Sep. 5, 2011

Short-order Cook

by Jim Daniels

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain't no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop spit spit...
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point—
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
"Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!"
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

"Short-order Cook" by Jim Daniels, from Places / Everyone. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1958 that the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (books by this author), was published in the United States. Doctor Zhivago isset during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades, and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected —the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution, too concerned with individualism.

An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!" He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. One of them said: "I have come to the profound conviction that what I wrote cannot be regarded as a finished work," and in another Pasternak called his novel "in need of serious improvement." But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and continued with publication. Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: "I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish."

Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago, and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union's attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day. Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States on this day in 1958, and even though it wasn't published until September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a bestseller in 24 languages.

Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1958, and when he first head of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize. Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988.

Doctor Zhivago begins: "On they went, singing 'Rest Eternal,' and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried?'—'Zhivago,' they were told.—'Oh, I see. That's what it is.'—'It isn't him. It's his wife.'—'Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.'"

It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published (books by this author). He was a fast typer, and he found it annoying to have to pause and change sheets in the typewriter, so he typed the whole manuscript on a 120-foot scroll of drafting paper. Kerouac told one interviewer that he wrote On the Road in three weeks, and from then on everyone thought that he was a spontaneous writer who never revised anything. He liked that image, but it wasn't true. He did type up On the Road in about three weeks, but he had been working on it for years. He wrote and re-wrote pieces of the novelin his journals in the late 1940s, and then typed it all up in 1951, and then reworked it several times in an attempt to get it published. It was rejected over and over again, but finally accepted by Viking—who had rejected it four years earlier.

In On the Road, Kerouac wrote: "We fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess—across the night, eastward over the Plains, where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word, and would arrive any minute and make us silent."

Today is Labor Day. Most countries besides the United States celebrate Labor Day on May 1st, International Workers' Day—a date that was chosen in part to commemorate the Haymarket riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886.

We know that the first Labor Day celebration in this country occurred on September 5th, 1882, in New York City, and was organized by the Central Labor Union; but there is a debate over whose idea it was in the first place. Labor Dy became a national holiday in 1894, partly because it was a convenient way for President Grover Cleveland to appease an angry workforce after he violently broke up a strike.

In 1884, railroad workers in Pullman, Illinois went on strike. The town of Pullman was built for the sole purpose of housing people connected with the Pullman Palace Car Company, from the regular workers to Pullman himself. Everyone in the town worked for the railroad, which dictated their wages as well as their rent. In 1893, the nation went into an economic depression, and workers' wages were slashed, but they were still working 16-hour days and the company was still taking the same amount for rent out of their paychecks. So Pullman workers went on strike. Railroad workers across the nation who belonged to the American Railway Union joined the strike, refusing to switch trains with Pullman cars on them. Soon anyone who sympathized, union workers or not, joined in the cause, and riots broke out all over. Passengers and mail couldn't make it west of Chicago.

Grover Cleveland declared that the actions of the workers were criminal, and he sent 12,000 troops to control them. Soon the strike was over, the head of the American Railway Union was sent to prison, and all Pullman workers were required to sign a form saying that they would never strike again. The strike was officially declared over on August 3rd.

Unfortunately for Cleveland, the general public was not too happy with his hard-line stance. So he rushed a Labor Day bill through Congress, and six days after the strike ended, Labor Day was declared a national holiday on the first Monday of September.

These days, only 11.9% of American workers belong to a union, and among private sector workers that number is down to 6.9%. For most Americans, Labor Day has become a time to celebrate the end of summer with a last barbecue or camping trip.

Rachel Hadas wrote "The End of Summer":

Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.

Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody's life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.

Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,

we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,

redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors' cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).

In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.

Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show