My first real job where I collected a regular paycheck as a kid was when I got hired on at Taco Bell – I was 18. I intend to write a couple of stories dedicated entirely to different aspects of those few years of early adulthood, but this story today is dedicated to one of the characters I met while working there – Leonard Collier.
Even though I delivered papers into his neighborhood, (complete with vampire dogs – read me), and even though Leonard and I attended junior and high school together, I never knew Leonard before Taco Bell. In Morning Breeze (read me) I mentioned how we kids were divided up into classes according to ‘sections’ which had been determined mostly from a test we took in 6th grade. So if you weren’t in the same section or the same chorus or gym class (read me), you might not get to know most of the other kids in junior high. High school was maybe a little better. Although there were more kids in our high school and the classes were somewhat structured by whether or not you were headed to college, you still signed up for all of your elective classes. We got to meet a few kids this way that we otherwise wouldn’t or otherwise didn’t in junior high or elementary school.
How do I describe Leonard’s character? What sticks out the most and can I find the right words that will convey what I miss about him? He was a shy, soft spoken and unassuming person. How about I start there. He once told me that his father was an alcoholic and that when he was younger, he received more than a fair share of drunken beatings. Perhaps this helped to define his timidity and tendency to not make a lot of eye contact. Perhaps also it helped to define his love for drawing because when he drew, he could withdraw himself into another more loving and caring environment; one created by his pen. We had fondly nicknamed him The Grinch due to his sometimes chintzy burrito preparations and I of course would sing the Grinch cartoon to him occasionally when we worked together, (with my own made up words of course).
If you got to know Leonard, you found out that he was a loving and caring person, a true peace lover, never a fighter. He was lovable, and had far more female friends than male friends. On several occasions I saw Leonard declare his affection for a female coworker only to get that rejection notice that all we guys detest – they don’t love us “that way”. I must have seen that happen to Leonard a least 3 or 4 times during my short 2-3 years of working with and knowing Leonard. It made me sad for him because I could tell he really wanted a ‘relationship’.
I loved working with Leonard though and we got to work together often. When I became the Assistant Manager, I gave him as many hours as he asked for. He was really needy for the money and he was a great worker. He complained about the work often and at times would drag his feet during our nightly closings, but he knew all the procedures there and I knew I could depend on his getting to work, (sometimes late, but never called in sick).
There were other reasons why Leonard was so damn fun to work with, mostly it was the pranks we pulled together and I liked trying to make him laugh. Several of us there would try to make each other lose their composure while taking a customer order. Back in those times we had an early form of a dry erase board which hung above each cash register. It had an acrylic see-through front and directly behind it was a listing of all of our products. The customer would tell us what hey wanted and how many of each and we would make notations on the acrylic. Let’s say you wanted a Burrito Supreme, but you asked to hold the onions and put on extra black olives. The order taker would mark a “1” over the Burrito Supreme and would include the following marks, “-O+V”.
The person behind the order taker was the “Stuffer” or “Steamer”. The steamer’s job was to read the board and put everything on the “rack” where each item would be finished (stuffed). So in our burrito example, I would take out a Supreme wrapper, open the steam chest and take out a flour tortilla, then put it on the wrapper. Next I would scoop out some of the ground beef that had been cooked in the sauce mix and next a small scoop of beans and finally a small scoop of red sauce (green on special request). I’d lay this then on the rack where either Leonard or I, (whoever got there first), would put on the balance of ingredients and then fold it up (and yes I can still remember all the ingredients and quantities…and yes, that is so sad).
I know you’re getting hungry, but back to the pranking. The way to make an order taker lose his composure was to be able to identify something peculiar or strange about the customer and then find the opportunity to whisper something funny about that trait into hearing range of the order taker. Often times I would see someone walk in while I was up front and I’d very quickly walk to the store rear, making certain I had already picked out my characteristic trait I would comment on. Leonard liked washing dishes or prepping food so would often be behind the first stage of the restaurant where the orders were taken, but was within clear view of the customer.
So he would start walking to the front and he’d shout back to me that we had a customer. Really? 😉
Keep in mind that this was high school kid humor, (basically juvenile), but let’s say the customer was a man and he had maybe a large nose or perhaps a wart on it. Maybe then I might whisper to Leonard to ask him ‘if he wants any eye of newt to go into his warlock’s brew’. And something silly and idiotic as that would be all it would take to make Leonard start losing it. He’d start to focus on the physical trait being called out and would start giggling or would try to hold it in. And if I saw that happening, it was a cue for me to add more fuel to the fire. On numerous times he would laugh so hard that he had to leave the front and head to the rear where he would be out of sight, leaving me alone to put on a straight face and finish the order all by myself.
Leonard was my famous cohort who helped me concoct the special ‘burn ’em sauce‘ (read me). He was the same guy who came up with the bright idea one night to load the walk-in cooler with two inches of snow so that our Manager, Rich Parker would be confronted with it. We of course were not bright enough to realize that snow melted at temperatures greater than 32 degrees F. He was also the same guy who drew funny-as-Hell caricatures about something funny that happened at work and would sneak in late at night just so he could post them on our bulletin board, in plain view for all to experience.
The most memorable of evenings with Leonard though involves two unfortunate inebriated young ladies and some dish soap. At this point, please take your minds out of the gutter, for this is just a PG-13 story. Leonard and I were closing the store together one night. He was still washing dishes when we heard banging on our front door. We had been closed at least for 20 minutes and it was very late as it was a weekend night. Hey, go to White Castle (read me)! Anyway, there were two girls pounding at the door, obviously drunk by the way they were acting. “Open the fucking door and give us some food”.
“Open the door and give us some free food”.
And that is when a brilliant and devious idea came to Leonard. You will of course recall the scene at the end of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ when the Grinch’s heart grew much larger. Well, the exact opposite effect occurred that night with our very own Grinch as Leonard’s heart must have shrank to a pea size when he proclaimed to the girls, “all we have is a burrito”.
“Burrito, what burrito?” I asked.
To which, Leonard just told me to watch. He went into the walk-in cooler and got some refried beans that were still warm, placed them on a tortilla and then he took some of the pink dry powder dish washing soap and put it in the very center of the burrito. I guess you know where this is going.
He took the burritos, (he made one for each of them), and walked them to the front, unlocked the door and handed them to the girls. I was hoping that they would drive away and that would be the end of it. We’d have a good laugh and finish closing. But when I looked out the back door, I could see they were sitting out in the parking lot….uh-oh. About three minutes went by when we heard a large THUD against the front windows, followed up with “YOU FUCKING BASTARDS!” “YOU PUT SOAP IN OUR BURRITOS!” “WE’RE GOING TO GET OUR BOYFRIENDS TO COME BACK AND KICK YOUR ASSES!” They had taken what was left of the burritos and splattered them against the windows.
Let me tell you – that store got closed then in record time! We were cracking up laughing and scared to death all at the same time, hustling around getting everything clean and put up. We heard them screech away and we were out the door behind them shortly afterwards.
We saw the same girls in the restaurant maybe a couple of weeks later and surprisingly they were not as mad as I thought they would be. We made it up to them by treating them to a few soapless burritos and everyone had a good chuckle.
Several years ago, maybe around 2002 or 2003, before we moved out to California, I ran into a lady named Theresa Riedel at the YMCA. Theresa used to work with me at Taco Bell and in fact was my all time best employee. We hugged and stood there catching up with each other as we hadn’t seen each other for maybe 20 years. She asked me, “did you hear about Leonard?”
No, what about him, how’s he doing?
“He’s dead. He died two years ago of AIDS. All I know is he moved out west to San Francisco and Vivian, (his sister), told me he had died of HIV.”
All I can do is speculate. Did he come into contact with a bad needle? Did he turn to men for comfort? The reason doesn’t matter to me. It’s not something I need to know. I wasn’t a true friend or else I would have kept in touch after Taco Bell. Or maybe this is just what happens as people get on and wrapped up in their own lives.
I was his friend for only three years, but I feel grateful for having had the contact that I did. We often laughed uncontrollably when we worked together. I knew then that he was a bit of a ‘Sad Sack’, so somehow his unfortunate death made sense to me, that it seemed to be his destiny. I know we all get wrapped up in our own lives and that we can’t possibly save everyone we meet. I wish though that I could see and talk with Leonard again. I wish that he were alive and happy.
Hopefully he at least found peace in death.