Is it Hot in Here?

I have worked ever since I was a junior or senior in high school in a variety of jobs. I have (to name a few) sold clothes, sold furniture, worked in a day care, sold tickets in a large arena box office, worked as a graduate assistant in a residence hall, answered late night calls to a women’s clothing catalogue call center, clerked through law school, waitressed, and worked as a receptionist in a nuclear waste incinerator facility, all while being a full-time student or in the breaks between semesters.

The receptionist /​ other-tasks-that-no-one-else-was​-assigned-to-do job at the nuclear waste incinerator facility was intriguing. The facility was remote and so intentionally hidden that on my first day of work, I could not find it. Literally. I drove from interstate to paved roads, to gravel roads, and into the forest…waaaayyy into the forest…..and still didn’t see the entrance security gate. Even after I knew where it was, it was still hard to find.

The summer that I worked there, the occasional protest group would appear (the smarter than average groups who could actually find the place) outside the gates chanting and waving signs. As the receptionist, I greeted international visitors from around the world….Germany, Japan, Sweden, England….and my job was to communicate as best I could in my Southern East Tennessee accent with persons who usually spoke very little English. I had to measure, record and hand them a dosimeter to wear on their lapel that measured radiation levels as they entered, then record their dosimeter reading when they left. I was never told what level would equal imminent death, but no one ever left glowing neon green under my watch. “Hot” was a term with specific meaning in this job.

The incinerator facility required regular bio-assessment of its employees. Which is a fancy name for “here is a jug, please produce your urine for analysis.” After a while that became just like a scheduled coffee break. And, I never failed those tests. At least, I don’t think I did.

We had a peculiar set of rules working there. The property had numerous large containers …the brightly colored kinds you see being transported on trucks on the interstate…royal blue, red, yellow, green…. all sitting stacked up around the property. Those containers held nuclear waste waiting to be incinerated or recycled in some fashion. And, painted on the pavement around those containers were three lines of different colors…..the colored line closest to the containers meant certain radiation exposure, and it lessened with each colored line being more distant from the containers. Theoretically, if you were outside the third most distant line, you weren’t being radiated. It was wildly absurd…you are fine here, but over there you die. Do not cross the wrong colored line! Walking around the property was a life or death version of hopscotch. And we were trained on how to decontaminate ourselves in case of emergency.

And, there were procedures in place for how to handle an emergency, such as radiation being tracked into the office building. Which it was one day. Suddenly a spot in the carpet had been declared a “hot spot” and a hazmat crew came in full regalia of white hazmat suits, helmets, and breathing apparatus to cut out the carpet and scrub the concrete beneath it…say a 3 x 3 square….while the rest of us went about our business. They were in space gear and I was inches away in heels and pearls making copies. If you are over here, no problem, but if you just stepped in that square before the hazmat team came in, have you made peace with your Maker?

But of all the jobs I had, it was routine waitressing where I stumbled across the line and accidentally exposed myself—–to self-inflicted humiliation. I took a waitressing job at Casa Gallardo, a Mexican restaurant on Bearden Hill in Knoxville. I was about nineteen years old and worked to help pay for the used car my parents had helped me buy during my sophomore year in college.

The uniform consisted of the requisite off-the-shoulders white ruffled blouse tucked into a tiered ruffled skirt with a brightly colored orange and red sash tied at the waist. The menu was the typical tacos, flautas, rice, beans, and quesadillas. But, the menu also had a couple of “American” entries, namely a grilled chicken breast DINNER with rice and a grilled chicken breast SANDWICH.

One evening a couple was seated in my section. I approached the table to take their order and their menus were closed in the center of the table. She ordered. Then he ordered. He said he wanted the grilled chicken breast. Yes, I said, which one? He said, again, the grilled chicken breast. Now, I was expecting him to say either the dinner or the sandwich. Yes, sir, which one? Again, he said the grilled chicken breast.

Slightly impatient and exasperated, I said “Sir, we have TWO breasts here.” And, he quipped right back “Yes, I can see that.” I was suddenly very hot.  I radiated heat, although not the nuclear kind. The pink flush of mortification flooded my chest and raced up my throat and into my cheeks.

But, I did receive an excellent tip that night.

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