Illustration by Calef Brown
Q: What inspires you to work?
A: I have no marketable skills.
WHILE ROBERT BARN URINATED IN A SMALL ROOM AT THE OTHER END of the party, his wife, Emily, confided to me that although Robert was certainly a talented enough busboy, no matter how hard he might try he'd never be half the busboy that I was. For I was, according to Emily Meredith Barn, a masterful busboy, in a class by myself. Mrs. Barn assured me she was not just blowing smoke up my ass; rather, she'd simply absorbed the amount of Scotch necessary to convince herself that she did not exist unless she spoke.
"You . . . bus . . . tables," said Mrs. Barn, quite slowly at first, "like Gunga Din poured water."
A few months later, Emily's evenly unctuous review, which included several oblique Kipling references, was published in ArtForum: "A brilliant sculptor of used food and franchise-restaurant accessories," she wrote. And, eventually: "Shulman's boldly dissonant arrangements of flatware, dishes, soiled napkins and air-dried animal bones in plain gray plastic trays portends the arrival of an original voice in postmodern refuse arrangement."
That's nice, Emily. Thanks.
* * *
ROBERT BARN AND I WERE CO-BUSBOYS at a Sizzler in Southern California's Antelope Valley, a 3,000-square-mile high-desert community known for its ever-soaring crime and religion rates and dehumanizing street names. (Avenue P is six miles/letters south of Avenue J, with interstitial streets named Avenue J-14, Avenue M-12 and so on; the same distance separates 40th Street West from 20th Street East, and so on, with the street dividing East from West called . . . that's right: Division Street.)
Back then, Robert called himself Bob. Bob was fascinated by his first name. The name Bob, Bob explained, was spelled the same backward as forward, whereas other names -- Dave, for example -- were not. This gave Bob what he called his "edge."
Dave backward, Bob explained, is E-vad, so that's what he called me for the rest of our careers.
"Muchos mesas, E-vad. Better get out there."
Bob had white skin, so I called him Whiteskin Bob. By following Whiteskin Bob around, I learned what it took to be an exemplary busboy.
"Are you finished with this?" Bob would smile at the customer. "May I take this plate away for you?" And the customer would gladly donate the greasy plate to Bob's collection.
Whiteskin Bob's appearance and fawning style played well with the 20th Street West steak crowd. Mine, however, did not.
"May I take this away for you?" I'd ask, placing a digit on the edge of a plate.
"Well, I suppose you may as well. I wasn't finished, but now that you've gone and touched it with your dirty hands . . ."
"Oh. Those aren't my hands."
* * *
Q: So you quit the tennis team to work at Sizzler?
I worked three shifts per week -- two night and one day -- just enough to cover the cost of gasoline to drive to work and school and back; maybe a pint of Jack Daniel's for the weekend. One Tuesday dusk, I was out in the parking lot with the assistant manager, Whiteskin Rick. Whiteskin Rick had a bad brown haircut and a bad brown mustache, too. Wore a tie, wore a shirt, liked to drink, liked to flirt with the ladies . . . Good evening, ladies . . .
Whiteskin Rick liked to take all new male employees out back to the parking lot, to show us his maroon Datsun 610 fastback with 8-ball shift knob, fuzzy dice, Jet Sound Labs (Leo's Stereo) AM-FM/cassette and 100-watt speakers. Once Rick had us trapped -- he was, in the end, our boss -- he'd recite farfetched stories of attractive young women deigning to "go all the way with" him.
"And she was like . . . all over me. Fuck, it was bitchin' . . ."
The back door opened and Bob appeared, interrupting Rick to tell me that a group of four grown-ups had asked which section I was bussing and then sat in my section, and that I should come take a look. In the dining room I found my favorite teacher, James Dupratt, his (crushingly) beautiful wife, Lynn, and another couple -- one a teacher, one not -- sharing a booth, awaiting steaks, just thought they'd say hello.
Dupratt introduced me to his wife and friends, and we talked about school stuff until their food arrived and I went to help out with the dishes. Over the next 45 minutes or so, as I made my way around the dining room, gathering things, wiping things, placing things, I offered, several times, to take away the Dupratt party's used plates and napkins and bones, but each time they declined.
In the kitchen, Whiteskin Rick snared me with more stories about fast chicks and fast cars; Whiteskin Bob arrived, thank you, to report that my friends wanted me back at their table.
The dining room was in full arrest. Babies crying and soiling, born-agains experimenting with dimestore perfume . . .
"You wanted to see me?"
"Yes, David," said Dupratt. (He called me David because I preferred Dave.) The shape of Dupratt's mouth was obscured by lots and lots of mustache and beard, but his eyes betrayed An Event. "We'd like our table cleared now."
"You'd . . . like your table cleared now," I echoed, scanning the table's other six twinkling eyes for clues.
"Yes," said Dupratt. "If you wouldn't mind."
I disappeared, retrieved an ordinary gray bus tray from the kitchen, reappeared front and center at the Dupratt table, bussed and wiped to completion.
That was their cue: The Dupratt party scooted out and into the aisle, surrounded me and began clapping. Clapping for an encore, it seemed, and looking at me, and nodding.
It went on for several minutes, which is a very very long time in a restaurant.
* * *
Q: You seem awfully short for basketball.
A: I quit the team.
The next Tuesday it happened again, and for two Tuesdays after that. Dupratt and guests would arrange to sit in my section, tell me when they wished to be bussed, then give me a 90-second-plus standing ovation. The other diners and employees looked on, at them, at me, at us, but no one dared join in.
* * *
DURING MY BRIEF TENURE AS A WRITER/ editor/photographer at The Ubiquity, the high school paper for which Dupratt was the faculty adviser, I wrote some . . . experimental stories. Following publication of one of these, just weeks before I graduated, the school's principal, a Dr. Johnson (not related to the famous sex-toy manufacturer), threatened to shut down The Ubiquity unless he could exercise editorial veto powers. Dupratt told Doc Johnson (in a benevolent way, I'm sure) to piss the fuck off, so, following graduation ceremonies, the imperious Johnson kept his word and pulled the paper's plug.
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James Valentine Dupratt Jr. died before I could thank him; I do take a few minutes, every few months or so, to stand and clap.
* * *
Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din," annotated, from the Gunga Din Page of Irrelevancy.