to the room like a conductor, radiating nobility and never losing focus or control. The wait staff shouted their orders to him as they rushed by, he remember it all, no order slips. ...and it was busy if you remember. Open only for lunch by then, the food was so simple and great it still had a large business trade at noon. Tables along the far wall, tables down the middle and the long counter of stools, it was packed for lunch.

Ma (only name ever given) powered around behind the counter taking orders. She was Bozo’s wife, Patty’s mother and ancient to me (then). She was a tiny apple doll of Patty, sour, bent, and even meaner.

Scotty, my friend, the young gay hippie was also behind the counter doing a bit of everything; taking some orders, prepping for Cliff, bussing along with me... thick golden hair half way to his waist, he wore it in a bun for work but left in his earring. (Hard now to imagine a time when a single pierced ear caused looks.) He ended up partnering and cooking in some great SF restaurants.

The floor, as they say, was Russian Tina’s territory, another tiny powerhouse. Single, with middle age well in the rearview, she was a fried and dyed red-head spit-fire; trim but packed into her standard issue waitress uniforms... full of opinion, venom, and gossip. She was a sharp little hawk, darting around the floor taking orders and flirting if it brought a better tip. She worked hard for her money and one had the feeling everything in her life had been second to that... men, sex, jobs.

Hard to think that was the extent of the staff for the lunchtime onslot. (except for the dishwashers, you and me)

The only other character, of course, was the food... some of the best I remember and I have been around. Simple, light, bright, perfectly done fried and deep fried sea food dishes, shrimp and prawns, oysters, scollops, calamari served with a wedge of iceberg lettuce crossed with that house-made Louis dressing.

Thank you for bringing something of that time back.

Steve Schaefer said...

I am so excited to share this with someone. Yes--I remember the folks--but not Scotty. I once dropped a large pot on Ma's head! Oh my god--I nearly died. She just went--oops--and continued working -- and living. I remember Cliff very well. He invited me to his house for dinner once.

We had a wild and crazy wait staff back then, too--they were the first gay people I got to know. Bob had a hairpiece and took it off once to show me. Betty once told me here name in Hawaiian was "pukalani" (heavenly hole). Well, it was 1970, after all. They took me to a bar in the Tenderloin (I was 18) and I ordered and drank a whiskey sour.

Was Market Street still a torn-up mess back then? I ended up going to S.F. State in early 1972 so I headed west instead of east until 1978, when I started working near Union Square in an antiquarian bookshop.