He clocks in, throws an apron over his neck and then ties it around his waist, fastening it close to his body. He’ll be working harder than anyone else in this restaurant — much of which going unnoticed. The dish area is piled high from an afternoon’s worth of prep done by the opening cooks who hustled trying to get the kitchen caught up for dinner service after a busy weekend. Busy, receiving orders all morning the opening cooks were behind within moments of arriving. That’s how it always is on Mondays. Dirtied cutting boards, sauce slopped Robot Coups and bacon greased baking sheets were piled high in front of Margaro’s station — the Dish Pit. This was all to be done before anyone actually sat down to eat in this restaurant. He clocked in at 4PM and knew what to expect — it was a Monday after a busy weekend — this was his work, and he did it with fortitude and grace, never undermining the importance of his job.
While yes, the dishwasher’s job isn’t one requiring the same high skill as a stellar line cook, it requires skill – and patience and strength to press on when dirty dish after dirty dish comes rolling in from the kitchen, dining room and bar. He scrapes, sprays and runs a load through the machine, then again — ensuring it’s cleanliness, thoroughly wipes any lingering water from it, then stows it appropriately. Finally caught up from the earlier kitchen mess, Margaro sprays down the final sauce pot which was used to make the week’s supply of beef stock and rubs it feverishly with steel wool, placing it upside down in the machine, then presses the start button, walking away. He wipes his dirty hands on the bar towel that hangs from his waist, makes his way to the back of the building and pulls a cigarette from the half smoked pack in his back pocket. In the kitchen, Margaro is in his own world — communicating efficiently and infrequently, only when necessary and only when it involves work. On break though, he enjoys a single cigarette with the other kitchen guys before the chaos of dinner service has begun — it was a Monday though, and there were only 45 reservations in the books, meaning that he would most likely get the opportunity to sneak one more smoke in before the night was over. For Margaro, the nicotine wasn’t an addiction, but rather a chance to step outside of the hot, steam packed kitchen whose temperature on a good night hovered around 85 degrees — any excuse was a good excuse.
The night went smooth — plates from waiters were brought into the kitchen and scraped off any remaining food before being stacked appropriately near the dish area, where Margaro would seize them once a considerable pile had accumulated. The same was done with a steaming hot trough of silverware. Waiters tossed forks and knives, splashing the soap spiked water onto the already damp floor below. Cooks stepped around Margaro, tossing their final scorching hot sauté pans into the adjacent, half full sinks. By the time he would get around to cleaning them, the skillets would have lost all of their heat to the water in which they were bathing. “Caliente, Caliente guey,” echoes through the kitchen throughout the night indicating that yes, the pans are extremely hot. This is the last time Margaro would hear those words tonight. It was done. After 57 covers, and an early last call, the night was over.
Mexican mariachi music sways from the kitchen signifying the upbeat mood of the staff that is nearly finished closing up. Foods are wrapped, labeled and placed in the refrigerators, as certain sauces and side dishes are placed into smaller, more economical pans. The final dishes come over from the kitchen and are stuffed with dirty knives. The last stack of clean plates is placed above the expo window, denoting their readiness for use the following day.
After a couple more loads, Margaro cleans his machine, then mops the floor — attempting to free the kitchen tile of the grime that has accumulated since the restaurant opened years ago. That’s the life of a restaurant kitchen; clean from unclean, back to clean on any given day. Once he is confident no more dishes are lurking, the dishwasher is turned off, as is the music, which is then followed by the light, dimming the kitchen for the remainder of the night hours. Into the computer Margaro punches his four-digit number for the second time today, indicating his work for the day was done. He tosses his filthy apron into the linen hamper outside the side door, collects his belongings and wanders out to the front of the house, the part of the restaurant where he doesn’t really belong. The bar and the rest of the kitchen staff sip over a beer at the bar as he walks straight through, nodding to his coworkers, and out the front door, barely catching the last train home. His plain white t-shirt is clean except for the areas uncovered by his apron, and it sits loosely around his narrow torso. Margaro’s black pants are bleach-stained around the ankles and his socks are soaked down to his toes — pruning and further callusing his worn out feet. After speeding past three metro stops worth of city lights and tunnels, Margaro peels himself out of the last row of the last rail car that is on its last run of the night. The walk to his one bedroom apartment was a half mile, and was enjoyed with a cigarette, while reflecting on the tiring day that is now over, and of the family, which he loves so much and is so damn far away.
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His four children and wife live in Mexico, and the sacrifices he had made are hard to comprehend. He works six days a week… Six hard days that result in enough money to send home to his wife and kids — enough money to offer them a life of luxury there, a life he never knew, and might not really ever know.
Walking into his lonely, bare boned apartment, Margaro turns on the stereo that sits above the pawn shop television, and the same Mariachi music from the restaurant begins to simmer softly, increasing in volume until he is content. He pulls a Tecate from the refrigerator, cracks it open and walks out to the front porch, leaving the door cracked so that the music coming from the living room is perfectly audible. He drinks the first beer quickly, grabs one more and a handful of chicharrones he fried just before work. I know he relishes in the fact that the aroma of fried pork still lingers, subtly in the air.
While thinking about those nights of Margaro sitting on that porch, rocking back and forth, singing inaudibly to the music that takes him to his homeland, I can’t help but think about how much he truly misses his family, and the wonderfully unselfish life he has chosen to live — all for them. Most nights he would return from work too late to call home since his wife and children had long since retired for the night — they were living their own lives and would awake to their own obligations and responsibilities a couple thousand miles away. After having lived four years in the United States, how much longer could he work these long hours away from his family? When would he move back to the ones for whom he sacrificed everything? Based on experience, I have a suspicion it could be another four years, and at that point, his children would barely recognize him, and a life without him would almost seem normal……
Margaro will finish off the better part of a six-pack, a rare and well-deserved treat, then ache his way into the bedroom, falling into bed — forgetting to mute the music that would play throughout the ill-furnished and modestly sized apartment into the morning hours. He’ll awake in a few short hours to do it all again, but at least it’ll be to the music of Mexico, and pictures of the ones he cares about will be sitting on the table next to him. He will shower, dress, and grab some more chicharrones for the road. The restaurant was awaiting him with a pit full of dishes, half full trash cans, and a stereo sitting above his station ready to take him home once again.
Margaro — wherever you are now, I hope you’re happy, that you are reunited with your family, and that they appreciate the sacrifices you made for them.
Cuidate, amigo – CHRIS HILL