There used to be an Old Country Buffet in Minnetonka. I don’t know exactly when it opened or when it closed, although a web search suggests it shuttered around 2005.
I recall it being nestled into the 7-Hi shopping center, which was the sort of shopping center teenagers hung around after high school, unfortunately.
At the time, I recall it was a rather drab place with a video game arcade and not much else to recommend it, but a mall is a mall, and high-school students are high-school students, and so that’s where we went.
I hung out there, unfortunately. And I worked at Old Country Buffet, again unfortunately.
The year was 1985 or 1986. It was one of several dishwasher jobs I got in high school. But it was the worst of them.
I also worked at a Szechuanese place right off Highway 7, just a mile or so up the road from Old Country Buffet, which had a mostly immigrant staff that mostly left me alone.
I also worked at a surf and turf place that I swear was owned by one of the teachers at Minnetonka High School. The place seemed largely staffed by Minnetonka students, and had a rushed, slightly panicked quality, at least on weekend nights, when I worked.
The Old Country Buffet also seemed largely staffed by high-school students, and I recall its management seemed a little older, just out of high school, largely absent or incompetent.
I was hired and immediately sent to a tiny backroom, set to scrubbing the metal bins used by the line cooks.
It was long, lonely work that I was never trained for. One of the few times I saw the managers was when they brought me a massive stack of metal bins I had just washed. They made me wash them all over again.
I had washed them incompletely, they explained. So they let them pile up over the course of the evening before dumping them on me all at once. I spent the night rewashing everything I already washed, a sort of training-as-hazing approach that I think was intended to teach me a lesson.
I'm of the opinion that it would have saved a lot of time had they simply trained me to wash the bins in the first place, or brought back the first bin that needed a more thorough scrubbing.
There was a sort of adolescent nastiness to the whole back of the house. I eventually moved into the main dishwashing room, which had an enormous mechanical dishwasher there. It was the sort of contraption that would not have looked out of place on an assembly line at a Ford plant where the Model T was built.
You loaded dirty dishes into plastic tubs and then they went through a series of cleaning stages, mostly by being shoved from one area to the other by the human dishwashers. It was humid, very hot work, and absolutely exhausting. We wore rubber gloves, but these inevitably flooded with scalding water. By the end of my shift, my hands were swollen and red.
I worked with another dishwasher, and he had senior status to me. He was, as I recall, a recent graduate, or a dropout. It was hard to say. He had the wiry, mulleted quality of the kids who hung out in the smoking pit outside the high school.
And he had a cruel streak. He found out I was Jewish, and this seemed to be a constant source of amusement to him. I’d load up a stack of dishes to take out to the buffet, and he’d say, “Hey, while you’re out there, grab me a Mountain Jew.” That sort of thing.
It wasn’t much of a joke, really, and I’m not sure it even qualifies as anti-Semitism. But it was constant and exhausting. After a few weeks of this, I asked management to ask him to stop.
I wasn’t there when they spoke to him, but I reckon they handled it with the same blunt incompetence with which they returned my metal bins. And, as a result, what had started as a sort of general unpleasantness escalated to genuine hostility.
By the end of it, he was openly calling me out, demanding that I meet him after work in the parking lot, where he promised to knock me unconscious. He bragged about his experience in amateur boxing, about how he was a local title winner, and let me know that I could expect to learn how hard he could punch.
I weighed about 125 pounds at the time. And so I sought the better part of valor, slipping out through a different door than the usual exit and completely avoiding him after work.
When I returned, he was still fuming. His anger about my tattling was compounded by his anger that I didn’t take the beating he thought I deserved.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Certainly I couldn’t go to management again. I didn’t wish to fight the boy. Nor did I wish to listen to him mutter about me throughout the workday before sneaking away at night.
So I found another exit in the mall, avoided him again, and never returned.
Max Sparber is an arts critic, playwright and historian from Minneapolis who currently lives in Omaha. He curates a Facebook group about Minnesota history and culture called The Most Minnesotan Thing in the World.
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