This heartbreaking photo depicts the final chapter of a place that was once known as Cattlemen’s Restaurant in Newark, California. My very first job was working here in 1986 as a lowly part-time dishwasher.
You could never go hungry working in a place like this. The hamburgers and baked potatoes were free to every employee, but the dish-dogs got the choicest morsels — lobsters that had dropped to the floor, steaks that were overdone or not done enough, basically anything remotely edible that no one else wanted came back to us, and we scarfed it down like a pack of hungry, chain-smoking wolves. The stuff was just tossed over from the cook’s line. In the back of the kitchen was a huge steel pot — more like a small barrel — that sat on a slow burn stewing chunks of beef in au jus sauce all night. This stuff was just thrown out at closing time, and peering over the edge of that huge pot, we would help ourselves with our bare hands. We ate like KINGS, dammit.
Later, I graduated or was “promoted” to busboy, along with my other friends, and after that I moved on to work the salad line, which was the easiest job of all — dump the salad in a bowl and refill the dressing containers. Sometimes I’d have to heat bread in an oven. The only danger was when I had to sweep the crumbs behind the little trash bin. As the night progressed water would spill onto the floor near a defective electrical outlet. Whenever I swept behind there with my broom, I’d get an electric shock. I complained about it to the manager a few times, but he just laughed it off. I guess this was in the days before OSHA. I was pulling in forty or fifty bucks a night in tips, on top of my five-dollar-an-hour hourly wage (or whatever the going rate was back in those days). I figured an occasional electric shock was worth the risk for the money I was making.
On weekends, we’d gather in the parking lot after the restaurant had closed. By the time the last dishwasher and closing busboy left, it was already approaching midnight. Filthy, sweaty, smelling like the cast-off refuse of two hundred diners, we would count our tips, figure out how much money we had for beer and gas. Then we’d drive up to the Marin Headlands, a coastal area just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and hike around and through the abandoned army bunkers that had been carved into the hills during World War II. When the cases of beer had all been drunk and the moon had begun its lonesome descent toward the horizon, we would hike back to our cars in the parking lot and drive into the city. Often we would stop at the Jack-In-The-Box on Lombard for a quick 3am meal. When we were feeling particularly wealthy, we’d head to the Pinecrest Diner on Geary and Mason and order some of the most delicious burgers that you could find on a grilled bun in the city at three in the morning. Those were the days when you could still smoke in restaurants, and we would sit there chainsmoking and drinking coffee until the sun began to rise. By 6 or 7 in the morning, we’d all be home in our own beds. The next weekend we would repeat the scene all over again. School during the intervening days was merely a distraction. This defined life for most of us who worked here throughout our high school years in the late 80’s.
Thanks for the memories, Cattlemen’s. You will be missed.
At Geisha Steak & Sushi in Plano, Texas. Trying to eat my lunch while recording it with an iPhone is trickier than it looks.
Cost: $14 and change. Served with water and a bowl of miso soup. Your choice of regular or fried rice.