Contributors Archives

Luis Alberto Urrea

The Mr. Smith Syndrome

An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.
—Richard Hugo

I was a teenager, and I walked two or three miles down Clairemont Drive to my first steady job—donut cooker at Tas-T Donuts. We had left Tijuana ten years before, and we’d left the heights above Barrio Logan five years after that and homesteaded this white working-class suburb. It was an astonishment tome, because it was the first time I had seen green lawns in front of every house and every apartment. In Tijuana, it was dirt. In Shelltown, it was yellow patches with burr clover and more dirt. Man, I thought these white folks were all millionaires. I was the one infected with Story in my family, and the lawns of Clairemont told me I had entered a new narrative.

Going to work was certainly a new chapter in that tale. Just that evening walk felt epic to me, wrapped in my teen self-pity and general fear—there were no knife-swinging bastards in Clairemont, but still, the old shadows don’t die easily, and every oleander bush could have sprung a homicidal vato. It was a journey that symbolists or Joseph Campbell might have found rich. The hike, in poverty, alone, downhill as the sun set. Far below, ocean. To each side, canyons. Animals and scrub brush. Then houses nicer than my own. Rushing by me, whiplashing me with their wind, the speeding cars of those more fortunate than I. At times, on the dirt path where the sidewalk petered out, these cars rushed quite close to me, perilous and roaring like beasts. Mean dogs on one side, metal creatures on the other and a lone boy going down a dirt path in the dark.

Once there, at Tas-T Donuts, the metaphors continued. It was on a dank alley, a horrid little two-story building with a drive-through hole where cars could insert themselves and collect their donuts and coffee from the downstairs serving window. It was backed by a rundown apartment complex across the alley that gave off bad cooking smells and the cries and shouts of the working-class families and old people who lived there. Among these sad apartment dwellers was the owner of Tas-TDonuts, Mr. Smith.

The donut kitchen was upstairs, and you’d get to it up a rattling, old paint-splintered, wooden staircase. One bare bulb, possibly yellow, over the door.Mr. Smith paid $1.35 an hour, but during training it was only 65 cents. Quite literally, it paid to learn fast.

Inside, it was L-shaped. Cement floor. Wooden pallets to stand on. Down the long arm of the L were two deep-fat fryers on the right and a sink on the left. A cooler for Mr. Smith’s fancy stuff, like cream filling, milk, eggs. Around the corner, in the squat alcove of the L, he kept the mixers and the big sacks of powdered sugar and flour, and the noxious bottles of sugar glaze and horrid chemical “flavors” in psychedelic colors that we would mix into the rank sugar goo and make chocolate, maple, vanilla, orange or lemon frosting. The citrus toxic chemicals had little shaved chunks of peel in them. Sugary bathroom cleaner.

Also down there we had tubs of “coconut” and “cinnamon” and “sprinkles.”A box of stale donuts was to be crushed with sugar and cinnamon and nuts in the mixer to make crunchy coatings for cake donuts.

Brooms. Mops. A squeeze bucket. And, on a long metal pole handle, a flat blade we used to scrape up fat white kernels of dough and lard from the floor.

There was no toilet. Mr. Smith told us to piss in the sink. The same sink where we mixed the various glazes. But we were to wash the urine down only with cold water. Hot water cost money and the steam made everything smell like piss.

If the health inspectors ever knocked on the back door, always closed and locked, we were to immediately call Mr. Smith at home and wait for him to come across the alley. While we waited, we were to do some quick cleaning.

*

Beside the fryers, we had a dumb waiter accessed by a small folkloric door in the wall. Fairies could have come from it, ghosts, El Cucuy. Instead, racks of donuts went in it like fat commuters jammed in a lift. A little rope-pull elevator.

Mr. Smith would leave his order on the pad: 24 maple, 24 buttermilk, 32 old-fashioned, 12 chocolate cake, 32 glazed, et cetera.We’d fry them up, put them on trays, put the trays on the elevator.More symbolism. The real donut shop was below us. You’d have to go down the dark shaft to get there. And we would. We’d get in the dumb waiter and hand-over-hand ourselves down there. It was where the cash register was. But we didn’t care about the cash register.We just wanted to go where we were forbidden. Where it was dangerous. Cops driving by could see you through the window, if you weren’t careful.

I kept in mind the possible scenario of a San Diego PD officer catching a Tijuana boy in the dumb waiter, breaking and entering Mr. Smith’s rancid wonderland at midnight.

Also down there was the trash can full of fancy donuts. Mr. Smith alone made those, the jelly-filled and cream-filled. And the goop in them would spoil, so he had to throw them out. The layers of these fancy donuts were divided in the garbage can by sheets of newspaper. So, when we rode  the elevator into the donut mine, we knew to steal the garbage from the top two layers. If it didn’t have coffee grounds all over it, we’d pull donuts out and put them in boxes. We’d take bismarcks and long johns and boston creams home to our moms, never telling them where they came from.

*

I was training under my Boy Scout best pal, Leon. He was cool. I aspired to be as cool as Leon. He liked John Denver, and I remember first listening to “Rocky Mountain High” while in that foul kitchen. It, along with being a Boy Scout, might have sown the seeds for my later Rocky Mountain mania. There was none of the old music I knew in Tas-T. No
James Brown (called “Chaze Brrong” in our Colonia Independencia accents).

Mr. Smith, like all donut bosses, wisely allowed us to eat all the donuts we wanted. Every extra donut, every mistake, every ugly donut. It took exactly one night to get deeply and utterly sick. We were too stupid to be disgusted by the sink/urinal. We just ate ’til we barfed.

Leon was an old hand at cooking. He was making a head cook’s wage of $1.65 an hour. And he knew all the bad lore of Tas-T Donuts. Like the guy Mr. Smith fired who decided on his last night to piss into the fryer and not the sink, but the hot grease exploded, cooking him and “I swear to God, fried his dick off!”

As a concession to hygiene, Mr. Smith made us wear hairnets.

*

At the end of my shifts, dictated not by the clock, but by the cooking load, I’d walk back up the long hill. 10:00, 11:00, midnight, 1:00. I could see inside lit windows. Families. Women. Televisions. A cold California glow. A mom in a hallway in her underwear.

Between walks, it was hours of clatter. Fryer. Sink. Mixer. Steel pans on the steel counters. Scraper. The donut machine crank handle. The clash of the metal mesh donut drainer running fat back into the noisy  fryer. Radio. The slamming door of the dumb waiter. Filthy air: a haze of oil, sugar, water, smoke. Dough stench. Grease stench. Glaze stench. Sour fermenting sugar fluid. Spices. Mold. Floor detergent.

Mr. Smith never drained the fryers. The grease was old and sour. His fryer was never turned on when I was at work, so as my fryer heated and the sludge inside liquified and cleared, his stayed clouded and thick. It was an ugly tan/yellow mess that looked like a frozen pond. Big old grease bubbles caught in place.

Flies and roaches would fall into the grease, struggle and sink. This was fascinating to me. It was like a quicksand scene in a Tarzan movie. It didn’t occur to me that the crisp raisins that surfaced and sank repeatedly as I cooked were deep-fried bugs, circling endlessly like fossils in the La Brea Tar Pits.

*

To make a donut, you’d follow the recipe and mix up the dough in the big hook mixer. Then you’d concoct your vat of toxic glaze. Then you’d pour your batter into the crank, which was kind of a funnel with a handle on the side. It rested at the end of an extendable arm. You had to be smooth on the crank, plot rings of dough in neat patterns to float and fry on the grease. Ideally, you timed it so the last ring of dough plopped in as the first was golden brown on one side. Then you would take two wooden dowels and, pushing down one while lifting with the other, you’d flip the donuts in the same order you’d cranked them. When both sides fried, you’d grab the handles of the submerged mesh platform and lift it out to drip oil back into the boiling sea. Unload ’em, put the mesh back in, crank the next load. Formost donut orders, three crank runs were enough. Then you’d dunk your plain cake donut (basically a delivery vector for the indescribably yummy chemical glaze) into the pans. One twist, out onto the rack. Drip, drip and then into the elevator.

If you screwed up the mix, the donuts were a ruin. Too much water or milk and the dough was drooly and shapeless. Bad wrist action on the crank and loops would fall on each other and fuse into strange archipelagos of fried dough. Your donuts would end up looking like fried underpants.

Now, Mr. Smith himself was as filthy and fiendish as his donut shop. He seemed to be an old man, though if I met him today he might reveal himself to be a spry 55. In my teens, he seemed to be 100.

He didn’t bathe. His hair was thinning, gray and slicked back. But it looked as if it was slicked back because it was dirty, not because he had used hair oil. Dirty glasses, yellowed T-shirts. He chain-smoked and coughed into the donuts. His teeth had fallen out.When he couldn’t afford my $1.35 wage, he bucked me back down to 65 cents for “retraining.” Then, he put me on probation: 35 cents an hour. That’s when I finally quit.

*

Before I left, Mr. Smith taught me something about writing, and work, and life. Sensei Smith, roshi of the Tas-T zendo. Like many teachers, he didn’t know he was doing it. He didn’t know he was changing my life. He thought he was teaching me about Tas-T Donuts.

Mr. Smith would show up unannounced while I was cooking. He’d get up behind me as I was trying to work the crank. I was bad at it anyway, but he made me so nervous it turned catastrophic.

Cigarette smoke. Body odor. Bad breath. And I’d start to choke on the crank. And he’d start to scold me: “Jesus Christ! Jesus, kid! Do you call that a donut? That ain’t a fucken donut! What the fuck’s the matter with you!”

And, of course, I’d made worse and worse donuts. “Holy shit! You dumb bastard! You retard! What the hell is that called! Because that ain’t a goddamn donut!”

I’d be frantic at this point, and the whole batch would be ruined.

“Can’t any Mexican make a fucken goddamn donut is what I’m asken!”

There would be a huge raft of frying dough in the middle of the grease. Mr. Smith would shove me aside and snap, “Get out of my fucken way, you idiot! I’ll show you how a goddamn donut is made!”

What is the sound of one hand frying?

I learned right there at the fryer that we have three indwelling spirits in our small cage of bones. One of them is unclean. The Angel is that one who sings the pretty songs, who tells you those lovely things you spill out like sunshine and joy when you just don’t know any better. The Editor is your friend, like a good teacher—sometimes severe, but steady. The Editor helps you tighten, toughen, clarify, focus. But then there is that son of a bitch, The Critic. Your own smelly inner Mr. Smith.

He is the one who makes you fail. He scares you. You get nervous. Have you noticed that when a cop pulls up behind you in traffic it makes you start to swerve in your lane as if you were drunk? When you take a test and the teacher stands by your shoulder, you feel as if you’ve been cheating, even if you haven’t, and suddenly your eyes rove to a neighbor’s paper. People pick you last for the basketball team and you call yourself a loser forever.

The Critic is lost in his own horror. His own stench and his own poverty and shame. Like Mr. Smith, he’s going out of business. And tomorrow, for him, holds only ruin. He hates and he’s inside you.

Mr. Smith stands near every person, cursing and yelling, smoking and insulting. You call that a poem? You call that a sentence? What kind of a writer are you? What kind of a person are you? What kind of a wife/husband/child/lover are you? What kind of no-good, useless, idiotic idea is that? You beaner. You fatso. You wimp. You fool. You skinny bitch. You loser.

Your donuts, your lovely pale loops, your perfect circles, start to stick together and become deformed. Ruined. You’ll have to eat that spoiled meal, eat it and eat it until you throw up. And then Mr. Smith will make you re-cook that order all night long until you get it right. You’ll be in Tas-T Donuts for eternity. Mr. Smith will never let you climb up that hill. He will never unlock the door to the kitchen. He’ll never even let you out of the dumb waiter. If you don’t learn to silence Mr. Smith, you will never get home.

Posted in Archive, Back Issue Excerpts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment