This is a story about my first job at Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant in Chicago when I was just 14, (above). It was an exciting time for me to get paid for my work- a particularly new concept which gave me pride and self-worth. Bimbo’s was as old-school as they get. We washed dishes by hand, and every item was made in-house and cooked ala-minute. Each night, the steamy kitchen hummed with controlled chaos as the plates, pans and silverware piled up equaling the beads of sweat that fell to the worn wood floors but no one complained or quit because this was the house of a great Italian chef from Lucca- Chef Bimbo Bianchi.
Let’s face it, there are no celebrity dishwashers.
Those of us who carry this wrinkled torch of honor in our hearts and memories, are hard pressed to admit that those nights of stale smells, steam and never-ending piles of goo-covered china were the best of times. My service as a porcelain pirate started when I was fourteen years old at Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant in Palatine Illinois and continued for years to come. I will never forget that sweltering first night of my first job.
The stench of the dumpster bloomed under the sunset as my mom pulled up behind Bimbo’s in our Dodge station wagon with faux wood siding. Mom squinted suspiciously at the building through the soup of gravel dust and leaded exhaust that crept through our open windows.
“Hon, are you sure you want to do this?” My mother asked.
“Mommm.” I responded with a head roll while grabbing the door handle.
A kid in ninth grade told me he earned a whopping $1.60 per hour here and I was enticed by the allure of adventure and cash that this job would bring.
Mom smiled and tried to slather spit on my red curls as I jumped out of the car. I edged to the screen door at the back of the restaurant and gazed in, gasping from the meaty wind that blew through the gray mesh. Stepping in, I froze, suppressing the internal panic that only an adolescent can feel.
Sweating men in white shirts moved noisily behind stainless steel shelving. Screams and demands in short monosyllabic bursts, combined with flames and metal-on-metal clanking, added to the pandemonium. These loud men shaped the overwhelming aromas that assaulted my eyes, pinched my nostrils and crushed my psyche. Twitching with anxiety, I gave up my dream of a job and easy money and turned to leave before anyone saw me.
“Hey, Beembo, keed at the back,” the nearest cook yelled over his shoulder as he poured liquid into a pan, shooting fire into the air.
Bimbo came at me like a killer, pushing cooks out of his way. He was tall and dark, a combination of a young Abraham Lincoln and Gregory Peck. His kind eyes were soft but menacing, waiting for trouble. I stood, shaking, three feet below those eyes.
“Wattayouwant?” Bimbo snarled as he looked down upon me, his brow dripping. His arms were splattered in dots of red and his hands were covered in cuts and burns. Red knuckles at my eye level turned to white as he snapped the greasy tongs in his hand repeatedly.
“Uh, my friend Jimmy told me to come,” I stammered, focusing on the tongs, “and apply for the dish washing job.” I stared at the floor. “He said you had…” Bimbo cut me off as I waited for his tongs to pluck my eye out.
“You start a-now. Mooouuuse!” he roared, turning back through the line of cooks, who straightened up at attention and moved out of his way. Down the wooden alley in front of me came a bull of a man, scowling and mumbling as he waddled towards me like a bowling pin that refused to drop. His white wiry hair was peppered with flecks of food. A cigar stub, swollen with saliva, stuck out between his vealy lips.
“You ever wath dithes before?” he asked, removing the cigar.
“WATH DITHES, ARE YOU DEATH?” His heavy sea-smelling breath blasted me.
“No,” I muttered, answering both questions.
“Aw thit, a rookie. C’mon.” He looked down; shaking his head, then waved his hairy arm for me to follow as he continued his rhythmic waddle to the dish area. I raced outside to tell my mom and ran back to my new job.
“Dis is your plate station tonight, punk,” Mouse spluttered his lisp, reigning saliva on me as he pointed to a triple-compartment sink. “You clean ‘dem plates as fast as you can.” Mouse filled one sink of water for dipping, one for washing, and one for rinsing. “Dip da plate in heaa, wash da plate in heaa, rinse da plate in heaa, then stick da plate heaa.” This completed Mouse’s training program.
Bimbo’s wasn’t just busy, it was slammed every night and the kitchen reached a level of pandemonium not unlike trench warfare. Without air conditioning, the steamy 8 by 8-foot dish area I shared with four other kids and Mouse reached over 100 degrees. The soupy heat made me feel like a wet lizard as I dipped, washed and rinsed plates to Mouse’s lispy cadence of “Faster kid, faster.” A cloud of thick food smells bombarded me, along with something else far more foul. “Hey,” I covertly asked another kid, “What’s that stinky-egg smell?”
The kid wiped the sweat from his forehead and whispered, “It’s him,” nodding horizontally toward Mouse.
“But why does he smell like that?” I whispered.
“I don’t know why. Ain’t you got a grandpa? Old guys smell. He’s just worse.”
That first night, I learned that the guy at the end of the tunnel of overhead glass racks and a stainless steel table had the gravy job in the dish area. The “slot guy” was the point man as the waitresses brought trays in from the dining room and tossed them on the table. With the dexterity and speed of a heroin addict rummaging through an unlocked car, the slot-guy picked out the lipstick-stained linen napkins and then separated the plates and glasses to clean, throwing the silverware into a bus tub to soak. This left items coveted by Mouse: cigarettes, rings, cash, bracelets and even dentures (a great reward item.) I watched the conspiracy of rat-like behavior as the slot-guy showed his respect for the dish hierarchy by stealthily passing these things on to Mouse thus ensuring his future as slot-guy. This meant that Mouse curbed the usual verbal abuse and treated him with a modicum of respect. More importantly, Mouse allowed him to bus tables in the cool bar with an ice-cold Coke as a reward.
“Ya gotta work your way up to slot work,” Mouse informed me.
Mouse only put dishwashers in the slot who weren’t prone to do the “Steak ‘n Shake;” or eating meat from the plates coming in. It was Mouse’s law that plate meat ended up in his coffee cans. We all speculated that Mouse fed himself from dining by-products he packed into bags at the end of the night. He never said the meat went to feed his dogs, and no one had the guts to ask.
On the windowsill above Mouse’s station, next to his full Folger’s cans of plate meat, sat a small black and white picture of him in the 1940′s. On that first night, Mouse grabbed the picture, thumbed his chest and grunted at the photo. There he was, tall, skinny and cocky in his leather jacket leaning on a shiny Harley Davidson. His full hair was slicked back above a world-be-damned smile and gleaming eyes. He must have been proud to show me his best days on this earth. His time; when he made a difference, had a future, was a threat. But as I looked at this smelly old man, the picture seemed more like an excuse or just an apology for what he had become. I nodded in fake admiration; I knew Mouse was my boss but I couldn’t take my eyes off Bimbo, an old school chef who expedited and worked the broiler all night, making sure every plate was perfect for every customer.
“Hey kid,” Bimbo called to me. “Get me dat water.” He pointed to an icy glass a waitress had left on the other side of the heat rack. I hustled over to retrieve it.
“Hey,” Mouse yelled. “Get back over here!”
“But, but, I was getting Bimbo…”
“You was tryin’ to weasel your way outta work.” Mouse smiled. “I’m gonna call you Weasel from now on.”
Mouse never did call me by my real name. He had nicknames for everyone except Bimbo. Our crew included Garden Snake, Trash Rat and Chicken Thief. I never knew if Mouse had any other name because he only referred to himself as Mouse.
After a while, the cooks in the kitchen called me Donnola, a name I liked better than Weasel. I even started to refer to myself as Don Donnola until one of the Italian cooks broke it to me that donnola was Italian for weasel.
At the end of that first night, Mouse produced an iced pitcher of Coke and waddled outside with us in tow, a mother duck to our gaggle of lowly dishwashers. He guarded us as we stood near the dumpster with the cooks already on break, smoking cigarettes, talking and laughing loudly about botched orders, waitresses and Bimbo. We dishwashers, sweating in the moonlight, were relieved to get through the night and chugged our Cokes silently, luxuriating on the fringes of the cook’s culinary force field. After work, Mouse gave all the dishwashers a ride home in his green Buick Le Sabre. The passenger seat was reserved for the bags of his plate-meat booty so we disappeared in the huge back seat, windows closed. The car smelled like chicken cacciatore, old meat, onions and Mouse. “Now dis is da life,” Mouse said with his first grin of the night as he lit up a fresh cigar. The acrid smoke from his White Owl was a welcome respite from the way we smelled, and one of the reasons my mother made me strip naked in the garage after every shift.
Over the next several months I adapted to the rushes, the smell, the heat and the excitement of Bimbo’s. I found myself sucked into the irresistible rhythms of a brutal but rewarding restaurant life. It was a whole new world and I ate it up. From the giant free dinners of crunchy chicken parmesan that Bimbo thrust upon me to the mom-like waitresses in their brown nanny dresses fringed in white lace who swore like truckers, it was the first time I really belonged to an adult team. Bimbo treated everyone with respect and always worked harder than anyone else. He was the chef and no one crossed him, not even Mouse. Bimbo taught me how to peel potatoes, de-vein shrimp and de-seed large quantities of Italian tomatoes when I arrived early. He also showed me that hard work was a gift that rewarded me more than anyone else.
Six months later, my work world came tumbling down and I was forced to quit the restaurant. My grades were suffering and mom pulled the plug on my dishwashing life. On that last night, Bimbo said, “You a good man, Donnola,” and was the first large male besides my dad to shake my hand like a man. Mouse avoided me and didn’t say good-bye. I couldn’t tell whether he was sad or angry to have “his” Weasel leave. I would have hated to see him cry so I avoided him also. Later, I learned that the rotten smell emanating from Mouse was a gangrenous leg, amputated shortly after I left. Twenty-eight years later, in 2003, Bimbo’s Restaurant was also chopped up and replaced with a bank.
After a long career in restaurants, I now own a high-volume pizzeria in Athens, Ohio. Every now and then after a busy night, I’ll take an ice-cold Coke, go out back to my own putrid dumpster and look at the moon. Then I’ll breathe in deeply and toast Bimbo and Mouse for taking a chance on me, a scared, freckled kid who didn’t know how badly he wanted to get into the restaurant business.
In the 1950’s, three Italian brothers named Narciso, Frank and Joseph emigrated to the Chicago area from the small Tuscan village of Lucca. Narciso was a young man when he first arrived and people couldn’t pronounce his name so they just called him “Bimbo,” which means young boy in Italian. In 1971, they opened Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant. Narciso became the restaurants’ namesake chef while his brothers Frank and Joseph worked the front of the house. This story originally appeared in Alimentum food journal.