I was a teenage loser, handling onions instead of Ann-Margret

Jeff Klinkenberg “in a rare happy moment” in 1965.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Klinkenberg

Jeff Klinkenberg “in a rare happy moment” in 1965.

Last time I traveled to South Florida, I drove past the Fontainebleau Hotel, the Miami Beach resort where my dad worked for decades. As I slowed for a long look, the sentimental part of me wanted to stop and ask for a tour. The adult part of me broke into a cold sweat while I remembered the worst summer of my life.

I was a teenage loser. In 1965, when I was 16, I was what the cool kids called a "fink." Being cool was beyond me. I had no car and no access to a car, which meant I was a fink who rode a bus — or even more damning in the hot-rod era — a bicycle. Girls liked dangerous boys who burned rubber, smoked Pall Malls and got in rumbles. I read Tarzan novels in my room and built Popsicle stick rafts under the bridge on Sixth Avenue. I liked to fish and catch snakes and study my pimples in the reflection of the water.

In the Miami of my youth, the cool kids wore madras shirts and Bass Weejuns. As a fink, as the founding member of what should have been called the "Boys Without Dates Club," I matched stripes with plaids and danced in cardboard Thom McAns. Yes, I was quite a dancer — alone in my room. Strumming a badminton racket and lip-synching I Want To Hold Your Hand, I elbowed Paul McCartney aside while winking at the front-row fantasy girls. At the Sunday night CYO galas I'd wait until the very last song — usually Jesse Belvin's romantic recording of Goodnight My Love — before seeking a warm-blooded partner for my lone excursion onto the dance floor. Yes, I was rejected by even the girl with the face of a stuffed cabbage.

• • •

In 1965, Florida boys often had summer jobs. Rich kids parked cars at the fancy restaurants or toted golf clubs at the ritzy country clubs. I mowed lawns. On a good Saturday, I mowed half a dozen with our terrible, always-on-the-fritz Briggs & Stratton that stalled the instant it approached Mrs. Crespo's jungle of intimidating St. Augustine grass. Then I'd edge, rake and sweep for $1.50 a yard, hardly enough long green to pay for a roll or two at the bowling alley. Yes, finks liked to bowl, even if they bowled alone.

That summer, I also toiled as a paper boy, throwing the Miami Herald on doorsteps before dawn from my fat-tired bicycle; in the afternoon I flung the Miami News at far fewer stoops. Lonely old Mrs. Posner demanded that I knock on her door and hand her the paper. She just wanted to talk, even if her listener was the neighborhood fink. Her house smelled of dog urine. I had a weak stomach and tried not to heave.

Finished with my route, I engaged in a game of Wiffle Ball with my younger brother, in the front yard, for all the world to see. I don't know how many times I got caught in Wiffle Ball in flagrante delicto by a cool kid driving past my house in his own GTO, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood at his side.

Sixteen years old!

• • •

One night after work, as he ate from a jar of Limburger cheese, which he washed down with a stein of beer, my dad cleared his throat. "I need someone to help at the Fontainebleau tomorrow," he whispered. "Want a real job?"

It was as if Brian Epstein had called and asked if I wanted to strum my badminton racket onstage with the Beatles.

The Fontainebleau was the coolest hotel on earth in 1965. My dad managed the kitchens but always talked about the celebrities. James Bond made a movie there called Goldfinger. Dad saw hotel guests Mick Jagger and Keith Richards cavorting in the pool. "Bea," he told my mother that night as she adjusted her bobby pins, "I wanted to give them a bath."

At the Fontainebleau, perhaps I might be invited for a swim by Mick and Keith. Perhaps sex kitten Ann-Margret would ask for me — by name — to visit her cabana and apply lotion to her nude back. If nothing else, Frank Sinatra, who often stayed at the hotel, might invite me up to the VIP suite to help plan the next Ocean's 11 caper. "How'd you like to go fishing with me and the rest of the rat pack?" he'd ask.

Thanks to my job at the Fontainebleau, I'd finally have serious cash. First off, I'd replace the Huck Finn wardrobe with rich-boy threads. But more than anything I wanted a car. I knew I wouldn't be able to buy the Corvette immediately, but maybe Ed ("Mark 'Em Down") Lane — Miami's celebrity car monger — might find me a fire-engine-red 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Sports Sedan with low mileage.

• • •

Before dawn the next morning, my dad led his fink son into the cavernous kitchen of the Fontainebleau Hotel and explained the task at hand.

"There was a banquet last night. We fed lots of people. The busboys are sloppy after a big banquet. When they dump the food, valuable things get tossed away by accident. Recover them.''

For the next eight hours I sifted through heaping cans of last night's mackerel for the hotel's expensive cutlery. Between dry heaves I located missing knives, forks and spoons by the gross.

The next morning, he dragged me out of bed before sunrise. "You're a working man now,'' he said as I grabbed the doorway.

In the hotel kitchen he led me to a sink full of greasy water. "Today," he said, "you're going to be scrubbing pots."

I needed a chisel to chip away the dried mashed potatoes and something red and mysterious. Bouillabaisse! Fish soup! Dry heaves!

"You did well yesterday,'' dad said the next morning, Limburger on his breath. "So we have a special challenge waiting for you in the vegetable room."

In the summer of 1965, onions became my life. For week after week, I peeled six bags a day, about 300 pounds, weeping from the first onion to the last. "My abuela always say you must put stick of carrot in your mouth when you peel the onions,'' a Cuban cook told me. "The carrot, it will take away the tears.'' I lipped the carrot like Bogey in The Big Sleep while adding drooling to the weepy fink repertoire.

Every night, as I traveled home by bus, I tried to find a lonely seat far away from other passengers, especially if they were pretty girls. My hands stank of onions. As the summer drew to a close, they were stained yellow. At least they matched my teeth.

Sixteen years old! Just thinking about it gives me the dry heaves.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

I was a teenage loser, handling onions instead of Ann-Margret 08/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 8:02pm]

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