Work for Your Supper

Work for Your Supper

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

Work for Your Supper

My freshman year of college, I worked in the cafeteria. It wasn’t my idea; my dad talked me into it. I was attending a small private college, and they had a program that allowed you to eat free if you worked a certain number of hours for the school. My dad caught wind of this and decided it was a wonderful idea. Dad has always been a work-for-your-supper kind of guy.

I balked at the idea. Dad sweetened the deal by telling me that he would send me fifty bucks a month if I agreed to it. Doesn’t sound like much now, I know, but then it seemed like a fortune to me.

After the first month, I was ready to renege on the deal. No one had informed me that my duties would include doing enough dishes to fill my dorm room. I didn’t know about deep fryers that left you so coated with grease that, no matter how thoroughly you showered later, you were guaranteed at least one really stunning zit. No one told me how bent out of shape the other students got if you forgot they were a vegetarian and gave them a dead animal to eat. They neglected to put a lot of pertinent information in that work-for-your-food flyer.

Without much enthusiasm, I wandered into the school’s kitchen to fulfill my obligation one Thursday afternoon. I looked at the menu for the meal and groaned. Not just french fries, but the much-loved apple cobbler that was baked in trays that weighed about one hundred pounds. I knew I was going home covered in grease and with arms that felt like limp noodles that day.

I was kind of surprised to see the head cook there. Wasn’t her shift.

“Why are you here?” I asked over the clanking of the industrial-sized dishwashers.

“Oh, Esther and Rose are both sick, so I’m filling in. I called my daughter, and she’s going to come help out, too.”

That made me feel a little better. Cook and her daughter were the most genetically joyous people I’d ever met. Working around them made even doing the dishes fun. Almost.

There was a new guy in the cafeteria. I sized him up. Beautiful. This might not be such a bad night after all. He was tall and lean with coffee skin and the deepest brown almond-shaped eyes. I smiled at him.

“Hey, I’m Arlene,” I said. “Welcome to the greasepit. You have a name?”

He flashed me a brilliant smile but didn’t answer. I looked inquiringly at Cook.

“Exchange student,” she told me. “From an African country.”

Well, this posed a problem. In a flash of noninspiration, I did a Tarzan impression. “Arlene,” I said emphatically while thumping myself on the chest. I then pointed at him. He got it.

“Moshe Suleman,” he answered.

I was plotting how I was going to break the language barrier when Cook’s daughter arrived. She waltzed in the back door and promptly slipped and broke her arm on the concrete floor. Broke it good, too. There was a bone sticking out. I screamed, Cook screamed. Cook’s daughter made noises I didn’t know human beings could make.

A very worried Cook pressed the list of things to do in my hand and fled out the door to be with her daughter as she was whisked away in an ambulance.

“You can handle it!” she yelled at me as she closed her car door.

I was not inspired. I walked into the kitchen and looked at my help, the non-English-speaking Moshe, and almost fled in a panic. The natives needed to be fed, however, and I heard small groups of them getting restless in the dining room already.

The first rush of people were ravenous wolves. We were quickly running out of french fries, so I left Moshe to serve while I went to drop more in the fryer. In the five minutes I was gone, Moshe had managed to really annoy one of the special dietary types. She was yelling, and he kept smiling. A smile like that should calm anybody, but it seemed to make her madder. I took over and gave her a no-salt, no-fat, no-meat, no-taste meal for the evening. She didn’t thank me.

The second group of people were hungrier than the first. I decided they could help themselves while I made more french fries and had Moshe make some more cobbler. I pointed to the cobbler and pointed to the convection oven while I was lettering a sign that told the hungry people it was self-service. I was in such a rush to get it out in the dining room, I wasn’t paying attention to Moshe. When I ran back into the steamy kitchen to dump in more fries, I found that Moshe had thought I had been pointing to the fryer. We were now the proud inventors of deep-fried apple cobbler.

What a mess.

The natives got really restless when I had to explain they would have to wait a half hour for more fries.

The rest of the evening was one big disaster after another. We ran out of forks, the dishwasher flooded and Moshe put salt instead of sugar into the iced tea. By the time the students slowed to a trickle, I felt and looked like I had been run over by a fleet of dumptrucks.

Finally, it was over. Nothing left but the dishes. Moshe and I did them in companionable silence.

“Hello,” said a strangely accented voice behind us. Moshe and I both turned, and I saw a woman standing there who was as beautiful as he was. She broke into a lyrical language, and Moshe answered her. They both laughed.

She turned to me and said, “Moshe would like to apologize for being such a problem. He asks if you would like to have dinner with us.”

What could I say? I accepted. With the caveat that Moshe couldn’t cook it.

Turned out that klutzy old Moshe was some kind of Ethiopian dignitary’s son. A dignitary who apparently had the same ideas about working for your supper as my dad. He took me not just out to dinner, but out to dinner to the best restaurant in the county.

The woman was his sister, and she came along to translate. We all went dancing afterward, and in the morning he delivered me a dozen roses.

Moshe and I didn’t become an item; he was already spoken for, but he treated me like a princess all the same. When that boy apologized, he did it with flair. As his English improved, we became the best of friends. We bonded over french fries, you might say.

I’ll tell you though, as wonderful as that meal with Moshe was and as much as I loved each delicious minute of it, I felt I had earned it and then some. The next day, I told my dad he was going to have to cough up another twenty-five bucks a month if he expected me to work for my supper next semester.

Arlene Green

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