“Way Back” Machine

I’m waiting for my wife to get an x-ray of what she suspects is a broken toe. I’m sitting here in the car with the dog and turning the crank on my “Way Back” Machine. 

This isn’t what it was like 40 years ago. You wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing a doctor or a PA (you wouldn’t even know what that was) in a building two doors down from a super-sized pet store in a strip mall. Things have changed. Healthcare has REALLY changed. The first (and geographically closer) clinic she called couldn’t take her because the x-ray machine was broken. What? Really?

(Which immediately reminds me of a website I stumbled upon recently: mcbroken.com. My folks love milkshakes from McDonalds, but 5 times out of 10 when we stop, the ice cream machine is broken. Seems McD’s has an equipment problem. So much so that someone created a website that tracks broken machines all across the country. I don’t remember this ever being a problem back in the day. The fact that they don’t fix the problem speaks volumes)

But I digress.

I’m looking across traffic on a four-lane road running parallel to this building. The sun is beginning to set. I see bright sky through the haze. A garbage sky, I think to myself. Layers broken down by floating particles that make it hard to breathe. I want to take Yoda out for a walk but the grass here is a strange shade of green and I don’t trust what’s been sprayed on it to get it to look that color. Even the sculpted arborvitae sitting in front of me is a sickly sage green, parts of it dying and brown, probably something in the soil rising up and killing it slowly from the inside. I can’t keep looking at it. I squint and look away. 

I think of the drive here, how way off in the distance I saw Mt Rainier with three perfect lenticular clouds, one atop another. Ice blue sky, clouds like spun silk, all swirled around the mountaintop. That view never changes. It was the same a century ago, and will remain the same longer than I’ll ever live to see. The glaciers will melt, the shape of her will shift ever so slightly, but she’ll stand tall. The most recognizable mountain for miles. In my Way-Back Machine she never really changes. She never disappoints. The rock in the river. 

I found an old business card of mine the other day. A reminder of an old life, a very different life. I started thinking about how I found myself with that fancy title in that storied place. The card is embossed as if it belonged to someone special. Someone else. It didn’t happen overnight and there’s a much deeper story there, but some of the pieces along the way stayed with me, and for better or worse, they are the ones that endure.

It started with that ’74 Capri I bought in 1980 with my graduation money. It wasn’t my dream car, but it had a flawless interior, new tires, was in my price range and it wasn’t the Dodge Dart my folks thought I should get. Mostly that. 

By late September of 1981 the engine block cracked. (Probably from ignoring the oil light.) My parents made me a deal I couldn’t refuse and by mid October that same year, I had a one-way plane ticket to Minneapolis and $500 to move in with a friend. 

Minneapolis in winter was not a friendly place. When I left home I remember thinking “cold is cold”. How bad could it be? As it turned out, I was about to get a new definition for bad. And for cold. The temperature plummeted that winter to well below zero for days at a time. I learned about frostbite and wind burn and wind chill. I had no car so I rode the bus. Many teachable moments on public transit in dangerously cold weather. 

The eight months I would spend in Minnesota would haunt me for decades. I got good work experience in a brand new hotel kitchen, walked the tracks of deserted train trestles over the river and partied hard every night with my nomadic friends. I took long drives with my “boyfriend” to many of Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes. I played softball for a bar team owned by a guy who had won the lottery (or something that showered him with more money than he knew what to do with). Good weed flowed freely and despite the gnats in spring, we had a ton of fun. But there were the haunting things too: The dog bite, the back injury, the assault by my “boss”. It wasn’t pretty.

I had to leave. My second “geographic” in a year. I’d find another kitchen, make new friends back in Seattle, but clearly I couldn’t stay here. I surprised my folks by showing up at their 25th Anniversary party and surprised them further by not returning to the Twin Cities. 

“Surprise! I’m moving back in!”

I quickly found work in another large downtown hotel. I worked in Garde Manger with a brilliant chef from Japan. He taught me good knife skills and I spent my days creating food magic for huge banquets in lavish rooms decorated to the hilt. When a line position opened up in the signature fine dining restaurant, I jumped at the chance. 

It was a different world for me. Swing-shift in the garde manger station, making terrines, gravlax and cooking giant octopus. We mastered salads and cold appetizers, shucked oysters and whipped up every dressing and sauce you could imagine. Usually it was two of us and we learned to work that station with the precision of dancers. Our other responsibility was the signature souffle’ and I still have scars on my arms from the oven when we sacrificed a burn over allowing our fragile creations to fall. 

And then there was the drinking. 

Lots of drinking. We started at 3 in the afternoon and kept it up until the last dessert went out near 11 pm. Cooks on the hot line favored brandy and coke in giant tumblers with ice. We preferred Frangelico or Kahlua with french-pressed coffee in our fine china cups. 

After work we headed over to a dive bar called The Bitter End for pool and more drinks. The waiters usually paid. It was an unspoken arrangement in lieu of sharing in the tips. Even back then the waiters made hundreds every night. The occasional after-party was at someone’s house or apartment and our beverages quickly shifted to weed and coke. 

Oh, what a life. 

When one of my favorite line cooks took the Executive chef job in another big hotel chain across the lake, he offered me a sous chef position, and again, I jumped at the chance. The food business is a fluid place. Staying in one spot too long could break a career. It’s an industry where broadening your experience meant going where the opportunities took you. I was not a strong cook. With zero professional training, I was usually the greenest in the bunch, but I had an impeccable eye for presentation and menu creation and it swept me up through the ranks swiftly. 

When my friend (the chef who had hired me) was fired for some payroll indiscretions I was offered the interim role of Executive chef. And again, I jumped at the chance to prove myself. I was fortunate to work with some really strong cooks, all much better than me, and we cobbled together a pretty awesome kitchen. After 30 days they made my position permanent. It wasn’t a huge hotel, but we had a popular bar, a very popular 24-hr restaurant and a full banquet calendar. All the food came out of our one kitchen and it became the room that never slept.

I had the best staff anyone could hope for. A graveyard guy who loved the nightshift (and I really loved him), a right-hand man who eventually took over the kitchen (and probably should have had the job all along) and people with crazy talent who loved food and showed up every day. 

Naturally there were a few problems, but nothing we couldn’t overcome. We cooked brunch every Saturday for the Seahawks when they had a Sunday home game, (I met Steve Largent, Dr Dan, Jim Zorn and dozens of others I’ve forgotten), fed the after-hours bunch until 4am and saw our eggs benedict achieve urban legend status. Yep, it was that good.

We were family. Until the family became dysfunctional.

I drank coffee all day to stay awake and partied most nights in order to sleep. (Well, maybe party isn’t the right word. I started drinking alone a lot.) Relationships faltered, friends stopped calling, my work began to suffer and it stopped being fun. Even then, “fun” was an important measure. Why settle? There has to be more. 

Then, after one particularly hard night, I’d had enough and gave notice the next day. A month later was the last time I ever stepped into a kitchen in that, or any other, capacity. Everything changes. 

Certainly there is much more to this story. A lot can happen in five years in your twenties. Trying to unpack all of that could take some time. Maybe another day. And then again, maybe some things should be kept in the shadows, peeking out only to remind us of where we don’t want to go. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t starve if I were left on my own for any length of time and I’ve been sober now for nearly 33 years. I’m a living example of the good that can come from abiding by a simple principle: take what you need and leave the rest. 

How I landed at the post office after all of that is beyond logic … but I found a way to make that work too. As my friend shared recently: “We contain multitudes”. 

Yes, we do. 

14 Comments on ““Way Back” Machine

    • Yes, an intetesting history for sure. And oh, me too, on the Benedict! It was our signature dish at Sam’s Bar & Grill (our 24 hr restaurant) We made our hollandaise fresh, from scratch, several times a day. Eggs Benedict might just be the perfect food.

  1. That was the Buddha, yes? Take what you need and leave the rest. These drawings, Bonnie, so perfect for this post. I loved the memories you were revealing, even before the amazing trip through the kitchens of your life. I hope your wife’s toe heals as soon as possible. I need to talk to you about working for the Post Office because that is central to my story that I am writing. I’ll follow up on this. 🙂

    • Well, sounds sensible enough, but probably not Buddha. I learned that expression in recovery and it serves me quite well so long as I actually follow through. The toe is okay. Uncomfortable, but not shattered like she thought. Thanks for the kind words about my doodles. Looking forward to hearing how the P.O. fits into your story 🤪

  2. I knew some of this, but not in such great, and COLORFUL (!) detail! I’ll bet you could still make a killer omelette … *

    • Oh yes, colorful is a good word. And this is just the surface. I can do a few things well, soups, omelets and some favorite pasta dishes. More important, I know what to do with most things and were I lost in a forest or on an island, I wouldn’t starve. Thanks for the note.

  3. Wow Bonnie Rae, such a great story, such great writing, and I love how you can illustrate what you don’t have photos for. Each paragraph could be a whole chapter for sure, and I would love to read that. What a different world from any I’d been in, and from where you landed. I’m wondering how it felt to write this out, if there was some freeing that took place. I’m wondering if indeed letting shadows stay hidden is the best way. Sometimes the lessons from that wayback machine are what bring us fully into the here and now, They help us to either let go but also help us to understand who we are in the present. This fan is wanting more.

    • Also, we had a good friend around that era with a Dodge Dart. She glued a surfboard fin to the roof, called it the shark, and it was the coolest car around (though she was always elbow deep in the engine.)

      • Haha … maybe a fin was the perfect thing to make it a little less boxy. It might have been more reliable than the one I chose, but then as now, I think “where’s the fun in that?”

    • First, let me say, I did put a little more effort into the writing and I really appreciate the acknowledgement. It means a lot. It WAS an opening, a crack of the door, into a place long left behind. But I agree with you that looking back can sometimes show you things on the path you couldn’t see at the time. It is a measure (of sorts) of some very personal growth. Can’t help but wonder what my fate might have been had I chosen to stay. Curiosity mostly, as I find just a few things I truly regret. What is it they say? If you don’t go in, you can’t find out. Thanks so much for the encouraging words and for your attention. I’m really grateful.

  4. Your drawings amongst your words are a breathtaking presentation of story to rival, no doubt, your plates of food. Also, Rainier could erupt in your lifetime and rival (that word again) the eruption in your life between chef and mail carrier. Just saying.

    • Thanks, Gretchen. Working in fine dining it was all about presentation. How a plate looked was equal to how it tasted. I learned so much in those wild years. As for Rainier? I know someday she could blow her top but it’s a pretty safe bet it won’t happen in my lifetime. Mountains are perfect teachers, in that we learn that what we see is not always a reflection of what lies beneath. And boy, I see the truth of that every day all around me. Thanks for writing*

  5. Wow! a very interesting story……I just have to say that I had a plymouth valiant as a graduation present. (army green). My grandparents bought it for me. My grandpa was a mechanic. He had a choice between the valiant and a 65 mustang. I got the valiant. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth….but…..
    Hope the toe wans’t broken.

    • Yep, army green/puke green. Same here, but thank god it wasn’t the Dodge Dart! No broken toe (though three hours to determine that seemed excessive). I’m guessing we all have different, “other” lives. And luckily, they sometimes make for good stories. Thanks for writing, Tami.

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