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From DMO to D'OH in 38 Years.... - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
From DMO to D'OH in 38 Years....
Introductory note: the story you are about to read is true. The names have been mostly omitted to protect the innocent. However, I struggled with whether to retain a fat-shaming term from my 1979 consciousness, and eventually chose to preserve it. I regret it, much as I regret my homophobia that lasted well into the 1980s, as well as my inherent claims to white male professional privilege that remain to this day. Comment if you're offended and let's talk.

In the spring of 1977, I was admitted to a prestigious Ivy League college I had no business affording. To help out, Cornell University offered me a "package" of scholarships, grants, loans and "work study" employment. To my nervous but accepting parents, that invoked images of me shelving tomes in a university library. Yet, after my acceptance was due and returned, my work-study (forever after known as SEMP *) location was revealed to me: I was to be in the lowest rung of the lowest circle of SEMP-Hell:

For most of my first year at Cornell, I was a DMO.

The work-study draft assigned me to the dining hall nearest my dorm. And not to slopping out the mystery meat, or checking the dining plan cards on the way in with a clicker. No, I was assigned to the lowest of the low. For "DMO" stood for "dish machine operator," and our job was to monitor and manage the rages of plenty coming from the famed Cornell Dining all-you-can-eat-but-you-won't meal plans, which came to us in the back from conveyor belts on the edges of the dining hall, and which needed to be grabbed, dumped, carried, stacked, watched (for the inevitably once-a-shift breakdowns of "Hobart" the automatic dishwasher), retrieved, hand-dried and returned to the dining hall so the trust fund babies could fill and partially empty their plates all over again.

I learned more in those five four hour-a-week shifts than I did in most of the rest of the university community- about wretched excesses, and class distinctions, and the reality of how likely "any person" could "find instruction in any study" without having to clean up after other peoples' leavings.  A couple of years later, another fellow grunt, who wound up working with me at the college paper (and, if I'm remembering rightly is still a Facebook friend of mine) posted a column  suggesting that every undergraduate be required to work a DMO shift, if not a semester of it, in order to graduate. He understood, as I did, that you got the clearest view of the world looking at it from the bottom up rather than the top down.  Far as I know, this has not been made a graduation requirement- but they still make freshmen jump nekkid into a pool to prove they can swim three laps, one of them using the backstroke.

Go Big Red:P


Whether through smarts or luck, probably both, I escaped the DMO assembly line before the end of my freshman year.  Cornell Dining decided to compete with the then-nascent local outpost of the Domino's chain by offering their own late-night alternative for the ordering and delivery of pies. It was called Pizza 101- The Easiest Course on Campus.  Somehow, I got into this gig, and spent the rest of my freshman year chopping big blocks of mozzarella, slopping down toppings, and occasionally delivering pizzas to the West Campus dorms in our relatively captive delivery radius. (We also took orders from a limited range of off-campus addresses; my crowning freshman glory came from knowing the obscure Ithaca street address of the student union we ran this show from, and calling in on a night off and having Pizza 101 deliver a loaded pie to the second floor of 635 Stewart Avenue- in other words, to itself.)

Such intelligence and deviousness didn't go unnoticed, so by sophomore year, I had moved most of my SEMP allotment to a small grocery store located on the first floor of 635 Stewart Avenue.  The store's manager Bob was boyfriend to my freshman band friend Ruthie, and he hired me and eventually made me assistant manager.  This gave me awesome powers- to inventory dairy products and Coke bottles and Ken Lin's homemade eggrolls and even make orders for their replacements on the university's own account. They even kept me on, on a non-SEMP basis, for the summer of 1979, the first of three summers I stayed in Ithaca.  By then, I had also joined the news staff of the Cornell Sun, but my class and work commitments kept me from being one of the star-Star-STARS of the News Board, and I was relegated to minor things in minor places.

But then we got traded- and my world changed.


The student union's second floor was the province of the dining department. Most of the rest of the building came under the jurisdiction of University Unions- not the labor kind, but a separate administrative university Thing.  My first two years, UU for that building was run by an earnest African American dude named D'Name Escapes Me; who I'd met, and knew, but who I had no reason to get in or out of the way of.  By the fall of 1979, he'd been replaced by another Last Name Escapes Me, a woman who remains burned in my brain as Jeanette the Fat Bitch.

Sometime that fall, far higher poobahs than us made a decision: our little first-floor grocery store was suddenly transferred from Dining Services to University Unions- and my boss was no longer Bob, or Gary his replacement, but was JTFB- and she no longer needed an assistant manager. I was to be demoted to peon- no reduction in hourly rate, but a likely reduction of my hours and a certain change in how much control I would have over them.

Never mind that I remember only about 20 percent of yesterday- I remember the ensuing events from those moments like they were 10 minutes ago. I raged at Jeanette about the loss of my prestige and her disrespect of my twelve whole months of experience; I told her I would not tolerate any of it; I punched out, tore my timecard in  half, and stormed back to my on-campus dorm (yes, I'd moved back to the largely freshman haunts of West Campus for my junior year); and then, once my brain's temparature returned to approximately 98.6F, I tried to take it all back and resume my hours with whatever she wanted me to do:

Too bad, so sad. You quit. Position's been filled. Have a nice day.

In hindsight, it was a great moment.  It removed any thoughts I might've had about pursuing a career in retail or any other business; it turned around both my English department pursuits and my reporting career, as I dove into the fall 1979 elections and other 1980 stories that rose me through The Sun's ranks; and I found my way back to other comparable Dining gigs elsewhere on campus that made up for the lost income. It also, likely, gave me the impetus to take the L.S.A.T. the following summer, from which everything else since has more or less proceeded.

But it was impetuous, and probably egotistic and wrong.  I don't regret it,  but I'd be hesitant to repeat it.

Today, and a few recent times before today, someone close to me had the chance to repeat it- and didn't. I can't say they shouldn't have- but I'm glad, at least for the moment that they chose not to, more or less on my advice.

*SEMP was Cornellspeak for Student Employee Matching Program, in which the gummint subsidized half of our then-$2.30 an hour minimum-wage salaries. Other regs allowed non-SEMP employees to be paid even less than the then federal minimum wage, but I don't think I was ever subjected to that.
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