Spam Rice

I developed a taste for grilled Spam whilst working at a food truck that parked on 31st street, between Olympic and Ocean, in Santa Monica. I found this job after three weeks of fruitless searching on Craigslist, the advertisement sought someone with food truck experience who could start tomorrow.

I fit both bills. Two years ago I was short on dough, but long on a nonrefundable vacation to South America. I needed a job that paid cash, and one that I felt comfortable quitting. I gambled on an apprenticeship with a short, noisy, Top Chef reject who sold Belgian style french fries out of a bright orange trailer that he hauled behind a luxury Yukon.

In the context of my desires, prep chef/cashier at Street Frites was the best job I’ve ever had. I was paid in cash every Friday, and Jason, the potato peddler who took a chance on a young man with no kitchen experience, and a dream of making french fries, was a huge, gaping, asshole. Thanks in large part to the hysterical beratement of my mentor, in just three short months I could prep 1,000+ pounds of potatoes in under five hours. More importantly, I earned enough money for my passage from Panama to Columbia on a catamaran named The Santana.

I went on my trip. When I returned I quit my job without any type of notice. Denver’s winters are cold, spending them in a 4×8 trailer chock full of potatoes and cooking equipment is not ideal. Add a shrill, perennially agitated, micromanager to that equation, and sending a fuck you email, then spending the rest of your winter slowly maxing out your credit cards on a ski hill starts to look pretty good. March would come in 60 days. With March came the golf season, and the promise of 10 months of gainful employment.

It was not to be. Late season storms turned my extended winter vacation into a rapidly approaching financial implosion. I was staving off starvation at a call center that picked up the customer service slack cast aside by Netflix when I got the first phone call that I jumped at the opportunity to take. It was a personal call, the course where I had excelled as an assistant professional the previous summer. In so many words, they didn’t have room on their staff for an apprentice professional with expiring credentials and no interest in career advancement. But I had done a great job for them, and they wished me luck in my future endeavors.

Applications forwarded to other country clubs elicited similar responses. The golf world is insular. Above all it prizes subservience, and your devotion to learning about your profession. Like every other pro, I understood the rules of golf from years as a competitor in high school and college, but I could give a fuck about retailing, and less than a fuck about operations. After six years of turning down professional development opportunities to play hurried wolf games in the blissful extended sunshine of a rocky mountain summer, word was out. My goose was cooked.

In the meantime, call center trainee paid $8.65 per hour. I’d get a bump to $12 per hour at the end of the month when I made the jump from trainee to full fledged call taker, but as anyone who has ever had a job that pays $12 per hour knows, that rate isn’t tenable. Neither was call center work, I fucking hate talking on the phone.

For a while I ran a PGM internship at a B level country club in the Denver foothills. The kids who left this program seeking greener pastures almost uniformly caught on with a tissue bank clear on the other side of town. The tissue bank needed rudderless young people with college degrees. More than that, they need people who can stand for the duration of a 12 hour shift. Believe it or not, the overlap is minimal. It made sense for Allosource to poach disenchanted golf professionals.

I sent some texts to the defectors. For the most part, they seemed happy. They touted the benefits of a 40 hour work week, their pay was a little bit better, $14 per hour for 6-3:30 day shift, $16 per hour for a Monday through Thursday 3:30 PM to 2:30 AM night shift, and $18 per hour for a 6AM to 6 PM Friday-Sunday weekend shift. The downside seemed to be that the sterile work environment was a pain in the ass, but there weren’t any phones in the core. At least not phones that connected to outside lines.

My best friend was double-dipping. He whiled away the hours between his weekend shifts at Allosource with a full time job at a golf course. I secured a referral from him, and spent that evening flailing at five hours worth of tests designed to measure my scientific aptitude. I was sure that I failed, and had resigned myself to a future of misery and destitution as a level one support technician for Netflix when I leapt at another opportunity to take a personal call. This one was from a recruiter, the tests had gone well. Could I pass a drug test?

Not a fucking chance. I threw myself upon the mercy of this recruiter, and was awarded the last possible slot on the last possible day when I could take a drug test. 8 PM, eight days from now. I swallowed hard, purchased a gallon of water, and made a legitimate attempt at drowning myself.

My attempt to leave this earth with a heart full of yearning and lungs full of Arrowhead were unsuccessful. Seven days after the recruiter granted me leniency I failed a take home drug test purchased at Walgreens. Were it possible for me to drink any more water I would have, but I was already downing the maximum amount. I had to let the chips fall where they may.

On the eighth day I stood in front of a male nurse while he eyeballed my urine sample, and explained that it was too dilute for him to test. He asked me if I smoked marijuana, I told him I never touched the stuff. He said he could tell, I was very hydrated. We went on to the physical fitness portion of this evaluation.

My recruiter’s name was Ian. On the phone he sounded like a bro, someone I would have been tight with freshman year of college. Beyond furloughing the drugs, he had one piece of advice to guide me through the pre-employment physical: a lot of guys, even strong looking guys, were failing the grip test. He said to really give it my all.

I was squeezing with all my might when the doctor read 160 off the pressured calipers that measured my grip. I asked him if I passed, and he indicated affirmatively. I asked him what I had needed to pass, he told me 25.

The next day Ian had me swing by his house so I could make my mark on the starting papers. The rambling three story was just up the block from my own home, and in the same state of decrepit repair. I went inside, and awkwardly witnessed Ian send a girl on her way. If only we had met 10 years ago, we would have been the best of friends.

My next stop was the call center. My name badge didn’t allow me access to the human resources office on the second floor, I had to be escorted up there by a security guard. I told a tiny woman with bleached blonde hair and skin that was somehow taught and leathery that I was quitting, and attempted to hand her my badge. She told me it wasn’t that simple, had I told my trainer? No, I’m telling you, now, human resources… She asked me to take a seat, and I told her what she could do with her chair, and left with the badge clutched in my fist. I wasn’t going to act like an adult if she was going to treat me like a kindergartner.

For a while I hung the badge on my wall. I told myself that this was rock bottom. No matter what happened after this, I wouldn’t be a trainee at a call center anymore. There was nowhere to go but up.

One month later I was scrubbed in, crawling on my hands and knees to scrape human tissue off a floor covered with spore and quat. It was 2:35 AM. That wasn’t the low point either. A month after that I was using a razor sharp spoon to gouge muscle and tendon off a donor’s femur. Gore was everywhere, all over the spoon, all over my hands, all over the table, the wall, the ceiling. I looked down to myself and thought man, I’m fucking starving. I checked the clock, 45 minutes to my lunch break. I had to get the fuck out of there.

When I voiced my concerns to my superior he moved me to the QC department. My new job required less bone scraping, but more chemicals. At least I wasn’t crawling around on the ground in pools of them. Still, this was not for me.

This whole time I had fancied myself a writer. Golf pro, food truck prep chef/cashier, call center trainee, bone scraper, and bone cleaner weren’t permanent positions, I was just moonlighting. Right now television is the place to be if you’re a writer, and before I left for my trip I applied to two MFA programs for television production, a two year program in Brooklyn that seemed like a for profit education scam, and a three year program in Los Angeles  that seemed out of my league.

Shortly after I got back from my trip I received admission to the program in New York. This was exciting, it’s nice to be told someone likes your writing even when you have concerns about their program’s credibility. Two months later I was admitted into the program in LA.

I didn’t leap at the opportunity because I was in love. I loved the city of Denver, my home for the last six years. I loved my friends there, my connections for free golf, and the proximity to outdoor recreation.

I was also in love with a woman that I had met a few weeks earlier on a dating app. We texted for awhile before we actually met, but I knew that this was going to be special even before the love at first sight moment. In my head, I was already considering the effects that skipping town would have on a blossoming romance.

She was in love with me too. She told me on our third date, shortly after I had received admission to the program in Los Angeles. I should have been thrilled by her admission, but I couldn’t help but to think that she had made a mistake. In my first ever break up, my high school girlfriend told me I would never find real love because I’d never love a woman as much as I liked playing golf, or as much as I liked getting fucked up.

I’m not one to say fuck you bitch, but if you could see me now, you’d see how wrong you are. My high school regimen of 600 daily range balls and 600 nightly Coors Lights has long since been cast aside. Still, there was a persistent fear of commitment that dogged every aspect of my life. I’m not the right guy to fall in love with.

I sent a deposit to the school in California. I told my friends that it was a contingency, that I needed to retain my place in case I decide to go, but I had already made up my mind. Kelly and I engaged in long, abstract discussions about long distance relationships.

I got a new boss at work. There were rumors that she stripped on the weekends, if she did I really hope that she was out there giving it her all, because she was a slave driver at Allosource. My last week there she scheduled me to do the work of three technicians. I made it to lunch on Thursday, locked the expensive PPE that the company had provided in my locker, sent an email wishing the night manager luck both in figuring out my combination, and in solving her employee retention problem, and I left. Forever.

When you’ve worked as a caddy it’s always in the back of your mind that if things get really tough, you can caddie again. The $25 per hour you make with alarming consistency, even though the work is gratuity based, isn’t bad money, especially for golf course work. You’re a contractor, so you make your own schedule. As far as work environments go, you could do worse than getting paid to exercise on a golf course.

That’s what professional caddies will tell you when they’re trying to take you home from a bar. The real story is it hurts to get stiffed, even if you know your mean wage will always be $25 per hour. And there’s an inverse relationship between how well someone treats you, and how much they tip you at the end of a round. I’ve never been tipped more than $200 without having to deal with curses, thrown clubs, or full on down dressings.

The club can’t force you to come to work, but if you turn down a round they sort of forget about you for a while, which is devastating if caddying is your only means of income. Along those lines, it’s always in the back of your mind that loops are few and far between in October and November, and nonexistent December – March. If you’re not out there for 12 hours a day, six days a week during the summer, it’s very possible that you’ll end up at a food truck or a call center in the winter. Especially if you like to ski.

Yes you’re outdoors, and yes you get paid to exercise, but caddying isn’t exactly chair yoga. A loop, or trip around the golf course is 9 miles. On rare occasions, ladies with 20 pound golf bags want to see what the highest class of caddie can do for their golf game, but more often than not you’re booked by good players, or God help you, someone who fancies himself a good player, and those bags weigh between 40 and 50 pounds. If you catch on at a course that’s caddie mandatory you can expect to have a bag on each shoulder, and to do two loops, every day but Tuesday, when if you have any luck at all, the course will be closed.

Most of us hit McDonalds on our way into the golf course. The lunch options are Subway and Sonic. I know there’s some healthy shit at Subway, but Subway is garbage. We all went to Sonic. If you’re thinking I could have made myself breakfast, or packed a lunch, you’re wrong.

Remember I just carried four golf bags 18 miles, at the end of the day I deserve six to eight beers. Most nights I took my dinner at a tavern, local options included a dive where a deadly bar fight loomed over the heads of patrons as an inviting possibility, and a biker joint where deadly bar fights were an unavoidable reality. The biker bar had better wings.

So I wasn’t packing on pounds while I worked as a caddie, but I wasn’t preparing myself for the Mr. Olympia Pageant either. This is before we even mention cocaine, which is ubiquitous amongst golf course employees. The seasonal assistant who is unflinchingly polite to you during all 18 hours of the shift he works during your club’s member-guest? Coked out of his fucking skull. Rule of thumb here, if you buy coke from the outside service supervisor your favorite employee does too.

Most of the young caddies, especially the ones who were still competitive golfers, stuck to a tried and true method of Red Bull and Nicotine to set themselves straight before a morning loop. The older guys all needed cocaine. At a lot of A level country clubs you’ll see a bench, or golf tournament, or even a practice course named after a beloved caddie who lived nearby and faithfully served the club for 25 or 30 years, then suddenly dropped dead in the middle of a loop. The members call it a travesty, a healthy man in the prime of his life gone, an unfortunate fluke.

It doesn’t surprise the other caddies. It’s no secret that blow, and fast food, hostile bars, and hard, thankless work is not the key to lasting health. I don’t know when it happens, when you wake up in rough shape and say a bump will set me straight, or when you come off the 12th loop of the week on Monday night and think to yourself on the way to the biker bar, this my life, and this is fine. All I know is that it never happened for me.

But I think I was close. The course where I had caddied the four previous years put me to work full time the day after I quit the tissue bank. It was my 9th year caddying, and within a week I was back in a coveted spot as the caddie master’s “guy.” I caddied exclusively for prospective members and unaccompanied guests. Groups who didn’t know the club was covering their caddie fees, and asked me absurd fucking questions. Things like, “how much do you usually make?”

Somehow, I had become the resident lifer. I trained junior caddies who marveled at my ability to read greens and track golf balls. They asked me questions like this is your real job, or, are you a professional caddie? All the members knew me, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some sort of countdown. 25 years until Zaq drops dead in the middle of 14 fairway.

That didn’t stop me from going back for a sixth summer. It didn’t stop me from trying to catch on at Bel Air Country Club when I first made the move to LA. I’d like to tell you I stopped caddying because the work was too hard on my body, or because the constant condescension and insults were too hard on my soul, but I left because I couldn’t handle the drop to the bottom of the caddie food chain at a new club.

I can’t even tell you that I won’t go back to caddying. Of all the jobs where I am treated as subhuman, caddying pays me the best. But if new employee orientation consists of a few hundred hours hanging out in a caddie room you can count me out. I have other marketable skills, they include some food truck experience, and the ability to start tomorrow.

My first task at the food truck in Santa Monica, was to stand outside and look at a menu painted on the side of the truck. I did so for what I thought was an appropriate amount of time, then went in through a back door, where Troy, the truck’s owner, asked me if I had ever tried Spam. I told him I had, and that it was disgusting. Troy told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had obviously never tried low sodium Spam, which was the good stuff, you don’t need all that extra sodium, and I had clearly never had it deep fried.

He was right, deep fried, low sodium Spam was delicious. Every Monday for the next four weeks I’d mix chopped jalapeños and green onions with the sticky sushi rice that Troy made. The rice topped with a few slices of crispy fried Spam and thin lines of oyster sauce was a delicacy that will forever haunt my dreams. Troy calls it Spam rice, it isn’t on the menu.

Troy didn’t feed me as much as Jason, and he didn’t park at breweries, so there wasn’t beer to numb the pain of the daily lunch rush. He yelled at me sometimes, but never managed to summon the spite or the ferocity so easily gathered by my former boss. As a token of my appreciation for the comparatively tranquil work environment I offered him a full two weeks of notice when a rival employer offered me double the $11.50 hourly wage he was paying, and 24 additional hours per week.

On my last day Troy made some jokes about not paying me for the last week, but he sent me home with my full wages and a pulled pork banh mi. I told him I would be back, I had a real job, and could afford to eat at the truck now. My first day at the office job they told me the only restriction on my hours was that I couldn’t take lunch between 10-2, the exact four hours that Troy opens the side window of his truck to serve huddled masses of foodies their daily portion of filet garlic noodles. He’s getting out of the food truck business for good in October, I hope I make it back between now and then.

I still fancy myself a writer, even if my current job could aptly be described as concierge, and  even more aptly described as telephone switchboard. I’m still in love with the girl from the dating app. We share an apartment in Koreatown, where my badge from the call center no longer adorns the wall. She wears a huge, sparkling stone on the ring finger of her left hand, and believes my purpose in the world is greater than being a set of broad shoulders where wealthy patrons rest their golf clubs. I think she could be right, but until my stuff starts selling, I’m willing to do whatever work you’re willing to pay me for.

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