[There was a prelude to this account. I felt it was necessary to set the stage for this turning point in my career/life. Click to read about How I Got To My Fourth Waiting Job.]
THE ACTUAL RUSTY PELICAN WHERE I WORKED
Were things in 1986 so much different than nowadays? I don’t know.
I moved up to NoCal with about $1000. Most of that was allocated to rent/deposit and the cash needed to set up my new residence: utility bills, washer and dryer, perhaps some really bad furniture beyond the slightly-better furniture donated by local friends and relatives, a mattress for my bedroom floor, and a chair and desk for my radical (Apple II clone) Franklin Ace OMS (Office Management System) computer and dot matrix printer.
I didn’t mention that I had a job waiting for me.
That’s because I didn’t.
For some reason, I considered my 8-month résumé (Red Robin, Baxter’s, Olive Garden) impeccable. No problem getting a good serving job with a history like that, right?
Pretty stupid in retrospect, but I didn’t know any better.
At the same time, it worked out just as I’d stupidly expected. I hit the pavement right away searching for work – best places first – and luckily got hired at the best place. The Rusty Pelican.
Contrary to the funky coffee mug graphic, this location was very state-of-the-art, top-level – at least in NoCal. Although it was 1986, the restaurant was only a couple years old and was very modern. There were multiple levels, pillars and pond-like divisions made of hedges and walls of big stones, burnished wood furniture, brass and glass in the walkways, and all of it with great lighting. It was a grotto on a sea of perfect carpeting.
And then there was the bar, on a separate side of the building. As in, walk in the front doors: Hostess Desk at center, dining room to the left, bar to the right. There was a stage for live music, and an extensive patio. As you might expect, there was a back connection between the bar and the kitchen.
My second interview was with manager Tom. There were three of us, and we walked well, apparently. I didn’t know it at the time, but later, manager Tom told me he always had new hires ‘Do the walk. I don’t let them follow me into the kitchen – I make them go ahead so I can watch the walk.’ From his tone and the smile on his face (when he told me this) I took it to mean he mostly wanted to see the girls’ bodies. But to be fair, knowing if an applicant was athletic, graceful, balanced and confident would be good information to have as a manager. I assume you believe that . . . hey, it was the ’80s! Anyway, we all got hired.
The initial deal was lunches only. The Pelican didn’t hire directly for dinner shifts; they filled openings in the dinner schedule with promotions from lunch. The path was lunch waiter to expediter at night to dinner shifts. It was Monday through Friday, no lunch on weekends. I usually worked all five days.
But first there was Training.
You must understand the lofty position The Rusty Pelican occupied in the restaurant business for a period seven or eight years. Each store offered 20-30 varieties of fresh (never frozen) fish each day, prime rib on weekends, a New York steak, Australian lobster tails, and the usual variety of fresh seafood appetizers. I was not any kind of experienced diner at that time, so I’m sure there were comparable or better restaurants in places – especially in more established areas like Orange County, where the chain started. But as the company expanded and put stores in Brea, Woodland Hills, Portland and my town in NoCal, these stores were a healthy cut above the best those areas previously offered. Do you remember when you first entered a TGIFriday’s (or am I dating myself even more?) and looked around at all the crazy, eclectic décor, the massive menu, all the fun cocktails, and the lively atmosphere? Didn’t you think, Wow! This place is cool. This place is going to be really busy.
That’s the effect a new Rusty Pelican had on its clientele, but at the high-end dining level, not casual dining. And that’s what happened. Lunches were just average – there wasn’t a serious concentration of businesses to provide the customer base. But dinner and the bar was crazy busy. People drinking sophisticated wines like Beringer Chardonnay. Or the king of them all, Grgich Hills Chardonnay . . .
What did I say at the start? Was it a different time? Yes, it was. I’m not sure younger readers will understand how mind-boggling it was that people were spending $40 for a bottle of wine. This was the first step out of the White Zinfandel era. What we take for granted today about guests’ awareness about and willingness to order wine, was just getting started. And The Rusty Pelican was at ground zero for this as it reached the masses in California.
Not to mention all the ‘flown in daily’ fresh fish. Twenty-five varieties, all fresh! I came in on the second wave, where we had to ‘spiel’ five charbroiled fish, five sautéed, and the swordfish Malia (name of the executive chef) and blackened Mahi-Mahi. The first generation was responsible for reciting every single fish and stating how it could be prepared.
So training was going to be a bitch. First day, we received 8″x11″ training manuals that were two inches thick. That was the food and drink knowledge manual. There was another manual half the size dealing with policy and systems.
Every fish had 3-5 adjective descriptions. We had to know the ingredients in everything from the clam chowder (both Manhattan and New England) and salad mix, to the Teriyaki Chicken dish. We had to know how to make Prime Rib and how long to broil a fish on each side. We had to learn how to make every classic drink, including garnish. Yes, we’re talking Mai Tai, Old Fashioned, Long Island Iced Tea, Tom Collins, Martini, Manhattan, Sours . . . pretty much anything famous and popular. We even had to know what glasses each drink came in (names like Fiesta and Hurricane). We had to learn general descriptions of the various varietals of wines (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, etc.), and what to pair with them. We had to understand (and answer questions about) after dinner drinks like cognacs and ports.
Our head trainer told us that once we finished training at the Rusty Pelican, we could wait tables anywhere. He was right, at least as far as mechanics and fundamental restaurant/product knowledge went. If the whole of possible waiter knowledge is (an unattainable) 100% and I’m at 90% today, I learned 80% at the Rusty Pelican.
The test was tough. The food and service sections, though long and detailed, were pretty easy because we had actually done the service and seen/eaten the food. So there was a tactile memory there to help. But the Rusty Pelican was dead serious about the bar test. No joke, every single one of those drinks and their components was on that test. And, of course, we didn’t have the benefit of tactile memory in this case.
Regardless, I passed. I’ve always been good at tests.
It was kind of tough doing the job at first because, like a lot of restaurants, the training is focused on the dinner experience. After all, that’s usually where the house makes the big money – and its reputation. The pitfall being that lunch is a different experience and it attracts a different diner. I spent all that time learning drinks and no one’s asking me about them (or ordering them – even worse!). I’m just filling iced teas and placing orders for seafood sandwiches and shrimp salads. And obviously the pace is way quicker than I was led to believe.
I remember my first complaint. Though I was green, it really was not my fault. It was a classic scenario. Four women having a ‘leisurely’ lunch. They ordered White Zinfandel, and actually sent a bottle back. Oddly enough, it really was sour – actually a bad bottle. But what are the odds? Anyway, they refused to place an order: ‘Oh, we haven’t even looked yet!’ I finally got the order about an hour into their visit. The food came promptly. They ordered another bottle of wine. The meals were fine. I cleared the table promptly. They declined dessert and coffee, wanting only to finish their wine. I brought the check. For the next 20 minutes, they sipped their wine and ignored the check presenter entirely. I looked in on them at 3-4 minute intervals. I check on them one more time . . . no progress. I go in back to continue my side work. Within 90 seconds, a manager is back in the kitchen holding the check, calling my name. ‘Where were you? This lady came up to the desk and said she wanted to pay but their waiter wasn’t around.’ The ladies got a few free appetizer cards for their outrage.
Remember that old classic Irate Customer gambit?
Early on I waited on football great John Elway. He was then a quarterback at Stanford and about to be drafted into the NFL. I believe at that time he was interviewing prospective agents. Also, Ronnie Lott, the famous safety for the 49ers used to hang out in the bar. That’s pretty much the extent of celebrity sightings for me in NoCal.
At any rate, my new life was now set. I was making $25-35 per lunch shift. With pay checks I was making around $600 take home a month. (I just found a letter I’d written in those days. Rent and utilities were running me $300 a month. I had a $1500 Visa bill – my only debt.) Now I had enough to be scratch-even – whew! Of course, that’s all I was. I was always crying about needing just another $50 a week so I could have some fun. This left me plenty of time to write. I wrote/finished a few short stories. I wrote letters to friends down south.
What about that romance novel I was supposed to write with my friend and new roommate, Dick, you ask? That got started okay. We spent some good hours doing a few drafts of the general plot. Then it just kinda stopped. Whereas early on I would get off work around 2 p.m. and head home to work on the book with Dick, now I was heading home to . . . play about three hours of Wiffle ball.
DON’T KNOW IF THEY COME PACKAGED LIKE THIS ANYMORE, BUT THEY DID IN MY DAY
If my other roommate was home early, he’d play too. Or sometimes other old friends would drop by. But mostly it was one on one. Our games were honed scalpel-sharp. We could make that ball dance the Charleston or drop deader than pigeon shit. I won’t get into the rules, save for the one defining refinement we added that has never been matched or improved on: the Garbage Can Lid, aka Gong.
My wiffle ball career has been played entirely in driveways, with home plate right in front of the garage door, pitcher’s ‘mound’ on the sidewalk. The garbage can lid was hung from two wires in front of the garage door, behind the batter, strike zone high. Because of the lid, there was no need to count balls – there were no walks. We still had strikes (swings-misses and foul balls). And then we had the ‘Gong’. If a clean wiffle ball pitch ever hit that garbage can lid, you were out instantly. (If you clanged on a foul-tip after the 2nd strike, you were also out.) The beauty of the Gong was that it was irrefutable and unmistakable. Even the slightest grazing of the Can Lid made a distinct bell-like noise. There was no arguing with the Can. You didn’t have to be watching to see if the pitch was good or not – your ears would tell you.
TWI-NIGHT GAME IN THE LEGENDARY SEASON OF ’86. I’M TAKING THE PICTURE. CHECK OUT THE ‘CAN.’
Dick and I played Wiff (as we called it) 5-6 days a week. Sometimes I would get home early and call him at work. ‘What the hell are you doing, you piece of buttcheese?’ I’d say when he answered (this is the way immature guys talked to each other back then). ‘Don’t you realize the grounds crew has already dragged the infield, laid the chalk, and now the ump is wondering where the hell you are?’
‘I’m out the door in five minutes,’ he’d say.
‘Well hurry up! We’re burning daylight!’
We didn’t doctor the ball beyond a single stripe of black electrical tape around the circumference. But we did customize our own bats. A little weight on the fat end was desirable to increase the centrifugal force, the whipping effect. This was accomplished in a variety of ways, from wrapping layers of duct tape around the barrel of the bat, to stuffing the barrel with things like old rags, Elmer’s glue and rice, and rubber cement with crumbled cork (the last two being my innovations). We also decorated the outside with different colors of electrical tape applied in eye-catching patterns.
Both Dick and I were good pitchers, but neither of us had unhittable stuff. As a batter, however, I caught a groove for about five weeks that almost had Dick hanging up his spikes, retiring from the game. Of course, I would have none of that. I talked him out of it with a Knute Rockne pep talk. Hell, he couldn’t quit now – I was on the tear of my life, this was too much fun for me.
We have since joked that at that time we were probably some of the best wiffle ball players on the planet.
It was either joke about it or cry. It’s embarrassing having spent enough time playing to become the best on the planet. We were supposed to be writing . . .
The Wiff was a constant, but elsewhere in life, Dick was getting serious with his girlfriend, spending most nights at her house. I segued from lunches, to expediting two days a week, to being promoted to dinners.
And the money started to roll in. Now I was making $70-100 a night. I had some money. I could actually do things.
But what was there to do? I have reread my old letters. At the time, I was outraged at the lack of beautiful girls in NoCal. I had no right to be outraged, considering what a self-centered dork I was. But at the same time, we must admit that SoCal is in some very rarefied air when it comes to beautiful women.
Being half-introvert, half-engineer mentality, half-Midwestern rube, half-writer geek – and with all that not even half a man . . . I naturally elected to spend my extra money paying off my $1500 credit card. Besides, there were only two girls working at the Pelican I really liked. One was an 18-year-old hostess who was an absolute goddess. I struggle to describe her, and the best I can come up with is that she truly could have been a Playboy model. Her body was so perfect it was almost like a caricature. She could have been a Vargas Girl model.
PRETTY MUCH LIKE THIS, ONLY MORE NORWEGIAN. AND SHE DRESSED AS A DEVIL ON HALLOWEEN.
In truth I had only an intellectual interest in her: My mind was telling me that this girl had a perfect face and body, and I appreciated that perfection in an abstract sense. Really, I’m only partly joking here. I wasn’t actually hot for her – it was more the principle of the thing, her being perfect and all. If that makes any sense.
The other girl was a cocktail waitress named Vicky Pope. She was a few years older than I, and had more of a normal-type perfect body. Plus, she was sunny and friendly. And way out of my league, with a grown-up boyfriend somewhere.
So I made no play for either of these beautiful girls, paid down my credit card, and further refined my Wiff game.
The Pelican was a thriving company. The ranking executives visited each store regularly to stoke up the staff. They threw great employee parties. The managers were cool because everyone was making money, enough even for managerial cocaine. There was even money around for a Pelican basketball tournament pitting other stores against each other. As a baller, I was recruited, along with a few cooks and three managers. We drove to Sacramento and played against three other stores in a big community college gym. I made some friends in management. I was really the only good player on our team. And in fact I was one of only two good players in the whole tournament. The other guy was my age, a 6’5″ college caliber player. He also had a pretty good all-around athlete as his wingman. We lost to them as the big guy got layup after layup on our big guy, 6’5″ General Manager Greg Kayes. Greg was probably a pretty good player 20 years earlier, but then he was in his mid-40s and far out of shape for serious full court hoop. I was able slice and dice at will off the dribble, but had trouble finishing because of the bigger guys inside and no one reliable to pass to.
Still, though we lost, the managers thanked me profusely, saying with all sincerity, ‘You saved us. We would have been humiliated without you.’
Back at the restaurant, I suddenly started getting better parties in my station . . .
There was a new crop of lunch servers shortly after I was promoted. Among them was a cute girl named Charlize Evans. I didn’t see much of her until she began the inevitable progression to expediter and on to the dinner staff. Charlize was also a very impressive looking girl. She was friendly enough to me, but I’m such a shy guy I always take female friendliness at face value, while hoping it means more. Then I’ll wait patiently to see if it ramps up to the next level. When the friendliness goes to flirting, I get happy, but, conservative as always, wait to see if it’s not just an act or folly on her part. She would next have to initiate physical contact with me, like touching an arm when talking, or punching playfully when I joke or even a tender touch of affection . . .
Yeah. Then I’d wait again. No, I wasn’t so stupid to understand what was going on. Now my problem was that I was just nervous/afraid to make a move.
It would come down to the girl making a definitive move to kiss me, or else me being drunk enough to fulfill my hunter role. In my life, a 50-50 shot which happens when the girl breakthrough occurs.
I went through those stages with Charlize and then the perfect storm evolved one Saturday night after a very profitable dinner shift.
It was summer in NoCal. The nights are delightful, with the 90-degree heat of day evaporated up into the starry skies. Mix that with the euphoria of having a massive pocketful of money, and free drinks from the bartenders . . . well, the band was playin’.
We hooked up despite my non-committal way and had a few drinks in the raging bar. It was around 11:30.
Besides a couple of beers and a shot or two, we had Portland Steamers. As is the wont with bartenders worldwide, if they don’t know how to make a drink, they’ll wing it. The Portland Steamer at NoCal Rusty Pelican was Bailey’s, Tuaca, and milk in a snifter, quickly steamed with the cappuccino machine.
So the band was cookin’, the bar was packed, we were drunk. Despite being our home turf as waiters there, the place was so busy and full, it was like actually being out in a bar. Charlize and I were alone for all purposes. The band broke out with a particularly great song (“Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh) and I grabbed her hand and rushed her into the cloud of bodies on the dance floor. Steam and sweat, and cool air from the night through the open patio doors. Some dancing, and the time was finally right. We kissed.
After that we had a couple of dates, she invited me to her place to sunbathe at the pool.
JUST SO YOU KNOW I’M NOT LYING ABOUT CHARLIZE. CHECK OUT THE ‘CAN.’ (OOPS! WIFFLE BALL CAPTION!)
We went to Sacramento to visit her mother.
That was an interesting night. Charlize’s car had died so her mom was going to give/lend her a Toyota Corolla. I was happy to lend my services for the two hour drive. It was summer and warm. We got started kind of late, and got to her mom’s apartment after dark. Her mother was a beautiful lady. She complained that since her hysterectomy she had gotten fat . . . which was weird, because she had a great body. There was some boyfriend there. They gave me a beer. The vibe was strange because, filling the void, I did most of the talking. Charlize’s mother talked exclusively to me, about me. The mother and daughter didn’t say much to each other. Then suddenly they flew into a snit with each other. Next thing we were saying goodbyes and Charlize and I were out the door, car keys in hand. The visit was no more than 30 minutes.
It was late, but Charlize wanted to stop and get some food and drink. We found a Baxter’s (remember them from My 2nd Waiting Job?), had some food and a couple of drinks. Charlize didn’t want to go right away so we went into the ‘club’ side. We drank some more, Charlize downing two Long Island Iced Teas – hey, it was the ’80s! There was nothing happening in the bar, and we could tell the town was shutting down, so we hit the road. Yeah we were both drunk, but, hey, it was the ’80s!
Charlize insisted on driving her ‘new’ Toyota, me following in my Honda. It was 1:30 a.m. and she was really weaving. Sure enough, here come some red lights and a siren, and she’s getting pulled over. The cop chastised her, came back to talk to me, then just gave her a warning and let her ride home with me. I guess compared to Charlize right then I appeared downright sober, though I had five drinks in me – two of them Long Island Teas . . . hey, it was the ’80s!
We left her car on the side of the road and I drove off as steadily as I could. Just out of town, she had me pull over so she could throw up. Back on the road another fifteen minutes, I started to lose it. I had to pull over. I could barely drive – I just wanted to sleep for a few minutes. We slept for about an hour but then Charlize woke me up and said we had to get going. I wasn’t so sure. She said, fuck it, she would drive, she was okay now. I let her, and she got us back to her apartment alive.
The sky was starting to lighten. I had a raging hangover headache as we got into bed. Charlize, puke-breath and all, wanted to kiss. I kissed her, then rolled over, saying, ‘Please don’t tell me I have to have sex with you now.’
It was crazy. We were both sick as dogs and completely wiped out. I couldn’t imagine a worse way to finally consummate a relationship – and it seemed that’s what she wanted to do right then. I thought she must understand how crummy that scenario was.
Nevertheless, it was a callous thing for me to say. I never did have sex with Charlize. And that had nothing to do with my comment. Surprisingly, she seemed to harbor no resentment about it. Maybe that’s another reason she was such a great catch.
Behind the scenes, the wheels were turning rapidly for my return to SoCal. My old running mate down there, Scott, was buying a house with his parents and needed roommates. We’d kept in touch. I desperately wanted out of NoCal, so it was arranged that I would rent a room once the house was fixed up. Move-in date was July 18th.
Writing this I wonder now what kind of an imbecile I was? You’ve got to understand how hot Charlize was. And she was very cool. And I liked her a lot. And she liked me a lot too. Talk about not taking the bird in the hand! Ostensibly I was returning to SoCal because it was boring in NoCal. It wasn’t any fun. So I would return to the L.A. area and kick up my heels and have fun . . . What exactly does that entail? Well, going out, drinking, dancing, um . . . meeting girls and getting laid . . . umm, mainly the girls. Right? The hot girls. The pretty ones. And, like, without the girls, the drinking and dancing business is pretty useless and not-fun . . . yeah. Sheesh!
The Pelican was great about transfers, so I figured I had it made. I had a manager call to arrange a transfer to the legendary Newport Beach store – but they said no. So anyway, there were a few other stores in the general area. Another call was made. I was assured a certain other store would take me.
Meantime, my last official act in NoCal was attending Dick’s wedding. Charlize was my date. She told me she was going to look super hot to impress all my friends. She did. I’ve got some pictures to prove it.
And after that it was back to my SoCal destiny.