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Duke’s in Waikiki is well known for its great food, live music, and location right on the beach. But for me to go into that space causes twitching and a feeling of coldness as flashbacks of the summer of ’84 haunt my soul. Back in the day when “Footloose” was a hit and not a punchline; before Na Leo dropped their Pilimehana; in the space we now know as Duke’s Bar and Grill, there was a tourist buffet whose name is deleted from my memory like a Karl Rove email. But the scars of being a buffet employee still remain. Please make the voices stop.
I know what you’re saying: “Why buffet work?” Well, when you’re a 16 year old “C” student and your only skills are sarcasm and making fart noises with your armpit, the choices are limited. As a matter of fact, the only reason I got the job is because a friend of a friend of my Mom’s knew the manager. So to recap, I needed a connection to help me get a minimum wage job at a buffet restaurant that didn’t include parking or tips. The world was my oyster!
For those of you who remember the restaurant, I hope you enjoyed your 80th birthday party. The customers were a bit long in the tooth. Often you’d overhear diners saying things like “Ulysses Grant was a potty mouth” or “One time I took down a woolly mammoth from 40 clicks with my trusty musket!” The senior discount was just part of the regular price.
The food ranged in color from beige to brown and that included lettuce and corn, which I didn’t think was possible. There was a lot of gravy. And many things were deep-fried. Why just have a steak when you can put it in chicken batter and deep-fry it? There was more oil on that buffet line than a Chippendale’s dressing room.
I always thought it was weird that people would travel thousands of miles to Hawaii and then eat like a Minnesotan.
“Here in Hawaii we have fresh fish and exotic fruits.”
“Actually, I’m looking for something in a meatloaf. Deep fried.”
Of course, when I first moved to Seattle I found out there were two places that had plate lunch and practically lived there. So touché, old tourist.
I was issued my uniform, which was a short sleeve shirt consisting of only the colors brown, beige and tan (undoubtedly to blend with the food). I never thought an aloha shirt could make you feel sad, but a brown one does.
One of my jobs was to keep the plate area fortified. This meant getting stacks of ceramic plates that had just been cleaned with boiling water and a welder’s torch and carrying them out to the line. The plates would burn your arms in a way that made relatives worry about your drug habit. It reminded me of the “Kung Fu” TV series (if you don’t remember that show, you can play X-Box for the rest of this paragraph). When David Carradine was able to lift the pot of scorching hot water with his arms he would become a master of martial arts. By carrying scorching hot plates with my arms I became yet another person making minimum wage in Waikiki , but I liked to think I was a master of that.
Another task I had was to bus tables. Bussing tables in a budget buffet is very different from one-course-at-a-time restaurants. It’s the difference between high-rise window cleaner and beach park restroom janitor. When a group of retirees walks away from their buffet table it looks like the first 8 minutes of “C.S.I.”
There was one part of my job that I did not embrace, and that was “buffet security.” One day my manager pulled me aside and pointed out a family whose 6-year-old was bigger than me. He told me they were stealing food and that I needed to go over there and stop them.
Sure I wanted to see my 17 th birthday, but I had a job to do, so I went over to their table and told them to stop stealing from our establishment. I’m paraphrasing. My actual words were “I hope you’re enjoying your meal. Please let me know if you need more Ziploc bags.” Yes, the restaurant lost almost $3.28 in fried chicken overhead but I was able to continue using my arms and legs. Seems like a good trade there.
There is no dating life when you are in the buffet game. Of all the scents women find attractive, table scrap isn’t one of them. You could walk through a car wash and still smell like pot roast. Also, this conversation is inevitable:
“Can I come see you at work?”
“Sure, I hope you like beige mac-n-cheese.”
“Oh. Is your brother single?”
As bad as that summer was it makes me appreciate my comedy career. Of course, my list of skills includes hot plate carrying, buffet table bussing, telling jokes in bars, and making fart noises with my armpit. My parents are very proud.
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