005: A Bruised and Broken Career
You may want to call 911 before entering this profession. Simply sticking your hand into a meat slicer lacks finesse, no matter how many times you do it. Before Jacques Pepin taught me how to use a knife, I routinely shaved off the tips of my left thumb and index finger, usually from trying to trim too much asparagus at one time. Damn stuff keeps growing back. Had I not met him, I’m sure I would be fitted with a prosthetic by now.
At one point, I remember reading that food service work was considered one of the most dangerous professions in the world. What would be considered hazardous in any other workplace are simply tools of the trade in restaurants: open fires, hot grease, boiling stock pots, meat slicers, sharp knives, slippery floors, caustic insecticides, toxic cleansers and solemn, pissed-off waitresses. Sooner or later, you are going to get hurt. And trust me, more sooner than later. Seriously, and often.
Juggling knives for the lunch crowd at the Brother’s Deli (I love delis), very entertaining by my logic, became an act requiring several sutures and lengthy hospitalizations. This was stupid, squared. Thankfully, they were up to date on their Worker’s Comp payments. Cleaning caked-up grease off of old stoves in Boulder, Colorado, the acid in the mix burned all the way through the gloves and then my skin in three places. Three days in the hospital, and permanent scarring.
At a flapjack house in Ada, Oklahoma, I slipped on a wet floor, and en route to a concussion, cut my right hand on the side of the dishwasher; nearly losing three fingers. It cut into the bone, I could see right through my ring finger, and the pinky was hanging on by a sliver of pink meat. It looked like a shark attack. Oklahoma sharks. Tendons had to be shortened for the repair, and I have permanent loss of mobility and some feeling in all three.
Burn:* to become charred or overcooked by heat.
Working at the Lincoln Del in the ‘70’s, a broaster erupted on me, dumping gallons of hot oil over my entire abdomen, thighs, and arms. A broaster has the explosive capabilities of a pressure cooker combined with all the forgiveness of a deep fat fryer; 400 degrees of hot, bubbling oil. It’s a piece of equipment just made for personal injury litigation. As I went further into shock, my eyesight went to black and white, then I experienced tunnel vision. Then nothing.
I thought no pain could compare to that of a burn. Acres of exposed nerve endings. It’s an intense and prolonged pain that never goes away. It’s called “continuous background pain.” You feel that you are always, constantly being burned. At least that’s what it felt like as I regained consciousness in the emergency room. And for the record, no analgesic opioid could take the pain away; it could only soften the screaming. But the half-life of these downers is about 90 minutes. Hardly time to stop crying.
(Continued below, but skip the first 3 paragraphs if you’re eating lunch or disinclined to read details about medical emergencies.)
The real party started the next day, when I was lowered into a large bath. With acres of exposed nerve endings, the warm water felt volcanic…and then the debriding began. Debriding is the sado-masochistic removal of the necrotic tissue, which helps to lessen the chances of infection, and in burn patients, infection can be a serious, life-threatening issue. I didn’t give a fuck! They were scouring my skin with Brillo pads, I swear. The debriding was far more painful than getting burned in the first place, and I was going to kill the next fucking nurse or aide that got close to me. I was seriously not even joking.
The fun part about all this is that the doctors told me to simply leave the wounds open to air dry. Seemed wierd, I mean, every time I’d been burned before, you put some sort of salve on it, wrap it up and tape it. What this proved to do is form very large scabs, which hardened, and then cracked like clay whenever I bent over, twisted my body, or breathed deeply. Seriously, this was real.
I was writhing in pain any time I moved, and they didn’t make a medicine strong enough for me to bear this. So this time, I went and checked myself into the legendary Ramsey Burn Center in St. Paul, where I was stunned to find out the previous hospital had done it all wrong. Writhing in agony, I once again had to go through the debriding process a second time in order to receive proper aftercare. After getting the finest treatment available, I eventually found my way back to being a smartass.
Other than relating the story, as I have here, I have never complained about the injuries I received that night. I was humbled, and embarrassed that I would complain about anything at all after seeing the devastating degree injury to the ther patients there. I just didn’t, don’t, have the right to complain about anything in my life. Ever.
At the New French Café, working along two other chefs over twelve open burners, grabbing red hot sauté pan handles was simply to be expected. A lot. Over the years, and decades, cooks develop a very high tolerance for pain. If it doesn’t require an emergency room code red, it’s hardly worth bothering with. After hundreds of stitches, first, second, and third degree burns, concussions, and broken bones, this calling has taken its toll on me. But I keep coming back to my core belief that cooking is good, and art, and science, and necessary, for me anyway.
“Warmest” personal regards,
Addendum by Cyn:
I tried and tried to get Mitch to change the word “waitresses” to “servers,” but no go. He just likes that word and wouldn’t let go of it, even though it’s such an old term. Artistic license i guess….sorry.