Sunday, January 17, 2010

second new post in two days

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple..."--Oscar Wilde

Just a quick aside--this was something that made a shocking impression on me when I stumbled upon it during the course of the extremely drunken group conversation on the night of the restaurant's closing.

There is a party game that is just a clear plastic box full of cards onto which have been written provocative questions--everyone in turn pulls a question and answers it and then everyone else present answers the same question. Someone had the game at the restaurant and servers used to play it sometimes in the beginning of the evening after sidework was done but before guests had arrived--I had no problem with it, I just asked that the more risque questions be skipped.

Well, the game came out after the meal was finished but just as the serious drinking was really getting fired up. The answer that I gave to one of the questions has stuck with me ever since that night [or early morning, to be more accurate]--I had not thought of the incident I described in over a decade, and most odd, wasn't planning for it to be my answer. I just opened my mouth to talk about losing my temper with a cocktail waitress one time and out popped something entirely different.

The question, paraphrased, was, "What is the most regrettable thing you have ever said to someone?"

I had my cocktail waitress-based answer all ready to go when my turn came about, but instead what came out was a much shorter version of the below:

When I was in my mid-20's I was involved in a very torrid relationship--I have never been in better shape and have never looked better, and this girl was just the most beautiful and unbelievably desirable creature one could ever imagine--imagine taking Angelina Jolie's head and setting it atop the most incredible female body ever designed by God [as opposed to the anemic bag of sticks said head actually resides atop these days]. I remember seeing an interview with the model/actress Angie Everhart many years ago and she was describing her romance with Sylvester Stallone, and she talked about how she would wake up in the middle of the night and move the covers off him and just stare transfixed by his body as he slept because it was so perfect [again, many years ago and her opinion]. Well, when I heard her words I broke out laughing, because I had often done the same thing with this girl. I couldn't help it--thinking back I have no idea how either of us ever got out of the house.

We were wholly immersed in one another for over a year, and in addition to bottomless infatuation we actually had a great deal in common, a little bit of shared background, and she was tremendously intelligent. She was also extremely jealous. I probably should have taken her jealous streak more seriously and done more to make her comfortable, but anyone looking at me and looking at her would immediately realize that there was nowhere better for me to go, and as a result of that fact coupled with my youth my stock answer to her concerns was a throw away line, "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?", or "No way! You've ruined me for other girls--if we ever break up I'm going gay just for the convenience factor." Witty, I know.

Anyway, just short of the eighteen month mark she became very suspicious of a female server on my staff and insisted I fire her or at least move her to lunches where I would see much less of her. This was an ongoing conflict, and eventually there was a misunderstood situation that led to a terrible break-up. I did nothing wrong, the server did nothing wrong, it was just one of those things. Or at least that is how old-guy me sees it. Young-guy me was pissed, because I didn't do anything wrong, and frankly because she nearly ruined me for average, everyday female nakedness--or at least for about six months or so.

After a little time passes, she picks up a rebound guy--and he is not a good guy. A little roided out before it was popular to be roided out, and a bully. Domineering, insulting, profane, etc. The guy made me look like Prince Valiant to be quite honest, and all of her friends and family were constantly on her to ditch the guy and get back with me, but neither option appealed to her.

Then one day she was late to meet the guy at a club and when she finally showed up, he slapped her. In public. And when she responded verbally in surprise and anger he slapped her again. Hard. It was at that point that the bouncers who knew me and still assumed she was my girlfriend [deeply depressed, I wasn't going out and letting people know we were finished, and as being my known associate in a bar or restaurant is always good for a bunch of free stuff, neither was she] partially dismantled this fellow and deposited him in the alley behind the place. One of the bouncers called me to let me know, and after filling the guy in on the situation and making sure she was OK, I called her dad to warn the family about the guy. Her parents had fled Czechoslovakia in the late 50's and while the two boys and the daughter were all-American, her mom and dad were old school. Dad grabbed the two brothers a few days later and they caught up with boyfriend still hurting from the bouncer beatdown and they put him in the hospital. End of rebound relationship.

About three months later this guy hits the papers--front page. Apparently after the bandages came off he went out and found himself another girl, and eventually smacked her around too. And when she screamed at him that she was going to tell her brothers [the neighbors reported the screaming] the guy freaked out and shot her to death. Then the piece of shit coward took the gun, managed to target his tiny little brain, and offed himself.

Six months later I was basically back in action, sitting at an outside bar where a friend was working. I remember it was a Sunday because I had been there most of the day watching football and I was extremely well-lubricated, and whattayaknow across the bar I see the old girlfriend with a couple of her friends. There were about forty people sitting and standing around this big, triangular patio bar and the ladies hadn't seen me. I asked my friend to offer them a round, and ten seconds after he walked away the fireworks commenced. From all the way across the bar came a barrage of invective, screamed accusations of infidelity, stalking, and lying. I had apparently improperly insinuated myself into her family AND her circle of friends, not to mention "monopolizing every waiter and bartender in town". I may have also killed President Kennedy.

Now, even in my intoxicated state I was extremely surprised by her reaction to the simple offer of a drink. In my head I already had us cuddled up and reminiscing, or at the very least discoursing in a civil fashion--having false accusations hurled at me from across a bar in front of forty people was not one of the pre-considered outcomes.

I was still angry at the original false accusations. I was still bothered by the damage the killer had done to her, not to mention the tragedy of the murder and the effect on the victim's friends and family. I was suddenly furious that I was catching all of this public recrimination for no good reason, and I was drunk, and I was young.

As I spoke my voice rose, and the more I spoke the louder my voice got, and the last six words were screamed at the top of my lungs, "I never cheated on you, I never followed you--you followed me. I never went to your friends and family, your friends and family came to me because your new boyfriend was such a scumbag. I never said a bad word about you, I never hit you, and AT LEAST I NEVER KILLED ANYBODY".

By now the entire crowd was struck dumb by the two exchanged outbursts and I'm sure my finale was lost on most of them [though my misanthropic bartender friend would tell people for years that it was the best beatdown he had ever heard], but it wasn't lost on her obviously. I immediately left the bar, walking out on a check for the only time in my life as far as I know [I came back the next day].

I feel completely justified in saying what I said. I was pushed to the point of utterance, and while I generally don't go out of my way to defend myself, I was in no way a villain at any point in this saga. Apparently however, our public exchange and my final exclamation started an avalanche within the young lady's life. I was told that her friends had to carry her from the bar that night, that she basically collapsed sobbing. She had a bad few years following with some drug problems and a failed marriage. She came out on the other side in good shape, and I heard that she made a new life with a good guy in another state and found happiness.

Up until the game, I don't think I had thought of that girl or that incident in years. I was always embarrassed at the public nature of the final "showdown", just as I was always bothered by the way that our relationship ended--after all it always sucks the worst to get punished for something you didn't do. I guess that over time I must have realized subconciously that I pulled the pin from this woman's grenade of despair, and that is just something I would rather not have on my personal resume.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

First new post in a long time

"And from the tents the armorers, accomplishing the knights, with busy hammers closing rivets up, give dreadful note of preparation..."--Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV

They polish, they straighten, and they gather for the pre-shift meeting--but they know. Excepting our mammoth catering property, we are the only restaurant in our company still open. The rumors are rampant, my employer is in seclusion, and I have lost twenty-five pounds.

This is it. Our last evening. It appears at the start to be a fairly slow Saturday. After the pre-shift meeting I would normally be found in my office or at the front desk chatting with my maitre d', but at this moment I am seated at a 4-top toward the back of our dining room. I'm staring out at a bleak autumn day. The waiter in whose station I am seated hovers nervously, afraid that I have spotted something wrong and am sitting while waiting for him to notice and correct it. I turn with an uncharacteristic smile [rare in the best of times, and a downright endangered species over the last six weeks or so] and tell him that everything is fine--I suggest that he return to his family meal. He looks at the same time both relieved at being dismissed and troubled at being so easily diagnosed. On the bread plate at my side is what looks like a full glass of ice water--it is in fact a large glass of vodka from which I sip absentmindedly. In truth, I'm relatively sure that in my current state I could drink an entire bottle of vodka and not feel drunk, but on this particular day the steady supply is at least thankfully keeping me from tears.

I have spent the last two weeks surreptitiously arranging work for my best employees. Calling on friends and associates in the business I have been pretending to advocate for employees from our other properties--every person I speak to is told about the best guy from this place or the A-team bartender from that one. I have arranged appointments for nearly all of my most cherished staffmembers, and on Monday I will call all of my contacts again and tell them who they are really going to be talking to--I'm confident that most of my people will not be out of work for long. I also tried hard to help as many employees from our other closed restaurants as I could, but in full disclosure I saved the best for my guys.

My fugue is briefly interrupted by the sound of breaking glass. A water glass has been knocked from the edge of a table by the worst server on my staff--an imbecile of the first order. The server forgets that I am sitting in the dining room and begins to chuckle like the idiot he is, and it suddenly occurs to me that I don't want to spend the last working night in my beloved steakhouse in this idiot's company.

Disguised drink in hand, I walk to the front desk and grab the schedule. In addition to the imbecile I see one other server on the page who is a constant pain in the ass as well as a bartender due in later that night for whom I can barely disguise my contempt under the best of circumstances. And of course, these are not the best of circumstances.

"What's wrong?', asks my maitre d' after I stand staring at the schedule for three or four minutes. Suddenly I know exactly how to proceed.

To my maitre d', "Do me a favor, please. Send Bob and Hannah home and call Allen and tell him not to come in. Tell them all that we look very slow tonight and that I need to save payroll--if they want to know why they are being picked out instead of someone else tell them they will need to talk to me. Block out the rest of the slots 8pm to 10pm, and we're going to close tonight at 10 instead of 11."

"What's goin-?"

"I'll explain in a sec--I've got to get something from the office and then I need you to do me one more favor."

In the office I go to my briefcase and pull out two things--from my wallet comes my company charge card and from another sleeve comes one of several envelopes--this particular envelope is my maitre d's severance. In a meeting shortly after the sales deal was inked I gave my employer a severance schedule for all of our managers throughout the company--I explained to him that, if he wanted me to play the grim reaper for the three months it was going to take to kill all of his restaurants, the schedule was non-negotiable. The amounts listed were large, but I knew he had no stomach for shutting down his own restaurants, and he agreed.

Walking my maitre d' outside I waste no time, "We are closing tonight. [Owner] sold to [restaurant company] three months ago--they want the real estate not the brand, they paid out the ass, and [owner] couldn't resist. He has promised me that you [and three others] will have job offers within a month, if that's something you would be interested in [I'm shaking my head as I say this]. Your severance is in this envelope, along with appointment info for a GM's interview [with good well-known restaurant company] on Tuesday. Take this [my company AMEX] and call "Stringfellows" [my favorite local restaurant], ask for Nick the manager and tell him Last One Home needs a really, really nice spread for twenty-five people at 11:30pm--I'll leave it to him. I don't care what it costs, but I need it delivered, and I want to add 25% to the check.

--My maitre d' is staring at me like I just grew horns, and I don't know if it is because I just told him that our busy restaurant would be closing forever in five hours or because I just asked him to tell an exclusive, four-star New American restaurant to deliver, so I figure I should cover all the bases--

The check in the envelope is two-months salary, and I am sure that you will get the GM job if you just show up for the interview. Nick owes me three or four HUGE favors, and "Stringfellows" will deliver no problem--trust me. Now cover me for a half hour, I have to go home and grab the wine for dinner tonight. Just keep everything to yourself for a few more hours."

The secret was well-kept until about 9pm when my first server tried to cash out and I told them they had to stay. It was sort of a last-straw moment, and within ten minutes I had a dozen people wanting to know what was going on. When I stated that "the bar was open" and that everyone should get a drink before I said anything further, three people burst loudly into tears. My tears flowed silently.

The meal was great, the wine was better, and the company was best of all. When the pale sun made its rise, many of us were still "at work". Everyone got an envelope--for the managers there was a check and a scheduled interview, while most of my staff had a scheduled interview and everyone got at least a letter of recommendation. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of my staff were quickly snatched up by other operators, just as I am to this day still devastated that they no longer "belong" to me.

My sad job did not lurch to a final halt until two weeks later. There were innumerable transfers, phone calls, and annoying administrative tasks. There was one final, ugly confrontation with my guilt-ridden employer. There was a final, introspective tour of the property that had been my professional home for almost a third of my life.

There is more to be told of this story, though it has obviously taken me a long time to face the telling of the end. There may even be things to tell beyond, though on that I haven't completely decided yet.

You see, this is what I do. What I have always done. I have great respect for the author Steve Dublanica and for the author known as "the doorman". I have their books, I enjoyed reading them, and I look forward to future volumes. But I'm not an author.

I enjoy reading the various server, bartender, and restaurant staff blogs, though I sometimes take personal issue with their attitudes and mindsets. But I am not an actor, an engineering student, a realtor, or an equipment salesman.

I am a restaurant manager. I am myself. I did not want to stop when I was forced to stop.