When I was eighteen, after checking in several times unbidden and phoning both the restaurant and the alluring and rather unhinged looking red-haired girl who gave me her phone number while I was filling out my application, I was hired as a busboy at the T.G.I. Friday’s beside the freshwater aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It says something to me about class, and about the narrow compass of hopes that occur to one in midsized American cities, if one wants for the advantage of a mentor, benefactor, or some other party who can demand one not allow one’s expectations of life to deliquesce, that I had coveted this particular job to such a degree, and was as a consequence both relieved to be there and even proud, I might say, had I not resolved never to employ the notion of pride in my attempts to arrive at some understanding of the stirrings of the human spirit.
Except in its barest and most brutal form, oppression always encompasses systems of incentives that bear advantages in the short term while assuring the hierarchy’s continuity. Thus, for example, a society in which the second-highest echelon is occupied by corpulent, horny, vulgar men—to attain to their ranks, in the Chattanooga of the time, it sufficed to dispose of a salary of between forty and seventy-thousand dollars per year, an automobile that had been purchased new and cost no less than eighteen-thousand dollars, and a job that offered health insurance and paid vacation—is generally characterized, at least in the United States, by the communal longing, when these men have gathered together to drink alcohol, watch sports, and eat their beloved fried appetizers, to be attended to by attractive women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight. These men do not appreciate the interference of the younger and generally less physically repulsive men with whom these young women are often in some sort of relationship, because it reminds them of the futility of their ogling, and because they attribute their inclination to ogle and make off-color comments to the average restaurant-goer and conclude, considering it their business sense, that attractive young servers draw in clientele, the more remunerative table-service positions are often conceded to them, and the young men who wish to accede to these jobs often find themselves, if nature does not already incline them to enter into these men’s social stratum when the time comes, awkwardly attempting to participate in their bouts of racist and sexist joke-telling and their abhorrent golf outings and fishing trips.
In those days the only Mexicans living in Southeast Tennessee worked in the carpet mills of Dalton, Georgia, the “Carpet Capital of the World,” which once boasted of producing eighty percent of the world’s wall-to-wall carpeting. Now production is largely automated, much has been moved overseas, and the collapse of the global housing bubble has decimated demand, causing the once flourishing Mexican population to seek jobs in the service sector, and particularly in restaurants, in larger urban areas. Back then, I had never met a person who did not speak English. Busboys were always either young black men, white teenagers just out of high school, or occasionally slightly older white men with drug or alcohol problems. There were four busboys at the T.G.I. Fridays. I remember one of the black ones, a short, thin, very affable person of around my age who had an open-faced gold cap on one tooth and an interesting gold ring the outer face of which resembled a baseball diamond. He was always in the company of the other black busser whom I have forgotten completely; he is now just an absent referent for me. And then I remember the other white busser, Fester.
Fester had a rotund face littered with translucent, rust-colored freckles. His hair was short and had the aspect and consistency of the shiny iron filaments in those wood-handled brushes used to clean corrosion from the cell connectors of car batteries. Like all of us, he wore black Dickies pants, he kept them cinched with a black belt covered in silver pyramid studs, but because his waist was merely an imaginative demarcation of the two smooth halves of his balloon-like body, they were always falling down, to the jeering of his coworkers and the irritation of management.
Fester’s real name was Todd Peterson, though I never heard it employed except on the day after his death, and even then, someone had to ask whom it referred to. His parents owned the King’s Lodge, a hotel that overlooked the city from the side of Missionary Ridge, just behind the Pancake Man restaurant. I do not know if it was ever considered nice; I had no points of comparison, having only stayed in a hotel three or four times in my life; but it was with a measure of ceremony that my father used to reserve his room there on the rare weekend when he would come to visit me in my childhood. Later a murder was committed in one of the rooms, and it became the sort of place where drug dealers would weigh out and bag their product and prostitutes would stand in the open doorways, one hand flat against the frame and one on their hip. I don’t know in which stage of decadence it found itself in the mid-1990s.
I only remember of Fester that he invited me to smoke marijuana with him, an offer I declined for various reasons; that he advised me to count the tips the servers gave us at the end of the night, because he suspected the two black bussers were short-changing him, which was true; and that once he had me join him in his car, a white, 80s model Chevrolet Tempo, I believe, in very bad condition, to listen to a rap album, A-Town Hard Heads, by a group called the Hard Boys. At that time I was a great fan of the violent gangster rap music from Houston Texas, the virtues of which, to my mind, are hardly distinct from those of the Icelandic Sagas or Martín Fierro, works treasured by Borges because, among other reasons, they hearkened back to a heritage of familial bellicosity from which he was disqualified by temperament and infirmity, though not without a twinge of reluctance. The album was awful; the cover, by Pen & Pixel, the design firm that would later achieve great fame with their outlandish album covers for No Limit and Cash Money Records, showed the group’s three members, after some presumptive disaster, with bits of their flesh peeled away to reveal their robotic interiors.
I left that job to move to central Georgia for my first year of college, and when I returned six months later, because I had been psychologically ill-equipped for this so called life-event, which would end up taking nearly three years longer than I had hoped, and would mark the first of numerous acts of dropping out, giving up, and falling short that have plagued me throughout my adulthood, I went to work at the Olive Garden, where I had been a dishwasher and prep cook two years before, because the friend whom I would live with off and on until I was twenty-four worked there. I remember that on my new-hire form, they wrote my wage down as seven dollars per hour, one dollar more than they’d paid me in high school, and I purposely never mentioned my pay rate, because I thought they’d made a mistake and was afraid of endangering what had seemed to me like an unbelievable stroke of good luck.
There were two brothers who worked there, though not at the same time, it seems to me now: Evay and Chris Kelley. Chris and I washed dishes together. He had a tattoo of the star of David on his forearm surrounded by the words Folk Nation and a pyrographed leather belt that read “Gangsta City Has No Pitty.” I often thought about asking him whether the last word was misspelled by accident or purposely, perhaps to suggest a different, hidden meaning, but he was sullen and tart and stopped coming in after a few weeks. His brother Evay was better-natured. He had been a gangster too, some sort of Crip, and explained to my roommate one day the ritual of gang signs, how a person would flash an initial gang sign and if his legitimacy were questioned, he would be made to “stack,” to perform a complex series of secondary signs. My roommate asked to see the signs, but Evay said no. “Maybe if you get me drunk some time,” he said.
A year later I returned to T.G.I. Friday’s. It was better money, and I had moved to a house that would permit me to walk to work and to cease relying on the charity of my roommate, whose parents had decided to pay him an allowance to quit the Olive Garden and focus on his undergraduate classes and who instead would begin drinking vodka or Irish whiskey at eleven in the morning and came to resent giving me a ride into work. One summer I went to a small room where high chairs were stored and saw my coworkers standing around a manager named Sandy whose eyes were welling with tears. She told us briefly that Fester had been shot and killed; that he was out with his girlfriend when someone had fired into the car; at the time she said that he had driven himself to the hospital and died in the parking lot, but in fact his girlfriend pushed him into the passenger seat and drove away once his killer had fled, and since the bullet pierced his aorta and vena cava, he probably died very quickly.
I don’t know why it is so difficult for me to take an interest in the people around me and what it is about their absence that is so captivating. It is as though only the cask of preterition rids a person of his congeners, rendering him apt for the delectation of memory. In any case, during fits of insomnia or indolence, I often try to find out what happened to this or that person, and it was during one such episode, I don’t know how many years back, that I discovered the court documents related to Fester’s murder, and to his killer, Evay Kelley, whom I had also known so many years before.
One of the difficulties in tracing the development of gangs in America is that while many do actively recruit members far from their home bases, often in the hopes of expanding drug distribution routes, it is equally common for people with no proper affiliation to claim allegiance to a well-known gang out of simple boredom, a need for identity, or a sense that there is something self-aggrandizing about doing so. This is especially common in economically stagnant areas like the erstwhile Dynamo of Dixie, Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the collapse of the steel and carpet industries and elements of their respective supply chain created an apparently permanent aimless underclass the violence and deprivation of which are only faintly obscured by a putative urban revival that seems little more than badly executed parodies of the bike paths, river walks, craft cocktail bars, “boutiques,” and coffee shops to be found in wealthier areas, the erection of overpriced housing, and the expulsion of poverty to elsewhere, so it cannot be said to obscure the city’s lauded “change of fortunes.”