Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Working With Professionals

A couple of weeks before the new "gentleman's club" (in this instance, a strip club ... not the kind of gentleman's club I worked in that I've already written about) opened around the corner from our hotel, a meeting was called for all of the front-house food and beverage employees. It was explained to us that "the girls" who worked in the club, as well as the managers and bouncers, would be staying at the hotel and that we should make every effort to assure they felt comfortable and respected. This was apparently a huge chunk of revenue for the hotel they didn't want to lose, so they were taking no chances. As soon as "the girls" began arriving, I could see the reason for the extra caution.

Most of the contact I had with the women who worked in the new club was to nod a brief, "Hello" to them as they left or arrived, except for the ones who were leaving and arriving several times within the late evening, and then I just pretended not to see them. They were always escorted by a beefy male member of the club (bouncers, I'm guessing) and they would usually be gone for 60 to 90 minutes, two or three times a night. Sometimes they sat with the cops - and there were suddenly a lot more of them than the two who usually worked our area. They'd talk for a while at a table, or every once in a while they'd come in with one or two of the boys in blue who had taken them for "a ride in the squad car". It wasn't uncommon to have a customer ask,

"Are they arresting those prostitutes?"

"No, sir. The ladies are guests of the hotel."

"Wow. They sure look like prostitutes."

There was a definite shift in attitude on the part of hotel security, and of course, all of us working in the bar. Time was, we would keep a keen watch for anyone doing business in the lobby. Suddenly it became difficult to tell if the suspected entrepreneur was one of our neighbor's employees, or the freelance variety we used to discourage.

I don't remember the end of the hotel's association with the club. I think it was just a one or two month contract deal until the employees of the new business had time to re-locate. I never went inside the place, but I heard it was pretty swanky and even served decent steaks. The fact that it was next door did cut into some of the money I used to make for calling cabs to take guests to one of the other strip clubs, or making arrangements with another club's limousine service, and it's never great for bar business to have the cops popping in and out all night long.

What I recall most from that time was the feeling of subterfuge. Even though I'd been making arrangements for guys to head off to strip clubs for years (I had all of their phone numbers and addresses memorized), and I'd seen plenty of 'just-walk-on-by-wait-on-the-corner' assignations, this situation had money, power and methodology behind it. It seemed like my job had taken on the aspect of pretending to be a bartender in a hotel, while I was really operating a front for another kind of business entirely. Truth be told, that is probably what I'd been doing all along, but it's a different game when your eyes are open to it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Just like clothing fashions, there are foods that are wildly popular in restaurants for a brief span of time and then virtually forgotten in a couple of years. Blackened redfish became such a trend in the 1980s that the redfish was in danger of becoming extinct. Sale of redfish is banned in most states in the U.S. even today. Except for making an entire species disappear, I don't see any harm in people getting excited about trying something different. I admit, it could suck if I happened to be working in a restaurant that hadn't caught the new wave of interest quite yet, and it's amazing how nasty some customers can become over even simple things like not finding focaccia bread on the menu in a pancake house, or herbal tea in a bar.

The trends that I remember best were the salad dressings, and I think of them almost as eras in my life as in, "The Catalina Era" or "The Honey Mustard Era". There were also honey-lime, balsamic vinaigrette, creamy peppercorn and caesar and probably a few others I've blocked out. If the restaurant I was working in didn't have one of these during its reign of popularity, everything was "
just ruined" for some diners, and no amount of fresh baked rolls or assorted crackers could console them. Thank God I was too young to wait tables when ranch first came on the scene - the heroin of all salad dressings. I would hate to ever have to tell someone, "We don't serve ranch dressing." Can you imagine the tears?

I mentioned that the trends didn't bug me when I was waiting tables, but as a banquet waiter, I suffered dearly. When one kind of food makes it to superstardom, it becomes the main course of at least half of all banquets being served. That means there is easily a 50% chance that it will become the employee meal of banquet waiters working that season - every freaking day of the season. It's hard enough to deal with all the chicken (it's usually the cheapest thing on the banquet menu so it gets ordered a lot) but when you're eating chicken prepared the exact same way day in and day out, it becomes like prison food. Herb Chicken with Summer Squash Vegetable Medley and Roasted Baby New Potatoes had a run rivaling The Sound of Music on Broadway. I got to where I could barely serve it, let alone eat it. During the Herb Chicken Years, I even nearly ended a relationship before it had a chance to begin because my date made "this new recipe for herb chicken" as a surprise for me the first time I went over to his house. Looking back, I can see why his feelings might have been hurt when I said, "You KNOW I work in banquets! How could you DO this to me?" Chicken is an entirely different food to people with office jobs.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Only Boy

When I switched to working days at the pancake house, I was almost always the only waiter among four to nine waitresses on a shift (we had two dining rooms). Though I was still pretty young, I was growing up fast around these women, fetching birth control pills and tampons out of their purses, helping them pull up their pantyhose, and being the brotherly shoulder to cry on in the women's employee restroom plenty of times. Once, I even re-set a waitresses knee that popped out of its socket. I still can't believe she asked me to do it and that I was stupid enough to try. Thank goodness it popped back in and that I didn't break it.

The gals played plenty of pranks on me, but it was all in fun. Once, Debbie sent me out to one of her tables on the pretense she was too busy to ask a customer, "Are you ready for you Baby Apple?" A smaller version of the German Apple Pancake, usually ordered for dessert, had gotten the nickname "Baby Apple" among some regulars and the staff, but it didn't occur to me just how stupid that sounded until I mentioned it to someone who hadn't even ordered one and didn't have a clue such a thing existed. When I got back to the kitchen Debbie was in a fit of giggles. "Did you see the look on his face? Did you see? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!" That same waitress used to steal a piece of bacon off my side orders sometimes just to get the cooks to yell at me when I said I was short a slice. I knew damn well she had bacon in her pocket, but I didn't tell on her. I liked working with her and she had a fun, off-beat sense of humor. We worked a graveyard shift together once when she gave me five bucks to walk around the dining room with a kids toy wind-up radio on my shoulder, singing along while it played "When You Wish Upon a Star." It was easy money. Woulda taken me at least two tables in that place to make as much.

There was another waitress, Becky, from Alabama. She was really sweet and didn't mean any disrespect at all when she told me that I was the first gay person she'd ever met. Though it made me a little uncomfortable when she'd introduce me to her tables as "My gay friend, Guy," she was a good sport about the pranks I pulled on her. I knew Becky wore half slips, so from time to time, when she had the juice machines as part of her sidework, I'd wait until she climbed up on a milk crate to pour the juice concentrate from a huge carton into the top of the dispenser and I'd run by and yank her half slip down to her knees. The crate was too tall for her to jump down so she'd wail until someone would take the carton out of her hands so she could pull up her slip and climb down. My other favorite was to linger behind a couple or three waitresses when they were gathered together talking and tie their apron strings to each other or to one of the legs of the counter. It was rare to get three at once, but funny as all heck when one or all would start to walk away from the group. They got to where they were so panicked about it that they'd flinch if they saw me walking away and reach back to make sure they weren't attached to anything or each other.

Sometimes we fought like barnyard cats, and those women could swear better than anything I've ever heard at the movies. The fights rarely carried over to the next day because we couldn't afford to let them what with all the grumpy morning customers. The only way to make money on that shift is volume and we had to be able to count on each other. I'm sure I'd have a stroke if I tried to work that hard now, and it's probably just as true now as then that the men in those places really prefer a waitress instead of a waiter with their morning coffee, but I do miss being the token boy in that pink collar world.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fun With Cops

I'm a little stressed right now. I've got a traffic ticket I'm fighting tomorrow in court - no lawyer, just me - for supposedly "following too closely." It's the cop's word against mine, but that doesn't mean I'll win. I'd just feel even worse if I didn't at least stand up for myself. I know that, because I've been on the side of just being a victim with the cops.

Several years ago in Denver, I was working at a downtown restaurant, driving two other waiters home after our shift ended, when I needed to detour around one of the big festivals that was in the process of being set up on the streets. Unfamiliar with the area, I inadvertently turned the wrong way down a one way street. It turned out to be a one way street for one block only, but that block was smack dab in front of the police station. A few seconds later, I saw flashing lights behind me and pulled over. The officer had me and one of my passengers get out of the car while he and his partner frisked us. In my case, the officer put both of his hands in the front pockets of my uniform pants at the same time and groped me, and then grabbed my cash tips for the night and asked, "What is this?" The other waiter said he was also groped. It was a disgusting and humiliating experience, but there was no way to prove it. Still, I've been angry about that for years and I always wish I'd at least stood up for myself in court instead of just paying the fine. I might lose my case tomorrow, but at least I won't be a wimp.

The Body Slammer

It was 28 years ago that I met The Body Slammer. We worked together at a pancake house; she was on the day shift and I worked nights. Every once in a while our shifts would overlap and those were some of the best times I had at that restaurant. I loved to hear her laugh - she's got kind of a husky voice and she can really cut up. She knew I loved Tammy Wynette, and she would strike a pose at the end of the service station and sing just the one line, "Staaaand by your maaaan!" and then crack up. She used to tell me stories about the older day waitresses that would have me in stitches, too, like when one of them was walking out of the service area and didn't see the buscart that was blocking the entrance. The cart was about waist high, and stopped the waitress, but it didn't stop the tray of cheeseburgers she was carrying and it went sailing out into the dining room - packed for lunch hour - like a flying saucer. Another time, one waitress we both liked was waiting on the founder of the restaurant with the board of directors. He'd ordered the fried chicken special for lunch and told her, "Carol, this chicken is cold." She said, "Just like a picnic!" and the board spent 20 minutes trying to decide if she was a great waitress because she had a quick and cheerful comeback, or if she was a smart-alec and needed to be written up.

The Body Slammer is a year older than I, but we did go out drinking a little before I was actually supposed to. When I turned 21, she went with me to The London House, a popular nightclub at the time that had three different sections: A disco, a big band dance floor (with an actual live big band), and a lounge. We got drunk as skunks, and stumbled our way back up Colorado Boulevard to our apartments when the bar closed, laughing all the way. Back then, we used to drink pretty often but not always together because of our different shifts. When I could, I'd join her at La Plaza for two-for-one happy hour, and if she worked a graveyard shift, she might come out with the rest of the wait staff to open the bar at Coco's. They could start serving liquor at 7:00 a.m. (maybe it was 8:00) and one Sunday (still Saturday night for us) I had way too many Manhattans there. There's just nothing quite like being drunk when the church crowd starts coming in. I had to work that night - Lord, I was hungover - and the cooks all knew it. When I'd go back in the service area to pick up an order, they'd ring their bell, bang on pans and wrap their arms around each other's shoulders singing, "Staaaand by your Manhattan!"

I just got in touch with The Body Slammer again through Facebook. It's been a long time since we've seen each other, and I'm glad we're going to be able to catch up. She moved back to North Dakota, married, raised kids and divorced, and I moved to Texas (and didn't do much of anything except get old). We haven't talked on the phone yet - different schedules and all - but we're fixing to. Her friendship meant so much to me when I was just getting on my feet in that big city, and yet I never did find out how she got that nickname.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Deliah was a drama student at the University of Colorado who worked as a waitress to pay her living expenses while she was in school. She was a terrible waitress, but a nice young woman, prone to extremely dramatic moments, usually when talking to one of her tables while completely oblivious to the other five tables in her station. She'd get so wound up in her stories, her arms would fly all around her expressively and more than once knock something off another waiter's tray or hit someone in the head. Her customers were always asking the other waiters about their food, or even if they could order. Deliah couldn't be distracted from her performances.

The cooks at the restaurant where we worked insisted on black ink on all the tickets, and one night when Deliah and I were at the hostess stand picking up charge slips with our ticket folders, I noticed the pen had been switched out of my folder and replaced with one with blue ink. I always carried two or three pens, but I noticed Deliah had my pen so I said, "Is this your little pen with the blue ink, 'cos I think you've got one of my Bics." In one of the loudest stage voices I've heard, Deliah said, "I HAVE A BIG BLACK BIC!" and when I started laughing, she slapped me. It was worth it to hear people at their tables giggling - I guess we all had dirty minds - and the slap didn't really hurt.

Slime Dog

I worked a little in food service before I was a waiter; Taco Bell and a ball park concession stand every summer for five years and my first "real" restaurant job as a dishwasher at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour in Eugene, Oregon. Farrell's is getting popular again, at least in some areas (I don't think the one I worked at is there any more) and in the 1970s it was a really big deal. They have a full food menu, but their specialty is gay 90s era ice cream soda fountain creations served in real silver dishes and heavy beveled glass. The whole staff dressed in black and whites with "straw" hats (they were really Styrofoam) that had red, white and blue bands on them. The overall effect was sorta like an indoor political rally for William McKinley (or William Jennings Bryan, if you were a Democrat like my ancestors).

To make the atmosphere especially festive, there were constant pranks played on the customers: A large ice cream sundae called "The Trough" was served in a silver boat resting in a wooden caddy made to look like a pig's trough, and the dishwasher, bussers and cooks were enlisted to grunt and snort in the microphone whenever one was served. Also, announcements would be made over the P.A. telling folks there was "a blue car in the parking lot" to get people up, thinking they'd left their lights on. The best known of all the antics was the serving of what was called, "The Zoo." It was a huge silver bowl with several scoops of various flavors of ice cream and sherbet, covered with bananas, cherries, whipped cream, nuts, and little plastic animals (until, I understand, someone choked on a giraffe and they had to stop doing that). The Zoo served 8 people and was presented by two runners carrying it (running with it, literally) all over the restaurant on a gurney while someone played a bass drum and sirens wailed. I was often one of the runners.

The silly stuff about the job was fun. I was only 16, and I hadn't gotten bitter yet. The job itself was really hard, though. The real silver dishes held on to their heat from the dish machine, and they were painful to handle. The dishwashers were called "Slime Dog" because our aprons were always covered in slime from the food and ice cream (we took these off when we ran food), and the job was lonely. Only one dishwasher worked each shift and they worked constantly, so there wasn't much human contact beyond, "Slime Dog, we need more soda spoons!" Also, the only black shoes I owned were platform heels and my feet would ache like crazy after a shift.

I didn't work at Farrell's for very long. I got a job in an office and I thought I'd never work in restaurants again. Silly me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Embracing Change

"A little integrity is better than any career."
-Ralph Waldo Emmerson

I was a banquet captain for several years, and it was probably the best suited I was to any of the work I've done. I enjoyed being the contact point between clients, waiters, management, sales, kitchen and housemen. I was a "working" captain, too, so I was part of the wait and bar staff and I think that made the connection we had as a team even stronger. Until Russell came along.

Russell was always complaining about something. If it meant being asked to French serve rolls or not liking a more complicated napkin fold, he'd bitch and get the rest of the staff wound up, blaming me for making too much work. Didn't matter that we had the time and the cost of the meal demanded something extra; he resented me being the one who suggested it. He spent a lot of time sucking up to the new banquet manager, gossiping and telling jokes and she was completely enamored of him. I knew what he said behind her back, and that he was just brown-nosing, and I heard from my staff that he liked to find fault with the schedules I made or how a room was diagrammed, but I didn't know until later that he wanted my job.

To this day, I'm not certain if it was Russell's suggestion, or the banquet manager thought of it herself, but one afternoon she told me that the hotel would like to "promote" me to Banquet Supervisor on a salary because they were phasing out my position. It would have meant a substantial cut in pay and I would no longer be part of the wait and bar staff. I said I didn't want the job and resigned, so Russell stepped up to the plate. At least I had the satisfaction of hearing about how miserably he failed - and how hard he worked (that was the best part!) He'd always thought it was so easy to hold it all together with the different departments, but he turned out to be a much better critic than a performer. He lasted about four months.

It sucked to leave the job on a sour note but the important thing was leaving. I was in a no-win situation, and it was time to get out. No use holding on to how good the job had been. We accept the things we can't change and change what we can (if it needs changing). I've dealt with a couple of Russell-types in my life, but my answer is always to just walk away. The truth comes out eventually, and there's some redemption in that. In the meantime, there's no sense flogging a dead horse.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I've blown up a lot of balloons in my years of working banquets (thank goodness for those helium tanks, or I'd have never made it) and while not appropriate for every occasion, they do a nice job of filling out a room and adding color to New Year's Eve parties and birthdays. It's funny that, even though balloons are relatively cheap, at the end of the night there's almost always someone who wants to "save" them. More power to them, but I wonder how they ever drive with a car full of 'em (more on that later) and, well, what they get out of having balloons in their house. I guess I just don't have a balloon-type apartment.

One night after a huge party when we had dozens of balloons left over, the banquet staff decided it would be cool to let them all go at once from the loading dock of the hotel. About six of us gathered together all the balloons we could each fit down the hallway, wrapped around our wrists, and on the count of three let them all go into the sky. As we watched them sail over the nearby buildings, Alice said, "You know, it kills the birds, honey. They choke on 'em." I didn't know about the bird thing, but from that moment, I've have never, ever intentionally let go of another balloon outside. Which led me to my own experience of trying to drive with a car full of balloons.

I decided that it would be nice to give a bunch of balloons to the kids at Children's Hospital (which was pretty close to the hotel I was working at) that we had left over from a function. They were all brightly colored and I seem to remember a lot of purple ones, and lots of kids like purple, it would be a great surprise for them in the morning ....I had build the idea up pretty well by the time I started my drive in my little hatchback to the hospital ten blocks away. The balloons wouldn't fit in the car, so I held them outside the window.

I know.

Or, at least I know now. My God those things nearly beat me to death after the first two blocks. I just never imagined that kind of wind force. I wound up parking the car and - determined more now than ever - decided to walk the rest of the way to the hospital. It was about Midnight, but I was so focused on my mission, I didn't think what kind of a spectacle I might make walking through the streets of uptown Denver in a tuxedo with a huge bunch of balloons. In the block just before I reached my destination, I was met by a group of young women who wanted to know where I was dancing.


They thought I was a birthday stripper.

(Oh, and it turns out Children's can't let kids have balloons in the rooms, but they do give them out when they go home with parental permission, so it wasn't a total bust, but I didn't try it again.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Human Touch

"Honey, we've been at this so long, Margie and I waited on The Last Supper."

I don't have a lot of experience using computers to wait tables. I know it's been pretty common for the last 20 years or so, but I managed to dodge around their introduction into the service industry by switching over to banquets, working in mom and pops or doing off-site catering. I was around for the early years of them (it was a mess!) and I did get back into waiting after they had become standard at the end of my career.

The first terminals I worked with were pretty simple, but it wasn't long before the entire operation of the restaurant was controlled by the computer. If it went down - everything stopped. The cash register wouldn't open, orders couldn't be rung, waiters couldn't clock in or out. And nobody had the sense God gave a pig to have a backup plan for any of it. Our managers were so intimidated by the corporate office that they wouldn't let us just write a ticket or call an order, and in those early years, the computers went down all the time.

One of the saddest casualties of the computer invasion was my very favorite cook at the pancake house, Beau. We used a ticket that had a box on it for every item, and a little bit of space to write special order abbreviations in standard waiter slang. There were about 130 items on that ticket and Beau had memorized where every one of them was, because he couldn't read. I don't think a lot of people knew it, but he confessed it to me when they were first talking about getting rid of the tickets. We didn't stay in touch after he left, and I don't know if he ever did learn to read or what he wound up doing, but he was a really great cook and I loved working with him.

I know the point of sale (POS) system is supposed to help out with inventory and, for a certain style of bartender or cook, it is probably easier to deal with than actually talking to a waiter, but I miss the old days of calling stuff "on the fly" when I needed it quick and the rhythm of working with people instead of just working in the same building as they did. I know some people wrote a lousy ticket, and I know some cooks and bartenders could be jerks and ignore or "not hear" some orders, but for me, it beat the heck out of searching through screen after screen for "modifiers" and I could sure write:

Dew/ spl

faster than I could find the keys for GIN add TONIC, BOURBON, JACKDANIELS, add COKE, MANHATTAN/ ON THE ROCKS and DEWARS, add SPLASH OF WATER. And I could write it while they ordered or on the way to the bar. I didn't need to find a terminal. By the time I'd typed in my order I could have served two tables. When I was cocktailing, I mostly just called the drinks when I put up the ticket and the bartender didn't even read it - he'd just red-line it.

The other thing I don't like about using a computer in a bar or restaurant to place orders is that order changes or sometimes coupons or discounts need to be handled by a manager, and managers were the least dependable of all the people I worked with in almost any place I worked. If they weren't locked up in their office, they were outside smoking or wandering around someplace where nobody could seem to find them. The longer I had to wait for manager, the angrier my customers would be and the less money I'd make. Two circumstances like that would sandbag my whole night: Say, one table had a birthday coupon for 50% off and I needed the Rib-eye taken off someone's ticket because the kitchen didn't let us know it was 86'd. Could be ten minutes lost right there when it used to be just as simple as crossing something off the ticket, and while I understand management's fear that people might take advantage of the system, that system worked just fine for at least a century before.

There's a win and lose to both, but one method plays the hand from the assumption that waiters steal, inventory control takes priority over service, and automated communication is more efficient than face to face contact. I could pace my tables and communicate better with the kitchen in person. When you put a machine in between the waiter and their cook, or their customer, you've lost something that can't be immediately quantified, but eventually amounts to less camaraderie among the employees, more red tape and a less intimate dining experience for customers.There might not be specific column for those on an accountant's spread sheet, but that doesn't mean they don't show up in the bottom line.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


When I was 21 years old, I moved back to my home town and got a job working at what was - for my home town - a kinda fancy restaurant. It was listed in the local "Gourmet Restaurant Coupon Book" and they had Surf and Turf on the menu, so if you didn't look too close, and you didn't know they made the base for the lobster bisque by boiling the caps of the old ketchup bottles, you might think it wasn't half bad. The first night I showed up for work, I was the only employee in the front of the house. All the waiters and bussers had chosen that time to quit, so there was no training ... nothing but a really frantic owner calling people on the phone and trying to find out why they weren't at work. I wound up just winging it - reading the menu right along with the customers.

The cooks were really nice to me, though one of them was also especially flirty. I wasn't exactly sure if I was gay or not -- pretty sure, but not really out, and not dating. The flirty cook was the sous chef, Rodney, and he was probably about the age I am now, late 40s, when I worked with him. He loved to make suggestive comments about menu items - double entendre kind of stuff - and goose me or surprise me in the walk-in cooler. He wasn't threatening and he was so good-humored, I didn't mind, even if I did blush from head to toe sometimes.

The best prank he ever played on me was on a night I was opening the restaurant for dinner. We were closed for a couple of hours after lunch, but I'd come in a half hour before re-opening to set up the salad bar - a huge red curtained pagoda in the middle of the room - and make sure the tables were all in order. All the various salads were stored in the walk-in, so I wheeled a rolling table in to gather them up to set out in the crushed ice around the perimeter of the pagoda. (Rodney always filled up the ice ahead to support whatever ice sculpture he had carved for the evening's centerpiece.) This particular night, I had brought the salads out to the dining room, and pulled back the curtain to reveal an enormous phallus. Made completely from ice ( and with remarkable detail) it must have been over two feet tall. Rodney couldn't have hoped for a better reaction when I dropped the curtain and let out a shriek. He was hiding around the corner in the bus station, laughing so hard he'd rolled himself up in a ball. When he recovered, I think he turned the sculpture into a dolphin, but I was always a little apprehensive after that about what I'd find behind the curtain.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cheap Labor

Some restaurants take advantage of the fact that waiters only make 2 bucks an hour by piling on all kinds of extra sidework. Depending on how close it was to time to pay rent or how tight the job market was, I might put up with it for a while, but I usually wound up refusing, or just quitting. A lot of what determined if what was being asked of me was excessive depended on how much money I was making, the size of the business and how well they treated me.

I worked for a hotel that had, of course, a full housekeeping staff that regularly cleaned the community areas of the hotel, bar and restaurant until management decided they needed to cut back on labor costs. They cut the hours of the housekeeping department and made the waiters do the work at the end of our shift. Not only did the waiters not like cleaning for 2 bucks an hour, we didn't want to take hours away from our friends in housekeeping, so we made sure we did a really crappy job of it. The vacuum cleaner was always mysteriously breaking and we were forever losing the brass polish . . . Once, my friend Jill and I got busted for just leaving the vacuum cleaner running in the middle of the restaurant while we went to the break room to have a cigarette. The manager's office was in a little broom closet around the corner, and we figured so long as she heard the vacuum running, she'd never check to see if the floor was clean. I still think it would have worked, but we didn't count on her needing to use the restroom.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"It's not a gun, it's a wine opener"

Quinceaneras are coming out balls for Latinas, held on their 15th birthday. They were some of the most elaborate parties I ever worked: 15 tiers of cake usually stair-stepped with seven tiers on each side leading up to a beautiful cake top and sometimes incorporating fountains or other props, 15 "bridesmaids" with 15 different colors of dresses, and the quince girl dressed in a white gown - just like a wedding gown - with a tiara. There would be a mariachi band and a rock 'n' roll dance band that alternated, with the mariachis roving around the room. And all the time, the Mexican Mafia in their black suits standing guard. Or at least we knew them as that, but also by another name I can't remember right now. I don't know if they were the Mexican Mafia. They were more like very solemn escorts that we knew carried guns, but not so they were showing. They stood at all the entrances to the room from the outside, the hallways and the kitchen and never ate, drank, talked or smiled. In a way, it was a comfort to have them there, but in the back of my mind I was always afraid I'd drop something or move wrong and wind up getting shot.

I wonder now at the expense that went into these parties, the wealth in those families, and all the kind of underworld stuff that was going on that we just ignored. The hotel where this took place was a kind of front for other properties and there were questionable details about who actually owned what. Sometimes there would be so much merchandise from another new property that had been acquired stored in our hallways and kitchen that we could barely move, and other times we'd be scrambling to find a teaspoon because all the equipment was needed "at another property." We were paid in cash, and we didn't ask questions. Even now, I'd be uncomfortable revealing too much about who, where and what was involved.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Televised Sports

"Hi ladies. Would you like to watch "National Tractor Pull" or "World Wide Wrestling" tonight?"

I worked in a hotel bar when big screen TVs first came on the market. At first, my boss rented movies and showed them over and over, but we got so many complaints from regular customers about the same films always showing or from people who didn't like coming in on the middle of a movie that he decided the TV was exclusively for sports. Didn't matter if the Academy Awards was on. Probably wouldn't matter if martians had attacked Kentucky. It had to be sports - or we'd be fired. Really, he was that much of a jerk.

Come late night hours on a Wednesday or Thursday, there's not usually much to choose from and the patrons of that bar - closer to the theater and business district - were decidedly un-sports-like, older and usually international. This was before all of the cable and satellite stuff so mostly, the volume was off on the TV and people just pretended like it wasn't there.

Years later, I worked one of the oddest cocktail receptions of my career in the suite of another hotel while folks gathered around the television watching the O.J. Simpson low-speed chase through L.A. Talk about a subdued crowd.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Got Milk?

I'm really good at putting my foot in my mouth now, but it didn't used to happen that often. I don't think it was that I didn't notice it ... I really think I was smarter, or more sensitive, or just more articulate. Mostly. Because there was one morning, halfway into a double shift at House of Pies, I remember embarrassing myself so badly that I felt like my hair would melt off.

I was waiting on a table of three young mothers with three very young children, ranging in age from about one to two and half years old. They were sitting at a booth and I had already served food to them when I went back to refill coffee. One of the kids, a darling little blonde girl, was seated next to her mom at my left side as I went around with the pot of coffee. She was smearing chocolate cream pie all over her face and I laughed and said, "Looks like a good time to me!" Except by the time the end of that sentence had gotten out of my mouth, I was looking into the eyes of the woman on the right side of booth who was at that moment breast-feeding her child. Of course, I don't have any issues about breast feeding and she was being very discrete. So discrete that I hadn't even noticed until I made a jackass out of myself by appearing to indicate her baby was having the kind of "good time" that I would like to enjoy myself. My face was hot as I tried to explain that I was talking about the girl on the other side of the table, but the more I stuttered, the more I just made myself look like it was the first time I'd even seen a woman feeding her child.

Not to tempt fate, but these days when I'm goofy, I can always look back on that "good time" and be thankful that at least now, people don't usually think I'm hitting on lactating women.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Last Impressions

Did you read about the Jet Blue flight attendant who got fed up with his job (last straw, a passenger wouldn't stay seated, cussed at him and hit him on the head) so he said some dirty words on the microphone, grabbed a couple of beers and his carry-on luggage, activated the automatic slide and exited the plane? I don't think I'd ever have the nerve to do it, but I can sure understand the desire.

I worked with a cocktail waitress who said her fantasy was to win the Lottery and then go around applying for jobs in cocktail lounges. She said she'd work until one of the customers was rude to her and then she'd pour a large glass of tomato juice on their head. She wanted to have enough money that she could move to several different cities and do this over and over again.

The best way I ever quit a job was when the restaurant I worked at scheduled me for days they had already given me off for my second job. It was around Christmas, so I left a message with my answering service that, if my employer called to give them this message: "'Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la. I quit."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It's Supposed To Taste Bad

Our new food and beverage manager, Carol, was eager to make some changes. It didn't matter to her or the brilliant general manager who promoted her from the front desk that she had never worked in any capacity of food and beverage in her life - not even as a cashier at Dairy Queen - she was gonna straighten things out, particularly in the banquet department.

One of Carol's first moves was to get rid of the coffee that all of our customers loved and replace it with Starbucks. At the time, Starbucks was what all the yuppies were lusting after - the status symbol of coffee drinkers who didn't really like coffee in the first place, but sure liked holding that Starbucks cup so everyone could see how "hip" they were. Starbucks' banquet/institutional coffee service demands that only Starbucks' equipment is used, coffee is never to sit on any kind of warmer, and that it be served using Starbucks' own thermal pots, so we had to practically re-design the whole banquet kitchen to accommodate the switch. An early clue as to how successful this change was going to be could be found in the training Starbucks provides to waiters to convince customers that their coffee is actually "higher quality" than the coffee that the customer prefers. It's essentially a convoluted way of telling them they don't know their butt from a bulldog.

You know the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well, Carol didn't. Half of the comments we got from clients were complaints about the coffee. It wasn't just because Starbucks coffee is bitter (it is), it was that it didn't stay warm in the pots they provided (that we were required by contract to use) and the pots were unwieldy (probably 20 inches tall) so they made it nearly impossible to serve at a round top without pulling the cup and saucer completely away from the table (dangerous in banquet service) and the pots leaked. (We learned the hard way: Pouring from a pot that tall put the bottom of the pot in the face of the patron to the right, sometimes clipping them on the chin, and caused the pot to drip on their plate.) Bitter, lukewarm coffee poured from a leaking pot is really hard to sell as "higher quality" to anyone, let alone groups that had been meeting regularly at our hotel for years and were perfectly happy (even pleased) with the coffee we had been serving all along until the status queen showed up.

There are some very basic first rules to a successful banquet: Good coffee, good bread, and a full water glass. If you've got all those things going for you, you can screw up a lot and still manage to please most of your customers. By the time Carol went on maternity leave (to give birth to her designer baby, no doubt), she had all but destroyed the client base we had by getting rid of the homemade bread rolls in favor of some brand name earth grain crap that had to be warmed and was frequently found to be molding upon delivery, and imposing her Starbucks fetish on the department. The waiters were so busy dealing with complaints about the bread and coffee, they barely had time to pay attention to anything else. Even stranger is that the new bread and coffee were so much more expensive than what we had been serving, but the new stuff had brand names Carol thought were more "in line with the clientele we would like to attract."

Carol exemplified the shift in those yuppie years from integrity to pretentious phoniness that still prevails, and not just in food and beverage. One of the last full time jobs I had was in sales, and I was under pressure to perform to a strict quota. I explained to my manager that I was looking for features in the product that I could sincerely identify as valuable to my clients. He said, "Oh I can help you with that. I have some sales pitches that sound really sincere." You know, that boy will probably never understand the difference.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bend Me, Shape Me

I hate it when people start re-arranging the furniture in a bar where I'm working. Especially the people who push round tables together to make a larger table. Jesus wept, I barely made it through geometry the second time and I know better than to do that. Inevitably, you'll wind up with a situation where a bunch of drunks are trapped in a conglomeration of tables that looks something like a diagram of a complex protein chain. The waiter can only reach 5 or 6 people out of a group of 16 and everyone at the table is too self-absorbed, oblivious or drunk to make any effort to pass drinks down to the folks they've blocked in. Stuff gets spilled, other people can't get past the mega-table, and the waiter loses seating for half the bar because eight tables that could have sat four each have now become one table that seats 16. People wind up sitting farther away from each other than if they'd sat at the original tables, so they're not really "together" anyway, and the new arrangement makes it hell to wait on them or anyone else.

On the upside, one year when I was working as a cocktailer, I won a limbo contest because it was part of my job on a daily basis to literally bend over backwards for people.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Fool

I had a crush on a guy I had briefly dated, but never seemed to get over. We both contributed to the twisted un-relationship we had, him telling me, "It's not that I want to go out with you. I just don't want you to go out with anyone else." And me saying, "I just want you to ask me out so I can tell you no." Looks bizarre from a distance, but it was True Love while I was in it. Anyway, I said that to say this: The guy I liked had a roommate who was the most annoying, whiney and helpless thing I'd ever met. We'd all be out at the bars together and inevitably, the roommate had to go home because he felt dizzy, or didn't want to use the restrooms in the bar or spilled something on his shirt, etc. Of course, he couldn't drive himself home, so I'd wind up alone.

One night, we were all gonna have coffee after hours, and whiney-boy had too much beer (probably two of 'em) and was complaining that he couldn't walk. I didn't want to miss out on spending time with my crush, so I said, "Here, I'll carry you." I picked him up (he outweighed me by about 40 pounds) and took a few steps on the wet pavement and slipped. I went down - him on top of me - landing on my knee, turned sideways. I didn't know I'd fractured it at the time. I was too busy trying to calm him down, first because his neck hurt, then his back hurt, then his head hurt. Brother. We all went to coffee. I was limping a little, but I thought it would pass. I went home that night about 3:30 and woke up at 6:00 with my knee about twice normal size and every shade of purple imaginable. Right away, I called the hotel and told them I didn't think I'd be able to make it to work that night. (I had to use a bar stool for a walker to get around my apartment since I didn't own crutches. I think of that every time I hear Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if ..." ) Turns out, I was in a full cast, non-weight-bearing for four months. Even after I got the cast off, I wound up working PBX for a couple of months because I couldn't put much weight on the knee. Twenty years later, I still have trouble with it.

One of the first gigs I got sidelining outside of the hotel after I was back on my feet was at Coors, working for ARA, a huge concessions conglomerate that handles convention centers and the like. I was told the job involved some "light cooking" and I said I thought I could handle that. 30 minutes into the shift, I called the food and beverage director of ARA and told her, "I will never, ever, ever and forever work for you again. Barbecued chicken for 300 people is NOT 'light cooking'! I don't even know how to make this for ONE person, let alone 300!" She asked me if I was walking out and I said I didn't do that. I'd finish the job I contracted for, but she was a liar, and she should be ashamed of herself. And she needed to tell me how to cook the damn chicken. In addition to preparing the chicken, I baked cookies and put together tossed salad and filled bowls with potato salad, set up the buffet (including the tables), bussed, broke everything down and washed the dishes (pans and serving stuff, since it was all paper plates). I was working with one other "waiter" who told me about some place he worked once where they had people who "didn't do nothin' but wash dishes all day." I don't think he got out much.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

An Unfamiliar Face

Most customers don't know what you look like.

Sure, there are the occasional few who leave greeting cards on the windshield of your car or look up your number out of the phone book, but I always think of those as stalkers who just happened to have eaten at one of my tables. The real customers wouldn't know me from Adam. Or Eve.

To prove this point, one night Suzy, a waitress I worked with at the pancake house, smeared fudge sauce all over her face, sprayed on some whipped cream eyebrows and stuck a cherry on the end of her nose (I think she had sprinkles on her cheeks, too) and brought a fresh pot of coffee out to her new table.

"Hi folks, how are you tonight? May I start you off with some coffee?"

Barely a nod and a grunt. They kinda motioned at their cups (I guess that was to make sure she didn't pour it in her shoes) but they never even looked up at her. When she walked back to the service area, we were all practically falling down from laughter. Suzy just wiped her face off and walked back out on the floor to take their order.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Would You Like To Hear Me Drink?

I worked a wedding reception at a country club where the bride's family were members. I think the family sent champagne back to the kitchen employees because the dishwashers had gotten drunk toward the last half of the event. About every 30 minutes they would stand at the entrance to the kitchen and sing "Happy Birthday" in thick Spanish accents. Nobody sent them home, because nobody wanted to wash dishes.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Shiny Happy Syrups

Have you ever been in one of those restaurants that had the flavored syrups on the table? Apricot, strawberry, blackberry and blueberry were the flavors at the restaurant where I worked. (In theory, anyway, because when you've been working all day and you've got to fill those damn things up as part of your sidework, it is really easy not to give a rat's ass whether the blueberry winds up getting mixed in with the blackberry or vice versa. Most people just taste by color anyway.) It's probably more accurate to say that that's what the labels on the dispensers read.

Syrups were supposed to be poured into buckets every week, the clear glass syrup dispensers run through the dishwasher and dried and then refilled and set out on the table. Never mind there were four of them on every table and each waiter had about 12 or 13 tables, and there were 12 or 13 sugar caddies to be filled and wiped down with the black dots on the edge of the sugar packets all facing the same way (who even knew there were black dots on those packets?) and exactly ten Sweet'n'Lows lined up on the edge of them, salt and peppers to replenish and an ungodly amount of cleaning, refilling and prepping to do in the back (Oh, God, please don't let me have salad station again!) The dispensers were filled from plastic buckets that were filled from industrial sized cans of syrup that were kept in the store room - half way to Kansas. In spite of the obviously over-the-edge, split-nerve Magic Marker scrawl on each syrup bucket notifying us which one was the BLACKBERRY!!! or BLUEBERRY ONLY PLEASE!!!! those two were always getting confused, and about every three weeks a manager or an over-achieving new waitress would 'discover' that the syrups were mixed and ALL of the blackberry and blueberry syrups on the tables had to be dumped and refilled.

That thing about pouring out, cleaning, drying and refilling was the 'procedure' but here's what usually happened: One waitress would keep a lookout for the manager or stall them in the office over some personal problem. During this brief window of opportunity, food service would come to a halt while the rest of the wait staff would grab the syrups, caddy and all, off of their tables, load them on flat racks and send them all through the dishwasher with the syrup still in them. They came out looking really clean. Then we'd fill the ones that needed filling, put them back on the tables and save ourselves and the company about 30 minutes each on the clock. (Hey, at $2.01 an hour, that can add up!) The downfall to this system was that eventually the syrups, after having been exposed to 180 degree heat, would begin to ferment. Sometimes, this would be apparent in the tiny bubbles that started to gather at the top of the dispenser or they might foam over a little - particularly the ones at the tables by the windows that had already done a little ripening on their own. I remember one Sunday in particular when one of our regular customers, a mentally challenged young adult woman, yelled across the dining room at our manager, "HEY JANE! THESE SYRUPS TASTE JUST LIKE BEER!" Apricot, strawberry and blue-blackberry beer.

Sooooo, everyone had to gather all their syrups off their tables, pour them down the sink, and refill them. Inevitably, some of the blackberry pitchers would be filled with blueberry, and some of the blueberry with blackberry and some with a combination of both that had already been mixed when the buckets had been refilled. And then the whole thing would start all over again.

Just a word to the wise: It's a good idea to stay away from any condiment that remains on a table through bar rush. If you've got to use one of them, at least unscrew the lid and look inside first, 'cos there's no telling what some drunk might have done to it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bear or Bare

I almost had to work in a bear costume one time. The girl who dressed up as Village Inn's mascot, Bucky Bear for special promotions had to go visit a dying relative or some damn thing so management was looking for a replacement. Basically, the lower you ranked on the schedule, the more vulnerable you were to being chosen. The only thing that eventually saved me was I was too tall for the costume, so honors went to Brittany. She was the right size and was already scheduled that Sunday. She told me about it afterwards and about how hot it was inside Bucky and how bad it smelled and the way the kids pulled her fur. She had to stand in front of the restaurant and hand out coupons and coloring books and talk to the kids in whatever she could come up with for a bear voice. At the time, it was something I dreaded, but looking back I kinda wish I had it on my resume - even for one day.

A few years later, I wound up in a completely different kind of costume, serving coffee, sodas, sandwiches and other light food to a group of nudists in a gay coffee house in Denver's Broadway Terrace neighborhood. The coffee house closed on the first Monday of each month for this event, and one night while I was playing cards there with my friends, the owner asked me if I would consider waiting on them for the next get-together. My uniform this time was a purple and black leopard print G-string and a pair of sandals.

At first, I was reluctant because I'm pretty self-conscious, but then I started to think about all the times that self-consciousness had held me back from participating in life. I told my oldest niece about being asked to work the party, and that it was on January 8th. She said, "Elvis' birthday? Oh, I think that's a sign you should do it." And I did. For three or four months, I was the waiter for the nudist group. It's fun to say these many years later that I worked in a G-string, and the experience was not without its lessons: If you're putting dollars in someone's underpants, bikini, G-string or T-bar, always crumple them up a little bit first. Crisp bills hurt.