Sunday, June 5, 2011

My First Job

I got my first paying job at age 16, busing tables and washing dishes at an independent family restaurant in Joliet, Il. called; Bogdan's Magic Palace.  The owners, in a father/son partnership, opened it to the public in 1977, and it was a combination diner/ice cream parlour & magic shop.  It was a pretty genius idea at the time.  People would come in for some tasty lunch or dinner, a malted shake or some other soda fountain creation, and stand the good chance of getting a little table magic entertainment by a professional magician.

Most of the interior was carpeted restaurant space, with vinyl-upholstered booths and diner tables. The wall decor featured old-fashioned sconce lights, and several large, framed promotional Magic posters from the early 20th century.  Houdini, Thurson, Harry Blackstone Sr.  Then there was a glass counter and display case near the front register where magic tricks were demonstrated and sold by Dave, the son and co-owner in this venture.  There were some shelves with larger stage effects on display, and though the magic shop only occupied a small fraction of the restaurant, the stuff Dave chose to stock was professional quality magic.  Always a couple of inexpensive Marshall Brodien type starter sets on hand for quick sale, but the bulk of his inventory was a selected cross-section of great card, coin, and close-up magic.

Also near the entrance was a colorfully painted upright player piano, that would occasionally be switched on to entertain the patrons.  The front of it had a large glass pane that allowed you to see its inner workings as it cranked away some Scott Joplin ragtime.  It did sound glorious.   
..And I would be remiss if I did not mention the centerpiece mascot of this family establishment;
a 6 1/2 foot tall animatronic clown that stood just inside the entrance, where it would slowly twist back and forth, raising its right arm each time in a dead robotic salute. As if to say;  "Come on in and join the fun!!"
It looked like a life-sized Zippy the pinhead, with a conical dunce hat, painted lifeless eyes and hideous fixed grin, like Gwynplaine.  It exemplified 'creepy clown', and on some dead rainy nights it was an unsettling presence.  After all, it was standing right by the door.  And if it, by some bizarre freak occurrence, ever came to life and went 'Pennywise'?  Well, the only other way out was through the back, which opened to a labyrinth of hallways with locked doors.
On those nights the clown's perpetual wave seemed to say; "..If I could grasp a butcher knife, this is how I would be stabbing you repeatedly."

But those slow nights could be fun too, and sometimes Dave would entertain us with some sleight of hand magic, or we'd play with some of the joke novelties that were sold (did you know that a whoopie cushion bursts with a really loud 'POW!' if you sit on it hard enough?).  One night I volunteered to break out of Dave's straight-jacket.  He had one on the premises that he used in his act, and he strapped me in pretty well.  It took me a good 8 minutes, but I put on my best Tony Curtis and wriggled out of it like Houdini.
     
Obviously, Bogdan's Magic Palace was especially popular for kids' birthday parties.  And this was not lost on the magician, who would routinely produce the birthday child's free hot fudge sundae via magic box.  This decorative rectangular box was mounted on a single pole stand, and it had an open front and a door on the back. There was a light that illuminated the inside, and kids would gape in wonderment as they'd watch the birthday dessert slowly fade into view, "right before their very eyes!"  Then Dave would open the back door and remove the sundae for the birthday child to eat.
Dave designed the illusion, which was an enhanced version of a classic mirror production box.
It was actually pretty cool the way it worked.  

Not long into the 18 months I worked there I earned enough to buy my first car, a 1967 Chevy Malibu.  It was a piece of shit for which I only paid $200, but it was all mine and it got me to and from work.
I also made a few friends while I worked there. One of the short-order cooks employed there was a guy named Dino.  Dino was a wiry black dude in his 40s who lived on the East side of Joliet, and he was a character to work with.  He'd sit and read Khalil Gibran during his break, and occasionally one of his many 'lady friends' would drop by for a brief visit. It didn't take long to realize either Dino was a serious hound or he did some pimping on the side (or both).
Dino also regularly came to work stocked with a couple of joints in his wallet, and would spark up in the walk-in freezer. I discovered this by walking in one night, and surprised him in mid-toke.  He then gained my confidence by getting me so high I could barely finish my work shift.
But the drive home sure was fun that night.

There were also some weird customer moments, the most memorable surrounding a family that came in about once a month, regularly.  The family was comprised of a mom and dad, 5 unruly kids, and their grandparents.  They appeared to be a farm family by the way they were dressed, the dad in bib overalls and flannel shirt, the mom in baggy jeans and flannel shirt.  All of them had bad haircuts. Even the girls.  The grandparents were the give-away though, and they all looked like members of the Joad family.  And for whatever reason, they ALWAYS came in on a Wednesday night and ALWAYS ordered the broasted chicken for dinner.  Without variation. It's like it was their ritual chicken dinner family night on the town.
Dino referred to them as; 'the chicken family', and the name stuck. 
I mentioned their kids were unruly, and that was the source of some weirder moments.  As soon as they were done eating their dessert they would all jump out of their chairs and start running around the restaurant, making a lot of racket in the process. And the parents and grandparents would just sit there talking, belching, and smoking cigarettes, while all this went on. They'd be in there for a good 2 hours for dinner and dessert, then leave a colossal mess behind. And they were lousy tippers to boot. 
On more than one occasion Dave had to ask them to reign in their little mongrels or they'd be asked to leave.  ..And on one evening? One of their kids pulled the giant mechanical clown over on top of himself.
The damned thing toppled like a tree, falling right onto this little 9 year old white-trash brat and pinning him to the floor.  ..Like it just had enough and was intent on squashing, or molesting, ..whatever it took to give this child horrific nightmares.
The kid wasn't physically injured.  But the look on his face was pretty priceless.

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