I am daydreaming. I am thinking about the climactic scene from one of my favorite movies, which--oddly--stars one of my least favorite actors. I am daydreaming about "The Last Samurai".
I am thinking about the movie, but in reality what I am doing is debating in my mind the concept of honor.
Honor is important to me. Integrity, honesty, reliability--all of these nearly-forgotten terms matter to me the way they used to matter to most people years ago. Nothing gives me more pride than the fact that I have never broken my word.
I remember hearing the quote once, that "the best friend is the one who dies being owed the most favors".
I like old school shit like this--it is the way I have lived my life up to this point.
Toward the end of "The Last Samurai" the Japanese regular army is coming to capture or kill the last Samurai lord--the motivation is purely political, driven by a craven, power-hungry douchebag whose character [or lack thereof] is eminently recognizable to anyone who pays any attention to modern American politics.
The Samurai and his American companion [played by the patently insane Tom Cruise] have crafted a noble defense--one that will salvage their honor, make their point, appeal to the greater honor of Japan, and--not incidentally--most likely result not only in their own deaths but also in the deaths of every single one of the Samurai Lord's followers.
And they joke about it. They even enjoy themselves to a certain extent amidst the carnage because they are comfortable in the fact that they are doing the right thing. They know the end is coming and they don't care--because they know that eventually the end comes for all of us and they also know that their ending will be glorious.
Glorious. This Samurai and his men meet their end against insurmountable odds and it is glorious in every sense of the word. The scene reduces me to tears every time I see it.
So, here I am thinking of this movie. And I am thinking about right living and honorable living and making the right choices and the hard choices and-----------
"so, what do you say?
SO, what do you say?
LAST ONE HOME! WHAT DO YOU SAY?"
"I said, there's going to be a place for you. And there's going to be at least the same amount of money for you. And I need you! Can I count on you?"
As I snap back to reality I remember where I am. I'm sitting on the huge seating veranda of one of our other restaurants, deserted except for me and my employer. It is a Friday morning at 10am and he has been telling me about the deal he has just inked to sell his restaurants to a large multi-state operator. He has been telling me about how this company approached him after hearing from their law firm [also his law firm] that he was looking into either curtailing or completely halting his operations. He has been telling me about the last month and a half of meetings he has had, and about all of the offers this company has made--each one richer than the last. He has been telling me about how he refused all of them out of hand just as he has refused hundreds of other offers over the years.
And then I hear him say three words--"Board of Directors"--and then I understand. These people--these suitors of ours--are very astute. They have read my boss like a book and have identified something about him that I had overlooked. My boss has gotten tired--not tired like I get tired, with the sweat-through shirt under my jacket and the bloody feet and falling asleep at my desk after everyone else has gone home for the night--tired like, "I don't want to worry about all this shit anymore" tired.
These people are going to bank him up--which I'm sure is important to him, but frankly not vital. More importantly, they are giving him his easy out--he's not quitting, not selling out, not abandoning hundreds of loyal employees --he's merging with a multi-state company that has a track record of success and a very well-known name, and he's "staying on" as part of their Board--not quitting, no, of course not.
"So, what do you say, are you coming along?", he asks again.
"I've got to get back to Steakhouse, I'm short-staffed for lunch. Let me know how the announcement is going to go down, please."
"YOU DIDN'T ANSWER ME. I NEED YOU ALONG. ARE YOU COMING ALONG?"
"I'll let you know, Bill." And with that, I walked off the veranda and toward my car.
A few minutes later as I drove toward my office something occurred to me--in well more than a decade, that was the first time I had ever called my employer by his first name while working. We have shared countless social occasions over the years, including a couple of vacations with our significant others during all of which we acted as the friends I always believed us to be--but in the restaurants or in any professional capacity I never spoken to him or referred to him except as Mr. LOH'sBoss [not too much of a stretch to admit that his real name isn't Bill LOH'sBoss, but you get the idea]--not because he wanted it that way, much to the contrary, but because I thought it was the proper thing to do.
Just as that fact was sinking in and I was pondering what such a subconscious slip like that might really mean, another thought occurred to me--one that nearly drove me off the road. Suddenly shaking as if I had been sucker-punched, I managed to pull over to the shoulder and get into a fast food parking lot. Something wasn't right. Something was missing from the story. And I also realized that I had left before the meeting was supposed to be over. I was suddenly sure that if I had stayed on that veranda and agreed to "come along", I would have heard what the late Paul Harvey would have called "the rest of the story". After a few minutes taken to compose myself, I grabbed my cellphone and called.
"I was really hoping you would call--I really didn't like the way you just walked--"
"Why do I have to "come along", Bill? Why can't I just stay where I am? What's the new plan, Bill? What do our new bosses have in mind?" My heart was beating out of my chest and I was sweating and chilled at the same time--and I was angry.
After a seemingly endless silence, "The reason the talks took so long and the reason the offer got so--"
"They're going to close everything but The Mountain [our catering and events business, housed in a massive sixty-year-old facility and nicknamed "The Mountain" because getting to the top of the five-story faux-mansion building while moving tables, chairs, portable bars, etc, can be like climbing a mountain--and frankly it even looks a little like a mountain] and install their concepts. The only one of our places showing positive revenue right now is Steakhouse, and they feel that with current competition, the two pending chain openings, and the continued recession that it will be a loser pretty soon as well."
His statement sounded almost rehearsed, like he had been dreading the moment when he would have to give it and had been trying to get it straight, but it also sounded pretty genuine.
"Why not The Mountain?" Even though I knew the answer, I was in shock and it was the only thing I could think to say.
"Money. She's mostly booked for the next nine months--that's nearly $2 million in potential sales and we've already taken in nearly $300,000.00 in deposits. They don't want to give up the sales or give back the deposits."
"I'll call you back from the office, I'm on the road right now." Click.
When I got back to my office and spent some more time on the phone with my employer I received what can only be described as a brutal closure schedule. The first of our places would close at the end of business the next night [Saturday], and on Sunday and Monday all their food and beverage products would be moved to my property. Within a month all of our other restaurants would close using the same program--the process slowed only by the fact that we would need at least a few days after each closure to use up enough of their inventories that we would be able to accept more stuff from the next victim. Five weeks and one day after my Friday morning meeting would be Steakhouse's last operating day, and the following Sunday and Monday I would oversee the transfer of my final inventories to The Mountain.
End of story. Done. Finis.
Restaurants close every day--it is literally almost the worst possible business to open. Definitely over 80% and possible over 90% of all restaurants close within one year of opening. That is a terrible figure by itself, and when you include among the survivors those stores belonging to gigantic chains [how many Subways, McDonald's, and Wendy's have you ever seen close within one year] it becomes a nearly insurmountable challenge for any independent operator. Over the years we had received inventory from a failed sibling more than once, but in addition to Steakhouse we were also able to field a number of winners--if not for the current poor economy and the anti-small business attitude at the federal level, I don't think I would be writing this now.
As for my employer, my feelings are conflicted to say the least. Many people would see no difference between his closing up shop over a pending health care debacle [still happily unresolved and hopefully soon defeated] before it had the chance to destroy his business or make all of us wards of the federal government, and doing what he actually did--"merging" with a larger company whose announced plan included the closing of the very same restaurants for other reasons. After all, the net result is the same.
In the first case, I found his position surprising but not objectionable--a matter of self-determination, a sort of "this far and no further" kind of stand. After I got over the initial shock of his statement, it reminded me a little bit of when that awful woman attempted to pressure Augusta National several years ago on their men-only membership policy. Augusta of course hosts the Master's Golf Tournament, and this woman demanded Augusta--a private club legally entitled to an exclusive membership policy--admit women, or she would organize a boycott of the Tournament's sponsors. The president of Augusta at the time, the unfortunately named Hootie Johnson, was delightfully non-plussed. He announced that in order spare the Tournament's long-time valued sponsors from being sullied and bullied, he would suspend sponsorship of the event [it went on television commercial free and made the event and the Club even more beloved]. Further, he announced, the Club's membership policies were their own and would only be changed for reasons of and at a time of the membership's own choosing. If the Club's neighbors and sponsors continued to be harassed, he said, they would probably just stop having the Tournament altogether. Not surprisingly, this show of resolve, so uncommon in the modern era, resulted in the woman being marginalized [rightfully so] and the "controversy" disappearing.
It is sometimes right to declare that if something cannot be done my way, it will be done no way. A vital component of freedom.
In the situation of our "merger" however, its harder for me to find and recognize his high ground. A point he tried to make to me on the phone after the Friday meeting was that the negotiations took so long because he kept refusing the closures--at the time I cut him off, but later, when we were meeting about severances he was finally able to make this point, which was clearly very important to him. As this particular meeting was one of the low points of my entire career [figuring out what to pay people who were being laid off for no good reason before sending them out into the worst job market in history], I did not ask my boss what changed his mind. Of course, I didn't have to ask him, because I knew--they made it easy for him. The easier they made it for him, the less important everyone else's potential difficulties became. The restaurants are his, the decision is his. Throughout his career he has been an honorable and respectful employer, evidenced by the huge group of employees who have stayed with him for over a decade at numerous different properties. It would never occur to me to say, "You can't do this", or anything similar. Still though...
It just doesn't seem right. Maybe I'm just feeling sorry for myself, or regretting the end of an era that, at the very least, I was hoping to end my involvement with on my own terms. More likely, I'm picking up on the fact that he feels guilty about the decision himself, that he knows he took the easy way out.
But for me, it is not so easy. Easy doesn't appeal to me. In all honesty, I have quite a bit of contempt for easy. I have his open job offer. The money is very good, the position probably less physically demanding than the one that I am preparing to leave, and I want to work. I don't need to work, which is a luxury that also embarrasses me right now, but I want to work. If I take the job I can probably find jobs for many of our past employees once the properties are re-concepted and start to re-open [all will be re-concepted and re-modeled except for our perennial loser which will become the big company's new corporate offices], and that is important to me. On the other hand, if I take the job I believe I will also ease my employer's conscience, and I believe that my acceptance will be a tacit endorsement of the whole deal, and that I do not like.
It has been a long time since I had to hunt for a job, usually being hired from one place to another, and staying at the last one through three Presidents and four administrations has me a bit out of practice even before you get to it being the worst market in history.
I have to tell you, I still kind of like that climax from The Last Samurai. That's a good way to go out. The only problem is that when I went in the hut to put on my armor, my Samurai lord walked down the hill and surrendered.