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John Kelly's Washington

A Red Face From a Filthy Job

By John Kelly
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C09

I've had to do a lot of embarrassing things for work.

I'm not going to reveal all of them, because some of them I still have to do, and working and occasionally doing embarrassing things is better than never doing embarrassing things and not working.

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Having your pride's fine, but wouldn't you rather have a paycheck?

But I am going to share one thing that embarrassed me at a job, if only in the spirit of solidarity. I want you to tell me the embarrassing things you've had to do at work, and it seems only fair that I should go first.

In high school, I worked at the Brass Pony restaurant at the Woodward & Lothrop in Wheaton Plaza. I was what was called "utility man," a position which, despite its grandiose title, was one step below the busboy and one step above, well, nothing.

The utility man did all the gross things that no one else wanted to do: cleaning the pots, mopping the floors, scrubbing the walls.

Now, when you're a heterosexual high school boy, every waking moment -- and many non-waking ones, too -- is spent thinking about high school girls. You are particularly concerned with how you appear to girls. Do you look like a "fox," or barring that, at least some sort of semi-cute quadruped?

I could exercise some control over my appearance at the place I encountered most high school girls: at my high school. But I dreaded running into them while I was at work. It wasn't just that my job was menial or "uncool." It's that it was filthy.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but restaurant kitchens are dirty places. As a consequence, the people who work in them are dirty. I would start my after-school shift in clean jeans, T-shirt and white apron, but before long I looked as if I'd escaped from a maximum-security prison by crawling out a sewer pipe.

Is that French onion soup in your hair, or are you just glad to see me?

This wouldn't have been a problem if I'd spent all of my time in the kitchen, away from the eyes of potential girls. Occasional forays into the restaurant's seating area to retrieve dirty dishes weren't so bad, since I had mastered the art of the quick strike, clearing tables in a greasy blur. But at least once a shift, I'd have to take out the trash.

The restaurant was on the top floor of the store. The trash compactor was on the ground floor. The service elevator was on the other side of the furniture department. That meant that like Igor sent to fetch a brain, I had to leave the safety of the castle.

And this is when I wished I could become invisible. Picture a massive gray plastic wheeled bin, as big around as a baby pool and five times as deep. Flattened cardboard boxes are arranged along the sides, making walls that could accommodate even more suppurating trash bags.

At the back -- like a tiny insect rolling a huge ball of dung -- is me.

It was like piloting a garbage scow filled with the detritus cast up by the customers of the Brass Pony restaurant: the half-eaten sandwiches, the limp and oily salad bar leavings, the en-tissued chewing gum, the half-finished sodas, the congealing ketchup, the stubbed-out cigarette butts -- all of it a fermenting, sloshing mass that groaned against the corrugated battlements as I grimly pushed the bin through the furniture department and toward its destination.

I was always torn between going as fast as I could, to minimize the time in which I might encounter a female classmate, and faking an air of insouciance in the hope that if anyone could look cool rolling a putrid refuse bin through a department store, it was me. Because rushing too quickly might cause me to topple the bin, splattering its contents onto a sleep sofa or dining room set, I usually opted for a measured pace.

I never had an accident, and as far as I can remember, I never experienced the one thing I was most worried about: I never had a humiliating encounter with a girl I fancied.

And I know now that anyone who couldn't love me while I smelled like rancid cooking fat and was pushing a festering pile of garbage probably wasn't for me anyway.

Now it's your turn. Tell me your embarrassing work stories. It can be a single mortifying incident, or it can be a frequent job responsibility that brought you nothing but shame. Come on: Spill. Send your anecdotes, with "Job Indignity" in the subject line, to me at kellyj@washpost.com. Or write John Kelly, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your name and the city you live in.

Don't Go There

The Senior Beacon is a fine publication, aimed at Washington's youth-impaired readers.

Like all newspapers, the Beacon can't help it if there occur in its pages occasional unintended and ironic juxtapositions. Seymour Rich of Chevy Chase sent me one such example from the December issue. Below a little box that read "Please patronize the Beacon's advertisers" was an ad for the De Vol Funeral Home.

"I don't think I am ready to patronize all their advertisers," wrote Seymour, 87.

And I can't afford to lose a single reader. Keep eating your Wheaties, Seymour.

Bye Week

And with that, I'm out of here for a week. My column will resume Feb. 7.

Before I go, please join me today at 1 p.m. for my weekly online chat. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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