It was at a neighborhood restaurant that my family frequented - a little hole-in-the-wall place called Amadeo's that was buried in an office park behind the gigantic mall that ate my hometown. Like a lot of mom-and-pop shops in the Philly area, it was a combination cheesesteak/hoagie place, and Italian restaurant. The Italian food was bought directly from a food distributor, and thus fairly mediocre - but the steaks and hoagies were the absolute best. I still maintain they were the best in the Philadelphia area, bar none - but one could make a fairly convincing argument that Tony Luke's makes a better steak. It's a moot point now - Amadeo's is closed and Tony Luke's is still thriving, so by default, they win.
Anyway, one evening when my sisters, my mom, my grandparents and I were filing out, the owner, Lou came out to say hello. He frequently did this - it was that kind of place, where if you came more than twice, you were practically part of the family. Lou's mom waited tables - she was a teeny little Italian woman who called everyone "Dear" or "Hon" and had a high hearty cackle that would startle birds for blocks around. Lou's father did the books, and would grumpily stomp around in the basement under the kitchen - he was a tall, burly and very taciturn man with a thick moustache. Lou's wife Jean, a startlingly pretty woman with auburn hair and a smile that would melt butter was frequently working the register, too. Anyway, we're filing out and stop to chat. Lou mentioned that he was looking for some kid to work under the table and wash dishes - and my mom naturally volunteered me. I didn't mind though - it got me out of the house and earning some money.
So there was me - I was down in the basement of Amadeo's washing dishes in a series of stainless steel sinks that were nearly as tall as me. I was always a very shrimpy kid - hard to believe with my current towering stature of seven foot two, I know. The dishes were lowered on a dumbwaier in plastic tubs that probably weighed about 50 pounds when full - approximately my body weight at the time. I staggered them over to the left side of the sinks, and commenced washing. The first sink was a scalding hot soapy bath. The second was a scalding hot bleach sink, in which the dishes were dropped when I'd scrubbed them clean. After the bleach soak, they were dipped through the final sink - a scalding hot rinse. Then at last, put in stacks to dry, and eventually re-used. I couldn't say how many times I cut my hands reaching into soapy water with knives in it. My hands got pretty chewed up in the hot water, too - but gloves just made it worse, not better, since the water was so hot.
When all the dishes were done, my other job was to chop things. Often huge tubs of onions, which inevitably made me cry. At least when I was chopping things I could hear the radio - an ancient receiver that gave me an electric shock anytime I tried to change the channel. But most of the chopping that I did was of the steak for the steak sandwiches. It came in huge sides of beef, which Lou's dad would hack into chunks, put into metal pans and freeze. Then, as needed, I'd pull the pans out of the freezer, and slice the frozen steak very fine on an industrial slicer. It would take me the better part of an hour to slice up an entire side of beef. Once sliced, it had to be diced down into small, diamond-shaped pieces by slapping a pile of slices onto a cuttping board, and then cut both length and width-wise. The knife was never quite sharp enough, so I sharpened it often. It was hard work, especially since I had to stand on a pickle-tub while chopping because of the height of the counter. Once the pans were full of chopped meat, it would get sent upstairs to be grilled, and served up with melted cheese on fresh Amoroso's rolls.
On weekdays I worked from 4pm to 9pm or so. I got paid $3.00 an hour under the table - which for 1984 was more than it sounds like, especially when you're 13. I worked more on the weekends, usually all day either Saturday or Sunday, and then half a day for prep the other day. I would get a fifteen minute break, during which I would sit on a fridge in the back, and wolf down a large (12") turkey hoagie. I'd still have enough time left over to read a little bit - right now I can vividly recall lugging "Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft" to work for a while. It was a library hardback, with a dark green cover and a painting of Cthulhu hunkering over a seaside town.
Most of my money went to necessities - I had to buy my own clothing and so forth. Still, I was 13 and had some cash, so naturally I bought such excellent long-term investments as G.I. Joe and Star Wars figures, comics, books, and D&D stuff. A few years ago Amadeo's closed down - or actually, turned into a catering-only business. Until then I'd stop in from time to time to say hello, get a cheesesteak and large sweet iced-tea. It really was the best steak in town.