Sunday, April 10, 2011

Swensen’s - Fridays, Saturday & Sundaes (And Other Perks)


Stopping into a Baskin-Robbins last night to get some ice cream, I found myself telling the two girls behind the counter preparing my scoop about my days at Swensen’s Ice Cream in Studio City. These girls weren’t more than about nineteen, and thus, couldn’t have been further removed from the time-period I was describing to them.  What they were hearing about was epochs ago, pragmatically.

When I was fourteen, there was a guy who lived across the street from me, Richard (Richie) Sugarman, who was two years my senior in middle school.  Richie was kind of like a big brother to me.  He actually started out as my baby-sitter when I was about ten and had just moved down to the Valley from the Hollywood Hills.

Back when he did baby-sit me, he used to impress upon me how his hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was strong enough to rip out the dividing wall between my kitchen and family room, and we’d end up playing piano and watching sit-coms laughing our butts off the whole time, so it was really just two kids keeping each other company, and yet he got paid.

As I got older, the biggest perks I had from knowing him were the fact that he could get me safely onto the senior lawn in Millikan Jr. High School (our middle school), which non-seniors were not allowed onto, and especially not seventh-grade scrubs like me. We scrubs were always in danger of getting their asses kicked if they set foot on the holy territory.  The other perk was that he was friends with Darcy DeMoss, “the” gorgeous girl of our school middle school with brunette hair that was out of a commercial.  They were both two years older than I, but still, to find myself standing next to Richie, gazing at Darcy, well, Richard was well worth knowing in my opinion.

Richie was sixteen at the time and started driving his mother’s brown Volvo coupe.  It dawned on me that he had to pay for his own gas, and that he accomplished this via after school job or two.  One such job for Richie was working at McConnell’s Ice Cream in Sherman Oaks.  But I started to see the value of working after school and making money for myself.  There was some freedom in there somewhere.

A sensible talk with my parents, promising to keep up my studies, garnered me the okay to get a work permit (something that was required at age fourteen) and to start looking for a job up and down Ventura Boulevard.  I remember filling out applications at such places as the Studio City Mann Theater, Food King, and some of the other retail stores.  It always seemed that nobody wanted to hire, or that I had just come at the wrong time.

One of my schoolmates in my grade was Steve Caplan.  He had a brother named Mark who, even in middle school, always seemed to look out for me.  He was a year older than I, and unlike a lot of older kids, he would always give me a, “How's it going, Fred?” when I was walking with my friends, which made me feel like I had an advocate in an upper grade; not a bad thing to have at that age.  One day, I was talking to Mark about needing to find work, and he said he had a good job at Swensen’s Ice Cream.  For all of you San Fernando Valleyites, Swensen’s was located on Ventura Boulevard, just east of Laurel Canyon, near Tiny Naylor’s, Dupar’s, Pioneer Chicken, and Music Plus.  It was tucked in among some other shops on the shady east facing side, across from Dupar’s.

So one day, I went into Swensen’s, filled out an application, and got myself hired as the weekend busboy.  My job was to clean off and wipe down tables after customers were done, and then to wash and restock the dishes and glasses.  It wasn’t as bad as it sounded; there was a lot of activity there at night.

The restaurant was rectangular, like a shoe box.  As you entered, on the left for the length of the store were about five or six booths, each of which could sit four or five people, and in the center of the floor were three or four tables that could fit about three people each.  To the near right as you entered were the cake displays and ice cream selections for people getting cones, and to the far right was a bar stool counter where you could sit and eat.  Behind this counter was where most of the orders were prepared and also sat a big, board menu of the store’s items, and under the counter on the workers’ side were where all of the clean dishes and glasses were kept (too much information, I realize).

Our uniforms, like the company logo, were brown and white.  The men wore brown corduroy pants with a brown and white button down long sleeved shirt with the Swensen’s logo worked into the patterns every which-way, along with a brown name tag.  The added feature to my busboy ensemble was a brown baseball Swensen’s cap, I guess just to differentiate me as a one-person member of an even lower rung than everybody else.  Don’t doubt for a second that it got really hot while washing the steamy dishes with a ball cap on! 

The women wore long, Pioneer-style dresses with white, frilly tops that flowed into long, brown bottoms.  They were very form-fitting, and the owner always seemed to hire very attractive girls; he never got complaints about that from me.  The owner was an Israeli man named Arron Sabah, and his wife Selma Sabah (I can still see her name printed on my paychecks), worked as partners in the store.  Neither of them had even an ounce of humor in their bones.  I only saw Mr. Sabah crack an occasional smile for returning adult customers who he wanted to be polite to, and it was a forced smile at that.

But the kids who worked there were a great bunch, and made up for the robotic owners.  There were three girls I particularly remember as being very spunky; Mindy, Morgan, and a sweet, beautiful girl, Jenny Hoover, who I’ll forever remember.  Jenny died sometime later after college due to a heart anomaly during her one-year wedding anniversary dance.  It was very sad for me to hear about at my ten-year high school reunion.  But, these girls, along with a bunch of fun guys who worked there, made the Friday and Saturday nights a good time for a fourteen year old.  We would go to Santa Monica Beach, boogie-board and bake on the sand during our days off.  It became a kind of family. 

My 7:00pm to Midnight shifts always started quietly.  Washing a few of the dishes that had been left over from the day shift, which nobody had gotten to.  Then, around 8:30pm, a swarm of people would start to come in and fill up the booths.  A lot of popular kids from my class, Jill, Drew, Larry, Kelly, Carrie; they’d all sit down, get some ice-cream and whatever else we offered (cookies possibly, maybe sandwiches), and I’d get to say hi to a bunch of my friends.  My night got busy, juggling the table clean-up and getting the dishes soaked and into the industrial Hobart washer, all the time with the tunes cranked up on the radio back there.  Like anything, practice makes for improvement.  I got so that I could load up that washer utilizing every inch of space to get the most volume out of the thing possible.

One fringe benefit to the job, and the subject of my story the other night at the Baskin Robbins with my forced-captive audience, was that in all of that activity; the washing and drying of dishes, the hurried clean up of tables, and the mopping up of spills on the floor both by customers and workers who, “oops,” dropped a whole tray of banana splits and root beer floats, was that every twenty minutes or so, the ice cream servers would make a mistake with their dairy concoctions.  They would put caramel on an order that required hot fudge, and vice-versa.  Sprinkles when none were called for, or vanilla instead of the requested chocolate.  And what did they do with all of these mistakes?  They’d bring them back to Fred.  I would eat so much ice cream on a shift, it’s a wonder I didn’t turn into that guy who’s so huge he’s bed-ridden on TV.

On my way out of work, I would often stop at the Pioneer Chicken, just adjacent to our store, where the manager, used to my face popping in around 12:30am, would give me the remainder of his left-over French fries for free in a carry-out cardboard box.  But at age fourteen, one’s metabolism is such that the calories go down and then just disappear.  Oh, if only that would still happen!

It was during my work at Swensen's that I was introduced to two age-old pranks.  As a busboy, part of my job was to pick up the tips that were left on the marble-style booth tables and put them into a community crew tip jar.  Actually, the tip jar was one of those glass banana-split servers.  But on occasion, instead of money, there would be a slip of paper with some words written on it; "Tip - Go To College."  Well, not bad.  I did end up eventually taking up their advice by the way.

The other prank played on me several times was the old, upside-down glass filled with water on a wet paper napkin trick.  It was actually a clever one in that the water would stay in the glass indefinitely, and had I later paid attention to my science and physics courses in high school, I would have understood what had been at work there.  But the Houdini-esk goal of getting around this prank was to lift the glass off of the paper napkin without water spilling everywhere.  Impossible! And being that it was such a well-known prank, whenever one of the ice-cream makers called to me and said, "Hey Fred, I think someone left you something on table three for clean up," I knew to bring a few extra rags.

I used to get rides home from Mark Caplan at first since he lived four streets over from me, but then he went for the big money at Hughes Market.  So then, I would either ride my bike to and fro, or else my dad would come get me.  One time, I had started to walk home, figuring I’d see my dad from the side walk, and a car drove up and sprayed me with one of those water-weenies (surgical tube knotted on one end with a pen bottom on the other…those things had such high water pressure).  My dad drove up to me in front of the Camera Exchange to find me soaked.  No serious damage since it was a hot summer night.

So I had this job for a year?  Two years?  Only in the summers?  I don’t recall.  But it was actually a lot of fun and a great way to have found myself in the middle of Friday and Saturday night activity while simultaneously making money.  But like all good things… One day, Mr. Sabah called me in by phone.  I arrived thinking I was in some kind of trouble.  He asked me to become the guy who makes the ice-cream during the day.  It was a pay raise, and it would be more consistent work.  I accepted with some hesitation, which I did not relate to Mr. Sabah right away. 

But, to me, this proposition didn’t actually sound too good.  I would be in a closed room during the daytime, making buckets of ice cream, at a time when no customers were in the store.  The whole point of my work there, once I mastered my busboy technique, had become the easy access to socializing.  This sounded like the antithesis.

I trained for about two out of the five planned days and finally told Mr. Sabah that I didn’t want to do it.  I imagined that he would become violently angry at having wasted two days training me, but to my surprise, he was okay with it.  Chalk it off to his very even-keeled temperament; the same one that didn’t allow him to be jovial in his work. 

My friend Steven Jhu was interested in an after school job and ended up taking it.  I guess that was one of those early signs that, whatever I did, it would need to be with a team of people.  I think I ended up bagging on becoming a Psychologist with a private practice after graduating U.S.C. for the same reason.  I’ve never been one for isolation, or rather had quite enough of it in my very early youth.

So as fate would have it, I ended up getting hired at Hughes Market as a box-boy, again with Mark Caplan on the crew.  And our uniforms; brown and white again!  Must have been the color of the decade for small businesses.  A funny fact is that much later in life, when I was working at Disney, I moved to Manhattan Beach, unknowingly one street away from Mark Caplan, until one day we both happened to be watching the waves from the strand and looked over at each other.  “What the hell?  You live here too?"  I suppose we’ll end up in the same assisted living place in our 90’s.

Telling those two girls the other night at the Baskin-Robbins about Swensen's in not so many words, and trying to describe these family and friends places such as Farrell’s and Shakey’s Pizza, where you might end up spending a good number of hours with friends on a Friday night.  Well, they gave it a chuckle, but I don’t think they really got it, and how could I expect them to.  I supposed it’s like when my older cousins used to tell me as a kid about the drive up diners with the roller-skating waitresses back when they were young.  I just couldn’t relate.