Saturday, April 12, 2008

"they have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, but bear-like I must fight the course..." Macbeth, William Shakespeare

In the big pile of mostly finished, un-posted entries I alluded to awhile back there is one I cannot decide how to put a finish to. It is about me, not surprisingly, and about how I am starting to wonder why. About everything.

I'm comfortable in the fact that my existence is mostly a solitary one--even more than comfortable I am relieved in that fact. However, once the life-long obligation of family is removed from an individual, where then should focus be placed. In my case that focus is obviously professional, but now I wonder more and more about the "whys" of my work as well. Maybe it is the unusually busy winter we have had, clearly about to be followed by a very busy spring judging from heavy advance reservations--but I think it is more.

Nearly 25 years in this punishing, grueling industry. Well over a decade at this single restaurant as hard-working viceroy to a mostly absent king. This place is stale to me, its rigors seemingly more onerous as each day passes. Its successes commonplace, its failures annoying.

I could never work elsewhere though--I have had near total control of my domain for so long the only feasible answer to staying in this industry would be my own restaurant. Huge money offers from corporate steakhouse chains come to me monthly, as well as less lucrative offers from independents that include, in some cases, world-renowned reputation and prestige. Been there. Done that.

The problems in having my own place are myriad, but center around two central pitfalls. First, I don't cook--meaning the success or failure of any endeavor would be tied to a cooking partner [a famously dicey basket for someone like me to put all his chickens into]. Secondly, it would still be the restaurant business--and I fear I have fallen out of love. Rents ever higher, supplies ever more expensive, guests ever more demanding and unreasonable, government on all levels ever more invasive and hampering. A wine bar? A bar bar? Cooking school [fucking hilarious]?

I'm a successful landlord, a successful gambler, and a success at using my money to make more money--but none of this sparks the adoration in me that restaurants once did.

I feel like a salmon swimming upstream. For so long the constant fight of the journey has been a challenge handled successfully--I have made amazing progress, kept my color, and maintained my body weight so to speak. The drag of the current and the influence of all the weaker fish whispering to "just quit", to stop trying so hard--has never up until now had an effect. What is finally draining the vivacity from me, finally sapping my strength and my will to press on, is the fact that NOTHING ever gets easier. I have fewer competent employees, fewer valued guests, more regulations, more competition, higher prices, higher costs, fewer allies, and more weak sisters needing to be fed by hand seemingly every day.

I am literally sustained by stubbornness and intransigence alone. Recently when Bobby Knight, the incredibly successful, incredibly prickly, and incredibly controversial college basketball coach retired in mid-season, ESPN aired a series of shows in retrospect of his life and career. Through the myriad of anecdotes, stories, and cautionary tales told during those programs a crystal clear portrait of the man emerged. He was a soul who forged an iron-clad creed of right and wrong based on traditional values and never wavered. He knew right, he knew wrong, and that was all he needed to know. AJ Foyt summed it up in a handful of words--"there is no gray in Bobby--there is black, white, and get the fuck [bleeped of course] out out of here, but no gray". He graduated more of his players than almost any other college coach at his level and he improved every program he came on contact with--most he improved exponentially. If someone needs an ass-whipping, he administers it no matter what popular public sensitivity has to say about it. If you deserve a hug and a kiss, you get one--if you deserve a slap in the face, you get one. Who says you deserve those things, who decides? Why, he does, of course--without excuses, without qualifications, without any ifs, ands, or buts. He has many regrets, and most of them regard personal exchanges. He regrets dressing down Jeremy Schaap on national television before walking out of the interview, telling him that he didn't measure up to his recently deceased father the great Dick Schaap [a long-time friend of Knight's]. He regrets throwing that chair, he regrets not keeping his mouth shut probably a thousand times.

I was sitting at our bar with one of my assistants after work one night watching one of these shows, and after about twenty minutes the guy looked at me and said, "you know, if they changed out the people and said "restaurant" instead of "basketball" and "team", they could be talking about you. At first I was a little pissed, but after about five minutes I realized he was right--and it also immediately made me remember an exchange from about two years before. During a staff meeting, an old assistant of mine [who was a dipshit] once compared me to Larry Bowa, the hot-head baseball manager, while trying to make the point that I needed to be more serene and less reactive. My employer's immediate reaction, both as a grateful boss and an absolute sports fanatic was an immediate, "No way! Bowa never won a world series as a manager--this man here you are talking about is a fucking restaurant world champion seven times over--he's Michael Jordan with hair". Now, I'm no Michael Jordan, restaurant or otherwise, but ever since that staff meeting and until that night at the bar a few months ago watching ESPN, I didn't have anyone else to compare myself to. I still don't know if I like it or not, but the parallels are undeniable.

The "Bobby Knight" manager is still with me, the "Larry Bowa" manager is long gone--some players get a hug, some players get a smack in the head...

Maybe its getting time for me to call my press conference.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

might want to take a double length vacation this year

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Staying with sports:

You win some. you lose some, and some get rained out. But you suit up for all them.

Hang in there man. Go hit the casinos and eat and drink too much for awhile. You are the best! Bob

4:58 PM  

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