Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Love is so short, forgetting is so long..."--Pablo Neruda

As we are closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving, these important holidays are actually also the only real days off I have. With no restaurant operations, there is nothing to worry about, nothing to lodge in the back of my mind, no unfinished business or undone minor repair able to nag at my consciousness.

With members of my family--such as they are--scattered about the country and world and with none actually sharing the same time zone with me, I also often spend these two holidays alone. While my brusque, curmudgeonly nature would tend to make this fact a foregone conclusion, I actually have a number of close friends, and my solitude is not the result of a lack of offers.

I like spending these days alone. I like the silence. I like the normal passage of time. I remember back in the day, Dallas star Tony Hagman used to take some flack for having a "silent day", a day when the show was not filming each week when he refused to talk to anyone, and would endeavor to be as alone as possible. Even back then when I was much younger, I got that--I understood the need to back out of the tent and sit in the field beyond the midway and the rides.

The trouble with having this glorious solitude on a holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving is that memories show up like distant in-laws or drunken neighbors--sometimes they can be a delightful distraction, but usually they just cause trouble.

Earlier this year my last living grandparent died. My mother's mother had four marriages [and four big inheritances] under her belt by the time she headed off to her heavenly reward. She never really liked children [even once they had grown apparently], and after the death of her last husband about eight years ago she happily trucked off to Monaco by herself to live the final years of her life around other snooty, rich old people. While elderly, her death was a little bit of a surprise because she really never stayed in touch with anyone unless she had family business with them. A doting grandmother she was not--but as with many of her generation and station she was a great actor, and she understood the value of, for lack of a better word, "occasion"--and many of my most vivid holiday memories involve her.

My grandmother would only cook on Thanksgiving, but when she did her recall of the fantastic dishes made by her own mother decades before was absolutely uncanny--and everything was from scratch. She was the youngest of nineteen children, and the stories she could tell of her youth were almost otherwordly when seen through the prism of my own, much more sparsely populated childhood. Her family was very poor when she was born, but by the time she was a pre-teen her father began to make some money, and by the time she was high school-aged the family was straight-out rich--as a result she never experienced the hardships felt by the rest of her siblings [while nineteenth and youngest, she was probably a real surprise to her parents as she was youngest by nearly six years] and they always resented her for it. The chill between her and my legion of great-uncles and aunts kept them far from us, and gave her stories an even more Fairy Tale-like tone.

The only girl I've ever really been in love with, who I have been tortured by seeing on a regular basis around town for the last several years, announced her pregnancy earlier this year and recently gave birth to a beautiful daughter. My chosen profession was the cause of the end of our relationship many years ago, and while as I've probably said before I am not parent material, seeing her so incredibly happy with both her new daughter and her new daughter's father does make me wonder about "Christmas' that could have been", not to mention "Christmas' still to come".

Several years ago at Thanksgiving I hosted about fifteen people for a holiday dinner at a venerable local competitor of ours--one of the only fine dining restaurants in this area open for the holiday [the place is nearly 100 years old as are many of their regular guests, making it a hotspot on both Thanksgiving and Christmas]. They were incredibly kind to me, and actually seated my party in a private room--because we were all alone I couldn't be distracted by the place's operations and as a result I remember everything about that day. That dinner, legendary in my memory, is the reason that I try so hard to make sure we never have a misstep anytime a large group is here for a truly special occasion. My date to that dinner was killed by a drunk driver about three years after that meal, while two of the couples so in love with each other on that Thanksgiving Day have since been married and divorced--and nastily so in both cases. I forgot my cellphone that day and used my girl's phone to call my dad to wish him a happy holiday--he actually answered the phone because he didn't recognize the number and must have been shocked into good spirits--I think that was probably the last civil conversation we had.

Two years ago when I went to buy my Christmas tree it was cold--cold. I like the cold and I didn't want to get out of my car--it was probably like...9. There was a big old work van parked in the field next to the tree stand that I assumed belonged to the stand, until I got inside the tent and saw this huge family looking to pick up a tree. A dad about my age, his wife, and five or six kids--and they were too lightly dressed. The kids were warm because they were picking out a Christmas tree and were probably already thinking about wrapped boxes underneath it, but you could tell the parents were colder than the air around them--because they were poor and they were about to disappoint their children. As I walked through the rows of trees, I heard one of the tree guys ask the other what the man with his family had asked him about a minute ago, probably right before I walked in. The man had asked the attendant if there was any way to work off the price of a tree, or if they had any damaged or old trees that wouldn't cost more than a few dollars. When the attendant told him that unfortunately they didn't have any work or any extra trees, the man assured them that he wouldn't be any trouble, but that he wanted to let his kids look around for a little while longer if it was OK.

He needed time to think of an excuse for not buying a tree. Any restaurant manager knows instinctively when someone is stalling for time to make up an excuse.

I interrupted the guys and asked how much their most expensive tree was--and was treated to one of the nastiest looks imaginable--they realized I had heard them talking and thought I was planning to upstage the man in front of his family on purpose. Before the guys could answer I told them never mind, handed them $100, and asked that they give the man and his family an $80 tree, keep $20 for themselves, and make up some story about an extra tree or whatever and I hauled ass out of there. I value money--probably too much--but $100 doesn't matter to me. I have dropped Benjamins on rounds of drinks, dancing girls [not to mention sitting girls and standing girls], Christmas tips, yard plants, tropical fish, fountain pens, and countless other ridiculous items and events. That $100 for me, that day, was the very spirit of Christmas itself. When I finally got back to the lot nearly a week later to buy my tree a few days before the holiday the attendants remembered me. They told me the children were laughing and the parents were crying.

I don't know that man from that day, but I size people up all day long. That man was a hard-working man with more bills to pay than bills in his wallet--a man who had a big family that he loved, assuredly a bigger family than he should have had if he had been planning rthings out with his head rather than his heart. He wouldn't have taken money from me, or anything else, directly. If I hadn't taken off from that lot like Junior Johnson with a load of moonshine he probably would have refused even the tree. But, I got out ahead of him--like Santa Claus up the chimney.

These holidays for me mark the passage of time--I am conflicted these days--more than ever before. Maybe a midlife crisis, though thankfully without the baldness, the boiler, or the prostate problems. Maybe just sedentary boredom from being in the same place for so long, maybe wanderlust, maybe even the spiritual emptiness that I am sometimes accused of.

This Thanksgiving and Christmas were spent thinking much on anecdotes like these from my past, as well as the paths that lay ahead of me in my future.

I am interested in seeing what becomes of all of us over the next couple of years as we are now faced with a complete vacuum of ethics and character not just within our own government but across the very face of the earth in most positions of leadership. I am interested in the new challenges that may face the company I work for, solid as it is, as we move into an economic firestorm created by 30 years of corrupt, underhanded governmental meddling in our economic system. I also hear that Ireland and New Zealand are very nice places to live, though understandably somewhat standoffish about immigration.

I'm at a crossroads, with a bunch of silver and gold and a yearning to see what's over the next rise. Hopefully I won't need a gas mask and an automatic weapon to get there, but I guess that is just part of the adventure.

Friday, December 26, 2008

ring ring, ring ring...

"Jesus Christ dude, what the fuck is her problem???"

My "celly" has been, as the kids say, "blowin' up" over the last 40 minutes or so while a good friend of mine and I have dinner in celebration of his birthday. Each call is from my steadily more panicked assistant manager--an extremely competent professional who is nonetheless prone to finding herself in bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime restaurant situations on a regular basis. On this evening, she is unfortunately afflicted with a person who would soon prove himself to be one of the most vile excuses for humanity I have ever encountered.

As I end the sixth call that hour and turn back to the last of my lamb and our second bottle of super-fucking-fantastic Penfolds Grange, I am relatively sure I will never see dessert. The reason my manager keeps calling is because this piece of human offal and his ten companions are not settling down as unruly guests usually do once the law is laid to them, but indeed they are getting worse as the evening progresses.

What started as a classic pushy, arrogant guest situation has escalated to criminality and disorderly conduct. On the surface, the group is pretty easy to quantify--eight or nine pieces of Eurotrash that are either an extended family or a weird mix of hookers, bargain-basement sugar daddies, and relatives--together with a host American couple--poseurs who had probably spent the weekend trying to impress friends at the club with their "sophisticated" European guests.

Their reservation was for four, they showed up with fifteen. While they were waiting to be seated, the douchebag in charge somehow so offended one of the women in the party that she and her companion along with another couple left the restaurant--muttering as they left, "how did we end up with these scumbags for half the night, anyway?"

Not a good sign. The first call came before they even got to the table, as the ringleader, henceforth to be called "Slobodan" in tribute to his thick Eastern European accent and passing resemblance to the war criminal/mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic, attempted to light up a big, fat, cheap cigar in the middle of our full and smoke-free restaurant.

"He says he can smoke anywhere because he has diplomatic immunity", she says to me.

"Is he still smoking?"


"Very well. Put me on hold and tell him that if he continues to smoke or if anyone else in the party begins to smoke we will halt service to the party and ask them to leave".

A moment later she is back on the line, "He put the cigar out, but he called me an ignorant peasant and told me that he was with the UN and could do anything he wanted".

The next two calls related to Slobodan's attempts to provide alcoholic beverages to the sleazy teenaged whores that made up a little less than half his party. The adults would order drinks and attempt to pass them, we would pick the drinks up...lather, rinse, and repeat. After about twenty minutes of this Slobby got up to complain to my peasant assistant manager about the "harassment" and "assault" his guests were suffering at our hands. My assistant was was steeled for something like this--what she wasn't ready for was this guy identifying himself by name as a plaque holder in the restaurant.

--Now, as an aside--many steakhouses have traditional tools that they use to honor regular and valued guests. Many of the chains have wine or cigar lockers that they assign to their best guests gratis. The Palm covers their walls--literally--with caricatures of their regulars. The 21 Club is chock full of mementos given to the restaurant by their most revered guests and proudly displayed by the ownership. In our case, we have a "wall of fame"--brass plaques that list guest names with the approximate date that they began patronizing the restaurant. We are painfully careful about who gets one of these plaques, and indeed after serving nearly 2,000,000 guests there are still less than fifty plaques.

So again the phone rings. "Yes Gladys, what is he doing now?"

"He says he is Boris Gartovsky and wants his plaque taken down immediately--he says he can't believe how he is being treated after all the years that he has been coming here. Did I do something wrong? I mean, these people are just horrible. Is he always like this?"

"What does this guy look like?"

"He's got a bunch of messy white hair, he's really tall like 6'3" or something and he's dressed like they're going to a 1970's disco after dinner. He's probably in his late 40's maybe early 50's".

"Boris Gartovsky is 5'5'', bald, and nearly 80 years old. He is also one of the most considerate people you will ever meet in your entire life. This piece of shit, whoever he is, is not Boris Gartovsky--this guy just picked a name off the wall he figured he could get away with using--he's certainly not going to try to tell you he's Mike McFee."

"Hold on a second, some of the girls are coming up here..."

"Call me if back if anything else happens."

As I close my phone, look at my friend and say, "drink up, this situation isn't getting any better". I down the last of my Grange while my friend flirts with the bartender--as I reach for my wallet the phone rings again.

As I turn and head for the door, I hear my friend say to the bartender in response to her question about how he was enjoying his celebration, "everything is great! excellent dinner, kick-ass wine, and now I think we're going to get to beat some guys up!"

Walking out the door as I answer my phone, I'm silently agreeing with my friend's assessment of the situation. "Hello...Hello? [audible gasp, maybe a half-sob as response] HELLO?"

"OK, those girls that walked up before were going outside to smoke and one of them had a glass of wine and when I told her I had to take the glass of wine and she's only like 16 and I told her we had to take the glass and she just dumped it all over the front desk and then she and the awful girls she is with just laughed and they walked out the door and one of the servers just told me that this guy Boris or whatever his name is just sent back his steak without even touching it and said it was revenge for harassing his party and that he was going to buy the restaurant and fire everybody and that he is an ambassador and that we were breaking the law and...."

"Gladys, take a breath...Jesus Christ...just relax. I'm five minutes away, I'll be right there."

"OK, but hurry--I think one of the other guys is getting nervous that I'm calling the police and he just asked for the check."

Now, I will admit that when this whole saga had begun, I was more annoyed at Gladys than anything else. Like I said, valuable as she is, she has a bizarre knack of finding trouble in the most unusual ways, and it happens alot. It is almost never her fault, but after awhile it does tend to wear on the nerves nonetheless. As I sped toward my restaurant however, fury at the contemptible nature of Slobodan and his party began to grow inside me at an alarming rate--both of my assistants in the restaurant that night were women as was the majority of the staff--I think this piece of shit sized up his surroundings and assumed it was the perfect venue for a free-for-all--and concerned as I was for the mental well-being of my staff I was also gravely offended by a person who would come into my house when I wasn't there and terrorize my family, so to speak.

Most people who do what I do and do it for a long time leave the industry after a seminal moment of some kind--a "Niagara Falls" moment for those of you who are fans of the Three Stooges. Someone or something so offends us in our core that it poisons the very nature of what we do We are left unable to "smile and nod", unable to play the good host in the face of even the most mild social ineptitude after such an event.

When I burst through the front doors of my restaurant, friend in tow, we were a combined 480 pounds of malevolence--both of us old enough to really know how to fight and how to hurt people, both big enough to achieve that goal, and both angry enough to not care about the consequences.

As it was, the squirrelly little guy who paid the check [probably the local host I alluded to at the beginning] knew something bad was on its way, and was watching the front door. As we arrived and I checked in with Gladys, he made a quiet announcement to Slobodan, who's facial expression and physical demeanor changed dramatically upon catching sight of me. As we walked back toward their location, these two guys put the party in formation with the young whores and the other women surrounding the dickless blowhard men--the guys were literally hiding behind the women.

Now that I had arrived, my rage was settling a bit--Gladys was much more calm, the incident was at an end, and most importantly I now had visual record of all the attendees and could make sure that they would never be let back in the restaurant again.

My friend was less interest in peaceful coexistence, however. "I can't believe those cocksuckers are hiding behind the women! What do you want to do, wait till they get outside and go to get in the cars?"

"No, let's just have a drink and--"

Gladys spoke up, "Actually, except for the tall guy, the women were the worst ones in the whole bunch! They're the underaged ones that kept trying to drink, if it wasn't for them this guy would have been just another Sunday night asshole".

"Really?", says friend, just as the group drew abreast of us on their way toward the front door. Seeing, as I did, that all five men [using the word "men" loosely indeed] in the party, two older and three about the girls' age, all were staring at the floor as they walked, friend cleared his throat.

Friend, loudly, "I don't understand why these guys were trying to get the girls drunk, they all look whorish enough to not need much persuading!"

Gladys, not used to the uniquely blunt worldview of my 36 year-old aerospace engineer best friend born and bred in the rugged Dakota mountains, took a surprised gasp and then burst out laughing.

Continuing, "Didn't you pieces of shit hear me? Isn't there at least one set of balls between you now that a couple of men have arrived? Or are you just tough guys when the little girls are around?"

By now, the train of shame was almost all the way out the door, when one of the delightful young ladies turned around and shot the double bird at my verbose friend, causing an immediate eruption of laughter from all of us left in the restaurant.

"I guess the whores had all the balls after all. Thanks man, this is the best birthday ever!"

And that should have been the end of the story, but for one of my servers walking up to the bar where we were seated about five minutes later--with a purse.

The Addams Family had left a purse--a cheap Dooney and Bourke knockoff to be sure, but a purse nonetheless.

When a cab pulled up ten minutes later and one of the younger men gingerly approached the front door of the restaurant, all I could think of was the wondrous power of the giant wheel of Karma. Sternly admonishing my friend to stay silent at the bar and listen, I approached and opened the front door with the purse in my hand and the biggest, most horrifying smile imaginable on my face, "May I help you?"

"Um, is the lady manager, um, the nice lady, um that works here is she here? We left a purse behind we had dinner here tonight."

"Actually, Gladys is in our office resting--she had a horrible night tonight with some awful, awful, just reprehensible guests in the restaurant..."


"You know, the kind of people that make you wonder what sort of a cesspool some people must come from, what an absolute sewer some people must have been raised in to be that awful. You know what I mean?"

"Well, tell her I'm sorry she had a bad night and could I just have that purse, please?"

"Please? Did you actually say please? Wow. What purse?"

"The purse in your hand?"

"Ohhhh. this purse. [I look at him closely] Is it your purse?"

"Well, um no, um it belongs to my girlfriend. Could I just have it? Um please?"

"She's going to have to claim it herself, that's her in the cab, right?"

"Does she have to, I mean she's not feeling good."

"Yes she has to."

As he walked back to the cab and opened the door, I asked Gladys, who was around the corner out of sight, if the fellow I was talking to had been a problem as well.

"They were all obnoxious except for the little guy that paid the check and his wife--some were just worse than others."

Then, as the cab door opened and the girlfriend got out, I knew there was truly a Divine Arbiter--it was "bird girl".

"I came back for my purse," she said.

"Please," he said.

As I stepped outside the restaurant to face Mickey and Mallory I closed the door behind me, "You two are young enough to maybe still turn things around, so listen to me. What we should have done the minute we found your purse was throw it in the garbage compacter and have a good laugh at your expense when you came back for it. Every word and action you take in the real world has an impact, and has consequences. You can't just come into a business like you did tonight--"

Her, "Hey it wasn't even our party..."

Him, "We don't need to be lectured by you..."

"Well you are going to be fucking lectured by me if you want this flea market piece of crap back--because there are ten people standing behind me right now who will swear no purse was found. And as for it not being your party, one is judged by one's companions--breaking bread with a douchebag makes you a douchebag. f you don't want to be treated like scumbags for the rest of your life stop acting like scumbags. [To her] Stop acting like Courtney Love, if you want respect show respect. [To him] You need to learn some humility, and not just the kind of fake humility when you get busted at something, like now, but a real understanding that there is always a bigger fish...you need a beating, but I'm afraid that if I start I won't be able to stop"

Her, "and just who the fuck are you?"

Laughing, "I'm the guy that can see where you dropped your purse in the middle of the road", as I flung it with all my might into the unfortunately empty highway in front of the restaurant. "You should pick it up before it gets run over."

Nearly two months after the afore described night I was in early on a Saturday morning cleaning behind and underneath a bank of refrigerators in the kitchen. Trapped behind these three door monsters I heard the receptionist, "you have a phone call".

"Now?? Could you take a message, I'm a little busy right now!"

"It sounds important, he says he's with the United Nations!"

Someday I will recount the funniest phone call I have ever received...