Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Pub Cook we called Dick in Mouth

** This posting contains buckets of profanity. Enjoy.**

A curious title for this chapter it may be, and thankfully I can’t lay claim to its origin. For that one must look to Allen, who came to work at our little East Toronto Pub some years ago. Allen was an American from Rochester working in Canada under the table. He had followed his girlfriend back to Canada when she returned home from schooling in his fine state. Allen was an exuberant and sometimes gregarious fellow in his mid twenties. He was a capable cook and great company during the frequent slow nights. In fact he was a bit of a riot, finding all kinds of inventive ways to abuse Canadian customs and express ignorance of our cultural and political differences.

He was most often outspoken and frank, reserving just enough guile to present his tone as wit. He played the part of the hapless transplanted American perfectly, boldly ranting about his status as a kept man and regaling us with his tales of woe. Indeed, his girlfriend was a bit of a cold-shouldered shrew. At times she showed some redeeming qualities in social situations, but mostly her role to us was as adversary to Allen. Often she called looking for him promptly at the end of his shift, or showed up to drive him home. As the months with Allen wore on, we began to glimpse her motivation for the short leash.

Allen liked to drink. Actually that is inaccurate. Allen liked to have a drink, but he hated to get drunk. At least that held true when he was sober. He often bemoaned his abhorrent drunken behaviour and its salacious themes as those of a lout. It happened on the nights when his girlfriend was absent visiting friends in Rochester or out on the town. Allen would close down the kitchen at midnight and show up at the end of the bar. Strangely quiet and introspective, someone would surely ask. “Allen, what’s up man, why so quiet?” His answer would reveal his inner demons. “Oh man, I promised the nag I wouldn’t drink. Maybe I’ll just have one. Shit man, I can have one, right? Just one shot of Vodka, she’ll never know. Don’t give me anymore after that.”

The solitary shot of cheap vodka on the bar. I can still picture how he looked at it, stared at it, examined its crystal clarity, its viciousness. Some nights he would stare at it for two minutes before touching it. Then he would raise the glass to his lips, and sober Allen was gone. By the time the empty shot glass hit that bar he would have5 changed. “Woooo! Damn that shit was good. Hell yeah, gimme one more!” It literally happened that fast, it was the craziest thing I have ever seen. Sober Allen was crass. But that little filter that we all have in between our brain and our mouths, his was alcohol soluble. It was made of sugar, and vodka melted it faster than anything.

The things that came out of that boy’s mouth were unbelievable. Other than the hooting and the swagger, the first sign that Allen was getting drunk was that my new name was Dick in Mouth. Actually at that point everyone’s name was Dick in Mouth. “Hey Dick in Mouth, what the fuck is Pea meal Bacon? What kind of retarded fucking Canadian bullshit is this? Who puts shitty ground peas on their fucking bacon? And that shit is not even fucking bacon, some whore asshole in Quebec called it bacon because they can’t fucking speak English. Bullshit!” I would start to respond, “Allen, take it easy man, you love Pea meal bacon, and …” I would be cut off at that point. “Whaaaaaaahaha, fuck you Dick in Mouth, go suck your Mom’s cock. Fag! Baaahhh!”

People at the bar loved it for about fifteen minutes, and then it was time to send him home. The good part about it was that he was jovial throughout the whole episode. Even when he was telling you to suck your mom’s cock, he was smiling. Also, the whole thing from start to finish was over in half an hour. He was a convincing guy, beaming and swearing like a sailor who fucked a trucker who fucked a coal miner who fucked a drill sergeant and had a curse baby.

The drinks would go in fast, one after another, and the argument about cutting him off would continue until someone gave up. He would usually consume about six or seven shots of booze and then go home. Most all of the Americans I have met in Canada eventually go home, and sadly that was the case with Allen. Our lives suddenly seemed as tactful as a church barbeque, dull without all the vigour and profanity. I don’t imagine he stayed with the girl, and for the sake of everyone around him I hope he kept his drinking in control, but never really stopped.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Waiting on Europeans, the Aha! Moment

I am breaking my posting principals regarding posting about bad tips, but I have some questions I would like answered. First off I understand that tips are included as a standard service fee in Europe. The system there is totally different than it is in North America, both in the wage/tip system and in the social stigma attached to working in the Hospitality Industry. For those who don't know, serving in Germany, France, or many other European countries is considered to be a respected trade. Many Europeans complain about the poor standards of service in North America, and I agree. I think that the social attitude taken towards those who choose a career as servers perpetuates the whole system.

In Canada and the US, most servers are seen to be unskilled labour, students, and flakes. Can't cut it in the real world, well you can always be a waiter. I have done my time working in fine dining popping $6,000 bottles. Often the people I served made less money than me, and yet they still felt the need to demean my occupation.

So here is the impetus for this post; I served two English couples last week. That alone is enough to make most servers cringe and reel with terror. I usually don't mind serving Euro's for this reason. They understand the steps of service and even though they tip like shit, at least they will listen to you while you recite the night's features, they will not ask you for a desert menu while you are clearing their dinner plates, and they will order appropriate wine for their meal selection. A French couple will never remark at the white Chardonnay you bring to the table and say, "Oh, we wanted the red Chardonnay."

This table of Brits was my lynchpin, the best table in my section. They had the highest bill and were the a pleasure to look after. The owner sent a round of Amaro digestives to them on the house, and they left happy. The gentleman who paid the bill shook my hand on the way out and thanked me for the great service, he indicated that he had left a little something extra for me on top of the bill. I smiled and shuddered. Upon further inspection, the "Something Extra" was two ten dollar bills. Less than 5%. Clearly like most Euro's, he had assumed that gratuity was included in the charge, and that leaving cash would allow me to keep those tens all to myself. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Nudge my ass.

So here is my Question, I would love to hear from some Europeans on this;

"After weeks on vacation, dining in many fine establishments, and leaving little or no gratuity, is there an AHA! moment, an epiphany? Does someone explain the system to you, and are you suddenly racked with guilt for all those great servers who you utterly stiffed, screwed, and actually cost money? Or do you just not give a shit?"

I am genuinely curious.

My tip-out is roughly 6% of after tax sales, so that table cost me money to serve. Even still, I have a hard time discriminating and lowering my level of service based on race or origin. I suppose I will just have to deal with the Euro factor forever. I just want to know if they care.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Showdown at the Basement Bar - Millenium Lounge Part 2

I didn’t stay at Millenium lounge long enough to find out the history of the place and how it came to exist in such a state of abandonment. The owners were a hard working older Greek couple that ran the place by themselves. During the week the small restaurant had a kind of cheap and dingy appearance, with beat up tables and deep couches scattered about. It was a subterranean basement lounge, existing on a level beneath the legitimate retail shops and restaurants of the Danforth, both literally and figuratively. The only people I ever saw eating or drinking there during the week were a few old Greek men who seemed to be friends of the owners. Friday and Saturday were a different story altogether. On those nights the place was rented to Jamaican party promoters who marketed and organized jams in the lounge. In order to accommodate all of the people that were to be crammed into the small space, all of the tables, chairs, and couches, were moved into the back stairwell. This back stairwell I speak of was actually a fire exit, which of course is illegal and dangerous to block. I learned where all of the furniture went one night by chance while looking for a means of escape from one of the predictable and regular melees that were to become common fare in my world.

The furniture was moved to the fire exit, the DJ equipment was brought in and sound checked, two or three security personnel rolled in, and the bar staff arrived, such was the beginning of the party. The jam progressed nicely every time until that magic point when all hell broke loose. It happened every night that I worked there with varying degrees of severity. The location of the fight within the bar, along with the time of the night were key to determining whether or not the event would continue after order was restored.

The ceilings were low, and by midnight the stagnant air hung with a thick fog of marijuana smoke. Most nights I was high from the fumes alone, but hey who’s complaining about that. The funniest part of this was watching some Rasta leaning on the bar smoking a huge blunt while the owner ran by spraying air freshener just in case the police came by.

The final night of my employment at the Millennium Lounge ended with a fight as usual, but with a twist. It was not uncommon that the altercations were between girls, but that evening a very special woman was at the heart of all of the drama. It began with a scream from the washroom area at the back of the bar. Being close to my location I was in good position to observe a bleeding girl run into the crowd to seek shelter from the mystery assailant. A moment later her troubles were revealed in the form of a burly pursuer with a tormented grimace. My first impression was that the behemoth was a man, but a closer look proved her to be female, at least in the technical bits a pieces kind of way. To this day I remember that she wore a denim shirt open over a black t-shirt, jeans, and Timberland style boots. Her hair was loosely braided in cornrows that seemed in need of attention. She stood six foot three if she stood and inch, and most likely could have done well on an NFL defensive line. At the time there was a bar between her and I, and for that much I was thankful. As the other girl ran and was absorbed by the crowd, the monster’s rage continued unabated. Seeing that her prey had eluded her she faked a lunge at the crowd and smiled as they flinched in unison. It was then I realised that the packed bar had somehow shrunk and that there was now a large empty space surrounding our huffing antagonist. All of the partygoers were collectively pushing towards the entrance and away from our enraged friend with the wild eyes.

Seeing that she was clearly in control and unchecked, she spun to face me and advanced towards the bar. Unsure of her intent I began my retreat towards the kitchen where there was an exit. There I bumped into the owner, the little Greek woman was standing her ground. She must have been the only person in the place who remained unafraid of the angry giant. At that point the three bouncers had finally managed to push their way through the crowd, which was steadily moving in the opposite direction. The showdown had begun, and for dramatic effect the DJ had killed the music. The Jamaican gladiator grabbed two Heineken bottles, and grasping them by the necks smashed the ends off along the wooden surface of the bar. Other than in movies, I had never actually seen this done before and the effect was terrifying. The bouncers tried to surround her, but she kept the bar at her back and swung wildly with her makeshift weapons. Safely behind the wood I had a perfect view of all the action with minimal risk. By now the other patrons were getting into the action and the crowd jeered, taunted, and gasped at every jab and parry. One of the bouncers lunged while she was distracted, causing her to slip backwards and drop a bottle. She turned back towards me and tried to snatch another empty Heineken, but the little owner lady was too fast. She pushed past me and swept all of the bottles behind the bar in one swift motion. Infuriated, our colossal menace tried to clamber over the bar to get at the owner, who dexterously ducked behind me and ordered me to stop her. I turned to flee but the owner was again barring my progress and telling me to help the bouncers. Needless to say, the six dollars and hour she was paying me was not nearly enough money to motivate the kind of loyalty required to engage in battle for my boss. Now having the advantage the bouncers tackled her from behind, and after a fierce struggle managed to eject the beast.

At the end of the night I decided to look to see what kind of emergency exit the kitchen offered if there were ever a reoccurrence of such an event or perhaps worse. When I opened the door to the back stairwell I found it blocked by all of the tables and chairs that used to reside in the dining area. That detail sealed the deal and I quit then and there. I heard through the grapevine that a few months later the husband got beaten at an event and they closed the bar down. I was saddened to hear this because I quite liked the couple, even though they were desperately cheap. I never wished ill will on them. But, when you engage in that kind of business to keep the doors open, I guess the outcome was foreseeable. I ran into him a year later, he had a job as a caretaker for the building I worked in and was in good spirits. He seemed so much happier now that he didn’t have to carry a can of air freshener around anymore.

Mr. Bartender, Gimme Labatt Ice - Millenium Lounge Part 1

Dancehall music was pounding through the sound-system with authority, to the delight of the packed room. I was doing my duties, minding the bar and trying to appease the tiny Greek woman who owned the place and kept us on a short leash. Over the din of the crowd and the pulsation of the music came a sort of repetitive chant. It was in the background of my consciousness for about thirty seconds before I came to realise that it might be directed at me. I looked across the bouncing heads on the dance floor to see the DJ at the opposite side of the space with his arms held up in frustration. In one of his hands was the microphone into which he was now yelling over and over, Mr. Bartender, gimme Labatt ice, Mr. Bartender, gimme Labatt ice. To his credit he was keeping time with the beat. I then noticed that I was clearly the last to clue into the request as one by one heads were turning to look at me as if this intrusion into their vibe was somehow my fault.

I suppose the DJ had it in his in his mind that upon hearing his appeal for a beer, that I would stop my work and cross the floor diligently carrying his request. I looked at the owner who sneered and shook her head, apparently she too realised that I had been beckoned. I looked back to the DJ and shrugged to show that I would not be bringing him his beer. With that he put down the microphone and proceeded to march across the dance floor, dodging bobbing patrons as he came. When he reached the bar he asked “Yo! Whappened to me beer man? What I gotta do?” His question in a heavy Jamaican accent was asked in earnest. He really thought I would bring him a free Labatt Ice. Before I could respond, the bossy owner stepped in front of me and began scolding him for wasting our time, reminding him that this was a business trying to make money and we were not here to serve him. With that he paid for a Labatt Ice and slunk off back to the DJ booth. That was my first job in Toronto, I was twenty-two and the venue was the Millenium Lounge, on the Danforth in Greektown.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wine and Cheese

Annabelle was a waitress that I worked with some years ago at a Canadian themed restaurant in Toronto. Annabelle had a magnetic and vivacious personality that could be detected from across a crowded room. She had all the trappings of a theatre actress trying to make it in the big city, meaning she loved the spotlight and was quite put off when things didn’t progress to her liking. She got along very well with the staff at the restaurant and could always be counted on to liven up any gathering if only with her laugh. Her laugh was never a half measure. It was the kind of wholehearted endeavour that involved her small body being thrown about as if in convulsions. Her guffaws could often be heard emanating above the din of a crowded bar to the delight of the regulars. Simply put, we just loved Annabelle to bits.

This particular day was during the NHL playoffs and the joint was bumping. As per usual the poorly organized kitchen was having troubles keeping up with the pace. Pick up times were getting far beyond acceptable and the helpless wait staff was hearing it from the hungry customers. The head turning and staring, became palms up gesticulations, then grumbling, and was progressing to outright revolt.

Annabelle came into the kitchen wanting an ETA for her most vocal and impatient tables, which of course caused a rather unabashed back and forth with one of the cooks. He took the stance that whilst she was in the kitchen complaining she was actually slowing them down and therefore actually escalating the problem. She of course took the position that it was unreasonable to expect that the servers would not want an estimate for the timing of their already late food, and if the cooks just gave a reasonable answer all problems could be managed. Both sides had a point of course, but reason has no place in a restaurant. Perhaps unconstructively, I was watching this development with some degree of entertainment. When I could see that Annabelle’s level of agitation had quite reached a dangerous level, I made some mention that I would watch for her table’s food if she wanted to go back and tend her section. Rolling her eyes at me she turned and began to walk out of the kitchen quite in a huff. It was at that point that the cook in question showed what he was really up to. With a wry smile creeping across his face it became evident that he had been enjoying their exchange, and was not ready to let it end.

The thing about this particular cook was that his speech had a heavy lisp, almost to the point of impediment. It was sometimes hard not to smirk when he spoke, and especially when he proffered his parting sentiment, “Hey Annabelle, don’t you want some cheese with that whine?” She stopped dead in her tracks and actually froze for a long beat. I couldn’t see her face as she was almost out the door, but her hands balled into white knuckled fists, hammers at the end of ramrod straight arms that began to shake. She then spun on her heal doing a perfect about face of military quality. I think it would be safe to say that I was truly shocked by the condition of her face at that moment. Any amusement drained from my own mug as I saw her wide eyes and rabid mouth. She had a savage and wild look, befitting of an institutionalized maniac about to do battle with the ward staff over meds. Her face and neck had flushed a bright pink in an instant. Amidst the tremors undulating through her body there seemed to be a certain visible restraint, which was amplified by the long pause in motion. I began to think that she might just burst into tears and leave when her lips bared back to thin white strips across her clenched teeth and she uttered a guttural shrieking. The resonance rose in pitch as her mouth opened wider. This animal sound then melded first into a drawn word and then into a sentence. She screamed as she charged back to the pass through, but all she could manage was “You Fucker!” I am not even sure that she was aware of her intentions at that moment but myself and another waiter had to restrain her from climbing over and into the kitchen. She didn’t even consider the heat lamps, all she wanted was to get her hands on that cook, who had now backed away from our favourite little ball of rage. Once we got her fully back to the service side she let it all out and began cursing like a sailor and flailing about.

We managed to calm her down and sent her for a smoke, the kitchen set about catching up with their orders in silence, and I went back to the floor. Turning the corner into the dining room with Annabelle some minutes later, she received a standing ovation with applause and hoots. The customers were happy that the little waitress with the big attitude had finally let those cooks have it. She blushed and bowed deeply, happy to finally have her appreciative audience after all.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting In

This whole perverse debacle that I like to call my hospitality career began when I was just at the cusp of becoming a young man, barely into high school. I was a precocious and driven kid who enjoyed the feeling of my own money fattening the pocket of my jeans. One day as I was sitting in my ninth grade English class, I overheard the kid next to me telling someone how he had just got a job at a restaurant on the landing. Needless to say my interest was peaked. I was sick of delivering papers and I was ready to step into the arena of real employment. Fourteen is a special age where the world of a suburban teenager really begins to open up. There are new social pressures, girls to take to the movies, and the need for a fashionable wardrobe. Of course this new found walk of discovery needs to be funded some how, and asking your parents for money to buy beer and cigarettes is just not an option.

After a little probing my classmate coughed up enough information to embolden me. I made a plan to visit this restaurant that hired fourteen-year-old dishwashers to ask for a job. The next day I stood in front of said restaurant on the Landing. The community where I lived was a quaint west coast fishing village in the suburbs. Back then the Landing was a big deal. It is an elevated waterfront boardwalk that is home to a collection of restaurants, cafes, and tourist shops. The Landing also leads to the public wharf where one can buy fresh fish directly off of the boats. This was just the kind of lure that attracted a steady stream of old ladies, locals, and tourists for fish and chips and weekend brunches.

As I walked through that door my heart was in my throat. I had never applied for a job before, what would I say, what would they say? As I passed the threshold and walked to the hostess podium things got worse. Here before me was an eighteen year old blonde goddess with a knowing smile. All of the sound in the room turned to a suffocated hum and I was sure that all eyes where on me. I somehow managed to mumble something about wanting a job as her blue eyes froze me to the spot where I stood. She said something about a getting the manager and walked away. Manager? Oh god! I hadn’t even thought it would get to this. I was just hoping for a pen and an application form.

After a few agonizing minutes of standing on display before the snickering floor staff, she reappeared followed by a tall lanky guy with a gym teacher moustache. He introduced himself as Alex and we sat at an empty table. He had a fatherly air about him that somehow abated my profuse forehead sweating and generally nervous behaviour. The next ninety seconds where a bit of a blur. He asked, “Have you ever worked in a restaurant before?” I said “No. This would be my first real job” He took a long look at me and asked, “How do you feel about working in the kitchen?” I was not really sure how to respond to this, to be honest I never thought I would have a choice. I said, “Fine… I guess.” With that he stood up and said rather abruptly, “You have two arms, two legs. Is there anything wrong with you that I should know about?” When I answered no, he told me to come back the next day after school and he would get me started. He offered a handshake, turned, and walked off in the direction he had come from.

Now I was really confused. Did this mean that I had a job? I guessed it did, but what was my job to be? In fact upon walking out of the place I realized that he never even asked my name. Nonetheless I was pretty happy for the next 24 hours, but that wouldn’t last long. As instructed I showed up the next day at four o’clock on the dot. This was to be one of the last times that I would ever walk through the front door of that restaurant and see things from the perspective of a customer. I was a na├»ve virgin about to lose my cherry in every sense of the word.

I sometimes think back to that moment as being a pivotal turning point along my path to adulthood. In fact that might actually have been the very moment that I stopped thinking of myself as a child. The gravity of the moment’s importance lies deeper than being the precise instant when I really started earning money for myself, but rather that I was about to enter a whole new world with new rules. The next days were to be my searing initiation to a brotherhood, a secret society, a league of the damned.

The next day I once again found myself standing at the hostess stand waiting for Alex, this time though I was silently whiling away the final seconds of a life I would never know again. The carefree days without chronic substance abuse, sexual depravity, unchecked angst, and a never-ending abuse of statutorily protected worker’s rights ended as tall and lanky Alex turned the corner. He walked right up to me and asked me who I was. I stared back at him like some kind of fish in a bowl, looking out at a world whose physical properties I did not understand. Was he being serious? Was I the butt of some sophomoric prank? As it turned out, he was serious, dead serious. During the roughly twenty fours hours since our last conversation, he had completely forgotten that I even existed. At that time I was not even aware that such a thing was possible, outside of geriatric dementia. After two decades in the business, having witnessed every possible type of personality disorder and substance abuse, I somehow now find it perfectly acceptable.

It turned out that regardless of the chronic drinking, Alex was a great manager and a generally good guy to have around. He was the kind of person that you could speak to freely, and even confide in. He was the embodiment of a character from a classic movie who would stick up for a guy being wronged in a room full of strangers. But standing there before him at the age of fourteen, I must have looked dazed and confused. I watched as the events of the previous day began to creep back to his world. His eyes narrowed and he dipped his head as he searched my face for clues. All of a sudden the light bulb went off and his face was lightened with the pure emotion of victory. He snapped his fingers and said “Ah! Kitchen. Right, lets get you started.” And with that moment of uncertainty out of the way he spun and strode off through a big green swing door to the kitchen. I followed, down the rabbit hole, so to speak. I had no idea what I was in for, what alternate reality fate had delivered me to. That big green door was a portal to another dimension where at first glance things looked the same, but upon closer inspection the rules governing my home world just didn’t apply anymore. I was now officially a hospitality worker, I had been branded with that hot iron, a mark that I would carry for life.