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United States / Culture

Confessions From a Pool Club Kitchen: Reflections on Entry-Level Labor

Names and distinguishing details have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Introduction: Social Status on the Gold Coast

There are thirty-two country clubs in Fairfield County, Connecticut. From a bird’s eye view, they are clearly visible, green oases among the density of upscale shopping centers, stately homes, and manicured sidewalks. For most of the county’s one million residents, these clubs remain hidden from view, either sheltered in upper-class neighborhoods or even—sometimes—literally locked behind gates. Even if they were not hidden in plain sight, their amenities would be wildly unobtainable for most. Average initiation—that is, the cost just to get in the door—is $100,000. Yearly dues can range from $10-20,000 or more. Yet even if one had the knowledge and financial resources to access these clubs, they would still face the challenge of the membership committee, where multiple recommendations from club members are required, as well as extensive family interviews. It is for these reasons that club membership rarely changes: it is a stagnant reflection of the ruling elite of fifty years ago. Still, these clubs remain at the top of the social hierarchy. Lawrence Otis Graham, a black New York lawyer who went undercover to the Greenwich Country Club as a busboy, keenly observed that the question is not “Do you belong,” but “Where?”

There is an absolute social necessity among the county’s elite to belong to a club. Doing so opens doors to a social community the likes of which are hard to fathom. The membership list at The Country Club of New Canaan warns its reader, “The list is to be kept confidential and should not be used or distributed in any manner.” Looking at some of the last names, it is clear why: real estate moguls, big-name lawyers, venture capitalists, and patricians have their private numbers listed with emails, addresses, and wives’ names (men are always listed first). Each club sets its own rules, but almost all follow the same general—unstated—principle: few Jews, and no blacks. Fairfield County has a sizable Jewish population; while there are no hard numbers, Connecticut is over three per cent Jewish, and most certainly live in Fairfield County. With a few, notable exceptions made for the especially entrenched and respected, the rest have their own clubs. Blacks were the subject of de-facto segregation and discrimination in Fairfield Country for decades, when realtors would outright refuse to sell and neighborhoods banned their presence. These effects still linger today; there are very few black residents, and they usually reside in more urban, poor, and diverse Stamford, Norwalk, or Bridgeport respectively. 

This social system relegates the vast majority of people to socially ambiguous alternatives: the in-between. While the poverty rate is about nine per cent in Fairfield County, it takes an annual income of over $700,000 to be considered part of the one per cent of top earners; this is the highest wealth disparity in the country. This puts club life out of reach for the vast majority of people. Nonetheless, the need to “belong” to a club is pervasive. It is for this reason that clubs for the in-between exist. Each town in Fairfield County might have a handful to dozens. These range from tennis clubs to pool clubs to simple social clubs to which one can claim membership. The requirements for membership are not nearly as stringent as a full country club; the initiation fees and dues are significantly lower, and membership does not come at the cost of “knowing someone.” These clubs come with a circuitous benefit: occasional access to country clubs through sports competitions or tournaments, which provides their members access—albeit limited—to the upper echelon.

My sophomore year of high school was the first time I saw one such club. Having turned sixteen, I was looking for job opportunities. The most coveted jobs were at country clubs: as golf caddies, pool attendants, waiters, pro shop employees, sports instructors, or summer camp monitors. It is a strict rule at most clubs to prohibit their members’ children from club employment; employees are, bluntly speaking, the help, and members’ children are not to occupy such a place. I was approached one day in the hallway by a girl in my grade who I knew casually. She solicited me with an offer: her father ran the snack bar at Old Pasture Pool and Tennis Club in Stamford, and she was looking for summer employees for full-time employment. I had never heard of Old Pasture, and the “Pool Club” demonym was telling. It being spring already and not having a job or any prospects of my own, I accepted. Pay was minimum wage—$9.15 at the time in Connecticut—but employees were supposedly entitled to tips. To me, the job didn’t sound half-bad; I was a member of the Country Club of New Canaan, and the snack bar employees there merely had to sell ice cream to tots and salads to parents. It sounded like an easy way to spend a summer and hopefully relax on the off-time. I would be in for a surprise.

Old Pasture: A Background

Old Pasture was founded in the middle of the twentieth century to serve the purpose of a club for the in-between. It has a pool, five tennis courts, a non-regulation basketball court, locker rooms, and a small snack bar. This, compared to a full-service country club, is just a shell. Old Pasture was no green oasis; it was more like a cement lot in the middle of a middle-class neighborhood off of a commercial road. Initiation fees were a comparatively paltry $2,000, and annual dues were set at $2,000 for a family membership. This put club membership within reach of the Fairfield County middle-class, where the median income is $95,000. Still, the prospect of club membership attracts a certain type. At Old Pasture, almost every member family was Jewish, white, and the women carried designer handbags. To be a member of Old Pasture was to be upper middle-class, to be in the periphery of the Fairfield County elite but to lack the wealth, status, and lineage to do so. 

Old Pasture was a family club; almost every member had young or adolescent children that either played tennis, swam, or both. While all public high schools in Fairfield Country have swim and tennis teams, they are only for the varsity and junior varsity levels. If a parent wanted their child to be able to join those teams, they would have to have access to a club team on which their child could participate at a younger age. Many families at Old Pasture did not have a home or community pool; membership at Old Pasture offered access to such a luxury. There was also a small but prevalent men’s and women’s tennis team that socialized, competed, and by doing the latter was afforded access to bona fide country clubs’ tennis teams, courts, and social networks during away games. 

Unlike a full-service country club, Old Pasture had no restaurant, bar, clubhouse, or ballroom. There was no enclosed space for gatherings except the patio. This was a product of the club’s purpose: a summer sports facility primarily tasked with occupying young children who are out of school and giving their parents a small but social-climbing social circle. The small but always-open snack bar was a locus of activity. During high season, the snack bar was open from ten in the morning until seven at night. On days where there are swim meets, the snack bar opened at six. Being the only facility at which to dine, nearly all members bought something at the snack bar on a daily basis. Unlike a snack bar at a full-service country club, Old Pasture’s snack bar wore many hats, having an extensive hot and cold menu with salads, wraps, sandwiches, and simple entrees, in addition to the typical accoutrements: candy, ice cream, drinks, and chips. 

The Snack Bar: An Overview

The snack bar was a small, poorly maintained, full-service kitchen. There were five refrigerators, two freezers, two friers, a stovetop, a grill, and a griddle. For the three years I worked at Old Pasture, Bob Durum was the “vendor.” Instead of operating the snack bar themselves, Old Pasture would contract the management out to a vendor each year. The arrangement was peculiar. Old Pasture charged no fees for operating the snack bar, making it an attractive offer on the surface. However, the vendor was responsible for all operating costs save for electricity, which was paid by the club, and maintenance, which was split fifty-fifty. The idea behind this agreement was simple: the vendor would get a storefront essentially rent-free, and likely break even from operating the day-to-day snack bar business. The real money was to be made on catering events. By signing with Old Pasture, the vendor became the exclusive caterer of all events at the club, of which there were three annually. This was where Bob Durum came in: Bob was the owner of Durum Foods and Catering, a catering business with a small storefront based out of Greenwich. These catering events were not small business: with the full club (about 100 member families in attendance), Bob could easily charge upwards of $10-$20,000 depending on the complexity of dishes served. The cost of food was low, and prices were insanely marked up; this is how all catering businesses operate. However, there was one additional benefit to catering events at Old Pasture: Bob didn’t have to hire a new catering staff; he could merely use the snack bar employees at their existing minimum wages. Compared to paying a catering waiter $20 an hour plus tips, this represented considerable savings. Bob lasted in this role for three-and-a-half years, three of which I was there for. The profits he made were questionable. 

Bob Durum was in his mid-fifties, a short and pudgy Italian American man with a heavy accent complicated by his smoker’s voice. He was a graduate of the CIA—the Culinary Institute of America—and lived in a small house in Fairfield County until a foreclosure about a year ago. Early in my time working under Bob, I learned from his daughter that he had killed a man in a drunken bar fight in the 1980s, and for that reason quit drinking. Looking at Bob, I couldn’t see a reason to fear him, but the story always lived in the back of my mind. Bob operated his business out of a small building in Greenwich, a catering company that served local businesses catered meals daily, in addition to running more formal catered events. Bob worked with a business partner, Fernando. No one knew much about Fernando, except that he technically did not have citizenship or a green card. His English was broken, and his primary task was to help Bob in the kitchen. Somewhere in the middle of my third year, Fernando was deported temporarily, only to return a few months later. Bob drove a 1998 Honda Accord which was missing both mirrors; they have been replaced with duct-taped contraptions. Following an accident with kitchen grease—all too common in professional kitchens—Bob exclusively wore cotton sweatpants while working. He did this in spite of the fact that most commercial kitchens, at their peak working hours, have ambient temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees. Bob didn’t drink, but he most certainly smoked, albeit only in private. He was never seen smoking a cigarette, but always smelled of fresh Marlboro Reds (his brand of choice, I discovered, from the surreptitious packs he would squirrel away in odd places). Durum Foods first won the Old Pasture vendor contract for the 2015 season, a period from early May to early September, when the pool and tennis facilities were open. It was Bob’s job to hire a staff, create a menu, and purchase foodstuffs, as well as ensure that the facility ran smoothly.

Bob was fully occupied running the catering business in Greenwich along with Fernando. I knew that he woke up around four or five and would return home around eight; these were typical working hours. To run the snack bar, renamed “Durum Foods at Old Pasture,” he hired Josie. Josie was a mid-twenties black graduate of JW—Johnson and Wales Culinary School—and had worked for Bob part-time at the Greenwich location. Her title was simply manager, and she was tasked with taking on the lion’s share of what was supposed to be Bob’s work: she hired, fired, staffed, scheduled, cleaned, counted, stocked, sanitized, oversaw all business operations. Josie typically worked 60 hours or more in a week along with her adopted brother Stephan. Stephan was a white, gay, mid-twenties man who was quite close to his adopted sister. From what I could gather, this “adoption” was more accurately a childhood together in and out of different foster homes, the two of them ultimately ending up in the same Stamford apartment a few years later after Josie had graduated and Stephan had worked odd jobs. Josie was very proud of her degree, especially considering her circumstances. This was despite the fact that, from an outsider’s perspective, it seemed to do her more harm than good. For the privilege of attending the country’s second-ranked culinary school, Josie had taken out considerable, debilitating loans. What did she have to show? A job managing a second-rate club’s snack bar earning $15 an hour…plus tips. Josie soon encountered the difficulties of staffing a snack bar at minimum wage: even for a kitchen job, that pay is low. It was for this reason that the main task of staffing was given to Bob’s daughter Camila, who could presumably recruit her classmates for an entry-level country club job. Recruit she did, and that year, there were about five of us. Of the five, I was the one who worked the most; I didn’t have much else to do with my time and didn’t know anything else. On my first day, expecting the kind of country club job I had been accustomed to at the Country Club of New Canaan, I arrived in pressed Bermuda shorts and a white collared shirt. At the end of that day, I knew that I had made a poor decision in outfit: I was completely soaked in grease stains (which I learned are part of the job- they don’t come out). Most of the time, it was me and one other high schooler working with Josie and Stephan. During the lunch rush, this could be a brutal, exhausting ordeal. 

The Life of a Line Chef

My first year, I learned the ins and outs of what it meant to be a low-level line cook. Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 book Kitchen Confidential most accurately and viscerally describes the experience of a professional chef working in the world’s most esteemed kitchens and the great irony of it all: behind the veneer of class and professionalism, restaurant staff are some of the most gritty, grimy, lowlives that average people can imagine (his words, not mine). At Old Pasture, there was no irony about it: we, not “professional” by any means, lived an unglamorous life at a shabby club for minimum wage…plus tips. Despite what I was promised upon my recruitment, tips left much to be desired. Tipping at the Country Club of New Canaan was strictly forbidden, save for golf caddies. Old Pasture did not have such social pretensions, and we put a large ceramic jar labeled “TIPS FOR COLLEGE” right out front. On a good day, this might earn an extra few bucks. Despite the club being infested with social climbers, the well-to-do magnanimity of the upper class did not “trickle down” as we were promised. An average shift was eight hours, but mid-shifts, when the lunch rush bogged the kitchen with orders and the need for extra hands, was four. These shifts had a wide range of tasks and activities to complete, but one thing was constant: work. We were governed by the oft-taught principle, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” although it was often said more crudely and with a few more expletives. Connecticut state mandated that each employee working an eight-hour shift be granted a break; yes, only one break, a duration of fifteen minutes. So that’s what we took, a fifteen-minute break to scarf down some food we prepared in the back. Time preparing food was, of course, considered part of your break time. Breaks were timed using a stopwatch, and anything over the fifteen minutes was deducted from your salary. 

The timesheets were kept rather haphazardly, along with all other records, financial, governmental, or human resources. We were governed by an honor system: you would write down the time you got to work and the time you left, and those were considered your hours, It was common practice that if you were the only one opening or closing, you would inflate those hours slightly to buffer what was inadequate pay. Those that didn’t take a picture of the hours sheet at the end of the week were trusting in management—that is, Josie and Bob—to properly account for hours worked and pay appropriately, which, in practice, was not always done. As if by nature, all pay was under the table, in wads of cash withdrawn from the register and stuffed into office store envelopes that were securely stored at the bottom of a plastic bin in the kitchen. In my three years working at Old Pasture, there was only one instance of an envelope gone missing: employees respected their fellow worker and wages were hard-earned. However, by the end of the summer, there was never enough cash to go around. Customers paid about half in cash and the other half in credit, a frequency which tilted more toward the latter as time went on. This created a significant problem for payroll, as cash had to be found to keep employees off the books and avoid taxes. By the end of my first year, Bob owed me over $1,000 in back wages. He solved this problem by driving to my house a week after the kitchen closed in September in a new white Cadillac SUV wearing shorts and a crisp polo shirt. To say this complicated my image of Bob would be an understatement; I would later learn where such apparent wealth came from. 

The biggest threat to our welfare as employees was the health inspector. As a seasonal business, we were subject to a minimum of one random inspection per operating season. Despite this, we always had an idea when he was coming by word of Bob. As is common among restaurateurs, the craftiest of business owners form relationships with the health inspectors through outward friendship and likely bribes. We were all governed by the Connecticut State Health Code, personified in the 100-page Xeroxed, binder-clipped, black-and-white manual that was stored in the same plastic bin as our wages. Never once was it explained to me, and only once did I open it my second year. The basic idea was simple: wear gloves when touching prepared food, wash your hands, wash countertops, and other things you might do in your home kitchen. In reality, the code was meticulously tedious, and during the fifteen minutes the health inspector did come, you were examined under a microscope with the same scrutiny an epidemiologist might give a nasty venereal disease. In the course of examination, you could seemingly do nothing right; you might not have worn gloves enough, property, or at all; you might have left a knife in an improper location; you might have prepared sanitizing solution improperly; you might have your hair outside of a regulation hat or net. Then, there were the variables outside of your control, such as the broken hand washing sink, or the perpetually warm refrigerator, or the clogged drain in the sink. All you could pray for was that the health inspector didn’t come in the middle of a rush; if that happened, you might as well give up and admit you were fucked. My first year, we did not pass. In that event, the State does not actually close the kitchen. Rather, they pick another time in the next two weeks to come back and reinspect. By then, you presumably would have fixed whatever needed to be fixed and trained your employees to not touch Mrs. Goldbaum’s beef tenderloin panini with their bare hands. No one ever failed the second inspection; that was unheard-of. A passing grade was a mere seventy-five. With that score, everything but the most egregious and unsanitary of conditions was allowed to operate…and those we did indeed have.

“You were examined under a microscope with the same scrutiny an epidemiologist might give a nasty venereal disease.”

The Old Pasture Kitchen had been rebuilt sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, or so I was told. Commercial kitchen equipment, however durable, still wears out quicker than any home appliance, which is especially true for the refrigerators. Almost none of the refrigerators could hold the forty degrees mandated by the Health Code, and that was on a good day. In the heat of the summer, when the grill, fryers, griddle, oven, and stove were running, the kitchen could easily reach an excess of 120 degrees. If you were working above one of the aforementioned appliances, the temperatures could exceed 600 degrees. Even for the hottest commercial kitchens, that was not normal, an aphorism that was even seconded by Bob, who rarely, if ever, acknowledged any issue. “All kitchens are hot,” he once told me, “but this is the hottest.” The reason for this wasn’t any unique trait of the kitchen besides its nonfunctioning ventilation system. The fume hood above the stove barely worked, wheezing away all day, but that was it. There was no airflow, as we were required (by Health Code) to keep the back door closed all day. It was inevitable to suffer from heatstroke at some point during your employment, and the heat would be a death sentence for anyone not in decent health. 

My Stint as Manager

When the season ended in 2015, I was not surprised that Josie decided to quit. She was owed the most in back wages—at least a couple thousand dollars—and decided that her degree earned her more than managing a snack bar for $15 an hour. While Bob was many things, an expert recruiter was not one of them. To this day, I wonder why he chose me. I was grossly under-qualified, just seventeen at the time, and only one previous year of experience in the kitchen. Bob barely knew me beyond a few casual interactions, and working with his daughter had been a less-than-pleasant experience that previous year. Maybe he was more cunning than I give him credit for, and saw my situation from my perspective. Bob, being my only previous employer, held great leverage over me: he was my only reference and only work experience. To me, the manager position looked downright generous; to me, $15 an hour was unheard of, and something none of my friends could claim. Managing a staff was something that appealed to me, and Bob granted more than that: he essentially handed me the keys and said, “Work.” Work is what I would do for the next four months, for sixty-five hours a week with almost no days off. 

To become a manager, I first had to gain my ServSafe certification. ServSafe is an accreditation program run by the National Restaurant Association, and its certification is required by many local jurisdictions as part of their omnipotent health codes. The exam is administered over a multi-hour instruction course and costs about $100. Bob ever-so-graciously paid that fee for me. I attended my certification course sometime in February or March 2016 along with Fernando, who was due for his recertification. I was both the only white man and the only English speaker in the class. I was also—by far—the youngest: most attendees were in their thirties. The previous sentences reflect the typical demographics of a restaurant worker in southwestern Connecticut, and, as much as I can gather, much of the United States. The dominant language is Spanish, and learning at least some key words and phrases (cuidado is essential) is necessary for life in a commercial kitchen. To this day, I am proud of the fact that I passed the ServSafe exam with the highest score in the class, an announcement which was greeted by benign amusement by my classmates, no doubt aware of my material advantage in a class taught in my native tongue. Once I had my certification, I was technically capable, as deemed by the State of Connecticut, to execute the proper letter and law of the Health Code and run a kitchen. No other certification or exam was required. 

The next—and hardest—step was recruiting a staff. Like Josie, Bob, and Camila, I found it extremely difficult to find anyone actually interested in taking the job. In hindsight, I realize that it was my duty to sugarcoat the job description with an air of ease and class that was assumed of a typical country club job. I relied on my friends, friends of friends, and other people I could scrounge up to put together a crew for opening day. In the end, I hired over thirty people that summer. Out of that, maybe five actually worked out to be hardworking, reliable, and trustworthy employees. There is nothing more destructive to a friendship than adding the stressful power dynamic of manager-employee, and I would soon become accustomed to firing people I had known for years over the phone or disciplining someone I had known since childhood outside the kitchen (but loud enough to be a threat to those inside). I like to think that I gave everyone a fair shot: people that wanted to work were always given hours, and I did my best to train everyone on the ins and outs of running the facilities. What I quickly learned is that most high schoolers don’t work out of love of labor, they work out of a need for money. As long as they have enough money to pursue the recreational activities that high schoolers do, they have no bond of responsibility to their place of employment. I would often be called during the few hours or days I had off to be informed that so-and-so hadn’t shown for their shift, and if I could please find a replacement. Often, I couldn’t, and I would come in myself. I also learned how utterly incompetent some people are to learning what I viewed as simple, menial tasks, like closing out the register, or prepping the kitchen for the next day. This, in another realization from hindsight, was not so much incompetence as pushing the limits of what was possible with management; employees would do as little as possible for as much money as possible. I spent more hours than I should have in that kitchen trying to play the role of supervisor, boss, and friend, an impossible balancing act that I stubbornly refused to stop trying. 

The Employees

The typical snack bar employee was like myself: in high school, with no previous experience, looking for something to do during the summer, and, more importantly, make money. As word got around that I was offering jobs to pretty much anyone who would take one (the turnover was high), I had people from my high school—and from others I had never been to or heard of—texting me asking for work. I would usually grant such requests, only to find out a week later that they were not reliable or completely incompetent. Given the high school age of the workforce, about half didn’t have cars. The State of Connecticut forbids employers from asking this in job interviews, but Bob let me know that there was little chance any high schooler would know this obscure law (I hadn’t). There was an interesting hodgepodge of driving arrangements: some employees would come in their own cars, some carpooled, and some had their parents drive them. My first year, my mother and grandmother switched off on being my ride to work depending on who was available. My second and third years I had a car, which was essential to my role as manager, having to come in at odd hours all days of the week. When I was not working, I usually designated another employee to be in charge, typically my friend Helen, who I knew to be trustworthy and a hard worker. For this, I rewarded her with a raise to $12 an hour, an under-the-table deal the other employees were not supposed to know about, but became public knowledge through the snooping that everyone did. When all records were stored in the purple plastic bin under the register, it wasn’t hard to take a quick look at the financials. There were obvious and immediate grounds for dismissal, such as stealing or missing and/or being late to three shifts; however, most other things were, if not explicitly condoned, implicitly allowed as long as management didn’t see and the club members didn’t find out. Drinking on the job during a late shift was common and even acceptable during the occasional catered club event. Smoking weed was permissible in the back storage room or outside, as long as nobody could smell. If I didn’t receive a complaint and it didn’t significantly affect work, it wasn’t my job to care.

There were then the “aberrant” employees that were not high schoolers that worked alongside us. My first year, those employees were Josie and Stephan, although because they were in charge, they were the norm. Josie and Stephan only worked for that year, and were never heard from after that except for a chance encounter at a pet food store. My second year, Bob took the liberty of hiring a Mexican line cook recommended by Fernando. This arrangement worked out for about a week: his English was very broken, which made communication with the inexperienced mass of high schoolers difficult. He also stopped showing up after that week, leading to his inevitable firing. My third year, I was only a part-time manager. This was my own doing and my own choice: the stress of 65 hour work weeks and the prospect of another summer spent doing nothing but labor in my months before college was depressing. Bob, while initially upset, found a replacement manager in a “family friend”: Chenille. Chenille was an elephantine mother of two whose main job was boarding dogs in her house. How Bob convinced her to work at a snack bar I still wonder, but I imagine it was some combination of her needing the money and Bob offering higher pay than what Josie or I received. Chenille, like me, had no previous experience in a kitchen or as a manager, but she was friendly and motherly and took well to managing a group of high school employees. Chenille, like I had the year prior, realized the inherent unreliability in the high school working body, and decided to hire a middle-aged black lady off of Craigslist. Her name was Monique. Monique, like Bob, had an almost incomprehensible smoker’s voice, and had the same disregard for health code that Josie and many longtime line cooks do. Given her extremely abnormal and erratic behavior—leaving work at random times, speaking utter nonsense, and flailing her limbs like a marionette—we suspected that Monique had a crippling drug addiction, also common among longtime line cooks. She lasted maybe one week longer than Fernando’s hire, and then was never heard from again. 

The Members

Dealing with a club member is like dealing with your least favorite aunt: they nag, ask too many questions, and insist on making themselves the center of attention. This is not always true: some club members can be downright pleasant and go out of their way to be kind, but they are the small and silent minority. All member-employee relations are defined by that power dynamic and the stilted formality that comes from having to please and serve; the basic functions of sycophancy that is customer service. Membership at Old Pasture was not diverse: the club was almost entirely Jewish and was entirely white. Most members were from Stamford, Darien, or another surrounding town, and most had young children. For the younger families, that is, newer members of Old Pasture, membership here might just be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Given the long, arduous waiting lists at “legitimate” country clubs that can be hundreds of names long, along with the almost-insurmountable initiation fees, it was better to belong “somewhere” than nowhere. The banner on the Old Pasture website, announcing “Now accepting new members for next season” might scream of desperation for new blood, but attracted those who just want to get in. Then there were the true middle-class members, who went to Old Pasture because they knew people or their children had friends there and it offered them some form of a social circle. Old Pasture was their home, and these members were therefore by far the worst. Acting like they ruled the roost, they would come pecking around asking why we had our back door open, why a certain drink wasn’t fully stocked, or fly into a fit of rage when we were out of an item. We were not allowed to be out of anything, ever. We had to send somebody to the grocery store down the road in the middle of a rush if that’s what it took to satisfy a member’s craving for a Caesar salad, lest I receive the dreaded call from Bob telling me that he had received a complaint from the board. One lady was so upset that she had received mushrooms on her chicken and mushroom wrap that she did just that; I later had to provide her a cloyingly contrived lachrymose apology and offer her dreadful children free ice cream for the year. 

Interactions with members centered around their orders, their tabs, and their children. The snack bar had an extensive menu due to its monopoly on food at the club, and the members took that as permission to play with and invent new options for us to cook. We were expected to remember preferences, aversions, likes, and dislikes for each customer in the hope that they might tip us something other than pocket change. Those that tipped often were known well by the kitchen staff: their names, wive’s names, hobbies, and friends as to develop a type of artificial rapport through which we could extract larger tips. For customers that were particularly difficult with their orders or simply rude, we had ways of exacting revenge. We could make them less food, prepare food poorly, and make “mistakes” that would irritate them but not necessitate a remake. Food was routinely “dropped” on the floor, dusted off, and served to customers with a short temper or snarky remark. The club’s insistence that we were not allowed to be out of any item at any time surreptitiously backfired on its members. When preparing a turkey club, one employee realized that there was no sliced turkey left. Rather than inform the member and risk certain scorn, the employee found a half-eaten turkey club sandwich in the employee fridge. Rearranging the half-consumed turkey as to hide the bite marks, the employee made a “fresh” sandwich and served the member to their unsuspecting delight. When making a roast beef sandwich, I realized that our sliced meat had spoiled, turning a slimy, shiny green with an emanating putrid smell. We had no backup roast beef, so I improvised. I figured that cooking the meat on the griddle with some extra salt and seasoning would do the trick, and I cooked the meat until I could no longer detect an odor of rot. Adding extra sauce to the sandwich, I served the customer, praying that they wouldn’t come back hours later screaming of food poisoning. The risk was better than a certain call from Bob if I had simply told the truth, and I figured I could at least play dumb in the worst-case scenario. Thankfully it never came to that. 

“We were expected to remember preferences, aversions, likes, and dislikes for each customer in the hope that they might tip us something other than pocket change.”

My first year at the club, Josie devised a tab system—essentially a member account—that was similar to those at real country clubs. We would take down a member’s credit card number, and every time that member or their children ordered something, we would write the item and the price on the tab. These “tabs” were simply 3×5 index cards that were stored in a little black plastic box on top of the ice cream freezer. Every Friday, I would sit down with a calculator and add up each member’s total, run the number and the amount through the credit card machine, and attach the receipt to the tab along with a fresh index card. If this system sounds insecure, it was. At its height, over fifty member families kept a tab with the snack bar, trusting us with access to their unsecured card information and that we would accurately keep track of their purchases. For the most part, we did, although there were the select few members that would consistently pick a fight over a disputed grilled cheese sandwich or claim that fraud committed on their card was, in fact, our doing. In fact, these aberrant charges were almost always their children’s doing. Like most suburban parents, those at Old Pasture saw the club as one giant childcare facility, where they could sit by the pool or even leave to get their nails and hair done, while the club staff looked after their children. The children would then come to the snack bar and order exorbitant meals with candy and other delights and charge it to their parents’ tab. Almost every week, one particular parent, Mrs. McKoogan, would come to the snack bar and demand to know how her children could have spent an excess of $150 on food, insisting that it was our responsibility to refuse to serve them. The snack bar staff, most everyone under 18, had no disciplinary capability or authority. Putting on our customer service voice, a voice which is known to all service workers as condescending but sounds polite to customers, we would assure her that we would do better next time. Knowing her children partially paid our salaries, we never did.

The “Other” Employees

So far, this account has only included accounts from employees of the snack bar and Durum Foods. However, the club had many employees of its own, a parallel working staff that both rivaled and reviled us. The club had three categories of employees: management, maintenance men, and lifeguards. At the top of the management chain, there was Roger. Roger had worked at the club for what seemed like decades, a retired teacher who drove a shiny red MGB which he protected with a leather tarp while on the job. Roger was usually the first one in, even beating me to the job almost every morning. With his seniority came power: he knew that he was essentially un-fireable and used that to his advantage. While technically beholden to the club’s board, he was largely independent and responsible only to himself. He was the most helpful of all the Old Pasture employees: no doubt he had seen the vendors before me and took pity on my lack of qualifications. He helped me call maintenance men, dispose of grease, and arrange for banquets and special events. Below Roger there was Nick, head of maintenance, a short, older Latino man who had also worked at the club for decades. Rough on the outside, he kept the club running, maintaining the pool, painting the facades, grooming the tennis courts, and making sure that all other odd jobs were executed and executed well. Nick had a staff of maintenance men that worked with him, also largely high schoolers from the local area but some college students, that would man the check-in desk and essentially work as janitors, doing the dirtier tasks that Nick preferred not to do himself. Then there were the lifeguards, all female and hired by Roger, who like most older men, did not understand that flirtation was uncouth at the workplace. The lifeguard staff had few qualifications beyond their passing the lifeguard exam and being slim and attractive, the only other job requirement. All the Old Pasture staff was paid better and worked less than the snack bar staff, and we knew it. Some lifeguards made more than I did for sitting on a stand and reading a book for most of their shift. The Old Pasture staff knew this, along with the supposed superiority of being a direct employee rather than being a contracted vendor like Durum Foods. Old Pasture employees had a de facto right to tell us what to do, how to do it, and make sure it was done. A lifeguard was caught stealing drinks once; she wasn’t required to pay us back. We were not allowed to use club facilities like Old Pasture employees were, save for the bathroom. Our territory was the kitchen, and we were expected to stay there. In my one act of rebellion, I usually claimed a parking spot right by the entrance, when employees were supposed to park in the back lot. Both members and Old Pasture employees often caught me in the act, but reprimanded me with little more than a glare. 

Incidents and Accidents

For a new employee, Old Pasture was not a safe workspace. Bob was legally required to purchase workman’s comp, essentially an insurance policy in case an employee were seriously injured on the job. However, given the limited time and resources devoted to training, new recruits were often left to figure things out for themselves. This included things from the grease fryer, grill and griddle, and the most infamous of all, the slicer. Over my three years, there were, by the grace of God, no major accidents. Yet, one was always knocking at the door, waiting for one minor slip-up to turn into a massive and destructive catastrophe. The most dangerous of all appliances was the grease fryer. Oil is heated to 350 degrees, typically, and then left to bubble away for hours in order to cook fried chicken, fries, and other greasy delights. Oil burns were not only common but expected out of everyone in the kitchen, and the rush and commotion of bust hours made such injuries common among new employees. Everyone who earned their salt had a burn mark somewhere…some worse than others. Next was the grill. While almost everyone knows how to use a grill, this one was especially hot: a cool 800 degrees.  Burn marks were also common here, but the grill was more commonly known for being the most contributing factor to instances of heatstroke. Imagine having a furnace set at 800 degrees roaring all day in your house, and imagine how you’d feel. Add on that the constant physical movement and stress of the kitchen, coupled with chronic dehydration (water breaks were not encouraged) and you had an (almost) deadly combination. On an average day, when someone could step away for a quick drink, they could easily consume two or three bottles of water an hour. Most of this was sweat out. Going home in the evening, you would be soaked in a combination of grease, sweat, and kitchen spills, the odor of which is hard to describe. They might come home with a new injury to show their friends or parents, or, on one occasion, a newly sutured finger after slicing a good centimeter off in the deli slicer. The slicer carried an age limit—eighteen—which was almost always ignored. On the occasion this did happen, the employee was seventeen, and Bob paid the $1,000 hospital bill out of pocket. The check memo? Cut finger.

Hints and Allegations

Every week, I would make my after-work trip to Bob’s house. Bob lived on Locust Lane in a very modest, dated, and poorly maintained two-story semi-prefab colonial that was typical of 1970s construction in the area. Pulling into the driveway, there was an immediate dichotomy between Bob’s 1998 Honda Accord and the shiny white Cadillac Escalade. This was his wife’s car, and it was not her only luxury. Mrs. Durum dressed in designer clothes, carried expensive handbags, and on the surface, lived a glamorous life. However, like many of the club members I saw day in and day out, it felt like an elaborate charade. As you walked through the creaky, rusty screen door, you were greeted by a crusty old white yipping dog that weighed no more than a small ham. The yipping was quickly greeted by an all-too-common “Shut the hell up, Woody,” which from that retort I learned was the dog’s name. Through a small room with peeling linoleum was the kitchen, which looked like the only room in the house that had been renovated in the past thirty years; this makes sense for a chef’s house. It was here where Bob and I would talk business. To these meetings, it was usually requested that I bring the money from the register, as well as a list of any items on the 86 list, a shorthand for a shopping list. It was during these meetings where Bob would check on my performance by seeing how much money the snack bar was making, how employees were behaving, and what items we were out of. Bob’s greatest concern was always payroll and finding ways to shrink it. Despite already working with periodic staff shortages and barely enough scheduled hours to function, Bob was always looking for a way to further cut hours, employees, or slim the already minimum wages. The margins were razor-thin; in the restaurant business, they always are. Bob figured that he could take a small loss overall on running the snack bar as long as he made it up on the catering events he overcharged the club for. Even with this system, I had a feeling he was barely breaking even. Wages were in cash, and we were always running short. Because of the tab system, more and more club members charged to a card instead of paying cash, which caused Bob to lose money on both the credit card processing fees and having to declare income and pay taxes. This infuriated him. He would at times resort to calling me on the job, as he often did, to tell me to unplug the credit card machine from the phone line and tell members the system was down. This would work for about fifteen minutes until a disgruntled member would alert the board who would call Bob who would then call me again and tell me to magically fix the card reader.

“The margins were razor-thin; in the restaurant business, they always are.”

The Aftermath

My third year at Durum Foods would be my last. By then, I was going off to college, a rite of passage, I thought, to leave my first job. Having few expenses of my own, I had accumulated more cash than a teenager could possibly know what to do with. I decided my second year to buy a Rolex watch, as if to say to the status-obsessed club members leave me alone. My third year would also be the last year that Bob was the contracted vendor of the snack bar. The parting was mutual: Bob was not profiting despite the massive time and effort invested in running the small kitchen, and the club members were fed up with having their snack bar be run by teenagers only slightly older than their own children. The next year, a small snack bar out of New Canaan became the vendor; I know little about them other than that they only lasted a year. The next year, seemingly out of nowhere, Bob decided to come back. According to Matt, an Old Pasture maintenance man with whom I was friendly, it did not go well:

“Durum came back this summer with Bob’s daughter as manager. They lost a bunch of money. They had like five people in the kitchen all day, even on rainy days, and served hamburgers on hot dog buns, so I’m not surprised, Bob said he was leaving in the middle of the season, so his last day was July 30th. This happened to be a health inspection day where they got a six-page write-up which I had to personally fix. Now Jordan (another maintenance man) and his younger brother run the snack bar with a maintenance man a day to do the register.”

When I received this message from Matt, I felt vindicated. My entire time at Durum Foods, I was chastised by nearly everyone: Bob, Fernando, my employees, Old Pasture staff, and club members. It took a massive fuckup—Bob’s own—to make me realize that I performed so much better than what a real “rock bottom” would look like. This current year, 2020, the contract went to a pizza restaurant out of Stamford. Due to COVID and the attendance limits at the club, I’m sure they lost money as well. Looking at their menu, it looks as if they attempted to solve this problem with higher prices. I doubt it helped. All members did when I was manager was complain about the prices, and I suspect that any price increase led them to simply bring food from home, which was allowed. I feel bad that another vendor fell into the same business trap that Bob did, but at least everyone else has had the sense to get out after a year. 

Durum Foods continues to exist, albeit in name only. COVID has decimated the restaurant business, but it has devastated catering even more. No one is having catered events, and the company lunches that were the driving force behind Durum’s daily business have all evaporated, leaving Bob with nothing but a rarely frequented small storefront. Bob has tried what many restaurants have; that is, shifting to meal delivery and offering takeout packages for families. From his current state of affairs, I doubt that he has had much success. Even before the pandemic, Bob foreclosed on his house on Locust Lane, with the bank selling the property just north of $400,000 (the average sale price of a house in Wilton is now more than $800,000). To the outside observer, this might seem ironic: Bob’s wife drives a Cadillac, his daughter a Land Rover, and both dress in designer clothes. What I learned after my tenure at Durum Foods is that Bob’s wife was willed a small but sizable inheritance from her parents, which she used to furnish her and her daughter’s lifestyle. I would also fathom that a sizable chunk of that inheritance made its way into keeping Durum Foods afloat during less profitable months. No doubt there was money, but not enough to save the house. 

By a chance encounter, Josie and Stephan were discovered working in a vacuum store a year after their departure from Durum Foods. Anna, a coworker of mine from the first year and a fellow high school student, was shopping for vacuums when she happened to see Stephan stocking shelves. They struck up a conversation, and Anna discovered that life—and Bob—had not been generous to them after quitting at the end of the 2015 season. While Josie had higher aspirations than working in a snack bar, she was unable to find another job in a kitchen. Bob had not granted her a recommendation letter, which, while not uncommon among kitchen staff, did her no benefit. Having no other previous work experience outside of Durum Foods following her graduation from JW, she became subject to the low-level labor market, a space occupied by people not unlike her who float every year from job to job, usually in the service industry, until they die. There is no such thing as “upward mobility” in the service industry; most companies are large conglomerates that don’t promote from the basket of deplorables that is their minimum waged staff. 

I thought this is where the story would end for Josie and Stephan; I had lost their contact information and forgotten their last names. However, through a deep Facebook search, I managed to find them both. Josie now works at a pizza joint in the area, a popular Italian restaurant owned by Mexicans (as many in the area now are with increasing diversity). She is cooking, but in a manner that is below her qualifications as a graduate of a top culinary school. She bakes on the side, albeit only for herself, most likely as a way to continue to practice what she loves.

Stephan has had a remarkable trajectory after Durum Foods and the vacuum store. After many years of dating, he married his long term boyfriend, taking his name and moving to New York. After the vacuum store, Stephan worked as a service advisor at a healthcare company, meaning he most likely worked in a call center on the other end of the line from hold music. He now works for an electric company in an unspecified position, although judging by the smaller size of the company and his professional Facebook picture, he has achieved a moderate level of success from very humble beginnings. 

For the rest of us, we are all finishing our senior or junior year of college. For many, Durum Foods was the first job of a lifetime, an introduction to the underbelly of the service industry, and a one-time stint. However, a notable few continue to work in foodservice and have had moderate part-time success doing so. Helen, my childhood friend, epitomizes this story. After working at Durum Foods in 2016 and 2017, she got a job at Oceanside Seafood as a hostess, where the work was easier and the pay was much better. Oceanside Seafood is one of the places that the upper crust of Fairfield Country frequent; it is a staple of many a banquet, party, or lavish dinner. $500 tips on tabs are not uncommon, and almost everyone tips twenty per cent or more. Like all foodservice jobs, however, the hours are still grueling. Helen can work an excess of sixty hours a week if she chooses, and she usually does. The money and tips are tempting, and the work, while still busy and stressful, allows for a uniform slightly more graceful than a grease-stained t-shirt and Old Navy khakis. 

I never wanted to work in a kitchen again after Durum Foods. During the winter season, I had picked up a second job at a coffee shop which, while paying minimum wage, actually had significant and substantial tips that supplemented a meager salary. The work was easier; there was time to both lean and clean when not serving customers. I worked in that job until 2018, when I quit for good. From then on, I worked in the cushy office internships that are afforded to students attending top-rated colleges such as Bowdoin. I worked at Wex as a Marketing Coordinator, where the change of pace was, at first, shocking. No longer was I on my feet all day; instead, I could sit in an office chair sipping coffee and typing up a report at my leisure while pulling in $20 an hour, big bucks to me. It was only when I moved into the office environment when my stress dreams stopped. For years during and following my employment at Durum Foods, I would wake up semi-conscious in a terror that a customer was waiting and I was sleeping on a job. This would happen seemingly out of the blue on random nights for years. My freshman year of college, I would soak the bedsheets with sweat so thoroughly that I resorted to washing them multiple times a week, deodorizing my mattress pad with a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol. 

Reflections: Conditioning, Internalization

Jobs at the bottom of the ladder have an essential function in a modern capitalist system. In advanced capitalist economies like the United States, neoliberalism conditions the relationship between the worker and the boss. By its own design, a neoliberal system produces unemployment in its prioritization of low inflation. The more unemployment, the more of a market there is for contracted labor, where hours are fluctuating and benefits are low. To be clear, these jobs have always existed as a necessary function of capitalism; however, neoliberalism makes them a feature of everyday life for more workers than any system previously. Contracted labor allows for employers to hire and fire employees at rapid rates, increasing turnover in some roles to multiple employees filling the same position over the period of a year. Turnover reduces wages, making every new hire subject to the lowest wage tier possible at a particular company. This is dynamic for the employer, but insecure for the employee. Durum Foods occupied this level of labor: the most menial of jobs for the most menial of wages. The turnover was staggering: employees would last only weeks at times, being readily replaced by surplus labor in the system. The shorter the tenure at Durum Foods, the less Bob had to pay his employees, and the more he could reduce his operating costs and maximize profits. This activity was necessary in an industry where the margins are razor-thin; had Bob paid a living wage or invested money into employee safety, he would be operating at a loss. 

American capitalism considers these thin margins to be the apogee of efficiency for several reasons. With the advent of modern food transportation and supermarkets, the cost of food went from being forty-five per cent of an average household’s expenditures to just over ten in the span of the twentieth century. The surplus capital created by the innovations of economies of scale and new technology in the twentieth century allowed for less labor and more leisure time than any other point in history; it seemed as if capitalism was working wonders, creating a new “American dream.” One of the byproducts of American mid-century surplus capital was the transformation of American dining. Once an activity confined to the elite at restaurant icons like Delmonico’s in New York, the reduction in food costs combined with a newfound disposable income created the modern American middle-class restaurant. Eating out became a national pastime, from the local Italian restaurant to a McDonald’s at every intersection. Fast food was—by far—the greatest innovation in food service history. It radically transformed the role of the restaurant worker and the function of dining more than any other point. Before fast food, cooks were part of a skilled class of artisans that had a negotiated stake in the labor market and a secure role at a restaurant. With fast food, particularly McDonald’s Speedee Service System, the role of a cook was transformed into an entry-level job. McDonald’s specifically hired younger workers, and today sells working in one of its restaurants as “America’s best first job.” First jobs play an important role in a system where the division of labor is extreme: they normalize job insecurity, low pay, and exploitation to the new and inexperienced worker. 

The power of the labor structure at Durum Foods was in its conditioning. The job would groom me for what to expect and what to be grateful for at each subsequent point in my employment. Having no other option, I worked 65 hour weeks and 8 hour days six to seven days a week. I wasn’t upset when I worked a particularly long sixteen-and-a-half hour day; rather, I was glad that I had worked that much and earned a couple-hundred dollars. My value as an employee was reduced down to a dollar sign, and I began to value my own time in terms of how many dollars it was worth according to the capitalist system. I quickly learned to associate an amount of labor with an amount of money, and, in a minimum wage job, I undervalued my own productivity. The ideology of the low wage system manifested itself in Bob’s favorite aphorism, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” In his view, if workers merely increased their productivity, he could get more done for less and hire fewer employees. To me, I felt worked to the bone; this aphorism was meant to strip whatever trimmings of meat were left on my carcass the system had already devoured. Despite my exhaustion, I learned to be a good, happy, subservient slave to directive. If Bob implicitly told me to cut hours or pay, I merely obeyed and saw the necessity in such an action. I became a willing and oiled cog in the labor extraction machine by undervaluing myself and my labor value, grateful for what money was given to me as a tangible expression of my labor. My experience is not unique. Most low-level service workers move through the motions of subservience on a daily basis, subconsciously reaffirming these destructive norms to themselves and the system. The idea of a high hours, low wages, high insecurity job has become ubiquitous in the neoliberal capital system for its material advantage, but has reaffirmed the system through this conditioning process.

“I became a willing and oiled cog in the labor extraction machine by undervaluing myself and my labor value, grateful for what money was given to me as a tangible expression of my labor.”

However, this focus on boss and employee would assume that Bob, the employer in this situation, exploited me to turn a profit and benefited significantly from this arrangement; essentially, a bi-directional relationship. What is missing is a focus on the overarching structure of the capitalist system which made this exploration not only necessary but natural. As mentioned previously, there were more instances where Bob actually lost money running the Old Pasture business than those where he profited. There is still money to be made in the restaurant industry, but there is a structural cap based on consumer supply and demand mechanisms. This is by design. Neoliberal capitalism does not simply benefit capitalists by extracting as much labor as possible from the worker. With the rise of finance capital, the value of each dollar is multiplied by each subsequent investment. Consumer spending is the air that today’s system breathes. Bob operated on such razor-thin margins because if he charged more and paid more, he would be driven out by ceasing demand, despite the weak monopoly he held over the club. Consumers have come to expect low costs for necessities so that they can spend their disposable income elsewhere in the market. The diversity of consumer products on the market today is merely a reflection of a maximization of the consumer dollar through wildly efficient economies of scale. White-collar consumers benefit the most from this arrangement; the market competes for and caters to their spending power. Blue-collar employees lose out; in the race to the bottom to supply consumer necessities and consumer goods at the lowest price, the market drives wages to the lowest possible dollar, reaching an equilibrium when turnover and unemployment is high.  

Could club members have chosen to pay more for their sandwiches to afford us a living wage and fewer working hours? Absolutely, but that relationship isn’t linear in the capitalist system. Paying more for food means they have less money to spend on fast fashion, shiny electronics, and other unnecessary consumer goods. The consumer becomes an implicit oppressor through their choice to consume. But what option do they have? Marketers have devised a lethal combination that drives consumer spending: the impulse buy and conformism. The former operates on love: when somebody spends money on a purchase, they feel good about themselves—if only temporarily—and want to buy more. The act of shopping is chemically addictive: it releases dopamine in the brain and conditions a person to want more. The latter—conformism—is predicated on fear: fear of being in the “out” group, of being rejected socially, and being publicly ridiculed. Children are easy targets of this trick; think of your hypothetical son Billy begging you for a dog, pool, toy, or any consumer good just because his friend Mike down the street has one. We don’t grow out of this fear; if anything, it comes to govern every decision and purchase we make as we age. Capitalism has consumers believe their choices and purchases are optional, when they are rather impulsively, psychologically, and almost primitively conditioned.

Final Words: Who Benefits?

This story does not have any “winners.” Us employees were conditioned to accept an exploitative labor system as normal. Bob ultimately lost the vendor contract and his house. The Old Pasture club members were governed by the primary principle of consumerism and their need to “belong” somewhere in a complex web of elite social relationships. If someone benefits, they are out of our view for the time being. Maybe there is some charismatic capitalist behind a green curtain somewhere, reaping in millions through finance capital and multinational conglomerates. In the end, though, they are still governed by the rules of buying and spending that everyone else is, on the grand and performative scale of the billionaire. Are they happy? Maybe, but probably not. Money, not even billions, buys happiness, but its concentration in the hands of a few causes legitimate, material harm to billions on the other end of the spectrum. It is for that simple reason that the concentration of wealth is immoral, if not entirely futile. Causing suffering as part of an exercise in futility is, I think, the greatest possible pursuit of nonsensitude that modernity has created.