"For Once In My Lifetime…"

April 17, 2011

An entry in the “For Once, Everything Goes According To The Plan” category: we close at 10pm on Sunday nights (one half hour earlier), and tonight we got no 9:50 table of two star-crossed lovers that wanted to order one $8 appetizer and gaze into each others eyes for two and a half hours, until I wanted to stab them in said eyes with a salad fork. We got no solitary, scary dude sitting at the bar, staring at the TV until Sports Center was over. Our last table sat at 8:15pm, the bar emptied out at 10pm when the NBA game ended; and I beat the kitchen out the back door for the first time in over 3 months. George Peppard would’ve been proud..

"I love it when a plan falls together..."


"Night Sweats In Broad Daylight…"

April 4, 2011

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been contemplating making yet another career change, or if it was the spicy BBQ pork sammy for lunch today, but I have just woken from the Mother of All Waiter Nightmares.  Those of you that have had them will know what I’m talking about when I say they come from out of nowhere.  I know I’m still in the restaurant business and, granted, I have some waiters at work who ARE nightmares; but I haven’t worked a shift as a waiter in almost five years.  Waiter Nightmares?  After five years?

I’ve written about Waiter Nightmares before (click and read), and about how I had learned a kind of “Directed Dreaming” technique, ala “Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Warriors”; so I can usually pretty much just sit back and enjoy the comic relief that comes with the absolute futility in most Waiter Nightmares, somehow knowing that this stuff could never really happen. But today’s was scarily different.

This one started at Chops in Atlanta, except that it wasn’t Chops.  In my dream I knew it was Chops, but the dining room had absolutely no resemblance.  Some of the waiters were guys that I worked with at Chops, as was the Manager, and the room was that kind of Boys Club Steak Housey kind of place with button-tuck booths, men in suits, cocktails clinking, etc.  I am back to work there, and it’s my first night back.  I don’t think I’d gone through any re-training, I think they just threw me out there.  I do remember being strangely happy to be back to work there.  Most therapists at this point would say, “Maybe you should look at that…”

I had just arrived at work, and was saying hello to some of “the guys”.  Everyone is shaking my hand and welcoming me back when The Manager tells me I’m working solo (Chops was team service with a partner, although I had some living Nightmare nights there when somebody no-showed and I DID work solo) but I will have a smaller station, over by the bar.  No prob, it’s my first night back and I’m feeling pretty bulletproof.

So, I’ve got my waiter jacket on, and my little metal badge with a number on it; I’ve got my notepad, my Cross Pens, corkscrew, crumber and all that crap.  I’m feeling good, cocky, ready to take some tables.  I had found my station in the gigantic restaurant (they’re usually gigantic in my nightmares), four deuces and one four top all in a neat little cluster near the end of this horseshoe shaped bar, and it all seems pretty manageable; after all, I’ve worked here before and know the drill.   Then I notice that the Host is walking away from seating a single diner at one of my tables, a professional looking woman in a business suit with briefcase.  I know what you’re thinking:  what kind of useless Shoe Clerk am I, to be having a Waiter Nightmare over a SINGLE!!??

Anyway, I greet madame, and get her a cocktail, a Manhattan or something I think.  She orders:  Spinach Salad to be followed by an 8oz. Filet, medium.  I don’t remeber ordering the salad, but after a couple of minutes I notice it’s on the table and, yikes, she’s almost done with it and I haven’t fired her steak yet.

I’m mildly panicked about the fire time on her Filet but, hey, it’s Chops.  They have about a billion 8oz. filets in the broiler at any one time on busy nights, and maybe I can use my one “New Guy Get Out Of Jail Free Card” to get them to rob another table so Milady won’t have too long of a wait.  But first I have to get to the POS and fire her order before I can go throw myself on the mercy (Ha!) of the Sous Chef.  And, as they say in the Circus, this is where the fun begins…

My cockiness and confidence is beginning to waver a little as I realize I don’t know where the POS is.  I walk out of the bar, into another gigantic dining room that is almost completely empty, and over against one wall is a POS touchscreen about the size of a 52″ plasma TV.  I make my way over to it and, of course, it’s a system I’ve never seen or used before.  I manage to log in, find a screen that looks like a table map, and double tap the icon for my single diner’s table (#63).  But instead of neat rows of buttons, or screens that have actual menu items, the screen looks more like a website; one of those really hard to read websites that was designed by some genius who thought red letters on a black background would be a good idea.  Almost all of the screen is taken up by pictures and advertisements for cars and other stuff.  Way down at the bottom are lines of uber-tiny type, hyperlinks to click on for menu stuff; but the type is the REALLY tiny stuff you get at the bottom of a company’s website where they put stuff like “Privacy Notice.  Site Map.  Contact Us.  Careers.”  And it’s a touchscreen, so every time I try to double tap a tiny link I get the wrong one, and some other gigantic window opens with more pictures and ads.

Now I’m really starting to freak because I know that spinach salad has been cleared and my single is sitting there, tapping her fingers, waiting for that Filet, and wondering where the hell her idiot waiter has gotten to.  In my panic state, and willing to try anything I can think of to navigate this behemoth screen, I decide that there’s not enough light in the room to see it properly, so I take it down off the wall and carry it over to another corner where some sconces are beaming spotlights down on the carpet, creating circles of light in the murky room.  Strangely, there are no wires; and, strangely, this doesn’t even factor into my thinking as I pick up this unusually light, strangely wireless, and utterly useless Piece Of Shit.  Under the glow of the spotlights on the other side of the room the screen is no more readable than it had been on the wall.  And I still haven’t fired her steak.  And, even with the panic really starting to set in, I’m thinking, “Shit, all these steaks are ala carte.  I didn’t ask her about sides!”  I figure I’ll deal with that after I get this DAMN STEAK FIRED!

Still tapping at links, still getting the wrong screens, I try turning the screen around, rotating it, thinking if I can get a closer look at these damn tiny hyperlinks, I would actually be able to read them.  I’m trying to hold it out in front of me, like some massive artist’s sketch pad, and the screen is rotating with the movements, like on my wife’s Droid; so every time I turn it to make the links closer, the screen changes and they move back to where they were before.  Now I’m totally sweating, full blown dread is setting, yet all Mr. Sensitve To The Needs Of Others here, can think about is “I wonder if someone else needs to use this terminal…”  This turns out to be an non-issue, as I look back across the room to see that the screen I have taken down has been replaced by an even LARGER one, about the size of a small billboard, a veritable  JumboTron of a POS.  In my panic I’m willing to try just about anything to get this one stupid, stinking steak fired, and I consider going over to the giant screen, thinking the type must surely be larger on that one, right?  Just as I’m putting my screen down I see the link for “Fire” at the bottom and hit it.  I set the screen down on the floor, and start sprinting back to my station.

As I approach my tables, I am mildly relieved to see that no one else has been seated in my section during my adventure in the Gigantic Room with the Gigantic POS Screen.  The only catch is that my station is now somehow outside, and it’s starting to rain.  Guests at other tables are being moved inside by their waiters, but my single is standing up and looking around.  She starts picking up all her stuff, briefcase, purse, and is grabbing the silverware and napkin off the table and walking off toward the inside area.  I catch her and relieve her of her burdens, and tell her I will usher her into one of my “Inside Tables”.  I don’t know why or how I knew I actually had inside tables, but I did.  Except I don’t know the table numbers, so I don’t know if I’m seating her at one of my tables or someone else’s.  It doesn’t seem to matter, and I’ve still got to get to the kitchen to tell them to hurry that 8oz. Filet which, despite my being out of my station for what seemed like an eternity, has not arrived.  And shit!  What about those side dishes?  I forgot to ask her.

I get my single diner situated at an inside table in a dining room that is now a gigantic white event tent, like they set up at wine auctions.  I know I still have to get to the kitchen, but I can’t stop myself from helping the Manager.  He’s trying desperately to get tables set up for all the people coming in from the rain.  The tables are all 72″ banquet rounds, with one flipped upside down on top of another, so I take my place on one side of the two tables to help him flip the inverted one off.  I’m waiting for him to flip the legs up and lock them into place when I notice a stack of 6 B&B plates sitting on table we are about to flip over.  The Manager has not seen the plates, has locked the legs on his side into place and flips the unusually light table off the other one, sending the stack of B&B’s flying.  Oddly, they all stay together in one stack and fly out onto a road that is outside an open flap of this massive circus tent of a dining room.  I’m waiting for the sickening crash of shattering china, but instead hear a metallic clang; and I realize the plates must have been sitting inside of one of those metal plate covers.  Huh.  Didn’t see that one coming.

Anyway, I still need to get to the kitchen, get that Filet on the fly, and then get back to my section where I still didn’t know what the fuck the table numbers are.  Shit!  And I need to ask her about those sides!  I contemplate just ordering her a baked potato.  I mean everybody likes those, right?  But that would entail a return to the JumboTron POS again.  It’s at this point I see a guy that I used to work with about 10 years ago at another restaurant, who is apparently now working here.  Nothing about this strikes me as the least bit strange, and I stop him to say hi; but he doesn’t know me from Adam.  He does know enough to remind me I’m covering his lunch shift tomorrow, though.   Even though I haven’t been back to check on my one and only guest, I somehow know with all certainty that 8oz. Filet is NOT on the table yet, and I am a total loser.  This is when I wake up to my cell phone buzzing on the nightstand and thank God for text messages!


"Sunday, Bloody Sunday…"

January 26, 2011

Well, hello.  It’s been a while; how’ve y’all been?  Me?  Oh, fine, just fine.  Why yes, I have been working a lot…

After coming to the realization (duh!) that I make my own schedule, and that I really need to take two entire days off each week, my work routine has settled down a bit.  I still have split days off as the restaurant is closed on Mondays, and the other manager has a commitment that makes Tuesdays off impossible for me; but I’ve kind of gotten used to it.  It’s almost like a 3-day weekend every week, if you don’t count the 10 hours of work right smack in the middle of it.  Such a rude interruption…

Really, though, the only aspect of my job that I even mildly dislike is the schedule;  and that only because it involves working Sundays.  No, not the dreaded brunch as I would have opened an artery long ago if Sunday Brunch were required.  Just like Jeff Golblum’s line in Jurassic Park, that “life finds a way…”, brunch also finds a way, every week, to suck.  We are open for brunch and dinner on Sundays, the only day we open the doors during daylight hours; but my “keyholder” manager is there on Sunday mornings, and God bless her for it.   That, and HBO On Demand are the only things that make working on Sundays tolerable, barely.   I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the bosses at my two previous jobs for giving me almost four years of Sunday-free work schedules.  As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Sundays, and the people who dine out on the 7th Day, are a different breed of cat altogether.  You see people out to dinner on Sunday nights that you never, ever see any other night of the week.  They say in the Bible that God rested on the 7th day, and the leper colony we get in each Sunday is your proof.  My theory is that all the people who dine on Sunday nights crawled out of the primordial ooze when God took His one day off because He, too, just couldn’t deal.  God was at home, in His sweats and wife-beater with His feet up and Sports Center on the tube when these people snuck their way into the evolutionary cycle.

And just to add salt to the gaping wound of working Sunday nights, and simultaneously drive a dagger into the heart of our check average, we offer a three-course “supper” for $20.  This is just to make sure that we not only get the weirdos, but also the cheap weirdos.  We have people who ask if they can split the $20 meal.  Really?  Look, if you don’t have enough money to eat out, just stay home…

Last Sunday night was a classic.  Knowing the check average is always down, and often cover counts as well, I was sympathetic to my staff’s need to make a little coin even on Sundays; so I went with a lean crew.  Three waiters, one bartender, one food runner, one hostess and I did over 120 people; and all of them came in at once.  The parties of 8 and 9 started coming in around 7:15, so we were all sufficiently lulled into complacency by then.  And they kept coming through the door, like extras from The Walking Dead.  We have an alarm system that makes a “beep-beep” in the back kitchen when the front door opens and, as I am back there madly buffing glassware and silver to keep us afloat, it was going off to the beat of Funkytown.  Let me take you down, beep-buh-beep, to Funkytown, beep-buh-beep… as more and more piled in.

In the midst of all this fun and good times, my bartender decided now would be a grand time to cut his hand, taking me off the floor and him out of a very busy bar while I triaged his wound.  I found our sparsely stocked First Aid Kit, (and someone please tell me why it is that restaurant First Aid Kits are either stocked to the hilt with eye cups, defibrillators, and enough stuff to treat the victims of the Haiti earthquake, or they have just three band-aids and some dull scissors?) and got his hand wrapped; but the bleeding just wouldn’t stop and the kitchen had run out of latex gloves.  Perfect.  Now wouldn’t this be an excellent time for the Health Department to stop in?  I got on my cell, called in a “Stunt Bartender” who, thankfully, was both nearby and willing to come in: go figure.  She arrived about 20 minutes later and jumped into the fray.

I had just barely hung up the phone when my hostess, who was still doing restroom checks despite being drafted into service running food and bussing tables, informed me that the toilet in the Men’s Room had backed up.  Dealing with the shitty situation in the bathroom brought new meaning to the term “Manager’s Log”.

As I was pushing the mop bucket from the restroom back into the scullery, I noticed that there was no one on the Sautee Station in the kitchen.  The sous-chef informed me that he’d had to send one of the cooks home because he had been caught drinking the cooking wine in the back, and was drunk.  Perfect.  He told me this as I was helping one of my weeded servers process the nine separate checks from a party of really snotty Nelly Queens who had decided they needed to leave, now.  All I needed was a good, old-fashioned computer crash to really make my night complete.

So then, another server comes up to tell me that the four-top on 72 wants to “speak to The Manager.”  All restaurant mangers know that these are words that are generally never followed by anything good; and a big Shit Sandwich is most likely coming your way.  As a manager, I like to remain in the background, offering support to the staff.  I am like an Offensive Lineman in the NFL.  The only time my number is called out over the PA system is when something bad has happened; but instead of “Holding, number 72, offense…” and the touchdown is called back, it’s “Overcooked Veal Chop, table 72…”

The tidal wave of business is beginning to withdraw from the beach, and the crew is starting to pick through the rubble, straightening out the beach chairs and umbrellas; so I cinch up my tie, shoot my cuffs, and head on over to 72.  The gent at Position 3 who, as I was seating them, had made an off-color joke about the “diverse” crew and the “war zone” of the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant, had appointed himself spokesperson. They are four very old, very Jewish people.  Oy.

“Lizzen, I just vant to tell you some-zing, here…”

Okay, here we go.  Open wide for the Shitburger, and make it a double.

“Our soiver, fen-tehs-tic!  And the Duck, to die for.  We loved it all.  Job vell done…”

I was speechless, as an ear-to-ear, decidedly non-shit eating grin had commandeered my face.  A perfectly mashugana end to Sunday, Bloody Sunday…


"Night of The Living Applicants…"

November 17, 2010

I have noticed a tendency for my personal financial situation to closely parallel that of the rest of the country.  Whenever those “leading economists” make their statements about job loss or stock markets dropping, my income tends to fluctuate in kind.  Could be that, like many people, I tend to be frugal when times are tight, and then spend like a sailor when they get better.  Maybe I’m just more average than I like to admit and get easily swept up in economic waves.

But most of the time, I am slightly ahead of the curve and my personal finances tend to improve, with the rest of the country following shortly thereafter.  However, I am rarely, if ever, mentioned by those “leading economists” as one of their  “leading economic indicators”; but they’d have a much better grasp on the situation if I were.  “Leading economists are pointing to an increase in the GNP, a rise in housing starts, and Naptive Napkin’s newly-fattened checking account as signs of the beginning of a turnaround…”

And so it is that this month will truly be the beginning of the end for any recession, depression, or other blips on the radar of the country’s financial woes, as I finally have a job.  One hundred forty seven days of job searching, with almost as many interviews, has yielded results.  I found The One I’d been looking for and am planning to hold onto it like Grim Death.

Life is not without its little ironies, and my new position is certainly not lacking in that department:  after ending my longest stint on the unemployment role in my 40-plus years of working life, I am now in a hiring role. I inherited a somewhat understaffed restaurant crew, so I am now on the flip side of Craig’s List.  The downturn in the economy has produced a “seller’s market” for employers.  That, coupled with a somewhat poorly worded ad has flooded the Inbox on our Craig’s List account with an alarmingly large volume of applicants.  Every time I log on to see what the chum in the water has stirred up, there are two dozen or so more emails.  It’s like I’m the guy barricaded inside his house in Night of The Living Dead, with hordes of applicants scratching and clawing at my doors and windows. The Zombies have put on a tie, shuffled over to their computers and hit the Send button.

The unintentional humor in resumes is inescapable.  You’ve really got to wonder if these people seriously read these things before sending them.   Here’s a bit of advice from a guy who, until recently, was out there gnawing on the flesh of prospective employers with the rest of you: spell check, use the Shift button at the beginning of a sentence, and use the punctuation keys for something more than making a Smiley Face.

Here is an actual response I got.  Really.  This came in an email, with the caption:  “Where do I send my resume?”

She could've at least listed her relevant experience in the form of a Tramp Stamp...

A piece of another one, where using the pre-formatted Resume Wizard was a good start, but follow through and proof reading was a little lacking:

“Walter’s Clothing    01/2006 – 05/2006
Store Clerk   address 66 Decatur St.
Stock and inventory
Customer service
Cleaning and closing the store

Aramark    08/2006 – 09/2006
Cleaner
Trash detail
Cleaning  Aircrafts
Assisting the Supervisor

Company Name    Dates of Employment
Job Title
Responsibilities
Responsiblities
Responsibilities

After several days of sneaking silently out to look at the messages in our Inbox, being careful not to stir up the Geeks and Freaks lurking there, I now have a new clarity on why it took me so long to get hired.  I was literally lost in the shuffle. I should’ve been sending pictures of me in my Tidy Whiteys.

Now on the receiving end, I am buried in the corpses of the under-qualified and the just plain silly, trying to find the living amongst the living-dead, and I need to cut to the chase.  Skimming quickly through the cover letter, I open these people’s attachments, scroll down to the “Experience” section of the resume, and if they have misspelled “restaurant” or have listed five jobs with four month’s tenure each, they are toast.   Next!

So, a lesson for all of you still out there in Job-Seeker Zombieland:  there’s about a 30-second window of opportunity for you to make an impression with a resume.  At least try to make is a good one.

"We-are-self-start-ing-people-per-sons-who-think-out-side-the-box..."


"Be All You Can Be, Even If You're Not…"

September 9, 2010

I’ve been using “Writer’s Block” as an excuse for not posting anything these past few days, but I just haven’t felt like I’ve had any material.  My blog topics always hover in or around food, wine and the restaurant business; and while I have certainly had no shortage of food (as my scale can attest) or drink, I haven’t been “in” the restaurant business for over three months now.  Ninety-eighty days and counting, that I’ve been an unwilling part of our country’s unemployment statistics.  I guess I’d have to reduce that total by 6 if I was to count the week-long tryout up in New England with a restaurant group looking to open an outpost here in Atlanta.  I mean, they did pay me, as well as cover all my expenses.

It’s not that I haven’t been looking, or even had an offer or two.  If you counted them all up (which I have, since I’ve had the time) I’ve been on 22 interviews for 11 different positions.   I hope I’m not putting the curse on things by saying so (like I do by washing the car to make it rain), but I may be nearing the end of my long drought.  I have had five interviews now with a very high-quality company that’s in an expansion mode, even in this economy.   It is run by real pros that have their act together, and they can actually afford me.  This could be The One that could actually turns into a bona fide career move.  I’ll know more after an excursion up North again (different state this time) to meet the big bosses.  My fingers are almost disjointed, they are crossed so tight.

This last one has so far included three hour-long phone conversations, as well as two in-person meetings.  They also had me go undercover to their place here in town and have dinner.  All they asked was that I write up a synopsis of my experience and submit it, along with a receipt, and they’d take care of everything.  Well, the dining experience was less than stellar, which is good news for me as they obviously need some help there; but bad news for them as things are a tad bit worse than they had thought.

After over 25 years in “the biz”, no matter where I dine I can’t help but notice service faux pas and over analyze the food and beverage.   I always notice the busboy that puts his elbow in my face when clearing, or the server that needs to stand closer to his razor and maybe go out and buy a steam iron.  Friends that dine with me know that if I suddenly drop out of the dinner table conversation and start looking around, I’m “seeing” the place through the restaurant version of what John Madden called “Linebacker Eyes”:  always on the lookout for a problem, taking everything in, always seeing the big picture.  My wife or our friends will stop in mid-sentence, and say stuff like “Uh-oh, what’s wrong?” or “Oh no, he’s not happy…” I can’t help myself. I turn into Dexter, and my Dark Passenger just takes over, until all I can see are the cobwebs in the corners and the complete lack of ice in that Iced Tea refill; and it’s not even my Iced Tea!  It can be truly maddening.

So, it was no real struggle to commit my insights on this covert dinner to paper (keyboard), and my review was no less than five pages and 2500 words.  I told the whole truth and nothing but, God help me, hoping that doing so wouldn’t kick me out of the running.  I mean, don’t ask if you don’t want to know, right?  Well, shit-howdy if the exact opposite didn’t happen.   I submitted the receipt and my laundry list of their defects and screw-ups, along with just enough insights and suggestions on how to correct some of them.  I held back on the rest.  You don’t get to drink this milk until you buy the cow, baby.  The next day, I got a call back to meet with the Director of Operations, in person this time.  When he arrived for the interview, he pulled out a hard copy of my review notes and went through it point by point.  He had shared it with the other Mucky-Mucks, and they loved it.  He even commented very favorably on my writing skills.

I’ve always had a nagging bit of a self-esteem problem when it comes to job hunting, especially when it involves a step up the ladder.  No matter how many successes I can count in my professional life, and there have been many, whenever I am interviewing and trying to sell myself to prospective employers, I always seem to mentally fall back to the Groucho Marx philosophy of “I will belong to no club that would have me as a member.” Even though I’ve always gotten every job I’ve ever really wanted, I find myself wondering why the hell would someone hire me to run a business.  Then I look at people who have positions and careers I want to have (and could easily do), compare their skills and experience to mine, and wonder who in the hell it was that they had to blow to get their jobs.

I can’t speak to “real job” situations (outside of the hospitality and restaurant industry), but looking for work and interviewing in my business is all smoke and mirrors.  You are never closer to perfection than when you are filling out a job application.  Most restaurant mangers know that, with all the drunks, dope fiends, and sex addicts in line for a job in our industry, going strictly by the resume can get you in a heap of trouble.  Anyone can write, or pay someone else to write, a resume that will make them look like Mother Theresa. No matter how many times they got drunk, stole, or sexually harassed an employee, and got their ass fired, they can still manage to look good on paper.  And I can’t believe that HR people are surprised when they call references and get nothing but glowing reviews; you’d have to be a moron to put anyone on your references that wouldn’t recommend you as Citizen of The Year or want you to marry their daughter.  The best and surest method in our business is to bring someone in for a tryout.

Since most tryouts are not paid, and prospective employees are not covered by Worker’s Comp if they get injured, having people tryout is not in the strictest sense, legal. For that reason, and the fact that they’ve probably had a labor lawsuit or two to lighten their pockets, corporations mostly eschew the tryout.  Not being able to take advantage of this much more accurate barometer of someone’s abilities, corporate restaurant companies rely heavily on their resumes, interviews, pumped-up references, and the recommendations of their favorite Resume Pimp, the recruiter.  And so they may end up hiring someone who looked good on paper; but then they wake up the next day with their picture-perfect first date lying next to them under the covers, Prom Dress thrown over the nightstand, with hair looking like Albert Einstein and make-up that looks like a tropical fish with a hangover.

This is where my crisis of confidence can get a little confusing, and starts to do a sort of “Studio Fade”.  At first glance, seeing the title of Chief Operating Officer after a name on a business card can be intimidating.   But I buoy my confidence with the idea that this person may have ever only done one or two impressive things in their entire professional lives to get that acronym of C.O.O.; and one of them may have been writing a resume.  I can tell myself that, in all probability, the only real difference between them and me is the fact that they have the job and I don’t.

So my ability with words to clean and gut a restaurant like it was a large trout, may end up separating the wool (me) from the chaff (the rest of the field), and actually land me the job.  That, and the fact that I’ve got more semi-colons and animal analogies at my disposal.  Shit, John Starks made an NBA career off of one dunk over Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a feat he never came close to repeating; so I am really OK with getting a job I really want, just because I wrote an essay.


"Howard and Randy"

August 24, 2010

We were driving home from the Mall yesterday, listening to the local “Classic Rock” channel on the radio which, given my age, is a euphemism for the “Oldies” station. “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring, circa 1982, comes on; and I was reminded of Howard and Randy.

Randy was an old restaurant warhorse, like myself, with whom I worked at the now-defunct St. George Restaurant in St. Helena. He was a server. I was Sous-Chef. We were both dedicated to upholding the long-standing dynamic of Kitchen vs. Dining Room; and, as required by tradition, we hated each other’s guts. The St. George, I can now admit, was no one’s ideal of a fine-dining Mecca; but I was in my first role as an official, fairly competent if somewhat slightly insecure, Sous. And as such I felt I had to wage war daily with what Chef Masa at Auberge had referred to as “The Evil Spirits”: Waiters.

Randy was fearlessly gay; I was a somewhat fearful, small-town breeder. Randy was a very intelligent, very well-read and well-spoken guy who could gut you like a fish with his comments. He was, in the parlance, a bitch. He took serious delight in baiting me with stuff like coming into the kitchen and, as he was grabbing the bottles of A-1 and Heinz 57 at the service station, says something like “The guy on Table 32 REALLY likes his steak. Ha-ha-ha-ha….”

We were at each others throats constantly; at work, anyway. After service, the whole crew hung out together, laughed, drank, and did whatever chemical compounds came our way; and the next day, just like the Sheepdog and the Coyote in the old Warner Brother’s cartoons, Randy and I would punch the clock and be back at it.

Randy also worked part-time bartending at the local Industry Bar in St. Helena, Pancho y Panchita’s Mexican Restaurant. Pancho’s, as it was known, was an intolerably bad Mexican restaurant by day; by night it was an equally intolerable Dive Bar. But, as it had one of the precious few hard-liquor licenses in St. Helena, it was the place. And it had the bonus of an owner who could provide us with the aforementioned chemical compounds. These were generally purchased and ingested in the kitchen at Pancho’s, as the cooks had gone home hours earlier. If you’d ever eaten the food there you would readily agree this was the best possible use for the facility. The food was something to definitely avoid; the employees sent out for pizza rather than eat there for free.

But, it was the after-work hangout for the kitchen, dining room, and management staff of every UpValley restaurant. If the tourists we all waited on and cooked for nightly asked about where to go for a drink after dinner, it was a Cardinal Sin for us restaurant folk to tell them about Pancho’s (or The Corner Bar in Rutherford). Those places were ours alone, and were not to be shared with anyone who wasn’t one of us.

At Pancho’s, it was the bartender’s (Randy’s) prerogative as to the musical selections that were to be played on the World’s Most Powerful Stereo System; and Randy had a massive music collection he would bring in. And so it came to be that, in 1982 along with stuff from U-2, INXS, and Talking Heads, “Twilight Zone” was one of the most-played songs there. It was that song that was playing one night when a patron, a non-local, non-restaurant guy who had somehow managed to find his way to Pancho’s, told Randy to “Turn that shit down…”

Randy, of course, responded as only he could. “Sure,” he says and, laughing quietly to himself, sashays out from behind the bar, over to the closet where the sound system lived. Looking back over his shoulder directly at the interloper, cranks the grapefruit-sized volume knob on the amp a quarter turn to the right. The volume was debilitating, and we loved it. It was the best in late-night entertainment to watch Randy be Randy.   Whenever I hear that song, I will always think of Randy working the bar, wearing his perfectly ironed satin bowling shirt, and his chrome “Steel Schnapps” hardhat, flipping the tourists the musical bird.

Randy’s running partner for years, was Howard. Howard was the Maitre’D at the St. George in those days, and remains a local legend. A gravelly-voiced queen from Georgia, at the door he had no equal. He could charm the pants off even the touchiest and most demanding of guests. In the days before Open Table’s data-based “Cheat Sheet”, Howard could remember everyone even if he hadn’t seen them in years. With the volume of his daily weed regimen, he quite understandably might not remember everyone’s names every time; but he would remember something about them from the last time. Something like, “How’s that cute little dawg of yours…” or “Still drivin’ that big Jew Canoe, bay-buh?” Or he would simply drawl out a “Hi BUH-ddy!” or a “Hey BAY-beh!” and then fake it until the name came to him. Anyone who came through that door was made to feel like they had just found a long-lost friend’s party. The guy smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and would do just about any drug put in front of him, and we all loved working with him.

Howard had such thick, sincere, grizzled Southern Charm, that he could say anything to anyone, and they would think it was a compliment. One night there was a party of four who had been waiting about a half-hour to be seated for their reservation. Howard approached them at the bar, told them their table would be ready in just a few more minutes. An indignant woman in the group said “Well, I should hope so. I can walk into any restaurant on Manhattan and get seated instantly…”

Howard responds with, “Well it must be because you’re such a bitch…” and bursts into an uproarious, gravelly laugh, and the rest of the group joined in. He was apparently on target with that one. The bitchy woman, looking slightly confused, chuckled nervously.

When they are finally seated at their table, Howard approaches with a bottle of a cheap Italian white to placate them. He presents it and says, more than a little sarcastically,

“We’d like you to have this for your extraordinary patience.”

The bitchy woman looks at Howard, then looks at the bottle, and replies, “What’s this? Is it any good?”

Howard tells her, “Bay-buh, it’s FREE!” and walks off. The Stuff of Legends.

Howard Lane: The Man, The Myth, The Legend...

Howard ate a New York steak every night he worked when I was at The St. George. One night, he’s cutting into his steak, standing as he always did at the service station in the kitchen, all the better to leer at the young boys on the crew. Randy is standing there with him, mooching some, and an innocent, young, male busser asks them,

“Can I have a bite of that?”

Howard’s checking the kid out from behind, looking him up and down; and Randy says,

“Play your cards right and you can have the whole thing…”

Or when the cocktail waitress that worked on Friday and Saturday nights would be standing in the kitchen waiting for appetizers, wearing whatever short, slutty dress she had selected for the evening, Randy reaches into the salad station, grabs an anchovy filét, and drops it between her feet; and Howard says, “Oh, bay-buh, look what just fell outta your poonie…”

The both of them are gone now, Howard passing away long after anyone who ever knew him thought he would, and Randy passing from a sudden illness a few years earlier. They’re in “The Twilight Zone” now, probably smoking doobs, drinking Coors, and cranking the tunes way too loud for the tourists. Fellas, this one’s for you…


"Red Carpet For A Green Can…"

August 4, 2010

I’ve been busy, alright?  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Just got back from a week up North in New England, working for a restaurant group that’s about to open an outpost here in Atlanta.  They flew me up there and had me in as a Celebrity Guest Manager for a week at two of their restaurants.  Their Director of Operations said we needed to date a little before moving in together in Atlanta.

It was a little different running a place with much higher cover counts, lower check averages, and a much more causal style of dining than I was used to in my most recent jobs.   But after running some very serious dining rooms, running a place where you have to drop a check because your waiter is Salsa dancing with the guests is kind of refreshing.  Great food; needless to say, a lively atmosphere, and excellent wine and beverage programs.  A fun bunch of people and a very competent and well run company.  Can you tell I’m sucking up in hopeful anticipation of the GM job at the new place?

So I arrived back home on Monday night to the nice surprise of my wife and daughter meeting me at the gate.  It was so great to see their happy faces in the crowd, until they told me about the failure of the AC unit at the house (again) on the brink of what is supposed to be the hottest week of an already very hot summer.  Got home to a house that was like a sauna; but as the old saying goes, “Home is where the humidity is…”

My next “surprise” was not really a surprise at all: a bill waiting for me from AT&T.  Many of you might already have read about my trials and tribulations involving our relocation to Atlanta and the subsequent struggles with establishing utility service.  Short version is that we tried to go with AT&T, decided to switch to Comcast for our phone, internet, and TV, and canceled AT&T back in June.  Three phone calls and two bills later we were finally credited for charges on a service that was never connected, installed, and for equipment we returned having never removed from the box.  Each time we got a bill, I had to call and explain the whole situation to people in two different departments, one for internet and one for home phone; I had to wait on hold in two different cues listening to two different yet equally cheesy elevator musak recordings.  I had to listen to them each ask me how they could make me a “very satisfied AT&T  customer?”  Well, you’ve fucked up so bad that you can’t make me either satisfied or a customer.  At this point, you couldn’t get me to use an AT&T payphone if my house was on fire.

It had really become comical after the string of encounters I’d had over the last few weeks, and the continuing ineptitude of every person I spoke with, all of whom had promised me that my account had been credited and there would be no more nonsense.  And then I’d get another bill in the mail with no credit on the account and more charges for a phone that had never been used and an internet connection I don’t have.  The truly maddening, yet humorous thing here is that each time I explained the situation to a new person who promised to take care of my problem, they were increasingly incensed and apologetic at the incompetence of the one previous, yet they proceeded to fuck things up even worse than the last guy.  This last woman told me I would receive one final bill on the 25th of this month that she promised would show a zero balance and effectively end the romance.  I just know that, come the 27th or so, I will receive that bill, and there will be new charges, probably billing me for the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986 and for plugging the spill in The Gulf of Mexico.

And lastly, on a note of not-so-small-triumph over mindless bureaucracies, we finally received our garbage can this past week.  While this may not send you into rapturous celebration as it did us, it is still a big deal.  We have been in our house since mid-June and have gone back and forth between smuggling our bags of garbage into our neighbor’s cans after nightfall, and putting the tied-up bags of trash at the curb where they needed to be vigilantly guarded from marauding animals lest they be torn open in pursuit of tasty rib bones and fish skin from our dinners that week.  I can now retire my ski mask and gloves, as the night missions of sneaking into other driveways on the block are now behind me.  The three of us were debating who would get the great honor of rolling our shiny new green bin out to the curb in the morning, probably having to run the gauntlet of paparazzi along the Red Carpet asking us “How does it feel to finally get your can?” or “Were you surprised at how long it took?”

Actually, I was so used to depending on the tender mercies of our neighbors that I forgot to even roll the damn thing out until I was coming back from walking the dog and saw the truck coming up the street.  Maya and I raced them home, I rolled the can out past Joan Rivers sticking a mike in my face and asking “Who are you wearing?” to get it to the curb just before they arrived at the house.  It was a madhouse, and the scene looked something like this:

Can't wait to see who'll show up for Recyling Day...