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Book of Jobs Part 2

LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

by Chris Auman

Groucho Marx once said he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Likewise, I don’t really know if I trust a company that would hire me to work for them. Especially if they were to hire me on the spot like the riverboat company I worked for in the summer of 1990.

I found out about the job from a good friend from Galena, a fellow resort worker, a bellman, who had gotten a job on the boat as a porter. This particular enterprise was in possession of two ancient paddle boats which they still sent up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers laden with geriatric retirees. I mailed them my application to work as a cook in the kitchen on their Delta Queen riverboat and they must have considered my credentials for all of five minutes because I received a plane ticket by Fed Ex just a few days later. I was hired as a First Cook and was to report for duty before the week was out. The only thing that I was required to bring was my own set of, presumably professional, kitchen knives. Instead, I flew to New Orleans with the shittiest collection of knives Sears ever sold. As soon as I stepped off the plane and got that first blast of heavy, humid and oppressive Louisiana air, I had an inkling that this gig might suck. I could not fathom, however, just how much it would suck. I found out.

After working a half shift in the kitchen that first afternoon, I was told to report back at 2am for my regular shift which was 2am to 2pm. If that seems early it’s because it is, but the dock loading crew had to be fed before they started their horrible day and that was well before the sun was up.

Delta Queen River Boat

It quickly became apparent that, with the exception of the kitchen manager, I was the only white person employed in either the front and back of house and also the only dude (they were no women in the galley) who was from outside of Louisiana. My small town Yankee butt had a difficult time deciphering the dialect of the Deep South, but the language barrier was just one of the challenges I had to overcome on the fly. It didn’t help that the waiters didn’t submit their orders in writing, but simply called them out. The menu was not complicated. It was basically eggs, bacon, French toast, but I have the kind of brain that needs to visualize for comprehension and that includes seeing orders written on a ticket and not yelled at me in a steady stream.

My new grind was to continue on like this for twelve hours on, twelve hours off, seven days a week for six weeks straight. There would be two weeks off after that and then another six weeks on, etc. The pay was fifty dollars a day plus “room and board.” The “room” was a tiny, hot and humid cell with bunk beds located in the bowels of the boat. The “board” was all the eggs I could eat.

After four days of what I could only guess was the single worst job in the world, I was presented with an easy out. My predecessor, who had wisely bailed a week or two previously, was scheduled to have his two weeks off just four days after I started. I was basically looking at a two week vacation after only four days and they were footing the bill for the plane ticket back to Chicago. I had literally prayed to some god, probably the Christian one, and begged for a way to be taken off that boat. I had even contemplated jumping ship in Baton Rouge, but I didn’t know if there are alligators in the Mississippi or not. There was a whole lot I didn’t know about everything actually and Google wasn’t around to help me.

But now as my bad, then good, misfortune would have it, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. The schedule that was already in place dictated that I was to be flown back to Chicago for two weeks after which I would be sent a plane ticket to meet the boat in Cincinnati for a six-week trip up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh then back down to New Orleans. Less than a year later I would make it back to New Orleans, ironically enough by way of Cincinnati, but I did not return to the Delta Queen.

North Side Pimp >>


Originally published in RW#23, 2014

RW #23

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