Uncle Ben Revisited

So I ran into Uncle Ben at a local bar a couple Mondays ago. I was out with the wife for a ‘Monday Holiday,’ having a cocktail at a ritzy golf club bar. On the way home we passed The House and I suggested we stop for a drink. It was about 4 p.m. ‘And we’ll probably run into Uncle Ben – ’cause you know this is his favorite Monday hangout.’

Sure enough, 75% into our Cadillac Magaritas, Uncle Ben pulls up in his privately-hired PT Cruiser taxi. We were among only six people in the bar. He recognized us immediately and sat down at the next stool. We talked a lot about music (Ben is a keyboard player in his non-millionaire, starving artist life). Turns out he gave The House a cd by Doug Sahm to put in their jukebox. I’m a Doug Sahm fan, so that was a nice topic. We talked about his Bob Seger story about when Bob came out for a late-career tour (not his last one) and demanded a car with a trunk full of cocaine. Ben saw the spectacle and just laughed.

Understand, guys with money have access to stuff most of us can only imagine. I don’t know Ben’s connection with Bob Seger that allowed him to be around for this big party scenario. I didn’t get the impression that they’re friends.

Over a period of 90 minutes, Ben bought three house rounds (‘Set everybody in the place up with a drink!). Of course, there were never more than six customers present, but that’s no knock on Ben. I’ve seen him buy several house rounds (on multiple occasions) for full houses of 20-30 people. When he left, he paid his modest tab of $120 with three hundred dollar bills – the rest going to the bartender.

Ben said he hadn’t been into Michael’s lately because he’d been travelling, and because he was no longer doing business with a certain person who had used Michael’s as a sort of remote office. Apparently, one of this persons associates had recently been indicted for running a (another!) Ponzi scheme. Ben claimed he had felt things were squirrelly and kept at arm’s distance – then found his suspicions confirmed when the indictment came down.

I don’t think I’ve written about my greatest Uncle Ben story.

I was on the closing shift at Michael’s one Wednesday about a year ago. The day was ticking down with no guests in the restaurant after 2:30 p.m. Around 3 p.m. Uncle Ben wanders in through the bar door. Good news because this was the stretch of time he was doing a lot of business at lunch with the aforementioned nameless person. It was going to be a party of seven.

So this is huge.

There were a couple of women in the party. Everyone was good for red wine . . . except one of the girls. So Ben ordered our best White Burgundy for her alone – $170. As for the red, he stated that he knew these fellows liked their American Napa Valley wines, but he preferred French, and he wanted to show them something. How ’bout a Burgundy? Pick something out, he told me.

I consider myself quite knowledgeable about wine – and I know from tasting experience about quite a lot of American wines – but I don’t have mental notes about French wines because I haven’t tasted a lot of them, nor enough to be able to compare. On the other hand, from what I have tasted, I understand basic principles and tendencies of those wines.

So to start, I of course went to the right margin of the wine list – the price column. Uncle Ben likes good wine (who doesn’t?), but I’ve noticed that he picks stuff to impress. Turning him on to a $70 bottle that drinks like a $200 bottle is not going to impress in the manner he desires. He’d rather spend the money and impress how great the wine is – and how much it costs.

I arrived at a $1000 Burgundy (the name escapes me now). They went for another bottle an hour later. They were still rolling when our resident wine guy, an assistant manager, came on for his shift. And not a moment too soon. There were no more $1000 bottles. Our wine guy went to table and pulled a $1200 bottle out of his ass that wasn’t even on the list.

Suffice to say I did an excellent job serving the table. Although my shift was usually over at 4:30, I naturally stuck with Uncle Ben. By 7 p.m. I decided I could make a break for it and said I had a dinner date with the wife and asked (believe it or not!) if I could close out. Now, the rule of thumb for a party (and a check) of this magnitude is that you never ask them to ‘close out’ because you have to get going. You just wait it out. Don’t be stupid and unprofessional.

At the same time, I had the benefit of a semi-personal relationship with Uncle Ben. I’ve drank with him personally on several occasions. I’ve run into him outside the confines of my restaurants many times. I’ve had personal conversations with him. And I’ve been serving him at various institutions for more than ten years.

I didn’t feel at all bad or reluctant to ask for the ‘close out’ at that point. And it was no problem.

It was a $4800 check. Ben pulled out a massive wad of $100’s . . . oops! Not enough. He reached deeper and found another wad to cover the bill. He gave me $6000 to cover it, the rest for me.

Of course I went back to thank him again. One of his cronies asked me, kind of sarcastically, if I was taken care of properly.

‘Oh yes. I won’t forget this day,’ I said.

So that was nice.

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