Steven Brykman left medical school to pursue a career writing jokes as Managing Editor of National Lampoon. As a writing fellow at the University of Massachusetts, his fiction was awarded the Harvey Swados prize. His work has appeared in Playboy.com, Cracked, Nerve, and the New Yorker, where he was featured in Talk of the Town. The kind folks at Prairie Home Companion once sent him a check in exchange for some jokes. He has written for/appeared on a bunch of TV shows nobody watched or remembers. He has been thrown out of the Smithsonian Museum and the 2000 Democratic National Convention and has on more than one occasion performed standup comedy naked.
We welcome back star contributor Steve Brykman with this not-so-fond farewell to a true dining disgrace…
A Friendly’s Farewell by Steve Brykman
On the eve of Friendly’s announcing they are filing for bankruptcy and closing stores in Massachusetts, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, let me offer them a little thanks…for nothing! Along with my deepest condolences to all who ever ate there, and my regrets this hadn’t happened a whole lot sooner.
I worked at Friendly’s as a “cook” back in the mid ’80’s, in high school—the one in Lexington across from the Wal-lex bowling alley (now Staples). The level of prolonged disgust I experienced in that kitchen was rivaled only by my first year of medical school, in which I dissected a cadaver and witnessed an autopsy. Not to mention the inexplicable rage we were subjected to on a semi-regular basis, depending on which oversized troll was managing. The place was run by one man, one woman, whose names thankfully escape me now. They were nearly indistinguishable, identifiable only by their name tags. I assumed they were related in some way, though I never figured out exactly how—perhaps brother and sister, or romantically involved, or both.
The seemingly innocuous summer job quickly devolved into an interminable sequence of horrifying moments.
First, there was that time during the dinner rush when I learned that plastic is an appetizer (but first, some background on the fried shrimp platter). 1) They came prepackaged in 5-shrimp bags. 2) The bags were constructed of a high-tensile plastic and, as such, were difficult to tear open (thus assuring the integrity of the shrimp). 3) The shrimp came pre-breaded, leaving only the tasks of opening the bag and dumping the shrimp into a fryolater. Though no instructions were explicitly provided by Corporate HQ as to how the bag should be opened, I felt it safe to assume the plastic packaging was not meant to be consumed along with the food. On this particular day, however, rather than going through the enormous trouble of actually opening the bag, my boss—the more masculine of the two trolls—decided it would be in the company’s best interest if he/she expedited matters by simply submerging the bag in the fryolater, letting the hot oil do the work of opening the bag—by melting away the plastic.
I responded with as much protest as I thought the situation warranted, given how briefly I’d been working there (2 weeks), and the humility of my station (“Trainee”).
“Hey,” I said, “That’s carcinogenic.”
“Eh,” he said, ”A little plastic never hurt anyone.”
“Right,” I said, “Except maybe when it gave them cancer.”
I was not alone in my disdain for the place. The staff unanimously hated it, so much that we construed several embezzlement schemes for obtaining foodstuffs without paying for them. The “Buy-One-Jim-Dandy-Get-That-Jim-Dandy-Free” was one such special we offered exclusively to our late-night friends. Similarly, since staff-members were not allowed to eat for free, us cooks would circumvent the regulation by taking orders from coworkers on the down-low. Then we’d prepare the desired meal and announce we had screwed-up a customer’s order (or that the customer had changed his mind) and did anyone want to eat the erroneous result?
At some point during my tenure at the joint, management got wise to our shenanigans and turned the tables, tricking the employees into purchasing waste-food that would have otherwise been thrown away. Any time a cook misread an order, resulting in extra food—an extra burger or shake, say—the management would offer it to an unsuspecting newbie employee, the implication being that it was free, as in: “Hey, we have an extra mushroom burger—anyone want it before I throw it out?” Anyone dumb enough to take it would find that week’s paycheck a bit lighter than the week before.
But this is only half the story. In addition to the risks presented by eating the food, the job itself was literally hazardous to ones health. The freezer lacked any reasonable means of ascent (e.g. a ladder) so whenever you had to retrieve food from its bowels, your only option was to literally climb the shelves like a monkey. A monkey who lived in a freezer. And you had to be extremely careful climbing them, too, as they were completely covered with ice, the result of repeatedly opening and closing the freezer door a couple hundred times an hour. Meanwhile, you had to locate and retrieve your packages quickly, lest your bare hands become frozen to the poles. It was a real James Bond situation, compounded by the fact Corporate HQ failed to provide us with the proper ice-climbing equipment: spiky boots, a pick-axe and so forth. Many’s the time I left the deep-freeze with a ten-pound palette of bacon and one fewer layers of skin on my palms. It was a no-win scenario. A losing proposition. A catch-22.
Will I miss their Fribbles or their Wattamelon rolls? Not for a second. I just feel lucky I escaped that place with my life. That we all somehow survived. Particularly a) those who ever ordered breakfast for dinner (the pre-cooked sausages were set under a heat lamp at store-opening, and left to stew in their juices ALL DAY), and b) babies (our store owned one defective high-chair that was regularly tipping over, taking its occupant with it). My manager’s compassionate reaction? “They’ll live.”