Too Much Fun

Yesterday (Tuesday) felt packed to the gills. I worked lunch at Michael’s. I was fortunate to get a long-time VIP. He was sitting with another regular customer of more recent vintage (the AAA guy). ‘Hey, I didn’t know you guys knew each other,’ I said. We discussed how long each had been a fixture at Michael’s, but they didn’t divulge to me how or how long they knew each other.

AAA guy bears some mention. He’s not in the Rainmaker category, but he’s the kind of guy you’re always are happy to see in your station. He doesn’t drink, but he orders off the more-expensive dinner menu – and this usually encourages his guests to do the same. He also always orders an additional full meal to go, with dessert. And finally, he tips 20%.

Some wine was drunk, though AAA guy stuck with his Arnold Palmer. Towards the end AAA guy told me to put a $300 gift certificate on the tab before I brought the check. Surprisingly, it was the VIP, not AAA guy who accepted the check, $700+. I got $100 from him.

I was home in no time, with perfect traffic. I relaxed in bed just long enough to fall asleep for about five minutes, and that was fine. Arrangements were underway for Buddy Miner (remember him?) to come over for dinner, leading to an excursion to the local vintage theater (recently renovated) to see The Wrestler. Buddy had recently found a misplaced six pack of 2002 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red, so he brought one of those. It was amazing with our shrimp pasta. Check the link for an interesting review of Austin Wine Guy’s 5-wine Pahlmeyer dinner.

We found an amazing parking spot for the theater. It was bustling. We were happy to see this local place doing some business.

Oops! Turns out the movie was cancelled that night. There was a crowd because a local councilwoman was having a community event and had taken over the theater.

We have some Screeners courtesy of my brother in the film industry, so there was talk of going home to watch The Reader. Ultimately we decided we were already on a night out, so we found something else, Last Chance Harvey, at another theater. That show was about an hour later, so we stopped and had a drink. I had a Tanqueray 10 martini.

Last Chance Harvey was just about OK. Not good. Not really bad. Perfunctory love story between people with seemingly no options left. The problem was you didn’t get any real chemistry between Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. You never even saw them French kiss, much less make love. I believe that stuff was shot, but it probably just ‘didn’t work.’

We dropped off Buddy and continued on to have another drink. There was much to talk about.

I mentioned briefly about the in-laws visiting. Let me go a little more in depth. Due to the original purchase terms of our house, my parents are part owners. At the time, they signed on to pay the 2nd mortgage and live in the downstairs bedroom for two years. It came out to around 24% stake. When two years were up, we appraised the house. Son-of-a-gun if the place hadn’t appreciated tremendously – like $200,000. Remember those times? That was the end of our agreement, so we kind of locked in their equity right there. It came to about $50k. We didn’t have the money to pay them, but that was okay – these were the go-go days. Meantime, my parents (who had been more or less splitting their time between here and Michigan) elected to keep hold of that room for when they visited, and paid us rent. The rent thing went in and out of effect. Mostly I didn’t want to charge them, but on a couple occasions we had to contemplate renting that room to make our nut. That’s when they paid. They did so 12 or 15 months.

This year, as usual, they came around Thanksgiving and set up shop. Around the same time, the wife got a call from her Dad, Phineas (coincidentally, also from Michigan).

‘Great news! We’re coming to visit!’

‘Great! When? And how long are you staying,’ my wife said.

‘Well, we’ll be there for Christmas. And we’re staying until April.’

Come again?

The wife explained that would be difficult, told them the story about my parents, and that they will already be here.

‘Oh, that’s okay. We’ll be down in San Diego with Dotty (another daughter, with a one-bedroom apartment) quite a bit. We’ll be back and forth,’ he said.

He steamrolled it. This clearly was wrong on many levels. Even with the split time with Dotty, that’s still an F’ of a long stay. And these people are not easy to begin with. And, my wife feels exactly the same, so it’s not just ’cause they’re not my parents.

I started polling people at random about our situation. Turns out, no one has ever had, or ever heard of someone having, both sets of in-laws at the same time. It just isn’t done. The indignity of it is that it was Phineas and Adele who forced themselves on us.

It is bad taken merely at that. But these are also difficult people. They are both retired, and they’re both more like grandparents than regular parents. They have nothing to do, and all day to do it. They just want to talk.

Is that so hard? No, not for a week or so. Good to spend time with the folks, establish a rapport, build some history. But people with jobs and a crushing mortgage, and lots of other things they like to do, not to mention friends – you don’t really have 3-4 hours a day to set aside for this. And I’m not joking about 3-4 hours. The day starts (for us) with a pot of coffee, perhaps the newspaper or email . . . And they’re already up, waiting at the table downstairs, ready to talk. And boy can they talk after a full night’s rest and some coffee in them! There goes about an hour, before we gratefully leave for work. Coming home around 3 or 4 p.m., they’re waiting again. This session is limited to an hour or so if we are both working doubles. If it’s not – uh-oh. Then getting home at 11 p.m. sets up the Big Session. They’ve accommodatingly adjusted their schedule (mostly Phineas, actually) to go to bed later so they can enjoy more time with us. This is the 2-3 hour Big Session. The Big Session is typically Phineas goading his daughter (the wife) into playing solitaire while he watches, ‘helps,’ and comments on everything.

What do Phineas and Adele talk about? Mostly about food. What they’ve having later, what they already had, where we would like to eat with them, meals they’ve eaten, meals they’ve prepared. Aside from that, Phineas likes to uncork homespun nuggets of wisdom about life in general. He has few that are not completely trite and extremely time-worn. Actually, he has few in general, tending to repeat himself whenever the unbearable silence stretches out past 2 or 3 seconds. Adele is actually worse. She’s very unintelligent, the kind of person who latches onto a factoid she’s heard and invariably misunderstands it. Then she compounds her stupidity by using her misunderstood factoid to extrapolate new theories – themselves equally half-baked.

Their coffee maker was malfunctioning (yes, they brought their own coffee maker), as in, the coffee didn’t brew – the water came through the machine into the carafe hot but still clear. Her proposed solution was to figure out how to reprogram the clock. I asked why she thought that would affect the actual brewing of the coffee? She said that it worked fine when the clock was set correctly, but it had since become unplugged, which had reset the clock. I told her I didn’t think that was the problem and I would look at it. She told me not to bother, she would find the manual and try to fix it herself. Or else she’d take it to San Diego and have Dotty’s boyfriend take a shot at it – after all, he was the one who set the clock properly in the first place.

Meantime, my parents hadn’t really been behaving all that maturely themselves. After about a week of Phineas and Adele, they became sullen, pouting, unresponsive. They mostly stayed in their room unless absolutely necessary. My step-dad would sit out on the couch with his computer for hours and not even acknowledge hellos. My mom made a better effort, at least maintaining conversation when she was in their presence. But she would pretty quickly retreat to the room. They weren’t making things any better, but neither I nor my wife blamed them too much. We were doing the same thing.

The wife would purposely stay out after work and have a drink or two with friends rather than come home right away. I spend a lot of time up here on the computer with the door closed. Whenever the Big Session commences, I decline the invitation to play cards, and head up here. I can’t watch the Lakers in the living room because Phineas talks too much, so I do so in the bedroom. We usually dodge their attempts to sequester us for lunch somewhere on our days off. An account of what happens when we’re not successful at this can be found in the previous post, I Don’t Hate Mondays.

All in all, this was not working. But come Tuesday, they left (finally) for San Diego for a mere 9 days. They’ve been here for a month and a half solid (excepting their respective stays in the hospital – don’t ask, but be assured it’s just as ridiculous as everything else).

So to get back to my Tuesday recap, this is why we wanted to have another drink somewhere: so we could talk about the situation now that there’s some breathing room.

We had a frustrating half hour trying several bars that didn’t work: one was closed, one had pool night with no open chairs, another had karaoke with no open chairs, another we didn’t even enter because the people outside were seriously scary. We ended up at a familiar haunt and had three Cadillac Margaritas total: 1.5 each.

Most of the time we groused about the situation and how selfish and insensitive her father and stepmother were. (It should be noted that this same duo had almost zero input – financially and spiritually and time-spent – into the wife’s life until about five years ago. Phineas never paid child support after he left [when the wife was 6 years old]. The wife lived with them for a year, during which she was mostly grounded and they stole her paychecks.) We are all for acknowledging what your parents did in sacrificing for your well-being, but these people didn’t have any deposits in that bank. They just kind of appeared in her life once everything was fine again. And appeared here once we had a big house and they didn’t feel like spending the winter in Michigan and their other three kids had moved out – though they weren’t staying with any of them for some reason

Our discussion went on like that. And it ended with the wife saying she didn’t know what to do. I offered to be the one to have The Talk with them, as long as she was present. The talk will be frank and firm, but as diplomatic as possible. I’ll probably have to say something like, ‘A week or two is fine – we love it. But we have too much going on to put you up for four months. My parents are paying rent. They own part of this house. They have a say in staying here. But you’ve kind of overstepped your bounds by assuming it would be all right to live with us.’

I hope I can say something like that. But it might be hard . . .

So we get home and I still have the Lakers on Tivo. Well, nothing like a martini and the Lakers . . .

Come morning, I had clearly had Too Much Fun the night before. I spent most of the day with my version of a hangover: a tension headache across the back of my neck and head, and a general feeling of disorientation. It was a good day at Michael’s: $144. I made it through without screwing up anything.

When I got home I snuggled into bed for a nap . . . that lasted till 9:30 p.m.

My days of being hungover at work are behind me, but every now and then things get away from you.


I Don’t Hate Mondays

Just a quickie today, as I had the day off from both jobs.

I wrote a little about the Waiter’s Weekend previously. For us, it’s usually Monday-Tuesday. If you have tenure at your current job, you might have Sunday-Monday.

I usually set aside in my mind some things I want to get done because I have the whole day off. Today, for instance, I went to the Post Office; bought some newfangled 3-way fluorescent (energy saving) bulbs and some metal bracing straps at Home Depot; bought my lottery tickets for the next three days (for more information; check Waiter’s Retirement Program), checked to verify that my previous investments in the Waiter’s Retirement Program hadn’t ‘matured;’ bought some Red Man chew; filled up the car and cleaned the windows (I’ll nickname that the ‘Bachelor’s Car Wash’); came home and used the bracing straps to fix the dishwasher – anchoring it back into the wall; wrote for a mere ½ hour on my script; and now am entering a post for the blog.

I felt pretty productive for all that. But in between, I spent quite a bit of time drinking coffee and reading the paper and catching up on Internet reading; hounding Fantasy Basketball for updates on my teams’ production this evening; and worst of all, eating a great lunch with my in-laws that just went on and on, the drivel more abundant than the free-refill-sodas. A simple lunch (their treat) was a 2.5 hour ordeal – only ten minutes of which was driving.

That was my day. But what I wanted to share was, every Monday a certain thought crosses my mind: What is Ciera doing today? It used to be, What are Candy and Ciera doing today?

If you recall from previous posts, Candy and Ciera are best friends. They met working at Carney’s. Candy got fired more than a year ago. A previous analogy for Candy and Ciera can be found here, re: The Simpsons.

I’d Put The Girl In Front As The Match To Ciera (Hairstyles Have Changed, Of Course)

But have you ever seen the Andy Griffith Show episode The Fun Girls? It’s really more to the point. Candy and Ciera are much skinnier (the times are different now), but they’re about the same age. They act the same – adjusting for caricature in the TV series. You have to see the episode. If you have Tivo, make a wish list for “Griffith Fun Girls.” There are two episodes with that in the title, both are great.

Anyway, ever since I’ve worked with these two delightful women, Monday has been their day of leisure. Their interpretation of leisure being: begin drinking at breakfast (1 p.m.), continue drinking somewhere else, continue drinking somewhere else but have lunch (4 p.m.) there, call some friends to meet you for drinks somewhere else, hopefully meet up with some ‘sponsors’ who will take you to dinner around 8 p.m.

I’ve been witness (and participant) a few times for the larger part of a Fun Girls Monday . . . It’s pretty goddamn fun.

In the history of my restaurant experience, I’ve never made a phone call to a fellow female server just ‘as friends.’ Sure, I’ve pretended, but I was really trying to get in her pants. Except for Ciera. It’s probably because 1) I’m older now, 2) she really is interesting and a lot of fun, 3) I like her a lot, 4) I worry about her sometimes.

I didn’t call her today. But as always, once I was up and had a little coffee in me, I started wondering what the Fun Girls were doing?

Maybe, for a treat, I’ll ask tomorrow and report back what all went on.

Weekends Going Strong

There’s been some concern about me in cyberspace after my blowout in the luxury box at the Lakers/Clippers game. In fact, I’m fine. I’ve merely had a relatively busy three days, and was also spending time working on my screenplay again after abandoning it through the holidays.

The game was essentially a Lakers laugher. Personally, I ate enough free food to cause bloat pain. Drank four beers, too. The box was pretty cool. Previously, my only luxury box experience was at New Comiskey for a White Sox game. The Staples Center has done a better job with their boxes. The baseball game was a fun experience. It was a lot like watching a game from a great distance in someone’s really cool living room. The orientation of the box actually served to divert your attention from the field (unless you were watching on one of the numerous TVs). For this basketball game, you still have that effect in the ‘living room’ portion of the box: carpet; granite counters laden with all kinds of prepared food; two refrigerators stocked with beer, water, and soft drinks; a freezer full of ice; a sofa and comfortable chairs; flat panel TV and several regular tube-type models; art on the walls. The difference (and it’s a big difference) is that to the front of the box there are 20 stadium seats on three stepped rows. These rows extend into the arena, with open air above and below you, so you feel again part of the live event experience. A+ for Staples Center.

Buddy poured Merus Reserve at his condo while we watched Keith Olbermann act smug and act funny on MSNBC. The drive to downtown L.A. was extremely smooth: 40 minutes door to parking lot. Home was even better: 25 minutes. We all had a nice time. It turned out the banker feteing Buddy was actually his ex-banker. He had switched banks and was trying to steal Buddy back.

Since Wednesday, I’ve had some very good days on the job. Lunch Thursday was $109. Dinner at Carney’s Thur-Sat: $165, $220, $275. I continue to marvel at the resiliency of the local economy – at least my section of it.

We lost a busboy last night. He had put in his notice. We’re not sad to see him go. Peoro is Primo’s (our main busser) brother. He came from a neighboring restaurant where he had been promoted to waiter, then got ‘laid off.’ He was very frustrating to us servers. My take is that he never got it out of his head that he was no longer a waiter. Among his many irritating habits:

  1. Watching us count our money at the end of the shift.
  2. Taking orders from tables instead of sending the waiter to do it.
  3. Obliviousness to table maintenance. Getting him to fill waters was literally a matter of pointing to an empty glass and asking him to please fill it.
  4. Shyness about asking guests if they were done so he could clear their plates. This was surprising in view of his eagerness to approach diners to take drink, food, and dessert orders.
  5. Walking around to appear busy while never actually picking anything up.
  6. Refusal/inability to learn position numbers for running entrees (he was with us the better part of a year).
  7. Asking ‘Decaf?’ when we ask him to bring coffees. No. I want two coffees. If I wanted Decaf I would have said ‘Two Decafs.’ If I wanted one Decaf, one Regular I would have said, ‘One Coffee, one Decaf.’
  8. And my all-time busser pet peeve: Showing up to take dirty plates out of my hands after I’ve just cleared the whole table. Where were you 60 seconds ago? I’ve already done all the work. Don’t act like you’re doing your job showing up now.

He’s going to become a waiter again at a new Lebanese restaurant in a poor section of town.

Fair Approximation Of Peoro’s Table Maintenance

Last night I had another Elbow Man. He didn’t go to the Nth degree with it, but he trapped that damned thing for a good fifteen minutes after a 3 hour meal. And it was indeed the scenario where he was lording over the moment so his guests could fully appreciate his generosity. And it was indeed him who held forth that entire fifteen minutes. And it was him who made a joke about the tip just before he filled in and totaled his charge voucher. (Every waiter knows that any mention of the tip in any context means you’re getting a bad tip. A joke of ‘We’ll take that off your tip. Ha-ha!’ The boast, ‘Don’t worry, I’m gonna take good care of you.’ The question, ‘Is the tip included?’ All these comments and more are sure death.)

I’ve had a history with this guy. The first time he came in, he brought his own wine and we charged $25 each corkage. It turned out that one of the wines he brought was the label of someone I knew personally – a friend of a friend. It was a boutique-type wine very few know about. It also turned out he knew the vintner as well. So we traded stories and such. This diner is the kind who likes to talk wine. (Last night he chastised me for pouring too much of his precious Behrens & Hitchcock in everyone’s glasses: ‘Less is more.’ Incidentally, the level I poured was less than half a normal glass of wine as poured at Carney’s.) Anyway, that first occasion he complained bitterly about the corkage price. I gave him my usual (and quite valid) spiel that Carney prices her wines at less than double markup from wholesale, which is very inexpensive for a nice restaurant. She wants to encourage guests to take advantage of her award winning wine list. I also pointed out that while $25 might be a little higher than average for fine dining, I had seen many restaurants with $30, $40, even $50 corkage fees.

‘Well it’s ridiculous. With this corkage, I might as well have bought something off the list . . .’

Right. Now you’re getting the idea, dude.

Back to last night, he received the charge voucher (total before tip: $293), poised his pen over the tip line, and said, ‘Okay. So this means you get $29. Ha-ha!’

I just walked away. The tip was $45.

Tivo At Rest

My Tivo machine will be getting a day off today, as I attend the Lakers-Clippers game in person at Staples Center. Buddy Miner, a regular customer who became a friend (who said it can’t be done?) received some seats in a luxury box from his banker. Since Buddy and I watch a Lakers game on TV together every now and then, he thought of me.

It’s a Clippers home game. The funny thing is that the Game is the same, but if the Clippers host at Staples Center, it’s the best game of the season. If the Lakers host at Staples Center, it’s the worst game. So I’m going to the best game of the season. Thankfully, Kobe Bryant will be in the lineup despite suffering a dislocated finger in the last game.

The festivities start at Buddy’s penthouse(ish) condo in a downtown tower. He’s a big wine guy, so no doubt we’ll be drinking some $100 stuff like Hundred Acre or Pahlmeyer. Then off to the Box. Can’t wait!

It was a $55 day at Michael’s. Not much business. My best party was a 7-top of bankers. They were in conversation the whole meal, mostly about the bank bailout situation. I heard some things like, the next phase of bail out money is more likely to be deployed helping distressed mortgage holders. One said he didn’t think it would fly to take another round of money and have nothing to show for it to the public. In other words, he as much as acknowledged that the first $350 billion just disappeared, leaving ‘us’ no better off than before. They also discussed that the government wouldn’t take over the banking industry, as is happening to a large degree in other countries, because the People won’t tolerate it. They said that even if private takeovers don’t occur because they don’t make sense for the buying institution, the government is urging those institutions to continue with their diligence, because an opportunity might come up later through the government under better terms.

To their credit, it was a light meal – mostly salads and iced teas. No fiddling while Rome burns today.

Reflections On President Obama’s Inauguration Speech

I woke up late (on-call at Michael’s and they didn’t need me). Logging onto the L.A. Times as usual, fresh cup of coffee at the ready, I learned the President Obama had already been inaugurated. For some reason, I thought it would happen later on, evening East Coast time. Several people in my currently overpopulated household had thought the same thing.

So I read his address. It was tremendous. I even welled up with emotion reading the few closing paragraphs about George Washington’s message to the People in the Revolution’s darkest hour.

Later, I watched a video of the address on I was moved slightly more by the video, perhaps because of the delivery.

I was struck by the underlying message of the speech: We’re in for some tough times. And it won’t be just a blip.

Obama exhorted us to buckle down for the long haul, to be ready to fight for principles, fight with courage, sacrifice for our ideals. Because those things are all we’ll have to sustain us through the hard times ahead.

As if we couldn’t read the forecast anyway, President Obama laid it out for us pretty clearly. As bad as things are now, they’re going to get worse.

I understand that although currently my income hasn’t suffered excessively, and I can still make my mortgage, it’s probably only a matter of time before it gets really hard. If I’m lucky, ‘really hard’ will mean I still have both my jobs but the money is down. It could mean, however, that I lose one or both jobs.

We read daily about plunges in retail sales, wholesale revenues, exports, real estate values, financial market values. And for now, it’s just news. We sit in our homes watching our televisions, warm during these winter months (maybe too warm lately in California), content with food in the cupboard and refrigerator.

But President Obama is trying to prepare us for the next wave. As the economy continues to falter, fewer people will have jobs. Those with jobs will have less income. Those with something to spend will save it to protect themselves against tomorrow. All of which will lead to more of the same. Actually, it’s not just a wave. It’s a set of waves that will come breaking one after the other.

Perhaps the existing stimulus programs and the President’s forthcoming programs will arrest the trend. But surely we’re in for at least a couple of those waves before something positive takes hold.

Of course it’s mostly confidence. If the banks had confidence, they’d lend more money. If the people had confidence, they’d spend more money (and borrow more). If the businessmen had more confidence, they’d start new ventures, invest more money. And things would be rolling again in some semblance of normality.

Or maybe (just thinking out loud here) it’s all a conspiracy for our country to maintain its world dominance. The U.S. government owes a lot of money – probably too much. Which we have to pay back in dollars. If only we could just print up those dollars for free and pay everyone back . . . Well, you normally can’t do that because it leads to runaway inflation.

Yet we are doing it and inflation is virtually nil. How can this happen?

Remember the Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules.

The U.S. is still the dominant nation. When the world economy falls into a tailspin, we all suffer, but the weak suffer the most. Imagine a forest fire that ends with only the largest, most hardy trees still standing. Yes, they are severely damaged, but they are the only ones left.

When this fire is over, it’s possible that we with the Gold will be the only ones left to make the Rules.

Don’t listen to me. I’ve always entertained conspiracy theories. Don’t even ask what my first thoughts were after 9/11.

At any rate, even with my crackpot half-hearted conspiracy theory, we’re still in for a difficult stretch – and it could be a long one.

Meantime, let’s all do our best. Let’s be productive and generous. Let’s help the people having a harder time than ourselves. As President Obama said, be willing to take a cut in pay so a friend can keep his job. With nothing but hope and virtue . . let’s meet the challenge.

My Third Waiting Job

I guess it’s gonna be a series. Coming up, the latest installment on my career waiting tables. But first, a recap from today’s news . . .

Last night (Thursday) at Carney’s turned out to be pretty good. There was only one reservation on the books when we opened, but as usual lately, everything came as walk-ins. The first few years at Carney’s, the owners had iron-clad rules regarding reservations. It was most unfriendly. They absolutely blocked out 7 & 7:30 reservations. The theory being to force people to 6 or 6:30, thus freeing the table for an 8 or 8:30 seating. Business was such that this worked the first year I was there. But increased competition chipped away at demand, and soon we were always full at 6:30, with only a couple of 8:30s on the books. Further erosion led to even the early seating being less than full most nights. This caused some uncomfortable situations where guests who’d sought 7 p.m. but were shoved to 6:30 would be sitting in the dining room at 7:30 looking at empty tables and wondering aloud why we wouldn’t give them their original requested time?

Finally, the economy tanked enough that Carney and Harry lifted the blackout and started accepting reservations any time people wanted to come – if the tables were free. But it was too late to make much difference. In the meantime, people had been taught that if you wanted 7 p.m. at Carney’s Corner, you just walked in – and more often than not, you’d get your table, or get it pretty quickly. So now, way more than half our business is walk-ins, even on weekends. In squeezing too tightly to control, the owners about lost it completely.

Anyway, we rallied from the weak reservation sheet to pull in $161 each, take home. Which is good for a week night these days. Frank the bartender was a snake as always. There’s a certain group of daily drinkers who bar-hop along a circuit. When they alight, they’re always good for 3, 4, 5 rounds, plus are the types to pick up tabs of women in the vicinity. And they’re good tippers. Because we’ve become friendly with them – Richard Mountain especially, the best of them all – we have schooled them not to sit at the bar, but instead at the tables, where they become our (the servers’) customers. But that doesn’t stop Frank. As soon as Richard Mountain walks in the door, Frank’s pouring his VO rocks and running it out to him directly. Through the evening, Frank is somehow able to get out from behind his bar and troll the floor, furnishing new rounds for Richard and his cronies – despite that we (the waiters) are constantly patrolling our tables and very available to service them. Frank even starts tabs himself, rather than the proper method of letting the server know what he’s brought Richard and friends. The coup de grace is at sign out. Frank will try to force another drink on them, and when they refuse, saying they want to check out, he will rush to tally their tab and run the card himself. Fortunately, we have some ballsy girls working the lounge who read him the riot act when necessary. Ciera, in particular, will let him have it. ‘Stay the f— away from Richard Mountain! He’s not sitting with you. You have a full f—ing bar and he’s all I’ve got.’

So, now back to my illustrious job history. Next up: Olive Garden.

It’s 1986 and the chain is just starting to roll out. I saw the new restaurant being built on the big thoroughfare in town and put in my application. True to form, I returned and called several times to show my eagerness. The call came and eventually I was part of the opening crew. A word of advice to those who’ve never opened a restaurant before: Don’t.

The feeling is that you’re getting in early on the gold rush. You wait till the place opens and starts filling seats, it’s already too late – you’ll never get in at that point. That’s true only to a degree. And when you hear what I’m about to say, you’ll understand that opening a restaurant is usually the wrong thing to do.

There are a lot of things wrong with being on the opening crew:

  1. Training. It’s not the usual, follow someone around for a few days, pass a test or two, and hit the floor to start making money. For my Olive Garden experience (and most others, I’m sure), you’re subjected to more interviews than normal. Once hired, you have two weeks of training. And this is full-time training. You show up at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. The first week is ‘classroom’ only. The brown-nosing and competition is almost intolerable, as everyone wants to be recognized as a gung-ho go-getter, maybe even get anointed Shift Leader. You’re fed so much rah-rah propaganda you feel like you need a shower at the end of every day. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: You’re getting paid minimum wage for this.
  2. Staffing & Money. Once you get to the end of the training rainbow and open for business, the pot of gold is more like a tin thimble. Server staff is double what it needs to be. Management is playing two games: A) Get everybody shifts so they can practice and improve their game, and B) Over-staff so service for all the first-time guests is as good as it can be. These are fine strategies. But what happens is that instead of 5 or 6 table stations, you get three or even two. You also get cut earlier because of over-staffing. Also, despite the over-staffing, it’s not uncommon to have less than a full weekly schedule. Obviously, all this boils down to much less money than you could be making. As an aside, management at new restaurants also often try to institute unreasonable tip-outs. Where bar and busser is all that should be required, you might be getting pressure to send money to the kitchen and hosts. They also might set the percentages too high.
  3. Patience is not rewarded. Soon enough, that is. The real pot of gold appears when the staff has finally thinned out, when station sizes finally inflate, when servers are recognized for their strength, when tip outs get adjusted fairly, when your shift includes two or three turns. But it takes months for this to happen, and it doesn’t occur all at once. Let’s say things finally settle out in six months and you’re making the money you always expected. That’s six months of making 50% of normal income. How do you make that up? Assume you took the job because you expected to be making 20% more than your previous job, and assume that happened eventually. If your old job got you $100 a shift, you’d be down $4800 from that after six months. Once you finally started making $120 a shift, you’d have to continue that for 12 months to make up that $4800. That’s 1.5 years just to get to scratch even if you’d never left your old job (or in my case, taken a comparable job at an existing restaurant).

The sole benefit from opening a restaurant would be if you were a complete greenhorn. As a novice waiter, you wouldn’t be losing anything, because there was no previous job to compare it to. You’d also gain a lot from the in-depth training and ‘training wheels’ approach. But then, even new restaurants hire almost solely people with prior experience. So the one benefit is realized by very few.

I went through all the above at Olive Garden. The training honchos came in and puffed us up with tales of $100-150 shifts, about how having fewer tables translates into more money via better tip percentages. He said in his experience, 20% was the minimum tip.

Not so, in practice.

If you’ve been to an Olive Garden, and I assume everyone has, you know they emphasize their unlimited Soup, Salad, and Breadsticks. It’s even a menu choice (at least it was then). Unfortunately, that’s because it’s the best they have to offer. The food is unimaginative and mostly bland. Fettuccine Alfredo, which could be a garlicky, cheesy delight, is overcooked and pasty. Lasagna is just a stack of blank filler.

Those Breadsticks though . . . Mmmmmm!

I left Olive Garden after just a couple months. I had decided to move to Northern California and write a novel with a high school buddy. I never made more than $50 at Olive Garden, and usually walked with $20-30.

I did get one nugget that continues to guide me in the profession, however. At one point in conversation with a busboy, he was telling me about his job and how it related to waiters. ‘You waiters have to know how to use us bussers. These people can get good service and nobody has to work that hard. You ever notice Sydney (a heavy-set waiter in his mid-twenties)? You ever seen him walk more than two miles-an-hour? That’s ’cause he doesn’t have to hurry, ’cause he knows how to let us help him. And he gets killer tips.’

In other words, Delegation.

My Second Waiting Job

Back to work for lunch, yesterday and today. I tallied $108 and $70, respectively. I commented to a regular diner who asked me how things were going: ‘Surprisingly, since the first of the year, it’s actually been busier than before. Maybe all the Bailout money’s being spent here.’

It is tough to figure. But maybe it’s as simple as people are shifting down at Michael’s from dinners to less expensive lunches.

Yesterday I told you about my first waiting job at Red Robin in the mid-’80s. My second job was at a place called Baxter’s, a mid-level lunch, dinner, and nightclub place. Very ’80s. Think torqouise and mauve and grey, Nagel-ish art on the walls. The chain may still be going somewhere else, but it disappeared from Southern California in the ’80s.

I was most excited to work there because it was a nightclub in the evenings, with a bunch of hot bartenders and cocktail waitresses. Baxter’s was super-corporate because I believe it had not just its own bureaucracy, but also a parent corporation’s. Part of Grace restaurants, I think. Not that they were any good at it. I remember my first day of training, observing the kitchen. They were short staffed, of course, so an assistant manager was chopping lettuce and vegetables, preparing the bulk mixed salad. He was pretty coked-up, bragging about how he only had two hours sleep because he was partying all night. Corporate or no, this was going to be a pretty loose place to work.

The food was a bit more expensive than Red Robin, so the money was a little better at lunch, and a little bit better still at dinner. As usual, I had a few crushes going on. I actually had two dates through the restaurant. One was a blond hostess, call her Susan. Her birthday had happened the day before, so I gave her a card when I picked her up. She read the card while I chatted with her mom. Susan thanked me for the card, then we had our date. I thought it went okay. I called her the next day and left a message. Nothing. Didn’t see her at work for about a week, while continuing to leave messages. When I finally saw her at work, she explained that it wasn’t going to work out for us. She was freaked out by my card. I’d written something like, ‘It’s great that our first date is the day after your birthday. It’ll be easy to remember when we tell our children when we first met.’

Ha-ha. I thought it was funny, my being deliberately over-the-top in jumping to conclusions. Even if it wasn’t funny, she didn’t get it, either way. ‘It freaked me out,’ she said.

My next ‘conquest’ was an even better girl. Tracy was a bartender, 27, brunette, fantastic body, very attractive. Our date was framed that she’d been dating someone for a few years, but it was kind of ending. I took her to drinks after work at a new club, themed to Italian auto racing. We had a good time getting drunk on margaritas, then went back to her place. We made out for awhile. Things were going very well. She showed me some photo albums.

I commented on a group of pictures of her and her ‘old’ boyfriend. ‘He’s a dork,’ I said. ‘No he’s not.’ ‘Well, compared to me, anyway. Come on.’

I was cocky back then, for some reason – I think because that was how my friends acted around girls, and they were almost all more successful than I was.

‘Well he’s not. And you’re not so great.’

Ho-kay! That put the ki-bosh on any more making out. Next thing I knew, the date was over, never to be resumed another time. You live and learn. Rather, you screw up and learn.

Other than those two feathers in my cap, my time at Baxter’s wasn’t very memorable. About two months after starting, I sprained (possibly broke) my ankle playing basketball. I didn’t go to the doctor, but I should have. Enormous swelling and pain. I had to use crutches for a couple of weeks. Obviously, I couldn’t work during this time. When I came back, they gave me another week off before instituting the ‘Minimalist Schedule’ waiters sometimes experience: one lunch, a dinner on-call, an expediting shift. The third week of this I voiced my concerns. They said they didn’t have the shifts to give away. If I wanted more hours, I could do some hosting . . .

That wasn’t my bag, though I did cover a couple host shifts.

The graffiti on the wall was clear. I had to get something else. So I hit the pavement again.