Saturday, January 21, 2006


When I worked at Arbys (America's Roast Beef, Yes Sir!), I told myself repeatedly that it was only a way station. I was, after all, on my way to bigger things. I was going to college (eventually) and would become a renowned writer and film maker, with plenty of gritty real-world experience to ground my art. I understood that I rose quickly throughout the ranks of the "tuna" (as the counter help was called) because I was so very clever, and the fact that I didn't really "need" the job made me all the more promotable. I was an assistant manager because that too was an interesting diversion. I spent years of my life in a fast-food restaurant, kidding myself that I could just walk away at any moment. I never saw myself as a career roast beef guy.
I'm pretty sure that Waldo never saw himself as a career roast beef guy, either. In a future I imagined during crazy lunch rushes, with IBM employees shouting orders at me in groups of three or five or eight, I saw myself following the path of Waldo. He would walk into the back room half an hour before the crush, put down his briefcase, grab a cup of coffee and pour two cartons of milk into it (his stomach lining wasn't what it once was). Whoever was working the slicer would make way for Waldo, knowing that he was a zen master of sandwich making. Three of us took orders at the counter, calling back our sandwiches to Waldo. "Two regulars, please." "Thank you.""Beef and Cheddar, please." "Thank you." "Hamchy." Pause. "Hamchy." Still nothing. "Hamchy, please." "Thank you." Politeness was part of the program at all of Waldo's stores. If you didn't say "please," he wouldn't make your sandwich, and there you'd be with your potato cakes, two large Dr. Peppers and no sandwich - waiting. Waldo's other insistence when he worked slicer was that when you called back an order for a Super Roast Beef, you had to ask for a "Waldo, please." If you called out "Super, please," you'd hear "Excuse me?" New tuna would have this exchange several times before they realized that he was completely sincere in his motives. "Two Waldos, please." "Thank you."
Waldo moved throughout the world of roast beef with effortless grace. He had a company car. He got to wear a nice white shirt without the godawful polyester vest. He had actually met the owners of our franchise stores, the elusive "Mike and Cowboy." But the most fascinating thing about Waldo was that he had actually appeared on "Tic-Tac-Dough." He met Wink Martindale. He played the game. He lost. He got a consolation prize. It was a hand-held vacuum that he donated to the break area of our store.
I stayed in touch with Waldo after I finally found my way out into the wider world. He eventually moved on too, opening his own pizza franchise. I became a regular there. When Waldo was putting together a team for the University of Colorado Trivia Bowl (Renegade Poodles From Hell), he asked if I wanted to be an alternate. I was flattered at the offer. Even though I had won my share of Trivial Purusit games, I had never been on a real game show. It was on the stage of the Glenn Miller Ballroom in the University Memorial Center that we forged our true bond. I moved as quickly from alternate to regular as I had from tuna to manager. I pulled a movie trailer bonus question out of the air when I saw a picture of Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepard: "At Long Last Love." It wasn't just having the right answer, it was saying it with conviction. Those evenings under the lights with the other Poodles are singular in my memory. When they were over, I felt a little lost.
I went and saw Waldo once when I went back to Colorado to visit. I took my baby son and my wife to visit him at the car dealership where he was the sales manager. I watched him close a deal on a Dodge Viper - with effortless grace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Poodles! CAVEN!"