About Life

Learning a whole new language, by chicken!

I remember when was fourteen years old or so I used to accompany my mother to do grocery shopping at a not-so-nearby Pathmark about two towns away from where we lived. The store was located in Levittown, and we lived in Hempstead, NY.  There were no decent supermarkets in Hempstead at the time so we had to bus it to other towns to get things for the house.

I used to love going with my mother shopping because I got to pick out a treat or two while going up-and-down the isles. Topeka Pudding used to be my favorite. Since I collected soda cans and beer bottles during the week I also had coins at the ready should there be any good arcade machines in or near the store.

On one occasion after grocery shopping we decided to go to KFC to buy some chicken for the family to have lunch when we got back home.  It was Saturday. Since we were carrying grocery bags and were subject to the bus’ timetable, we could not venture too far away from the supermarket parking lot. Luckily there was a KFC right across the lot.

There was a huge line when we got to the KFC. It must have been fifteen people there waiting for service, as well as many cars lined up on the drive-up window. It was pretty crowded. As we’re standing there I noticed this “now hiring” sign near the cash register. I have worked since I was eight years old in some way or another to earn extra coins to feed my gaming habits – and because we were a pretty cash-strapped family since I can remember – so my mother was not surprised or shocked when I told her I was interested in asking about a job there. I left her standing in line while I made my way up to the cash register to ask for a job application.

The guy at the cash register was from either India or Pakistan or a neighboring country in that region of the world. I could tell by his accent. He wore a messed up mustache and thick glasses. He must have been in his late forties because his curly hair was mostly grey. He was going nuts behind the counter trying to get people out the door. He kept on going back to the kitchen, screaming orders and coming back to the counter to apologize to waiting – and anxious – customers.  I waited for him to notice me while I stood there looking at the craziness of him going back-and-forth to the back, tending to the drive-up window, apologizing to the counter customers and trying to keep his apron clean while tossing pieces of fried chicken into small colorful cardboard boxes and/or buckets.

“What’s up kid?” he asked in his thick accent when he finally noticed me. I went straight to it knowing he was in a bit of a bind. “Hey man, can I have a job application, please”, I responded while pointing at the “now hiring” sing behind the counter. “Hmmm” came the response, as he looked me over quickly. “Can you speak English?” he asked. “Of course”, I said. “How ‘bout Salvadorian?”, he asked. I didn’t know if it was a trick question or if he was just messing with me. “That too”, I said finally. “Good” he said. He turned around, fiddled with a couple of boxes and fetched a white apron from one of them. Without missing a beat he turned to me and threw the apron at my chest and said, “you’re hired”. He quickly followed with “now go in the back and tell that Salvadorean that I need original thigh, keel and breasts, as fast as he can make it”. With that he turned to the counter customers and continued to smile, apologize and take more orders.

I didn’t know what to do. I was holding the apron, and was smiling because all-of-a-sudden I had a real job, but I had not clue what the job was.  I went to the back of the line where my mother was standing with all the grocery bags next to her feet and told her the good news. “Good”, she said, “now go back there and do a good job”. That was it. I turned around and went to the counter again. The guy behind the counter just looked at me and pointed to the swinging door that led to the kitchen behind the counter area.

I was taken aback a little bit when I stepped into the kitchen.  There was this guy in his late twenties or early thirties sitting on an overturned bucket, legs wide open, wearing all white, with mounds of floured chicken all over the floor. He was holding a couple of pieces of chicken on his hand while he looked up at me and quickly asked (in Spanish) “what the hell does the Indian want?” He was flouring chicken as fast as he could so that he could then drown it in the hot oil in the frying vats behind him. The place was a wreck. I told him what the Indian had ordered me to tell him and he started teaching me about what kind of flour is used for “Original” versus “Crispy” recipe chicken. I got the hang of it fast, and before you knew it we had the tray-rack that passed chicken over to the person on the counter for serving full. That was a fun day!

The Salvadorean did not speak a word of Enlgish, and the Indian did not speak a word of Spanish. I have no clue how they communicated, but the Salvadorean told me that they used the universal language of signs. The Indian did a lot of pointing while the Salvadorean did an awful lot of smiling, saying “yes”, and nodding. He never understood anything the Indian ever said, he told me, but that is how they got the job done.

About two weeks after I started working I realized I had not been paid, and I went to the back office to ask the Indian. At the time I had no clue how much I would be paid, when or anything else. When I got to the office the Indian was there filling out paperwork and making orders for frozen chicken and such. I came in quietly and asked about my paycheck. He asked how long I had been working there and I told him it had been two weeks. As soon as I got out of school I would jump in a bus and got right to work until about 11pm. On the weekends I was there from early on until nearly midnight. We added up my hours and he was surprised I had racked up so many without complaining. After adding it all up, he finally looked at me in the eyes and asked me my age. “Fourteen”, I said proudly. “Shit” he said while looking down as his paperwork. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do kid.” He said. He told me that if any inspector ever came into the back to ask questions that I had to act as if I didn’t know how to speak English. If the inspector spoke Spanish I was to tell him/her that I was eighteen years old. Sure, I was tall, but passing for eighteen would have been a miracle. I nodded. He told me he needed to compute my hours and that I would have a check for the two weeks’ work the next day. I was so happy to get paid so much for the two weeks the next day.

I worked at KFC with the Indian and the Salvadorean for the entirety of that summer. Eventually a Jamaican and a pretty white-skin red-haired girl who would hide out in the bathroom with the Jamaican to have sex when business was slow joined us. The Salvadorean and I traded stories about El Salvador and made fun of the drive-up customers when we were bored. He would tell me about the different parts of the chicken and why the keel was the best part because of the soft cartilage in the middle to chew on. I got to take all sorts of KFC eats back home every night. After I stopped working there I think it took us a few years before we ever set foot in a KFC again.

I learned that the Indian was not such a bad character. The Jamaican and the Salvadorean were both illegally in the country, and I was not supposed to even be working given my age, but he found ways to get around that to help us out.