For almost a year I worked after school to save at a Cedar Rapids semi-fine dining institution, the Kozy Inn on First Avenue. I was a busboy. This was actually — for the time — a pretty great job for a 16-year-old. I got a cut of the waitress’ tips, and I was hanging out in a bar 4 nights a week. One night (during the ‘streaking’ fad) a biker girl strolled through naked, the first time in my life I’d seen an adult woman nude. You just didn’t get that kind of entertainment as a Burger King fry cook.
The people who worked at the Kozy were what my grandmother used to call “characters” — dishwashers who spoke only Spanish, a half deaf cook with flaming red hair and grey roots an inch wide, bitter waitresses on the wrong side of forty, and the owner, Mr. Stickney, a short, portly gentleman with pomaded grey hair cut military short on the sides. He was known behind his back as The Man Who Never Smiles.
It was monotonous, dirty physical labor, but it was a welcome respite from the cold war going on between my parents at the time. I had a plausible reason to only come home to sleep. As long as I cleaned tables promptly, didn’t steal tips, and took the trash out when asked, I was one of the gang. When my shift ended, the bartender would pour me a free beer. The sour-faced waitresses warmed up to me, and gave me cigs to smoke out by the dumpster. It was like running away to join the carnival.
The one fly in the ointment: The Jukebox. The clientele was mixed, but dominated by blue collar workers from Quaker Oats and the Hormel packing plant, so the jukebox played the soundtrack of the 1974 working class — country & western, top 40, and butt rock.
I could have handled it, except for two songs that got played every night many, many times: Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In the Sun” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.” The former is a butchered translation of a Jacque Brel song rendered in the most earnest and plodding way imaginable. The latter is Gordon Lightfoot muttering stupid shit over a one-chord guitar groove that proved minimalism CAN go horribly wrong.
Over the time I worked there, I heard those songs hundreds of times. I began to have a physical reaction each time they played: my shoulders tensed, my teeth clenched, and queasy gurgling began in my stomach. It was all I could do just to get through the next 3 minutes.
After a few weeks of my “Season in the Sundown,” it dawned on me, after cleaning up yet another pool of puke, that other people’s uneaten food was really just vomit-in-waiting. That smell, an ambiguous cold greasy food/vomit in-between thing, became forever tied in my brain with those two songs, and ever since, they can actually make me sick.
I left there at the beginning of the summer for London, where I visited the British Museum and Notting Hill record stores. I went to see Lou Reed and the Who at a surprisingly sunny outdoor festival. When we got back to Iowa, I wanted to go back to work at the Kozy, but they’d hired my replacement. The Man Who Never Smiles said he’d call me if they needed someone but he never did. It was one of those completed episodes in my life, bookended by Gordon Lightfoot and Terry Jacks on one end, and Lou Reed and the Who on the other.
This is all part of the gone world of my youth. Most of my Kozy co-workers are elderly or dead. The restaurant was razed many years ago and is now a parking lot. But like William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It isn’t even the past.” I still hear those two songs occasionally, and I’m right back there at the Kozy, lugging a bus tub full of dirty dishes back to the kitchen, the smell of congealed grease sharp in my nostrils.
Not long after I got back from London, Vic the bartender turned up in the news. He’d apparently stabbed his roommate to death in a drunken rage. They caught him dragging the roommate’s body through the alley behind their house, both stark naked and covered in blood. Who knows what really happened, but I think the jukebox horrors of Jacks & Lightfoot pushed poor Vic over the edge.