Monday, June 30, 2014

Why I am Saturday night

A friend recently asked me just why I post "is Saturday night!" as my Facebook status on, well, Saturdays.The simple answer is that since I work in a restaurant, Saturday night is a big night.  As you may know, I love my job, so this is the best day of my week.

But there's more to it than that.  Here's an interesting fact about being in the restaurant 'biz':  Once you are committed to it, your Saturday nights are not like most folks' any more. Your friends will call you up and say, 'hey I am having a party on Saturday', and you'll say, 'oh that's too bad, because I work on Saturdays'.  This isn't actually a bad thing, as far as I am concerned, even though it is a workday.  If you love the business like I do, Saturday night is a party night, but not for going out.  We hold the party and people come to us.

There's also a back story here.  When I first got the job at Hudson's (now 17 years ago), even though I'd been 'hired' in October, technically, I was 'on call' so I called in every Saturday night for months, only to be told, no sorry not this week.  I didn't give up, though.  It was actually April before I got to work my first shift, and it was a Saturday night.  I wanted to make a good impression with the kitchen, so taking a cue from a old movie called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I brought along a twelve-pack of beer for the kitchen.  In the movie, it's a bottle of whiskey, I think, and it's for the chef, but here I tried to hit the lowest common denominator, thinking that if the kitchen didn't hate me, I'd be off to a good start.

It worked.  Well, I really don't think it was the beer that did it, but whatever the reason, I got to work more and more Saturdays.  And each time I came to work, I was so excited and happy to be there, that when I would arrive, I would kick open the back door to the kitchen and holler as I came in with my 12-pack: "It's Saturday Night!"  This would be met by a chorus of whoops and and occasional 'Sabado gigangte'.  This is a ritual I still do today, although I often no longer arrive in the afternoon when everyone is in the kitchen.  Now I even call it out to an empty kitchen when I arrive at noon, but it's still a symbolic moment for me--the moment when I am where I really want to be, in the restaurant.

So, when Facebook came along, I started posting my excitement as a status.  Back in the day, FB would put up your name and the word "is" next to the status box, so when you posted, you could just say, "at a party" and it would come out as "Phillip is at a party".  Eventually, FB changed, but I didn't, and the result is sort of zen-like statement about me and my week.

I am Saturday night!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

12 Things You Maybe Didn't Know About Restaurants

This post comes in response to a recent article I read about Things You Have to Explain to People Who Have Never Worked in Kitchens.  This is a good article and mostly true, but it leaves out the side of the restaurant that most people think they are familiar with, but are, in fact, not aware of at all.  Here are a dozen of my favorites, in no particular order.

1. Everybody does everything but we have different jobs for a reason.

In a busy restaurant, you'll often see the manager out on the floor, clearing and re-setting tables. Busboys may be called on to carry trays of food, and often waiters will clear the plates and refill the water glasses.  So, while it may look like you can order food from the busboy, wave down the waiter to clear your plate, or get a drink from a passing manager, it actually makes sense to ask the waiter for another glass of wine, and to allow the busboy to clear your plate when you are finished.

The manager can get you anything, of course, but keep in mind that they have waiters and busboys there for a reason--they do the work while the manager fills in the gaps and takes up the slack for the people taking care of you.  If you ask the wrong person to do something for you, not only will it take longer, but it might not even come out right.  The waiter knows the menu and keeps their finger on the pulse of the kitchen to your benefit in a way that busboys and managers do not.

2. The busboy cannot take a food order.

So, even though you'll see us all doing a lot of things, there are some things we don't do.  The busboy really can't take your food order.  Now, while he can take your steak back to the kitchen for a re-cook, it makes more sense to ask the waiter to do this, because the busboy can't actually talk to the chefs. That may seem surprising, but it makes sense in a crowded and busy kitchen.

It's not like the busboys are forbidden to speak to the chefs, but in the kitchen talking is limited and the waiters are constantly calling out tables and responding to their names when food is up in the window, so by custom, we don't let the busboys talk to the line.  Instead, the waiters are in the middle, talking to the line and the busboys, calling for food, coffee, and giving special instructions for tables that need something like butter or bread or need to be cleared asap.

3. Watching people eating is like being a voyeur, and can often be as disgusting.

A lot of people do not realize just how intimate and disgusting the act of eating can be.  That's because we don't observe ourselves doing it, and we politely ignore the more iffy moments that our fellow diners often subject us to, like chewing/talking with an open mouth or spilling food on the table.  We see you shoving huge hunks of buttered bread into your mouth and notice when you reach back in there and pick something out of your molars.  We see you blow your nose in the napkin then wipe your mouth with it.  We see you spit out food and we know when you are drunk.

As waiters, we see it all--that's our job--and we don't say a word.  We certainly don't pull you up the way your parents would have if they'd seen you do that. We clean up your mess and wait until you finish the mouthful you were working on so you can tell us you want another glass of wine.

4. Regulars get better service.

This may seem obvious or not, depending on the type of diner you are.  Many people do not frequent one restaurant often enough to be recognized by the staff as 'regulars'.  This doesn't mean that we don't remember you, but there is a big difference between the person who comes in once a week or every two weeks, the person who comes in once a month and the person who comes in once a year.

You might think it's about the money, that we prefer regulars because they tip us more, but that's not the case at all.  We like the regulars because they come back.  It's really that simple.  We get to know you, where you like to sit, what you like to drink.  This is what we do best, taking care of people.  But if it's your first time in the restaurant, we don't know any of that, so we can't give you the kind of personalized service that we do for the regulars.

5. Special orders are a pain.

This not because we are too lazy to do it, but has a lot to do with the relationship between the waitstaff and the kitchen.  In some cases, a special order is not so difficult, but for the most part, these kinds of requests cause the kitchen to pause their routine and a) listen to the special request and b) take care of it. This causes friction between the waiters and the chefs, and the waiters are reluctant to engage in a long conversation with a hot and possibly annoyed chef just to get you a piece of broiled fish.  And if you are asking for 'this sauce' on that 'item', you might think you are being clever or inventive, but in fact you are insulting the chef, who took a lot of time and care to make and pair the sauce with the item. Forcing the waiter to go do this bidding just makes them and the chef annoyed and the result, no matter what you think, just won't be as good.

In fact, we have a menu for a reason--this is what we make and what we do best.  Seriously, when someone has an allergy, we can deal with that.  Shellfish, nuts and some kinds of fruit can cause serious problems.  Lately we are even accommodating the gluten-free folks. No problem.  But if you just don't feel like our style of food that evening, what are you doing in our restaurant? If you ask for a 'plain steak' or 'fries' or a 'nice piece of broiled fish', you should have eaten at home.

It's worth mentioning here that the common stereotype (Ramsay comes to mind) of the angry chef who despises the waitstaff and treats them like stupid children is just that, a stereotype and therefore nothing like the real world.  In fact, we couldn't tolerate a chef like that in the small quarters that we dance in, so even though tempers are sometimes tested, and there are sharp words spoke, there is no cursing or yelling and we often actually chat with the chefs as we garnish the plates and load trays at the window. Now when you have to stop the process and talk seriously to the chef, the dynamic changes, and it slows down everything down the line.  That's the pain part.

6. You can send the wine back if you just don't like it.

Speaking of pain, for many (especially young) diners, there can be no more awkward or painful situation in a restaurant than ordering a bottle of wine that they just don't like.  A lot of people think that if you order a bottle of wine that you don't particularly like, you are stuck with it.  Now, setting aside the issue of whether or not some wines on the list are 'bad' (they are not) this causes many people to go into a sort of paralysis when ordering wine.  If they are uncertain about their choice, they will freeze up and go with the 'known' and stay away from those 'unknowns'.  This in turn leads to the choice of the wrong wine. Far too many people pick a familiar California cabernet instead of trying an old world wine because they are afraid the French or Spanish wine will be 'bad' and they'll be 'stuck' drinking it.

In fact, all the wines on the list are good for what they are (style, region, price) but if you simply happen to choose a wine that you don't like, then you can return it (before you drink it, of course)--that sounds obvious but I've had folks try and return a bottle after they've had half of it already. We'll even do that, but not necessarily happily.

If, however, you order a wine, taste it and decide it's not what you want, you may return it, really!  Of course, if you decide that you really want something else, though, it's time to trust the waiter or wine steward's suggestions.  Then, if you return a second bottle you will not be required to pay for it either. You'll have more trouble retiring the third bottle, but of course, you may do that too.  By the way, don't expect more than three times at bat, however.

7. Don't ask 'what's good tonight?'

This kind of question is very awkward for the waiter.  Asking for their favorites is a much better approach because answering the first question carries with it the implication that not everything is good tonight.  We operate on the basic principle that everything is good, every night.  We might have preferences, and it's fair to ask about these.

You can ask the waiter what they would have tonight, and they'll likely tell you that tonight, they feel like having fish or steak.  So, it's same as you, they have preferences and they actually change from night to night.  But it's all good.

8. Other people are celebrating their ______ too.

This may come as a shock to most people, but when you are in a restaurant, there's a very high likelihood that other diners will also be celebrating their birthday/anniversary.  I know, your birthday and anniversary are unique--to you, but not to us.

We see dozens of special occasions every night, and while we try to make you feel special about it, the fact is, that we can only do so much.  We are not capable of 'making' your birthday special--that's the job of whomever is taking you to dinner.  We can make a fuss over you, if that's what you want, but don't expect us to sing to you.  Or join in when the family sings, please, no.

And, while it seems logical that you should get a free dessert because it's your birthday, if we did that, we'd give away more desserts that we would sell.  Recall that we are in the business of making and selling food, and that includes your piece of cheesecake even when it has a candle in it.

9. Don't ask for the 'best table in the house'.

You would be amazed how often we get this request, on the phone and at the door.  And, while the old saying that you can't get what you don't ask for is certainly true, it's also a fact that unless you are a regular and/or very nice about it, we have no reason to give you 'the best table'.  An aside here--just like 'what's good tonight?' this request implies that there are good and bad tables in the restaurant.

So, while no one will deny that some tables are more prominent and perhaps have a better view of the restaurant and are therefore 'better' we really don't have any 'bad' tables.  In our restaurant, for example, there are two tables that are in the proximity of the restrooms, and one that is close to the kitchen door, but in truth, when the restaurant is busy and full, it's a table and you will get fed if you sit there.  You may indeed ask for a 'better' table, but all you are going to get is a different table, and it may take a while to get it.

10. We value nice people more than we value big tips.

Most people think that giving a big tip will get you good service, especially next time.  Well, this is true only to a limited extent.  For one thing, unless you give us an unbelievable tip (like 100%) we will be grateful, to be sure, but we will not necessarily remember you just because you gave us 23% or $20 on an $80 tab. The fact is, we often get some good tips.  While this thrills us (really, you have no idea how nice it is to open the book and see an appropriate tip in there) we aren't going to remember you fondly just for that.

Now if you are also nice, you smile and listen to the waiter, are patient with him as he manages the other people at the other tables in his section and thank him for taking care of you, we will rememeber you if you come back in a reasonable amount of time.  In fact, you can actually leave a less-than-average tip and we will remember you for being nice.  The next time you come in, we'll think, 'oh they are nice' and not even recall whether or not the tip was 20%. See #4.

11. Punishing the waiter for a problem with the food is bad form.

Of course the flip side to this is the $0 tip, or the stiff.  It is almost never appropriate to stiff a waiter. Even if they have been rude, you have to give them something.  It's certainly appropriate to tell them why you are unhappy, and even to complain to the manager when you feel you've been given less-than-average service, but it's not cool to say, 'well, you made a mistake so I am just not going to pay you'.

If, when treated poorly at the doctor's office, would you be permitted to say, 'that was painful.  I'm not paying for that.'?  And I do believe I've gotten worse treatment at the hands of doctors than I've ever gotten from a waiter.  This isn't to say that you cannot give a waiter a low tip if they've been unresponsive or rude in some way, but you can't just stiff them altogether.  It is also a good idea to tell the waiter that you were unhappy with them and that they need to improve. While that may not be welcomed, it is more useful than simply leaving a low tip with no explanation.  And it's always good to provide feedback, since they can't be expected to improve without it.

A waiter won't always get it right, but for the most part they are trying to do the right thing.  Give them credit for that, and tell them when they aren't doing it right.  We expect that. The thing is, we remember folks who are stiffers.  Those folks are unlikely to ever escape their reputation, even though we continue to accept their patronage.

12. We remember when you treat us (and your guests) badly.

This might seem obvious, but you'd be amazed how often people come back to the restaurant completely oblivious to the fact that they were raving a-holes the last time they came in.  This is not the same as a bad tipper (though stiffing comes in here) because it isn't the money that we remember, it's how you behaved.  Insulting or cursing the waiter, demanding things from the busboys that they can't do, sending back food repeatedly, these are all things that we find to be troubling, if not downright out of line.

But it isn't just how you treat us, either.  We see how you treat those with you at the table.  And again, you would be amazed at how many people are rude or insulting to their companions.  This isn't just awkward for the waiter, it becomes a form of abuse, and no one is better of for it.  Of course we can't keep you from making your girlfriend cry or your dad turn red from apoplexy, but we certainly feel it and remember it.  Do you really want us to say 'Oh here comes that a-hole?' as you come to the door? What kind of service do you think you'll get?  See #10.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Filling the gaps
In a broken web
Droplets as big as goblets
Reflecting the whole world in a single curve
Light bends even in the tiniest drop
My eyes can only see so much
My breath can only last so long
Turn from your broken vessel
Leave the safety of the cockpit
Dive in the water and swim for home
Like an amoeba to the light
Light to the mirror of your damn soul
In the image of man good loses his goodness
Forgetting that what brought him here
And mistaking the cage for the world
There are too many minutes to spend
In argument
And too many kisses wasted on babies.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Swan Song

Patrick is dying.

Of course, he's been dying of emphysema since the day we met, now a year and a half ago, but now he's really dying.  Not actively dying, which is still to come, but he's entered a strange interlude that many dying people find themselves in--bed-bound, waiting for the end, but not there yet.  He's lost interest in the television and he was never much of a reader, so mostly he just sleeps.

About a month ago, after a visit, I sat in my car, wondering why it always feels like I've done nothing, even after visiting him when it occurred to me that this was because I really was doing nothing.  Of course, sitting with him and talking is good, but I wanted to do something more, something that would mean something to him, to Patrick.

Honestly, I don't know a lot about Patrick.  I know he's an old hippie, about my age, maybe a little older.  I know he lived in Austin most of his adult life, but he grew up in North Carolina, the son of a shoe salesman (seriously, a real life Willie Loman).  I know Patrick went to Woodstock, not just because he told me so, but he showed me pictures.  He was there, and at many other less well known festivals and outdoor concerts on the East coast and here in Texas.

Mostly what I know about Patrick is that he is guitar crazy.  One of the first things he asked me--after discovering that I was unable to solve his computer problems--was if I played guitar.  I said no, I have no musical ability, and he immediately offered to teach me.  Anyone can play, he said.  Perhaps he's right, but I never actually tried, and sitting in the car at the senior care facility, I found myself wishing I could play for him now.  Then I thought, even if I can't play guitar, maybe I can find someone who does.  it shouldn't be hard, I thought, here in the 'Music Capital of the World' to find a guitar player for Patrick, right?

I immediately conjured an image of Joe Ely, striding into the room wearing black boots and carrying an electric guitar and a little amp.  He'd plug in the guitar and put his foot up on the amp and say something like, "Anybody here want to hear a couple of guit-tar songs?"  Most visions are just that, but this one seemed like something I could actually make happen.  I mean, why not just write Joe Ely and ask him?

This reminds me of the time Lynda suggested I write that 'Bill Gates guy' and ask him for a job.  I bet he reads his email, right?  Right mom.

I don't know if Joe Ely reads his fan mail, but I wrote to him, and Ray Benson, and Willie Nelson, and every other famous guitar player I could think of.  It turns out that this list is not so long--not because there is a shortage of guitar players, but my musical knowledge is so limited that I didn't get very far.  I guess I wrote about eight or ten emails. I got one response.  This was from Ray Benson's agent, who told me very politely that Mr. Benson could not respond to individual requests, but often donated his time and talent to Swan Songs, which is a non-profit agency that arranges for musicians to go play for terminally ill people in their homes and institutions.

I filled out the online request form at Swan Songs website, and soon was in contact with the very kind folks who organize and coordinate these visits.  She said they had a musician who was willing to donate his time--fellow named Bob Livingston.  The name honestly did not mean anything to me, but Kate told me that he was pretty well known, and had played with a number of famous bands, including Jerry Jeff Walker's Lost Gonzo Band.  He also played with Michael Murphy, Gary P. Nunn and practically every other musician of note in the Texas and L.A.  All this I found out later.  At the time of Kate's call, I was more interested in making this happen for Patrick.  I felt sure Bob was going to be a good musician, but frankly I didn't care if he was famous or not.  The fact that he could play and was willing to give his time to Patrick was more than enough for me.

I met Bob and the representative from Swan Songs in the lobby of the care facility where Patrick now lives and told him a few things about Patrick, including the fact that he was at Woodstock.  I also told him that Patrick was an old hippie, like me, and it so happens, Bob, so that immediately resonated with him.  We all went to the room, and after a few introductions, Bob took out his guitar, a set of harmonicas and sat down to play.

It was magical.

It turns out, of course, that Bob could really play.  I don't quite know how to explain this, except perhaps by way of a weak analogy.  We taste things all the time, just the way we hear things all the time, but when you taste something especially good, whether it's food or drink, you know it's somehow materially different that the 'usual' stuff.  This is how I felt about Bob's music.  It was simply exceptional, yet so natural that it was no different than listening to someone talk. The music emerged from his hands and instruments (he also brought a set of harmonicas) in such a way that it was like water, flowing in and around and through us.

There were four of us in the room that day, but no one enjoyed it more than Patrick.  He can't talk much and doesn't have a lot of energy, but I could see his eyes sparkling and his head moving almost imperceptibly to the beat of the music.  He knew who Bob was, by the way, but I don't think that mattered so much as the fact that Bob was there to play guitar.

Afterwards, as he was drifting off to sleep, I told Patrick with some pride--'Hey, I never learned how to play the guitar, but I found someone who does.' It's the least I can do.

Bob is a very accomplished musician, so he made it look effortless, the way I might drink a glass of water, without thought.  It happens that there is precious little grace in my downing a glass of water, but in Bob's playing the grace and elegance of the act elevated our little corner of a nursing home--Patrick's last stand--to another place.  The word sublime comes to mind, but it seems too high-minded to describe the scene.  Here were a few humans, engaging in a ritual as old as humanity itself, comforting and soothing each other with our presence and the life-affirming power of music.

This was such a success, I felt like I needed to build on this, or at the very least, do it again.  Surely, I thought, there is a nearly limitless supply of musicians in this, the 'Music Capitol of the World'.  It turns out that it's not as easy as I thought, but I did manage to arrange for one more concert for Patrick. The next week, I arranged for a friend to come and play for him.  Ian, kind as he is to do this, is not a professional musician, but he was willing to do for Patrick what I simply cannot, which is to play the guitar.  I told Patrick that since I can't play, all I can do is to find someone who does.  I an did this, and with such grace and aplomb that it felt every bit as magical as the moments with Bob.

I wish I could say that I have since brought any number of guitarists to play at Patrick's bedside, but as I said, the process is harder than i thought.  I've sent notes to guitar and music stores, and I have posted in online forums, looking for someone with the same spirit that brought guitars into Patrick's life, oh so many years ago.  Even if we just managed to do it twice, however, I feel that those performances made a small difference in Patrick's final days.