Blackie Redux – Part One

Bear with me. A couple of reasons.

Number One, I’m going to do a two-parter based on the new effective star of the blog, Blackie. (Grrrr.)

Number Two, I’ve got about half a martini and two glasses of wine in me.

It all started when I got to work (lunch job, Michael’s) Tuesday and the new boss, Eric, said there were two 9-tops on the books and not much else. I was to get one and Blackie was to get the other. Because servers at Michael’s aren’t allowed to take more than an 8-top by themselves, it was mandatory we share. Therefore, Eric decided the solution was for us to share both of them.

‘Are you okay working with her?’ he asked somewhat conspiratorially. Recall, Eric is new; he likes what I do; I’ve earned his trust as ‘his kind of waiter.’

‘Honestly, I’d rather not,’ I told him. ‘But I don’t care enough to make an issue out of it. It’s fine.’

So here’s the inevitable link to my other dark escapades with Blackie. If you haven’t read them, at least click here or here, for another one, and give a quick scan over a bit of our history.

This day I actually felt much more confident because I had already thoroughly identified what hell I could expect. Also, it promised to be a much more manageable day – only three on the floor and a helpful manager and not much danger of getting overwhelmed with surprise traffic.

The first table was billed as a grudge lunch wherein the host had lost a bet and now his compadres were going to take him to the cleaners (while he took them to Michael’s). We were excited, visions of dinner steaks, appetizer symphonies, and $100 bottles of wine dancing in our heads.

Blackie suggested I do the full dinner spiel (a great sales technique, normally omitted at lunch because of time constraints) because I was so much better at it. I couldn’t disagree. I also liked it because it put me in control of the table. I do not like the manner Blackie uses with her tables. Her other job is at the Claim Jumper . . .

Okay, so a tangent is in order here. I do not disdain Claim Jumper or similar ‘echelon’ restaurants (TGI Friday’s, Chiles, Outback, Coco’s, etc.). Ironically, I actually place Claim Jumper as my favorite restaurant for when I choose that ‘level’ of dining. Their quality is excellent. The service is generally spot-on. The restaurants (locations I’ve visited) are always spotless and well-kept. You get the feeling the hierarchy is working well and doing its job. I love the Claim Jumper. I always suggest it when the wife says, ‘Where do you want to eat?’ Of course, whenever I suggest a solution for a problem the wife can’t figure out herself, I always get shot down. <click-click … ‘PULL!’ Blam!> But that’s another sub-tangent . . .

Anyway, back on tangent . . . I actually regard Claim Jumper as first class. The problem here with the Claim Jumper is that you take the worst prejudices about Claim Jumper and combine them with what you already know about Blackie, and you find the worst stereotypes are true.

Think about a highly-corporate place with a lot of rules and behavior codes and what kind of virulent bacteria could breed in that Petri dish (Blackie). Think further about what that dangerous burgeoning organism (remember: Blackie) would turn into after a dozen years of incubation (as opposed to the usual 6–24 month tenure of Claim Jumper waiters).

Minus the expected gum-popping and cigarette-breath, there you have Blackie. She does not communicate with guests. She dispenses information (no, not even that – she dispenses words) just the same way as she slings a plate of hash: ‘You’re not supposed to understand this, much less enjoy it. Just take it. ‘Cause here it is.’

So to wrap the tangent up, take your worst bigoted preconception of a mid -level chain restaurant waiter, and, even though the restaurant chain itself doesn’t deserve that branding, you have exactly that in this person Blackie.

End tangent. For now . . .

Yes, I was excited to be doing the spiel because I could handle this table which might well be our ‘meal ticket’ (there are just sooo many restaurant/food metaphors out there!). So I made contact with the table. Introduced myself and mentioned my partner Blackie. I pitched the idea of wine (remember, these guys were potentially taking their friend to the cleaners) and cocktails. They were happy to have the wine list at the table because it was a maybe (remember, this is lunch). I sussed it out that pressure was not the correct tack. I thought that common peer pressure, or else inertia (i.e., the body in motion being the idea of having a drink) would eventually prevail.

Of course, just after I leave the table after my spiel for the dinner steaks, etc, Blackie charges at them with her typical tactless hard line about ordering wine. No surprise, we were removing the wine glasses from the table about five seconds later.

So much for my managing this table into a moneymaker.

It came time to take the order. Michael’s requires multiple servers take orders on large parties. Blackie started at position 1. I started at position 9 and worked back.

We met in the side station to place the order. Turned out, I had the host – who authorized a round of appetizers. But there were also four salads ordered for the table. Naturally, you want the apps to go out before salads, followed by entrees. So we placed the order that way. However, at Michael’s this particular appetizer symphony is not that quick to prepare. Another factor to consider before you read what follows: some guests acknowledged they wouldn’t have any of the shrimp appetizer on order.

After about 10 minutes, I fired the salads for the table. By now, I’m expecting the appetizer symphony to be ready or nearly ready. Further, I know the salads might take a 4-5 minutes (in a normal world not, but at lunch when the pantry guys are doing multiple jobs, it can easily take this long), so this will allow the shrimp appetizer to be delivered and perhaps consumed (it’s only about a piece per person, after all).

Well, the shrimp app is just about ready to go out. But the salads are now ready. Blackie, ever ‘helpful,’ is standing by the pantry, ready to grab the salads (shrimp app comes up on the front line). She asks me if she should take the salads, since they are ready, or wait till the appetizer is served and removed? I weigh it all . . . and tell her . . .

Go! Serve the salads!

After all, some of the guests are not having shrimp. Next, these people are at lunch, so time is always a factor. Next, eating a single shrimp (for those six eating them) doesn’t take more than a minute or so. Next, some have ordered dessert in advance as well. And, remember, we’re still at lunch.

Now, I have not gotten the idea that these folks are in a hurry. But I can tell they are at lunch. They are going back to work. So I am using fuzzy logic, just as I mentioned here (fuzzy logic part towards end of post).

A good waiter knows how to properly time courses. A better waiter knows how to judge when guests don’t give a shit and are silently placing a premium on continuous, expedited service. Admittedly, it’s mostly a lunch thing, but that’s what I’m working at here. Same with Blackie. For the last 5 years.

So I make the judgment that it will be okay if those having salads are eating them, and those eating shrimp appetizers are eating them, and those eating both combine the experience.

I have other tables of course, so since Blackie has implicitly agreed to deliver the salads that were practically right in her hands when we had our exchange, I took care of some other business.

I finish my business and double check on our 9-top and see them happily eating their shrimp appetizer. Wait, what happened to the salads?

Despite her asking me what I wanted her to do – as she was right there about to do it – and my telling her to do just that, she had somehow not done it.

Blackie strikes again!

Okay, okay, don’t get too worked up. The timing still worked out fine. It was just classic Blackie.

So as a team we deliver the entrees. I have positions 1-3. Position 2 has a small New York steak. Oops!

He says he ordered the New York sandwich. Naturally, staff immediately goes into emergency mode to prepare a NY Sandwich for him.

Meanwhile, Blackie explains he ordered the ‘small New York’ and she repeated it to him and he said yes, she was right . . .

Well, she was wrong.

Yet more meanwhile, Position 1 has a question about why she didn’t get prime rib instead of the Rib Eye like she asked for . . .

Again, Blackie explains that she told her just what she was ordering.

Maybe Blackie should explain more to her guests rather than her managers and fellow waiters?

(This is Part One. Part Two is Right Here.)

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Blackie And The Pretense Of Competence

If you’ve been reading, you know my nemesis at Michael’s is Blackie. Is it fair to say you hate someone?

NO, I LOVE KEITH RICHARDS. BUT THIS IS A FAIR APPROXIMATION OF WHAT BLACKIE LOOKS LIKE

Hell, why don’t I digress right out of the chute?

I say it’s okay to hate someone. It’s all semantics anyway, but here’s what I think.

Real hate is not productive. It consumes the hater. And in fact, that’s probably a primary tactical objective for the ‘hated.’ If you’re worthy of hate, it’s because you’re a despicable person, trying to destroy other peoples’ live for your own benefit. So if, as a ‘hated’ person, you can generate the kind of all-consuming obsession of hatred in someone, then you’ve won. Because the person who hates you is severely diminished, spending vast precious psychic resources on the activity of hating you. That person is definitely not functioning well. And it’s all because of you. Nice job.

But I hate Blackie. Because she is this person. She’s completely selfish. And, as stated above, she thrives by creating disturbances in her rivals (who are everyone), thus backhandedly kicking her up a notch because everyone she touches becomes less effectual. Because whenever Blackie touches you, there is something wrong with it.

‘Hi, Blackie. How’s it going?’

‘Fine. But I’ve about had it. When I left home this morning, Larry said he wasn’t coming back unless I apologized to him about going to the Raiders game without him . . .’ and on and on.

Another typical one. Blackie: ‘I made these brownies because I just couldn’t sleep last night so I figured I might as well do something. And then I didn’t have enough flour, so they were sitting there, half-made and I didn’t know what to do. But then Larry was being a bastard and I woke up and couldn’t sleep so I just decided, I might as well go and get some flour at 6 a.m. and finish those brownies. I mean, right? Why not?’

Is it just me, or do you also feel the need to take a shower?

So to get back to the digression, I say it’s fine to hate someone when you just realize they f’n’ suck. Give the devil his due, right? These are people who obviously don’t want to be loved or even tolerated. Or else why would they be the way they are?

Okay, so anyway. On to the topic of this post. I made this note awhile back: ‘Just saying something doesn’t necessarily get the job done.’

Naturally, Blackie spurred this thought, causing me to scribble it on a chit-sized piece of thermal printer paper.

Here’s Blackie telling the specials: ‘. . . freshalaskanhalibutcomeswithcucumberrelishandgarliccroutons . . .’ And no, that’s not some unwieldy URL. That’s the way she talks to her guests.

A guest will order the steak salad. There are two official steak salads on the menu at Michael’s, not to mention that you can add steak to any other salad (or for that matter substitute it for the meat on a chicken- or seafood-themed salad). Instead of clearly and politely explaining the differences between the two steak salads, and asking which the guest is ordering – or even instead of pointing physically to the two menu items to get clarification – Blackie does this: ‘Hotsteaksaladismedallionsonasiangreenswithsoygingerdressing. Newyorksteaksaladisoverchoppedlettuceandvegetableswithredwinevinaigrette.’

It’s practically asking the guest to order the wrong thing. Please order the wrong thing! If there’s any way I can help make this complicated enough so you order the wrong thing, let me know.

I truly believe that on some level, this is because of what I wrote above: she wants to create disturbance and chaos in others.

Then, when there is a problem and the kitchen is scrambling to get the right dish in front of the guest, and the manager is called into action to deliver the corrected entrée, Blackie explains to the irritated manager, ‘I told her the Hot Steak Salad had medallions and asian greens, and she said yes, that’s what she wanted.’

Just saying something doesn’t get the job done. No more than an insincere ‘Thank you,’ or a sarcastic apology, firing off technically proper verbiage at the guest without taking care to connect is a waste of time, offensive, or both.

The waiter has to take full responsibility for the delivery and receipt of his communication. Hell, just the waiter? Everybody in life.

This classic Blackie move exhibits what I mean by the title of this post. The Pretense of Competence.

I suppose I could define true competence as the ability to get the job done. Easy enough to agree on, isn’t it?

Well, for those masters in the performance art of the Pretense of Competence, there are lots of great moves. Like watching Andrew McCarthy furrow his brow, clench his jaw and look hard to the left, in the Pretense of Internal Frustration.

Here are the ways Blackie (and your own personal Blackie), mounts her façade:

  • Ask A Lot Of Questions
    • Have you ever noticed the fakers at the Saturday employee meetings who have to ask a question after every managerial proclamation? And not necessarily only at employee meetings – any time someone in authority gives information to her, this server (hell, why not call her Blackie?) comes back with 2, 3, or more ‘clarification’ questions. She is pretending to be competent. In other words, I know my job so well, I need to know from you exactly how this is going to fit in with everything else I’ve learned perfectly. More to the point, however, this is my chance to show you how much I already know about my job.
    • Ironically, this same server becomes a close-minded know-it-all when a peer says something similar to what the Big Wig would say. If I said to Blackie, ‘Hey, you know, from now on, let’s just keep the dessert tray in the walk-in during lunch instead of out on the floor. There’s only three or four of us, and it’s not losing us any steps, and it saves a whole tray of desserts from being ditched between shifts,’ she would respond, ‘Well maybe, but I really need it to be out on the display table next to #147. It’s always been there and I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t there.’
  • Talk A Lot
    • Of course, all kinds of people talk a lot. And many of them are perfectly competent. I’m speaking of Blackie dealing with her tables. Words, torrents of words, cascading streams of uninterrupted words. Verbal waterboarding. From the Tommy Gun delivery of the specials, to responses to questions, to any other stock verbalization required during the meal.
    • Then there’s the ‘personality’ aspect of the job, wherein talking a lot makes up for being interesting (such is the subconscious computation in Blackie’s head). Ever see a guests with a fork mid-air, loaded with a delicious steaming bite, and that fork stuck in a holding pattern above Airport Pie-Hole? All the while Blackie bludgeons them with the details of her vacation to Rancho Cucamonga?
    • Yes, the job description unofficially includes making the guests like you. Blackie is operating under two misunderstandings: 1) the guest will automatically like anything he/she hears about you; 2) the only way to get them to like you is to get them to know you.
      • Of course, getting to know Blackie will inevitably lead to hating her. More interesting, however, is that for a restaurant guest, they can come to like you plenty if you just stay out of their way and give them great service.
    • Click the above heading for my full post on this.
    • Maybe a finer point I can put on it for purposes of this topic, though: Maybe call it activity for its own sake. A busy person is generally perceived as a good worker. Blackie mines this concept like thar’s gold in them thar hills!
      • First, she pretends to be busy when she’s not, by doing things like fine-tuning table maintenance at the exact time when real work (like delivering entrees) needs to be done.
      • She even engages in Fake Anti-Hustle! She will ask for help doing things she could easily do herself – just to prove that she’s in tune with the teamwork aspect of the restaurant. (Now you may think I’m going overboard here, but it actually happened to me today, with Blackie. She had three tables. Two were eating entrees, and she was seated her third. I had no tables so I was able to understand what was going on in her station. She had only one current task on her ledger: get initial beverages for the new table – the other tables were completely contented and serviced. I happened to be standing in the waiter station when she was getting iced teas . . . ‘Can you get me a 7up for postion 1 on #36?’ I dutifully get her 7up and bring it to her as she is preparing her tray of iced teas [we get sodas from the bar, iced teas in the server station]. ‘Oh, can you drop that? I said position 1.’ So I drop on position 1, moments before she arrives behind me with her tray of iced teas for everyone else. Sheesh. Did she just invent Fake Anti-Hustle?
  • Over-Refinement
    • I invented this term initially as Over-Courtesy, specifically for driving situations when car drivers are too courteous and thus gum-up the expected workings of gears and driving.
      • A pedestrian is standing on the sidewalk, at a crosswalk (this is California where drivers legally have to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians whenever demanded by said pedestrians). A motorist will see this guy standing there and screech to a stop inches before the crosswalk, and motion the totally-surprised pedestrian to cross. Meanwhile, there might be other lanes unaware that this jackass driver has set this deathtrap in motion. Other lanes of traffic might not be aware of this over-courtesy and that pedestrian might well get his clock cleaned once he clears that first car. But more practically, the problem is that the pedestrian was not actively soliciting traffic be stopped. He’s happy merely (and properly, I believe) to wait till traffic has cleared enough for him to cross. Now he’s forced into a maelstrom of steaming, grinding metal, hoping ‘the law’ will provide enough for him to live through the experience. I’m a pedestrian quite frequently. I understand my place: I’m trying to survive. I will not insist on my ‘right of way’ at the expense of my life. So, that said, motorist fools who practice over-courtesy are actually endangering the lives of those pedestrians.
      • Much more common are the jackasses who defer turns at stop signs and lights where they are the ones entitled to the right of way. Come on, people! Just do your job. Understand, I’m the one who’s deferring to them when I say this. I approach a stop sign and another guy is just settling to a stop. Two beats and I stop. Jackass looks at me, I look at him, he motions to me to go ahead . . . Jesus! You were there first. Just go when you’re supposed to, and we’ll both be where we want to be sooner!
    • It’s the same in restaurant work. Same as the Ask A Lot Of Questions waiter. There are no instructions simple enough that won’t be met with over-refinement questions. Teamwork things like, ‘Run plates 1, 2, and 3’ get hammered with a retort like ‘Who’s #1?’ (even though positions are standardized). Or, ‘I didn’t clear the side plates because someone was still chewing something.’ Or, ‘Do you have the dessert silverware down already?’ Look, dude, if I ask you to run desserts, just run the desserts.
    • In Rules and Regulations, Blackie will figure out ways to gum up the works because of perceived incongruities. Like, ‘Chicken dishes always come with lemon and parsley, just like seafood, but now seafood is only coming with lemon . . . what am I supposed to do?’ Or, worse, the guests’ meals are coming out late, but Blackie will make them later still because she refuses to deliver the entrees without the table first being ‘marked’ with fresh silverware . . . Argh!
  • Narrating Aloud What They Are Doing
    • ‘Table 7 is just killing me. I’m getting this guy his fifth Diet Coke refill right now, and it’s not like I have the time ’cause 15 is have four courses and I have to keep resetting silverware. Are you having trouble with the kitchen today? I just had a French Dip that took 20 minutes, and this was the table that told me straight off they were in a hurry . . .’
    • Besides the probable explanation that Blackie is just doing this because she knows it’s annoying, there’s also an Implication that by saying everything she’s doing, she is proving herself in control and competent.
    • Here’s what I think of this: Shut up.
  • Too Organized To Participate In Teamwork
    • Every time you ask Blackie for a teamwork-type favor, you get this: ‘Okay. I have to make two cappys for 12, and then run salads for 13, then I can refill your coffees for you.’
    • Similar to Narrating Aloud, she’s feigning competence while accomplishing the parallel goal of avoiding work. Actually, Not bad; this is the most efficient you’ll ever see Blackie.

Fake Hustle

In my house, when the phone rings at 9:30 a.m., it’s either a bill collector looking for my sister, or else Michael’s Restaurant wanting me to come in early because of some problem they are having.

I woke up the other day to my home phone’s Classical Music ringtone. It was about 9:30 a.m. And I went right back to sleep.

So I slept. Eventually I did rise. After showering and dressing, and just as I came downstairs to pour myself some coffee, the phone rang again. Michael’s. It was Eric, new day manager. Missy had called in sick and now the in-times were all screwed up. He’d originally called to get me back on the opening shift. Now he just wanted me there by 11:30 (instead of the usual noon). It was now 11:02.

‘I’ll get there as soon as I can, but I just got out of the shower. The earliest I could be there is 11:40-11:45.’

He said okay and I promised to get there as soon as I could.

And that, my friends is what NBA commentator Mark Jackson calls Fake Hustle.

[I found this youtube of Mark Jackson using the term, though the accompanying video is not the most illustrative example. Actually, the first time I heard it referenced, it came from Jackson’s partner, Jeff Van Gundy. He watched a player chase a ball out of bounds, diving on the first row but not getting the ball. Lots of vigor and intensity. Van Gundy said (paraphrasing), ‘That’s fake hustle. He had no chance of getting that ball, and he knew it. But he dove for it anyway. He’s trying to get hustle points from the coaching staff, but he’s not actually hustling.’

Interesting idea, right? Later in the telecast, Van Gundy pointed out a guard who was defending out near the half-court line. This defending guard was waving his arms, moving his feet like he had burning coals in his shoes, jumping at fakes like he was being goosed with a cattle prod. Van Gundy said (paraphrasing again), ‘That’s fake hustle too. He’s moving around a lot, going really fast, expending a lot of energy. But he’s not really getting anything done.’

So that’s Fake Hustle. Let’s continue on.]

In reality, when Eric called, I was dressed and ready to go. I could have been pulling out of the driveway within 2 minutes. The 25 minute drive to Michael’s would have had me there right at 11:30.

But I wanted to enjoy my usual 30 minute ‘engine idling warm-up’ time: a cup of coffee and reading the L.A. Times on the internet.

So I took half my usual warm-up time, and made the scene at 11:45. I bounded in the door, tie knotted, apron strung, waving to the managers in the office like I was the cavalry arriving.

Out on the floor, Eric was cooling his heels. There were only two tables seated. No big deal. I could have showed at noon and it still would have been fine. But instead, Eric thanked me profusely for getting there early, and he apologized for the scheduling problem. Score another point for Fake Hustle.

Other kinds of Fake Hustle:

The Fake Help Offer

This is my ‘friend’ Blackie’s specialty. ‘Need anything?’ ‘Need anything?’ ‘Need anything?’ It sounds like a cacophony (emphasis on ‘phony’) of chirping birds at daybreak. These people (Blackie-types) know that 95% of the time waiters don’t need anything. So 19 times out of 20 she gets Fake Hustle credits for offering. Of course, we all know what happens when you take up the offer for Fake Help.

‘Yeah, Blackie. I’ve got two salads up. Could you run them real quick to 17? Caesar position one.’

‘Oh,’ she says, a bit of shock in her voice. ‘Okay. Um, I have to make two cappuccinos for my table, then I’ll do that for you.’

I’m a pleasant person at work. But I will get in someone’s face if he/she does this more than once.

‘I can just do it myself in that time,’ I would say. ‘And not only have you not helped me, I’ve now already wasted more time having this conversation with you. Don’t ask unless you’re available right now for help.’

Incidentally, managers really are probably the most notorious peddlers of the Fake Help Offer. Here’s a picture any veteran waiter will find familiar:

The guy in his charcoal grey suit suddenly stammering, looking around desperately, wondering if he can delegate (pass the buck) your request for help, before finally hearing the phone ring and letting out an audible gasp of relief as he runs to the desk (even though the host is taking the call already) without even acknowledging that you’re on your own.

Mickey, the old Michael’s day manager, used this move all the time.

Fake Table Bussing

This has plagued me ever since I started waiting tables 20+ years ago. At restaurants where clearing dinner plates is one of the busser’s duties, I will pass one of my tables several times in the process of doing other work like delivering food elsewhere, taking orders, etc. That one table is ready to be cleared, and I know it.

Now, in restaurants where bussers are expected to clear plates, us waiters use that expectation as part of our workflow. For instance, we know that we have time to enter a big order in the computer right now because in the meantime the busser will clear the plates and we’ll then be timed perfectly to address the table for dessert. It’s not being lazy for the waiter to pass the table and do nothing once or even twice. As part of a team, we each do our jobs to make for the smoothest possible service.

But of course, when one part breaks down you have to rush to save the situation. Which brings me to Fake Table Bussing.

In this instance, I’ll have to finally take matters in my own hands. These poor diners have been staring at congealing gravy and shriveling meat scraps for 5 minutes. Not pleasant. So I load up. My arms are now full. In fact, I’m carrying an entire four-top’s stone- and silverware. Forks are sliding off plates. Ramekins teeter atop a stack of bread discards. I pivot to leave the table and . . .

There’s my busser, arms outstretched, offering to take these plates from me.

Arrrggghhh!

Dude. That is not bussing the table. You are not saving me any time now.

I’ve even had Fake Bussing attempted on me right in front of the dish station. ‘Really? Now you want to help me?’ Sheesh.

Fake Teamwork

I admit I’ve even practiced a version of this. Specifically, when asked to help clear a table at Michael’s (unlike in the example above, bussers at Michael’s are not responsible for clearing plates), I’ll cherry-pick the ‘clean’ plates (plates from which the guest has eaten virtually everything) and stack up a bunch of them to do my part.

What’s wrong with that? Kind of nothing, really. But here’s the trick to it. By grabbing the ‘clean’ plates, I get to avoid the ‘Can you wrap that up for me?’ requests. Obviously, it’s a lot more time-consuming to wrap up food to go than it is merely to drop off dishes in the dish station.

It’s kind of not wrong because most waiters accept responsibility for to-go packing on their own tables. They don’t really expect you to do it for them.

That said, I just earned Fake Hustle points for the minimum time expended.

Fake Food Running

Another of Blackie’s signature moves. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been camped at the pass out bar at Michael’s, garnishing a big order, examining the ticket, calling for sides that accompany the entrees, making sure the plates are in proper order, etc. Sometimes, if you’re not busy, that’s really all you have to do.

Meanwhile, Blackie, who’s not that busy herself, will flit in and out of the pass out line area. You’ll notice her disappear into the kitchen, then reappear on the floor – the whole time with nothing in her hands.

Now it’s go time. You load up 3 or 4 plates. Another server handles the sides. Maybe even another grabs the sauce ramekins . . .

And now here comes Blackie, ready to ‘help.’

‘Oh,’ she says with that same sort of shock in her voice, only this time it’s fake. ‘You got it all?’

Nice move, biatch, only I’m on to you, and I’ve noted it.

Incredibly, Blackie has pulled this shenanigan repeatedly as teammates run her food!

Blackie Takes Down Another One

[This is Part Two of my Blackie post. Click My Old Friend Blackie if you haven’t already read Part One.]

I’m sharing a party with Blackie. Of course I’m cringing, but these things happen. You get through it.

The party arrives, Blackie gets order for bottled water. She’s weak and infirmed, so she nominates me to pitch the featured entrees (see: expensive dinner items) for the group. This pitch at Michael’s is a ten-minute piece of performance art. I say that’s fine, but I in turn nominate her to pitch appetizer samplers to the party while I greet the two new tables in my section (good work, front desk!).

She strikes out on the appetizer thing. As I replace her, I tell her I’m going to do the Features, and all I need from her is to take out the starters for both my new tables. I did a great job (or had great luck), getting them underway before my 10 minute disappearance into the black hole of the Feature Pitch. ‘They’ve got drinks, the first course is already fired, everything’s already in the computer,’ I tell Blackie. She nods.

I’m done with the pitch. I cruise my tables to see their progress, expecting to fire the main courses for both right away.

Uh-oh. Table 22 has one guy finishing his tiny cup of gumbo, while the other guy is staring at empty white table cloth. Right. Blackie didn’t bring out his shrimp cocktail. Which was right at the same pantry counter with the two salads from the other table she successfully retrieved. Thanks.

I was momentarily enraged, but calmed quickly, reminding myself this is what you get with Blackie: Never expect a positive result from any interaction with her.

The big party needed a few minutes to decide. I spent the time tending to my other tables; I retrieved a drink for one. When I came back on the floor, I saw Blackie at the other end of the restaurant taking the order on our big party. Knowing the standard ‘Position #1,’ I could tell she was already half-finished. I decided to let her finish with no help from me, even though this is counter Michael’s policy.

These are the kinds of rules waiters break because sometimes things just work better that way. Number one, there are definite advantages to having a single ‘point man’ in taking the order: consistency, no translation problems, a global first-hand knowledge of all orders at the table. Number two, at that point my joining the order-taking wouldn’t have saved much time at all. So I did something else.

Next thing, manager Mickey is on my ass about Blackie taking the order all by herself. ‘You have to get over there and help her right away!’

So I did, and took three of the eleven orders. Blackie and I went to the computer and she tried to shove the whole mess on me (remember, she’s weak and infirmed). I normally acquiesce, but here it made no sense, considering her handwriting is indecipherable and she had the majority of the data. I gave her my sheet of three orders, clearly translated my writing to her, and let her do the ordering.

Being weak and infirmed, she was too flustered to enter the entire order for 11 at once. She only punched in the first course. (I can hear you old pros out there groaning. And you’re about to be right.)

Next significant thing is that . . . yes, the salads are eaten and she has not entered the main course into the computer. So she’s scrambling with that. I’m helping her by maintaining her tables while she struggles . . . and there she goes . . . last order, position #11 . . . Send To Kitchen!

Ten minute lull while with tidy up the big table and wait for the kitchen to come through. But now the recession-sized understaffed kitchen (just two guys on the line) is freaking out that we didn’t – as per policy – ‘Preview’ the big order. Really it’s just an excuse because they’re screwing up and have a chance to blame someone else. Understand, it was not actually a busy day. For instance, instead of four tables, I had two deuces and my share of the big table. Blackie also had only two other deuces. The other waiters on the floor did not have full stations. Therefore, what would be so different if instead of the one 11-top, three waiters each got a 4-top? No preview required to ‘help’ the kitchen there, and no net difference in business.

[Don’t get me wrong. I understand the reasons for this ‘Preview’ rule. It makes perfect sense when there are multiple large parties, or when it’s a busy day/night and there is a major crush during a short stretch of time, or when the big party is a REALLY BIG party. But please, not when the cooks have only three other tickets on the line . . .]

After the usual amount of cat-herding all the garnishes, entrees, sides, sauces, and special requests left the kitchen and were on the table. (You ever herd a bunch of cats? Even if you haven’t, you can imagine how difficult and chaotic it would be.) I would say the whole ordeal took 10 minutes longer than it should have, which at lunch might or might not be a big deal, depending on the demeanor of the guests.

Turned out the guests were perfectly fine. We got a solid 20% (Michael’s does not allow for automatic gratuities, which often leads to disaster, but again, what can you do?).

But at the end of the shift I got pulled into the office and received a write up:

  1. Not teaming to take the order with Blackie.
  2. Not ‘Previewing’ the large party order.

For some reason I took the high road and didn’t blame it all on Blackie – though of course it was all her fault. If she had found me before starting to take the order, we would not have been guilty of #1. If she had put the order into the computer promptly, she would at least have had the opportunity to ‘Preview’ it; and at any rate she was completely the one in charge of the order, so it was not even possible for me to ‘Preview’ anything for the cooks.

I took the write up like a man. I blamed the order-taking problem on a lack of communication in our team. But I made sure to point out that Blackie was in control of the order and that I would have entered it all at once – just, she didn’t.

The managers were kind of apologetic about it, actually. Mickey made a point of telling me that I could write down my side of the story on the write-up form. It all kind of made me wonder if I was just getting collateral damage because they were finally targeting Blackie in hopes of rooting her out of the restaurant?

I can only hope.

My Old Friend Blackie

Here’s what happened the other day. (Not a bad approach to take with a blog, eh?)

Arrived at Michael’s at noon and was immediately assigned a table of 11. My partner was to be Blackie, the most reviled server at Michael’s.

Every restaurant has one or more Blackies. She is old, slow, an absolute cancer of negative energy and gossip. She simply lives for the rules and regulations of the job. Why in the hell would a person live for and embrace the arcane, misguided, and senseless rules of a corporate restaurant? Because it’s those rules that allow her to keep her job.

An illustrative story about Blackie:

Five years ago, when we were both starting the Michael’s gig for lunch (Blackie came from Claim Jumper and continues to work there), there was male-model-handsome bartender who started with us. Mitch wasn’t much on learning the job; he wasn’t much on performing well; he wasn’t much on showing up for work sober. But he was good-looking, charming, and always ready for a party. Well, Michael’s draws a wealthy clientele, skewering decidedly past age 45. It so happened that the well-alimonied ex-wife of a VIP took a liking to Mitch. She used to visit the restaurant in either a limousine or a Rolls-Royce. She was not a bad looking woman, for her 50+ age. Mitch was very excited when she invited him to a weekend at the track in Del Mar. It would be first class all the way: limo, hotel, restaurants, etc.

A couple of weeks after this dream weekend – and a few other dates – Mitch has given up a few shifts here and there. So now we’re speculating that he’s become a gigolo. Hell, maybe he always was. So one day in the service well, two other waitresses are watching Mitch squire (be squired by?) his benefactor at the opposite end of the bar. And as human nature will have it, they were speculating on their relationship. I knew both waitresses well, in terms of work; we were friendly.

Waitress One: Do you think he fucked her?

Waitress Two: Oh, no doubt.

Waitress One: Is she paying him off for it?

Waitress Two: One way or another.

Right then, Blackie walks up and asks what they’re talking about? Now, even at this early point in Blackie’s tenure, people already have their antenna up about her, so the girls demur.

Blackie: No, really. What were you saying?

Waitress Two: Nothing. Really.

Blackie: No, come on, tell me.

Waitress Two: Forget about it. We were just talking about Mitch.

Blackie: What? What were you saying?

Waitress One: We think Mitch is a gigolo and we were wondering if he fucked Mrs. _____.

Blackie turns on her heel and leaves. At the end of her shift, she lodged a formal grievance about ‘hostile work environment,’ citing the exchange with the other two waitresses. If you understand corporate restaurants, you know there was a colossal freak out over this that went on for more than a week. It ended up with the two other waitresses getting written up, while Blackie walked away leaving management and corporate management petrified to cross her.

That’s Blackie. And please understand that is just one glaring example of her M.O. In the same five years she’s been out on disability/injury claims five separate multi-month occasions. She has written directly to corporate offices three times with various complaints – and those are just the times I know about. She visited another Michael’s once and actually wrote a complaint letter about her server, sent it to corporate. Because he made a flippant remark about a small piece of cork floating in her glass of wine, and then didn’t replace the glass.

She hits on old (late 60s or older) single men dining in the restaurant, probably to establish Sugar Daddy relationships. I know this because one of them told me, and because of that interesting story I was able to note two other older men she gravitated towards and traded phone numbers with.

She is coffee shop trash. Most waiters start in coffee shops, and some of them belong there forever. She never stopped wearing day-glo lipstick and nail polish when the ’80s ended. Her face is beaten and weathered from sun and alcohol and bad karma.

TRYING TO BE FUNNY, BUT THIS IS A LOT CLOSER TO BLACKIE THAN YOU WOULD IMAGINE

She drones endlessly about her ‘boyfriend.’ For a year his name was Steve, but amazingly, when his name changed many times after that, he always sounded like the same person. ‘Steve’ always only calls her up when he wants sex or is out of money. He only goes on vacations with her if she’s the one paying. When he goes on a trip, it’s with the Boys. Most recently, ‘Steve’ was driving drunk (Blackie in passenger seat) and they hit a big tree trying to avoid a cat running across the road. Blackie ‘broke her back’ and ‘cracked (her) teeth in 29 places.’ This, incidentally, led to what became her summer vacation, 2009. (The other multi-month injury claims mentioned above also fortuitously happened at the height of summer.)

When the corporate brass finally thought they had a chance to get rid of her because she’d been out so long with a non-work-related injury, they notified her that she would have to report in two weeks or lose her job.

Miraculously, Blackie was able to overcome her ‘broken back’ and all those ‘cracked teeth’ (that now might not need to be replaced like she said originally), and return on the last possible day.

That’s Blackie, and now we have her back.

Okay, okay. One more Blackie story. My very first one. Our training process at Michael’s was brutal. It’s normally an intense two week deal. But three things conspired to stretch ours out:

  1. This was to be the grand opening for lunch – Michael’s was previously dinner-only. A class of 20 people was recruited.
  2. We were one of the pilot lunch programs for the entire chain, so corporate was super-involved. They even came in for their own two week training period with us.
  3. The restaurant integrated remote printers simultaneously. Previous practice was to order in the computer, collect a bunch of chits at the ‘local’ printer, then when you needed to ‘fire’ you would physically walk your chits to the appropriate location, i.e., the hot line, the pantry, the bar, etc.

Amidst this cluster-fuck, the trainers had to arrange on-floor training shifts for all these waiters. Obviously it won’t do from a guest perspective to have 20 trainees following 12 waiters around all night. It really won’t do even to have 6 following – it’s just too much traffic and it’s distracting to the guest, makes it seem like a place doesn’t have their act together. Expensive places need to maintain an air of permanence and stability, and nothing says the opposite better than a cloud of nose-picking trainees swarming around on a Saturday night.

The trainers took down our individual schedule constraints (of course we all had other jobs during this five-week process – we had to survive), and then apparently disregarded them entirely, drawing up a complicated two-week floor training schedule of 3-4 servers per shift. When this schedule was unveiled, everybody had conflicts and we all spent about a half hour at a large table bartering shifts to fix our schedules.

I was having terrible trouble with a particular Friday night shift – one week away. Blackie heard me asking around about it, and volunteered that she could probably switch it with me. Great. That was my last hurdle. She just said I had to call her two days later to make sure she was available to do it.

Six or seven calls and 6 days later, she still hadn’t committed, leaving me hanging after each phone call that maybe she’d know the next day. I finally gave up, pled my case to the trainers, and they figured out what to do with me.

That extended episode was the equivalent of being on the floor and a server asking, ‘Do you need anything?’

‘Well, yes. Could you please take two coffees to table 16? That’d be a big help. Thanks.’

‘Okay. I just have to take an order on 25 first . . .’

Huh? You just asked me if I needed help . . . If you’re gonna screw around and not do it now, don’t waste my precious time asking me and making me think about it. I’d be better off if you never asked and I handled it myself.

Incidentally, Blackie pulls this move as well. Sounds like this: ‘Nee-n-thing?’ She says it ten times a shift to each server – meaning it not a single bit. At the end of the day she has done zero favors, even when someone is stupid enough to respond that that, yes, they do ‘Need anything.’

So now we’re 1200 words in and you still don’t know what happened. Sorry. This is too long, so I’m going to have to break it into two separate posts.

Click to read Blackie Takes Down Another One.