When I was sixteen, I became the dishwasher at a barbecue restaurant in Corpus Christi, a hot, humid city on the Coastal Bend of Texas. I almost didn’t get the job because the manager of the place, Gary, didn’t like me. Gary was a short, grizzled fellow in his 40s who ran his restaurant with a smoker’s voice and an iron fist. I was a skinny kid from the suburbs, apparently naïve, and he didn’t think I knew how to work.
The restaurant was a rectangular building made of painted concrete blocks and a flat roof. Attached to the building proper was a “pit room,” which was a fenced-in area covered by a slanted roof made of corrugated steel. A screen was pinned between the top of the fence and the roof to keep bugs out. There were three cylindrical barbecue pits, ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, which had been made from sections of oil pipeline. Each had three doors: Behind the bottom door was the fire, and behind the top two were grates where we cooked racks of pork ribs and whole beef briskets. The briskets and ribs continuously rained liquid fat upon the fire, causing it to flare on occasion, so you had to pay close attention to the air supply to make sure you didn’t burn what you were cooking.
The only reason I got the job at all was because of the restaurant owner, Kenny. Kenny was Gary’s younger brother. He was more financially successful than Gary and fancied himself as a privileged guy. My family wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but we were closer to the middle class than Gary or the rest of the employees there, and Kenny seemed to like that about me. I think he enjoyed having a “college boy” around, which is what they all took to calling me after I graduated from high school the next year.
For six hours a day on weekdays, and eight on the weekends, I stood in front of a stainless steel sink with an overhead water sprayer in my hand and cleaned dishes and pots and pans. When I wasn’t at the sink, my job was to separate tiny chunks of beef from long strips of leftover brisket fat. These tiny chunks eventually added up to a plastic tub of flesh that we mixed with barbecue sauce and called “chopped beef.” Being so intimate with the fat, this was the most tender meat in the brisket and tasted wonderful on a sandwich bun. It was the second most popular item we sold. But that meat sat on a table, unrefrigerated and uncovered, for hours, and no one who worked there would eat it.
Once a week, each of the barbecue pits had to be cleaned, because the constant rain of fat and grease coated the grates and the interior circumference of the pit. The way we cleaned the pits was to set them on fire. Literally. We removed the meat, opened all three doors, and started a big fire. The fire fueled itself on the caked-on grease and would climb all the way to the top of the pit. As the fire grew we shut first the bottom and then the middle door, leaving the top door open until we could see flames licking at the top. Then we’d shut that door with a long gardening tool that looked like a straightened hoe. As the fire raged inside, flames ten feet high, the air hole at the very bottom would hiss as oxygen was sucked through it. That was the sound of the fire breathing.
Eventually we’d suffocate the fire and allow the pit to cool slightly, and then it was the dishwasher’s job to climb inside and scrape loosened grease off the walls. I was the dishwasher, so that meant me. As you can imagine, it was massively hot in there. Hot and nasty. When I emerged from the pit, the only surface of my body not entirely black were the whites of my eyes. Even after fifteen minutes scrubbing with soap in the filthy kitchen bathroom, I could only begin to find the pink skin of my arms and face.
Eventually, after a couple of years, I worked my way up to the Head Cook job. This was much easier. Mainly you stood in the pit room and listened to music. Or smoked weed if that was your thing. Or you fantasized about which of the serving line girls you wanted to sleep with. I was still a virgin, but I nevertheless imagined that Brenda, she of the giant D-cup breasts, would one day saunter into the pit room and seduce me. She was thirteen years my senior, and the stories about her exploits with older men at the restaurant became my imaginary porn. There was no Internet back then and my family didn’t subscribe to Cinemax, so what else was I supposed to do?
In the morning, the cook on duty would take briskets, forty or fifty of them, out of the walk-in freezer and load them into one of the pits. Then he would take a natural gas “torch” and use it to start a new fire. The torch was a half-inch natural gas line with a metal fitting on the end. It took forever to light a fire this way, like thirty minutes on a good day. We didn’t have kindling, after all. Just mesquite logs.
As it happened, the morning of December 24, 1989 was my shift. Residents of Texas and other areas of the south may remember 1989 as one of the coldest Decembers on record. The low that morning at Corpus Christi International Airport was 15 degrees, which was actually two degrees warmer than the previous morning. The palm trees were not happy. It was so cold the thermostat in my truck’s coolant system froze stuck on the way to the restaurant, causing the engine to overheat. So I was late to work and already pissed off when I got there. I had no patience to watch a feeble natural gas flame ignite eight mesquite logs, especially not when Brenda stepped into the pit room and asked if I would help her carry a pot of barbecue sauce into the kitchen.
I never worried about the burgeoning fire. It was 15 degrees outside, so I figured if anything the logs would take longer than normal to ignite. Brenda and the other girls were inside, and I was happy to chat them up about whatever. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another two hours, so Gary the crotchety manager was still at home in bed. Everything was good.
This is why, when we heard someone banging on the front door, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Even when he yelled, “The pit room is on fire!” my brain didn’t want to make the connection. I’d only been inside for five minutes, maybe ten. Nowhere near enough time for a fire to start.
Still, I took off for the back door. My heart begin to hammer in my chest. What if the pit was on fire? It was fully loaded with briskets. Hundreds of dollars worth of briskets.
I reached, the door, yanked it open, and what I saw was a monster.
Flames were pouring out of all three open doors. The pit was ten feet tall, remember, and the slanted roof was only another three or four feet higher. The flames from the top door had already burned a hole in the corrugated steel. From my vantage point, the open doors blocked me from most of the heat, but I knew what I had to do–get those doors closed. If I didn’t, the whole pit room would burn down. Maybe the entire restaurant.
I found the hoe-like tool and approached the pit. The heat was immense. Overwhelming. Even protected by the steel doors I could hardly approach it. And my efforts to close the doors were futile. They wouldn’t move. When I pushed on them, the fire pushed back. It was a live thing, that fire. It roared at me.
This angle was never going to work, so foolishly I decided to try another tactic. I walked around pit #3 and approached the burning pit head on. This was a big mistake. Without the doors to protect me, I was exposed to the full force of the fire, which immediately flash-burned all the exposed skin on my body. It was like standing on the surface of the Sun. I retreated. I stood back and watched flames consume the briskets, watched the fire climb through the hole in the roof. I imagined the entire restaurant would burn to the ground, all because I had stupidly left an open flame unattended.
Eventually the fire department arrived and sprayed water everywhere. When they were gone, the pit still stood strong, but the briskets were a charred, soaking mess. They were lost. The 80-quart plastic ice chest, the one we stored cooked briskets in, was melted like candle wax. I was devastated.
Gary arrived a few minutes later, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he sent me home. But somehow he didn’t. A few minutes later, the owner, Kenny showed up. He pulled me aside and told me not to worry. The fire wasn’t negligence on my part, he said, because I’d been inside helping the girls. He called my mistake a “hustling error.” Which was partly true and partly not, so I still felt terrible.
Later that evening, after the restaurant closed, we held a Secret Santa Christmas party. I was in a sour mood and not interested in exchanging presents. All I wanted was to go home. But eventually someone handed me a wrapped box, which I reluctantly opened. What I found inside finally made me smile.
It was a toy fire truck.
After I finished college and moved to Tulsa, I drove my girlfriend to Corpus to show her where I had grown up. I was especially excited to take her by the restaurant, since I had told her many horror stories about that place. But as we approached the parking lot, I could see something was wrong. Where the building should have been, there was just a pile of ground-up asphalt
We went somewhere else to eat, and after we ordered, I pulled the waitress aside and asked her if she knew what had happened to the barbecue restaurant.
She nodded gravely, as if I were inquiring about the dead.
“Yeah,” she said. “It burned down.”