Monday, September 18, 2006

Dish dogs

Editor's note: this story is taken directly from observations and information provided by workers at several different restaurants downtown. Initially, proper names were included in this text. However, when it became clear that generally all of Saratoga's eateries boast similar if not identical stories –and in some cases involving the same workers cited below –the decision was made to allow the reader to fill in the blanks with their favorite chefs and dining spots. Think of it as an adlib and have fun.

When the chef of (insert restaurant name here) happened to glance at a photocopy of Emilio’s identification, his head began to nod slowly back and forth. Aside from the picture of his Washington state driver’s license not matching, there was a bold “F” printed on the card in the area listing his gender.

The anarchy of race season had just begun, when the short Mexican sauntered into (insert restaurant name here) with his buddy and offered to lend a hand in the dish pit. Much needed help too, with the revolving door of bodies that shifted in and out of the sweltering sty, where the essence of rotting half-eaten meals melds with the fetid smell of dirty linens.

Dishwashing is perhaps the most thankless of jobs in the service industry; one where workers are subject to all the rigors everyone else faces in the restaurant, pulse-pumping stress, third-degree burns, and the cool sting of landing ass first-after slipping on the water slick floor of the dish area. But unlike most of the other spots in the business, dishwashers’ pay is bad, their hours are worse and the only consolation most of the time is a few free beers at the bar after work.

So it’s no mystery that anyone with a pulse who can rack up a load of dishes is worth their weight in gold to those working in the bustling bistros along Broadway over the summer months. Nearly a decade ago, these people were often the degenerates of the city; the crack addicts, the booze hounds, the crazies.

But increasingly, these jobs are being filled by Latin Americans, who have waged somewhat of an exodus to the Spa City over the past five years. Chefs often hire them on the spot, needing to fill a recently vacated position or face doing dishes themselves. Then, after several days of work when the dishwasher needs to produce identification, the ruse is up and they walk away with some cash for their work, at least if the chef has conscience. Otherwise, they're walking away with nothing.

For a worker like Emilio, it’s off to the next restaurant in the row; he’ll walk in, pretend not to speak English and have a job within minutes. And if that restaurant is less discriminating –or in a more precarious position with staffing –there’s a good chance he’ll have an off-the-books gig for the rest of the season; if he doesn’t, he’ll simply walk to one of the other 70-something restaurants within the city limits.

His replacement, a young-looking Mexican teen calling himself Severiano kept the job for almost two weeks before it became blisteringly apparent that he wasn’t who he said he was. He wandered through the door after losing a full-time job washing dishes at (insert restaurant name here) a block away; they learned the dishwasher who was regularly swigging healthily spiced vodka and tonics after his shift was really 16 years old, about eight years younger than what was printed on his green card.

Regardless of how anyone falls on the immigration issue, there’s a certain air of disconsolation that is evident, as a burgeoning population of people walk the streets wraith-like and without any trace of whom they truly are. This is especially the case when anyone of these workers could either perpetrate or become the victim of a heinous crime that would ultimately go unpunished. After all, it is difficult to arrest someone for harming another who technically doesn’t exist, according to the government.

The good news is the white-milk population of the city might start to get a bit of color with massive influx of Latinos. Listed by the 2000 Census as being nearly 95 percent Caucasian, the city’s populace might start to look a bit more cappuccino by the start of the next decade.


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