Sunday, March 27, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 248: Biomythography - Note 24, When My Boss Set Our Building on Fire

Biomythography - Note 24
When My Boss Set Our Building on Fire

I was in the kitchen of a family restaurant in Hadley, Massachusetts when it started. Yeah, even though I had graduated from college, I was working as a short order cook. That's how it works with non-STEM degrees.

The grill area was small with room for at most two cooks at a time. It smelled like clean but ancient grease. I had been a good cook and I got a raise within three weeks of starting. I knew I was better than they'd had before. That's why I'd asked for more money. The manager was way too pleased to get a cook who didn't show up drunk. He could leave me alone, too, and I'd keep on working without being reminded every fifteen minutes. As an added bonus, the customers liked my food. Even the manager liked my food.

But as a restaurant, we specialized in blandness. Our loyal following consisted of retirees.

"They don't like a lot of seasoning," my boss explained during the second or third time he showed me around the grill. I had been following some of the standard recipes the other cooks had posted on the walls. He had to tell me to cut it out. Fortunately, he didn't have to explain about the food prep area or service window. I had plenty of questions about the ticket system, early on, but those were with good reason. One of the waitresses had been working for a decade and she simply followed her own system based on a concept that was nine years old and different from everyone else.

"You don't even add pepper?" I eyed the row of prepared spice jars on the left of the grill.

"Definitely not. I know some recipes call for it but eliminate the pepper unless it's part of a packaged mix."

"Okay." That was the opposite of how I'd been taught but it was no problem. In a way, I approved. Using no spices meant the quality of the basic ingredients and the grill became that much more important.

A few weeks into the job, though, I noticed the grill area never got fully cleaned. It got wiped down, sure. The place was neat in its way, stacked high with all sorts of paper records, recipes, jars, boxes, and receipt print-outs, but it never got mopped. No one ever moved a machine to clean up a spill. After a month, I scraped the grill before my shift one morning and noticed the same burnt flecks of potatoes that had been sitting at the edge of the spill guard since I'd started.

I pulled out the front grate cover and peered underneath. There was no room. Ten minutes later, I waved down the manager.

"The grease catcher is full," I complained. That was the night cook's job. It had been, like other things, written down as a procedure but ignored.

"That's what the bucket is for."

I did a double-take. Sure enough, there was a once-white grease bucket on the floor underneath to catch the spillover. Yeah, the grill hadn't been scoured in a few weeks. Or months. Or years, maybe. But they had a system. I was still the new guy. Besides, in the back of my mind I knew the manager was pretty often the night shift cook. If I complained, he wouldn't make that guy do it. That guy was him. He'd try to make me clean up two year's worth of grease under the stove.

Come the weekend, our Saturday morning rush hit and the manager strode in to work the grill next to me. I was keeping up with the orders and the grill surface was maxed out for space, so his help was more irritating than useful. It was normal, though. Sometimes the manager came to cook with me just because nothing else was going on in the restaurant. He liked to make food. He had been, in fact, the head cook for years before he got a promotion.

He seemed to know everybody, all the regular customers, the health inspector, the fire inspector, every police officer who stopped in, pretty nearly every local citizen in Hadley. That was probably handy at times. In contrast, I was a transient who didn't know any locals. Really, I mostly knew bartenders, cooks, and wait staff. A lot of those were college students, so they were transients like me.

"Oh, I see someone," the manager said as he waved through the service window. Whoever it was didn't notice him. He waved again.

"Eggs dry and bacon," he yelled as he plated a batch of scrambled eggs. Across the carpet and with many tables between, a man in a dark jacket caught a glimpse of us and waved back to the manager.

"Where's my pancakes?" A waitress swept in to take the plate.

"Whoops, they're getting crispy," he said. He glanced down to his line of three cakes. He had laid them out vertically. The top two were light brown. The closest, sizzling at the near corner of the grill, had gone black on one side. He decided to leave it. He flipped the good ones onto a plate for the waitress.

The crispy one caught fire while he talked to his staff through the service window. He laughed.

"Damn." After the waitress strolled away, he used his steel spatula to chop up the wasted pancake. One chunk of it burned yellow and orange. Other fragments burned blue. The sections that were mostly okay, steaming and smoking but no worse, he scooped up and dropped into the trash can to his right.

"Don't toss the burning stuff yet," I said. I was eyeing his plastic trash basket, stacked high with dry paper.

"I was just about to tell you that." He chopped up the remaining pancake coals until they were a dark pile of rubble. "I'm going to go out front. Don't worry about the fire. It'll burn out."

He dragged the glowing embers into the spill guard, where they sputtered into blue flames. Then he tugged at the bow knot on his apron, whipped it off, and marched out.

For twenty minutes or so, the rush continued. Middle aged and elderly couples filed in. They found their tables. They ordered plain eggs and black coffee. I cooked five or six breakfast orders at a time but probably only twenty orders total. Mostly, I forgot about the burnt pancake next to me. Every now and then, I couldn't avoid seeing the remains. The grill was double-sized, two stovetops screwed together with a half-gutter down the middle, but it still wasn't more than eight feet wide. The cinders continued to pop and sputter with yellow flames next to me.

The problem was the spill guard, I thought. It was pretty much a gutter filled with grease, like a horizontal candle. The pancake bits were the wick.

When my boss poked his head through the service window to grab an order that a waitress had put in late, he gawked at the smoke.

"That's still burning?" His voice rose in pitch like a kid protesting unfairness at school.

"There really is a lot of grease here." I gestured to the trough of it. He wasn't at the right angle to see how deep it was but he knew.

"Does it bother you?"

"Nah, I guess not." The smoke had been making my eyes water but I didn't feel like complaining. "We should put it out at the end of the shift, though."


He wandered off into the front of the restaurant with his food. It took forty minutes or so for the rush to slow. The manager substitued for the hostess and made the hostess bus tables. She stopped by to complain to me even though she knew I couldn't do anything about it. She ran food out to the tables, too, until the waitresses objected. The tables had filled to their limit. Most customers had plates on the white tablecloths in front of them.

"Still?" the manager strolled by. He gazed at the kitchen ceiling. A haze of smoke hung there, about four inches thick.

He disappeared for a while but, as a line started to develop at the hosting stand again, he marched back in. He stopped into the grill area to shake his head.

"All right," he said, hands on hips. "If we let this go too long, the customers are going to complain. The waitresses are already telling me they smell smoke."

"Can you bring me a bucket of water?" I figured I could dump the burning rubbish into one. Like I'd learned in Boy Scouts, you couldn't put out grease fire with water but at least the water itself wouldn't burn. As a solution, it wasn't elegant. But with the embers in a bucket, the manager could carry them out back and they would stop stinking up the place.

"Where would I get an empty bucket? I'd have to dump something out."

I shrugged. If he didn't know where something was in this place, no one did. He shuffled his feet for a moment in the kitchen doorway, dithering about what to do. Then, while I was plating another round of food, he disappeared.

A minute later, he returned with a glass of water. He had taken it from one of the tables out front.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"You wanted water."

"I wanted a bucket."

"Well, I don't have a bucket."

We were standing near a dozen big, plastic buckets, plus another six in the walk-in freezer and about twenty more blocking the rear of the store, which is why the dishwasher and manager had to carry trash out through the front doors at the end of the night.

"You can't put out a grease fire with water," I insisted. That was a scouting rule and I believed in it although I had never put it to a test. Maybe enough water could work.

"Then why did you ask for it?"

"To put the burning pancake bits into it. I don’t think I can make them fit in that glass. They're too big.”

In answer, he tossed the glass of water into the spill gaurd. There was a hiss and a cloud of steam. For a moment, I couldn't see the grill. I thought, just maybe, that put out the fire. But when the billow wafted up to the ceiling and I could see the grill, I noticed flames in three places. There were embers on the floor, up the spill guard by my left hand, and back on the grill as if the pancake had never left.

My boss stomped on floor to extinguish the sputtering flames there. Along the grill, the flames burned cooler, yellower, and bigger. The cup of water washed the burning bits around but those bits found new puddles of oil. The fire got more fuel. In another few seconds, the grease in the spill area started floating on top of the slick of water. It began to drift.

"God dammit," the manager complained. But he wasn't frustrated with me, just at his bad luck.

While I plated another round of eggs and Canadian bacon, amazed for the hundredth time that anyone liked Canadian bacon, he grabbed the steel grill scraper and started pushing the burning oil around.

"You keep cooking," he said. "But not on this half. I'm going to make sure this dies out."


Even now, with the fire doubled in size, it was small. The flames burned cooler, too. We could go home, I thought, and it wouldn't hurt anything. It looked like it might still be burning when we got back in the morning, but no worse than that.

A waitress came over and gave me a dirty look. She turned her scowl on the manager, too, but she jumped back in surprise a second later when she saw the fire had spread. She retreated.

As I read her spiked order, I saw my boss scraping together a big pile of grease. He had collected the burning bits and the fuel, too, so it looked worse than ever.

"Hey, you're pushing it into the grease trap?" I realized that was what he had to be doing. All of the gutters around the grill and the narrower one running down the center led into the trap.

"That's where it belongs," he grunted.

"But, I mean, it's all grease in there. And it's a grease fire." If there was anything we could do to make the situation worse, I thought that would be it. We would start a fire in the five-gallon metal bin and in the bucket beneath it.

But my boss lowered his head stubbornly and kept scraping. He pushed the burning puddle closer and closer to the gutter mouth of the trap. Abruptly, the flames turned blue again. At a guess, the grill's hot surface had steamed off the last of the water. My manager hesitated while he thought about pushing a flame into the solid lump of fat and oil below.

"Right." He set down the scraper. "I'm going out front."

He took time to chat with the regulars and, from a snippet of conversation I overheard at the table closest to me, to apologize for the smoke. Not a single customer seemed to mind. Only the waitresses cared and that was mostly because their tickets were backing up. I laid out two orders at once, which was all I had room for on the left half of the grill, and got back to work.

Ten minutes later, I pushed the burning puddle to the far right of the cooking surface. There was a spill guard there, too, but I couldn't use it because the far end of it lay underneath a wooden shelf that held recipe books and stacks of old orders and receipts, most of those lumped into paper bags or wrapped with rubber bands for record-keeping. I didn't want to put the fire there. I only needed to push it far enough out of my way so I could get back to cooking three orders together.

While I worked, the puddle crept toward the near end of the stove as if the fire wanted to return to where it had started life as a pancake.

"Okay, that's got to go," my boss said as he strode back into the front kitchen. In this hands was a red, metal canister. "I found a fire extinguisher. I thought we'd gotten rid of them all but we kept this one."


He pulled the pin on it. With a grin, he squeezed the handle. A hiss of air came out.

"What?" He shook the fire extinguisher like a can of hairspray. He pushed the handle again. "Come on!"

For a minute, he kept trying to coax retardant out of the extinguisher. In the end, he hovered over the fire and tried to dribble flecks of foam onto it without much success. He tossed the useless cannister into the trash can. It didn't fit. He grabbed it and stalked away.

When he returned, he put his hands on his hips and studied the flames.

"What's good for grease fires, then?" he said.

"According to the boy scouts, dirt or ashes."

"Oh right, you told me you were in scouts. Good." He scratched his head. "You mean to smother it?"

"Yeah." He hadn't mentioned being a scout himself but he got that part perfectly right.

The scouts teach teenagers that there are different types of fires and so there are different ways to extinguish them. As a tenderfoot, I had to learn a list, now long forgotten. But the key principle behind all their methods of putting out fires was to deny them oxygen or fuel for the oxygen or both.

My boss swept around behind me and rummaged through the shelves of ingredients. After poking his nose into a few tins, he grabbed one of the biggest ones, sniffed, and made an approving grunt. He stuck in his hand and emerged with a fistful of dry pancake batter.

"Hey!" I raised my spatula to stop him.

He tossed the flour onto the grease fire over my half-hearted attempt to block him. I remembered something about flour not being good to put out fires but it was a vague memory.

There was a brief puff of blue flame next to my right hand. That was probably the flour dust in the air as it ignited. Then something special happened. The mushy pile of flour absorbed half of the puddle of grease. The grease flame sputtered. And then rose higher. Much, much higher. My memory from scouts got clearer. Flour was fuel. Pouring fuel onto the fire had failed to put it out.

The greasy lump on the right side of the stovetop burned hotter and hotter with billows of smoke and orange flame. We watched it for a while. It kept growing. Flames on the right side started to lick the shelf of papers.

"Uh, I'm going to take a second to move stuff," I ventured. I handed him my spatula.

"Yeah, okay."

When I hesitated about where to put the bags of papers, my manager stopped cooking to help. I pulled stacks off the shelves and he carried stacks of stacks, three at a time, to his office in the back rooms. After a handful of trips, he glanced at the food on the grill.

"You've got to get back to cooking." His lips pressed tight in a grim expression. "And I've got to fix that fire."

While I plated food, he grabbed the scraper. Instead of pushing the fire towards the spill guards or the grease catcher, he pushed it as far away from our cooking as he could. He was taller than I am, with long arms, so he could push it to the end of the stovetop.

In a second or two, I saw the problem with that. He did, too.

"Shit." He batted at the puddle of flour and oil. But it was too late. He had pushed the fire up against the wall right beneath the service window. That was a wall that hadn't been cleaned in years. Right then was when I realized how greasy it was. I'd never touched the surface of it but it always looked off-white, like wax, and that was because it pretty much was. He swatted at the four inches of space above the grill that had caught flame.

"Hey, uh, I think maybe we should call the fire department." I started eyeing the exits of the building. The back door was blocked by buckets of supplies and boxes of trash.

"Crap!" My boss reached out to save a piece of paper from burning. He singed his fingers. "Goddamn it."

"Do you want me to tell the hostess to call them?"

"No. It's better if I do it." He stopped sucking on his fingertips. He stood straighter. "I'm friends with the fire inspector. And a couple of the firemen. You get out front. Tell the guests to leave."

"Can they take the food?"

"Yeah, sure. Absolutely! Get them packing up their food and apologize to them."


"Don't make them pay!" he waved at me urgently. "Give them the food for free."

Even as I nodded, I was already gone. I left the kitchen stepping sideways, eyes on the grill debacle but with vague, good intentions. Within a few feet, I bumped into a waitress, who wanted me to explain. She had noticed the brightness of the fire. When I told her we had to close, she marched with me to the hostess stand. It took a moment to get the young woman there on our side.

"Some of the waitresses will want customers to pay. They want tips."

"Well, he said what he said."

"Anyway, why aren't we hearing any fire alarms?" she asked.

"Huh." It hadn't occurred to me to look for smoke detectors. I was pretty sure we had one or two around, though, and obviously they weren't in working order.

Our lack of detectors was just one of the things that I learned about in the weeks after. My manager, it seemed, was such good friends with the fire inspector that his buddy didn't even look at our violations. When the fire crew arrived, though, they came with the chief. The chief tried to park near a hydrant, found it blocked, and immediately got pissed. That was only the beginning.

The restaurant had in reality failed inspections for years without getting written up. Our emergency exits were blocked. The fire crew had to come through the front like everyone else, which meant they had to jostle with elderly customers on their way out. Our smoke detectors had no batteries. Our kitchen walls were covered with a eighth-inch of grease. The rest of our walls had pyramids of buckets or heaps of boxes partially blocking them. The sprinkler heads were covered by the stacks of boxes underneath. Our fire extinguishers were missing.

The fire chief wrote a long, angry list for us. But that day, I only knew that the chief saw me heading back into the building and said no, I couldn't keep working.

"Can I help the rest of the folks out of the restaurant?" I asked.

"Yeah." He leaned back and folded his arms. "You're restricted to the dining area."

For a while, I strolled from table to table inside. Oddly, I found our customers to be calm and pleasant about the fire, even the ones who could see parts of it through the service window. They thought the firemen were a bit rude and they couldn't stop complaining to me about it. I nodded and told them we were all leaving anyway.

“Ma’am, you don’t have to steal that. You are allowed to take it,“ I insisted. At about half of the tables, our customers reacted by pocketing their biscuits. "I can get you a box."

No matter what I said, though, they continued to take everything around them. It was as if they thought they were going to set up restaurant tables at home.

"I want salt," said the woman I had been talking with. She grabbed shakers from the table and put them in her purse.

"Okay, fine." Everyone else was ignoring me and taking what they pleased anyway.

Even as I helped them pack, I was impressed by how my manager had expected exactly this behavior from our customers. It wasn't like the place had a history of fires. It didn't. But he knew the locals anyway, right down into the cores of their souls. When I had headed back in, he had predicted they would take flatware. They did. He said, "We'll be lucky if they don't take the napkins" and, as I watched, a woman grabbed her flatware, cloth napkin and also the clean, unused napkins from the empty settings around her table.

“The place is on fire?" the next woman complained to me as she ate. She made a show of glancing around. "Well, I don’t see it.”

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'll have to insist. The fire department is here." As I spoke, a large man in fire safety gear stomped through. I pointed him out.

"Well, can't they put out the fire and leave us in peace?"

She continued to cut her breakfast steak. Across from her, a man who had to be her husband set down his steak and nodded. He tried to speak but she waved her knife at him and he closed his mouth. He gave me a helpless shrug.

"Look, I'll leave," she said after she chewed, "but I'm taking these plates."

"Okay." Everything I did was on automatic. I would have agreed to anything. I would have robbed the register to pay her to leave.

"And you have to help Mayme." She pointed with her knife to a woman eating by herself next to the south wall. She was so small and quiet that I hadn't noticed her. "She can barely walk."

"Yes, ma'am."

So it went for me from table to table - our elderly, loyal patrons packing up their dining sets including two tablecloths, carefully wrapping and stacking everything, not upset by the fire or smoke - until I reached Mayme, a woman so old and so nearsighted that I'm not sure she registered my presence for a minute.

After I introduced myself to her twice, Mayme smiled. It was an expression of joy that shocked me into grinning back.

"Are you here to help?" she asked.

"Of course." I stood up straighter.

"I can't walk very well." She cleared her throat. "But I can drive my car. If you can help me carry things."

The hostess tapped me on the shoulder to announce that we had no more to-go boxes left. We had given out every one. So for Mayme, I stacked a clean plate on top of her regular plate. I wrapped it and loosely tied the pair of plates with a cloth napkin. It was the best I could do. It might spill a bit but, just possibly, it might not if she didn't take corners hard or stop too fast.

Then I stood next to her with my arm out. She grabbed me by the elbow and pulled herself up.

"Oh my." She leaned against me. "Thank you."

She took a step. She remarked on how young I was. She took another two steps. I was strong, too. Another few steps. Her eggs had been perfect, thank you.

"Good to see you, Mayme," the hostess said to us as we passed by.

"Thank you, dear."

At the door, a gust of fresh air hit us. The difference made me feel better.

"Come back soon!" Mayme's waitress called to her. Mayme smiled. She didn't turn her head but, with a thin, shaky arm, she waved like a movie star to her adoring fans.

In the parking lot, even as I walked Mayme to her car, the fire chief sent me home.

"That's it," he announced. "And no more waitresses, either."

I glanced at my manager, who was standing with his arms folded and his ears turning red. He gave me a grim nod.

At her car, I helped Mayme put the food on the floor where it couldn't spill. She told me she would have a neighbor help her get it into her house. I strolled around to the driver's side so she could grab my arm again and lower herself into the driver's seat.

"Don't feel bad," she said. She pressed down the hem of her dress below her knee. "The food was very nice. And it was perfect for my budget."


  1. So a pancake burned with a blue flame for, what, thirty minutes or more? It's like Hanukkah! I guess it was acting like a wick, and wicking up the oil around it without being consumed itself?

    The manager sounds like an idiot.

  2. I don’t think my manager was an idiot. He was an average guy. It’s true that he did almost everything wrong about the fire, though.

    As far as the fire burning for so long, it didn’t seem unusual to me then. But that’s because I was next to it and it was simply how it was. Maybe I should be questioning my sense of time, though. There was no clock.

    A concern I have now that I'm older is Mayme driving. But for Hadley at the time, for a local, it was probably not unusual