Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try..."--Beverly Sills

Recently the ex-restaurant manager posted one of those "self-help"-style lists, a comparison of what makes a leader and what makes a manager. Listening to me as I read it, one would have thought they were overhearing a Simpsons episode as I kept blurting out first, "woo-hoo", and then, "d'oh", in succession all throughout the article. Every single entry applied to me.

The simple fact is that I am as negative as positive, as constructive as destructive, as much angel as demon--I vary my goals, attitudes, and executions depending on who I am addressing. The manager in me occasionally sees triumph when a near-lost cause rebounds, while the leader in me is sometimes heartbroken by the terminal collapse of one of his followers.

For Halloween, I guess it should be a horror story.

Several months ago I hired an unlikely young lady as a member of our staff. A little younger than most of my employees, a little less experienced than most, and possessed of a notably "different" look physically. Though I administrate a conservative restaurant in a conservative place serving conservative guests, I have been known to roll the dice from time to time where hiring is concerned, and this young lady seemed to merit such an exception.

She was bubbly without seeming stupid, articulate without being false or forced, and while straightforward regarding her lack of experience she seemed truly excited about the possibility of bettering herself professionally.

In the beginning she was all promise--a fast learner that quickly made friends on the staff and drew huge fans amongst our regular guests. She was willing to do a number if different jobs, even hostessing a few times when we, as most restaurants, were in dire need.

She was a superstar--Madonna in her prime, Celine Dion at the Grammys, Helen Mirren winning the Oscar.

Then, things started to change. I cannot climb inside her psyche to say what the trigger was, or where exactly the turn began, but a few things seemed to manifest themselves dramatically at almost the same exact time.

Suddenly, Ms. Overachiever slowed down dramatically in a physical sense--she went from a 12-speed road racer to one of those adult trikes--"sense of urgency" had clearly left the building. The young lady who once so nimbly traversed our narrow, busy hallways began wandering aimlessly through the restaurant as if she were trudging from her living room sofa to the refrigerator to get a pie and a fork. Two other possibly related though seemingly opposed changes also manifested themselves as she began gaining huge amounts of weight while simultaneously starting to fuck everyone--and when I say everyone I damn near mean it--half the cooks and more than a few of the waiters [and possibly a waitress as well].

Throughout the decomposition process I tried to stay involved, even as my alarm and dismay grew daily. The leader in me didn't want to lose a valuable asset while the manager didn't want to worry about another ass-dragger. There were encouraging words, pointers, mentions, comments, short discourses, chats, discussions, and finally incredulous challenges. Most of her responses were even more disappointing than the errors and failures. Vacuous apologies mixed in with half-hearted explanations and sarcastic retorts.

Then the climax, the "Here's Johnny!!" turning point of my little Halloween tale--seeing my once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed acolyte sitting on the floor of the restaurant before service, fat mini-skirted ass right on the carpet[any restaurant readers just cringed, thinking about how foul the carpets are in even the nicest restaurants], asleep in front of a sloppily-prepared pile of sugar caddies.

This moment of clarity illuminated my diva, once so full of promise, for what she had become--mini-skirt Elvis. And not the going-into-the-army, swivel-hipped, getting-censored-on-Ed-Sullivan Elvis either, but the oozing, sweaty, jump-suit wearing, pill-popping, scarf-throwing Elvis that staggered around the stages of Las Vegas before shitting himself to death.

Trick or treat.

Friday, October 26, 2007

"Only that in you which is me can hear what I'm saying..."--Ram Dass

"Tolerance is the positive and cordial effort to understand anothers' beliefs, practices, and habits without necessarily sharing or accepting them..."--Joshua Liebman

"Tolerance is another word for indifference..."--William Somerset Maugham

My first entry in this blog, now shockingly more than a year old, mentions the fact that I will be, from time to time, writing about more than just my restaurant experiences. I have one of these busy, cocooned lives that most of us lead, and while my friendships are priceless and long-standing, the nature of my schedule means that when I am not working, I am often alone. This solitude doesn't bother me in the least, but suffers in that it is not greatly conducive to in-depth conversation or friendly debate--or at least not until I become wholly schizophrenic and can just carry on with myself.

I cannot expound on my worldviews and civic concerns with our guests, even those who are my friends, as such conversations are simply not appropriate as I function in the role of doting host. As a result, I have in the past and will in the future wax political, societal, and maniacal on occasion here on this page when struck by the need to do so.

What surprises me are some of the comments and activity I have received concerning these "off-topic" musings. In a few instances visitors have left very complementary comments on one of the restaurant posts only to redact them hours or days later, after clearly having read farther into the past and encountered a more political entry. In each case the link attached to the original comment tracked back to an obviously very liberal person--persons that in at least three cases had left me very kind words regarding my writing only to have a change of heart once they ascertained that I was [a dreaded] conservative.

In other cases the comments left have indicated disappointment and/or irritation with my personal views, including a few from readers who had obviously missed the point of the subject posts entirely.

I have to admit real surprise at these reactions. It seems strangely hypocritical to me that these people, individuals regularly searching the internet who have their own clearly opinionated and in some cases very unconventional websites, would be so quick to condemn little old me and my backward points of view.

Recalling an old lesson, I decided to look back through the mirror at myself, and see if I was similarly guilty:

I stop by the actor/writer Wil Wheaton's site every day because I think he is a very impressive guy. In addition to surviving child stardom he has developed a strong presence on the internet and become a successful author. He is a good husband, and even more impressive to me, an excellent father to his stepchildren. He has a great sense of humor, and a clearly self-deprecating manner that is very endearing to me. About 18 months ago I realized that his politics are absolutely abhorrent to me--Wil, after all, is short for Willow--it is clear that Mr. Wheaton has grown up just as one would expect the child of hippies to grow up--politically, at least. He thinks President Bush is a braying retard and that Vice-President Cheney is a money-grubbing anti-Christ gleefully feeding Haliburton the heads of murdered Iraqi children in return for a steady, dirty stream of oil. He will attack Trent Lott, Ted Stevens, and Mark Foley but apparently has never heard of William Jefferson, James Traficant, or Gerry Studds.

I don't care. If I pop on the site and he is going political, I go somewhere else and check back the next day. I won't change his mind any more than he will change mine, but it doesn't diminish his ability to interest and/or entertain me.

I recently pre-ordered Phoebe Damrosch's book, "Service Included", telling of her experiences as a captain at Per Se Restaurant in addition to being a general memoir. In it, she mentions breaking up with a guy because, in addition to a few other reasons, he was a republican. At one point past the halfway point in the text she rips off a paragraph-long anti-Bush/republican/conservative diatribe and then boasts thereafter that the rant should have cleared out the "red-staters". She proudly admits to not talking beyond the bare minimum to her out-of-town guests during the Republican National Convention in New York, just in case they were there for the event.

I read the book in 2 1/2 hours. She's a great writer and has so far led a very interesting life, not to mention being exposed intimately to an organization I have been obsessed with for most of the last decade. Her political foundations seem to me to be, by far, the most immature part of her, but I will pre-order her next book and look forward to its arrival.

I am comfortable that I can take the good with the bad, as I see it, in other citizens [excepting really annoying guests--but that is perfectly understandable behavioral revulsion rather than political or ideological aversion]. I just find it more than a little ironic that so many liberals cannot.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"If you were arrested for kindness, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"--unknown

"Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in feeling creates love."--Lao Tzu

As I bulldoze through the pain and minutae of each working day, positive guest interaction is never far from my mind. I cheerfully check on the meals of people who I wouldn't piss on to extinguish were they aflame, and regularly engage in rapt conversations with individuals [and groups, unfortunately] so personally reprehensible, the very fact that I breathe the same air as they should be an affront to me.

The rare chance to truly welcome and look after a table, not because it is what I get paid to do but because it is what I want to do, is the sweetest of treats.

First time diners...anonymous guests, almost assuredly out of their element in our restaurant or in any steakhouse that doesn't offer a bloomin' onion or forced line-dancing. Eight elderly black ladies out to celebrate a birthday, dressed alike right down to the custom-made sequined red hats produced just for the dinner. First contact was over the phone, as the ring-leader called for enroute directions. The joy in this woman's voice literally leapt from the phone. They were on their way to my famous restaurant and they were a little late and a little lost but please, please don't give away the table because they were coming, "like Moses to the Promised Land". I was beaming from ear to ear as I told her that their table would be waiting for them whenever they arrived, and that they were going to do a good deal better than Moses, who never got past the doorway--they were coming to dinner and they were going to have the time of their lives.

The ladies upon arrival were everything I had expected them to be, and their good spirits were contagious. Their party was shown to a great table with one of my best servers--a young lady who fell in love with them even before I could give her my pep talk about not pre-judging our guests. Throughout the course of their dinner guests stopped by to ask after their meals and comment on their festive outfits with not even the tiniest bit of sarcasm or mean intent.

At the end of the meal the server was all smiles, even though the ladies' small check had brought her less than half the income she would have seen from a "normal" table of 8. On the way out I collected a kiss on the cheek and hug from each and every dear lady as thanks for their complementary birthday cake--warm gestures that filled my heart more than a pocket of benjamins ever has.

As icing, the server returned to help clear the table and found a hidden fifty-dollar bill with a post-it attached reading, "my oldest baby worked his way through college waiting tables...God Bless".

My days and nights are hard and often thankless, but those ladies will help lift my spirits for a long time indeed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"All stereotypes turn out to be true. This is a horrifying thing about life. All those things you fought against as a youth: You begin to realize they're stereotypes because they are true..." David Cronenberg

I constantly rail on to my staff about the pre-judging of guests. Look past color, past religion, past ethnicity, past gender, and past age. I urge everyone to remember all the times they have been pleasantly surprised. I constantly harp on them to see the big picture and give all of our guests the benefit of the doubt.

However, behind my earnest visage as I campaign for equal treatment beats the heart of a hypocrite. I don't sneer at jews or make jokes about black families or refuse latinos dinner seating. No Jimmy the Greek or Fuzzy Zoeller or Marge Schott am I.

My heart has been blackened not by general racism but by specific observations compiled during years of babysitting and riding herd on all manner of scumbags and reprobates.

The following behaviors and/or physical signs have, over the years, become grounds for me to dismiss a person [or sometimes even a group of people] in their entirety. Many of the infractions are wholly benign unto themselves, but almost always indicate a world-class douchebag primed to work his sour brand of magic at the first opportunity.

1. Ordering a regular cocktail or liquor and insisting it be served in a snifter. Also, doing the same and demanding a crystal red wine glass.

2. wearing a polo-style shirt with the collar up, or dress shoes without socks

3. telling me you deserve something for free before anything is offered. This behavior will almost always be found in conjunction with telling me how something should be done [i.e. your wines are too cold, you need to store them at 62, not 59...these steaks have no flavor, you need to get a good, thick char on your steaks for them to be any good...a good martini has to be shaken, never stirred, etc.]

4. grabbing hold of a bottle of wine while it is still in my grasp to gauge it's temperature/yanking a bottle out of my hand to inspect the label, cork, vintage, etc.

5. interviewing me regarding my personal life as if I had just hired you to be my biographer.

6. taking your shoes off, or putting your feet up on our furniture/rearranging restaurant furniture of your own volition.

7. prefacing some ridiculously invasive or inappropriate comment by telling me, "I was/am in the business..."

8. men with needlessly or superciliously elaborate facial hair

9. women known for "trademark" pieces of apparel [one former regular guest of ours wouldn't leave the house without wearing a ludicrous straw hat the size of a volkswagen]

10. faking allergies [just because your doctor tells you to cut down on cholesterol doesn't mean that you suddenly become "deathly allergic" to butter]

11. using a discover card

12. constantly reminding everyone that you are a doctor [note: I understand that in the 1950's this would guarantee a physician a great table and unending admiration--now it simply pre-signifies one as an arrogant tool, apt to get a worse table than if he/she had just stuck with Mr./Ms.]

13. writing us a novel and a Christmas wish list to go along with your Open Table reservation

14. trying to shoulder your way behind the maitre d's desk in order to look yourself up on the screen

15.deciding that the best way to get seated quickly is to not leave the front desk after checking in

None of these transgressors are going to find a knotted noose or a burning cross--they'll just find themselves unable to join that elusive "valued guest's club"--they can still come in and eat, eventually-- but instead of all the perks of membership they get the municipal-course version of the restaurant: fewer thrills, fewer perks, bigger crowds, and longer waits.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"What is left when honor is lost?"...Pubilius Syrus

"Have you ever known a time when there was so much talk about ethics--or so little practice of it?"...Thomas Sowell

I have been much preoccupied with honor lately. People are changing, and not for the better. Even here, where an hour's drive outside the city limits will put you squarely in the land of Green Acres...a sea of amber fields dotted sparely with modern-day versions of Pixley and Hooterville. In this once-genteel world, Eb and Bobby Jo are now likely to throw a fit and threaten legal action if the char crust on their bone-in sirloin isn't just the way they specified.

When I was in college and still planning to lead a normal professional life I read a great deal of ancient history, as it was my degree minor. My attention was always captured by the fall of great civilizations, specifically the greatest of them all--the Roman Empire. The fact that a society so driven and industrious as Rome could be withered and washed away was truly troubling to me. How could they build structures that survive mostly intact to this very day, but not maintain the civic fortitude to remain viable as a government longer than they did?

Those who see history as clinical study rather than cyclical practice will tend to make the argument that geopolitical change, breaking lines of supply and communication, internal strife, and power struggles caused the Empire to become vulnerable to barbarian invasion. True, these factors were the main technical causes for Rome's subjugation--but why did they occur?

Rome failed because of sloth and greed. The Roman people and the body of the government became lazy and self-serving. Middle and upper-class families paid mercenaries to fulfill their children's statutory military requirements, thus robbing generations of the discipline and wider understanding of the "real world"they would need to govern. A bloated, corrupt bureaucracy and legislature slowed progress on all things to a crawl and steadily drained the vitality of the most dynamic enterprise in the history of the world. The Roman people grew fat and cynical, comfortable in the erroneous belief that they were still as great and formidable as once they actually were. I'm positive that at the very moment the barabrian horde crested the seventh hill, a bunch of Roman waiters were standing around somewhere wondering when and why all the guests had gone "douchebag" on them, or whatever the Roman equivalent to "douchebag" was at the time.

The loss of honor, individually or collectively, is an insidious thing. While the greater concerns facing our society are a treatise for another day, my focus on this challenging evening is my own little Rome and the barbarians constantly assaulting our walls.

Simple common courtesy is the first casualty. "Please" and "thank you" are routinely replaced by military-style orders and dismissive waves. The request, that delicate creature, has been nearly driven extinct by its ugly and often ineffective cousin the demand.

Courtesy is quickly followed to the grave by simple honesty. The number of people who will thoughtlessly surrender their integrity over a reservation time, a misunderstanding of the dress policy, an improperly ordered meal, or some other insignificant bauble of personal prestige has gone from a deviant minority to an obnoxious mob similar to the "infected" in "28 Days Later".

An apparent side effect to this dishonesty is stupidity, because many of these doomed souls end up arguing with me about prior phone conversations that were had, unbeknownst to them, with me. I sometimes play a cruel little game--I silently count how many times they tell me that "I" promised them something over the phone before admitting that "I" am "me".

To live as a human being is to live. To live as a carrion beast, preying on the weaker, kinder, and more fatigued is simply despicable--but apparently all the rage.

A woman leaves our valet one evening and calls the next day to say the driver broke her power window. While our valet, like every other valet in the world, maintains a policy requiring that any claims for damage be made before departure, we try to be courteous and ask for estimates on a possible repair. This industrious woman shows up the next day with three estimates for our perusal--all over two months old. I don't know if she ever got her window fixed.

Our location in a large, old office building is problematic in many ways--but not for those in wheelchairs. My employer has two extended family members who rely on wheelchairs, and we have made certain that access is easy and legal. Nevertheless, we were the subject of an ADA violation lawsuit filed by a private citizen several months ago--the suit was framed so that it would be cheaper to settle than to fight--a little investigation revealed that the plaintiff has filed over 100 of these suits locally using the same attorney, and it seems that these lawsuits are this attorney's sole business. We will see them in court for the ADA claim, as well as for our counter-suit and for the attorney's hearing before the State Bar.

An elderly couple walk in early one Saturday evening and ask to have dinner. Once seated, the gentleman indicates his disinterest in the specials by telling his server to, "stop that shit and just get me my fucking drink. This is followed by, "take our fucking order", and "it'd better be fucking medium rare or I'm gonna take it back there and throw it at the fucking cook". All the while Mrs. F-Bomb is silent. When this server who is truly mild mannered, a complete professional, and nearly my size finally counseled the gentleman--sternly--to refrain from further profanity the guest was shocked to silence, another paper tiger. Mrs. F however made a bee-line to the front desk to voice her displeasure with, and I swear to God this is an exact quote, "their uppity waiter". I don't know if Fred and Ethel ever did have dinner that night, but I know they didn't have it in our restaurant.

I'm tired of bad people, and I am furious that the bad ones are starting to eclipse the good ones. The wonderful regular guest of ours who brought me a gift this evening just because she appreciates what little bit I do for her should be first in my thoughts as I write this, but instead it is the guy, with his gram of cocaine, that I had to escort off the property about thirty minutes ago.

Is every one, every thing, and every place just a bridge to be burned?

I need a day off...and a retirement party.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Why is he always so serious? What's so important all the time? How come he doesn't talk to us more? What's the deal with the fake smile when he's on the floor? Doesn't he know that this isn't brain surgery--that all this stuff really doesn't matter?

Few of our guests pick up on the rather severe countenance I carry most evenings. The reason for that is because when I talk to them [and I try to have at least a passing word with all of our guests each evening] I keep a little smile on my face, I make and accept small jokes and pleasantries, and thus I appear to be generally speaking a normal human being.

However, there is only so much of that to go around. If any group is going to be shorted their ration of happy-go-lucky Last One Home, it is my staff. I have tried to communicate the reasons for this situation to them on numerous ocassions, but still they often wonder aloud about my poor social skills.

So, if only to alleviate a little of my own frustration, here is why the smile dies the minute I step off the floor or turn my back on the tables--an actual litany of my concerns from a recent weekend service:

The valet is one runner short and cars are backing up into the alley, where they will be towed if found. The weather is turning and that means people will camp. Camping means we will back up into the lounge, where one of my cocktail servers, incompetent, is spending what little time she usually devotes to drink service trying instead to convince the bartender [male] to sleep with her. The other cocktail server, sometimes a bartender, is probably a thief--meaning that every time she makes up an excuse to go behind the bar I have to eye her every move. She is also nearly blind and awaiting new contact lenses but has not brought her glasses to work because, "they make her look ugly"--by 7pm she has already dropped two drinks and is taking ten minutes to ring in every order because she can't see the Micros screen. Behind the bar the automatic glass washer is hopelessly broken and the replacement is on back-order--expensive, dirty glassware is stacked up in piles like Jenga.

On the floor guests are crushing me with complaints over the one prime table, in clear view of these waiting masses, that has sat unoccupied for the entire evening. When I query my superstar maitre d' he informs me the the reserved guest that requested the table is here, but hasn't sat yet. Later, I recognize the guest as one who never makes reservations but will bribe handily for the consideration of a seat--sure enough the reservation name in Open Table doesn't match up with the guy--my maitre d', a modern-day Copernicus to be sure didn't even bother to get the fellow's real info to make the lie a little more believable. Two less-than-mediocre servers are bogging down in their three-table stations while I watch my new little coke-head make twelve trips to the bathroom [and those are just the ones I personally witnessed]. At the same time two long-time, rather jaded servers are having a conversation about the best ways to get around properly tipping out on checks transferred from the bar and lounge--all the while not realizing I am in the linen room behind them looking for extra napkins.

Our generally reliable broiler guy has picked this evening to cook with a hammer rather than a set of tongs, and by 7pm we have had four steaks returned overdone. Compounding the problem is the idiot's insistence on dissecting each rejected steak in search of properly cooked morsels, so that he might trumpet his innocence before begrudgingly starting on the replacement. At the third commencement of this ritual I took the rather extreme step of going behind the line myself to explain my dissatisfaction with Beefsteak Charlie face to face. [a manager, any manager going behind a working front-line when in conflict rather than trying to go through the chef is remarkable. It's not like a baseball manager coming onto the field, it's more like a baseball manager going into the opposing dugout].

One air conditioner under-performing, one women's restroom stall out of order, a party of sixteen arriving as twenty-two.

As the evening winds down I talk briefly and earnestly with both cocktail servers, the coke-head, and the broiler cook. I have a longer conversation with the scheming waiters, informing them personally and profanely of that which they already know--I consider transfer fraud to be stealing, I will fire someone on the spot for it, and I will be watching them.

I also have a twenty minute phone conservation with a guy who is positive the valet stole $8 in change out of his car.

Yeah, I should smile more.