If there was a best kept secret in the cooking industry that few knew about it would have to be the black market underlining the whole thing. Fed by cash and odd tax rules, a server can earn enough to support themselves and have some fun on the side. When I say black market, I’m referring to the side businesses that employees engage in for extra money. As I discussed earlier, Jeremy was the go-to guy for marijuana and other recreational substances. Nate Dawg was burning and selling the latest CDs that people couldn’t afford to pay $20 for. Even the strippers started to come to him for their music. Back in the bowels of the restaurant one could find car stereos, the latest movies still in the theater on DVD, but with Korean subtitles, videos games at a fraction of the cost and even CD players with subwoofers that had skip protection-built in. This was before the iPod and as long as something could be copied in a basement or burned on a computer it was available for purchase.
I was kept out of the market until someone requested music that only I owned. I was the nerd, the guy with shitty taste in music and movies, the guy who hated pop culture and all of its bullshit, but when someone came around with a pocket full of cash wanting the latest Tool CD Nate came nocking on my door. There was also my jazz collection and a fondness for early rock and roll. What Nate ended up learning over time was that strippers had a tendency to change their taste in music as often as they changed their shoes. One moment he was the go-to guy for the latest rap album, then he was forgotten because he only had the music he liked. He branched out looking to expand his selection. His chance of being the guy that a woman like Jordan wanted to be with was slipping.
Mix CDs were brought to work and popped in the CD player as a way to drum up business. People would hear a song and ask “what’s that?” and Nate would get his book out flipping through the 96 CDs he had available and pull out a freshly burned copy with the price tag of $5. To say that someone in the food industry is lazy is to not know of whom you speak. Long hours in the kitchen, working over a hot stove, cleaning, prepping, screaming and yelling are all in a day’s work. Then there is the after hours of hustling to make a few dollars more. Long hours of downloading music, burning CDs, and hunting at the library for those rare gems people have asked for could take up your time. Making connections with shady people who found items that “fell” off a truck. Those military connections that would mail boxes of DVDs from Asian military bases to show up in a backpack at work. These were all things people were doing and they took time. If a server had tickets to the latest show that sold out at Wing’s Stadium it’s because they woke up first thing in the morning and stood in line outside the ticket office. If you wanted them you were paying the asking price. There was a market with in the market and I still can not figure out to this day how they managed the time to do it all.
Things could become violent in the kitchen. Threats were common. Knives were pulled. It wasn’t uncommon for people to come in with black eyes from deals that had gone bad. These acts were a consequence of the lifestyle. It wasn’t sought out it just happened. Then there was me.
For a time, there was a show on FOX featuring fights from the Tough Man Competition. It consisted of young men from different backgrounds fighting in boxing rings trying to be the last man standing at the end of the night. One of the hosts was a model for the Fredrick’s of Hollywood catalog so that showed you how classy this thing was. In Kalamazoo the event was run by a shady guy with a business called Adorable Promotions. Men would pay $50 to get in the ring and beat on each other. Some did it for fun. Some thought they were good. There were the few that had lost bets or were dared to enter. It wasn’t uncommon for guys to disappear before they entered the ring.
Bored, wanting something to do, and missing my old Tae Kwon Do classes I signed up for the competition. My instructor had been teaching me boxing on the side with Tae Kwon Do and I thought I might have a chance at getting somewhere with it. Word spread at work and I thought I might have a small corner somewhere in the arena where my name was chanted. I was wrong. I trained, running a 5K every day and doing bodyweight exercises. I hung a heavy bag on the tree behind my apartment. I let my sideburns grow and called myself the Wolverine. Yes, it was hokey, but I was having fun with it.
The night I went to weigh in the room was filled with guys trying to feed their egos. I could tell most of them had never competed in anything like this before. There was the stare down, the guy who wouldn’t shut up about how good he was, several guys slamming beers, and the guys who had their girlfriends there as props. I had gone to several Tae Kwon Do tournaments and to me this was just standard procedure, these guys wanted to do the face off with words said and punches thrown. We didn’t even know who we would be fighting yet. I weighed in at 188 IBS, three pounds over the limit for middle weight. I was in with the heavy weight boys, fuck.
When I told people at work that I was competing Nate laughed and said the DJ at Déjà vu was also entered and the place was plugging a ton of money into advertising and sponsoring him. Max was a former Muay Thai fighter from Thailand. He was tall, thin, and appeared to be in shape. He wore a long ponytail that hung past his butt cheeks and could appear intimidating. Nate warned me to look out because he would “fuck you up.” I laughed and brushed it off.
Rob Laughed when I told him I entered the competition. Looking back a lot of people rolled their eyes and laughed. It was becoming clear that I had no support in doing this thing. It was going to be all me, only me.
The night I went to Wings Stadium I had a gym bag that consisted of shorts, warm up pants, and that was it. My shoes were a pair of Chuck Taylor All Stars and I hadn’t thought about wearing hand wraps because the gloves were already 14 ounces. For practice I would shadow box using three-pound weights. After 20 minutes of that 14 ounces felt like wearing winter gloves.
Fights were announced and it turned out I would be fighting DJ Max. We came in at the same weight three nights before and I had a feeling we would be paired together. I sat on a bench watching the fights. A man would come around announcing the upcoming fights so that we could warm up. There was a body builder who was constantly jumping rope and when he entered the ring, he gassed out in the first round and was pummeled in the second. The guy he was fighting looked half his size. There was George of the Jungle who knocked out every guy he fought with a right hook, the only person to fight twice in one night. He filled in a slot after knocking out his opponent in the first five seconds of the first round. My name was read on the docket and I started to stretch. I did some jumping jacks to loosen up. In the ring a guy was fighting that they kept sidelining because he wouldn’t blow zero into the breathalyzer. When he was cleared, he entered the ring and was knocked out by George. In his mumbling words “I took it like a man.”
Finally, the moment arrived. I was called to the ring first. I jogged out, slid through the ropes and the corner guy slid my gloves. “No wraps?” he pointed out. “Nah,” I replied as if they weren’t needed. I stood in the corner and watched as the announcer put everything they had into Max. “a Muay Thai fighter from Thailand, weighing in at 188 pounds, and sponsored by the folks at Déjà vu. DJ Maxxxxxxx!”
Some guys standing behind the ring pointed at me and said “this guy is going to be fucked up.” For a moment I thought they were right. My goal at this point, hit him hard and make sure he remembers me when this is done. Max slid through the ropes and started hopping around. The long ponytail reminded me of the move Kickboxer and I questioned for a moment if I had health insurance or not?
The ref had us stand in the middle, I had to look up at Max, and the rules were set. We touched gloves and went into our corners. The bell rang and we were off. It was a race to the center of the ring. Max was hopping around on the balls of his feet, something I wasn’t familiar with and told to never do in all my years of sparring. His hands were up blocking the sides of his face, so I went straight in, snapped a jab between the gloves and hit Max square in the face. His head snapped back and blood appeared everywhere. I don’t know if I broke his nose or not, either way he was definitely a bleeder.
The punches continued and that first round was a non-stop assault on the man everyone thought would crush me. By the time the bell rang my gloves were covered in blood, his chest and face made him look like an extra from Carrie. My corner man encouraged me to do the same thing all over again. I wasn’t tired, hell I felt like I had just warmed up. The bleeding had stopped and before we knew it the bell was ringing again.
Playing the same cards again I hit Max in the face and the bleeding continued. One thing to keep in mind is that bleeding in the Muay Thai culture is inspiration for winning. The one who bleeds first will fight harder and likely come out as the victor.
Half way through the round Max’s pony tail ended up wrapped around my forearm. I was tied to the man. As I pulled my arm back his head would move with it. I didn’t want to be stuck there and Max didn’t want me chained to him. I used that moment to land several blows and a moment later the pony tail came off and Max put some distance between us.
Between the heavy gloves and the padded head gear it was difficult to feel anything. The leather of the gloves would slap against your skin, everything was wet, you body moved around as you were pushed and pulled in different directions, but there wasn’t any pain. The adrenaline running through your veins gives one the impression they aren’t being hurt or taking damage. I have no memory of Max ever hitting me, but my body did.
The bell rang and I sat in my corner sipping water and having blood cleaned off my torso. “keep doing what you’re doing. You already won this fight. Don’t let him knock you out.” The corner man didn’t need to tell me the obvious but I appreciated it. In Max’s corner I could hear his corner man saying “he’s tired, now is the time to go in and give him everything you have.” He was wrong though. I wasn’t tired. I used an old trick from my days on the track team in high school and chewed some coffee beans before the fight. I had a caffeine buzz that the hipsters as the local coffee shops would be envious of.
The bell rang and we continued where we left off. This time Max was trying to land some blows. I bobbed and weaved, slipped into his world and continued the assault on his head. I don’t remember being stuck in a corner or either of us leaning on the ropes, we were in the middle of the ring, the crowd cheering as the two of us threw punches waiting to see if one would fall or finally give up as so many had done before. The bell rang and the crowd cheered. It would have to go to the judges.
There was no question as to who won, but I had seen fights be handed over to people who didn’t deserve it in the past. The judges were unanimous and my hand was raised. “the Wolverine” was screamed over the speakers and I left the ring to calm down in the locker room. I found Max later, laying on a bench with his head wrapped in bags of ice. His eyes were swollen shut and he was having trouble breathing. I was still feeling fine and left not longer afterwards. We were one of the last fights of the night and George ended the night with another knock out.
I went to Nate Dawg’s place and found his car in the driveway. I thought maybe he left after the fight to beat traffic. I stepped in the house to find him at the computer downloading pictures of Brittany Spears.
“Get your ass beat motherfucker?” he asked.
“You weren’t there?” I asked disappointed.
“Fuck no, I have better things to do.” Nate went back to his computer. That was the start to the end of our friendship. This guy that I spent so much time with was like everyone else in my life at that time, a huge disappointment. Later I saw Rob and he wasn’t their either. I told them that I won the fight and that I did fight Max. They didn’t believe it until the strippers at the club told them the story because they were there handing out free passes to the club or working as ring girls. It wouldn’t be long after that the three of us would go our separate ways.
Nobody from work showed up. My parents showed up the second night to watch me get knocked out by George. My head was throbbing that morning and I shouldn’t have shown up. The beating that Max had given me appeared in the delayed migraine I encountered the next morning. It lasted for three days and the fight the second night with George of the Jungle didn’t help.
I have heard people refer to the kitchen as a military setting, divided up by ranks and jobs, everyone assigned to their post. One would think there would be a level of loyalty, the desire to support your brothers of the spatula. That is not how it is. In this capitalist world everyone is out for themselves. If they can’t make a buck from you then you have no value. You are as useful as you can prove and the useless are as desirable as gum on the bottom of your shoes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that my friends didn’t show up, but I was. That was when I started doubting my roll in the kitchen and started to look elsewhere for employment. That night, for all the headaches, let downs, and disappointments changed where I would be in the world, little did I know that it was only downhill from there.
To be continued…