I had an obsession once. I wanted to bang the drum… the big bass drum that sat on top of a player piano at Farrell’s ice cream parlor in the Castleton Square mall. Long before Chuck E. Cheese baked his first pizza, Farrell’s was THE place for birthday parties, and it was my first real job in high school.
The waiters and waitresses wore straw hats (really made of styrofoam) and black & white striped shirts with puffy shoulders. It was supposed to look like the gay 90’s (the 1890’s and the original meaning of gay.) If you were lucky enough to have your birthday at Farrell’s, the waiters would play a siren, bang the drum, play “Roll out the Barrell” on the player piano and serve a giant “Zoo” ice cream sundae for you and your friends. It weighed roughly 25 lbs with 12 flavors of ice cream, chocolate fudge, caramel, nuts, whipped cream and cherries. Sounds like fun, eh?
But I was not a waiter. I was… a lowly dishwasher. Dishwashers did not get to bang the drum or carry the Zoo. I toiled away in my prison – walled in on three sides with grey ceramic tile and stainless steel. There was a narrow horizontal window where busboys slid grey plastic tubs full of sticky dirty dishes for me to wash.
If you leaned down just right, you could see the colorful world outside, filled with music, laughter and merriment. But I was on the inside, doing backbreaking work. And as I toiled away, the banging drum taunted me. Every time the elite class of waiters would run to their posts and deliver the celebration, I just lowered my head and scraped glops of leftover ice cream out of half-eaten sundae glasses.
One day I decided I had had enough. I begged the general manager Mr. Merkel to let me out to bang the drum for the next party. I just wanted to experience a little piece of the happiness going on outside. Though it was not in my official job description, he told me if I got far enough ahead on the bus tubs…I could run out and play the drum. I was so efficient in the next two hours, I became the first dishwasher to get released on good behavior. Sweet serendipity!!
But before I could lay one bang on the drum, Darren the waiter waved me over to the fountain area. He was actually in need of a second Zoo carrier. I was elated! What an honor to help carry the sacred sundae of all sundaes all over the restaurant, ending on the table in front of the happy birthday girl. (Skip to 5:30 in this old video to see what I’m talking about.)
Fountain noise! Drum roll! Player piano! We took off with the Zoo. Up and down the aisles, out into the mall, back through the candy store. Note: 25 lbs of ice cream in a giant silver bowl needs to be carefully supported on four sides at all times. If just one support point gives way, the ice cream will head that way too. You can guess what happened next. As I rounded the next corner my world slipped into slow motion. A slip of the handle in my hand… my partner losing his balance… and the giant silver bowl rolled out of the stretcher, splattering 12 flavors of ice cream and 12 different toppings all over a lady’s skirt. She looked fit to be tie-dyed.
The player piano continued to play “Roll out the Barrel” as we all stood there in stunned silence. I rolled out a barrel of fun alright.
I grabbed a dishtowel that I had stuffed in my back pocket and kneeled down to help clean the mess, quickly realizing that chocolate fudge doesn’t easily wipe out of a yellow linen skirt. As I looked up at the horrified look on her face, all I could do was laugh a nervous laugh and say “Happy Birthday ma’am. No charge for that one.”
Mr. Merkel gave me a dirty look as he took over the rescue effort. I was relieved to get back to the solitude of my dish room for the rest of my shift. I was only allowed to be a drummer after that but it was enough. I got to carry the Zoo that one glorious time… all the way to its conclusion on some poor lady’s skirt. Moments like that, even when they don’t turn out the way you thought they would, make stretching yourself worthwhile.
Related Brush with Greatness:
I actually got to sit next to founder Bob Farrell at a National Speaker’s Association conference dinner in the early 90’s, and I told him this story. He was amused. Bob does a keynote speech on customer service called “Give ‘em the Pickle.”