When we first opened the new restaurant, Chef correctly decided to get out of the Bottled Water Business and help reduce the Bigfoot-sized Carbon Footprint from the production, importing, shipping, and the pain-in-the-ass bottle recycling involved with it. We serve our guests filtered sparkling or still water at no charge, from a very cool, compact little machine that sits on a counter top in the Wait Station. During almost two years of use and breakage, our bottle inventory has been reduced to an impractically low level, and we needed more. We buy them from a company that has an office here in Napa, but their warehouse is over in Benicia. Not an unmanageable distance, so I thought I’d save some time and some delivery charges and just go pick up the 10 cases we had asked for. So, breaking my own “First Rule of The Restaurant Business” to Never Volunteer, yes, I volunteered.
I had made the arrangements with the bottle company’s sales office to have our order ready on Thursday morning. And, as I know that doing favors of this kind, or any work-related errand that happens outside of work hours, are best done with a screaming hangover, I went out for a beverage or two the night before (Big Shout-Out to Zins Valley’s Muddled Margarita, by the way. You have to go a ways to find a Margarita I would consider Perfect In Every Way, but theirs is!) So with a couple of Advil and some coffee to help clear my still-cloudy brain, and proving the axiom that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, I set out in a torrential downpour for Benicia.
This El Nino-year, raining-like-we-are-living-in-Seattle bullshit is really getting old. I want my Springtime weather! I have been totally Gypped out of what is probably my last springtime in The Napa Valley for some time, due to our impending move out of state. So it’s pouring rain, and people are driving like idiots; but I’m cruising along, not even cursing, really, at the bumper to bumper backup in Jamison Canyon. As I am heading east, I will eventually be driving out from under this deluge. The bad news is I will have to drive back under it again when I make the return trip. Out on 680, the lonely Luther Gibson Freeway between Cordelia and Benicia, I find myself in nearly white-out conditions from the Truckers’ Spray as I make my way past them. I am heading for the very appropriately-named Industrial Road exit near Benicia’s refinery and warehouse district, and despite the weather, I am making decent time.
Warehouse districts, (except the one in New Orleans) are generally in the most desolate, lonely areas possible. Their main features are long stretches of two-lane road, interrupted only by the occasional “tuh-thump” of a railroad crossing. The roads are lined with cyclone fences topped with razor wire, guarding long, homogeneous rows of football-field sized buildings. Apparently, building and zoning ordinances prohibit warehouses from posting their addresses in anything bigger than four-inch, stick-on numbers from Ace Hardware and, with the rain and my Old Man Eyes, I was having a hell of a time finding this place. I was doing a back-and-forth, thinking I missed the place, driving up and down the road, looking for any clue to the location of 439 Industrial Court. As I was retracing my route for the umpteenth time, I saw a Mail Truck making stops. I was sufficiently frustrated, to the point of throwing in the towel on my Manly-Man Instinct of never asking for directions; so I ask the Mail Carrier if he can tell me where the fuck this place is. He peers through the pouring rain, across the street, to a row of buildings wa-a-a-ay over there, and starts in with “Well, I think it must be around the front there somewhere…” Are you friggin’ kidding me? The Gee Dee Mailman can’t even find this place!
He’s rambling on about something now, doing a monologue he is obviously making up as he goes, trying to sound authoritative, because he, like me, just can’t admit he doesn’t know where the fuck this place is. I have ceased listening to him as my phone is ringing in my earpiece. I answer, and on the other end is Mr. Tracy, our Beverage Director, calling to see how my “adventure” is going. He is smart, in that he is Smart-Phone equipped; so with his GPS talking me in, I finally arrive at my destination. God bless you, Masked Man!
The Warehouses in these Warehouse Districts are always composed of three main parts: The Office, The Dock, and The Pallets. Sometimes there is a desolate little lunch room, with some old Formica-topped tables and those curvy orange plastic, metal-framed chairs from the 60’s; and, perhaps a couple of vending machines selling Fanta and those little cans of hot Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Raviolis. A place so depressing you would surely slash your wrists if you had to eat there every day; but all they have in the way of sharps are three old plastic knives, so doing yourself in will have to wait. And there is always a bathroom in the warehouse, one that has seen no apparent janitorial services in years, other than a weekly dumping of the trash and the very occasional cursory floor mopping.
The Pallets are the pallets, row upon row of stacks of boxes, soaring to the ceiling. The Pallet areas are always dimly lit, brightened only by the flashing amber Safety Lights of passing forklifts, driven by guys on their way to get anything except the order you are looking for. This particular warehouse stored clean, unused, empty glass bottles, all in the same white boxes; so identification is made only by the six-digit number printed on them. It was dizzying in its monochromatic immensity.
The Office is always equally depressing, usually lined with fake-wood paneling, a Company Wall Calendar (two years out of date), a picture of the Company Softball Team from 1971 (Second Place!); the floor is covered in really dirty indoor-outdoor type carpeting that has suffered from years of the same lack of a cleaning schedule as the bathrooms.
As you enter, there is a counter you must dutifully stand behind, waiting for someone to notice you. The sound of the opening and closing of The Door To The Outside World alerts the nice ladies working there that, “Oh My God! Look! There is actually somebody here besides us!” They leap to their feet like there are poisonous snakes under their desks. Any break in their routine is welcome, and they are appropriately chatty.
There is a fine tradition in the Warehouse/Salesperson relationship of blaming each other for never doing things right. Much as a good waiter will always blame the kitchen for fuckups of his own creation and vice versa, warehouse people will always blame the salesmen in the field when things aren’t done to their liking and by the book. In my experience, though, it usually IS the Warehouse that knows more about the whats, wheres, whys, and hows of my order than the salespeople who took it.
So these ladies, being True To Their School, are shaking their heads and deriding my salesperson for not alerting them that I was coming, for screwing up the order, using the wrong form, and what-not. They get on the Walkie-Talkies and rattle off something like “Jorge, can you bring up 10 cases of Whisky Tango Juliet Four Niner Seven Three?” In a couple of minutes, I can see the flashing amber Safety Light of Jorge’s approaching forklift. Compared to the other orders rolling by, piled two or three pallets high, my little 10-case order looks a bit sad and pathetic. I’m almost embarrassed to have him help me load it into the back my Highlander, which looks equally sad and pathetic next to all the Eighteen Wheelers backed up to the various loading docks. But help he does, and soon I am on my way back to The Six-Eighty, ready to drive back under the same deluge of rain I negotiated on my way over. Lighting a smoke, I am silently thankful I never learned to drive a forklift and that I still might get home in time for a nap.