We both worked the cash register at the same Chicagoland fast-casual dining chain. It was called Portillo's and, regionally speaking, was at least as popular as Disneyland. Everyone came there, like they all came to Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca. We got to write everybody's orders in diner shorthand on the back of the paper bags all the food was served in, a thrilling argot – what Hugo calls "the language of the dark and of misery." It was my first real job, and I had to have a special certificate signed by my parents and counter-signed by the state of Illinois before my first shift. Also my manager made me put a Band-Aid over my eyebrow piercing. They sold the greatest chocolate cake in the world there, although once I learned the secret ingredient was mayonnaise I sort of went off it for a while.
What I remember about David: He wore the same flat cap we all did, but somehow it looked like a choice he had made freely, and not like a uniform. He had apple-like cheeks, laughed often, and was my first experience with the "work best friend." We never hung out outside of work, but when we were both clocked in, we might as well have grown up together. I don't remember anything else about him, only the outlines of a very strong affection, but I can remember that they had the most generous shift meal policy I would ever encounter for the rest of my working life. Almost every day that I worked, I would eat a cheeseburger, a hot dog, a large fry, and a milkshake, then cheerfully hop back up to my station to take orders for another four to six hours.
It may have been the happiest I have ever been. I had an unconsummated and ideal love with someone both proximate yet fascinatingly unknowable, I had been initiated into the secret cant of cash-register operators and given a uniform, and I was getting free cheeseburgers nearly every time I turned around. I lived like a king then; David is how I came into my first inheritance.
Don't remember his name, 2004-2006
Maybe his name was Chris? In my memory, we almost never spoke outside of the "counting-out" ritual at the end of every shift, when everyone grabbed the bottom half of their till, jammed it against the hip pocket of their apron, and sat down at one of the big outside tables to pool tips and check their receipts against the POS system. When I was seventeen I believed the most attractive things a man could do were, in order:
- Smoke a cigarette with absent-minded confidence
- Shuffle a lot of cash, making mental calculations without needing to say anything out loud
- Help me shuffle my own cash if it looked like I was getting into trouble, but without making a very big deal of it
I don't think I was wrong, either. They're still very attractive things to do, and in a timeless sort of way – I can imagine a jaunty little French sailor in the 17th century doing very much the same thing, or a Scythian bodyguard to a Bronze Age petty warlord. If we ever do completely switch to a cashless society, our cultural reserve of compelling gestures will be seriously impoverished as a result. Counting and smoking is all about thumbs and lips, economy of movement, and rifling quickly through poses. I admired him as silently and thoroughly as I could, and often wished I could have died for him, quietly and nobly in battle. Of course I never did.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]