I watched the dancers getting into a deep groove on the dance floor; the ethereal girls and the carbon-based life forms they were coupled with, faces made pained and surreal by the disco ball’s multi-colored lights. I took a deep drag on my first cigarette in hours and thought, “So this is what it’s like to end up in hell on a Saturday night.” Somehow, I always figured hell for some place more interesting than this, some place more, well, metaphorical. Exciting even. Right now, it was a place of poor quality and decidedly mediocre; all those unnaturally colored leisure suits, all those horrible to the touch and on the skin manufactured fabrics in color schemes not normally found in nature. I itched all over just thinking about them.
“Well, that’s what you get for having unrealistic expectations.” Zen Man always said.
“I suppose. I just assumed there would be metaphorical content. Sturm and drang. Howling and moaning on an epic scale. That sort of shit. The noise we get here sounds much more like whining and wheedling, complaining and kvetching to me.”
“Don’t be going kraut on me. You know how I feel about krauts.”
“Strum and drang.”
“Oh them. They were a folk duo out of Utica back in the middle sixties. They had a couple of small hits but they never managed to go National. Too bad. They had some talent.”
“You can’t shit me, Man. I know kraut when I hear it.”
“All this bullshit about metaphor and epics, that’s just a load of crap. That’s what happens when you read too many books.”
He didn’t have to add, “Of dubious quality.” It was just sort of like, somehow, implied.
This coming from a guy who read Winston Churchill, without gagging, if he read anything at all. Though I had to give him credit: he’d turned me on to The Prince and that had become my Bible, that book had impressed more than anything I’d read in a long while. The shit that man laid down really worked if you saw how to apply what he said. It was your own fault if you didn’t. He laid out plain and clear for anyone to see and understand. Even Nixon got it. Especially Nixon got it.
Imagine: running a restaurant according to principles laid about by some guy trying to avoid being stretched on the rack by the Medici Brothers. No, not the moving firm but the despots. And not the despots of the one hit wonder song; a jazzed-up version of Frank’s, “(I Did It) My Way”. No, not the Medici were the original wise guys, the real McCoy: honest to goodness iron fisted ruthless rulers. Zen Man would have a pun for ruthless rulers too.
Zen Man was good at punning games but I was better.
Actually, I was better at a lot of stuff than he was. After all I was king, maybe even God of the Lounge, and he was meat. Zen Man reluctantly but tacitly admitted my superior position, as he turned me on to Machiavelli saying, “Read this and do your worst.”
What he meant was, “You’re in a position as bar/ night manager/ all around fool, to make what the wop says happen here. Accept me as your tour guide through hell like Virgil was for Jimmie Joyce, like Machiavelli was for the princes. You know what the golden rule is, right?”
“If they can’t take a joke, fuck ’em?”
“No asshole, ‘if you can make ’em eat shit, do it.'”
Himself , the so-called owner, didn’t know I was running the show behind his back. I was doing it through informal power, through the little chinks in the system, in unofficial channels and offices, where things actually got done behind the scenes. You had to know where to look for holes and thanks to “the wop” I did know where to look. Himself not knowing added an extra layer of enjoyment to the whole enterprise. One I intended to relish fully. Slowly and patiently, the same way I would savor a nice red wine after it had a chance to breathe.
Yes, this was the same Himself from the hotel days. Fulfilling his so-called promise to, as he said, “Take care of me.” He was taking care of me all right. The same way Charlie McCarthy and Co. had taken care of me in The Tavern days. They didn’t call him Big Chief Stab in the Back for nothing. The wounds had barely had a chance to heal before Himself began working them anew with his special backstabbing tool.
I had to give him credit though: he put up a much better show, a much more elaborate front than those guys did. Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered to go through all the trouble that Himself did. Maybe they just didn’t have the resources or the vision. Whatever it was, the bottom line was the same: they planned to jump out of the burning plane with the last remaining parachutes and leave you holding the joystick.
No, this was a whole new ball game. I’d learned a lot sticking with the hotel group after Himself was reluctantly banished from the realm. In the smoking ruins he left behind, there would be a succession of loser manager types, each more incompetent than the last. It got so bad we began pools to see how long the latest one would last. It seemed almost as if they were deliberately bringing in incompetent, unqualified people to screw things up. As it worked out, maybe they were.
You couldn’t accidently come upon a guy who barely spoke the language, plunk him down in the middle of Albany, and expect him to produce results. Well, they got results all right. Of a kind.
After him, they brought in some guy who must have been fresh out of the Service. With his regulation brush cut and pressed whites he was trouble waiting to happen. His last, maybe, only food experience, must have been running a front-line troop ship cafeteria and he had all the imagination and management skills that go with running that kind of operation. A couple of days of tripe on toast from fifty-gallon soup tureens and the help was in open rebellion.
I heard one even laughed in his face when he got up front and confrontational. The guy he chose to pick on was some wise ass kid who had spent a lifetime amid street gangs in LA, as in Lower Albany. It might not have had the glitz and glitter of the West Coast but the knife fights he had survived and, got bored with as a career opportunity with a limited future, were just as real as any knife fights in LA, CA.
Sergeant Slaughter’s last words spoken in anger to that fine young man were, “What makes you think you can act like that to me.”
I’m sure the good sergeant had been up close and personal with all kinds of knives before but not one like this one and it was pointed right at his heart. We never heard of the Sergeant again, though LA was back at his line duty within the week.
Next, they brought in some kid straight from some culinary program like Waz a Mattah U. He tried by-the-book, elaborate food preparations with special emphasis on presentation. Instilling the Idea of Proper Food Presentation to a bunch of guys whose idea of food displays had always been, “We cook it, slap it on a plate and ring the bell for you to get it the hell out of here.” And it had worked for as long as they had been doing the job. For some of them, that had been longer than the FNG had been alive. Asking them to all of a sudden, “Take extra care with entree placement and the aesthetics of food prep” was like a stateside Academy grad in the Nam asking a short time field veteran to check out that sniper’s position on the double. If the vet was in a good mood that day his response would be something along the lines of, “With all due respect, Sir, shove it up your ass. Sideways. With all due respect. Sir.” If he was in a bad mood, the grunt would have shot him right there and then, saving everyone the trouble of having to do it later. No one in the unit would disagreed with the outcome either.
The culinary guy lasted the requisite two weeks. The management merry-go-around business was getting so ridiculous, you began wondering out loud when they were going to pick someone half-way competent, just by accident. The mathematical odds were in their favor after all.
So, when the next guy arrived and delivered the standard “Getting to Know You” speech and had sounded half-way reasonable, there was an almost, audible sigh of relief from the staff. I emphasize, almost. No sooner had we begun to settle into a new routine, everyone discovered the not-so-secret flaw that had brought our new man here instead of to some place more worthy of his talents like The Ritz Carlton in NYC. He drank.
In and of itself, drinking was something we all related to. It comes with the job. Actually, all jobs in the restaurant business end up involving drinking. It is just a matter of who maintains the controlling interest in the drinking business: The Individual or the Booze. It was fairly obvious that the booze had won his soul long before he had sloshed himself onto and airplane from the home office in Kingman, Arizona, or wherever the hell it was those days, and poured him onto the tarmac in Albany, barely able to manage the luggage carousel to retrieve his luggage.
Not that he should have bothered. Before he had even had a chance to finish unpacking and figure out which of the waitresses was the easiest lay, he was gone on an unexplained, “sick leave of undetermined duration.” A euphemism for Rehab often applied in our trade.