“How much did you get in tips today?” asked Anthony. He continued to gnaw on his heaping plate of steamed chicken feet from the Dim Sum menu. “Brenda gave me four bucks, and I got about another six.”
“I think I got about twelve dollars,” I replied. “She gave me about four bucks too, but that one white family that just left had almost eight dollars in tips. I took the five.”
“Cool! So that’s good for a couple hours at the arcade, huh?”
“Umm hmm.” I continued to dip my ha kow, also known as steamed shrimp dumplings, in the soy sauce and eat them with my plate of fried rice. It was a little after noon; Anthony and I were on our break as busboys at The China Pearl Restaurant. Saturdays were the busiest days for us, and this one would be no different.
Our days began at about seven am, where we would come in to set up for the Chinese version of brunch, called Dim Sum. The Dim Sum menu would have steamed stainless steel trays of chicken feet, shrimp dumplings, meatballs marinated in garlic and onions, and fresh cabbage cole. The owners, Brenda and Ken, also had a buffet set up with fried rice, orange chicken, chow mein noodles, beef broccoli, and sweet pastry desserts made from mung beans. China Pearl Restaurant would open on Saturday mornings for the Dim Sum buffet around nine am, and would stay quite busy until noon. After that, we as busboys could eat whatever was leftover. I always ate the ha kow, and Anthony loved to suck on the chicken feet.
We were officially on break until four pm; it was during this time that Anthony and I would ride our bikes down to the arcade and play for hours on our favorite games at the time: Gauntlet, Tetris, and Punch Out! It was also during this time that we were supposed to eat and shower before we showed back up to work for the wedding dinners. The Chinese and Vietnamese wedding dinners usually lasted until well after midnight. Being a game addict, I would forget about eating dinner, and wait until the last moment before I rode my bike home to get in the shower, and then get back to work before four.
Anthony was my best friend at the time. He was a lot more knowledgeable when it came to worldly affairs, because he had two older brothers that taught him everything. And he in turn taught me everything. For example, a few weeks before, he had informed me that Brenda and Ken were cheating us on our pay. We were supposed to be paid under the table, because we were only fourteen years old at the time. But each time Brenda would calculate our pay, she would still take out twenty percent to pay taxes. She did the same thing to our tip money. Anthony also said we were supposed to be paid overtime on Saturdays because we worked close to fourteen hour days on wedding days. I sure didn’t know better at the time, and I really didn’t care; I was just happy to have a job that paid me cash so I could buy my own clothes, shoes, and play videogames. What more did I need?
Anthony had stated he wanted to confront Brenda and Ken. I was afraid to get fired, and lose my only source of income. My father had just passed away, and my mother constantly complained
about how poor we were, and the little money that I made helped to put clothes on me and my younger brother. Plus, I was supposed to start high school in a couple months, so the money I made at China Pearl would help throughout the school year. I sure didn’t like eating the meals the school would feed us for being an indigent family. So I had convinced Anthony it was not that big of a deal. He decided, in his words, to make things fair for us, we would begin skimming the tip money, which was rightfully ours in the first place. I was fine with that compromise, because every dollar I got equated to more games to play at the arcade.
There was a big Vietnamese wedding scheduled that evening. The typical wedding usually took up about twenty tables, but we were told to set up close to thirty tables that evening. I loved working the weddings. Since I was the youngest, Ken and Brenda would assign me to the kids’ tables. This is where all the young kids would sit so they would be away from the adults and their celebrations. Vietnamese men in their twenties liked to sit away from the bride and groom during these weddings. They preferred to be seated as far away as possible so they could carouse and get drunk on bottles of Remy Martin, and usually this meant they sat in the area I was assigned to cover. I quickly found out to always bring out their dishes first, and keep their glasses filled with ice. The more Remy they drank, the drunker they became. The more drunk they became, the more they began to flash money and press twenty dollar bills into my hand to get them more buckets of ice. It was not unusual for me to make over a hundred dollars in tips on a typical wedding night just from these men alone.
The only drawback during these wedding nights was we worked non-stop, usually over eight hours on that shift alone. It was usually me, Anthony, and another busboy named Kenny. Anthony and I did not like Kenny at all. He was Korean, just like the owners, and we would not have been surprised if he was Ken’s adopted son. According to Anthony, all Koreans were sneaky and conniving, and Kenny did nothing to dispel those misguided beliefs of mine. He was going to be a senior in high school, but already looked like a middle-aged man. He was pudgy and had an overbite, with greasy hair that had large flakes of dandruff peppered throughout it. He constantly tried to order us around, and told Ken everything that we did wrong at work, even when some of the mistakes were his own fault, until Anthony had his older brothers “talk” to Kenny one night after a wedding. They convinced Kenny it would not be in his best interests if Anthony or I got in trouble with Ken again. Anthony’s older brothers were typical Vietnamese thugs of the ‘80s: pompadours, constant scowls, broken English, and cigarettes. Anthony’s older brothers were the coolest role models to me at that time.
During a big wedding feast, Ken would be on the charcoal black iron wok, tossing pork marinated in Chinese BBQ sauce, prawns battered in garlic salt, lemon, and butter, or beef tips stir fried with chili paste, with the flames dancing and licking the bottom, rivulets of sweat running down his face and neck. Tonight he was making BBQ duck; I could tell from the smell and the sizzling of the fat. The BBQ duck was always succulent, a great combination of crispy red skin and sweet tender meat that seemed to melt in my mouth.
My responsibilities as a busboy during the weddings was to keep each table stocked with ice, napkins, drinks, and the staple of Chinese and Vietnamese food, bowls of steamed white rice. When Ken finished each dish I would have to bring one to each table that I was assigned to. One night several
months back, Ken had inadvertently made an extra platter of food for one of the tables; Anthony and I had wolfed it down in the bathroom like savages, licking our greasy fingers and wiping the excess remnants off our faces before going back out to serve some more tables. We then realized we could eat like that every wedding night if we just told Ken that table so and so did not receive a dish yet. In the confusion of the kitchen, Ken would not question us. According to Anthony, this was another thing we had coming; Ken refused to feed us during the weddings and expected us to work non-stop. Everything was fine until Kenny had found us out one night and was about to tell Ken, then Anthony had reminded him about the repercussions from his older brothers. Kenny had stalked off but never whispered a word to Ken.
That night I was on the way to the soda and ice machine to fill up another bucket of ice when Anthony stopped me near the walk-in freezer. “Hey, you hungry?” he asked.
“Yeah.” My stomach grumbled in agreement. It was almost 8 pm, and the BBQ duck was about to be served. My mouth began to water. “How are we going to get a plate? Ken might catch us, ‘cause I saw him counting out the plates before hand, and Kenny is helping him.”
“Quit being so scared of that Kim Chee and this stupid job! I got a plan.” Anthony could become an obnoxious bigot and the most manipulating field general, all in one breath, and his words steeled my nerves. “Distract Kenny before he brings Table Number One’s dish, and I’ll get it. They’ll never know.”
My heart began to pound. Table Number One was where the bride and groom would be seated with distinguished guests and immediate family members! How the hell were we to make off with the platter when they were supposed to be served first? Yet, I sure didn’t want Anthony to think I was scared of Kenny and Ken, and worse, tell his brothers that I was a chickenshit. “Umm. Okay. I’ll tell him something is wrong with the soda machine.”
“Yeah. Hurry up and I’ll meet you in the restroom.”
It was easy enough to distract Kenny away from where Ken was ladling the BBQ duck onto Table Number One’s platter. There was an array of white oval serving dishes lined up sequentially for each of the thirty tables. I told Kenny the soda machine was making a weird noise when I tried to fill up the jugs with soda. Kenny always wanted to be the hero for Ken, so he immediately followed me to the machines. There was an awkward silence as Kenny pressed the lever, and the carbonated Coke began to trickle out. “Nothing wong Kuon, what you say?” Kenny could never pronounce my name properly, and his overbite caused a weird lisp whenever he talked. “You wassa my time.” He stood for another moment, scratched the back of his neck, and then walked back towards where Ken was serving up the dishes.
I made for the restrooms. Our restroom doors were the kind that swung back and forth, with a large plastic window that enabled a person to be able to kick it open without hitting somebody else that was trying to come in. I saw Anthony’s large forehead and glasses looking out at me. He waved at me to hurry up. I pushed the door open and the smell of the duck mixed with Lysol disinfectant filled my nostrils. “Dude, you sprayed too much Lysol,” I told Anthony.
Anthony’s grin told me he couldn’t give a shit. He was still holding the platter across his chest with both hands. For some odd reason, Anthony always waited on me to get the first portion; he was older and much wiser but this small gesture of respect and kindness towards me always made his other personality flaws acceptable to me. “Hurry up and eat! Get that big piece right there, Quan!”
I scooped up a large thigh and bit into the crispy moist meat, still extremely hot. I began to half chew, and half breathe so as not to burn the roof of my mouth, then glanced out the bathroom window. Kenny was marching towards us! I shoved my half-eaten portion of duck under the other pieces, and swallowed a mouthful of hot burning pain that made its way down my throat. Kenny kicked open the door and glared at us. Anthony muttered a low “Oh,” and his glasses slid down his nose.
“You guy in chuble, this for Table Number Won.” Kenny grabbed the plate out of Anthony’s outstretched arms, and whirled around. Anthony and I could only follow in silence as we thought Kenny was going to tell Ken. Instead, he walked straight to Table Number One with the platter and set it down. In horror, I watched as the guests began to start grabbing at the duck with their chopsticks. The bride happened to snatch up the piece of meat I had been eating, and there for all the guests to see were my teeth marks still imprinted on the duck. Her chopsticks began quivering as she released the duck back onto the platter.
“Somebody has eaten our food!” she screamed.
“Sowwy. Sowwy.” Kenny, face flushed red with shame, picked up the platter and headed to where Anthony and I stood. There were tears pooling in his eyes, and he dropped his head in defeat. “You guy, we in chuble, whassa Kenna goin to say?” Kenny started for the kitchen, and I knew we had to stop him.
Anthony held his right arm out. “Kenny, hold on. Let’s tell Ken we are missing Table Number One’s dish. Have him make us a new one.”
“No. No work. He see me takka out to Table Number Won.”
I knew if Kenny made his way to Ken, he would tell him everything, and I would get fired. Then what would I do? I sure could not face the shame of letting my family down. This could not happen! Kenny shrugged his shoulders, and a long, greasy black hair with a rather large white dandruff flake still attached to the follicle caught my eye. Without hesitation, I gently picked it off his shoulder and stirred it into the duck grease of the dish Kenny was still holding. For good measure, I wrapped it onto the skin of a duck portion. “Tell Ken this piece of hair was in the food.”
Kenny still stood, undecided.
“Look Kenny, just tell Ken they found the hair, and want another dish,” I pleaded. “Hurry up before he starts looking for us, and then we’ll all get fired!”
Anthony pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “Listen Kenny, if you tell Ken on me and Quan, we’ll just say you were the one eating it and got caught. Table Number One is always your table anyways. He’ll never believe you if we both say it was you.”
Somewhere in my mind, I knew that if Kenny told on us, Ken would believe him, regardless if we both said that it was Kenny. I reached into my front pocket. “Hey, here’s twenty dollars too, Kenny. Just tell Ken they found a hair in the food.” I had already made 40 dollars tonight, and there would still be time to get more tips after the food was served. I slipped it into his shirt pocket, and patted him on the chest, very much the same way the adults would slip me the money and tell me to get them more ice. It worked. Kenny made his way back to the kitchen, just as Ken started yelling for us to all go grab our dishes.