Sizzler, Blackstone Avenue, Fresno, June 1990

by | Aug 15, 2022 | Creative Nonfiction

Someone unearthed it, enshrined it online. A 1991 Sizzler promotional video about quality, freedom, and Americans rediscovering, redefining what’s important in their lives. Gauzy vignettes cycle on the screen: a construction manager in a hard hat, a grade-school girl playing baseball, a teenager in a sailor’s suit angling for a chaste kiss. Choral music swells, the love child of a marketing consultant and a fourth-rate lyricist—We will make the choices! We will raise our voices!—and you see the primal scene itself: the salmon-pink industrial carpets, the mottled blue-gray countertops and brass-trimmed sneezeguards of a Sizzler “Buffet Court.” Here the salads, the crocks of chopped fruits and vegetables, diced lunchmeats, cottage cheese, soft-serve toppings, and trays of fried breaded meats all find their rightful place in this unique, bold emporium of freedom.

In this marketing fever dream, white people in Cosby sweaters, businesspeople in their cocktail party best make their choices amid all the quality. A brunette with blown-out hair widens her black-rimmed eyes, coaxed by some director into simulating near-erotic ecstasy at the freedom of, perhaps, the “Dessert Bar,” before nuzzling with a man in a suit at a corner table, laughing when the camera catches them. It all takes you back to Sizzler, Blackstone Avenue, Fresno, June 1990.

Here, where you’ve just signed your first W-4, bought the cheap black shoes and pants they said you’d need, the other busboys show you how it’s done: haul the dirty dishes and glasses back to the dishwasher/recovering addict with the newsboy cap and the Tom Selleck mustache, who demands whatever’s left in the bread pudding tray every night; dodge the yelling line cook with the crank habit; sweet-talk the slightly older waitresses who see you all as younger brothers, hapless, but more or less reliable; scoop handfuls of shredded cheese and diced salami in the walk-in fridge when you can; and get used to being cheated by the managers when it’s your turn to close, and they make everyone clock out an hour before the work is really over.

On your first night you get a free meal, anything you want. Get the steak and shrimp, the busboys say, in a couple of days you’ll be pissed if you don’t get the most expensive dinner, but you don’t—no one does—because it seems too greedy when you’ve just started. And that first night, after the free meal, after the assistant manager asks if it was good, and you say sure, he says he needs your help. You follow him through an exit door you hadn’t seen before, into the alley where the dumpsters sit and where the manager stands smoking a cigarette.

This last dumpster’s almost full, and it’s gonna be two days before it’s emptied. You gotta squash it down to make room. Toss some cardboard in there and then jump up and down on it.

You’re seventeen, and it’s the first time you’ve signed a W-4 and you haven’t seen the video online yet, but have somehow grasped its hollow message, and think maybe this is where all the freedom and choices lead, this is how all jobs work, as you climb inside where the trash bags and cardboard disintegrate into a pulpy, greasy mess as you jump, holding the lip of the dumpster with one hand to keep your balance.

Keep going, they say after you’ve done this for five minutes or so. You have the unnerving suspicion they’re enjoying this as they light their second cigarettes, and you start thinking how easy it would be to slip and crack your head on the metal container or the cement block wall of the building. You wonder what they’d do if it happened, who they’d call, or if they’d pretend they never told you to do this in the first place.

And that’s when you say you’re done, but they’re not listening, standing by the exit door you’ll walk out of ten days from now. They’re talking to themselves about which of the waitresses they’d like to bang, and which might be up for it, and what it would take to talk them into it, and you think of how they talked you into jumping in this filthy dumpster, figuring you’d do it, wouldn’t think you had a choice, because you’re young and new and they just gave you dinner, and when you’re standing next to them with grease-stained pants and shoes, they offer you a cigarette for doing a good job.

About The Author

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Matthew Harkins’ recent nonfiction essays appear, or are forthcoming, in Club Plum, Anti-Heroin Chic, Allium, and Pidgeonholes. He’s a professor of English at the College of St. Benedict / St. John’s University in Minnesota, where he also directs a reading series for visiting creative writers through the Literary Arts Institute.