A lot of folks don’t know this, but a few of you do: I grew up in the back rooms of restaurants my parents owned over the years. I literally grew up in the back room of fast-food restaurants. My first job for pay was for my parents, until I was old enough to get a job working for someone else. Our lives revolved around these businesses, from how we ate to how we slept and everything in between. “Don’t bother us during lunch of dinner rush.” “Can’t come to your band concert, ’cause it’s at the dinner rush hour and we’re shorthanded–I know you have a solo.” But I can also say, we never went without food or money. There were tradeoffs, but it was an interesting upbringing.
The first one they owned, I was three years old when they opened it. It was a soda-shop type of burger diner, with a jukebox, a soda fountain bar, and booths and tables.
Daddy was always about the gimmick, so he found ways to make his restaurants unique, some type of a gimmick that would make the restaurant stand out in a different sort of way. This place was unique in the way it was decorated and then using the old timey soda shop type of format for it. He used oilfield spools (these are huge cable spools for the oilfield–we lived in West Texas, where oilfield was the primary industry) and he cut them and sanded them and then used a high gloss shellack over them to make them smooth and shiny and turned them into tables in the restaurant. They were really kind of cool. He also wallpapered the walls with Sunday colored funny papers and shellacked over them. People would read them while waiting to order. It was sort of neat. I was four when the restaurant actually opened and was running. My sister was a baby.
We lived in the back storeroom, a section my father had built paneled walls around, just for us. We slept on a fold out couch (my sister in a playpen when she was younger), and we took baths in the three-compartment sink each night. I remember being embarrassed to have to be naked around the employees–some of whom were male! It was a big deal for me back then!
This restaurant is now a dive bar pool hall. Go figure.
BIG O (We lived in Odessa, frequently called the Big O, and so the restaurant’s name)
The second place they owned was a Sonic-type drive in, but at the time, our city didn’t have a Sonic. We were unique and unusual and people liked to come there. I was in second grade when they owned that one. We, again, lived in the back room and I walked home from school–many, many blocks–with my sister every afternoon to the business, not our house. We played in the vacant lot behind the business. One day, a man in a white truck came and offered my sister candy, and she, a candy addict at her young age, was moving to go take it from him when I picked her up and carried her, kicking and screaming at me, into the back door of the business. She didn’t understand–and somehow, I think to this day, she’s probably still a little angry at me that she didn’t get her candy.
Strangely enough, though, that’s not the end of the story.
I told my father about what happened, and my dad–a gun-toting Texan–went outside with a sawed off shotgun (yes, I know they were illegal) and tried to chase the truck down. Fortunately, at that moment, the truck and driver were gone already. But here’s where the story gets weird. The guy comes back. He parks in the very far stall of the Sonic-like carhopping drive-in my parents owned. And he just sits there. He never pushes the button to order. After some time, one of the carhops goes to ask him if he needed any help and he exposes his penis to her. She comes inside and my dad comes running out again with the gun, but the guy drives off. Then, the guy comes back AGAIN and parks a little closer.
Finally, my dad goes out there with the gun waving, the guy sees it and scrambles to take off. The police have been called by now, but they haven’t shown up yet. My father, in his infinite wisdom, uses the sawed-off shotgun, under a METAL awning of the drive-in, and shoots out the back tire of the truck and his hearing for a couple of minutes. Flup, flop, flop, flop… the guy drives away with a destroyed tire, much slower than he probably expected to do drive away.
The problem is, the kickback on the gun was pretty powerful and the hammer knocked back and sliced open the skin between my dad’s thumb and finger, leaving a nice bleeding gash wound.
When the cops finally showed up, the shotgun had been put away, hidden safely, and daddy’s hand was already wrapped up with a white, bloodied, but clean kitchen towel. He gave a statement to the police. They did eventually find the truck and the guy–who was drunk as a skunk and passed out when they found him–and they noticed the shredded tire. When the one good ‘ole boy cop asked my dad what had happened, daddy told him, “Someone must have shot out his tire…” the cop just laughed and said, “Yup, guess so.” And that was that.
Welcome to Texas.
REAL ESTATE TO FAST FOOD AGAIN
After that, my father sold Big O to someone and went into real estate, unrelated to the truck event. He was quite good at it, regularly being the top salesman. At a time in the early 80s when technology was nowhere near what it is today, my father developed a technique of doing video walkthroughs of houses to show to prospective clients. He would use a very expenses and extremely large video camera to record a narrated walkthrough of the house, then he could sit in his office and show the walkthrough to his clients, so often times they would be able to watch several videos–all on VHS tape, mind you–before they saw any houses in person. This saved him and them tons of time, because often they’d see something about the house that was a deal breaker right away and that avoided having to go all the way out to the house and set up a time to see it and all that other jazz for a house they really wouldn’t want. It was revolutionary at the time. I realize now, that seems very minor, but at the time, it was truly cutting edge. It gave him an advantage of the other agents, and it was very convenient for his clients.
But while selling real estate, he came upon a listing for a business property that was an excellent price, before it was really posted to the open market. He was more made to be a self-made man, I think, and the prospect of owning his own business again appealed to him more. So he bought the business, and the next phase of our growing up in the back rooms of fast-food restaurants began.
BJ’s DRIVE IN, HOME OF ODESSA’S LARGEST BURGER (seriously, probably the biggest you’ll ever eat anywhere–the size of a dinner plate, special made bakery bun and a whole pound of beef hamburger patty, hand pressed. This is a good burger, ya’ll–it’s the size, food-wise, of four regular hamburgers, and they would dress it half and half to accommodate likings, sort of like a pizza).)
The summer before my fourth grade year, my father and mother bought a small little burger shop. I think the name of it was Jerry’s Burgers or something like that, before but it had been closed down for a little while. Inside, everything was coated in grease. The place was small, dirty and much in need of some work. So that summer, we rolled up our sleeves, the whole family and some friends, and we renovated the place. Daddy replaced all the ceiling tiles and painted them darker colors so they wouldn’t show the grease and wear on them. They bought new equipment and scoured and cleaned everything until it shined so brightly. He built countertops with scrap wood and put Formica tops on them. We all painted and scrubbed and cleaned everything. They even added a small section onto the back of the business, expanding it more, and adding some room for storage.
He named the place BJ’s. God, you have no idea, growing up in junior high, how much ribbing I took for that name. At first, I didn’t know what a BJ was–hey, I was a kid. But by seventh grade, I knew it referred to oral sex, and the teasing was relentless. Folks would even call the business and order a BJ–and my mother would, stone-serious, ask if they wanted mustard or mayonnaise on it, and they would hang up on her. Daddy’s name is Robert, and though no one in his family or close friends did, several people in business called him Bob–and my mother’s name is Jean. So some folks thought BJ’s stood for Bob and Jean’s. My maiden name starts with a J, and if you asked my father, he would say it stood for Bob J______. Just depended on mood, which direction that would go. Still, the one thing it didn’t stand for, was oral sex. Couldn’t call in an order for that one.
Next door to this property was a small house, little two bedroom, one bath, tiny house, but it was cute enough. There was a family who lived there at first, with some kids, so we had some kids to sort of play with. Eventually, they moved out, and my parents turned the house into a sort of playhouse for us. This was not a fancy house–it probably wasn’t even truly habitable. The toilet was a mess, barely worked, the fixtures were old and decaying. They had electricity to it, but no heat or water or air to it. We would later use the kitchen and back rooms as storage, and they made a makeshift living room and table in the front rooms that my sister and I used as a sort of playhouse. As an adult, I am more fully aware of the privilege with which I was raised, when as a child, we had a playhouse that was once the home that a family struggled to live in. We also had Girl Scout meetings in the little house next door. We had a treehouse and a nice rope swing and an oilfield cable spool table (leftover from the first restaurant) to stand on and jump off the table on the swing.
I had my first grownup kiss at age 13, and I do mean a grownup kiss, sitting on that table right in full view of my parents from the window of the restaurant–but that’s a story for another blog and another time. Interesting side note, on FB, I am friends now with the man who was once the kid who gave me that first kiss–and I’m not sure he remembers me or knows that I am that person. It’s strange. I’m in my forties now, and I’m very open sexually and emotionally, but for some reason, I still feel like that 13-year-old, inexperienced kid, when I think about asking this man if he remembers me… Oh, well.
It was a strange experience growing up in fast-food restaurants. I learned a lot of interesting things, such as: did you know how much sodas are truly marked up? When bought in bulk, including cup, lid, straw, ice, soda and everything, sodas cost literally pennies to make, but they can be sold for a couple of bucks, and the profit margin on them is HUGE. Big money in soft drinks for businesses, especially sit-down restaurants that don’t use disposable cups. My parents got this awesome crushed ice that was so good and they set their soda settings for more syrup, so our sodas were some of the best around–people drove out of their way because they loved our sodas. We learned gimmicks sold, because people are suckers if they think they are getting a good deal, even if they aren’t. We learned just how bad for you all the junk food is, and we actually rarely ate our own food–not because it didn’t taste good, but when you see what all goes into it and you feel the grease all over your skin and hair and the walls and the floors that had to be scoured every night, you just don’t want it as much.
My parents were meticulously clean. Their health department inspections regularly yielded 100%, with their lowest ever being a 96% (and there was a story behind that, new inspector, a fight with my dad, probably a retaliation thing, and that was still the worst he could get the score). But considering what we KNEW about how things go behind the scenes, our 100% ratings made us very much question the cleanliness and healthiness of establishments that made just barely passing grades of 70%. Scary.
And I, unlike many of my friends, didn’t find sodas so fascinating. I was able to have soda as much and as often as I wanted. When I was a kid, sodas were a treat in most people’s homes. It’s not like now where it seems everyone has soda all the time. Back then, sodas were expensive and rare and not drank very often. But I could walk up to the soda machine and have one any time I wanted. And yet, I drank water most of the time… because when it wasn’t a treat, drinking soda all the time just didn’t appeal to me. My sister, on the other hand, became a soda addict. She drinks sodas like some people drink coffee, can’t start her day without one and drinks them all through the day. Buys the big double gulp 7-11 soda cups and has Dr. Pepper at the house all the time, type of thing. She drank them like this even when she was a kid, so yeah. Different paths. My sister and I really aren’t all that much alike, and when we were younger, that was even more evident.
Anyway, there were many other lessons learned from living in the back room of businesses, and I’ll provide them later on the blog, when I get the urge to talk about the past again. I don’t know what brought this one on… just was thinking about how fast-food and eating has changed over time.
So that’s all the memory sharing for the day. Stay tuned to the blog. I’m sure there are some more memoir type memories coming in the future. Just little glimpses of Michy’s life back in the day. Some day, when after I’m famous, ya’ll can use all my blog memory posts to recreate the movie that won’t be made of my life when I’m dead. (line from a Bon Jovi song: “As I dream about movies they won’t make of me when I’m dead….”
Love and stuff,