Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hip Hop at The Supper Club Part 2

The night proceeded in a normal fashion with big band music and gourmet food for New York's upper crust and around ten PM we had our final seating. As promised I organized the busboys to begin stripping the dining room of tables and chairs as they were vacated so by 11:30 the room was pretty empty. It was about that time that, as I was cashing out the last of the waiters at the service bar, that Tito, the bar back, approached me.
"J.R.," he said, tooling up to me as I stuffed a fist full of green backs into the register, "you better take a look outside, bro."
I followed him to the service stairs just a few short steps from the bar where the staff congregated to smoke, and cracked the side door onto 47th street. There was a line snaking back towards Eighth Avenue as far as the eye could see of people waiting to get into the club. "Holy shit, we're going to be busy!" I said.
Tito gave me a funny look, "And?" he asked raising an eyebrow, "What else?"
I focused a minute longer on the crowd. It was composed of hip hop 'Gangstas'. I drew in a deep breath, we weren't ready for this and at that very moment a group in the crowd noticed us, noticing them, and all at once executed a mad rush at the big, metal service door. We only managed to get it slammed shut just in time and then the banging started as if all the demons in hell were crashing at the door.
"What are we gonna do, bro?" Tito demanded as a couple of waiters coming off duty strolled down from the upstairs kitchen, their bow ties loose, their white dinner jackets un-buttoned.
"What's all that banging?" one of them asked, reaching out to the crash bar to pop open the door.
I grabbed his hand just in time. "Do not do that!" I ordered through clenched teeth.
"Stay here," I ordered Tito, "and make sure no one opens that door!" Then I stepped back into the club where the staff scrambled madly to de-construct the posh venue down to its bones. Scanning above the heads of the crowd, I caught sight of Joe, our erstwhile floor manager. He was standing there in his wool suit and round glasses sucking up to some departing silver fox in a Brooks Brothers blazer.
I made a bee line towards him across the crowded floor, "Joe," I started.
But he whipped around and cut me off, "Not now." He hissed through clenched teeth, and then swung back to continue his chat, something about the history of the theater the club was in. I realized anything else would be pointless so I waited the full five minutes while he continued his desultory conversation. What made it worse was that I could see two out of my three bars from where I stood, the staff, in the absence of direction, getting nothing done while I knew we had to prepare for war.
Finally his conversation with the departing guest concluded, he turned to me, an irritated look on his face, "Couldn't you see I was talking to someone, J.R.?"
"Right. Sorry. Have you looked outside, Joe?"
"No." He replied and made to move off.
I put my hand on his arm, "I need your approval to pull the glassware off the bars….we need to use plastic tonight."
"No." He replied as he walked quickly away from me. "We're using glass, just like we do every night."
"Look outside and then tell me how you feel." I called to his retreating back.
I found Tito where I'd left him, guarding the side door. "Tito, take off the dinner jacket, we're working in T-shirts tonight. I'm going to start getting the glassware off the bar, why don't you go start bringing plastic cups to the bars. And if you see Big Mark (our head bouncer) ask him if we can have a radio on each bar in case there's trouble." Tito sped off and I called out to one of the other three bartenders working with me on the main bar. "Ronnie, lock all the bottled beer up into one of the coolers, we're not selling anything but tap in plastic cups tonight."
Suddenly Joe was there peering over the bar at me. "J.R.," he said, and he had a ring of keys in his hand, "Take this, you're in charge tonight."
I stared at him.
He stared back, and then he dropped the keys on the counter. "I have a family emergency," he reiterated, "I have to go." Then he turned on his heels and was gone.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hip Hop at the Supper Club Part 1

It was back in the early 90's and I was working at Supper Club on West 47th in Manhattan's Theater District. It was a good gig, pleasant, there was a 10 piece Big Band on stage and in between sets they would roll videos of 30's and 40's music, kind of MTV for the nostalgic and the geriatric. As for me, I was in a great spot, working on the main bar five nights a week, wearing a white dinner jacket and bow tie, shaking the martinis, flirting with the waitresses and being well paid for my trouble. Of course there was trouble in paradise, and a lot I didn't know; like the club was ridiculously expensive to run, an outdated and untenable business model which the owners had not foreseen and at first did not acknowledge.  Instead they went through manager after manager, blaming each one in turn for the financial shortcomings of the club. And then one day they hired a tall, thin, Swedish hipster named Rick and with him a bunch of downtown club guys. At first I couldn't figure it out because for the initial week, after an inaugural visit, we didn't see the new GM at all. His boys did hang around but they didn't interfere with any of the operations or even mix with any of the staff, instead they left the day to day operations to the manager Joe, who had always handled them, and they kept to the office, looking fabulous and talking on the phones.
I showed for work on the first Friday of the week that the Swede took control of the club. I picked out a white dinner jacket that would fit me and looked up Joe, the floor manager, to get my briefing for the night.
"Well, J.R.," he said, pushing his horn rimmed glasses further up the bridge of his long nose, "We've got a party of forty at 8pm. They're going straight to the tables but we need to set aside a case of Grigich Hills to pour for their dinner and then there's a party of thirty at 8:30 and they have a cocktail hour. It's open bar, but only up to premium, I don't want any one drinking the fucking Louis 13th or those expensive fucking grappas."   Joe, who could be an arrogant prick, then turned his back on me to indicate that the interview was over so I turned to go, but then he called me back in the absent minded way of one who has forgotten something, "Oh and J.R., I almost forgot, can you get the bus boys organized for me around 11pm, we're going to flip the whole place over into a party room at mid-night, we're going to have a DJ and we need to get the tables and chairs out. You don't mind working late do you J.R.?"
Well I didn't, it all sounded like extra money to me so I responded cheerfully, "Any love is good love man. Who's the party for?"
"Well it's not going to be a party exactly, J.R., more like an event, cash bar. You've heard of Russell Simmons or Funk Master Flex?"
Well I hadn't, so I shrugged.
He shrugged back, "Neither have I. Well, that's it." He concluded and turned away.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Visit

    When my son was just two years old my wife and I came to a decision that New York City was too tough of a place to raise a family so we bought a contract on a pre-construction house in Miami and headed south for the land of eternal summer. I was a GM in an upscale place in Manhattan at the time and didn't think I'd have much trouble setting myself up in a good job in South Florida, but I was wrong. The restaurant culture outside of New York is different from any place else and I wasn't connected there the way I was back home so it took me some time to find a job, especially in light of the fact that I was looking during the economic down turn immediately following 911. In fact it took six months to find anything and when I did, it was as an assistant manager for a chain restaurant. At first I was miserable and full of self pity, all I could think of was "How the Mighty Have Fallen", but I gradually got used to it. I mean I had to eat, and I had to pay the mortgage and the GM I worked for, Anthony, was a good guy, hard working and competent, about my age and with a young kid in my son's age group. Our wives got along too and we became friends, and that more than anything else, is why it hit me so hard when the job caught up with him.
    There's this concept they have in chain restaurants which at the time was foreign to me, it's called a "visit". For anyone in the industry slaving away 60-70 hours a week, missing weekends and holidays with their loved ones and grinding it out in the greasy trenches it is truly, a thing of dread. The visit you see is an inspection of the facility, from the quality of the food to the cleanliness of your storage shed, to the accuracy of your bookkeeping, to the performance of your staff, everything is inspected under a microscope and while you can, and better, prepare for it, no one can ever be 100%, there are just too many variables. It is, in fact, beyond a certain level of preparation, merely a popularity contest.
    Now Anthony had been the GM in this location for several years and for most of that time produced good numbers. But in the past year, six restaurants opened in a three mile radius from ours with the inevitable consequence that our sales began to decline and once sales begin to decline in a restaurant everything else starts to go south as well. You see everything is based on a percentage of sales, in particular labor, so when sales go down labor goes up and when that happens you have to cut labor or there's hell to pay. But when you cut labor and you get busy, you don't perform well, it all ends in customer complaints that further reduces sales which in turn snowballs the problem.
    So we were getting a lot of pressure from corporate and I and the other assistants were on a six day work week. Anthony had actually gone five weeks without a day off just trying to pick up the slack. The ob was also becoming an increasingly hostile environment where the employees who were being asked to work harder in fewer hours were becoming ever more resentful. It may have been taking its toll on me, but it was really kicking Anthony's ass. He was so worried about losing his job and his health insurance and his home that he was sleeping only about four hours a night and spending every waking hour in the restaurant working as hard as his body would allow. I watched the poor guy transform over a period of two months from a vibrant, humorous, healthy thirty three year old man into a shadowy, pale, almost spectral shell, he started losing weight and hair. Sometimes I would spy him working in the kitchen and I could see his hands were shaking and every day he was getting angry threatening calls from the area director and rude e-mails from the corporate office.
    One day while we were doing prep in the morning because the guy who was supposed to do it hadn't bothered to show up, he confided in me; "J.R." he said, "I don't know what I'm going to do; I barely ever see my kids anymore and my wife's been talking divorce. John (the area director) wrote me up twice this month for poor performance, and in this economy I don't know where I'm going to find another job when they fire me."
    I shook my head sympathetically about to offer some empty words but the phone rang just in time and he ambled off to answer it. He came back a few minutes later and he looked like he'd seen a ghost. "That was John," he said, "The regional vice president will be here on Friday and John says if anything goes wrong its going to be my ass. That's what he said, my ass! Like I'm some kind of kid instead of a grown man killing myself to give him impossible results."
    Well we spent the next four days scrubbing and cleaning and generally busting our ass until that restaurant shined and sparkled like a diamond. They arrived at two pm in the afternoon Guy, the regional and John the area director and right away they criticized us for having too much staff on. Of course if we'd had any less on they would have criticized us for that too. But that was just their opening salvo, they then they proceeded to toss the place down to the minutest details and they found fault with everything. When they were done they sat poor Anthony down and grilled him like a couple of hard boiled detectives in some dime store novel after which they left, well satisfied with themselves, to hit up a strip club on the company dime.
    I approached Anthony as he was packing his briefcase in the office and asked him how everything went. "Not good." He said, "I'm going to go home, I don't think I can take anymore today. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow and we'll get started on their list."
    I nodded and said good night and as he was walking out the door I noticed him twitch and clutch his side. About twenty minutes later I answered the phone by the host desk and it was Anthony calling from his car, "J.R." her said, "I forgot to tell you; Jane and Ellen switched shifts for......." All of a sudden we were cut off. I stood there holding the lifeless piece of plastic in my hand for a few seconds then dialed his cell back but it went right to voice mail.
   Well I worked my way through an uneventful shift that night occasionally wondering why Anthony hadn't called back because it wasn't like him but not letting it bother me too much because I also understood, if after the day he had, he didn't want to. Then just before closing I got a call, and it was from my wife, who also happened to be a good friend of Anthony's wife. She cleared up the mystery for me; why Anthony hadn't called back, you see, it seems while he was driving home he had a massive heart attack, drove off the road and died. Sometimes I think there should be a warning label on the job postings for restaurant management jobs, just like a pack of cigarettes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The System's Down, Part 3 of 3

"What did you do?" My voice drilled into the phone, "don't you know it's Rush Hour Saturday Night!!?"
"Calm down, you have a corrupt file server, I'm resetting things, you should be back up in five minutes." The faceless voice of Glen oozed through the phone line at me.
"Should I put you on hold?" I asked hopefully.
"No, I call you back. I have to escalate the problem," he replied evenly.
I looked at the clock, it was 8:05. "Five minutes?" I repeated, but he was gone and now Donny's voice came panicking through the headset;
"They're running out of checks!!"
The big plastic box marked 'Crash Kit' was open on the desk in front of me, there were maybe a hundred paper checks still inside, the thing was meant to accommodate a small bump in the road, a brief power surge, not a long term system failure. I scooped up the checks and returned to the kitchen where I detailed one of the hostesses to pass them out then I went back behind the line to orchestrate the chaos of hand written orders being pushed at the cooks over the expo line. A half hour went by and every time the phone rang I looked up hopefully, but there was no call and we kept pushing food into the window. Through the window I could see waiters hurrying out with plates and back with re-fires, bearing tales of enraged customers and begging for table visits that neither Donny nor I could make. Another hour went by and IT didn't call and the orders kept coming, by the to-go station I could see servers bent over calculators and scraps of paper, toiling like accounting clerks in the stone age while behind the line I was sweating and squinting at sloppy orders trying to sell complete tables from the disparate scraps of paper (For we'd now run out of 3 part checks and orders were coming in any old how) to Donny on the other side who was having a real struggle now, getting overwhelmed servers to run food. 
I caught up a bit and glanced at the clock; 9:30.
The host called through the head set, "Tables 21, 34 and 83 all want to speak to a manager!"
I broke away and headed out to the dinning room, table 34 was the closest; a 4 top with a fat, middle aged couple and two kids. The fat middle aged man was in surgical scrubs and even from a distance I could tell he was pissed off.
As I approached the table he was shaking his head as if in disgust, "You're the manager?" He demanded, looking me up and down as if I were some kind of gross object.
"Right," I said, thrusting out my hand for him to shake and introducing myself.
He Ignored my outstretched hand keeping his own folded across his chest, "No wonder," he said, still staring at me through hairy eyeballs.
"No wonder, what?" I asked.
"No wonder this place is being run like crap, look at you!"
I looked down and I must admit I've looked better, there were grease stains covering my button down and my black Chinos were speckled with flour, my usually spit shined shoes inundated with food particles. I dug down deep and somehow managed to conjure up a lame smile, "Sorry," I said, "you see we've been having a a bit of a tough night. Can you tell me what happened here, maybe I can try and make it better for you....."
He let out a little frustrated laugh and stood up, dropping his napkin onto the table, his family following suit, and started to walk away, then he half turned back to me, "You're honestly that incompetent," he said, "that you don't even know what happened!?"
I shrugged my shoulders as my headset crackled back to life, "J.R., J.R.," it was the voice of my assistant Donny, "I really need you on the line, I can't get anything out of these guys....."
I pressed in the button, about to respond when the to-go girl cut in, "J.R., I've got a guest complaint on line one."
"Be right there, Ashley, then I'll be on the line, Donny."
"Forty open, fifteen parties on the wait....." came the voice of the hostess.
I looked over and noticed table 83 was already empty so I didn't go there, but 21 was waiting for me and this time when I stopped table side the guy actually shook my hand.
"I don't like to complain," he said, then he looked at his date, "I never complain, do I?"
"No," she said, "he never complains, "But our food took like forty five minutes to get to the table and when it came it was supposed to be a seafood platter with  the shrimp fried, not grilled, no sauce on the crab cake, three clams instead of three oysters with all sauces and lemons on a separate plate, and look what I got!"
I looked down, he had a seafood platter, the way we make it. I sighed, it's always the special orders that get fucked up, its just got too many moving parts when there are that many modifications, somethings bound to go wrong. I sighed, "I'm sorry," I said, "We're having a tough night. Can I have it re-done for you?"
"And wait another 45 minutes?" he said, "No way. I'll just salvage what I can from the wreckage."
I nodded, "I'll take it off the bill. Sorry we disappointed you."
I picked up the phone in expo while everything burned around me and listened to a woman who was enraged that her chicken wings which she wanted to be all flats tossed in BBQ sauce instead of mixed in Buffalo sauce still had one wing in the bunch. I took her address and promised to send a gift certificate. Then, since I was at the phone anyway, I dialed the number for IT and after a few voice mail messages and pressing innumerable buttons I finally got someone on the line. A woman with  a fine southern drawl.
"Glen, no Glen's not available right now, he's on break."
I gripped the black, plastic receiver so hard in my hand that my knuckles turned white, "What?" I croaked. I gave her my case # and asked if I could speak to anyone else.
"No," she said, "It's just Glen here right now, but he should be back in a half hour or so."
I hung up the phone and jumped back on the line. It took forty-five minutes to clear the window and by the time it was through we were off the wait and there were only about four or five menus open. I decided to close the doors about ten minutes early and just as I finished that task one of the servers came to me and said Glen from IT was on the phone.
"You should be coming back up now," he said.
"What about the money?" I asked.
"You're going to have to reconcile it by hand and then enter it all into the system one check at a time." He said.
I looked at the clock and it was almost mid-night. It would be five or six AM before we would be done and I had to open in the morning at seven.................Some days are like that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I make a bad decision? Part 2 of the system's down.

"J.R., J.R.," Samantha, one of the more sensible servers, says, tapping me on the shoulder as I push through the crowd at the waiter's station en route to the gauntlet of complaints in the dining room.
"Not now," I mutter, stressed to the max; the sacrificial lamb on his way to be slaughtered in atonement for the sins of chaotic circumstance. Samantha, however isn't having that and pulls me back by the shoulder.
"You don't have the option of ignoring me, J.R.," she says, "The system's down, you have to deal with it."
I stop in my tracks, look over at the terminal where the waiters are gathered. It's terminal # 1, The Master Terminal, the main computer. All the other POS terminals are what are referred to in restaurant networks as slaves.
Anyway, I do a quick calculation and hand Samantha my keys, "Go to the office and pull down the box marked 'Crash Kit', set up the manual credit card machine in to-go with a calculator and the price lists you find in the box. In the box you'll also find manual checks, they're split into packs of twenty-five and each pack has a cover sheet with the check numbers and a place to jot down the name of the server who's receiving them; tell Cindy, the hostess that I want her to pass them out and give me back the cover sheets." Samantha, who like I said, is quick on her feet, nods her understanding and sprints off toward the office.
I turn to the master terminal and there's a message flashing, a virtual button that asks the question; Make File Serve? I consider it then go to the back office to call IT. On the way I stop by the fry station and pull my assistant off, I call for the bus boy, he's been training on the station and even though he's only had two shifts on fry and the tables in the dining room won't turn as fast (which is probably a good thing) I give him a pair of plastic glove, a cook's hat and a field commission.
"Donny," I tell my assistant, "we've deployed the crash kit, I'm going in the office to call IT, Take over expo so you can run the line with paper and mouth and brief the staff."
Donny looks pale, pale and a little greasy, but he nods his head gamely and I continue to the office, muttering a few Hail Mary's under my breath. As I pass the salad station I notice a man with an angry red face staring balefully at my stressed out expo, I turn towards him because you can't have angry guests invading the kitchen, there's a terrified waitress standing behind him, "I TOLD HER WELL DONE AND THIS IS RAW!!!!" He roars just as I approach. I take a hot minute to glance at the meat in the guy's hand, it's mid-well and really not the live or die issue this asshole is making it out to be.
"Sir," I tell him, "If you'll just return to your table we'll cook up your meat and bring it out to you."
He turns to me, smoke gushing from his ears, "AND WHO ARE YOU!!?" He demands.
"I'm the manager," I reply in a calm voice.
"What's your name?" He asks, this time in a lower, tenser voice.
"J.R." I reply.
"Well J.R., I'm going to need the number for your corporate office, every time I come here-"
I cut him off, "That's fine sir and certainly your prerogative. In the meantime I'm going to have to ask you to leave the kitchen. We'll bring the steak out to you when it's ready."
"I need that number, that number and your last name too."
Normally I'd kiss the guy's ass for him or whatever it was he needed, but I just didn't have time. "Fine, I'll send it all out to your table now you have to leave the kitchen before I HAVE YOU ESCORTED OUT!" I lost it and raised my voice.
The guy must have realized he'd pushed too far because without another word he turned and walked out. Then I realized that the entire kitchen had come to a stand still, "Everybody back to work!" I shouted, the scene around me returned to bedlam and I entered the office. After ten rings and two automated menus I got a recorded message at the 24 hour IT help desk. I left a message out lining my problems and slammed down the receiver. And that's when I noticed the message flashing on the screen of the back office computer, it said 'fileserver corrupt.'
My head set crackles in my ear and Cindy the host reports in; "We've got 45 open menus and eighteen party's on the wait."
I make a decision and shut down the back office computer, then I rush back through the kitchen where Donny is calling out tickets; "Walking in two sirloin mid rare, one chicken pasta......" I feel guilty but I keep going and don't stop till I get to the Master Terminal, the same message is flashing; "Make File server?" I touch the icon and four numbers appear, one on each corner of the screen and now the message is changed, now it says; "Enter Code." And there's a number pad on the screen. I think hard for a minute and then enter the four numbers from the screen and get back an error message. I bite my lip and think again, this time I add the four numbers together and enter the product. The screen flashes away and enters DOS, my pulse quickens as I watch the strings of code roll by. Still thinking I slap a sign onto the computer screen that says "DO NOT TOUCH." Then I rush around the restaurant turning off all the other terminals. When I get back to the master there's a message flashing directing me to restart the terminal, so I re-boot and after about a minute the terminal comes back up and it's operational and ready to use only now, instead of saying Master across the bottom it now says; FILESEVER. I shout out to the near by waiters that we have one terminal up and then I go around and one by one, re-boot the remaining terminals.
I head back into expo where tickets are rolling in again and I start working with Donny to clean out all the manual orders. It's hard as hell, and it takes more than a half hour, but we get it all out and I head into the dining room and begin apologising and explaining to the guests, most of who are now eating and actually pretty cool and understanding. Then Ashley, the to-go girl calls me on the head set to tell me I have a call from IT on line one.
The IT guy's name is Glen and he tells me he's been trying to dial in and can't seem to get through. I explain what happened and everything I did and he's pissed; tells me to go into the office and turn on the computer so he can get in and see what's going on. I got no choice so I do it. I'm still on the phone being lectured by the guy who is now in control of the mouse on my back office computer which he is moving furiously around in DOS when I get a shut out from Donny over the head set; "J.R., the system's down again!!!"

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Just before the System goes down. Part one of the system's down

So it's seven o'clock on a Saturday, seven o'clock on a Saturday; we seat 375 people and we're full. We're full and we have 25 parties on a wait. Almost 100 open menus with 14 servers on, a full bar two deep, three bartenders on, two expediters in expo, three to-go people with about thirty five open orders and a line of impatient people snaking out the side door waiting to put their orders in. I've only got five guys and a manager working behind the line, cooking for all these people, because one of my cooks got arrested the night before and another walked out ten minutes ago because he was new and discovered he couldn't take the pressure.  A wave of orders floods the kitchen and they call for me on the head set, they're going down behind the line. I rush towards the back line, grabbing an apron as I go, several servers pawing at me in a futile attempt to get my attention, I've got to cook. Fry is where they need it the most, that's the station where the new kid broke and ran moments before and my assistant manager is working there now and he is not gifted with fry skills. He's not gifted with fry skills and he's got maybe thirty orders hanging and more coming in, I watch as the top half of his screen goes red and the page counter clicks back another screen. His lead tickets on twenty and he barely has half the food dropped. I dig in, while the guys around me struggle to put plates in the widow and the expediter screams shrilly for runners. I burn myself at least twice and I'm so focused that I barely notice that, I also ignore the waiters who come after me, one after another, trying to get my attention. I just can't, I know they have problems I need to tend to, but if I don't get that food up in the window nothing else is going to matter, so I tuck in my chin and I keep going. Finally, fry caught up I swing around to the other side of the line to where the expediters have created another bottleneck, it's not really their fault, the servers have come to something of a standstill. I push aside one of my expediters and start organizing plates onto trays and pulling tickets, then I start barking for runners and  don't get ignored. Ten minutes later the window is cleared out and one by one servers begin to approach me; "Table thirty two says she has a hair in her salad, can I get a table visit?" "The guy on twenty-two is furious that we ran out of pecan pie, he says he wants to know what kind of F-----g place we're running here." And so on, so I heave a heavy sigh and head out into the dining room to run the gauntlet of petty, pissy complaints from petty, pissy people who feel the need to blow up, completely out of proportion, their responses to really minor problems just because they can get away with it. But I never make it out onto the floor, the entire computer system goes down and that will be the subject of my next post.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Addition by Subtraction

You know how they say the customer's always right? Well I'm here to tell you that sometimes your "best customer" can be the kiss of death for your business. So it's not an absolute truth that the best policy in business is pander to the customer's every whim. Sometimes, in fact, you have to discourage a little business to make a little money.
Back in the mid-nineties, down in the Times Square area of Manhattan I worked a bar in a French Bistro on 43rd Street. Prosperous business district teaming with office workers, tourists and theater goers. Every bar in the neighborhood was packed every night, but not Le Mark. Now that's not to say the bar at Le Mark was empty, no most of the seats were full, full of regulars; freaky regulars, cheap regulars, special regulars, loud regulars, creepy regulars. They all knew each other and felt that they somehow, collectively owned the place; They decided the music, the menu, the drink prices, how much alcohol went into which kind of glass and the buy back policy. They were special creatures, God's special creatures, and because they were there every night, they dictated how much money the bar would make and by extension the bartender. Oh, and here's the other thing, the thing I'm driving at; you see, they were creating the scene and because they were creating the scene, if you didn't fit in, you didn't stay long and you didn't come back. Come on, let me introduce you to some of them, the special creatures of God in Times Square as Shakedown Street approached the New Millennium.
I'm changing the names but I'm going to be as accurate as I can in my descriptions. This first one I'm going to call Brenda; Brenda was a big woman, I'd say she must have been in her early forties, but it's hard to be sure, she worked for the ACLU which had their headquarters near by, and she had very particular purchasing habits. Let me explain; these days I live in Florida and work in the corporate world where the customs are different from the free booting ways of Old New York back in the day. In the here and now I see Happy Hour chips, two for one drink specials, Ladies night and this and that, all very explicitly stated, all very official, incontrovertible. In my opinion it takes the art out of bartending, but whatever. Back then, in jolly old Manhattan we didn't have much of that bull shit, what we had was the custom of buy backs, unofficial and up to the bartender's discretion, within reason. These buy backs would generally occur on the third or fourth round, you'd just drop the drink on the bar and knock on the wood and the customer would know it was on the house. Now like I said, these buy backs were optional, to be used as a sales building tool, but this woman, this Brenda, she had the annoying habit of keeping a most careful track of what she called, in her annoying voice; her "freebies" as if they were her God given right and if she thought you were holding out; God help you! Of course this wasn't the real reason she had to go, this was just an annoying habit and sense of entitlement, and would become the mechanism of her leaving. Brenda would come in at 5:30 every afternoon and take the same spot near the service bar and there she would sit till closing consuming six to nine drinks, of which she expected 2-3 for free, torturing me and the waitstaff and pair bonding with another over weight, middle aged woman I'll call Gladys, and Gladys would drink even more and tip even less. Still none of this would justify the 86, but here's the thing; at 5:30 when they arrived they would start out at a reasonable volume but by the time 8pm rolled around and straight through to closing they would be howling at the moon, cackling and shouting at the top of their lungs and some of the stuff that would come out of their mouths for the whole Bistro to hear were offensive, for example, Brenda would erupt from her seat and shout out; "Who do ya gotta blow around here to get a drink?" every time she needed a round. And the whole carnival freak show playing out for couples and families sitting down to pre-theater, prix-fixe $45 menus.
Then there was George Lockhart the 3rd, who was the publisher of a group of trade journals and was the nicest guy in the world until the precise moment that he finished his third scotch and water at which point he would turn into an obnoxious, uninhibited pervert who would zero in on any vaguely attractive woman in the joint and pursue her in the most offensively inappropriate mean at his disposal. Needless to say, these women would leave and never return.
Steve DiAngelo would show up just about every other night, always impeccable in a tailor made suit and Italian made silk tie with a matching pocket square. He'd pay for his Tom Collins with a crisp, new C-note laying down a fresh one for each round. Then he'd start in on his conversation much to the merriment of Gladys and Brenda. It was what a psychologist would call word salad, a classic symptom of schizophrenia. It was okay, annoying but okay. That is until he began to pound the bar and exhibit other violent behaviour patterns. And so I would have to escort him out and he would always turn to me at the front door and admonish me, placing one thick finger to a blubbery lip; "Don't tell nobody!"
Well there were a lot of other pathetic creeps and freaks infesting the place than these, but this should give you an idea as to why the bar, and indeed the restaurant were not as busy as they should have been. You see, the customer isn't always right, sometimes the customer is killing your business. So after a meeting with the manager and the owner, a decision was made; It was time to cut off the freaks.
11:30 and Brenda was blind drunk, loud but only drooling a little bit and still functional.  She lifted her tab off the wood, her reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She stared at it for just a bit longer than normal before calling me over a look of friendly confusion on her boozy face.
"I think you made a mistake here, J.R.," she said, handing the tab over for my inspection.
I glanced at it very quickly and pushed it back towards her, "No mistake," I replied.
She pushed her glasses up the ridge of her nose, squinting myopically at me from behind the lenses, "No, you forgot two freebies, plus my freebie carryover from yesterday."
"No," I said, flinging my rag over my shoulder and focusing on her, "it's just that there are no freebies today."
She slammed her hand, palm down on the bar, "We'll see about that," she shouted, "I want to talk to Jean!" (Jean was the owner).
"He went home two hours ago."
"Give me his number!"
"I'm not giving you the guys home number, you can call him during business hours tomorrow."
"Well I'm not paying that bill until I speak with him."
"That's fine with me."
10 Pm the following night and George Lockhart the 3rd finished his third scotch and fixed his bleary eye on a fourtyishJuno sipping a kir royale down the end of the bar. I watched as he stood and stumbled down to her, stuck his hand rudely into the bowl of nuts just inside of her personal space and whispered something in her ear. Immediately she pulled away like she'd been stung, picked up her purse and stormed out. George Lockhart the 3rd snapped his fingers at me and pointed arrogantly at his empty glass. I dropped my bar rag and walked down to where he was seated. I placed my hands, palm down on the bar top and leaned in to his personal space.
George leaned back, surprised, "Can I get another drink?" He asked.
I shook my head, "George, you're cut off."
He looked at me as if I'd farted, "The money I spend here-" he began.
"Sorry," I said, "that's just the way it is."
"You do this," he said, "I'm not coming back."
"That's fine with me."
Steve DiAngelo I just intercepted at the front door on the way in. He seemed to know the drill because he didn't give me a hard time at all. And by the end of the month sales had doubled. Addition by subtraction or the customer's not always right.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Tambourine Man

The joint was all Bermuda shorts and surfboards, margaritas and cold brew, cheeseburger in paradise, even though it was really suburban Florida and the customers weren't coming in in flip flops off the sand, but after work or when the kids were in school or on their lunch break or on the weekends. But we did try hard to maintain the illusion and it was a busy place where we'd have a character lunch for toddlers during the day, a busy office happy hour party during cocktail hour, all the best Westonites waiting for up to an hour for a table at dinner only to top it all off with a live band starting at mid-night and rocking till 4am. You get the point, it was a rowdy place and we worked hard at being all things to all people. But the Tambourine Man? That's where I drew the line.
The first time I met the Tambourine Man it was on a busy Friday night, I was working by myself and we were on track to sell 18K and without a back up in the middle of rush, I was more or less pinned to the expo line hollering my way through the night, working like an animal to get the food out of the window and onto the tables. Of course any night can throw a curve and in my business they usually come when some angry customer feels they have to yell at the manager; "RIGHT NOW" and there's nothing to be done for it but heave a heavy sigh, realize while you're off getting screamed at by some ass hole for some petty reason, four or five other tables are going to get fucked up because you're not where you're supposed to be which means four or five other ass holes are going to want a piece out of you. You might as well kiss the night up to heaven cause its all turned to shit because some guy wants to lecture you about the fact that the eighteen year old waitress trying her best to wait on twenty five people at once hasn't had the chance to take away his appetizer plates yet and for some reason he deserves finer things out of life. But I digress, we were going to talk about the Tambourine Man, well he was sitting on table 33 a tall, thin well dressed, middle aged guy with a white pony tail and an educated accent sitting with two matronly ladies and a silver fox guy in a blazer with gold chains. Very good, he wanted to compliment the waiter so in this instance I have to take back what I said in the above paragraph, even though the guy was still a pretentious waste of time which needed to be spent cajoling cooks and bullying waiters in the kitchen to; "GET THE FOOD OUT"
Anyway, this was my first contact with the Tambourine Man which, had it ended there, would have been unremarkable. Now remember I told you that we had live music starting at mid-night with a big bar and a small dance floor? Well I was in the kitchen supervising the deconstruction of the grill for a deep cleaning when the bar-back came and advised me of a disturbance at the bar. I washed some of the grease off my hands and followed him up to where one of my bartenders was following The Tambourine man around the lounge. Let me explain; up on the small stage a lone guitar player was singing Cecilia by Simon & Garfunkel, wailing his heart out on an acoustic guitar while the Tambourine Man slammed a tambourine high in the air in a chaotic manner. The guitar player continued to sing while casting mute appeals with his eyes at the bartender who was unsuccessfully attempting to get the Tambourine Man's attention and other customers looked on like they were witnessing a car wreck, rubber necking on the highway.
Well I looked around for the people he'd been with at the table earlier in the evening but they were no where in sight so next I assessed the man himself from a little distance, he had that thick, glazed and determined look of the truly nuts, probably a lot of booze on board too, but also the type with whom booze serves to focus minor insanity, not sloppy drunk, just intense, nuts.....Only one thing to be done, I walked quickly up to the Tambourine Man and after a single, unsuccessful attempt to get his attention politely, I ripped the Tambourine from his hand and tossed it to the floor, he reacted in the manner of an intense drunk and went for me, but I'm a big guy and I know about these things so I sort of let him fly by me and when he was off balance I grabbed him from one side and my bartender, taking his cue from me, grabbed his other and together we gave him a gentle Bum's Rush out the front door. He didn't come back and I thought I'd seen the last of him, but it was not to be.
The Tambourine Man returned the very next afternoon and in the sober light of day explained himself, he was sorry and there was something about medication. The long and the short of it was; he promised to be good and could he return? What can I say? He seemed like a great guy, prosperous free spending well behaved, he even had a great fund of interesting stories from his life (He was a retired Airline Pilot). It went on this way for a while, a few weeks, everything was fine, then he started to act up, just a little bit at first then it became the whole Jeckle & Hyde thing and always with the Tambourine. He'd come in and be normal, by the time he left he'd be a raving lunatic and we'd have to throw him out then he'd come back the next day to make amends and he'd be so sorry and I'd feel bad and let him back in until one day I'd just had enough and I threw him out and told him 86, never again and he seemed to understand and months went by and I didn't see the guy and thought I was rid of him.
Now at this place the managers always wore khaki pants and a polo shirt with a logo of the place over the left breast and these we also had for sale along with a lot of other stuff at our little gift counter by the host stand. We also, like most restaurants had a secret shopper program where people would come in and eat and then write a report about their experience. Well about a month after we threw the Tambourine man out for the last time I got one of these reports which described the odd behaviour of the manager during table visits and it named the manager as me, as I didn't recognize the events described I denied them and upon researching the report found that it referenced events which occurred on one of my days off, so I kind of wrote it off in my mind and moved on that is until one night I was working, cooking behind the line because I was short staffed and one of the waitresses came to me.
"J.R.," she said, "You better come up front right away."
I looked up from the seafood stew I was cooking, "Why?"
"You just better come up front." She said.
Well I got up front and right away I saw a man in khaki pants, wearing one of our company manager polo's leaning in close, talking to a table, as approached I overheard him say; "If you don't like our hamburgers you can go someplace fucking else." He was saying it in an easy, conversational tone.
I spun the guy around and it was the Tambourine Man, dressed exactly like me, he even had his hair cut like mine. Creepy.......

Friday, July 6, 2012

If you can't beat em, join em

I've worked for many different types of restaurants in many different places but it's only over the past several years that I've found myself working for a large corporate chain and they certainly have a distinctive managerial culture. It is a culture of smoke and mirrors, of sucking up and covering your own ass at the expense of anyone and anything including the welfare of the business with which you are entrusted. Of course this infrastructure exists for a reason and that is to sell unhealthy products at the highest volume possible while delivering a minimum of service and doing it at the lowest cost possible. If you become an expert at this and are able to hide the unpleasant by products of this process successfully from those above you (They know all about it anyway)  then you will do well managing a chain restaurant. Of course I'm sugar coating it.
The food, in order to make it deliberately addictive, is processed with so much fat, grease and sodium that its going to make you unhealthy, contribute to childhood obesity and keep you coming back for more. The alcohol, well we are very careful to train our team members in responsible alcohol service and then we run happy hour specials and signature drink sales contests intended to increase the bottom line and make our staff forget all about responsible alcohol service. So, who do we pump full of our cheap booze before casting them out on the high ways? Parents with small children, office workers, unemployed workers drowning the sorrows on the day the government check comes in, habitual alcoholics who we call regulars and just about anyone else who bellies up to the bar and calls for a 2 for 1 drink. We have ladies night where the ladies are enticed to drink all night long and shot specials and dollar beers which no amount of 25c chicken wings are going to absorb on time to make you safe driving home and every twenty minutes we're checking sales. So there's a lot fundamentally wrong with what we sell and how we sell it, that's one thing and it's endemic so if you can't beat em join em.
Then there's the shocking way we treat our workers. I remember in college reading about time and motion studies which management did on workers in the manufacturing process during the industrial revolution prior to the rise of trade unionism and labor law, back when workers had no rights. I read about the terrible ways in which the migrant farm workers are treated. No days off, 18 hour shifts, not being payed fair wages, cutting workers when they're not needed as dictated by business and the quest for higher profits regardless of the workers own need to pay their bills and receive a living wage. Well all of these practices are alive and well in the restaurant industry and not just for the workers for management as too, at least on the store level. It's pretty standard for a restaurant management recruiter to gush to a candidate; 'The company has a great quality of life; no more than 60-65 hours a week and a weekend day off every month, they might even schedule you two consecutive days off every once in a while!'
Well I'm here to tell you, we hire em when its busy, lay em off when its slow, fire em on a whim and exploit every dumb kid who's willing to buy in to our bull shit and volunteer for anything. We fatten em up, get em drunk and spit em back into the world fat drunk and in trouble. But hey, 'it is what it is.' If you can't beat em, join em.
I wonder if all industries are this bad and I wonder how I live with myself.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

That Hideous Responsibility

She must of come in drunk, or at least that's what I was told. It was almost 3am, last call, and I was sitting in my typically under-sized manager's office in a big restaurant on a lake in the back of a quaint mall in Weston Florida when my bartender Brian, a clean cut kid who was studying to be a landscape architect, stuck his nose in to interrupt my number crunching.
"Coach," he said, he always called me coach, "A woman just came in with Deirdre and Travis and they must have come from a party or something cause they're pretty stewed and I don't want to serve them."
I looked up at him over my reading glasses, "Good, then don't." I replied.
"Yeah," he said, "I'm not gonna. Thing is they're making a big deal out of it and demanding to see you....You know Travis...."
I took a deep sigh, it was the end of a fifteen hour shift and what I needed was sleep not ball breaking from a an affluent red neck dirt bag with a loud mouth and a sense of entitlement (Travis was a regular). I heaved myself off the small desk chair and followed Brian out into the empty kitchen and through the dark dining room up to the dimly lit lounge. The bar sat inside but with big patio doors wide open to treat the guests to a view of the big lake out back and the breezes blowing off the water. There were only a half dozen or so customers left and three of them were the drunken and unwelcome trio; they were perched on stools by the service bar Deirdre and the unknown woman engaged in close tipsy conversation and even sitting down I could tell they would be unsteady on their feet. Travis sat a little off from them seemingly engaged in an enamored stare down with a bottle of whisky just beyond his reach.
Brian was a few feet ahead of me and when he stepped behind the counter Travis glared at him like a spoiled baby and demanded; "Well?"
Brian turned his back deliberately on the guy and jerked his thumb over his shoulder back at me before moving off down the bar to cash out the other three customers.
Travis turned the full heat of his wrathful stare onto me, "Well?" He spluttered.
"Well, what?" I responded tersely having long before reached the age where I'd lost my tolerance for people like Travis.
"Well, what about a round here for last call?"
"Last call was ten minutes before you walked in." I answered.
"Bull shit!"
"Really?" I said, "Do we have to go through this dance, Travis?"
Travis looked at his watch, "It's two forty five, last call is at three am."
"I'm the general manager and last call is when I say it is, at least last I checked."
"Yeah, buddy we'll see if you're still the general manager when you check tomorrow after I talk to Tim. The money I spend in here...." Tim was the owner and he would stop in for a drink about once a month and when ever he did Travis, who was at the bar every day would chat him up. Travis was one of your typical regulars one of God's special creatures. The type who thinks he deserves everything for free and an ass kissing with his peanuts.
I gave him a sour look, "What ever you gotta do, buddy," I replied, "What ever you gotta do."
Brian handed me his drawer which I took it in the back to count, then I returned to lock up. When I got there the place was empty except for Brian and the un-known woman.
Bian was sitting at the bar talking to her, sipping on his shift beer while she toyed moodily with a glass of water, he gave me one of those; 'What are we going to do?' looks as I approached. I sat on the stool on the other side of the woman, the one where Travis had been sitting a half hour before. I looked at her close up, I'd never seen her before, she was very pretty with a South Florida tan and an expensive hair style piled high on top of her head. She reeked of alcohol, but even stoned as she was she exuded a vibrancy.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Clarissa, and your's?" She slurred.
"J.R.," she repeated softly, "what's that stand for?"
"Jimmy Ray. How you getting home, didn't you come in with Travis and Deirdre?"
Brian drained his glass and stood up, "I gotta be up early. You got this, Coach?"
I nodded at him philosophically, "I'll make sure she gets home okay."
Brian left and I turned back to Clarissa, "So," I said, "is there somebody I can call to pick you up?"
She didn't answer me but grabbed my right hand in both of hers, "I tell fortunes," she declared in a boozy drawl.
I smiled, humoring her as she turned my palm over and examined it in the dim light. "You're unlucky in love," she said, "You're a good man but you'll die of a broken heart."
"I'll try to keep that in mind," I said, "but you haven't answered my question-"
"I'm sorry about Travis," she interrupted, "I know he can be an asshole, but he's my cousin."
"He's your cousin and he left you here?"
She hopped off her stool, "I have to pee," she said.
I nodded and watched as she staggered off in the direction of the ladies room, while she was gone I locked up. I was struggling with one of the big sliding doors when she returned.
"Don't worry about me," she said, picking up her purse from the bar top, "my cars parked outside."
"Whoa," I said rushing over, "You're not in any condition to drive. Let me call you a cab."
She looked at her watch, "It's too late and I wouldn't trust a cab driver at this hour."
"You can't drive home. I mean you are drunk."
She stared meaningfully at me for a long minute, "Well," she said at last, "I suppose you could drive me home."
I nodded, "Okay, just stay here for ten minutes I have to shut down the computers and check the equipment in the kitchen, I'll be right back."
She smiled knowingly at me, "I'll be here."
When I came back ten minutes later she was gone. I scoured the restaurant but she was no where to be found and when I got out to the parking lot the only car there was mine. I drove around the mall but to no avail and there was really nothing else I could do so I went home and hoped for the best.
The next day was my day off. It was a mild, sunny South Florida day and I was on the patio cooking steaks for my wife and son and drinking a cold beer when my wife joined me, the cordless phone in her hand, "J.R. honey, its Tim."
I answered with trepidation wondering what could have gone wrong at the restaurant that the owner, who oddly, unusually enough was good about leaving me alone on my own time, was calling me. "Hey boss," I said.
"How are you doing, J.R." he asked, not in the ordinary way one might but with a lot of concern.
"I'm fine," I replied. "Is everything okay?"
I heard him sigh on his end, "I just spoke to the police, there was a woman at the bar last night, well Brian told me what happened, turns out she got on the I75 last night and...well, she's dead."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Excerpt from Possible 20

The Rusty Pelican was nice, out on Biscayne Bay with a view of the Miami skyline, kind of lush and tropical on the way in and all wood and masculine once in its heart sipping on a cold beer and watching the sun go down on a hot city. Ricky and Alfredo were already there and though they’d met Liam before I’m sure Noonan was a surprise, all hard and spooky in his wrinkled seersucker with the sweat soaking through at the arm pits. We sat next to them and while the dining room was almost full, the bar had only two other customers, a middle aged couple having martinis before dinner seated at the further end, well out of earshot. The bartender was an older guy who, one way or another knew the score. He served our drinks and politely drifted down to the other end to make conversation with the geriatrics.
Ricky seemed nervous, sweating a lot and a little flush, "Man," he said, "if Blanco knew I was here, what I was doing, I’d be fucking dead."
I nodded toward his briefcase on the floor next to us, "It’s all there?"
He shook his head up and down quickly and dismissively, "Of course, I don’t break fucking deals. It’s just, you know I wouldn’t be making a deal on the outside at all, but I got a lot of demand for this shit and the guy can’t get it no more. I mean, I still get the other shit off him."
Noonan tipped his whisky glass back and snorted derisively, "Guy sounds like an ass hole. You know, America’s the land of opportunity, opportunity’s free for all, but it’s fucked up to get in the way of the next guys opportunity, especially if you ain’t American yourself."
I could tell Ricky didn’t know how to respond and I could tell he was annoyed, but also too nervous around Noonan to show it. His ears got flushed and he smiled a kind of awkward agreement. He had a pile of money on the wood in front of him and he pointed at it, "Anyway, have a drink on us, we got to go, I got this stuff promised to customers tonight so I gotta work the sled like Santa." There were handshakes all around and Ricky and Alfredo grabbed their end of the deal and tipped out.
"Wow, that guy was really wound up." Said Liam, motioning to the bartender for another round, "Are you sure he’s stable enough to do business with?"
I plopped a twenty onto the pile on the wood and the bartender dropped the round and moved away. Noonan snickered and said, "Guy was nervous, that Blanco guy must be pretty scary."
"LoneTree told me he’s known for cutting guys up while they’re still alive," I replied.
A quick look passed over Noonan’s face and it wasn’t one of disgust, "Sooner that guy checks out the better. I’m gonna talk to Johnny Angel about it tomorrow, first things first though, you say LoneTree knows the guy?"
Noonan knocked back his drink and stood up from his stool.
"Where are you off to?" Liam asked, staring morosely at his frozen Pina Colada.
"It’s where we are off to Brother, Bro."
"Okay where’s that?"
"Where gonna go have a chat with the Indian, I wanna find out as much about Blanco as I can sounds like he’s all that stands between us and the quiet enjoyment of our little market segment."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Skim

They say that all bartenders end up dis-honest no matter how they start out and I would have to say I agree with the statement to a degree. It's not that they're bad people and I don't judge them. Much. But I do fire them, I have to it's business, if you don't rip it out root and branch every once in a while it festers and grows and can burn down your house. How do I know? I've been on the wrong side of the skim.
If you've looked at some of my earlier posts you'll see the one where I worked a place called Pasta Brokers; Well right after the Federal Marshals came in and put the padlocks and chains on those doors I got a job with my cousin doing construction labor on the renovation of an old Theater on West Forty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. A French restaurant playboy named XXXX. had teamed up with a billionaire German banker named XXXX to plow millions of dollars into this old Broadway Theater and turn it into a 1940's style Supper Club.
Problem with the Club though, it was really expensive to run, hell it was really expensive just to turn on the lights and to operate it the way it was designed to work; with a fifteen piece big band on stage, house performers, waiters with white dinner jackets, a four star chef in the kitchen and a quality jazz act in the Cabaret or VIP room well that was expensive beyond your imagination. The bottom line? You just couldn't break even on it even if you did fill it up with New York's glitterati every night. But then the guys who owned it, well they were a little out of touch with reality. XXXX. the boss had a side kick, a fabulous Frenchman named XXXX who was in charge of entertainment and had some very odd ideas about what was good for business. For example, a couple of months into the venture he decided it would be a great idea to get a celebrity. Nothing really wrong with that in and of itself, but the celebrity he picked out was X. XXXX, the long forgotten star of a 60's musical. Even then, no big deal, except he took the name of the Club off the marquee, laid off all the rest of the entertainment and gave Miss XXXX a three month contract to play the club exclusively five nights a week. When they couldn't more than half fill the house for opening night I knew we were in trouble. Then, inevitably, they began to lay people off. A few more weeks went by and somebody had to pay the price, it couldn't be XXXX, he was the bosses pet, so the management team took a fall and they brought in a new group of guys, a group of guys more realistic, more cynical and in the case of one of them, more corruptible. About a week into the new regime Miss XXXXX's contract was bought out and a new format was instituted, Dinner and Swing music from 5pm till 11pm with the big band and and the jazz singers then, at 11pm as the diners finished the furniture would be swept away the house lights would dim and the house music would begin to pump and we would become a night club, a pretty hot, swinging night club. Other nights we would do some pretty top notch, high level, expensive catering, the kind where they would bring in magnums of Dom Perignon and high end, vintage wine, by the case. Now remember I started this out by telling you that all bartenders were corruptible and so was one significant member of the new management team. Now at this place, from the beginning and all through the X. XXXX fiasco, myself, my cousin and two other guys had formed a pretty hard core, tight knit group and once we connected with the corruptible new manager, who happened to be the beverage manager, we formed a veritable skim machine. It went on for almost two years, aided by an organized group and abundant chaos and all through the parties, disco's, dinners and hip hop parties 10% went to the boys and we were all over town flashing cash and living large until one day it all came, for me any way, to a screeching halt. I went away on vacation and came back to discover I was fired. It happened in the office with the new GM and the beverage manager who was as guilty as I was in attendance. Of course I denied it and didn't rat on any one else but I was a bit puzzled when I left the room because the Beverage manager who was a conspirator didn't stick up for me and no one else in the crew took the ax. It was explained to me later that the new management team was close to uncovering the whole thing and some one had to be sacrificed for the greater good, somebody had to you see, and since I was on vacation that someone was me. Well, I learned my lesson that day; there is no honor among thieves and I made a personal decision then to never skim again, but I can still close my eyes and taste the fast cash of the skim twenty years later and remember the sweet taste of restaurant piracy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An excerpt from Down & Out in Manhattan

I walked downtown along the riverside, past the handball courts and old freight yard tracks. There were people picking through the debris along the tracks, some exiting and entering the yawning mouth of the tunnel. I veered away from them, to where there were these old, dilapidated piers sticking out into the water like old gnarled fingers. I walked out on these, picking my careful, tipsy way over the holes and stepping gingerly where the rickety, fire scarred boards creaked underfoot.
I sat on the very top of that pier, oblivious to the cold and damp, my Botticelli shod feet dangling just above the surface of the river. It was almost dark by the time I finished my bottle. It was almost dark and I was so drunk I felt like I was floating at sea within my own body. Somehow I made it back across the pier without falling in. I left the park and walked for a long way and at some point I entered a subway. A train roared into the station and I was grateful to sit down. I must have passed out because I woke as the doors were closing on an unfamiliar station. I looked across at the old Puerto Rican man sitting across from me.
“Excuse me,” I said through a mouthful of marbles, “where is this train going?”
He laughed, his face appeared to be reeling, and there was a vile taste in my mouth.
“Brooklyn,” he said.
I was going in the wrong direction. When the train arrived in the next station, I stumbled to my feet and got off. The station was green, dirty and dimly lit. The platform was empty. The train pulled out and I realized my hands were empty, I’d lost my briefcase, and I didn’t care.
The sign at the end of the platform read; transfer to Uptown and Manhattan. I walked towards it, swaying as I went, there a staircase led into darkness and I was afraid to go, but I couldn’t stay and down I went. Gripping the hand rail, I descended, the tunnel at the bottom was just as dark, but at the far end was a light and I moved towards it. Something crashed against my skull, I fell and the whole world slipped away.
When I woke it was freezing cold and I could feel my bare skin against the cold, dirty stones. The back of my head was sticky and wet, but for my underpants and sox, I was naked. I was on the floor of the tunnel and somewhere water was running. I rose shakily to my feet, weak and dizzy and sat back down. I was scared, I was still drunk, and all I wanted was to go home. To get home I had to make it to the light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn’t find my feet and I started to crawl. It was a long way along a cold, clammy, grimy floor, but when I reached the other side I was able to stand, just barely. I dragged myself up the stairs, my socks soaking wet, I reached the top and held on to the rail till a dizzy spell passed. The platform on the north bound side was empty save for an elderly black man sitting on a bench in a dirty coat. He had a shopping cart parked next to him filled with rags and he stared at me, shivering and naked before him.
A train plowed into the station, I couldn’t bring myself to get on, and it came and went without departures. The old man was still there. He came wordlessly to me and helped me to the bench.
“Why didn’t you get on the train,” I asked.
The man rummaged around in his cart and, by way of answer, handed me some old, dirty clothes. I put them on, and as he handed me two left shoes he said, “Got no place to go. Leastways, no place that train is gonna take me to.”
I nodded, understanding.
“I don’t have but one coat,” he said, “but you can have this,” he handed me a thin blanket. “You shouldn’t go down those tunnels. Not when they’re dark. You’re lucky those boys didn’t kill you.”
He didn’t have anything else to say and I sat quietly with him till the next train rocketed in. When it did, I thanked him and boarded.
There were a few people on the train, and they moved to the other end when I arrived. I heard one woman say to the man she was with; “That white bum stinks!”
I must have been pretty deep in Brooklyn, because the train seemed to roar on forever. After a while I passed out again. It must have been the crack I took on the head, because I wasn’t feeling all that drunk anymore, no matter how I smelled.
I came to when I felt something being poked into my chest, I opened my eyes, and there was a young, blonde cop jabbing at me with a night stick. The train was just leaving the Fifty-Ninth Street Station, I was almost home.
“Get up you fucking stink ass bum!” the cop shouted.
I was still unsteady, and not thinking clearly, I tried to push the stick away. The cop didn’t like this and he grabbed me by the collar and hauled me out of my seat, slamming me against the car doors.
“Hey!” I said, as the train pulled into the Sixty-Eight Street Station.
“Shut the fuck up!” He screamed.
The doors opened and he shoved me out of the train, leaving me sprawled on the platform.
It was a long walk home, light headed as I was, from the alcohol and rough treatment. I moved slowly, keeping to the shadows, embarrassed, terrified, lest I saw someone I knew, wondering what the doorman would think. I desperately wanted a shower, clean clothes, and a warm bed.
Without a watch, and with all I’d been through, I had no sense of time. It must have been pretty late when I arrived at the Water Tower, though, because the vestibule was locked and I had to ring the bell for the night doorman. When, he, being Harry, appeared, he gave me a hard stare through the thick glass of the front door, and made no move to grant entry, instead he made shooing motions at me.
I stood my ground though, gesturing for Harry to open up and a neat little standoff ensued, until I began to pound on the glass, at which point Harry grabbed a black jack from behind the counter and opened the door quickly.
“What the fuck do you want?” he roared, brandishing his stick.
“Harry,” I said crisply, “don’t you recognize me? It’s Jack Cole, I live here.”
He let the hand with the stick fall to his side. “What happened to you?”
I sighed, letting some of the tension pass from my body, “I was mugged, beaten, they stole my clothes.”
“Jesus,” Harry said, but still he made no move to let me inside.
“Can you let me in, please? I need a shower and rest. It’s been a tough day.”
He stiffened, “It’s about to get tougher. I’m sorry, Mr. Cole. The Marshal was here this afternoon. You’ve been evicted.”
My stomach fell into the ground, “You mean I can’t come in?”
“Instructions from management are I can’t let you in.”
“Harry, I just need to get some clothes, take a shower. I’ll leave after that, no one will know.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cole, I’d like to help, but I can’t afford to lose my job,” he looked down at his shoes.
I turned away, began walking slowly up the block.
“Hold on,” Harry called out, “wait right there.” He locked the door and disappeared while I stood shivering. After a moment he came back out with a heavy, doorman’s coat slung over one arm. He unlocked the door and handed me the coat.
“Take this,” he said, “it’s better than that blanket.” He also handed me a ten dollar bill, “that’s all I got on me, and here,” he produced a business card and handed that over as well. “They told me to give you this, call the number on this card tomorrow and they’ll tell you how you can reclaim your stuff.” He studied me for a minute, “Do you have any place to go?”
He looked concerned, but I knew there was nothing he could do for me and I didn’t want the guy to feel bad, so I said yes, thanked him, and walked off into the darkness of the New York night.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Satanic Attack

I was running a place down on Miracle Mile in the Gables back in 07, an extravagant wine bar with a list more than 300 bottles long, almost 40 of them by the glass. The type of place where you serve Camus Conundrum as your "White Meritage" and receive "Allocations" on small batch wines from the vintners. Well, one day just after the lunch rush while the business men and society ladies basked in the culinary after glow and I reviewed invoices at a back table near the kitchen Jose the front waiter approached to say;
"J.R., there's a guest up front who wants to speak with you."
I sighed, I had a lot of work to catch up and catering to some attention seeking yuppie was the last thing I wanted to do. But of course a restaurant manager is a sitting duck, a captive audience for every jerk off with enough ready cash to buy a Ceasar Salad and a Glass of Malbec. So I stood up, shot my cuffs, straitened my tie and checked my expression in the mirror. He was waiting for me by the front door; conservative looking guy, late 40's, short, clipped salt & pepper hair, neatly trimmed beard, freshly pressed trousers over polished shoes and what looked to be an expensive guayaberra. (spend enough time in Miami and you'll become a judge of them too.) I had noticed him earlier eating lunch with a guy in a suit. He smiled as I approached and thrust out his hand in a friendly manner.
"You're the manager?" He inquired in a polite tone.
I took his hand, "Call me J.R." I said, "How can I help you?"
"Well," his voice lowered to a confidential tone, "it's about last night."
I had been off the night before and no one had called me or left me a note about anything amiss so I just smiled and said, "I see," indicating an empty table.
Once seated I encouraged him to open up and this is what spewed forth; "My name," he said, "is Henry Ramos, now you know I come here alot and I don't like to complain, I never have a problem but this is pretty expensive and somebody has to pay."
I felt my self recoil wondering where it was going, what I said was; "Oh?"
He brought his hand up from his lap and slammed it onto the table between us, the noise was surprising, like a dead weight hitting the wood, "You see that ring?" he asked.
It was a diamond pinkie horseshoe ring, you know the type; where if you wear it in, the luck is supposed to flow toward you and if the reverse, well, you know, the reverse. There were several stones missing. "Yeah?" I replied, losing some of my customer service tone.
"Well," he demanded, "What are you  going to do about it?!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
A look of frustration fell across his face, he sucked air in through his teeth like one whose patience has been sorely tried, "You have a waitress who works for you, Ximenes, dark hair, dark eyes?"
"She is a witch, a bruja. Last night, I came in for a drink and she recognised me. I am the son of Achun (the name of a Santeria deity) so she launched at me a Satanic attack, I was only able to protect myself by banging this ring on your bar top three times, that's when the stones came out, but I didn't notice at the time and now they are gone. I think a thousand dollars is fair."
I didn't know how to respond, here was this well dressed kind of fringe regular who spent money in the place, and up till one minute ago had seemed perfectly lucid and suddenly he was shoveling the most incredible horseshit at me. I blinked, was I was being put on, I struggled for words I wondered how corporate would respond to the complaint of a Satanic Attack, what I said was; "You're out of your fucking mind. Why don't you get the fuck outta here before I call the fucking police you crazy mother fucker!"
The guy stood up from the table, wrapped in his dignity, "I should have expected as much. You really don't know what you're dealing with." He actually smiled at me and nodded good bye.
I sat for a minute after he had gone, thought about Ximenes, wondered if it was true...................

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Night to Remember

It wasn't the first killing I witnessed and it wouldn't be the last but it was the most random. Of course nothings ever as random as you might think. During the Mid-Nineties I worked a bar in the Times Square area while the neighborhood morphed from red light district to Walt Disney World. Actually it was a bar in a French bistro whose windows looked out on to Forty-Third just off Broadway, on New Years Eve you could see the ball drop. Business lunch, office hang-out bar and theater crowd. The building was probably seventy-five or a hundred years old and at one time was called Rossoff's part of the Rossoff's Hotel and famous for being the largest Kosher Catering Hall in New York City. Then Rossoff's became a welfare hotel and the restaurant became Cafe 43 where the bartender and two patrons were killed by an out of control truck that ploughed through the place in 75'. Some said it was haunted but I never saw any evidence of that. Well, I worked there part time for a number of years back when "The Deuce" was still very much the red light district and Rossoff's was still a welfare hotel. Then Rudolph Giuliani and Walt Disney came to Times Square, the welfare recipients were kicked out and the hotel was sold to a Slovakian who re-did the place in Moroccan chic and christened it; "The Casablanca". Henry was his name and he desperately wanted to take over Le Max and call it "Rick's Cafe" but VeraChai, the Thai, French trained chef and owner wanted no part of it and soon a rivalry bordering on hatred formed.
Well, one overcast and chilly day in early December they came; two mid-thirtyish African American guys sporting business suits and briefcases, they sat at the bar, drank espresso and after a little while asked to speak with the owner. It was late in the day after the lunch rush and well before dinner so VeraChai, as was his habit, was sitting at the big round table in the back betting on dice with some of the cooks and waiters. I told him about the guys at the bar and being grouchy by nature he frowned, but dropped the dice and followed me. He sat with the guys for about a half hour and when they left he called me away from where I was chatting up a regular.
"Those guys," he said, "they want to throw a party this Friday, ten till four AM, cash bar, DJ. You can work?"
I thought for a minute, it was my girlfriend's birthday but I also needed the money and I liked VeraChai and could tell he thought he needed me, "What kind of party?"
"Disco party, they say older people, city workers."
I weighed it all up and made a bad decision, "Sure."
I broke it to my girlfriend like I had no choice and she was pissed but eventually let me off the hook. Then a few days later one of the guys who'd met with Chai dropped by and left off a stack of fliers and I knew I was in trouble, it was going to be Hard Core Hip Hop in Times Square, the theme of the party; A Night to Remember. I'm not sure how it is now, but back then hard core Hip Hop events got violent and that was practically guaranteed. I'd worked them before and they could be scary even with veterans who knew what they were doing and had the proper security, but this, this was going to be me and Chai and a few French Bistro cooks and waiters. "Oh well," I thought, "In for a penny in for a pound." And anyway, I was already committed.
The fateful night rolled round and I worked dinner, the usual crush at six as people arrived for pre-theater then the frantic rush to get everyone cashed out in time for their eight o'clock curtain calls but after that it was different. Normally we'd wind down at this point tending to the occasional customer and preparing for the post theater rush, but tonight we had a different agenda. Tonight we removed all the tables, covered the front windows in black construction paper and dug in to the bar like the marines at Khe San. The promoters arrived with one security guard and a tough looking DJ around nine-thirty and their crowd began to shuffle in around eleven-thirty. Thuggish, rough looking people with poor manners who didn't tip. Much. I tried to keep a neutral expression and roll with it even after some of them began calling me names like steroid king and muscle head (I've always been a weight lifter). It was a rough night but fairly uneventful and when I looked up and noticed it was three thirty in the morning I thought I'd made it through to the other side.
That's when I heard and saw the commotion at the coat check across from the bar. Two men struggling and a woman yelling. The security guy with the help of a couple of other guys pushed one man towards the back of the restaurant while the other man grabbed his coat and headed for the door with the woman and a couple of other guys. The woman paused by the entrance and stared into the back, the music, by some coincidence chose to stop at the same moment, and she shrilled out in a loud voice like fate to one and all;
"You, Motherfucker, in your JC Penny fucking suit! You betta get yourself some new shoes cause you going down!" Then she stormed out the door, the men trailing after.
Someone had the good sense to crank up the lights and now that the DJ had stopped I threw a Frank Sinatra CD into the player and the people started to leave. Henry's minion, the nasty Bulgarian bellhop stepped through the door that connected us to the hotel, "What the fuck are you assholes up to here tonight anyway?" He demanded.
  "A piss in a windstorm," I said then suddenly there was a series of loud pops which I recognized as the sound of small arms fire and through the half fallen construction paper on the front window I could see the flashing in the dark of the muzzle fire and all became pandemonium with people stampeding toward the back of the restaurant to escape the gun play. There was the sound of shattering glass on my right, I jerked my head in that direction and the bellboy was face first on the floor, dark red blood pooling around his head.  Then everything got quiet and Chai was running toward the front door with a bucket of water, I guessed to wash away the blood but I pulled him back and shook my head. I stuck my head out the front door and three men were lying, bleeding on the pavement as New York's finest converged on the scene from every possible direction. A Night to Remember.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Haunting

Back in 05' I was working for this company based out of Ft. Lauderdale Fl and they had a contract with the city and several private investors to operate a restaurant, cabaret and catering facility in an historical landmark called The River House. It was one of the oldest buildings in Ft. Lauderdale, which is to say; one of the oldest structures in South Florida. The River House was actually two houses built around the end of the Nineteenth Century by the Philmont Bryant's, a wealthy pioneering family who worked with Henry Flagler to push the railroad through, down to Key West. Now when I say the River House was two houses, it was actually two separate houses built by old man Bryant for his two sons (His own was just down the road and is now a museum) to live in with their families, which they did. The last family member to live in the house was Babara Estelle who passed away sometime in the 1970's where upon the property was taken over by the Chart House, a restaurant company which built a kitchen section in the middle to join the two houses. The result? A charming and beautiful though cranky restaurant on two floors with a covered terrace wrapped around each, boasting views of the extensive patios and gardens leading down to the New River and the Intercoastel.
I had worked for the company for about a year when I was offered the General Manager's spot at this magical location. Problem was haunted.
It was sometime during my first week in the place that Sal one of my waiters, came up to me during service to let me know; "J.R., table 101 wants to see you."
"Why? What's up?" I asked because its always better to know going in.
"I'm not too sure, I don't think its anything bad." Was Sal's response.
Now table 101, was a corner table on the second floor terrace over looking the river on one side and overlooked by a window from one of the inner dining rooms (Barbara Estelle's Room) on the other. Table 71 inside Barbara Estelle's Room was right up against the window and had a view of table 101 which could prove awkward, but wasn't usually an issue because aside from banquets or pharmeceutical parties we rarely used the room at all. Anyway I approached table 101 and from a distance saw about what you'd expect on a Wednesday night at an expensive restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale near where they keep the yachts. That is a tan, well dressed silver fox who kept fit and had a long legged honey about twenty years his junior seated across from him, holding hands in the candle light.
I strode right up to the table and thrust out a firm hand, he stood politely and shook with me. "My name's J.R.," I said, "I'm the manager, I was told you wanted to see me?" I spread my hands out before myself indicating my openness to oblige.
The Silver Fox put an arm confidentially around my shoulders as if we needed to create a circle of privacy, "I don't like to complain, J.R.," he explained, "it's just that we're out trying to enjoy an anniversary dinner," he spread a hand to indicate the table and the woman seated there, I took note of the vintage bottle of Chateau Haute Brion (about $250) and the goose neck decanter. "Thing is," he continued, "I just can't, not with her staring at us."
I looked over, he was pointing through the window into Barbara Estelle's room, he was pointing at table 71, table 71 was empty, in fact the entire room was empty. "Well..." I said a little doubtfully, "there's no one there now, I'll certainly look into...." I broke off because he was staring hard at me, I waited.
"You don't see her?" His voice was tense, "she's staring at us right now!"
Now the man didn't look crazy, but I was certainly beginning to entertain the thought that he might be. "Of course," I said (The customer is always right), "I'll speak with her directly, in the meantime I have a lovely table just on the other side, perhaps we can relocate you?"
This seemed to mollify him and we resolved the situation, or so it seemed. Later, toward the end of the evening I was at the Maitre D' stand checking the reservations for the following night and wishing the guests good bye when the Silver Fox and his bride came down the stairs on their way out. I called out an eager good night and he waved a distant hand and was almost out the door when he stopped to look at a picture on the wall. Now I've told you that the place was an historical landmark and the walls were covered with pictures of old Florida as well as portraits of the Philoment Bryant family and it was at one of these that he was staring. He waved me over and I could see him white beneath his tan, the picture was of a young woman from the Nineteen Twenties, a flapper, the plaque underneath read "Barbara Estelle".
"That's her," he said in a soft voice.
I felt a chill creep up my spine, "She's been dead since 1975." I heard myself say.
The man nodded and left.
It was about two AM that night when the dishwashers knocked on the door of the office where I was reviewing P&L's to tell me they were leaving. I wished them a good night, locked them out and returned to my spread sheets, I was alone. It was very quiet with only the whistling of a high wind outside and the creaking of the old Florida Pine boards from which the house was built to break the silence, and then I began to hear the faint buzz of inaudible conversation coming from below the office. There shouldn't have been anyone there but me so I picked up a flashlight and left the office to investigate but the closer I got to where I thought the noise had come from the fainter the sound became till when I got there all was quiet. I shook myself and decided it must have been my imagination, residual nerves from the "Barbara Estelle incident" I started back upstairs to retrieve my briefcase and call it a night and that's when the music started, loud, swing style music and I'm pretty sure, Billy Holiday vocals. But the music should have been turned off. Once in the office I opened the door to the music control panel and it was all dark, not only was it off, but it didn't seem to even have electricity on. I decided to leave, picked up my briefcase and the music stopped. I descended the steps in silence. At the back door in the kitchen I set the alarm and opened the door to the parking lot as a big gust of wind rushed at me and seemed to hurl me out, slamming the door behind me.
The next day I related all this to the chef, who had worked there for a number of years and he didn't seem at all surprised claiming that many people experienced unusual events there before and particularly susceptible were new managers.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Stayed Too Long at the Table 2

It didn't take very long for me to figure out that, Vinny, the guy who owned Pasta Brokers was a criminal and it wasn't very long after that I discovered he was an organized criminal, but it wasn't until the hit on Eddie Leno made the front page of the New York Post and all the Gambino royalty showed up on the six o'clock news entering and exiting the Racuglia Funeral Parlor in Queens that I began to realize that I knew a lot of the guys from work. Now a thinking man might have decided at that point that it was time to look for another job but I guess I wasn't a thinking man and well, I needed the money and hey, the money was good and the scene was exciting. It was the same year Goodfellows came out in the theater and I could take a date into a mobbed up restaurant and sign for the bill. Back then in the early Nineties there were no cell phones and personal computers were a novelty, so as the day bartender for Vinny I was also kind of like a personal secretary and manager, co-ordinating deliveries and business for the restaurant, vetting his phone calls, maintaining his phone book, keeping mental notes on information he needed which no one could write down and in the process I became pretty good buddies with Frankie the Chef who was Vinny's best friend from childhood and who, with my help ran the restaurant.
During the day we were pretty slow and we did a little business at night so there came a point in time when it was decided we needed to boost sales and this boost came in the form of a Piano player with a jazz trio. The guys name was Mike Cerruti and he was a music legend in New York mob circles. He played all the jazz standards, show tunes and Frank Sinatra covers that the silk suit guys loved and he drew in the Bonnano's Gambinos, Luccheses, Genoveses and Columbos in droves, packing the place and raining down the cash. I made a ton off these guys too as no one, bar none, in my entire experience of life, tips better.
Now sometimes in life you gotta be careful of success because it can attract unwanted attention and that's what happened to Vinny, because his boss, a Capo named Ronnie became really interested in the doings at Pasta Brokers when the music started. It became a show place for his crew and Vinny got put under a lot of pressure, almost like a GM getting ready for a Corporate visit. So it was like the end of the world the day the health department shut us down. I understand why they did it, I really do, the back of the house was filthy, the basement flooded whenever it rained and hey, it was Manhattan, there were rats and mice and roaches and absolutely nobody there knew anything about food safety. So they shut us down. They came on a Monday at 10 AM and by 11 AM they were slapping the sticker notices over the windows and doors and telling us we had fifteen days to prepare for a re-inspection. Well the inspector left and Frankie and I sat down at a table near the bar with a pot of demitasse and a bottle of Sambuca to smoke cigarettes and bitch.
Vinny came through the door at noon, he swept up to us at the table like a roaring storm surge, his face mottled red, smoke seeming to puff from his ears like a cartoon character.
"What the fuck?" He roared, "What the Fuck?!!" He pulled a chair violently up alongside the table where we sat and said in a coiled, controlled, steely tone, "Ronnie is gonna cut my balls off." Then he broke off, making a point to stare me, then Frankie in the eye, each in turn, "Then," he said, "I am gonna cut your balls off!"
I scrambled in my mind, I wanted to keep my balls between my legs, "Hey," I said, "Ronnie only comes here at night, right?"
Vinny looked at me like I'd just pissed on his leg, "So?" he grunted.
"So, the Health Inspectors only work till five."
Frankie started smiling then Vinny, then we all had a shot of Sambuca and that's how we pulled the wool over every one's eyes for two weeks. Every day at five o'clock we posted menus over the health department closing signs and opened for business. Every morning at close we pulled them back down and every day we worked on our health department punch list till we were allowed to officially re-open 15 days later and that's how we deceived the five New York Families and the Health Department of the City of New York.