Close Quarters Battle
It’s Sunday night. Fluvio went to AC so I’m in charge. The reservation computer tells me we’re gonna be slammed. The Bistro will reach 80% capacity in one hour. That’s the problem with Sunday night. Everyone eats dinner at the same time.
I don’t have a hostess either. I do the seating chart; prioritizing by big spenders, regulars and special requests. Tumbling the tables around in my mind like a Rubik’s cube, I arrange them into a workable pattern with room for a few walk ins.
I go to the kitchen and warn Armando he’s gonna get hit.
“When’s it coming?” he asks.
“Seven,” I reply.
“God,” he moans, “I’m exhausted.” He has good reason to be tired. Last night we almost turned the restaurant over four times.
“Cowboy up comrade,” I say.
Armando bangs his head slowly against the Sub Zero. “No mas,” he whimpers, “No mas.”
I walk out of the kitchen. Armando will pull through. He’s got boundless energy. I, however, dragged myself in early on little sleep. I’m really dogging it. For the thousandth time I remember why waiters do coke. Since I don’t do drugs I reach for the next best thing – Red Bull.
I grab a can of liquid crack out of the fridge and greedily gulp it down. I look at the clock. H hour’s coming. I need all the help I can get.
The phone rings. It’s one of my favorite customers. He wants to bring eight people in half an hour. I look at the seating chart. I have to fit this guy in. I make some adjustments and shoehorn the guy in next to the front door. Now I’m at 90% capacity. A few early walk-ins come in off the street. I seat them. Now I’m at 100%.
The door chimes. Four people walk inside.
“Hello,” I say, “How many?”
“Five,” a rather snooty woman says curtly.
“Do you have reservation?” I ask.
“No,” the woman says mystified, “Do I need one?”
“I’m sorry madam.” I reply politely, “But I have no tables available.”
The woman looks into the restaurant. “But you’re empty!’
“I know it looks that way Madam. But in half and hour we’re going to be full.”
“Can’t you do something?” she snaps.
“I’m afraid I cannot.”
“They can’t take us,” the woman says to her companions.
“What?” one of the men huffs, “They’re empty!”
Pointing at me the woman says, “He says they’re going to be full.”
I try and look all innocent like.
“That so buddy?” the man asks.
“I’m sorry sir,” I lie. “If you leave me your cell phone number I can call you if something frees up.”
“But we’re hungry now,” the man barks.
“Sorry.” I try not to look snarky.
“We’re going to go somewhere else,” the woman threatens.
I call her bluff by recommending a few places.
The foursome looks none too thrilled with my suggestions. They walk away in a snit. Oh well.
At seven o’clock the crowd piles in. One of the six tops becomes an eight. “Oh we just met some friends on the street,” the Prada clad trophy wife purrs. “I just know you’ll accommodate us.”
Goddammit. Now we’re at 105%.The busgirls yank an extra table from downstairs and we pack Prada Babe’s party in like sardines. Prada’s not happy about it but that’s what you get for changing reservations at the last second.
My section fills up instantly. Two six tops, two deuces, and a four. Time to prioritize. I stop at the deuces first. A two top notices slow service faster. The six tops are chattering away so I have time for them later. I cocktail and special the deuces, head over to the four, ask what they want from the bar, then loop back to the two tops and grab their dinner order.
I walk briskly to the POS computer, key in the data, make the four top’s alcoholic chemistry experiments and drop them off. The six top’s heads are swiveling on their necks looking for the waiter. I hit them next. I take everyone’s drink requests, wine and martinis, and grab the four’s dinner order on the return trip.
The bell rings. The deuce’s apps are up. The door chimes. It’s a reservation. I drop off the apps, greet the new arrivals, and seat them. The phone rings. No we’re not interested in a new credit card machine. I hang up. Racing to the wine cellar I grab two bottles of wine. Returning to the service bar I make six martinis. I deliver the drinks to the first six top, run back, grab the bottles of wine, one red and one white, and pop them open at the other six. I tell the busgirl to bring an ice bucket. The kitchen bell rings furiously. The four’s apps are up. The door chimes. More reservations. The phone rings. It’s that pain in the ass Mr. Escher. He wants to order takeout – two rack of lambs medium, sauce side, extra potatoes, and spinach in a separate container. And he wants it packed in box, not a bag. The deuce signals for more bread. The lady at the four top needs another Cosmo. Do you take Discover? What are the specials? I’m allergic to rosemary. Does this have to have garlic? Can you make me veal parmesan? The phone rings again. No, we don’t have any tables available.
When faced with this situation I silently chant the mantra Navy Seals use when training for close quarters combat, “Fast is slow. Slow is fast.” Watch your fields of fire, pick your targets, aim center mass, squeeze the trigger. The faster you go, the more mistakes you make. The more mistakes you make the deeper in the shit you will be. Go slow. Try not to make mistakes. Be one with the battle yet transcend it. Float above the action, survey the scene, target immediate threats, and dispatch them with ruthless efficiency. It’s a good thing I’m armed only with a wine opener.
Patrons try to get my attention. I politely ignore them. If I attend to them I’ll lose valuable time and go into the weeds. If that happens all the tables suffer. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Ever wonder why you can’t “catch a waiter’s eye?” That’s the reason.
With a little help, profuse apologies, and experience on my side, I manage to get everything done while maintaining a semblance of professionalism. Sweat is running down my back, my knees ache, and I’ve had to take a piss for 45 minutes. I run into the bathroom. Midflow I hear the phone ring. No one picks it up. Everybody’s busy. The machine will get it.
I emerge from the bathroom. The kitchen bell rings. Mr. Escher’s order’s up. As I bring it to the front he walks in the door. Talk about good timing. I thank him for his patronage, deliver a cheery good evening and dive back into the madness. The rest of the evening’s a blur. Experience takes over. I waiter on autopilot. Aim center mass. Squeeze trigger. I hope I remembered to smile.
Then, with a shock, it’s all over. The last tables finish their cappuccinos and leave. I blink incredulously. I made it.
I lock the door. I can’t risk getting a late table. If I let a straggler in the kitchen staff will mutiny. They might hang me on a meat hook in the freezer. Then again, they might do it anyway.
I do my cash out. I averaged 20% in tips. I did well under the circumstances.
Or maybe people felt sorry for me.
I pay everyone out, fax the payroll, do a last minute sweep, and turn out the lights. As I lock the door I let out a sigh of exhaustion. I catch a glimpse of myself in the front window. A tired looking man looks back at me. I’m getting too old for this shit.
I limp over to Café American for a drink. A drunken guy is screaming in the streets. The bar is full of kids. The bartender screws up my drink. A waiter from another restaurant sits next to me and starts crying in his beer. He got fired. When I ask why he gives me an evasive answer. I probably would have fired him myself. I buy the poor bastard a drink, settle up, and leave my martini half drunk on the bar.
When I get to my home a sadness settles over me. My dog’s at the ex’s and the house seems desolate. I grab a Guinness out of the fridge and flop down on the couch. I loosen my tie, take a pull from the bottle, and flip on the TV. Bullshit on every channel. Late night TV is depressing. I look at the clock. In nine hours I have to be back at the Bistro. I finish my beer, go into my bedroom, peel off my clothes, and climb into bed. “I need a vacation,” is my last conscious thought.
I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.