As he told it, when John-O worked in the kitchen at Rosa Linda's in Myrtle Beach the restaurant closed for a week so that the entire staff could go to The Dead shows in Virginia. They partied like monsters and after it was all over drove straight back and went immediately to work. That was one of the stories that I heard him tell often. John Hopkins was an ex-navy man. And like an old navy salt, he was a teller of stories. Unfortunately there were only about twelve of them. John Hopkins was something of an enigma. Originally from New York. Adopted. An obscure childhood. Details were vague as to how he had managed to end up at his sister's house in Greensboro. He had a history of drinking that may have contributed to this decamp from Myrtle Beach. He gave off the impression of being somewhat wounded, damaged. The last place you would expect to see him was at a dead show. But the idea of it was the kind of thing that made you curious about the guy.
I was the newbie at Bert's and a lowly dishwasher to boot. On my first day when John-O barked an order at me I assumed he had some authority in the kitchen and so I tasked myself to his demands. It took me about a day to realized that he was the goat of the kitchen. He was hunchbacked, tubby, stained, and not altogether fresh of scent. After that I ignored him when he told me to do something, it seemed like everyone else did. From my post in the dish room I would hear Mary, the chef, screaming at him in the kitchen about something he'd fucked up. Sometimes he would audibly groan as he was being lambasted. I remember one night he got it particularly bad for some slight of duty, later when I carried a load of dishes over to the hot line he was standing at his station red faced and muttering under his breath. He would bitch about Mary out loud often but as soon as she stepped into the kitchen he usually made himself scarce. She routinely swore that she was going to fire him. If a sauce could be broken, he broke it. If a recipe could be misread, he misread it. John-O dropped shit; spilled shit; slipped in his spills; fell on his ass; knocked over stacks of plates; and just basically earned the taunts of his fellow staffers on a daily basis.
I wish that I could claim that I took the noble path and befriended John-O while defending him from the insults and complaints of our comrades in industry. Befriend him I certainly did. But not even a St. Francis could have restrained from taking a shot at this guy now and then. He was a constant source of amusement. Despite all of his foibles and character flaws there was something lovable about John-O. He was a nice guy, he was just a goof ball. He wasn't an idiot, he just had really really bad luck. He was annoying, at times. He could be incredibly inept at his job which is probably why he never made it beyond the fry/steamer station. Yet, he manned that steamer with pride and there were times in the middle of a Friday night rush when we were buried in tickets and everything bordered on collapse and chaos that he would take wing and soar and save the line. Granted it was a rare night but I swear I recall soaring. The Fryer was his nemesis, his darling and yet his cruel master. At the end of a busy night, covered in hush puppy batter and reeking of steamed clams, standing at his station like a gunner rooted at his battery in the aftermath of a blitzkrieg, it was his responsibility to empty the oil from the cookers, scrape out all of the accumulated fried random matter, and filter the oil back into the fryer vats. It sometimes happened, more often than it ever should have, that he would forget to seal the release spigot at the base of the equipment. He would hoist up the heavy drum of filtered oil and begin to pour. Someone would scream his name in alarm. It was like the screaming of the damned. Wild-eyed, he would blunder forward realizing that he had done it again, blindly lamely fumbling for the salvation from himself that he so desperately needed. Gallons of oil would spill through the tank of the fryer and onto the floor before he could manage to seal the valve. It created a fucking mess and an extra hours worth of cleaning. Ok, maybe he was an idiot.
Yes, befriend him I did, but I also eventually took the lead in tormenting him. He made it so easy. And remember my philosophy on life: you'd better start making fun of someone else weaker and keep the people laughing or they may take a second look at you. It was natural to caricature him. Paul Durham, our bartender, and I took this to an art level. Perhaps this reveals our own sicknesses and faults but over drinks and the accoutrement's of drinks we would sit for hours and regale one another in full John-O character, weaving together all of the twelve stories that we heard him tell about his adventures in the navy and beyond. Rosa Linda's in Myrtle Beach was a recurring motif. The fabled road trip to the dead shows was canonical John-O. We developed a John-O voice that we fell into at any given moment. Whatever dialogue you were about to embark upon it had to be predicated by a long guttural groan. This was the groan that we so often heard John-O using in the kitchen. His groan was textural. His groan was layered. It spoke volumes.. When you captured the essence of that groan, you had the key to the John-O character. The groan could signal so many things. Usually pain and humiliation, of course. But there was so much more it could mean. He used it invariably before the retelling of any story and in this context the groan became authoritative and fraternal. Sometimes the groan was ruminative, philosophical. In mimicry we eventually interpreted the groan to mean "I am a complete moron and what I am about to tell you should be completely discounted as the ravings of a lunatic." Because that of course was the subtext to everything that John-O said and did.
I worked with John-O for years. I was promoted into the kitchen eventually and then progressed along the line until I was at the saute station. John-O and I worked side by side. I would have drinks with him at the end of our shift at the bar. He sometimes showed up at the after work parties and got drunk and made a fool of himself. Vomiting and falling were two of the tricks that he relied heavily on. Of course I have since added these to my own repertoire. I spent a lot of time around John-O. I knew a lot about him, but I also knew that there was a lot I didn't know. He was a Navy guy, that sort of wayward soul synonymous with the sea and its ports since the dawn of the maritime. He was Billy Budd with a beer gut and Halitosis. He'd run a ground in Greensboro. Sure sometimes I wanted to kill him, but other times I wanted to give him a hug and tell him to hang in there, he wasn't doing so bad. He was though, doing bad. He drank prodigious amounts of canned beer. He lived about two blocks from the restaurant. He didn't own a car. He had few social contacts and no chance with the ladies. He rode the bus if he had to get anywhere and if you have ever tried to catch or even ride a bus in Greensboro you know how truly bizarre and unsettling this experience can be. In truth he didn't go far from the little cluster of shops and bars where Bert's sat. On his days off as I was on my way into work I would see him strolling down the sidewalk somewhat lopsidedly, unshaven, toting a six pack in a brown bag. He was probably going home to sit in his bachelor's room, drink beer, and fantasize about bashing Mary's head in with a mallet.
One thing I will always remember about John-O was the time that he gave me a six pack of my favorite beer at the time for my birthday. Coors Lite. Not a big deal I suppose but I remember that he bought the six pack and walked all the way over to my house on Cedar Street to give it to me. Not the house on the corner that got condemned but further down the block where I lived later. It was August of course and a hot day. We sat out on my balcony and drank the beer and then he left and walked back to go to work at Bert's. John-O. That was a gesture of friendship that I really appreciated. I would like to be able to say that after that I became his protector but it wouldn't be true. It was a part of the dynamic of our relationship.
One day John-O came into work and asked to speak to Mary in the office. Later she came back in the kitchen looking worried. John-O came into the kitchen too and we all started prepping for dinner as usual. After work we found out that John-O had gone to the doctor for some reason and in the course of the exam it was discovered that he had cancer. The Bad kind. Lymphoma. He would have to immediately start chemotherapy. All of the cooks and kitchen guys were quiet. That was a quiet night, we all sat staring into our drinks. And we all drank hard that night.
The days passed. John-O had insisted that he still wanted to work as much as possible. We were a small restaurant. We were a family of a type and even though we treated John-O like shit, we cared about him. He kept coming to work though not as often and for not as long. He looked tired. All of the waitresses began to pour love and affection on him. It was funny. He loved it. Whereas at one time they would have been in the window of his station spewing spit and venom on him looking for a particular order now they were giving him hugs and back rubs. Even Brad, the lead line cook from Mississippi, who was constantly disgusted with John-O, would never again let him take up a broom or mop. I never heard him raise his voice to John-O again either. Eveyln, our expediter and baker, a notorious sour puss at times, brought him cookies.
One afternoon Mary came into the kitchen and you could tell that she had been in tears. She told us that John-O wouldn't be coming back to work anymore. I think some people started crying. Brad and Evelyn and I went out back to the cook's alley and smoked. Brad said something like "Damn. John-O." about a hundred times. After that Mary took up a crusade and she coordinated with John-O's sister so that he never wanted for anything. Everyone visited him. He was seldom alone. People took him to and from the hospital. I think during this time he also reconnected with his sister and her family and that they poured so much love into his life that he was happy. I confess it was hard for me to visit John-O. He was not going to win the fight. I only went over to his house a few times. I brought beer. I would like to think that he drank one but I can't remember, most likely I drank them all and just sat there and tried to think what to say. The day came that we got the news that John-O had died. It was sad, but it was over. John-O had fought and suffered with dignity. For all of his schleppings and shenanigans, in the end he had been brave in the face of death. In the end run, he took full advantage of all of the attention and affection being rained down on him as well he deserved to and surrounded by the people he loved and who loved him he gave up this mortal coil.
John-O passed away and things at Bert's were never quite the same again. Other cooks were hired to replace him and they came and went. Most of them were delinquents. The consistency on the line of the four of us: Brad, Evelyn, myself, and John-O was lost forever. Without John-O and his hijinks the kitchen was less fun. A few months later, running from my own demons, I left Greensboro for Topsail Island and after that to Oregon and then here to California. I talk with Paul Durham sporadically twenty years later but even now when I answer the phone if on the other end I hear the mimicry of a familiar groan I know exactly who is calling and I answer in kind with my own responding impression.