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.
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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!

Waiting Tables Can Be Bad For Your Health

Very good night at Carney’s. Walked with $269. This was partially on the strength of a $100 tip ($140 check) Jacqueline received, but we also had some pretty good wine drinkers, good spenders, good tippers, and an employee celebrating her birthday with her husband and another couple. Add it up and you have great revenue.

Don’t know if there’s some trend at work here, with the busy Friday. Actually, hopefully there isn’t a trend, as the earlier part of the week was extremely slow.

Michael’s was nothing much at all. I had but one table – an 8-top. But they left me $60, so I walked (a little earlier than normal, which was nice) with $51. That put me at a respectable $98 average per shift for the week. The only problem of course, as written last post, was that I only worked two shifts instead of my historical four.

Update about my knees and ankles. Previously mentioned in this post. It’s obvious now that in addition to my old habit of cracking my ankles (as you might crack your knuckles or your neck), the shoes have a lot to do with aching ankles. As I recall now, I got a new pair of work shoes, and shortly thereafter, my ankles became sore and creaky. The same time as I decided to quit cracking the ankles, I also ditched those shoes. The ankles improved.

Well, that ‘good’ pair of shoes finally wore out. So I went to a new pair. And guess what? Absent my cracking habit, the ankles have started to ache again. Nothing like before, but there have been similar twinges. Nevertheless, I’m going to ride this out for a bit and see what happens. The shoes I have now are high quality (as compared to the Payless-quality of others in my past). I actually feel like they’re supporting my ankles and foot better than most I’ve had. As I’ve recounted earlier, I played a lot of basketball in the old days. I remember having ankle aches at times when I would break in a new pair of shoes. Maybe that’s what happening here.

About the knee, it has improved a lot. I’ve been paying attention to my gait, my balance, my hips. I feel that I had somehow adopted a funny way of walking, and then when the knee pain started to appear I modified it to be even funnier. I’m back now to my regular balanced walking.

forward lean

Remember I said I had developed the habit of planting forward? This puts undue weight and inertia on your knees, compared to keeping your center of balance above your hips which spreads the impact throughout your body as it should be.

A funny thing happened when I started correcting myself. I noticed a lot of other waiters and bussers walking the same way, planting forward, their torso leaning slightly ahead of the rest of their body. Why in the world would so many of us walk like that? And also, why had I started to walk that way, when I never used to in the past? Waiting tables must be bad for your health.

As usual, I’ve come up with a theory.

I blame management.

This should be no surprise because waiters blame management for everything. But hear me out.

Have you seen people walking with their upper body pitched forward, ahead of the rest of them? What does it look like?

I think it looks like they’re hurrying. Of course it doesn’t mean they really are, but that’s what it looks like.

That’s why I blame the managers. Restaurant managers over the decades have a penchant for instilling fear in their employees. One way they do this is the stated or implied judgment that workers aren’t hustling. If you are concerned about what your manager thinks (and who of us isn’t?), you want him to think you’re working hard.

It may well be that you are working your ass off, but just like an elegant and efficient centerfielder in baseball, you are making it look easy. A bad manager can’t see that you are creating an aura of calm for your guests (and the rest of the staff, incidentally), by remaining collected and not hurrying. The bad manager just sees you aren’t sweating, hauling around at a breakneck pace.

You find yourself under fire, if only because you know in general management wants ‘hustlers.’ So at some point you subconsciously notice another waiter who looks like he’s hustling. And, subconsciously, you begin to emulate that person – the pitched forward, foot-planting guy.

And of course it works. Someone leaning forward looks busy and fast. You are taught, again subconsciously, that this is right because you will feel the negative attention about your lack of hustle disappear.

This is what happened to me. Once I started walking normally again, the pain began to disappear. God knows how long I was walking that way – probably about as long as I have been at Michael’s, which is a testosterone-charged, competitive, typical multi-manager corporate restaurant. It just took this long to wear down the natural padding in my knees. Now I’m having to rehab.

I recommend: Don’t fall into this trap. Walk normally – like you would cruising the mall on Sunday afternoon. You can still walk fast with a good center of balance.

And damn those idiots who might say or imply that you’re not hustling. If the issue comes up, just ask them to assess your performance, not your appearance.