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Ralphing in Belltown
Making it in Seattle with no connections, no advanced degrees, and no computer programming skills was a nightmare in the early nineties, and I imagine it's only tougher now. One of my last dead end jobs before I finally figured out how to get paid to do meaningful work in this town was at Ralph's Grocery and Deli in Belltown. One of the more fun and rewarding jobs-lasting-less-than-two-weeks that I had during that time.
My good friend Zeth - the only person I actually knew here when I moved to Seattle - hooked me up with a cashier's job at Ralph's out of guilt after our screen-printing company went bust. Our high point making low-quality T-shirts out of his basement was printing a bunch of "It's Time For Them To Go" shirts for some Clinton supporters, or maybe it was printing some shirts for Matthew Stadler's reading series at the Rendezvous. We had to do those twice, since our crummy work got the first batch rejected. "Never print shirts for artsy groups," was the advice of a relative who was in the business. But we were young, and we liked artsy groups and disliked advice of all kinds.
Since in my mind it was Zeth's lack of enthusiasm for screen-printing, T-shirts and work in general that caused our venture to fail, I told him he owed me a favor, and the favor ended up being a minimum wage cashier's job at Ralph's. Since armies of overeducated white folks were streaming into town for the grunge gold rush at that time, it was hard to get even a dishwashing job, so this was indeed a precious gesture of friendship.
What I remember most about Ralph's was the deep-fryer smell. There is no more repulsive an odor to a hung-over hipster cashier than the smell of hash brown patties being grilled up in three-month-old grease at seven in the morning. Trust me. I have sampled pretty much every odor under those conditions.
I was an aspiring graphic designer at the time, and Jeff, then the Art Director of the Rocket, a now defunct Belltown-based music magazine, would come in every day with an extremely large-breasted Rocketeer named Anna. I eventually dropped off my shoddy portfolio at Jeff's office, and later he told me that my work was "cool." A couple years later, Jeff's mentor (and godlike figure for Seattle graphic artists) Art Chantry would give me a great pep-talk about the realistic prospects (none) of making a living as a graphic artist outside of the corporate world. The very talented Jeff would soon become Art Director for Sub Pop records, where he began making six figures after Time Warner bought a share of the company. He remains there to this day.
The Rocket never printed any of my ridiculous artwork, but a girl working at Ralph's who was a part-time roadie commissioned me to design stationery for her company, Roadent Productions. With art featuring, you guessed it, a rat. She never paid me, but one morning she asked me if I wanted to share some frozen egg rolls. To my horror, she dumped the pre-fried microwavable treats into the deep fryer.
Rumor had it that some of the employees stole from Ralph's, walking away each night with a stoner's bounty of canned oysters, string cheese, and other gourmet snacks. I never got the chance to cause any "shrinkage," because I was soon called on the carpet by the owner and grilled about the theft of dozens of cartons of cigarettes. This was a bizarre accusation: I hadn't even worked there long enough to get comfortable swiping bags of chips, and here I was being accused of lifting a felony amount of cigs from a padlocked box in the back room. All very suspicious, and I suspected one of the long-time employees, a bizarro character who walked around constantly sucking from a bottle of water with a squirt lid like it was some kind of pacifier, was the true nicotine fiend. Zeth told me he had suspicious thoughts about the whole cigarette caper, but would never elaborate.
Ralph's Grocery and Deli underwent a major remodel some years back and is now more upscale than ever. Zeth is still in Seattle and still my pal. Good times.
-Alex R. Mayer