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...................