BOCO DELI DAYS (excerpt)
On the morning of the 18th I walked up to the Deli, not sure if Rob would remember he'd offered me a job. When I got there the place was empty and Rob was behind the sneeze-guard, joking around with another guy who worked there. He smiled and waved for me to come in.
“Good to see you, Dan. Wasn’t sure I had a taker,” he said, shaking my hand. “This is Ricky. Ricky, this is Dan, he is coming on.”
Ricky was a tall, gangly-looking dude with curly blonde hair so bright it kind of looked bleached. The trace of color in his eyebrows suggested he wasn’t an albino, but if you just saw the chunks of hair escaping out from under his baseball cap you might think he was. He had a hippie-slacker vibe and slinked around the deli, snapping fingers and drumming on surfaces at random while Rob explained the details of the job to me. It was pretty straightforward, he said; he needed me to work shifts of differing lengths, four to six days a week. Everyone was pretty cool, and as long as I wasn’t a prick, we would all get on fine. Don’t miss work without calling, and don’t hit any customers. He laughed and added, "Unless they are really asking for it.”
A few years earlier Rob was a Teaching Assistant in a Macro Economics class I took at the University of Colorado. Since then I'd run into him periodically around Boulder, mostly at house parties or bars, and we always kept up a sort of friendship. We never hung out but he was a cool dude and we got along. Then, about two weeks ago, on the Fourth of July, I saw him at a party my buddy Scott had after the fireworks.
In Scott’s backyard Rob and I talked for a while, just catching up on life. When I told him I was hanging around Boulder looking for a job because even though I walked in the commencement ceremony in May there were still two classes I needed to finish up before getting my diploma, he offered me a job on the spot. I knew he had been working at the deli on University Hill for a few years, maybe even since he was TA’ing. It was always a little unclear to me if Rob had finished his Master’s, and if so why he was working in a deli, but I didn’t bring that up. I accepted his offer immediately. Rob was going back to Dallas for a while but he told me to come see him on the 18th.
From the middle of my sophomore year until that May I'd worked at Nameless Records on Pearl Street. Combined with an academic scholarship and cash infusions from my parents at opportune times it was enough to navigate the college-town lifestyle. I made average odd-job wages but the extra stuff that came with being a record store clerk made it fun: advance promos, guest lists, free records, stuff like that. The slumping economy, coupled with the move of music onto the internet, plunged Nameless into a bad financial situation. They held on as long as they could, which was probably six months too long, and in the middle of May 2003 the doors shut for good. Their last day of business was only a week after graduation, and the chaos of that time made my impending unemployment seem remote and not really too much of a concern. It wasn’t until my drive back to Boulder from dropping my parents off at DIA that it really hit home, I would need to find a new job.
I filled out the Deli application and went to the drugstore on the corner to photocopy my driver’s license. When I got back Rob threw me a starched white apron and a t-shirt with the BoCo Deli logo. The shirt was dark blue with the logo on the heart in red, yellow, and white. It read “Bo.Co.” in looping script with two mountain peaks towering behind the letters. The official name of the establishment was the Boulder County Delicatessen, but it was commonly known around town as BoCo or BoCo’s. For some reason a lot of people assumed the full name was the Boulder Colorado Deli, which is dumb.
“The uniform is pretty simple. One of these shirts, which you pay for from your check, the apron, and some kind of hat. You need to buy a shirt every six months. Don’t worry about the hat today,” Rob said. “We are pretty cool about everything else. Apron, hat, shirt. Easy enough, right?”
I changed into the shirt and slid the apron over my head. A couple came through the door and Ricky took their order while I fiddled with the strings.
“OK, just hang out and watch for a few minutes, then I'll give you some stuff to do,” Rob said. It was the first time I'd ever worn an apron and didn’t really know what to do. It took a few goes at the strings before I got them into a sturdy knot behind my back. When I saw myself in a mirror between the grill and sink the only thing I could think was the contrast of the clean white apron over the rich blue shirt made me look like a butcher. Not in the derogatory-epithet way that text books refer to the more vicious conquistadors or more modern war criminals, but like the kind of butcher you might see in a catalogue for industrial cooking equipment. So, I guess, more like an actor playing a butcher in hopes of selling an expensive set of knives.
Customers started to trickle in and I watched from the corner of the deli. The whole room was one big open rectangle. A smaller square walled off by a sneeze-guard on one side and a deli case on the other divided the cooking-area/kitchen from the tables. In the corner opposite the entrance a stairway led downstairs to the basement where there was a cleaning area, an office, and a break room. I settled in at the top of those stairs to watch Rob and Ricky. From there it seemed simple enough, making sandwiches was really all that went on. When there was a lull in foot traffic Rob gave me my first task: chopping up chicken to be used in salad.
He set me up on two metal tables in the rear of the Deli—there was a lot of room back there and that reassured me a little. The first cut I made into the flesh released the unmistakable and repugnant odor of thawing chicken which made me gag, more noticeably than I meant to. Rob smiled but misread the situation. “Don’t worry, dude,” he said, “it is all high-quality stuff, they screen for salmonella.” That made it even worse. I had come to terms with taking the job in the Deli and working with meat. I needed the money, and handling poultry was a part of the gig I would compartmentalize and block out. But the idea of salmonella, or any other strange livestock disease (which up until that point in my life, like earthquakes, coups, and winning the lottery) existed in the realm of stuff that probably happened, but not to me, not here, and made my stomach turn.
After I made a few more cuts Rob asked if I had ever worked in a kitchen before. I am pretty sure he already knew the answer was no as he took the knife from my hand. “Everyone does things their own way in here, but if you aren’t that familiar with knives you might wanna do it this way for now, lessens the chance of losing fingers,” he said, lining up the next piece of chicken. He touched the tip of the knife to the cutting board and tilted it forward so that the heel was several inches above the cutting surface, then he slid the chicken underneath and brought the blade down, pressuring it through into a smooth, clean cut. “The idea is not to let the tip break contact with the surface, that way you always know where the knife is, there is no flailing around. As long as you know where it is, and don’t put your hand underneath, you are straight. It sounds simple, but it really makes it a lot safer.”
Paying careful mind to this advice I plowed through the bucket, dismembering what seemed like an infinite number of bird carcasses without damage to my fingers. Soon the smell wasn’t as potent as when I first pulled the lid off the bucket, though it did linger for a long time at a lower dose. That smell and the possibility of cutting myself with a knife were things I hadn’t been considering. Still, by the time all the chicken was cut and ready for salad-making, I felt as if something snapped into place. I desperately needed a low-stress—even if it was low-paying—job that would let me finish out my last two classes, and BoCo seemed perfect. Rob was a nice guy and so was Ricky, and the work wasn’t complicated.
My shift ended around three and Rob told me to make myself a meal, eat it there or take it home if I wasn’t hungry. When I began slicing open a roll he suggested a few meats. “That’s cool, but I'm a vegetarian,” I said.
“Really? That’s cool. Cuts down your options in here, but that’s cool. Mozzarella and bell peppers are a good veggie sando,” he told me. I took his advice and laid them on the open roll while Rob continued talking.
“You are cool handling the meat and everything, Dan? I guess you are, I just saw you in here today.” He reached into the deli case, pulled out a packaged roast beef, shook it and said, “I would say try to avoid handling these. I mean if you have to you have to, but let me do it if we aren’t too busy. A lot of people get squeamish over it, even carnivores.” He squeezed the package in his hand and blood oozed from the meat up against the plastic packaging, dispersing outward when he tightened his grip. Rob made a face at the roast beef, then put it back in the case.
I took my mozz-and-bells sandwich and grabbed a seat at the bar that lined the window looking out onto College Avenue. There had not been a customer in nearly a half hour and Ricky was cleaning the tables in the dining area.
“You go to CU?” he asked me.
“Yeah, for another couple months. I walked in May but I have two classes to finish up.”
“Yeah, I'm doing one in summer school and one in the fall,” I told him. “What about you, do you go to CU too?”
Ricky bit a small smile back off his face and tilted his hand slowly then said, “Uhhh… sometimes.”
He let out a laugh, “I have a few times. On and off for about six years. The last class I took was spring of last year, and I am not going next semester, so it’s probably going to be two full years between semesters for me. I am on the go-at-your-own-pace program.”
“That’s cool. I feel like a lot of people do that out here.”
“Yeah, totally. I mean like why would you wanna leave in four years? Unless you have something really cool going on that you have to get out of town for, I would rather be young and broke in Boulder than pretty much anywhere else,” Ricky said.
I finished up my food, threw away the garbage and grabbed my bag from the top of the stairs.
“So, tomorrow?” I asked Rob when I got my stuff.
“Yeah, tomorrow, same time. We got some other stuff to show you, stocking room, shit like that. Thanks, man, have a good one,” Rob said and flipped a pack of potato chips to me over the glass divider. The sandwich was good and this was another added bonus. The chips were from a small, organic Boulder company and were delicious, kettle-cooked, and supposedly healthy in some weird niche-y/yuppie way but too expensive to justify on a starving college-kid budget so I'd rarely eaten them—but now, with a job at BoCo, they might become a fixture in my diet. Not so bad, I thought, tasting the prickly jalapeno coating of the chips as I walked down College Avenue, beneath the Broadway overpass and then began descending through campus toward my apartment on the other side.
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