No. 10, Bus Girl / Pizza Maker (Age 16-17)

Tip: A small sum of money given to someone for performing a service; a gratuity.

“Taco pizza?” I said as I peeked inside the cardboard box Lisa brought home from work. Inside was a cold pizza covered with wilted lettuce and shriveled tomatoes. A dozen packets of taco sauce were crammed under the crust.

“It’s totally awesome,” she squealed. “Have a slice.”

“It sounds totally sick!” Cheddar cheese and ground beef belonged on a bun with ketchup, not on a crust. Still, my hesitant nibbles turned into enormous bites, and before long I had eaten half of her dinner.

“Jesus Christ, were you hungry? Don’t they feed you at McDonald’s?”

“Tonight was my last night. I had a cheese Danish.”


“Seriously. I love those things.”

“No, I meant did you seriously quit.” 

“Oh, yeah.”

“Really? We need someone to bus tables down at Paul’s.”

“Really? I’ll apply tomorrow.”

And so I did just that, locking in job number ten without missing a day’s pay in the transition. Of course, the only thing I knew about Paul’s Pizza when I signed up for dish duty was that when Lisa came home from her shifts she smelled really bad. She stunk. I never thought to connect the dots and just assumed she was boycotting deodorant again. Turns out it was actually onions, and I’d soon have the same stinky cloud following me around. 

As you might imagine, there is nothing exciting or even interesting about bussing tables, and so in between the stretches of time I spent standing on concrete hunched over a stainless steel sink full of dishes—stretches of time I can accurately trace to the birth of my very first spider veins—I ate pizza. Lots and lots of pizza. I tried every permutation of ingredients, searching for that perfect combination of greasy meat and vegetables.

It was my senior year of high school and I’d completely given up any attempt to live as a culinary ascetic—and had packed on seventy pounds. Let me put that in perspective. I consumed an extra quarter million calories beyond what my body needed—in just under a year. This weight gain coincided with (or perhaps catalyzed) an extremely late burst of physical development. I cleaned tables and washed dishes and had far too many people watching as my body began to bust open at the seams.

“Hey, Sandy! Can you get table ten?” I wiped my hands on my apron and grabbed a bus tub, pausing to look through the smudged circular window. To the left of table ten were a few girls from my senior class; to the right of table ten were some jocks. I pushed open the swinging doors and headed straight to the table, looking into the bus tub so as not to meet anyone’s eyes. I loaded up the dishes and thought I’d gone unnoticed when the table of girls started whispering.

“It looks like someone’s been eating too much pizza.”

“Shut up, she’s standing right there.”

“Oh my god, that is so sad.”

As though on cue, the jocks filled in the balance of my humiliation by laughing and elbowing each other, their snickers punctuated with mooing and oinking. I fought back tears and wiped the remaining sauce from the table before heading for cover in the kitchen. 

If only that experience were an isolated incident. As one of the few bus girls I spent way too much time sweating in that dining room. And Paul’s was always short workers so there was never a break. Not for me. Nor for the pizza makers (which was sometimes me, but not often enough). A handful of shifts were so busy unattended pizzas spilled from the motorized oven onto the floor.

One night in the middle of the madness, Lisa stepped on the end of an industrial mop, causing it to pop up and whack her in the mouth, just like in a cartoon. It bloodied her face and snapped off half a tooth. She was whisked away on a dental emergency (we were all jealous) as pizzas continued to fall like stones.

“Sandy, get over here and help make pizzas! Let’s go! Let’s go!” someone called from the pizza line. I took a towel and followed the bloody path out the back door, then hustled to join the pizza makers, wondering all the while who was going to do the dishes. After a few pies passed my station, the manager starting yelling.

“Sandy! Cheese!”





“Yeah, I put cheese on them.“

The manager turned to me, exaggerating her annunciation and gesturing with her hands like one of us was deaf (not sure which one, but one of us).

“Please. Go. Get. More. Cheese. Out. Of. The. Cooler.”

Good Lord. She could have said that in the first place. I allowed a moment of fantasy in which I called her a bitch and we rolled around on the floor, me pulling her hair like my sister pulled mine when we fought, then I went into the cooler and stuffed a handful of mozzarella in my mouth. My head was still tipped back when Cheryl the Delivery Girl burst in.

“What are you doing?”

“Um . . .” I swallowed as much of the cheese as I could, choking a bit (my mouth was dry). “I’m refilling the pizza table. Lisa broke a tooth in half so I’m filling in.”

“Can you help me load up my car for the next delivery?” Cheryl stood just inside the cooler door organizing a pile of wrinkled money and checks.

“Do you always carry that much money with you?”

“No, these are my tips.”

“No way! Those are your tips?” There were some fives and tens mixed in with the singles.

“Yeah, some nights I make over fifty bucks. Grab some taco sauces, will you?” Just then my boss flung open the cooler door.

“What the Christ in Hell are you doing in here?” she yelled.

“Um, I was uh . . .”


Eight months, hundreds of bus tubs, and thousands of unneeded calories later, I was hanging out with Lisa while she got ready for the prom I wasn’t invited to. I’d decided to work instead of going stag with all the other dweebs, knowing I’d stand by the wall and be universally ignored. Instead of satin and uncomfortable sandals, I got to squeeze into my requisite polyester slacks and a horizontally-striped shirt that gripped the expanding chest I no longer wanted.

I told Lisa, “I’m thinking of being a delivery driver.”

“Doubt it. For starters, you have to be eighteen. Don’t you know everybody hates the delivery drivers?”

“No. Why’s that?”

Duh. Because they make tons of money and never have to smell like onions.”

Hated or not, the more I thought about the cash, the faster I filled with Tip Envy. I promised myself I would one day be a delivery driver. I just had to get my hands on some of those tips. Why was I never the one to get tips? Where were my tips?

“Are you going to stop by the dance later?” Lisa’s voice tugged me from my reverie.

“Yeah, right. I’ll just swing by at midnight when I smell like Farmer Dan’s onion fields.”

“Okay!” Lisa shouted over the blow dryer, her feathered blonde hair shielding her eyes from my envious stare. I reached up and shoved a handful of frizzy curls behind an ear.

To say I was happy to be finished with high school is an understatement. I quit working at Paul’s Pizza as soon as I tore off my tissue paper gown, then immediately signed on for a second summer at McDonald’s in Okoboji. Lisa was nary a shadow behind me. Finally, we’d be free of the tang of onions.

It was far better smelling like French fries.


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