Monday, June 29, 2009

"When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary..."--Thomas Payne

--Olbermann said so, so that means you don't know what you're talking about, so you should just shut up."

The speaker, as the above-imbedded citation would indicate, is a moron. One of my most disappointing hires--a scatter-brained under-achiever more concerned with text messaging than seeing to her guests. She already has two written warnings and a one-week suspension and though she has been informed that the next violation of policy will trigger her dismissal she is unafraid, because, as she puts it, "I've never been fired before". The fact that she has never worked for anyone besides her father before apparently hasn't affected her logical reasoning on the matter.

I catch the statement fragment as I am moving through the kitchen near an area where staff hangs out before we get busy, and I know I should ignore it. I know that facts only matter to a tiny and apparently shrinking few these days, I know this foolish girl is under the thrawl of MSNBC and their Wizards of Bullshit, and I know I should just keep on going--but it is so hard.

I heard a story once about an old man who used to go to one of the Naval storage yards every day and paint the rusting hulls of the WW II era vessels that had been left there at moorings, naked to the ravages of time after years of proud and valuable service. He was a naval veteran who couldn't bear the thought of all that decay--rot coming to noble vessels once so proud and vibrant and special--and so he bought his own gray paint, brushes, and ladder and he painted. And back then, in the days when the right things were sometimes still allowed to happen, the yard master let him go about his business--who knows, in his heart of hearts he may have even wished he could grab a bucket and join him.

I feel about this country the way that sailor felt about that mooring yard. My rational self knows the fight is lost. I know the rot is everwhere, and I know the decay is too deep in too many places for the paint of my words to remedy--but I can't ignore it. The job is so big, and has been neglected for so long, that I don't know where to start--as I'm sure that old man didn't know where to begin either--but I still cannot accept in my heart what my brain has already reconciled.

I should just keep moving toward the front of the restaurant, but instead I grab my brush and my bucket, so to speak, and turn back toward the small grouping of staff.

"What you guys talking about?"

Immediately, two long-time servers and one nearly brilliant new-hire perk up--the oldtimers know what is coming, and the newer member of my staff and I have had some very interesting, very civil, and very specific debates on politics and the American future over the last few months. The new employee is a life-long democrat born and raised in Illinois who finally admitted to me that she had been terrifed at the prospect of President Obama's election and can already see the "Chicago Way" spreading through the federal government. She is probably interested to see how I handle the cable TV professor in front of everyone else, while the oldtimers just smell blood in the water--they can see my big, sharp fin sticking up above the waves and headed toward their poor, doomed co-worker.

"Climate change", the server piped up.

"Global warming bullshit", came the slightly accented reply from a surprising source--one of our line cooks, Carlos.

"Fuck you. Go back behind the line before I call La Migra", chimed in my darling server.

"Actually Hanna, Carlos is a US citizen. I know because I attended his swearing in last year. Before he was a citizen he was a legal resident. I know because I hired him and checked his new hire paperwork completely, as I do with everyone, in all of our restaurants. I came over here because I heard you mention Kieth Olbermann like you were citing the Encyclopedia Brittanica instead of a bad sports announcer turned Democrat apologist. I was going to give you some factual information in the hopes that you might actually listen, but I don't need to get involved. Carlos lived in Mexico for 18 years before he came here. No one here understands corruption, ignorance, and misinformation better than he does--you don't stand a chance."

As I leave the simmering battle behind and head toward the front of the restaurant my assistant hands me a new menu draft for approval and asks, "what was that idiot talking about back there?"

"She was commenting on the great global warming hoax. Not surprisingly, she believes everything MSNBC tells her about it."

"Maybe all that time in front of the TV is the reason she can never make her lunch shifts on time. Or maybe its just the stupidity. I fucking hate her. My birthday is coming up, please fire her for my birthday present."

My assistant, my invaluable assistant who is worth her weight in gold, does not mince words.

"I doubt she'll make it that long, but you can sit it in when I do it if you like. I'll tell her I need another manager present as a witness."

"Don't tease...[long pause]...Actually, I guess I should't be so mean about her--I used to be that stupid, I used to be just like Hanna. I used to believe President Bush stole the election because Dan Rather said he did. I used to think the best job in the world would be a union job because I couldn't get fired. I used to think that everything could be fixed if everyone would just sit down and talk."

"What changed your mind? 9-11?"

"No. 9-11 made me appreciate President Bush. I remember thinking the day after, after the shock had worn off a little, I remember thinking 'thank God its not Al Gore'."

"So what was it?", I asked again, now truly intrigued.

"It was you. You changed my mind about alot of things. All those nights at the door when we would talk about what was on the TV's [the TV's in our lounge can be seen from the entranceway and front desk]--you would never argue. You would give your opinion and tell why you thought something was the way it was, and you would ask me why I thought certain things. Over and over. Why why why."

"I didn't mean to badger you."

"No, you didn't. It wasn't mean, you actually seemed interested in my opinions, where they came from, but I could never answer you--because they weren't opinions, they were just feelings. So I started to pay attention and get the facts on stuff so I could answer you and beat you, but once I started to get real facts I started to come to the same conclusions as you."

Years ago, before she was my assistant, this young lady was a hostess. She was so obviously intelligent and able that I always made sure she was scheduled for my shifts on the door--in all honesty I don't remember us having many political or philosophical discussions, but apparently we had. In answering my question, the young lady had given me one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.

Later that night over a drink I remembered something from my past. I went to a very small private elementary school, and actually had the same teacher from second through fifth grade. The class was the "gifted class" [a sort of new invention at the time], and it was actually made up of kids from all grades second through fifth. She taught us all--sometimes different lessons tailored to our particular age and skills, sometimes general lessons presented to everyone. The woman was remarkable. I honestly could have gone from that class directly to high school--that was how much I learned while there. Not just simple data either; but logic, reasoning, problem-solving--even a little practical philosophy. I credit that woman for whatever mental acuity I have to this day.

Though I never went back after moving on to junior high school and beyond, she came to my mother's funeral mass roughly ten years later--she must have seen one of the obituaries. I was touched beyond measure--and had the occassion not been so glum it would have been a true delight. After a few minutes of small talk I walked the lady to her car, parked next to mine. As we said goodbye, I opened the back door to retrieve my overcoat [the weather was turning and I was going to need it at the mausoleum service], and she let out a disgusted little whistle, then, "Oh my God, another one!"

She was looking at my Bush/Quayle re-election bumper sticker.

"So many of my kids are Republicans now. Where did I go wrong?", she asked theatrically. She had a smile on her face when she said it, and as I kissed her goodbye, I told her that so many of us were Republicans because she had taught us to always think for ourselves and never stop searching for the facts [I didn't mention that becoming aware of the world during the Carter Presidency probably hadn't hurt, either].

It would be many years later before I remembered that exchange, and it was during her funeral that the conversation came back to me. In that packed church were countless success stories, including three men and one woman whose names grace the tops of their respective fields to this day, in both practical professions as well as the arts.

If we pay attention and are taught the right things in the right way, we all learn. If we don't get lazy, I guess we all teach. I've been painting and keeping the rot away and I didn't even know it, and that is a really good feeling.

The problem comes when you realize that no matter how many ships are sea-worthy, there may simply not be anywhere left to sail. Both political parties are steeped in self-serving corruption, the media turns a blind eye to the crimes, and the government itself is so bloated and intractable that soon nothing will be able to escape its stifling grasp.

The story is disjointed, and for that I apologize--but then again everything is disjointed and polarized these days to the point of being farcical. Daily our soldiers commit acts of unimaginable heroism that go unreported. A young lady is murdered on the streets of Tehran during a protest that could have begun seminal change in that oppressed country--technology allows us the horror of actually seeing the life leave that young lady's eyes. From our government, tepid words--only slightly warmer than those used to acknowledge the death of a pop music star.

"Lawmakers" ram though nonsensical, contrived laws that literally have not even been completely written--much less read--with sanctimonious, condescending smirks toward their opponents. The Honduran people remove a President trying to make himself into the newest Hugo Chavez, and rather than celebrate their commitment to their country's constitution, we publicly side with Communist Cuba and Dictatorial Venezuela in condemning the act.

I'm told Hanna's attempt to defend her position on "climate change" after I left the argument included references to both "The Day after Tomorrow" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" as if they were National Geographic documentaries ather than theatrical works of fiction. When pressed on her choice of MSNBC as a primary news source she demurred, insisting proudly that she also watches the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. A 26-year-old mother of one who thinks a show on Comedy Central is "the news". Too bad she hadn't seen "The Happening"--she might have won the debate using the "Shamaylan Killer Tree Principle".

How big a brush do I need? Do they even have that much paint? I'm so furious.

"What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous..."--Voltaire

"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever..."--Napoleon Bonaparte

"Someone on the phone says they need a private room".

"No problem, let them know the events coordinator will be back in the restaurant on Monday morning--they can call back, or leave a voicemail now--also ask them if they would like her email address."

"They want a private room at 5:30..."


"Yes, tonight. He says there is someone very famous and very important in the party and they need privacy."

With a sigh, "I'll be right there...

This is Last One Home, how can we help you?"

"We'll be at your restaurant in about two hours for dinner and I need to make sure we have absolute privacy--and believe me, this is as much for you as it is for us--if people see my client your restaurant will be mobbed, absolutely mobbed."

"I'm sorry, sir. All of our private accommodations are booked for this evening--I'm afraid I just don't have much to offer--"

"Move them!"

"I can't do that, sir. What we might be--"

"Just move them--we'll pay for their dinners--just tell them someone more important needed the room, but was nice enough to pay for their dinner--I don't care how big the party is."

At this point in the exchange I have to admit that I was struck dumb with surprise--and after nearly a quarter of a century in these trenches almost nothing remains that has the power to surprise me. In all the countless instances of blustering, staging, and social wrestling that I have endured, no one has ever actually put their money where their mouth was in the way that this man was doing. As soon as he uttered the words, I knew he meant them. And if I agreed to his terms, and showed them into a room that was supposed to have hosted a wedding reception for 80 guests, and later handed him a bill for $15,000 in addition to his own dinner bill, I am sure he would not have blinked. This guy's tone was, while somewhat abrasive, absolutely matter-of-fact.

It didn't mean he was going to get what he wanted--but it was impressive nonetheless.

"I believe you, sir. And I would like to help you. But I simply cannot do what you are asking--it would be betraying everything we are about."

"My client wants to eat at your restaurant as soon as we land. He simply MUST have privacy. We are at an impasse, and I am paid very, very well to make sure we do not EVER encounter an impasse. I presume you are paid...paid to make your customers happy. How can you make me and my client happy under these circumstances? By you not doing your job you are making it impossible for me to do my job.

Fifteen to twenty seconds of silence on the phone, followed by...

[sigh] Very well, what CAN you do for us?"

"Your party is arriving very early in our evening, sir. We can seat you in the very back of the restaurant, and most likely no one will be seated in your vicinity for the greater part of two hours. The earlier you arrive, the longer you'll have to yourselves."

"Back of the dining room? I'm afraid that won't [voice in the background]...hold on, please...[more voices]...very well, it seems that is acceptable. We're seven, we'll be there at 5:30."

"May I have the name, sir?"

"You won't need it." Click.

The gentleman on the phone was right, too--we didn't need a name. At 5:25pm two blacked-out suburbans pulled into our driveway and one giant man got out of each vehicle. One giant made a perimeter walk of the outside of the building while the other bounded though the doors of the restaurant and silently surveyed the interior.

"We're good," he said into a small microphone, and a moment later after the occupants of the vehicle apparently heard the same report from the exterior giant, the doors of the two vehicles flew wide--expelling first two more giants, then four devastatingly beautiful young women, and then three nondescript looking men--or more specifically two nondescript looking men and one man wearing a gigantic white panama hat.

The hat itself was a magnificent indicator of things to come. Think regular panama hat-- white, straw, almost fedora-like--and then literally make it as big as a Mexican sombrero. A caricature of a panama hat really--so big and floppy that I was oddly reminded of the Rick Moranis character "Dark Helmet" from Mel Brooks' Star Wars spoof "Spaceballs". True, the gentleman beneath this monstrosity was properly hidden from view, but the hat itself would automatically draw the attention of anyone within sight of it. The only thing that could have made it worse was if one of the giants had started screaming, "move along, move along, nothing to see here..." to the empty street adjacent to our driveway.

As this spectacular group entered the restaurant I retreated to a safe distance, wanting to observe the festivities without being personally involved.

The group was shown to their table and began to sit, until "phone guy" saw the arrangements.

"This won't do, we can't be exposed to the windows."

My maitre d', a pro's pro, smoothly began to respond, "Sir, if you're concerned about the security of the glass, it is ballistic and over an inch thick--tornado-qualified for all office buildings in this area."

"No, not bullets. Cameras. Papparazzi. We need to move--we'll sit in there," gesturing to a room filled with balloons, wrapped gifts, four tables of ten, and a huge banner reading "Happy 60th Wendy".


Apparently my polished maitre d', a bit off his game after the "papparazzi" comment, decided "direct" would be the best approach from that point forward. And for the next three minutes as he toured the entire restaurant with "phone guy" and the rest of the party in tow [exposing themselves to all of the other guests already in the restaurant, all 20 of them] he continued to say "no". "No" to the room with the AV crew setting up an LCD projector and the long table of twenty covered with literature, "no" to the small one-table room with a party of eight already seated in it, and finally "no" to the empty room that had been reserved for a party of six--a little odd in itself because those guests had readily agreed to the $2000 revenue minimum for such a small party just to have the privacy.

"That room is empty--why can't we sit there?"

"The reserved guests will be arriving within the hour, sir."

"Then we will sit here," gesturing to a hemispheric booth usually used for parties of four, with direct sight to the empty private room and in clear view of 80% of the restaurant and its soon-to-arrive guests, but away from the windows and those pesky papparazzi.

"If you believe your party will be comfortable there, sir, you are welcome to the table."

And so the six members of the party [all but "phone guy"] squeezed themselves into the booth, while "phone guy" made a beeline for my position about thirty feet away.

"I know you're the one in charge, you're the one I talked to on the phone [part of this guy was utterly ridiculous, but part of him was very impressive]. I want you to know that if that empty room doesn't get sat with a private party, I am going to be very troubled. Very troubled."

"How did you know I was the one in charge when we were speaking on the phone--I could have just been a host, or the maitre d'?" I asked the question out of real curiosity--another rarity for me these days.

"I could tell."

"Phone guy" proceeded back to the both, squeezed himself onto one end, and they all proceeded to have, presumedly, lovely meal. "Mr. Hat" turned out to be unfailingly polite, to the point of making sure everyone at the table, speaking a foreign language amongst themsleves, all spoke English whenever my staff was present. He chose two excellent $600 bottles of wine with dinner, tipped extravagently, and joked with me about the world record for the greatest number of people ever seated at one table for four.

And, when one of our closing [and foreign-born] cocktail servers arrived about an hour into his meal, we finally found out who the utterly unrecognizable man in the gigantic hat actually was. When I googled his name, here were over 6 million hits--mostly in other languages. I have no doubt that "phone guy's" concerns would have been perfectly valid--in New York, Rio de Janiero, Jakarta, Mexico City, Johannisberg, or even Miami. Here, however, he was just another guy in a ridiculous hat. Someone may have wanted to take a picture, but not of the man, just of the hat itself.

And when, also about an hour into his meal, a very well-known US governor [not ours, and not Mark Sanford] walked into the vacant private room as a guest of the host, and everyone in the restaurant recognized him--I was even off the hook with "phone guy".