Chicken and Waffles Almost Changed my Life

There’s another universe out there, parallel to this one, where I became a millionaire as a teenager.

As I think I’ve mentioned on here at some point or another, my first job out of high school was as a lot assistant for a car dealership. It was an absolute circus of colorful characters and some outrageous personalities. And as is tradition for a first job, it paid like crap but acted as a wellspring for interesting stories I still get my jollies by telling today.

One that I remember I didn’t find interesting at all when it happened, but that I caught myself recounting a couple of days ago and made my jaw drop when I realized what I was saying, is as follows:

I was nineteen at the time, and Amanda and I had just started dating. I’d been at the job for about a year, but I was the lowest possible part of the totem pole, obviously. But of course – again, being nineteen – my year’s tenure meant that I felt firmly established there. We were going to take a trip down to Los Angeles for about a week to get out of town for a little while, and being that my job paid like crap, I was short on cash to actually help make that happen. To be clear, the trip was Amanda’s brainchild, planned by her, using her car, and all else. I was just happy to come along. But I still wanted to be able to contribute something other than a weakly charming smile.

So I went to the owner of the company and asked for a loan.

Oh, to be naively optimistic as a teenager. I should mention that this dealership was huge, not just somebody’s corner lot. It sprawled over multiple acres of paved parking lot, with several buildings, some thousands of vehicles, and remains a somewhat prominent part of the city. I still remember walking to the administrative building where the owner and president of the company had his office, asking his receptionist if he was in, and the confused look on her face when she let me in. Looking back, I’m sure she thought either I knew something nefarious that she didn’t or that she was looking at the beginning of some kind of lawsuit she would get to gossip about later. After all, I was a peasant boy requesting audience with the king.

But goddammit, it worked.

I walked in, shook his hand, and explained my situation, that I was going on a trip with my new girlfriend but was short on cash, wondering if I could get an advance. And remembering it now some ten years later, I feel I can better interpret the “Sure, let me understand you clearly” look on his face I saw at the time now more appropriately as, “Who the fuck is this kid, and is he being goddamn serious?” But by what I’m guessing is some combination of sympathy for a young buck just trying to do right by his lady, and a shade of respect for the sheer freakin’ brazenness of who was naively asking who for what here, he took out his wallet and handed me a hundred dollars of his own money, saying, “This isn’t an advance. This is a loan, and I expect to be paid back.”

It was a bonding moment.

And I did just that. I paid him back in full soon as I was able when we got back, and I mentioned it in passing to my manager maybe a week later. He went white as a sheet and asked me to clarify. When I simply repeated that I went to the owner of the company for a cash loan, his voice changed to the nervous tone of one who just missed a bullet whizzing past his head. “Just…uh, you know, uh, in the future, just- um, just come to me with that sorta thing.”

Now, again, to stress, I think it only worked because I was an adorable, dumbly innocent kid. I tried that kinda crap now, no way it’s working and nobody’s feeling bad for me.

Another brief adventure was getting lost in San Francisco. This was before GPS in phones really took off in any sort of a reliable way, and my phone was a cheap toy anyway. I was delivering a courtesy vehicle to a customer about an hour south of the city (the dealership is located an hour north of the city, so it was a day with a lot of driving), and when I asked them directions for the best way to get home, they started listing off a whole bunch of complicated turns and routes. “Yeah, you’re going to want to take this highway to this junction, then merge to this other junction, then turn here to merge back to this, to that, to this” so on and so forth. And so the whole time in my head I’m going, “Right. Take Highway 101 the whole way back.”

What I didn’t know is that Highway 101 in California goes through San Francisco where I was. And that the turn to remain on 101 was reeeeaaally easy to miss if you didn’t know it was coming, because the sign telling you so is reeeaaally small. So I suddenly find that I’m utterly lost in the city in a big expensive truck that’s low on gas and no sense of where I am. That being the case, I channeled my inner D&D nerd and put together a survival plan.

“What do I know about San Fran?” I asked myself. Well, it has a lot of hills and there’s water by the Golden Gate Bridge (which was what I was trying to find as my way home). So, I figure, I’ll just use a hill to go up high, find the water, then drive towards the water where I’ll find the bridge.

Which friggin’ worked perfectly. I felt like an old school explorer, like Francis Drake or Ferdinand Magellan.

But what crowned them all, probably, was the situation that inspired this post’s title.

Maybe a few months into the job, a friend from high school, Austin, also got hired on for the same position. Now there were two of us (a number that would later grow, but that’s irrelevant here). He and I are getting lunch one day from a nearby deli, and he picks up a bag of Lays potato chips to go with his sandwich. We get back to the lot and are eating in the break room when he takes a look at the back of the bag.

“Huh, check this out,” he says, and points to a spot on the back of the bag promoting a contest that Lays was having wherein people could call in with ideas for new flavors of potato chips. So we start bouncing ideas back and forth before ultimately falling on Chicken and Waffles. We agree that one’s a winner, and Austin calls the number on the bag, putting the call on speaker. A little bit of menu-hopping later, we’re connected to a representative for Lays. She asks us for our chip flavor, we give our genius suggestion of Chicken and Waffles, to which she tells us that that’s not an applicable flavor and ends the call. We shake our heads about how she’s kind of a donk (we used different words, though) and go about our day. That is until a couple of months later, when Lays unveils their new chip flavors and contest winners (and million dollar recipients).

Among the chosen flavors: Chicken and Waffles.

Austin and I are close to rioting, when the winners’ details are also revealed, and apparently a lady from Illinois had submitted our own genius flavor hardly a week before we had. I remain convinced to this day, however, that that lady doesn’t actually exist and that the game was rigged from the start. I’d bet a bag of chips that the woman on the phone with us that day experienced that phone call like this: “Hello, Lays’ chip flavor contest hotline, what is your suggestion? Ahuh. Ahuh. I’m sorry, that flavor isn’t applicable.” <hangs up phone, begins scribbling on a notepad> “Chicken and waffles, hot damn. That’s a good idea. Gonna go to the boss with this one.”

But my hare-brained Big Chip conspiracy theories aside, yeah, bottom line is that Austin and I were apparently just a few days separated from being potato chip millionaires.

Ah, what could have been.

Ciao for now, y’all.

A Few More Things I’ve Learned in my Time as a Tradesman

Anthony Bourdain has a great quote that floats around the internet from time to time, saying how you can tell a lot about a person who has worked in a restaurant. There are, he goes on to say, a lot of soft skills that kitchen experience teaches a person, like the ability to accept criticism, to be punctual, to handle the dual role of servant and provider and all the subtle dynamics that entails.

Put a pin in that for a moment, and bear with me.

Earlier this year, I continued a recent reading binge by tearing through Musashi Miyamoto’s ‘Book of Five Rings.’ I’d had it recommended to me for years, told that it was a tome of ancient teachings and great wisdom and all the rest, blah, blah, blah. What I found was that, so much more, and not quite that at all – all at once. In it, the author states pretty clearly that the book you’re holding is a manual for his particular view on swordfighting, and it stays very true to that.

But one thing that he emphasizes in the Ring of Earth (if I remember right; don’t take me to court over that) is how alike all things are. He draws the distinction in terms of weapons, but extends the principle throughout: a sword may seem heavy and unweildy at first, but it’s that way for everyone; a bow may seem difficut to pull at first, but everyone gets stronger with time and practice; even a halberd is complex and tricky, but with training one learns the in’s and out’s. The point being that that trend continues for everything: pottery, painting, serving food, making shoes, carpentry – everything. Whenever you’re new at something, it seems difficult and nebulous, but the more you immerse yourself in it and learn about it then the more you are able to navigate it; and the more you realize that’s what everyone in the world does with everything. The only thing that separates you from an expert (or a novice from a master, in other words) is time and devotion of study.

Coming back to my point with Bourdain, there’s a TON of sh*t you pick up working with folks in the trades, some of it I’ve touched on before, and not all of it is as direct as how to cut a miter or fit a stud. There are a number of valuable soft skills and observations that come with it, and here are what I think are a couple of the highlights.

  1. You learn to tell the difference between a joke that has venom in it, and one that doesn’t.
  2. You learn to take pride in your work, if for no other reason than the things people will say about it when you don’t.
  3. When you see someone’s work around town and you get that “Hey, I know that guy” mental ping, it comes with a reminder that we’re all in this together. Sometimes we forget that our cities are just collections of people that work somewhere.
  4. (I’ve done this for years, but) Talk about people like they’re standing behind you. Keeps you considerate, and bad gas gets around.
  5. Patience pays off. It just might take a while.
  6. That said, swearing makes you stronger. Use that power.

Anyway, thanks for letting me rant. Get back to your day.

Ciao.

What I’ve Learned in my Time as a Tradesman

I fell into becoming a carpenter a little over a year ago. I had to renovate my mother’s house in order to sell it some time before that and get her into a better living situation, and learned a lot of it as I went. As that chapter was coming to a close, a friend saw the work I’d done, knew a guy, and asked if I’d be interested in learning the trade proper. I said “What the hey, why not?” and now here we are.

And I’ve learned a ton!* Chiefly:

  1. If you did it, then it was the best it could have been done and anything wrong with it was probably someone else’s fault anyway.
  2. If someone else did it and it sucks, then it’s because that person’s an idiot who doesn’t know a duck’s ass from its bill.
  3. If someone else did it and it’s great, then it still sucks a little bit, but maybe they’re not a total moron.

I…I do what I can to not carry this into daily life.

Cheers, everybody.

*This list was compiled from a combined experience watching or listening to experienced old tradesmen in their 50’s-60’s talk about their own work or work they’ve observed specializing in but not limited to: carpentry, plumbing, roofing, HVAC, pouring concrete, and refrigeration. I have a Jewish uncle that works with refrigeration that would likely concur with all points on this list, so you know you can trust it.