Monday, May 25, 2009

"In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher..."--The Dalai Lama

Our Easter service this year was picture perfect...almost. Not quite masochistic enough to subject ourselves to brunch, we do open an hour early for dinner service and generally receive throngs of pink pants, scores of baby-blue sport coats, and wagons full of screaming children just as the doors are unlocked.

This year was no different, and within fifteen minutes of opening a full third of our evening's reservations had been seated. Easter is easy--a couple of classic holiday specials are added to our regular menu, and while the check averages are unusually low due to the hordes of kids and once-a-year diners--guests generally keep the glory of the day in mind--its hard to be a pompous ass while out with your family to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The cherry on top of this relatively painless Sundae [pun mildly intended] is that because we open early and see mostly very early business, we close early as well--a full 90 minutes early--allowing me the rare thrill of NOT being "the last one home".

I could taste the getaway, was actually planning out a productive early evening campaign of drinking and relaxing, when it happened...

At 8:25pm a fat, slovenly, haphazardly dressed man strode through the door like the Saracens through the Christopher Gate--dimwitted, oafish son in tow.

"Your still serving, right--of course you are, its barely dark out...come on Nimrod [throughout the meal he referred to his giant, intensely stupid 20-ish son by name and in a fashion as if he were not even there--and while that constantly repeated name was not actually "Nimrod", it was pretty similar in timbre and foolishness], I'm going to pick my own table because I'm very particular and everything has to be just so and a third will be joining us eventually but we'll start with drinks and wait for him to arrive have someone follow us with menus...", and away he went.

The restaurant was nearly empty at this point, and the last dinners had been sent out of the kitchen over a half hour before--we were literally five minutes from being home free before this clearly troublesome man entered the building. I began to consider my options--the most attractive of which was to turn the dial on my watch ahead to 8:30pm, and then fetch the rude, fat man from my dining room and send him away to spread his personal brand of terror elsewhere. But then conscience got in the way.

Easter means alot to me--the years working in restaurants have not deadened the holiday's magic for me as they have for many other holidays [and my birthday]. Raised as a Roman Catholic and forever delighted with the comfort and elegance of the Rite of Mass, my religious philosophy is much more Deist than based in classic Catholic theology. The details of Easter as they relate to resurrection do not hold my attention nearly as much as the miracle of the story, the moral it delivers, and the myriad lessons that can be learned from the Easter Scripture. After all, nothing puts a bad day in perspective faster than the Stations of the Cross.

It was with these monumental events in mind that I considered how to approach my own personal King Herod. The answer presented itself in the form of the party's third guest, a delightful, frail old gentleman who entered the restaurant apologizing for his tardiness and telling me how much he had been looking forward to finally dining with us and how this visit from his departed wife's brother seemed the perfect occasion.

This nice old man enjoyed his meal and has since been back twice, thankfully with other companions. Before leaving that Easter evening, he also apologized for his brother-in-law with a simple, honestly-meant, "He's a lawyer, I hope you can forgive him".

It has taken me a while to describe this event because the verbatim exchanges between this most evil of men and my servers and between my servers and myself would go on nearly forever [even though the visit itself listed less than 90 minutes--the son apparently can't contain his truly bizarre behavior more than about an hour and twenty], and I have been trying to figure out the best way to indicate the travesty of the visit without boring anyone to tears.

In the end, a synopsis seemed most direct and effective:

1. Demanded a new waiter within five minutes of sitting down because the original server didn't "try to sell him" on tap water. To be more specific, the server approached the table and poured ice water as per policy. The guest then ordered a bottle of sparkling water, and when the waiter asked if he should remove the ice water or leave it, the guy asked how the ice water was. The server responded that our water was filtered and that he thought it was very good and often drank it himself. The guest tried the water, and then told the server that he could go ahead and bring the sparkling water anyway[dismissively, in the description given by the waiter, which I have no reason to doubt]. When the waiter returned in about one minute from retrieving the bottle of water, he was ordered away from the table because even though he had been specifically directed to get the bottle of water, he had not stayed to take the appetizer order that the guest had secretly wanted to place.

This guy replaced his waiter for not pushing bottled water as most restaurants do, pouring ice water, honestly giving positive responses to questions regarding he ice water, and then delivering the bottled water that the guest continued to request even after receiving the positive review of the tap water. Although, in the guest's defense, the waiter did fail to telepathically realize that the guest, whose party was incomplete, wanted to order appetizers at the same time as the drinks even though he had not yet opened the menu. So there is that, I guess...

2. Became very upset that he could not specifically pick his replacement from among the terrified cabal of servers clustered around me begging not to be given the table

3. Was then consecutively upset by first, how happy his "rejected" server seemed at losing the honor of waiting on him, and secondly by the replacement server's refusal to agree that what the original person had done was reprehensible.

4. Returned his caesar salad because he did not like, "a creamy caesar dressing--the only real caesar salad dressing is the vinaigrette caesar salad dressing".

5. Was put out that we did not have some sort of hand-held video game available for his gigantic son to use.

6. Ordered without consultation a bottle of wine, tasted and approved it, refused to have any poured beyond the initial taste, refused to admit any dissatisfaction with it or allow us to replace it, and at the end of the meal insisted on only paying for 7% [yes, seven percent was the quoted amount] of the bottle because it was "repugnant" [I declined to charge for any of the wine, which was quite nice, and drank the entire bottle myself in record time once he was out of sight].

7. Ordered his steak black and blue but demanded that only one side of the steak be charred. Was unhappy with the steak because it didn't "taste charred enough" and because it wasn't medium rare--which is not surprising given the fact that the steak was ordered black and blue. When the server suggested cooking the steak a bit more and charring the other side to alleviate his concerns the guest at first refused, then relented after entreating the server "not to let any cooks or that terrible first waiter spit on my steak". When his charred medium rare steak was returned to the table he complemented us on providing a "perfect black and blue" on the second try and was kind enough to let us know that there might actually be hope for us to be successful one day.

8. Left a 4% tip

Now, I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I have never, in my entire career, witnessed true sinister adulteration of someones food. Never seen anyone make a phlegm burger, or a butt steak, or a visine daiquiri [not even back in the day when such drink would have really acted as a violent laxative], or a "broom sandwich" [where the bread is slid along the dirty kitchen floor for a ways before the mayo is added and the sandwich finished],or any of the other legendary evil payback dishes. I have seen a server heat a cappuccino to such a degree after having it sent back three times for "being cold" that the woman left the first seven layers of her lips on the edge of the mug when she attempted to drink from it, and I have seen a server purposely dump a full bottle of wine all over the biggest prick in the world all the while making it look like a simple comedy of errors, but I have never seen an attack on food. With that said, I will bet you that this particular guest has consumed more restaurant staff biological matter in his life than a band of cannibals attacking a Cheesecake Factory. This guy absolutely begs to be poisoned.

Google result on the guy I call my "Easter penance": a personal injury lawyer from Saskatchewan.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"I claim to be an average man of less than average ability. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith"--Mahatma Gandhi

"Where's Mr. O'Leary been?"

The question from one of our longest-tenured servers catches me unawares. Mr. O'Leary is one of our most prized guests and one of the richest men in our generally very prosperous city. He is a legend throughout the local dining community--out to dinner six or seven nights a week, choosing from a small group of favored restaurants and literally showering them with his largess.

Every time I see Mr. O'Leary I think of the scene in "My Blue Heaven", an otherwise exceedingly ordinary comedy about a gangster stuck in middle America as part of the Witness Protection Program. Steve Martin plays the mobster, who attempts to tip his FBI caseworker [Rick Moranis] upon first meeting him--When Rick Moranis' character questions the action, the gangster responds matter-of-factly by saying, "Ay...I tip evvverrrrybodddy!"

Mr. O'Leary tips everybody as well. To use another gangster movie allusion, this one from "Goodfellas", when Mr. O'Leary is in the house, the bartender gets $20 just for keeping the ice cubes cold.

Once the server mentioned Mr. O'Leary's absence, it occurred to me that indeed we probably hadn't seen him for nearly six weeks--immediately I was both concerned and embarrassed. Concerned because while in good health, he is an older guy, and I was afraid something might have happened. Embarrassed because over the last few months my attention has been diverted by other things and my observational powers have suffered as a result--I hadn't noticed his absence at all.

After a few minutes on the phone with friends of mine from some of the other restaurants within Mr. O'Leary's favored circle I discerned that he wasn't going out to dinner anywhere, and indeed hadn't been seen in any of his favorite haunts in over two months. Now I was just concerned.

Calling his home number I got voicemail, calling his company I received non-committal responses about him not keeping office hours, and about it not being unusual for him to be absent from the office for months at a time.

A few days after the revelation that he had been gone, another one of our cherished guests came in to the restaurant for drinks. This particular man, a well-regarded attorney, was also a good friend of Mr. O'Leary's and someone to whom I could mention my concerns.

"Mr. Lasher, may I ask you a question?" I had hurried over to his table right after his first drink arrived, wanting to find out what was going on before others arrived to join him--Mr. Lasher being the kind of successful guy who always seemed to attract a crowd.

"How can I help you, Last One Home?"

"Well, I don't want to pry...but I know you have known John O'Leary for a long time and I know you two are close friends--is he OK? I mean, we used to see him once a week at least, like clockwork, but he hasn't been around in months--and no one else has seen him either--so I don't think its just because we pissed him off or something. He has just dropped out of sight."

"Can you sit down for second, Last One Home?"

At the question, my heart sank. I was sure that the news I was about to receive would have the word "cancer" or "stroke" or some other horror featured prominently in the text. Resigned, I pulled up a chair and sat down close to Mr. Lasher.

" I have known John O'Leary for a long time. He was my first client as a matter of fact, and I believe I was his first lawyer--I was a bad attorney and he was a deadbeat client. Over time we both improved--we both became successful and we got to be best friends. I talk to John almost every day on the phone, but even I haven't seen him in months--he won't leave the house."

"Is it cancer?"

Mr. Lasher's look was surprised, then he chuckled. "No, no, not cancer. His health is fine. I'm sorry, I probably should have led with that--now I understand how concerned you must be.

Last One Home, do you know the name R. Allen Stanford?"

When Mr. Lasher asked if I knew Allen Stanford, two things happened simultaneously. First, I knew instantly what the problem with Mr. O'Leary was, and secondly I remembered all of the times that Allen Stanford had dined in our restaurant, including a couple of times with Mr. O'Leary.

"He's frozen, isn't he?", I asked.

"John's frozen solid. He's been investing with Stanford for years, and the SEC has seized everything until they figure out what, if any, extra liability he might have. He had to go begging on the street for a line of credit to meet his basic obligations--he needs about $100,000.00 a month just to operate and take care of his family, and that doesn't include dinners, golf, travel, or any of the other small luxuries that make our later years bearable."

"He isn't upside down with the fund, is he?"

--As a brief explanation for those who may not know. R. Allen Stanford is a billionaire Texan who oversaw a number of financial funds. Shortly after the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme hit the public eye, Allen Stanford was accused of similar fraudulent dealings. Because the amounts were generally lower and the victims generally less famous, not to mention far away from Manhattan [for the most part], Stanford didn't get much publicity after the initial government announcement, and only then because no one could locate him for a few days right afterward. Learning quickly from the Madoff case, government agents froze all the assets of many of the people invested in the funds--reason being that if someone had been invested for a very long time. they could actually have received more in "interest payments" from the Ponzi scheme than the amount they had on deposit--as a result, even though they would have lost their entire investment they could also possibly owe additional monies back--because the extra "interest" they received over time was actually someone else's principal. When I asked Mr. Lasher about Mr. O'Leary being upside down with the fund, I was asking if he might owe more back to the government than he had in frozen liquid assets. At the time Mr. Lasher and I talked, I was already aware of two other long-time guests of the restaurant who were in similar circumstances because of Allen Stanford and to whom the restaurant had extended house charge privileges--

"Oh no. Hell, no. John's probably got close to $60 million total--we figure his exposure to the fund is less than $5 million including the principal. The problem, actually, is that John doesn't have any hidden money--so when the freeze order came they got everything--and as you well know the government is never in as much of a hurry to give your money back as they are to take it. Now, John is a self-made man and he grew up poor. He will not spend an extra penny that he can't put his hands he's been locked up like a hermit in that mansion of his."

I thanked Mr. Lasher and went about my business, comfortable at least in the fact that our guest wasn't dead or dying, but troubled still that someone so successful and intelligent who spent his life working so hard could have his entire existence turned upside down by such an event.

Now I would like to tell you that I always had a bad feeling about Allen Stanford, but I didn't. He came to the restaurant numerous times whenever traveling in our area and was often in the company of many of our best guests. Over the years I actually joked with him, cordially, about his penchant for donating to high-profile Democrats. He was polite and a big spender and we always looked forward to seeing him.

I have made a success of myself by doing the right things. Not a billionaire by any means, but I've definitely torn the shit out of the grading curve for "restaurant manager". I simply don't understand how so many people regularly mortgage their integrity, their self-respect, and the regard of their fellow man for the same gains that are readily available through proper action and in that way free of all the awful collateral damage.

I have an envelope sitting in front of me right now with $2000 cash inside. Originally, when I dropped the envelope in Mr. O'Leary's mailbox a month ago, it had $1000 inside--as well as an unmarked, unsigned note that said, "Go out somewhere and have a good time. You've been so generous to so many for so long. Please let those of us who have enjoyed your generosity give a little back." I figured that over the years I have pocketed $40,000.00 from this guy--and I wanted him to go out and have a good time at least once and know that he had made an impression on those around him.

Mr. O'Leary's money was released about a week ago. He immediately left town to attend to business elsewhere. He apparently got back his afternoon and came right here. He came alone, probably for the first time, had dinner at the bar, definitely for the first time, and on the way out made a bee-line for me, slipped this envelope into my inside jacket pocket, hugged me [ABSOLUTELY for the first time], and said simply, "if you do good when you don't have to, you should get back double. You brought a smile to my face..."

I haven't written in a long time--as I alluded to earlier I've had a lot on my mind. But as I sit at my desk tears are pouring down my face. I'm not the kind of person who generally seeks reward, glory, or notoriety. I have no idea how he figured out that it was me who left the money--maybe Lasher said something to him, maybe he's seen my handwriting before, maybe he saw me at the mailbox [although its like an eighth of a mile from his giant house]--but in such dark times it is really nice to know I was able to do a little good.