Why Pay Retail?

Heck, Why Pay At All?

There were many reasons to dislike restaurants, though the one that drove me out was the guarantee that whenever I really wanted to be with my family, after school, Saturday night, holidays, would be when I was required to work. But one thing I did like was that every day was completely unexpected. Of course, I knew I was going to serve food. But to whom, and what amazing bizarre completely unexpected event would occur was something I thought about every day. There are millions after so many years, all of them making great anecdotes. I have always thought an excellent play could be written set in a restaurant. Half the stage is a dining room, half a kitchen, and the lights would illuminate and darken one side at a time, as the poor servers go from one world to another. But I am not the writer to do it, so that play, like my novel and book of essays, remains unwritten.

The stories I am about to tell happened as written. Life in a restaurant is so bizarre no exaggeration is needed. I'm going to relate two tales of customers tennis-shoeing it, a description from my Boise restaurant about those who leave without paying.

Back in 1977 I was a brand new waiter. We arrived in New Orleans after my college graduation, a last-second destination when other plans fell through. After sleeping on a friend's floor for three days, we found an apartment and looked for work. I got a position as a bellboy; my wife was still looking. She was applying in a Martin's Liquors, and the manager recommended I apply at Commander's Palace. Whoa. I walked past Commander's Palace every day on my way to my hotel; there was a doorman in a top hat and tails there who flagged down cabs and opened doors for people.

"I've never even eaten in a place like that. I can't work there."

"Sure you can. My husband put himself through law school working there."

I applied and got a job. The waiters there work in teams, a front waiter doing all the talking, a back waiter doing all the heavy labor. Their training program consisted of new guys working as a back waiter, at half pay, for weeks or months until deemed ready. After two months of slaving for Danny Dean, the source of many powerful philosophical insights and much good waiting advice, I was so deemed.

On my second night as a front waiter, I had a nice young couple who spent some dough. They had the whole package, appetizers, expensive wine, dessert. While sitting at their table, enjoying the end of their meal, the man violently jerked his head back three times, straightened like a plank being pushed overboard, and slid out of his chair onto the floor. My heart stopped. What do I do here? I was barely prepared to serve food; this was completely unexpected. His wife leapt up, told me "It's OK, it's OK, he has seizures" and got down to loosen his tie and, I assumed, make sure he didn't choke on his tongue. She asked the maitre d' to get them a cab, and I and the maitre d' lifted the man and assisted him out the door into the waiting cab.

After they were gone, I presented their check to the maitre d' and asked "What do I do with this?" He instantly attacked me, it was my fault, I was going to have to pay, how could I do it? I reminded him he had helped me carry the guy out. He took the check, comp'ed the meal (which meant an automatic 20% gratuity at dinner, and that ended that.

That was the best free meal plan I saw until about 1982 in Santa Fe. I was the maitre d' at The Compound, Santa Fe's most exclusive restaurant, the only one that could, and did, enforce a dress code and not allow children. Summer was our season; during the winter dinner was very slow. And Sunday was the slowest night of all, we often served dinner to fewer than ten people. At 6:30 one winter Sunday, a somewhat elderly couple arrived at the door. I seated them at our best table, and they proceeded to have the whole package. Drinks, dinner, very expensive wine. They chatted pleasantly with the waiter, who was eager for someone to talk to, and had a bill well over $100. After the check was presented the man came up to me.

"I just put this jacket on before coming in and I left my wallet in my coat out in the motor home. I gotta go out and get it...be right back."

His wife remained behind. After several minutes, she came to me with a furrowed brow.

"We're here because my husband had a serious heart attack just a few months ago. He retired from his job and we're on this cross country trip, before, you know, before it's, it's too late. I'm worried about him being gone for so long...."

She left her purse on the table and went out. Two or three minutes later I went out to see if they needed help. There were no cars, or motor homes, or vehicles of any kind, in the parking lot. I was confused. I walked to the back lot. Nothing there. Perplexed, I walked all over our parking areas. Nothing. What could have happened? The waiter and I wondered for a while, and looked at that purse sitting on the table. After at least a half hour we opened the purse, looking for ID or something useful, and found that it was stuffed with paper as it would be hanging on the rack at K-Mart. Even then we were puzzled. They were so nice. So well-dressed. So prosperous looking......

But we eventually figured out we had been had. And like "The Sting" where the best kind is the one you don't even realize; they came very, very close.