I was standing in a parking lot in Venice, back from a relaxing stroll on the beach. I had achieved a certain state of Zen, which was put back in it’s place by a little sound my car made as I unlocked the passenger side door:
Take that, Zen! What you got, punk-ass Zen?
It was deja-vu, except last time was before I spent fifty dollars to have the car alarmed removed. I knew of two methods that could possibly help me out here – unlock all of the doors, or man the kill switch, after disconnecting the battery. You may remember some of the war stories from earlier entries. But something felt different this time around.
I was dressed in a superhero costume this time, cape and everything. Not literally, of course. I was wearing jeans and hoodie sweatshirt. The hood was large and flimsy, almost cape-like, but no one walking by was going to confuse me for Super Man. I was in Clark Kent attire, so to speak. But in my mind…
Cool as a cucumber, I popped the hood, ready to disconnect the battery after I started the car. Turning the keys of the ignition, I was met with the lovely melody I was expecting – BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP (repeat, staccato).
I casually got out of the car and disconnected the battery, in stark contrast to the previous times where I spent twenty seconds chanting in a falsetto whine: “I hate cars, I hate cars, etc”. I unlocked all of the doors of the car, carrying out Plan A.
Closing the hood of the car, I sauntered back to the driver’s seat. About to get in, I noticed a couple at the parking meter for the Lot I was in watching me. I looked at them and recognized the befuddled admiration in their eyes, as they had no doubt witnessed the whole thing as they were making sure they had enough time on their meter.
Perhaps they thought I was a really good criminal, stealing cars with a nimbleness and serenity you only see in the movies. Or maybe they thought I was just tremendously car savvy. Either way, I felt the need to acknowledge their stares with a triumphant “nod”. You know. The kind you see in the movies in slow motion.
“Stay in school, kids” I thought, but fortunately did not say as they were adults in their fifties and I was only figuratively and not literally in a superhero costume. But one thing was for sure – I was The Man.
It was with this confidence that I walked into my first day at The Farm of Beverly Hills Restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles. Ironically, I took the subway. I reported to the LA Convention Center, where the first week of training would take place until construction on the site was done. It was back to the World of Restaurants for Jesse Gavin. A brief History:
Jesse began working at an upscale Italian Restaurant in Saratoga Springs at age 15, during the town’s infamous Horse Racing Season. It was there that I learned how to mop floors, de-vane Shrimp, and scrub pots and pans.
But more than that, at the tender age of fifteen, I got to learn how the world “really” works. Oh yes. It’s not like they teach you in School. There were many teachers…scratch that…there were many guest lecturers in this particular school of life. But more than any other, I remember the Head Waiter.
His name was Bucci. First name? I don’t know…what’s it to ya? Huh? What’s da matter with you? You a snoop? You da police or somethin’?
You don’t ask Bucci stupid questions. Capisce? For example, the customer that asked him if we considered ourselves a “real” Italian restaurant was asking for trouble. He went on to tell Bucci that a “real” Italian Restaurant serves warm bread. Now our bread was so fresh that we didn’t need to warm it, which is usually done to mask some stale product. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that you don’t piss off Bucci.
The customer got his soup with a Bronx specialty on the house – Loogi de Bucci. Yep. Hawked it nice and loud for everyone in the kitchen to hear.
You give Bucci shit, you get Bucci snot.
So needless to say, a chill ran up my spine the day I heard Bucci’s voice behind me, “Hey kid, what’s the matter with you?” Perched on the stairs of the loading dock, I was enjoying the one moment of peace I got per day: hunching over a heaping bowl of Pasta Primavera, shoveling every tasty morsel I could into my mouth before I was called back inside to attend to the growing pile of pots and pans that needed scrubbing. Sometimes I shoveled too fast, and had to take a gulp of the glorious Coca Cola I had never ending access to in order to wash it down (can you imagine what that kind of access is like for a fifteen year old?).
I quickly turned back to look at him, although it occurred at slow-motion speed like in the movies.
“C’mere” barked Bucci, reiterating the imperative with the classic “c’mere” finger gesture that is only used for purposes of seduction by a lady or brutal punishment by the mob.
I put my food next to me and got up for my walk down the plank (both figuratively and literally, the loading dock had an 8-foot drop).
“Grab your food. And your soda.”
As I reached down to pick up my food and soda, I noticed him moving a table and chair in my peripheral vision. I walked over to him.
“Sit down” he said, taking an ominous drag of his cigarette. I sat down, putting my Pasta and Coke on the table, ready for anything. “Hold this” he said, handing me his cigarette. I took the cigarette, doing my best not to wince in anticipation of some sort of backhand to the face.
Instead he went into the kitchen. “This is my opportunity” I thought, not bothering to think of what he was off fetching (A pot? A pan? A ladel?). Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be pretty.
On the table in front of me was a roll of silverware in a cloth napkin.
“You eat like a human being, Ok?’
Speechless, I managed an “Uh…yeah”
“Don’t let anyone treat you any different, you hear me?”
I nodded mechanically, knowing that was what I wanted to do but without the proper motor skills and muscle memory available to do so.
I opened up the silverware and put the napkin in my lap, kind of unnecessary since I was in my dishwashing attire. But this was not a time to question such trifles.
I took a bite and chewed very deliberately as Bucci finished his cigarette.
“Hey Jesse, dishes are piling up man” I heard behind me, as one of the cooks came out to call me back in to the kitchen.
“He’s eating his dinner, go fuck yourself” said Bucci very matter of factly.
“Oh yeah, sorry Jesse, whenever you’re done” retreated the cook.
Putting out his cigarette on the ground I would later be sweeping, Bucci looked over at me one last time, “you stick up for yourself, OK kid? Never forget that you’re a human being.” I wasn’t sure if this was some sort of a test or not, and for a moment considered following him into the kitchen and shouting in front of everyone: “Hey! Bucci. How bout you go pick up dat cigarette butt and put it in the can like everybody else does? Ya stinkin’ goomba!”
Fortunately for me I was still too dazed by the entire episode to get out of my chair. And given the fact that this was the first and last conversation we ever had, chances are he didn’t even know that I was the one that swept the loading dock every night. Bucci simply saw an opportunity to impart some wisdom.
Bucci’s advice carried me through the next twelve years in which I worked on and off in the Restaurant Biz. My life had mainly consisted of School up until that point, a meticulously organized system run by qualified professionals that strives to reward hard work and promote fairness. The wonderful, wacky world that I was entering was the antithesis of School. It attracts the very people that deplore School for every position available, throwing the logic out the window in favor of a “bust your ass” mentality. The more tension in your neck, the better job you’re doing.
Walking into room 208A the LA Convention Center, however, it occurred to me that I had perhaps falsely generalized the Restaurant Industry over the years. All the places I had ever worked were Small Businesses, where the boss would make up his or her mind on the spot about things, and what he or she said would “go” (even if the policy would completely change the next day). This was the exact opposite of the meticulous organization of the School System.
So it was the sound of the laptop click when Karen moved from Power Point Slide One to Power Point Slide Two that made me realize I was in a new, uncharted territory: The Corporate Restaurant Biz.
Oh, I’d heard of it before. The TGI Fridays; the Unos; the Olive Gardens. “Ugh, it was Corporate”, the hungover and in all likelihood stoned waiter would moan, beginning a horror story of his last place of employment and their unbearable “rules”. It was the most dreaded word in the Restaurant Business:
Corporate: Putting “the School” back in the Restaurant Business since 1983.
Click. Power Point Slide Three: “Overview of Management Policies”.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.