Friday, August 20, 2010

After one bottle there is clarity. After two there is jocularity. after the third once again comes clarity. And after the fourth...well, let's just say that there is a bit more to shortly be written.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"Look at an infantryman's eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen..."--William Henry

I spend most of my time travelling right now, but old habits die hard. Traditionally early morning would find me, diet soda in hand, and my desktop computer. After reviewing company-wide sales emails and any other business-related items I would traditionally move on to some favorite personal websites--mostly restaurant blogs like eater and waiterrant and one of my personal favorites, restaurantgal.

Well now I'm mostly in hotel rooms and working off of a laptop, and the business review is much shorter than the personal review, but the process has stayed the same. Usually there is some little bit of knowledge to be gleaned, but every once in a while I come across something that completely transports me to another place, and often that place resides in my past.

This morning my regular stop at restaurantgal led me on one of those unique trips. My relationship with my father did not sour until my mid-twenties, and while our schedules as adults precluded us having a very close relationship, we were pretty similar to a normal father and son under the circumstances. My father's very unique life allowed him to effortlessly cross a number of what, even in this country, would be considered class boundaries. A few times a year my family would find itself the only white faces in a sea of poor black ones at a Baptist church whose pastor had been a chaplain to one of my father's wartime units--they became good friends and my father relished the relationship. After the service was a Sunday lunch picnic next to the sanctuary that we stayed for, and that all of us [but my father especially] loved attending. The roof of the church and the air conditioning were paid for with his money, but no one was allowed to know that.

I saw him hop out of a chauffeur-driven Bentley in custom-made suit and shoes to help push a broken-down car up a hill, and he loved Nascar way before it became a huge hit--loved going to the races and hanging with the other fans.

Mainly though, my father loved the American Legion. Other veteran's organizations as well, but the American Legion was where he felt completely comfortable, completely himself. He twice served as a post commander, and regularly served on the executive committee of his home post. A guy who controlled two different Fortune 500 companies during the course of his life would routinely and without fail come to meetings that focused on paying electric bills, throwing picnics, and collecting hall rentals.

During his time at the Legion, the WWII vets like himself ruled the roost. For reasons I never really divined, Korean vets never really made an impact on the membership-maybe they flocked to another organization like the VFW, maybe the relatively short term of the Korean War allowed them to more effectively separate themselves from their service, maybe they thought the older guys were dicks, or maybe it was just that in our particular area they weren't representative. What I remember was when the Vietnam guys started to show up.

The expectation would be that warriors would welcome warriors, and that soldiers, even from different generations, would know one another right away. And maybe in most posts it was just like that, again I really can't say. At my father's beloved post, the old guys did not like the new guys, and did not want them around. They didn't like the long hair some of them had, didn't like the bikes some of them rode [mostly Japanese bikes, as Harleys were expensive and much less reliable back then than they are now], didn't like what they drank and didn't like what they talked about. Didn't like them in "their" place.

Except my father. My dad, again unlike many of his contemporaries, had remained in the reserves until 1969 when he was retired as a full colonel. He had known a number of the Vietnam-era military men during their service, and knew that they were good men who were, in many cases, put in terrible situations. He knew they often had a raw deal at war, and that the deal only got worse when they came home. Most old vets knew that ground fighting the Japanese on the pacific islands wasn't much different than ground fighting Viet Cong, and that being a prisoner of the Japanese would have been just as traumatic and scarring as being a Vietnamese prisoner, but what the didn't acknowledge were all the other differences that truly made coming home so much harder for the Vietnam guys. The guys from Vietnam weren't allowed to win, didn't come home to parades and adoration, and when they were "shell-shocked" [old school post-traumatic stress disorder] in many cases they didn't have the family support system available to them that was available to past generations. They also didn't come back to a booming economy and millions of open, decently-paying jobs. My father knew that they had been screwed, and wanted them to have a welcoming place to go.

I wasn't there every day, obviously. I knew all of this because one of these Vietnam guys eventually went to work for my father, and over time would tell me the stories. This fellow was himself a bit of an iconoclast--a Vietnam-era career soldier who spent the war, three tours worth, as a special forces sniper. He never had the long hair, the beard, the leather jacket, or the motorcycle. He also stayed in the reserves after active duty, and was a different fellow entirely. My father didn't travel with security per se, but it was often prudent for him to have someone with him who could work toward "securing well-being", as he used to say. This guy was perfect for the job, did it for a very long time, and was incredibly loyal to my father as my father was to him. He only told me one personal story about his time in Vietnam, and while it would be unfair to try to relate it here [in order to get the true impact of the words, you would have to watch him utter them], lets just say that this was one truly dangerous fellow.

I remember two stories he told me about the Legion, two instances together that were the dam breaker between the two groups of men.

One afternoon my father stopped by the post to see some friends, one of whom was a pretty famous WWII pilot. He's been on the History Channel several times, and is very well-known and rightfully very well respected. When my father arrived this famous pilot was mildly berating a very successful pilot of the Vietnam War, because of the disparity in their "kill" numbers. The WWII pilot was talking about how he had a slower plane with no missiles that was technologically over matched by the Japanese Zeros he fought against, yet his numbers dwarfed those of the other aviator. He went on to marvel that a fellow could have missiles and a jet engine and be flying a plane universally considered superior to his MIG adversaries and yet succeed on such a limited scale, comparatively. The older pilot was clearly buzzed, and didn't seem to be mean-spirited in his delivery, and while the younger aviator remained basically silent I am told he had a smile on his face. Apparently my father walked up to the small group, bought the seated Vietnam aviator a drink, and told his pilot friend to shut up before he made "even a bigger fool of himself". When the older man began to protest in a good-natured way and restate his stats, my father said, "Idiot! He flew the F-4 before it had a gun! He went up as a bomber with 8 missiles. Every one of his kills came on a stick [missile] and most of them came with a payload in the gut [carrying bombs]. How many B-24 pilots do you know with a bunch of dogfighting kills?"

To his credit, the older man immediately sat down next to the other pilot and asked him, "you didn't have machine guns?"

He answered, "They didn't add a cannon to the F-4 til 1968, and I was already rotating home by then."

"I'm an asshole, no doubt about that, and I apologize sir. Why didn't you stop my stupid ass, why didn't you tell me?"

"You're one of my idols. I was just honored to be speaking with you."

The respect the younger pilot showed the older one, especially considering the circumstances, became very well known at the post very quickly. Many of the older guys started to wonder if they really knew enough about what their younger associates had gone through. And, of course, as the two pilots started to spend more time together their respective groups of friends started to spend more time together as well.

About a month later a notice went up for a "roof party". One of the older members needed to reshingle his roof. He lived outside the city, and before the days of smothering bureaucracy things like this happened often. You put up a flyer, buy the materials, and a bunch of guys show up one Saturday morning. The roof gets reshingled quickly and cheaply, and then you throw a party afterward to thank everyone. Well, this fellow didn't hang out at the post very much because he didn't have much extra money, and while he knew many of the members his own age he wasn't really close with any of them because he couldn't afford to spend the time [even though it is incredibly cheap to eat and drink at an American Legion]. The morning of the party came and only a couple of this fellow's friends showed up...but there were still twenty men there The Vietnam-era guys had seen the flyer and asked about the guy and found out that he was on a short budget and that he really needed the help.

Restaurant Gal is clearly working as a bartender at a military lodge, a VFW or an American Legion or a VVA. Whichever, it doesn't really matter. Depending on which one it is, she may see veterans of Iraq [1991 Operation or 2003 Operation] and Afghanistan. If she has particularly hale souls in her neighborhood, and they do certainly still exist, she may even see a few Korean War or WWII veterans. But mostly, she serves the veterans of the Vietnam War.

These Vietnam War veterans may look rough. They may use a variety of crutches, literally and chemically. And, as she relates, some of them almost assuredly do not sleep well. They probably didn't want to go, but they went. Their time there was chaotic, traumatic, violent, and terrifying. They came back without anything being resolved, and were not welcomed home while still in uniform. Once out of uniform they had trouble becoming part of civilian society. They generally keep to themselves, individually and as a group. They share an incredible weight of memory, and some simply carry it better than others.

At the same time, they are normal people. They have heroes, even though few of them were honored for their own heroism. They are often the first ones willing to lend a hand, even though many of them have needs of their own. Many of them have a lifetime of memory, knowledge, and experience that is there for the asking, but kept out of sight of the casual observer.

These men had to prove themselves even to other soldiers when they first came to these organizations looking for solace. I hope now that they are the elders, that they have finally found their peace.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

second new post in two days

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple..."--Oscar Wilde

Just a quick aside--this was something that made a shocking impression on me when I stumbled upon it during the course of the extremely drunken group conversation on the night of the restaurant's closing.

There is a party game that is just a clear plastic box full of cards onto which have been written provocative questions--everyone in turn pulls a question and answers it and then everyone else present answers the same question. Someone had the game at the restaurant and servers used to play it sometimes in the beginning of the evening after sidework was done but before guests had arrived--I had no problem with it, I just asked that the more risque questions be skipped.

Well, the game came out after the meal was finished but just as the serious drinking was really getting fired up. The answer that I gave to one of the questions has stuck with me ever since that night [or early morning, to be more accurate]--I had not thought of the incident I described in over a decade, and most odd, wasn't planning for it to be my answer. I just opened my mouth to talk about losing my temper with a cocktail waitress one time and out popped something entirely different.

The question, paraphrased, was, "What is the most regrettable thing you have ever said to someone?"

I had my cocktail waitress-based answer all ready to go when my turn came about, but instead what came out was a much shorter version of the below:

When I was in my mid-20's I was involved in a very torrid relationship--I have never been in better shape and have never looked better, and this girl was just the most beautiful and unbelievably desirable creature one could ever imagine--imagine taking Angelina Jolie's head and setting it atop the most incredible female body ever designed by God [as opposed to the anemic bag of sticks said head actually resides atop these days]. I remember seeing an interview with the model/actress Angie Everhart many years ago and she was describing her romance with Sylvester Stallone, and she talked about how she would wake up in the middle of the night and move the covers off him and just stare transfixed by his body as he slept because it was so perfect [again, many years ago and her opinion]. Well, when I heard her words I broke out laughing, because I had often done the same thing with this girl. I couldn't help it--thinking back I have no idea how either of us ever got out of the house.

We were wholly immersed in one another for over a year, and in addition to bottomless infatuation we actually had a great deal in common, a little bit of shared background, and she was tremendously intelligent. She was also extremely jealous. I probably should have taken her jealous streak more seriously and done more to make her comfortable, but anyone looking at me and looking at her would immediately realize that there was nowhere better for me to go, and as a result of that fact coupled with my youth my stock answer to her concerns was a throw away line, "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?", or "No way! You've ruined me for other girls--if we ever break up I'm going gay just for the convenience factor." Witty, I know.

Anyway, just short of the eighteen month mark she became very suspicious of a female server on my staff and insisted I fire her or at least move her to lunches where I would see much less of her. This was an ongoing conflict, and eventually there was a misunderstood situation that led to a terrible break-up. I did nothing wrong, the server did nothing wrong, it was just one of those things. Or at least that is how old-guy me sees it. Young-guy me was pissed, because I didn't do anything wrong, and frankly because she nearly ruined me for average, everyday female nakedness--or at least for about six months or so.

After a little time passes, she picks up a rebound guy--and he is not a good guy. A little roided out before it was popular to be roided out, and a bully. Domineering, insulting, profane, etc. The guy made me look like Prince Valiant to be quite honest, and all of her friends and family were constantly on her to ditch the guy and get back with me, but neither option appealed to her.

Then one day she was late to meet the guy at a club and when she finally showed up, he slapped her. In public. And when she responded verbally in surprise and anger he slapped her again. Hard. It was at that point that the bouncers who knew me and still assumed she was my girlfriend [deeply depressed, I wasn't going out and letting people know we were finished, and as being my known associate in a bar or restaurant is always good for a bunch of free stuff, neither was she] partially dismantled this fellow and deposited him in the alley behind the place. One of the bouncers called me to let me know, and after filling the guy in on the situation and making sure she was OK, I called her dad to warn the family about the guy. Her parents had fled Czechoslovakia in the late 50's and while the two boys and the daughter were all-American, her mom and dad were old school. Dad grabbed the two brothers a few days later and they caught up with boyfriend still hurting from the bouncer beatdown and they put him in the hospital. End of rebound relationship.

About three months later this guy hits the papers--front page. Apparently after the bandages came off he went out and found himself another girl, and eventually smacked her around too. And when she screamed at him that she was going to tell her brothers [the neighbors reported the screaming] the guy freaked out and shot her to death. Then the piece of shit coward took the gun, managed to target his tiny little brain, and offed himself.

Six months later I was basically back in action, sitting at an outside bar where a friend was working. I remember it was a Sunday because I had been there most of the day watching football and I was extremely well-lubricated, and whattayaknow across the bar I see the old girlfriend with a couple of her friends. There were about forty people sitting and standing around this big, triangular patio bar and the ladies hadn't seen me. I asked my friend to offer them a round, and ten seconds after he walked away the fireworks commenced. From all the way across the bar came a barrage of invective, screamed accusations of infidelity, stalking, and lying. I had apparently improperly insinuated myself into her family AND her circle of friends, not to mention "monopolizing every waiter and bartender in town". I may have also killed President Kennedy.

Now, even in my intoxicated state I was extremely surprised by her reaction to the simple offer of a drink. In my head I already had us cuddled up and reminiscing, or at the very least discoursing in a civil fashion--having false accusations hurled at me from across a bar in front of forty people was not one of the pre-considered outcomes.

I was still angry at the original false accusations. I was still bothered by the damage the killer had done to her, not to mention the tragedy of the murder and the effect on the victim's friends and family. I was suddenly furious that I was catching all of this public recrimination for no good reason, and I was drunk, and I was young.

As I spoke my voice rose, and the more I spoke the louder my voice got, and the last six words were screamed at the top of my lungs, "I never cheated on you, I never followed you--you followed me. I never went to your friends and family, your friends and family came to me because your new boyfriend was such a scumbag. I never said a bad word about you, I never hit you, and AT LEAST I NEVER KILLED ANYBODY".

By now the entire crowd was struck dumb by the two exchanged outbursts and I'm sure my finale was lost on most of them [though my misanthropic bartender friend would tell people for years that it was the best beatdown he had ever heard], but it wasn't lost on her obviously. I immediately left the bar, walking out on a check for the only time in my life as far as I know [I came back the next day].

I feel completely justified in saying what I said. I was pushed to the point of utterance, and while I generally don't go out of my way to defend myself, I was in no way a villain at any point in this saga. Apparently however, our public exchange and my final exclamation started an avalanche within the young lady's life. I was told that her friends had to carry her from the bar that night, that she basically collapsed sobbing. She had a bad few years following with some drug problems and a failed marriage. She came out on the other side in good shape, and I heard that she made a new life with a good guy in another state and found happiness.

Up until the game, I don't think I had thought of that girl or that incident in years. I was always embarrassed at the public nature of the final "showdown", just as I was always bothered by the way that our relationship ended--after all it always sucks the worst to get punished for something you didn't do. I guess that over time I must have realized subconciously that I pulled the pin from this woman's grenade of despair, and that is just something I would rather not have on my personal resume.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

First new post in a long time

"And from the tents the armorers, accomplishing the knights, with busy hammers closing rivets up, give dreadful note of preparation..."--Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV

They polish, they straighten, and they gather for the pre-shift meeting--but they know. Excepting our mammoth catering property, we are the only restaurant in our company still open. The rumors are rampant, my employer is in seclusion, and I have lost twenty-five pounds.

This is it. Our last evening. It appears at the start to be a fairly slow Saturday. After the pre-shift meeting I would normally be found in my office or at the front desk chatting with my maitre d', but at this moment I am seated at a 4-top toward the back of our dining room. I'm staring out at a bleak autumn day. The waiter in whose station I am seated hovers nervously, afraid that I have spotted something wrong and am sitting while waiting for him to notice and correct it. I turn with an uncharacteristic smile [rare in the best of times, and a downright endangered species over the last six weeks or so] and tell him that everything is fine--I suggest that he return to his family meal. He looks at the same time both relieved at being dismissed and troubled at being so easily diagnosed. On the bread plate at my side is what looks like a full glass of ice water--it is in fact a large glass of vodka from which I sip absentmindedly. In truth, I'm relatively sure that in my current state I could drink an entire bottle of vodka and not feel drunk, but on this particular day the steady supply is at least thankfully keeping me from tears.

I have spent the last two weeks surreptitiously arranging work for my best employees. Calling on friends and associates in the business I have been pretending to advocate for employees from our other properties--every person I speak to is told about the best guy from this place or the A-team bartender from that one. I have arranged appointments for nearly all of my most cherished staffmembers, and on Monday I will call all of my contacts again and tell them who they are really going to be talking to--I'm confident that most of my people will not be out of work for long. I also tried hard to help as many employees from our other closed restaurants as I could, but in full disclosure I saved the best for my guys.

My fugue is briefly interrupted by the sound of breaking glass. A water glass has been knocked from the edge of a table by the worst server on my staff--an imbecile of the first order. The server forgets that I am sitting in the dining room and begins to chuckle like the idiot he is, and it suddenly occurs to me that I don't want to spend the last working night in my beloved steakhouse in this idiot's company.

Disguised drink in hand, I walk to the front desk and grab the schedule. In addition to the imbecile I see one other server on the page who is a constant pain in the ass as well as a bartender due in later that night for whom I can barely disguise my contempt under the best of circumstances. And of course, these are not the best of circumstances.

"What's wrong?', asks my maitre d' after I stand staring at the schedule for three or four minutes. Suddenly I know exactly how to proceed.

To my maitre d', "Do me a favor, please. Send Bob and Hannah home and call Allen and tell him not to come in. Tell them all that we look very slow tonight and that I need to save payroll--if they want to know why they are being picked out instead of someone else tell them they will need to talk to me. Block out the rest of the slots 8pm to 10pm, and we're going to close tonight at 10 instead of 11."

"What's goin-?"

"I'll explain in a sec--I've got to get something from the office and then I need you to do me one more favor."

In the office I go to my briefcase and pull out two things--from my wallet comes my company charge card and from another sleeve comes one of several envelopes--this particular envelope is my maitre d's severance. In a meeting shortly after the sales deal was inked I gave my employer a severance schedule for all of our managers throughout the company--I explained to him that, if he wanted me to play the grim reaper for the three months it was going to take to kill all of his restaurants, the schedule was non-negotiable. The amounts listed were large, but I knew he had no stomach for shutting down his own restaurants, and he agreed.

Walking my maitre d' outside I waste no time, "We are closing tonight. [Owner] sold to [restaurant company] three months ago--they want the real estate not the brand, they paid out the ass, and [owner] couldn't resist. He has promised me that you [and three others] will have job offers within a month, if that's something you would be interested in [I'm shaking my head as I say this]. Your severance is in this envelope, along with appointment info for a GM's interview [with good well-known restaurant company] on Tuesday. Take this [my company AMEX] and call "Stringfellows" [my favorite local restaurant], ask for Nick the manager and tell him Last One Home needs a really, really nice spread for twenty-five people at 11:30pm--I'll leave it to him. I don't care what it costs, but I need it delivered, and I want to add 25% to the check.

--My maitre d' is staring at me like I just grew horns, and I don't know if it is because I just told him that our busy restaurant would be closing forever in five hours or because I just asked him to tell an exclusive, four-star New American restaurant to deliver, so I figure I should cover all the bases--

The check in the envelope is two-months salary, and I am sure that you will get the GM job if you just show up for the interview. Nick owes me three or four HUGE favors, and "Stringfellows" will deliver no problem--trust me. Now cover me for a half hour, I have to go home and grab the wine for dinner tonight. Just keep everything to yourself for a few more hours."

The secret was well-kept until about 9pm when my first server tried to cash out and I told them they had to stay. It was sort of a last-straw moment, and within ten minutes I had a dozen people wanting to know what was going on. When I stated that "the bar was open" and that everyone should get a drink before I said anything further, three people burst loudly into tears. My tears flowed silently.

The meal was great, the wine was better, and the company was best of all. When the pale sun made its rise, many of us were still "at work". Everyone got an envelope--for the managers there was a check and a scheduled interview, while most of my staff had a scheduled interview and everyone got at least a letter of recommendation. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of my staff were quickly snatched up by other operators, just as I am to this day still devastated that they no longer "belong" to me.

My sad job did not lurch to a final halt until two weeks later. There were innumerable transfers, phone calls, and annoying administrative tasks. There was one final, ugly confrontation with my guilt-ridden employer. There was a final, introspective tour of the property that had been my professional home for almost a third of my life.

There is more to be told of this story, though it has obviously taken me a long time to face the telling of the end. There may even be things to tell beyond, though on that I haven't completely decided yet.

You see, this is what I do. What I have always done. I have great respect for the author Steve Dublanica and for the author known as "the doorman". I have their books, I enjoyed reading them, and I look forward to future volumes. But I'm not an author.

I enjoy reading the various server, bartender, and restaurant staff blogs, though I sometimes take personal issue with their attitudes and mindsets. But I am not an actor, an engineering student, a realtor, or an equipment salesman.

I am a restaurant manager. I am myself. I did not want to stop when I was forced to stop.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well..."--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am daydreaming. I am thinking about the climactic scene from one of my favorite movies, which--oddly--stars one of my least favorite actors. I am daydreaming about "The Last Samurai".

I am thinking about the movie, but in reality what I am doing is debating in my mind the concept of honor.

Honor is important to me. Integrity, honesty, reliability--all of these nearly-forgotten terms matter to me the way they used to matter to most people years ago. Nothing gives me more pride than the fact that I have never broken my word.

I remember hearing the quote once, that "the best friend is the one who dies being owed the most favors".

I like old school shit like this--it is the way I have lived my life up to this point.

Toward the end of "The Last Samurai" the Japanese regular army is coming to capture or kill the last Samurai lord--the motivation is purely political, driven by a craven, power-hungry douchebag whose character [or lack thereof] is eminently recognizable to anyone who pays any attention to modern American politics.

The Samurai and his American companion [played by the patently insane Tom Cruise] have crafted a noble defense--one that will salvage their honor, make their point, appeal to the greater honor of Japan, and--not incidentally--most likely result not only in their own deaths but also in the deaths of every single one of the Samurai Lord's followers.

And they joke about it. They even enjoy themselves to a certain extent amidst the carnage because they are comfortable in the fact that they are doing the right thing. They know the end is coming and they don't care--because they know that eventually the end comes for all of us and they also know that their ending will be glorious.

Glorious. This Samurai and his men meet their end against insurmountable odds and it is glorious in every sense of the word. The scene reduces me to tears every time I see it.

So, here I am thinking of this movie. And I am thinking about right living and honorable living and making the right choices and the hard choices and-----------

"so, what do you say?

SO, what do you say?



"I said, there's going to be a place for you. And there's going to be at least the same amount of money for you. And I need you! Can I count on you?"

As I snap back to reality I remember where I am. I'm sitting on the huge seating veranda of one of our other restaurants, deserted except for me and my employer. It is a Friday morning at 10am and he has been telling me about the deal he has just inked to sell his restaurants to a large multi-state operator. He has been telling me about how this company approached him after hearing from their law firm [also his law firm] that he was looking into either curtailing or completely halting his operations. He has been telling me about the last month and a half of meetings he has had, and about all of the offers this company has made--each one richer than the last. He has been telling me about how he refused all of them out of hand just as he has refused hundreds of other offers over the years.

And then I hear him say three words--"Board of Directors"--and then I understand. These people--these suitors of ours--are very astute. They have read my boss like a book and have identified something about him that I had overlooked. My boss has gotten tired--not tired like I get tired, with the sweat-through shirt under my jacket and the bloody feet and falling asleep at my desk after everyone else has gone home for the night--tired like, "I don't want to worry about all this shit anymore" tired.

These people are going to bank him up--which I'm sure is important to him, but frankly not vital. More importantly, they are giving him his easy out--he's not quitting, not selling out, not abandoning hundreds of loyal employees --he's merging with a multi-state company that has a track record of success and a very well-known name, and he's "staying on" as part of their Board--not quitting, no, of course not.

"So, what do you say, are you coming along?", he asks again.

"I've got to get back to Steakhouse, I'm short-staffed for lunch. Let me know how the announcement is going to go down, please."


"I'll let you know, Bill." And with that, I walked off the veranda and toward my car.

A few minutes later as I drove toward my office something occurred to me--in well more than a decade, that was the first time I had ever called my employer by his first name while working. We have shared countless social occasions over the years, including a couple of vacations with our significant others during all of which we acted as the friends I always believed us to be--but in the restaurants or in any professional capacity I never spoken to him or referred to him except as Mr. LOH'sBoss [not too much of a stretch to admit that his real name isn't Bill LOH'sBoss, but you get the idea]--not because he wanted it that way, much to the contrary, but because I thought it was the proper thing to do.

Just as that fact was sinking in and I was pondering what such a subconscious slip like that might really mean, another thought occurred to me--one that nearly drove me off the road. Suddenly shaking as if I had been sucker-punched, I managed to pull over to the shoulder and get into a fast food parking lot. Something wasn't right. Something was missing from the story. And I also realized that I had left before the meeting was supposed to be over. I was suddenly sure that if I had stayed on that veranda and agreed to "come along", I would have heard what the late Paul Harvey would have called "the rest of the story". After a few minutes taken to compose myself, I grabbed my cellphone and called.

"I was really hoping you would call--I really didn't like the way you just walked--"

"Why do I have to "come along", Bill? Why can't I just stay where I am? What's the new plan, Bill? What do our new bosses have in mind?" My heart was beating out of my chest and I was sweating and chilled at the same time--and I was angry.



After a seemingly endless silence, "The reason the talks took so long and the reason the offer got so--"


"They're going to close everything but The Mountain [our catering and events business, housed in a massive sixty-year-old facility and nicknamed "The Mountain" because getting to the top of the five-story faux-mansion building while moving tables, chairs, portable bars, etc, can be like climbing a mountain--and frankly it even looks a little like a mountain] and install their concepts. The only one of our places showing positive revenue right now is Steakhouse, and they feel that with current competition, the two pending chain openings, and the continued recession that it will be a loser pretty soon as well."

His statement sounded almost rehearsed, like he had been dreading the moment when he would have to give it and had been trying to get it straight, but it also sounded pretty genuine.

"Why not The Mountain?" Even though I knew the answer, I was in shock and it was the only thing I could think to say.

"Money. She's mostly booked for the next nine months--that's nearly $2 million in potential sales and we've already taken in nearly $300,000.00 in deposits. They don't want to give up the sales or give back the deposits."

"I'll call you back from the office, I'm on the road right now." Click.

When I got back to my office and spent some more time on the phone with my employer I received what can only be described as a brutal closure schedule. The first of our places would close at the end of business the next night [Saturday], and on Sunday and Monday all their food and beverage products would be moved to my property. Within a month all of our other restaurants would close using the same program--the process slowed only by the fact that we would need at least a few days after each closure to use up enough of their inventories that we would be able to accept more stuff from the next victim. Five weeks and one day after my Friday morning meeting would be Steakhouse's last operating day, and the following Sunday and Monday I would oversee the transfer of my final inventories to The Mountain.

End of story. Done. Finis.

Restaurants close every day--it is literally almost the worst possible business to open. Definitely over 80% and possible over 90% of all restaurants close within one year of opening. That is a terrible figure by itself, and when you include among the survivors those stores belonging to gigantic chains [how many Subways, McDonald's, and Wendy's have you ever seen close within one year] it becomes a nearly insurmountable challenge for any independent operator. Over the years we had received inventory from a failed sibling more than once, but in addition to Steakhouse we were also able to field a number of winners--if not for the current poor economy and the anti-small business attitude at the federal level, I don't think I would be writing this now.

As for my employer, my feelings are conflicted to say the least. Many people would see no difference between his closing up shop over a pending health care debacle [still happily unresolved and hopefully soon defeated] before it had the chance to destroy his business or make all of us wards of the federal government, and doing what he actually did--"merging" with a larger company whose announced plan included the closing of the very same restaurants for other reasons. After all, the net result is the same.

In the first case, I found his position surprising but not objectionable--a matter of self-determination, a sort of "this far and no further" kind of stand. After I got over the initial shock of his statement, it reminded me a little bit of when that awful woman attempted to pressure Augusta National several years ago on their men-only membership policy. Augusta of course hosts the Master's Golf Tournament, and this woman demanded Augusta--a private club legally entitled to an exclusive membership policy--admit women, or she would organize a boycott of the Tournament's sponsors. The president of Augusta at the time, the unfortunately named Hootie Johnson, was delightfully non-plussed. He announced that in order spare the Tournament's long-time valued sponsors from being sullied and bullied, he would suspend sponsorship of the event [it went on television commercial free and made the event and the Club even more beloved]. Further, he announced, the Club's membership policies were their own and would only be changed for reasons of and at a time of the membership's own choosing. If the Club's neighbors and sponsors continued to be harassed, he said, they would probably just stop having the Tournament altogether. Not surprisingly, this show of resolve, so uncommon in the modern era, resulted in the woman being marginalized [rightfully so] and the "controversy" disappearing.

It is sometimes right to declare that if something cannot be done my way, it will be done no way. A vital component of freedom.

In the situation of our "merger" however, its harder for me to find and recognize his high ground. A point he tried to make to me on the phone after the Friday meeting was that the negotiations took so long because he kept refusing the closures--at the time I cut him off, but later, when we were meeting about severances he was finally able to make this point, which was clearly very important to him. As this particular meeting was one of the low points of my entire career [figuring out what to pay people who were being laid off for no good reason before sending them out into the worst job market in history], I did not ask my boss what changed his mind. Of course, I didn't have to ask him, because I knew--they made it easy for him. The easier they made it for him, the less important everyone else's potential difficulties became. The restaurants are his, the decision is his. Throughout his career he has been an honorable and respectful employer, evidenced by the huge group of employees who have stayed with him for over a decade at numerous different properties. It would never occur to me to say, "You can't do this", or anything similar. Still though...

It just doesn't seem right. Maybe I'm just feeling sorry for myself, or regretting the end of an era that, at the very least, I was hoping to end my involvement with on my own terms. More likely, I'm picking up on the fact that he feels guilty about the decision himself, that he knows he took the easy way out.

But for me, it is not so easy. Easy doesn't appeal to me. In all honesty, I have quite a bit of contempt for easy. I have his open job offer. The money is very good, the position probably less physically demanding than the one that I am preparing to leave, and I want to work. I don't need to work, which is a luxury that also embarrasses me right now, but I want to work. If I take the job I can probably find jobs for many of our past employees once the properties are re-concepted and start to re-open [all will be re-concepted and re-modeled except for our perennial loser which will become the big company's new corporate offices], and that is important to me. On the other hand, if I take the job I believe I will also ease my employer's conscience, and I believe that my acceptance will be a tacit endorsement of the whole deal, and that I do not like.

It has been a long time since I had to hunt for a job, usually being hired from one place to another, and staying at the last one through three Presidents and four administrations has me a bit out of practice even before you get to it being the worst market in history.

I have to tell you, I still kind of like that climax from The Last Samurai. That's a good way to go out. The only problem is that when I went in the hut to put on my armor, my Samurai lord walked down the hill and surrendered.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap..."--Ayn Rand

"What are you doing right now?"

"Finishing up a schedule and getting ready to make up a liquor order. Why?"

"Forget about that...Come on over to the office as fast as you can, please."

"On my way."

I can't remember the last time I was in my employer's office, which is also to say that I can't remember the last time he was in his office either. The corporate offices for our small company house our controller, a receptionist who covers the phones for the office as well as for all of our places during down time and shift changes, and my employer himself--technically. For the last four years or so my boss has pretty much done business via Blackberry and "ask Last One Home". On my last visit to this facility to drop something off for our controller, the open door to his office revealed a pile of military memorabilia [he is an avid collector] that covered the desk and the two visitor's chairs as well as the blueprint table left over from the last store we built from scratch--it was obvious from the dust atop this priceless pile of crap that the room itself had not been occupied in quite some time.

As I grab my jacket and briefcase and head for my car, I wonder what's up.

"Thanks for coming so quickly. You know, Last One Home, when we first started working together all those years ago, I didn't give you nearly as much credit and recognition as you deserved. I hope that I have remedied that over the years, but I know I've gotten lazy as time has gone on and I also know that I don't always communicate as well as I should--so I just want to start by telling you that, truly, none of this would exist without you. Seriously."

"Am I getting fired?" [You have to imagine the situation for me, as I asked this question out of honest curiosity as well as with some eagerness--I don't mean to belittle the financial trouble that so many are facing right now--but for me getting fired would be, in a way, like being paroled from prison].

"No you're not getting fired...sorry to disappoint you. [apparently the eagerness in my voice came through more than I had expected]

I'm seriously thinking about closing, however. I wanted to tell you before any of the financial people I've had preliminaries with start to blab."

"The Steakhouse??" At this I was truly surprised. We have been by no means immune to the collapse of our nation into Socialism, and both our check average and general revenues have suffered. However, financially speaking we weren't anywhere near where closing should be any sort of a consideration. We were still profitable, as a matter of fact.

"All of the stores."

"What the fuck is going on? Are you sick?"

"I'm not sick. No one is sick. Did you ever read the short story the movie 'The Shawshank Redemption' was based on?"

"I don't think so, but I did see the movie a long time ago. What was the story called? And why?"

"I don't remember exactly, but it had 'Shawshank' in the title. Anyway, in the book the Tim Robbins character was talking to the black guy about how, when he knew he was probably going to be convicted, he started to protect his assets. The Tim Robbins guy made a comparison between two men who live on the beach, both with priceless art collections. A hurricane is on the way, and one guy thinks that God or Providence or whatever would never let all his beautiful art be destroyed, and so he is sure the storm will turn and he does nothing. You know, those storms are so fickle anyway, they almost never end up where anyone expects. Well, the second guy also hopes for the best, and knows alot can happen in between the storm forming and it hitting land, but he still doesn't want to take any chances--so the second guy takes down all of his art and crates it up and moves it inland away from the storm, to protect his investment."


"I believe you are aware of what is going to happen when the stimulus money that extended unemployment benefits and raised benefit amounts runs out next year, yes?"

"Yes. In return for the states getting the money, they had to guarantee that those longer terms and higher pay-outs would be maintained indefinitely--that means that when the "free" money is gone, our unemployment insurance rates and fees go up."

"They will go up substantially, even though we haven't laid a single person off."

"And that's why you are thinking of selling out?"

"Not selling, just closing."

"I have to tell you, boss--I'm at a total loss."

"Do you think this ridiculous health care bill is going to pass?"

"Unfortunately I do."

"So do I, and I have spent the last week with our lawyers and accountants and the controller looking at numbers--some of our well-connected friends back east have made sure we got the text of the bill as soon as it became available--you know they didn't have it when they voted on it--but it is out now.

Businesses like ours will have two choices--pay for the health care for our employees, or pay a penalty that amounts to 8% of total labor cost if we do not. Paying for the health care puts us out of business--straight up. Paying these cocksuckers the penalty almost puts us out of business--and those two conclusions are drawn using last years' numbers, which are a damn sight better than 2009."

"Why close them instead of sell them?"

"A few reasons. I can't imagine that anyone is looking to buy restaurants right now even without this health care bullshit, and I don't want to have them on the market forever just to get lowballed. Half of them are almost worthless without our name anyway, and I'm not going to sell the name. In closing them, I can eliminate most of the operating debt on the properties through the process and in the case of Steakhouse and [one other restaurant] avoid the two big improvement assessments that are about to hit at the same time. And finally, if I close them, the cocksuckers can't tax me like they could if I sell them. I don't think I'm going to be able to save them like the guy from he story, but I'm damn well going to decide what happens to them myself.

I'm fed up with it. I'm thinking about fronting some of our long-time guys in little places--bars mostly. Two or three or four guys working as partners--so there aren't technically any employees. Small footage places, pubs and cool little places like that Pegu Club and PDT we went to when we were in Manhattan last year--but smaller. Maybe some of our kitchen guys want to do the same kind of thing with a little bakery or sandwich shop or something. Nothing too big--no more big equipment, big rents, big anything--and no more employees. I'm thinking of fronting "hospitality LLP's".

I'm so tired of everybody's hands in my pockets constantly. Do you know there are three fucking music licensing companies now? I swear to God if I could play only music in the public domain I would do that too--or maybe just no music at all--just turn up the TV's. Licenses--do you know when I started with 'Harry's' thirty years ago I had two licenses on my wall--the occupational license and the liquor license. Two. How many are on the wall at Steakhouse right now?"

"Twelve or thirteen."

"And how many of them make any fucking sense at all?"


"Exactly. Listen, my friend--we've come a long way together. I've made you rich and you've made me richer--but we have both worked till we bled for every penny--you a good deal more over the last ten years or so than me, but I had plenty of hard, lean years in the 70's and 80's. You know, when 'Harry's' opened it took every last penny I had--I sold my car and got evicted from my apartment--I slept on the bar for three months till I could afford an efficiency finally. But my own place was my dream, and I'm so sad and so angry that we are where we are right now--but I can't see any other way if this shit gets passed--I refuse to get sucked down with everyone else. I always believed that my people worked with me instead of for me--everybody. But all this new stuff has made it so that I'm going to be working for them--and I can't abide that--I just can't."

"You know we're talking about over 400 people, unless you plan to back 200 bakeries and underground bars."

"I know it. I'm sick over it. But here's how I look at it. I have given thousands of people good jobs over the years--great working conditions, good salaries, hourly wages, and good shifts. I've given millions in bonuses, spent hundreds of thousands on parties [our holiday and anniversary parties are legendary and epic]. I've never been able to afford health coverage for the whole staff, just management, but I've paid for emergency room bills, root canals, appendectomies, broken ankles, and all sorts of surprise shit that could have really hurt my guys when they weren't prepared for it--I've fronted down payments, tuition, and bail--I've cosigned a hundred loans. I have paid people more than the going rate because we didn't have insurance, and hoped they would put the extra money toward their own program. I have been stand-up my whole life--my whole life.

But this. This is just like a union trying to push their way into my business. The only difference is that the employees don't have any more control over it than I do. If a union successfully pushed into our places I would close them the next day, I told you that a long time ago. I'm thinking about doing the same thing here for the same reasons--once some other group decides they can tell me what I'm going to do beyond what is right and decent in my own business, I'm up up and away."

My employer might be a little ahead of the curve here, but by no means do I think he is going to be alone in his conclusions. I believe the recent passed and pending legislation in congress will close more than half of all US small businesses.

In responding to a recent comment on another post, I mentioned that I might possibly exit restaurants in a year or so, and that when and if I did I would identify myself and answer any and all questions anyone might have. After the meeting I just came back from, I'm guessing I might be able to do that somewhat sooner than originally anticipated.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

"We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge..."--John Naisbitt

"Good evening, thank you for calling--"

"Frankie playin' tonight?"

"Yes, sir, Frank is playing the--"

"ahright listen! I need a table for two in the showroom in 'bout twenty minutes--we're gonna eat early before the show. And I want a nice table, don't bullshit me! Close to the stage, but not too close!"

"Sir, I'll be happy to take your reservation for two, but--"

"Just put it down--this is Carmine." Click.

As I stare at the handset, one of our hostesses asks, "What was that all about?"

"That, apparently, was a reservation for two for 'Carmine' in about twenty the 'showroom'."


"Yes, in the 'showroom'. And make sure he gets a table close to the stage, but not too close."

"What stage?"

"The guy on the phone asked if Frank was playing tonight, and when I said that he was the guy directed me to make sure he got a nice able in the showroom close to the stage--he wants to eat early, you know, before the show."

"What show?"

"I don't know. Maybe Frank used to be in a band or something. I tried to explain to the guy how our entertainment was set up here, but he was all talking and no listening. Hold a table in the bar room for him and we'll see what happens."

The restaurant's current entertainment is a pianist who has one of those machines that provides extra orchestration for a huge number of songs. The machine allows one musician to sound like a band. He also sings. He plays four or five nights a week, and while he is located in our small bar and lounge room, his music is played thoughout the restaurant on our sound system during his sets. He's been with us for about three years, and does a very good job. He doesn't drink [many lounge musicians are huge drunks] and he constantly updates his set lists [most lounge musicians find thirty songs they like and play them ad nauseum for the rest of their lives--usually in the same order each night]. However, he plays alone, and is set up on our carpeted lounge floor. There is no "stage" and no real "show".

Approximately thirty minutes after Carmine's call, the man himself arrived--along with a companion best described as his "moll". Here was the woman keeping Estee Lauder and Frederick's of Hollywood in business.

"I'm Carmine, you got me a table in the showroom to see Frankie."

"We're all set for you, sir, but if I may, I should probably take a moment and describe our entertainment to you--"

"No grease!"


"I said no grease. No grease the first time. If you treat me right this time I'll duke you when I come back, but no grease now--you need to impress me the first time--so there ain't no reason for you to 'explain' nothin'. Got it?"

"Show Mr. Carmine to 602, please."

Thirty seconds later, "Ay pal! I said the showroom near the stage, not a kiddie table in Siberia!"

"Well, sir. We showed you to a table in our bar room near our piano. The piano Frank will start playing in about forty minutes. We'll certainly be happy to show you to any other unoccupied table in the restaurant--we were just trying to seat you according to your request."

"No showroom?"

"No sir."

"No stage?"

"No sir."

"What kind of supper club you people trying to run here?"

"Actually, we're trying to run a steakhouse that offers live piano music a few nights a week in addition to a number of other amenities. We've been trying to do it nearly every night for the last fifteen years.

Sir, are you sure you have the right restaurant?"

"If you've got Frankie playin', I've got the right place--I just wasn't expectin' such a crazy set-up. Ahright, the 'bar room' it is."

Carmine and his lovely guest returned to their table in the bar and ordered quickly, probably not wanting the food to interfere with the 'show'. They were halfway through their meals when our musician arrived and began setting up for the evening.

While I didn't see it transpire, apparently Carmine hopped up and approached Frank as soon as he saw him. What I did see was Carmine and his "special lady" making a bee-line for the front door, doggie bags in hand, about five minutes afterward.

"Not staying for the show?" [I couldn't help myself]

"You got me! You really got me! All I can say is you got me! That's not Frankie Jacuzzi!!"

"You never gave a last name when you were asking on the phone, sir. I tried to stop you on the phone and I also tried to explain before you were sat--I didn't think you were in the right place."

"Whatever you say, hotshot. You got me, that's all. You got me."

"Sir, with all due respect--you called us."

Shaking his head in disgust, Carmine exited the building positive that I was revelling in my betrayal of his sacred trust.

"What was that guy's problem?" Frank asked, coming up behind me at the desk.

"He thought you were some guy named Frankie Jacuzzi."

"Seriously? That guy died like eight years ago."

"Well, thats not too bad. He outlived supper clubs by about thirty years."