Monday, July 16, 2007
Alaskan Adventure! Hooray!
yeah, I took this picture
So Evan and Glade and I (I've decided to stop using pseudonyms on here because they're just plain old confusing) decided to get jobs in Alaska for the summer. We got hired by Holland America to work on the train as waiters! Such a crazy idea!
So, I normally try to remain pretty positive on here. But Alaska is Hell and i don't even have the energy or the emotional wherewithal to spin this one. Caitie thinks the reason I felt inspired to come here was to help me gain an appreciation for the Utah things in life. Like, you know, sober people, stars, friendly neighbors, happiness, etc. Stuff you can't find here in Alaska.
The pay at our job was pretty excellent. But the hours were crazy, and above (or below?) all else, the management was corrupt, inefficient, and unreasonable. And mean.
And ugly and old. Let me paint a picture for you of how life (if you can call it that) is on the train. At five thirty in the morning you wake up (I just realized I've become Mr. Jeffries, the Saturday School teacher/babysitter who used to sit around and tell his depressing life story in the second person so you would really feel his pain) and you get ready and bike down to the railyard. At this point you try your hardest to avoid any kind of interaction with Lorelle, who is, as Evan points out, that one secretary monster from Monsters Inc. Further description for those who haven't seen that movie, or who have successfully blocked it out: picture a reptile, only pink, with wispy whitish hair and strange glandular growths on her eyelids and bulldog jowls. Then picture that it's attached to an oxygen tank with a canula in its nose and it's really mean. No need to further describe its voice, as that should have been in place when I said "reptile." Also it swears a lot. As you arrive at the railyard, this monstrosity is stomping about the grounds, snorting fire and venom from its pustulated nostrils. Should you successfully evade the beast and jump onto your train car, you run into a Catch-22. Your job at this point is to take an inventory and ensure that your car is amply stocked for your two-day journey. The problem is this: If your car is missing anything (e.g. dessert, silverware, tablecloths, crackers, etc.), you will be in trouble if you don't restock it from the storage units at the rail yard before the train takes off. In theory, everything should be stocked the night before by the Russian night crew anyway, but there is a lack of language understanding or work ethic or something in that department, so you end up needing all sorts of stuff the next morning. Now what you're supposed to do is get one of the lingering Russians to run to the sheds and hand you the stuff, because the train could move at any second and you can't be getting on and off. But if Lorelle sees you, she will yell at you, because she is horrible. Her entire job description must say, "get in people's way and go to any lengths to impede their work." So really your efforts will almost surely be in vain, and since you're going to get yelled at anyway, you might as well cut your losses and just ride without crackers for the day, and only get yelled at the one time when it's discovered you're out of them, instead of once when you try to get more and then again when you‘re out later because Lorelle didn‘t let you have them.
Now, there's another succubus stomping about the trainyard in the mornings named Kim. She looks like, hmmm. Okay, you know "Arthur?" The children's books and TV show? She looks like one of the monkeys on that show, with dyed red hair and orange, wrinkly chimpanzee skin. And she has smoked too much, so her voice is raspy and her teeth yellow and flat, like an herbivore. Kim and Lorelle. I hate each of them more than the other. In one morning I have been yelled at by one for "hiding out on my car when there are no customers on it and I should be helping someone else" and by the other minutes later for "not staying on my car so I can be found when they need me." I've been yelled at three times by Kim in one morning for being late. I've been yelled at for getting off the train to grab supplies, and then minutes later for sending someone else to do my work for me. I have to be good for the rest of my life so when I die I don't go to hell and have to see these ladies again.
So let's just assume you got out of the yard and over to the depot, where you pick up the guests. Your job is to either a) load their luggage onto the train (and I swear some of these people packed their grandchildren in their "carry-ons"), or b) stand at the entrance to the car and tell people to "watch your step" as they board, due to a 4-inch drop back down after they've already come up the steps to get on the car. The guests will be annoyed with you for stating the obvious, and will often say so, cantankerously: "I can see that!" Either that or they will ignore you and fall anyway. One of the highlights of my trip was the woman who did both. "Watch your step ma'am!" "Don't you people think I know how to--" and then she fell. Hahaha.
The customers. They are old and rich and picky. Also, I think most of them are not really rich, and are spending beyond reason already, which is why they're so unhappy. Many grouchy people seem to think they will be happy if they can only go on an expensive vacation. But my experience has proven that grouchy old people are every bit as grouchy and old regardless of their settings. And nice or young people ride Princess. Now don't get me wrong--there are nice people and young people mixed in with all the liver-spotted bags of piss and vinegar who comprise the majority of our passengers, but they're not the ones who really influence the outcome of your day, or demand comment cards at the end of meal service.
So once you've got all the undead onto the train, you immediately serve breakfast. If someone on the train is going to die or just have a heart attack or stroke, this is generally when it's going to happen, even before the train gets moving. Yeah, yeah, it's sad. Partly because somebody just died and partly because now you have to wait for the paramedics and you'll be an hour behind schedule, but mostly because you have to listen to the rest of the gargoyles upstairs saying things like, "Well, is this going to affect breakfast?" and "It's almost ten o'clock! We should be eating lunch by now!" Seriously, they say that crap when someone has just died. I have no idea if they have an exaggeratory streak or if they actually eat lunch at ten o'clock because they are old. I also don't know if you turn like this when you're old or if this is just how everybody used to be during, like, the depression. "Here's your tip! Seven dimes! Oh, wait one second, I'm going to take one of those dimes back because you were out of crackers. There! Why don't you buy yourself some nice moon pies and go see a picture show!"
As far as I know, only two people have actually DIED on our train so far this year, and I didn't personally see either of them. I was the first one there when a man inexplicably fell and stopped breathing and turned blue, but we had a nurse close at hand, who revived him, thank goodness. He had gross teeth and I think I might be afraid of CPR.
So you serve breakfast to the old people, you and your partner for the run, forty consumers at a time. This part is hellacious, but not more so than most other restaurant jobs, except for two factors. All your tables come in at the exact same time. And you're in a congested box that shakes both continuously and sporadically. When the first forty slobbering zombies have finished consuming their scrambled eggs and reindeer sausage and human brains, you have to politely make them take their "coffee and conversation" back upstairs to the "dome" and set up for the next forty. This will probably take a while, since you are still out of silverware and have to wash the whole set between seatings, thanks to Lorelle's diligence.
After breakfast you start setting up for lunch. And you serve two rounds of lunch, and then you set up for dinner. Then two rounds of dinner, and then you're there. I didn't skip your break; you don't get one. This is, of course, simplified. The main challenge lies in convincing people that they do not get to choose when they eat on the train. "Hello, sir, we're ready for you to come down to eat dinner now." "Hell we just ate lunch not four hours ago! We'll come down in about an hour." But you just have to make him come now. You can't be serving someone an hour after everyone else, because you have to be setting up the dining room for the next meal at this point. But the old badger will be so upset, cussin' and cryin' and making his wife fan him off and tell him he's making a right scene and they can go to dinner now if they absolutely must (with a scornful eye shot in your direction at that point). And what you CAN'T do is yell, "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't realize this was the midnight BUFFET train, and everybody eats whatever they WANT! You know what, Let me just go get my good friend Conductor Bob and tell him that couple in seats 7C&D would like him to delay the train for a couple of hours so they can eat whenever the fancy catches them!" Instead you must say something far more obsequious and self-demeaning, like, "I know, folks, I'm sure you've had a rough-and-tumble schedule these past few days! I wish there were something I could do (to you [you think, don't say that part]), but I promise we have a very delicious tender pork loin drizzled with a bourbon glaze and served with sweet potatoes and seasonal vegetables, and you will love them right up and forget all your cares and woes and such!" And then you realize how one turns into an insane, murderous clown or a Carebears villain, and you begin to slowly hate yourself.
And then when you bring out their hot tea with lemon and sugar and cream ("What! No honey! What kind of a place has TEA but no HONEY!"), they actually have the presumption to say, "This must be a great job! You must love this! Getting to ride the train all day!" And you are required to lie and tell them that it isn't hell.
Now what is it that really makes it hell? We haven't even gotten to that part yet. It's that on any given day at least one of the following will not be working: air conditioning, fridges, stove, handicapped elevator, bathrooms, order-taking computers, printers, the other server. The bathrooms are most likely to be out of order, which means the people have to go up and down three flights of stairs, which I admit is no easy feat when you have one foot in the grave and the other on a shaking staircase. The air-conditioning is the next-most-likely thing to go, which means all of your leathery old people will be moaning, sweaty, leathery old people. If either the bathrooms or the air conditioning is not working , it's probably your fault and will be deducted accordingly from your tip. You should have known better. The final irony on all of that is yet to come, and you will see exactly why these broken things make the train ride hell.
So now you're in Fairbanks, and all of your co-workers go get drunk and/or stoned and you eat some ice cream that is not very good but is very close-at-hand, and then you go to bed in the hotel or stay up until one or two wishing Jose would turn off "King of Queens" so you could sleep. And if you've ever wondered why there are handrails in motel showers, it's for people who work on the train. When you work on the train, you see, the ground never stops moving. I had heard this, and expected a vibrating, or a swaying, or maybe a gentle shaking at worst, but I was not prepared for the ground's random lurching beneath my feet. It’s especially bad when you close your eyes, and handrails or no, at least one employee gashed his forehead open when his shower unexpectedly moved about five inches to the left. I have no idea what it is in the brain or inner ear that makes it do this, but you will still feel this effect the next morning at five thirty when you're up again and headed back to the train to do it all over, only headed south back to Anchorage.
When you get there, you fill out a little report on what's not working. An example:
"Two of the four automatic sliding doors between the kitchen and the dining room come slamming shut unexpectedly and knock the food out of my hands. The toilets didn't work at all in this car and the customers were quite loathe to go to the next one. The computers didn't work and we had to do all of our orders by hand, which took an extra half an hour per seating and resulted in several mistaken orders."
This report is fun to fill out the same way Madlibs are, because you know nobody will ever read it again and you can say anything at all and it won't mean anything to anyone! "Two of the ninety-seven automatic hungry doors between the weasel and the singing room come swallowing shut sexually and knock the carburetor out of my elves."
For, you see, they don't actually fix any of that crap. So the next time you're on the train, you still won't have air-conditioning or toilets or computers, and the decrepit old people will whine once again, "well, if you knew it was broken, why didn't you get it fixed?"
And while broken toilets and air conditioning mean stingier, angrier consumers, they first and foremost mean that you have to work in a congested, 90-degree box that is shaking your full bladder. Maybe the old people are too hot, but they're not running around in and out of the kitchen, and maybe they have to wait in a ten-minute line to use the restroom, but you don't HAVE ten minutes to wait in line, so you have to hold it. Which just makes you grouchier, which affects your tips, and it makes you sweatier, which drips on the customers and their food, which affects your tips.
And here's the final insult: The Blind Drop. This is unethical and immoral on the company's part, and I'm pretty sure it's also illegal. In a normal serving job, the waiter collects all his cash and credit card slips throughout the shift, an at the end he can total up all of his sales for the night, turn that in, and whatever remains is his tips. In The Blind Drop, the waiter is expected to keep track of his sales. The company could (if they wanted to) print out a little slip saying how much you're supposed to turn in, but they don't, ostensibly because it cuts down on theft, though they can't describe how when pressed. This is especially hard when your tables all try to pay at the exact same time and need different amounts of train (as I’m proofreading this I see that I inadvertently inserted the word “train” instead of “change,” but I think I’ll leave it as evidence of the brain damage [stroke?] inflicted on me by the change), and all of that is compounded by the idea that servers on the train serve six meals, two times each, over the course of two days before it comes time to turn in their money. There is no good system of doing this, and one doesn't have time to run and make change every time a crustomer (I just invented that word) says "keep the change" just to separate the money into different bags. The bottom line is, you get to the end of the second day and you have money sitting around, and you don't know whether it was tip money or money for someone's order and if it is whether it still has the tip in it or what. And so the company tells you to just stick it in with your deposit if you're not sure. "That's too bad," Kim says, "You lost it." If you accidentally mix up the two piles (which I did on my FIRST DAY), they tell you just to turn in all the money, and then you just never hear about it again. If you forget to take out all your credit card tips, and realize the next day and go tell them you accidentally deposited an extra $160, they tell you that they didn't notice any discrepancy in your deposit. One of two things is going on here. Either they are stealing all of the extra money themselves, or they actually don't check the money bags against any sort of a list that says how much everyone should be turning in. In which case, we the servers could actually be taking a lot more money out than we were owed, which is a hypothesis upon which I've been sorely tempted to experiment, at least until I had reclaimed all the hundreds of dollars I know (and those I suspect?) I've lost to the company or its minions.
Anyway, it's hard for me to do anything where money is the only end goal. I wasn't raised with a lot of money, and I don't really even like the concept, and I actually feel a lot of disdain for people who flaunt theirs. So it's hard for me to put myself through that kind of hell only for monetary gain. I'd much rather be poor and happy, any day.
And once I realized that, I realized that I couldn't work there anymore. In fact, right in the middle of typing this up, I got a phone call:
"Robbie?" [Yeah, that's my name, by the way, gentle reader, as though anyone who reads this doesn't already know that these days]
"yep." I said it all lower-case, just like that, because there's only one reptile who has this number and I knew her voice immediately.
"This is Lorelle. Weren't you supposed to have a meeting with me this morning at ten o'clock." Not a question, you'll notice.
"Yes you were. This isn't a really good way to keep your job, Robbie [ironically, this is the first time she's gotten my name right. I've been "Bobby" for two months]. I suggest you get down here right away if you want to keep your job."
"Well I don't. I guess I quit."
"Oh. Well, okay."
"Oh. Well, okay."
And then one of us hung up, I don't remember and it doesn't matter which. And the reason I only "guessed" I was quitting was because Evan and I had been hoping to go to Denali National Park on the train to go rafting and stuff before anyone noticed we weren't working for the company any more. Oh, well.
So, Evan and I are coming home. A week from today. July, 23, that is. So everybody get Provo ready for us, because we're coming back, and this time we're going to LIKE it, dammit.