My first real job was washing dishes and bussing tables at Russ' Restaurant, where I earned a busboy's wage of $2.65 an hour. At the end of the night, I was supposed to get a ten-percent cut of each waitress' tips, which they would leave for me in a little white paper bag under the time clock. Sometimes a paper bag would only have a quarter and two dimes in it. Other times I might see $1.65 or more. With five waitresses on the floor, I eventually had to complain to the manager, Rod, that I wasn't making minimum wage. He smiled at me and told me that he, too, had started as a busboy at a Russ' restaurant in Holland, Michigan, but he worked hard and didn't complain and look at him now: he drives a Cadillac. He said if I worked hard, I might expect the same.

In other words, he told me to shut the fuck up and get back to my sink full of soggy french fries and greasy water that smelled like thousand island dressing and meat. One time, one of the waitresses came up behind me, slipped her arms under mine to grab my nipples and whisper in my ear: "what would you do if I got naked and climbed into that sink right there?" I looked at the foetid detritus of several dozen house salads and chicken bones floating in the murky, malodorous sludge. "Um. . ." I said, and she cackled and went back out on the floor.

God she scared the crap out of 16-year-old me.

One of my friends ended up regularly fucking her out in the parking lot during their 15-minute breaks. Restaurants are such hornet's nests of sexual depravity. When she cheated on him with another line cook my friend and a buddy got really drunk and broke into his house and tore it apart. They said they would have killed him had he been there. They both got probation.

Do I think the waitresses were stiffing me on the tips? Probably. Most of them were in their forties, supporting both their broken families and their addiction to Basic Ultra Light 100's on the same $2.65 plus tips I was making. Their nametags said things like Mabel and Rita. To their credit, Russ' was a Dutch restaurant whose most loyal customers usually needed to be wheeled in from a nursing home van. While pushing my bus cart around the restaurant I always had to be careful not to knock the tubes out from the various oxygen tank carts that lined the aisles. If most elderly folks on fixed incomes are frugal, you can imagine what old Dutch people are like. Four old Dutchies would each order (on separate checks) a $1.65 cup of ham-n-bean soup, each ask for six packs of saltines, and then each leave a dime and a nickel for a tip. I know all this because I used to clear their tables. Rumor was that the first Russ' restaurant on Chicago Drive in Holland, Michigan had telephones installed in every booth so customers could call the kitchen and order their food directly with the cooks. This was set up so no one would ever have to leave a tip.

Russ' mascot was Russ, a Dutch boy more annoying than the bowl-headed chap on the paintcans, a clog-wearing punk carrying a gigantic burger through the tulips as though it were his reward for sticking his finger in the goddamn dike. I'll never forget one evening in July when the manager pulled me away from my buscart and told me he had a "special duty" for me that evening. He had a big gap between his top front teeth and he smiled when he pulled some red and blue clothes and a pair of wooden shoes from a bag. "Look what I've got," he said with aplomb. "You get to be the Russ tonight!"

I should have walked out right then.

But I was a weak-willed sonofabitch back in those days, scared of a guy named Rod with a clip-on tie and a ten-year-old Cadillac. I put on the pants, the hat, the neckerchief, and the wooden shoes (which were about two sizes too small) and held a giant sign that said, 3-piece chicken dinner, w/ fries & slaw, only $4.99! in front of the restaurant on main street, certain that every girl in my high school was driving by, laughing. People yelled things. Flipped me off. Honked. When it was a slow night and nobody needed any tables bussed, Rod would pull out the Russ costume to remedy it.

To this day, whenever I see someone dressed as a banana or a hotdog, or some woman dressed up like the statue of liberty outside an accountant's office during tax time, I am haunted by the familiar look of quiet desperation in their eyes.