When last you heard from me, I was in the passenger seat of Donnie Schroer’s VW bug with the magnesium alloy wheels, screaming wildly around the back streets of Hayward chasing after the hard-driving would-be paramour of Dorothy, Donnie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. (I have since learned that her real name was Debbie, but for consistency’s sake I’ll keep calling her Dorothy.) It was one or two in the morning, and the reason for this spirited chase-well, there was no reason, not a logical one anyhow, except that Donnie was crazy in love with Dorothy and crazy-jealous too. On a late-night stakeout we had caught Dorothy on a date with another guy, who had dropped her off at her house and screeched off down the street with us hard on his tailpipe.
I’m not sure what would have happened if we had caught him but fortunately, we never got the chance to find out. He rapidly ditched us, leaving us nowhere else to turn but to the place we always turned after a long night of cruising the empty streets of Hayward: Quarter Pounder on Mission.
Quarter Pounder, as it was known, may have been the original inspiration for the term “greasy spoon.” Located next to the Hayward Plunge, it was popular with bikers, car salesmen, winos, and teenage roamers such as Donnie and me. You could get takeout at Quarter Pounder, or you could go inside and sit at a small counter with stools where you could watch the cook, adorned in an apron stained black from the grease, fry up slabs of ground meat on the grill. Another person made the fries and milkshakes. While you waited for your food you flipped through the selections on a countertop jukebox. The songs were listed on flip cards inside the jukebox. On the bottom were buttons and numbers that corresponded to the songs. It was three songs for a quarter, and you punched in the appropriate number and button for what you wanted to hear.
Considering Donnie’s state of mind that night, he might have chosen “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams. He looked like he had missed both ends of a Daily Double and just ripped his tickets up. Besides staking out Dorothy’s house, playing the ponies at Bay Meadows was another of Donnie’s favorite pastimes. Somehow he and a couple of his gambling pals had figured out the world’s ballsiest way to sneak into the track, and he took me with him a few times. First we hopped a fence in the parking lot, and this put us into the paddock, the area where the horses were stabled between races. We walked past the horses being fed and groomed in their stalls until we came to a gate that led onto the track itself.
The day’s race card was already in progress. Waiting until after one race had finished and before the next one had begun, we stepped onto the dirt track and started walking. We were in full view of the thousands of people in the grandstands, two or three or four of us strolling as casually as possible along the rail on the first turn. We were engaged in a variation of Edgar Allan Poe’s maxim that the best place to hide something is in the most obvious spot. Clearly, the best way to sneak in somewhere is to do it when everyone is looking. I always expected a cop or someone to collar us but no one ever did. We swung open another gate and slipped into the grandstands where we sometimes saw a Hayward High teacher or two enjoying the sporting action as well.
Donnie and I hung out a lot during this time because we both worked at Banchero’s, he as a waiter and me as a dishwasher. Donnie had himself started as a dishwasher but he was now on more of an upward career trajectory, whereas I was stuck in the lowliest job in the place, constantly up to my ears in slop. I was astonished because people would order these colossal steak dinners on these jumbo plates with these giant baked potatoes overflowing with butter and sour cream and barely touch them. No exaggeration. They might take a bite or two of the steak before sending it away.
Then I’d have to deal with it, all that gorgeous family dining excess, soup and salad and steaks and potatoes and green beans and fettucini and lasagna and pies and coffee and milk being practically tossed at me by waiters who were as polite as Miss Manners to their customers but treated me like the stuff on the soles of their shoes. It was at least a thousand degrees in the kitchen. Sweat pouring off me, clad in rubber gloves and rubber boots, I tried in vain to keep up with the wave upon wave of food scraps being hurled at me, spraying the jumbo plates and bowls with a water nozzle that had more power than a fireman’s hose. I was never ahead, always behind. As soon as I cleared off my station and got the dishes in the dishwasher, another barrage came at me.
I ended up writing about pearl diving at Banchero’s-and other teen adventures–in a paper I did for Mr. Berndt, my counselor at Hayward High who died recently. That’s how all of these remembrances got started. I started thinking about that time in my life, and then I got sidetracked on these various subplots mostly involving Donnie Schroer (seen below, looking slick in his high school graduation picture). But I honestly don’t think Mr. Berndt would have minded. Ever have a teacher who was more than just a teacher but who touched your life in meaningful ways that you’ve never forgotten? Well, for me, Mr. Berndt was one of those teachers. Next time I promise to deliver that overdue tribute to him.