Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Love Smoking

I was up late last night, wandering the halls of the Fortress of Solitude, adjusting the frames of my extensive 17th century portraiture. And I noticed something. I smoke a lot. For some odd reason, my smoking has increased in the last week, to almost double what I used to smoke. I've gone from a pack-a-day to almost two-packs a day in the space of a week. I don't know why, because I'm not stressed about anything. But I'm not really bothered by my smoking increase; I'm bothered by the fact that the price has just gone up.

Here in New York, in an effort to close a $9 billion budget gap, they've raised the tax on cigarettes to something like $5.85 a pack. It's as though they're hoping to close their little budget gap just with smokers alone. I could buy the original excuse, that it's a sin tax because we smokers use up so many medical resources, but the truth is the state knows it has a captive audience. It has nothing to do with sin; the state just knows smokers will pay the goddamned tax. Why don't they raise the tax on gasoline? How about alcohol? Really, there are a million things they could tax that would get them unelected pretty quickly. Politicians are cowards. I think the tobacco companies should drop their price each and every time the state raises the tax, as a nice "fuck you" to the politicians. Take the price down to a buck. Hell, sell them at a loss.

Those of you who have met me (and really, God help you if you have) already know that I love to smoke. I love it like I love nothing else in the world. Because it's always been there for me. When I am sad, smoking is there to tell me "it'll be okay." When I'm happy, smoking says "let's celebrate with a smoke of victory!" When I'm nervous, smoking says "it's okay, I'm right here with you." It's really the longest, most successful relationship I've ever had. It doesn't judge me. It doesn't ask me to change. It always gives me what I want without all the begging or sucking up. And it really doesn't demand much from me in return; it doesn't ask me to take out the garbage, or do the dishes, or go to the party with all the people I really can't stand....

First, there's the ritual of smoking. There's the tamping of the tobacco. They opening of the cellophane, and removal of the foil. Pulling out the cigarette. The satisfying click of the Zippo snapping open. Oh, and that first drag. It's especially pleasant in the morning, that wave of nicotine rolling across your brain like the incoming tide. It's perfect when you're enjoying a tasty cocktail. This is where the smoking ban in bars really hurts. You can drink inside, but not smoke. You can smoke outside, but not drink. Really, the state just wants to make everyone miserable by not letting them enjoy both alcohol and tobacco at the same time. But the two go together, like peanut butter and jelly.

And I think the ban on smoking indoors is a crock. Allegedly, it's to protect all us service workers from having to breathe second hand smoke. I have a secret to tell you: ninety percent of restaurant and bar employees smoke. Your chef smokes. Your server smokes. They busboys smoke. Hell, the cat downstairs in the kitchen to keep away the mice -- he smokes. Note to government: You're not helping anyone in the service industry. You want to help us, pass paid sick leave for hourly employees or fix the goddamned economy. Otherwise, you're just humorless killjoys.

I learned to smoke in 1988, when I was studying at Fudan University (Motto: thanks for the money round-eye). That was the big year when Deng's reforms started to bite; people were allowed to open their own businesses, and were doing so with gusto. The entire country was like a boomtown right out of Deadwood. It was four in the morning, and we found ourselves in a "bar" in a giant, soul-crushing Stalinist apartment bloc. I use quotations because the "bar" was thrown together by some guy in his basement. I told you, everyone was opening up their own businesses. The "bar" consisted of a plank of wood over two milk crates and some wooden crates for chairs. It was 5 am, and this Chinese guy (who I'm convinced was a gangster) offered me a cigarette. Now, Chinese are very polite, so when I said I didn't smoke, Chinese gangster dude got serious pissed off. Cut my throat and leave me in the Huangpo river kinda pissed. I took the cigarette and never looked back.

I remember getting off the airplane at JFK that summer. I'd been standing in passport control for an hour. Waited another hour for my luggage to appear and pass through customs. By that point, I really needed a cigarette. My dad met me at the airport, and when we walked outside I whipped out a blessed cigarette and lit up. Non-plussed, my dad looked at me and said "I hope you learned how to speak Chinese, too." God, I miss dad.

He died of cancer at the age of 55. He smoked three packs a day. I tell people that, and they can't imagine it. Chain smoking just isn't something you see much of any more. He'd keep a lit cigarette in every room of the house, all of them going at the same time. It's ironic that I'm the only one left in the family who continues to smoke. Mom quit. My sister quit. I do the morbid thing where I subtract my age from my father's age to see how much longer I have left before I die (12 years). I've tried to quit many times. I've done the gum, the patch, Zyban, accupuncture, hypnosis and cold turkey. None of it works. I enjoy smoking too much. Hell, I'm jonesing for a cigarette right now.

But I think the time is rapidly approaching where I must give up smoking. Much like a person finally realizing it's time to give up on an abusive relationship. Because I'm up to two-packs a day, and packs cost $12.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Confessions: Reunion Edition

Believe it or not, this weekend is my 25th high school reunion. It's hard to believe that high school was 25 years ago, considering that I'm still just a big teenager. I haven't really aged that much at all, at least to my perceptions. Which brings to mind: If what I perceive is shaped by my perceptions, then what happens when those perceptions clash with your perceptions, and how does that conflict of perceptions alter what I perceive? Anyway, I am not attending my reunion this year, primarily because the windows in the solarium at the Fortress need to be cleaned. However, in honor of the 25th reunion of the Class of '85, I present to you the Reunion Edition of Confessions.

First, let's recall 1985. Reagan was President. Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Terry Anderson was taken prisoner in Lebannon. The mayor of Philadelpha orders the bombing of the MOVE headquarters, killing 11. Live Aid occurred. Back to the Future opened. Coke released New Coke. And the United Kingdom held its first Glow Worm Day. It was an exciting year. It was also the year I left high school and never looked back. Because I hated high school, and everyone inside it.

I was (actually still am) the kid who got picked on. Mercilessly. Books knocked out of my hands on the way to class? Check. No one would sit with me at lunch? Check. Insulting graffiti on my locker? Check. Laughed at by cheerleaders, football players, stoners, and even the foreign exchange students? You guessed it; check. I was even made fun of by the kids who rode the short bus to school and had to wear protective helmets. It was pretty bad.

I would regale you with individual stories of the nightmare that was high school, but, quite frankly, I can't remember any of them. I did my level best to forget anything and everything about Stroudsburg Area High School. There may or may not have been therapy. The only story I recall is actually one of triumph: I was in a creative writing class, where it was the teacher's policy (Hi, Mr. Steen! You were my favorite teacher!) to read one student's story anonymously. Mr. Steen started reading, and I instantly knew who wrote it. When he finished, Becky Weinstein demanded to know who had written the story. Becky was a cheerleader, and auteur of my never-ending persecution, and apparently she liked what she'd heard. Mr. Steen looked at me, I nodded, and Becky looked like she'd eaten a pickled jalapeno pepper when she heard my name. Victory!

I only really had two friends at the time -- John Higgins and Brian Sullivan. We played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in John's basement. We'd get together on Friday night and play straight through til Sunday night. Considering that I became an award-winning game designer (Origins Award, 1998, Best Roleplaying Game), I suppose I should thank all the jocks and preppies who systematically destroyed my self-esteem and forced me to retreat into my nerd cave in the first place.

Don't even make me recall my ineffective attempts at dating. No one liked me. I didn't have my first kiss until I got to college. 'Nuff said.

I find it ironic that I'm not attending reunion this year (or any other year, for that matter). I used to dream of actually attending reunion. In my revenge fantasy, I would drive up to the banquet hall in my fire engine red Ferrari, clutching my multiple Academy Awards, a beautiful woman on each arm. We would sweep into the room, where I would regale everyone with tales of my exploits: Climbing Kilamanjaro; hanging out with the Dalai Lama, and winning my aforementioned Academy Awards. Then, Angelina, Giselle and I would be picked up by helicopter, abandoning my Ferrari like so much used tissue. There might have been a speech by the mayor, in which I was presented with the key to the city. It would have been a very small key. Let's just say, I totally get why Lady Gaga showed up at her old high school dressed the way she did. It's because she, like I, hated everyone associated with high school.

When I joined Facebook, a curious thing began to happen. I started getting friend requests from people in my graduating class. Did they not recall that they persecuted me for four years? Didn't they remember that they used to throw pennies at me because I was the only Jew in the class? They didn't remember sticking a dead fetal pig in my locker? Or the time a pretty girl passed me a note, telling me she liked me, and asking me to meet her after school, only to have everyone there to mock me? To be honest, I really didn't remember half the names of the people from whom I was getting requests. Bill Hoffner? Adrianne Burkholder? Curtiss Pepe? I dimly recall those names, but can't put a face to them. If Facebook says we went to high school together, then it must be true.

To be honest, I had a really hard time actually accepting their friend requests. Each one elicited a good twenty minutes of consideration. I don't know, call me old fashioned, but I believe that if you're going to accept a friend request you should actually, you know, be friends. And, recall, I hated each and every one of them just on general principle. I swallowed, hard, and started adding them as friends. Even though I was convinced this was going to end up being some kind of strange, internet bullying incident.

And this is where the curious thing started happening. I discovered that bygones could actually be bygones. That I actually liked these people, and they actually liked me. I get periodic love and support from Jenny Hayes. Adrianne Burkholder has sent me enough virtual drinks that, if they were real, I'd have died of alcohol poisoning long ago. Kip Woods has a beautiful family, and Becky Hannon (upon whom I had a tremendous crush) just graduated a beautiful daughter. These people, my nemesis (nemesi?), follow my triumphs and sorrows as closely as I follow theirs.

It's as though we all came to the same, mutual agreement. We all grew up, matured, and seem to be saying to each other "hey, we went through this formative period in our lives together. Let's be friends." I'm glad I reconnected with these people. And so it is in this spirit that I wish you all a great reunion weekend. I'm genuinely sorry I can't be there this year.

But the Ferrari is in the shop, and Giselle has a headache.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kids are Just Miniature Drunk Adults

As I was strolling through the extensive gardens here at the Fortress of Solitude, plucking withered leaves from my prized peony flowers, I began to wonder. Is our belief in a hereafter the mind's attempt to deal with the finite nature of life, are we in fact fooling ourselves, or is our desire for eternity somehow linked to the ego? Also, Pedro my Guatamalan gardner is clearly watering the plants too much. I can be a bit ADD when I'm gardening.

Speaking of gardening, I realize I may have given all nine of you the impression that I don't like children. That's not true. I love children. I'd love them to stay the hell out of my restaurant, so I don't have to wait on them. Other than that, kids are great. And that's because they're basically just miniature, drunk adults.

As I've said before, they share all the qualities of the inebriated. They're clumsy. They're impulsive. They slur their words. There may or may not be public urination (GOD! I love public urination. It makes me feel liberated, as though I'm shunning not only society's mores but also the bounds of basic, human decency). I love watching some kid stomp his way through a store, picking up and putting down his feet like he's just had a fifth of gin. Arms outstretched in front of him, ready to fall. Hell, kid, I know what you're going through. I've had those kinds of nights, too. Last night, to be precise.

In the end, what I find the most entertaining is that kids have absolutely no filter. They have no idea what's acceptable and what's not according to society's dictates. They don't know they're not supposed to stare at the guy with the giant, flaming red mohawk. Nor do they know they're not supposed to shout out "Mommy, what's wrong with that guy's hair?!" Kid, I'm right there with you. What the hell were you thinking red mohawk dude? Hell, we're all thinking it. The kid is just saying what we're all thinking. I totally think that when I have a kid (God help you all), I will encourage him or her to speak their little minds; which means I'll tell Little Daquan or Yuan Min to point and loudly yell "dude! That look died with Joey Ramone!" Because in the end, we all give kids a pass when they commit these social faux pas. So why not take advantage of it?

As I was moving through the NYC subway system carrying my bastard sword (don't ask, but it's a practice sword. Again, don't ask), kids had no problem staring at me, pointing, and laughing. And I wasn't even drunk at the time. The really savvy ones knew exactly what it was, too. "Mommy! That man has a sword!" made me smile. Becuse these kids are clearly nerds and "with it." And they didn't question why I had a sword; maybe they assumed I was going to hunt orc in the subway system (which actually, I do on Thursday nights). All the other kids would just gape and point. I call these stupid ones "future Welfare recipients."

Back to the lack of impulse control. I've seen kids insist that they would prefer the toro maki, not the california roll, and hold their breath to get it. And I'm sure I'm by no means unique. We've all seen some kid throwing a temper tantrum in a store. I just assume when a kid comes into a store that he is a tantrum waiting to happen. Sometimes, I'll bet with friends on which kid will blow first. I had one kid pay off on the trifecta at $280. Sometimes, I'll help to push them over the edge (like the time this kid wanted a Nerf gun, and his mom said "no", and he insisted on it, and she said "no", and I casually strode up and put two in my cart. Then winked at him).

Kids know what they want, and they want it now. They don't care that you don't have enough money to buy it. They don't care if it's not healthy. Kinda like me, actually. They want ice cream before dinner. They want the 12" Master Chief action figure. They want to stay up late to watch South Park. Swap out "South Park" for "porn", and I want the same things.

In fact, I'm not sure why we torture kids with this kind of stuff? Why do we try to inculcate in them a sense of responsibility and restraint? They're just going to max out their credit cards to buy a bunch of useless shit anyway. They're going to buy houses they can't afford, cars they can't afford, big screen TVs... In the end, the only reason to grow up is so we can start earning money, so we can start slavishly following our stupid impulses.

It just seems to me that kids are more honest about it. And I respect them for that. Now if you excuse me, I want to get some ice cream before dinner, and pick up the Futurama DVD set. Because I can. So nyah, nyah, nyah!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Birthday Bus

Yesterday was my birthday, and found me back in the great city of Albany (Motto: We got your goverment dysfunction right here). I was going to go to Vegas, but I hear Paris Hilton will be there; she and I had a fling a few years back and I don't want to bump into her and cause a scene. So I thought to myself "where else can I debase myself in new and unusual ways?" and the answer was Albany. Because small, middle-American cities are kinky that way.

In order to get here, I had to spend the day on the bus. You all know of my deep and abiding love of bus transportation. It's a chance for me to get to hobnob with a vast cross-section of America, who all smell vaguely of cheese. There's the douchebag in the Ed Hardy t-shirt with his pregnant girlfriend, bickering the entire way. Oh, and here's the fat businessman who likes to snore. Over there is the chick noisily eating Doritos out of an incredibly loud mylar bag. She was talking to the woman who couldn't stop laughing with this annoying "snort-laugh" (you know the kind that's part snort, part laugh, and is all annoying). I would rather be transported in the hold of a Chinese freighter, because at least then there would be tasty Chinese food.

I would be all for a seating system similar to the airlines. There could be a first class and a coach. All the mouth-breathing pinheads who wear "Free Lindsay" t-shirts could sit in coach. Or as I would call it "isolation". And I could sit in first class. I would pay an extra $20 to sit in the front of the bus with a nice, but flimsy, barricade between me and the denizens of Innsmouth who ride the bus. I actually believe H.P. Lovecraft got the ideas for most of his degenerate, inbred cultists because he rode Greyhound busses all the time.

I'm a reader by nature. I like to read. I refuse to read on the bus. Firstly, because there's no point. The bickering couple and Queen Laughita were too much of a distraction. Secondly, I'm convinced the rest of the bus is just waiting for me to nod off (because I tend to fall asleep when I read), and then eat me. After they sacrifice me to their noisome, rugrose, gibbering Elder God, of course.

Really, the whole experience is oppressive. There's the giant yellow sign at the front of the bus that says "REMAIN SEATED!" The bus driver rattles off a list of rules (no eating, no drinking alcoholic beverages, no loud music playing and no cell phone calls), which everyone on the goddamned bus violates. Don't get me started on the toxic dump passing itself off as a restroom either (and really, guys, stop trying to pee standing up in a moving vehicle. Your aim isn't that good.). In the end, I feel like I'm being taken to prison, not Albany. All that's missing is the cop with a shotgun standing at the front of the bus. And I wouldn't be opposed to them including that feature, quite frankly.

Happily, my time in Albany more than makes up for the hellish experience that is traveling by bus. Now, I just have to go back.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

If You're Wearing Diapers I Don't Want To Wait On You

Today finds me trying to beat the oppressive heat by chilling in the "igloo room" here at the Fortress of Solitude. Many people ask me if the Fortress is real, to which I can only say: It may be, or it may be a metaphor for the sense of isolation I feel as a consequence of urban dehumanization and a technology that allows me to disconnect from established social norms. But the property taxes on this thing are killer. All of which has nothing to do with my topic for today: I hate waiting on children and old people.

Yesterday, the chef where I work stormed upstairs to confront me. He wanted to know why I had the highest number of special requests and food returns. He impugned (and I do so love that word) my abilities and experience as a waiter. "What is your problem, man?" was his question.

My problem is that I'm the new guy. The new guy gets the crappiest section in the restaurant, until he pays his dues. I'm told that the average at York Grill (89th and York Ave. Come on by) for this journeyman status is two years. This section happens to be at the back of the dining room. It is the place the owner stick all the noisy, obnoxious kids and old people too infirm to walk anywhere else. And that, chef, is my ultimate problem.

For I work on the Upper East Side, the land of priviledged elites. These are the people who spoil their children, who do not discipline them because they fear crushing little Dalton's self-esteem and creativity. They also seem to think their obnoxious little monster has the critical faculties of an adult. For example, they'll order precious little a Kobe beef burger (at $21), when what the kid really wants is a Happy Meal, then ask little Morgan if they like their burger. Well, of course not. What the hell does a five-year old know about Kobe beef? So when they say the burger tastes "funny" it gets sent back. Even better, I had one kid order the chicken milanese plain, then cried because he really wanted chicken fingers. We sent it back to the kitchen to cut it into strips. He remained unmollified, because he wanted goddamned chicken fingers. And I'll get five of these tables a night.

See, children really are like drunk, miniature adults. They're clumsy; one girl, a regular, consistently knocks over her glass no matter what I put her water in. (I'm thinking of just standing there with a water pitcher and pouring water down her gullet like a baby bird.) Which means a scrum of people rushing to clean and re-set the table. They act out; little Chicken Fingers gets bored, and proceeds to fling his bread crusts everywhere. It looks like a bakery exploded by the time he leaves. They're demanding; they don't want the jonah crab ravioli in a seafood nage. They want pasta in butter. And dammit, it had better be the pasta they're envisioning in their tiny, unformed, spoiled little heads or they will pitch a fit. I had one girl send back her burger because it wasn't cooked to her liking; it was too rare. So we cooked it some more. Then she was unhappy because it was overcooked. Just go to Burger King. I hear you can have it your way there.

And really, the ancient adults I end up serving are little better. These people have lived a lifetime of being rich and having their every whim catered to. They also believe they know better about food than I do, or the chef does, by virtue of the fact that they've been eating since Millard Filmore was President. They want the flounder, but they don't want it stuffed, and they want the sauce on the side. They don't understand that I can't bring them a side of broccoli rabe because we don't have any broccoli rabe in the goddamned kitchen. And really, if you want the pan seared ahi tuna, don't order it well done because that makes it no longer pan seared. That's called "cooked".

These people have no problem sending their food back, either, because if they're going to pay $36 for something it had better be the way they want it. I don't generally disagree with this sentiment. However, if they've changed the dish, we really have no idea what it is they're envisioning in their minds. They're basically trying to change the dish on the menu into something completely different. One guy so ancient that I think he witnessed Moses receiving the Ten Commandments ordered the sirloin steak, but he didn't want the blue cheese gratinee that it comes with. He wanted goat cheese. And he didn't like garlic spinach, he wanted plain spinach. And instead of the potatoes it comes with, he wanted steak fries, but without the paprika we sprinkle on them. Really, at this point, why not just stay home and cook the dish you want. Is there any wonder the chef hates my guts?

And this is what chef doesn't understand. I can't say "no" to a customer. I can say "I don't recommend that." I can say "the chef doesn't recommend that." But I really cannot say "no." Little Chicken Fingers wanted french fries (again, really, if you want chicken fingers and french fries, take your kid to McDonalds), which is a subsitution off the prix fixe menu, which is not allowed. Chef calls me downstairs and gives me a hard time. What do you want me to do chef, make a little boy cry? Really?

All of this would be simply fixed if I didn't have to wait on old people and kids. Which is, like, 90 percent of the customers seated in my section.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Return to Greatness

I realized today that I hadn't updated this space for quite some time. You might think it was because I was off having fabulous adventures -- climbing the Alps, scuba diving the Marianas Trench, or perhaps hunting Bin Laden in Waziristan -- but the reality is more prosaic. I forgot I had a blog.

No, that's not true. In all honesty, I really haven't found anything absurd enough to mock. It seems as though life conspires to increase the level of absurdity to match my level of sarcasm. The BP Oil spill and the Mongolian clusterfuck that is the government's response? They're doing enough stupid on their own that I don't really need to mock it. I think, however, I may have finally found something. It combines three of my favorite things: espionage, hottie Russians, and the NY Post.

For the past week or so, the cover story in the NY Post has been the arrest of a ring of Russian spies, specifically focusing on one Anna Chapman. Now, there are nine other people implicated in this spy ring, but you wouldn't know this from the NY Post. Apparently because the rest of the spies are frumpy and look less like Russian spies and more like your fat-headed cousin from Toledo who drives a pickup and likes Coor's Light.

Those of you who were hoping for my critique of the Russian spy plot can stop reading right now. I'm not surprised the Russians are still spying on us after the Cold War ended. We have something they want: Economic might and technological know-how. They have vodka and oligarchs. They also have something we want: A near endless supply of Russian hotties. I'm actually willing to trade whatever technological and economic secrets I hold for a Russian hottie. It could be like a "cash-for-clunkers" deal. Neither will I discuss the efficacy of inserting sleeper cells into our society, except to say that if I were a Russian spy being paid to live in the U.S. on Moscow's dime I wouldn't provide any credible intel either; I'd be too busy watching the American Chopper marathon and sipping MD 40-40 from the bottle.

What fascinates me is the Post's fascination with this story. It's been on the cover four times in the last five days. It always includes a picture of Ms. Chapman looking hot and smoldering. There's always some kind of lurid detail about her sex life in the story. There's always the obligatory paragraph that says, basically, "oh, there were also a bunch of other spies caught who were really too ugly to care about." Really, NY Post? Would you care about this story half as much if this woman looked like a Russian, sausage-and-potato eating grandmother from the Ukraine? Do you think our interest in this story is as purient as you think it is, or are you just being cynical?

(Back to the Russian grandmother thing: Yes, Anna Chapman is smoking hot. And she's apparently kinky (thanks for that important tidbit NY Post). But some day she will look like a traditional fat, dumpy, babushka-wearing Russian grandmother. They all do that. It's as if, genetically speaking, Russian women are programmed to become frumpy at a certain age. So take that, Russia!)

On a personal note: I've found a job and don't have to relocate the Fortress of Solitude to upstate New York. This makes the peacocks and lemurs in my menagerie happy. The hissing cockaroaches couldn't care less.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Vacation's All I Ever Wanted

Today, I sit watching low, dark clouds scudding across the sky, while I contemplate the Jungian duality between our higher natures and baser instincts, and how that applies to Campbell's mythic archetypes. Yeah, none of this makes sense. Which means I need vodka. And I don't even drink vodka.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, finds me in the great city of Albany. This is what may become the first of many Confessions posts from this locale. To be brutally honest, I'm considering relocating the Fortress of Solitude to upstate New York. Do you have any idea how high the property taxes are on a giant secret base in the heart of New York City? And there are many things to recommend Albany over Manhattan -- fresher air, friendlier strippers, and cigarettes are cheaper.

Ok, I lied. The air isn't all that fresh.

So here, I present to you, my initial impressions of Albany. Now this isn't the first time I lived here. I moved up to Albany about eight years ago, when I worked for Eden Studios by day and managed a diner by night. I have fond memories of Albany. However, after having lived for the last seven years in NYC, coming to Albany is a bit of a culture shock. Sort of like dropping Snookie in the middle of a Mensa convention.

First of all, there are no bodegas. If you live in New York City, you know the importance these small corner markets, often open 24 hours, have in the life of a New Yorker. It's 3 am and you discover you need toilet paper. You go to the bodega on the corner. Need mac and cheese? Go to the bodega. How about rolling papers, condoms, and Twinkies? Bodega time. I can't tell you the number of times I've discovered I needed something at odd hours, and found them in a bodega. They're magical places that manage to stock an entire grocery store's worth of stuff in a space the size of Leona Helmsley's closet. But here in Albany, you get everything from 7-11 style places miles from anywhere. I had to walk three blocks today to get a pack of cigarettes and some Colt 45. Three blocks! In New York, there would have been 12 bodegas within three blocks. This place is not conducive to my hip, modern, Twinkie-eating lifestyle. Also, they didn't stock forties of Colt 45. They only had Budweiser. And I hate Bud.

Second, everything seems to be miles from everything else. You drive your car to the Best Buy, so you can get your DVD of season four of Lost, and now you need some fortified wine to go with it. So you get back in your car and drive to the liquor store. On the way, you realize you have a burning desire to read the poetry of Rimbaud. Now you've got to drive to the Barnes & Noble. Can't these places all be close together? They are in Manhattan. I can get Burger King, porn, and pick up my dry cleaning all within a three-block walk from my apartment door. (Actually, I lied about one of those three things. I wouldn't be caught dead eating Burger King.) But out here, they apparently said to themselves "hey, we have miles of open land here. Let's put everything as far away as possible from everything else." Seriously, there is no reason I have to drive to one mall to go to Target and drive to a completely different mall to go to Super Cuts.

Which brings me to my next observation. Public transportation blows out here. All they have are buses. Long time readers of this blog already know of my love of buses. It's right up there with having my scrotum shaved with a weed whacker, listening to Celine Dion, and Hitler. Not only would I have to depend on buses, which are required by law to never run on time, and are filled with smelly people who randomly demonstrate their mental instabilities, but these buses also stop running at a certain time. That's right. I would have to organize my social life, by which I mean taking the bus down to the liquor store to buy fortified wine, around the public transportation schedule. God forbid the movie lets out at 12:15, because then I'm stuck walking home. And girls generally don't kiss at the end of the date when you've made them walk five miles home. Because I don't drive.

Fourth, as I walk through suburban Albany (see above, hatred of buses), I notice everyone has these giant swaths of green in front of their houses. I'm told these are called "lawns" and that everyone has them. Wouldn't it be more efficient if they were to collect all these giant patches of grass into one place? This way, instead of everyone hiring Mexicans to mow their lawns, you could hire one Mexican to mow the giant field of grass. I've always been confused by lawns, because everyone's so proud of them. I walked past one house where the owner was watering his lawn with sprinklers, only it was about to rain. How much water does one lawn need? Isn't the water falling from the sky good enough for your lawn, dude? It seems to me if we eliminated the lawns, the houses and stores could be closer together (see above, everything's too damn far away).

Despite all of this -- the lack of bodegas, the public transportation, the inefficient land use -- I like this place. And it's not just the friendly strippers. It's the quality of life (which I suppose includes the friendly strippers, but is also made up of so much more). Now, if I can just find out the zoning issues involved with keeping wild dingoes and peacocks, I'd be set.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Kingdom for a Green Card

It's a Sunday afternoon, and I'm feeling both enervated and salubrious. The sun is out, the trees have sent forth their leaves, and I'm over-caffinated. Oh, and I have no idea what "enervated" and "salubrious" mean. Because Becky H. used to sit next to me in English, and I spent far too much time passing her humorous notes. Using "evervated" and "salubrious". So if Mr. Steen is in the audience, I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention in class, though on the bright side, I can use these words in a sentence. I just have no idea if I'm doing it correctly.

I see today that I'm back up to eight followers. I feel oddly gratified, even though I have no idea who "Imola" is. Let's all give Imola a hearty, Confessions-worthy greeting and hope she stays for more than a day or two. Because I'd like to break through the class ceiling that is "ten". I'm going to celebrate by cracking open this vintage bottle of Manischewitz blackberry wine and let my wild dingos roam the Fortress' grounds.

Today, I'm going to discuss a phenomenon I think is endemic to life in New York City certainly, and likely prevalent in many big cities (and no, I don't know what "endemic" means, either). Though, now that I think of it, when I lived in LA and DC, I didn't encounter this phenomenon. Perhaps it's because of the large population of Eastern European chicks living here in the city. I am speaking, of course, of the Green Card marriage offer.

A few days ago, I got a phone call from a friend of a friend, named Oksana. The conversation went something like this: "Yes, I am Oksana. We get married, I pay $15,000. So I meet you at lawyer's office Monday, yes? Do you have criminal record?" Yeah, Oksana, I have no idea who you are and I've never met you. Of course I'll meet you at your lawyer's office. Idiot. Perhaps you should take your foot off the gas, and slow down a bit.

For those of you not in the know, the Green Card marriage is just that. Marriage for a Green Card. That magical piece of paper that confers upon someone citizenship in this, our great country. Although universally, the Eastern European chicks refer to this as "marriage for the papers", which makes it sound like they're bucking for a pedigree from the American Kennel Club. The offer is typically $15,000 for three years of your life. You get third up front, a third when the card comes in, and a third when you get divorced.

Sadly, this is solely a business transaction, which means the marriage is depressingly sexless. I'm not sure why this bothers me, since my own, real marriage was also depressingly sexless. So you'd think I'd be used to the idea. But the idea of being married to a typically hot Eastern European chick, and not having sex, would make me want to slap a penguin with a sockful of nickels.

Because you've got to live with the chick for at least a little while, so when the immigration people interview you, you can tell them that a) she drools when she sleeps, b) her toothbrush is purple, and c) she's wearing those pink panties with the little flowers on them today. Those are details you just can't learn from a few conversations over coffee. Also, there's the home visit from the government, so you will be living with your fake wife for at least a little while. And seeing her come out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel every day, and not having sex, is some kind of horrible torture obviously designed by the KGB. I'll bet that's how they broke Francis Gary Powers. (That's okay, you can Google him. I'll wait).

What I find odd is the concept that I could earn money by getting married. I always assumed that I'd be the one who'd have to pay someone to marry me. Mostly because of my odious personal habits, like leaving my dirty socks on the TV and getting liquored up on Manischewitz blackberry wine and shooting at mailboxes. But apparently there are some 20 desperate Eastern European women willing to pay me to marry them. Without sex. Which is unlike my previous marriage, wherein I paid (a heavy price, if we include psychic pain) for the priviledge of not having sex. It's like I'm some kind of reverse prostitute.

What I don't understand is why they don't just marry their boyfriends. They all have them. Oh, they'll say they don't have a boyfriend, but they do. He's either from their own country, or Spanish, which means they don't have access to the magical Green Card, and thus ineligible for marriage (but eligible for sex). Or they're American, but not stupid enough to marry these women. Because these guys are traditionally douchebags. They've got huge biceps, wear too tight Ed Hardy t-shirts, and ride motorcycles. Eastern European women love the douchebags, because they spend money on these women while treating them badly. They may like the "bad boys" but come running to schmucks like me (AKA a nice guy) when they need the Green Card. Seems to me that if your douchebag American boyfriend refuses to marry you for free, then there's something wrong with your relationship. Maybe you should marry me for free. And let me sleep with you.

Did I mention that this process takes three years? It takes two years for the government to issue the magical Green Card (they get a temporary resident card after the first year), but you can't just get divorced the day after the card comes in the mail. Because that would tip off the government to your ruse. No, you've got to wait an appreciative amount of time to divorce your fake Eastern European wife, typically one year. I just don't think I have this kind of time. I'm 42 years old. I'd like to get married for real just one more time before I die. Which at the rate I'm going, what with the Manischewitz, Ring Dings, and smoking, could be soon.

Which brings me to another question? How does the government get fooled by these Green Card marriages? If I was an INS agent, and I saw someone like me (skinny, 42, poor) and an Eastern European chick (hot, 26, and hot), I'd completely know what was going on. I'd void my ass right there. Nope, Green Card marriage! Next! I hear they ask you personal questions during the interview, but they're clearly not asking the right questions. Which is to say, they're clearly not asking about the sex. I'd ask questions like: Does she like it in the morning? How about in the shower? What's her favorite position? You know, personal questions that you'd only know if you'd actually done the deed. I suppose they can't do this for legal reasons. And because they don't want to look like perverts. But if they were serious about keeping these people out of the country, you'd think they'd be more conscientious.

The penalties for getting caught are pretty steep. Something like a $250,000 fine plus three years in prison (which is potentially not asexual, if you know what I mean). She just gets sent back to her crummy, Eastern European, former Soviet hellhole, with no possibility of ever getting a visa to America again. I think I get the worse punishment. Because she doesn't have to worry about getting raped in the shower. And what do you say to your fellow inmates when they ask you what you're in for? Fake Green Card marriage. Yeah, that'll impress them. You're totally not getting punked after that. I guess I'd have to tell them I'm in for murder or something.

In the end, this just seems like a bad deal for me. On the one hand, I would have to live with you for a few weeks, during which I would find myself in an uncomfortable, asexual situation where sex should occur, and I'd likely run into you and your douchebag boyfriend canoodling (a precursor to your having sex with him). Oh, and if we get caught, I'm the one who ends up wearing a wig and being someone's bitch for three years. On the other hand, there's $15K.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Corporate Restaurants

Enough with the lessons on being a server in New York City. You're not interested and you're not reading. And why in the hell would you want to wait tables in NYC anyway? It's a miserable experience. Besides, I think I've mined the subject for all its comedy gold anyway. Considering the price of gold these days, that means I'm a zillionaire by now. I'm thinking of buying another Fortress of Solitude, this one in the Bahamas.

It occurs to me that this blog is pretty much open to everyone in the world. I'd originally intended it as a place for me to share my writing with my friends. Which apparently consists of eight of you (correction, seven of you; I have no idea which friend I've lost). But it's entirely possible that, if you Google my name, this site comes up. Which is not good considering that these days, employers do indeed Google potential employees (along with Jenna Jameson/monkey porn). I'm not sure how their bosses keep tabs on this, how they know the difference between work-related Googling and goofing-off-related Googling. This means, however, likely employers have seen and read this site, and didn't exactly appreciate my take on the service industry. This could explain my distinct lack of call-backs. Thanks Internet!

First, let me be clear. I'm cultivating a certain personality here. I'm trying to find my "voice." Sometimes this works. Sometimes I fail like a crypto-Communist military junta. Wait, those never fail. I'll come up with a humorous metaphor for my failure later. Like when I'm in the shower. So if you're a corporate tool manager type reading this blog as part of your background check on me, please remove the corporate bug from your bought-and-paid-for ass. If that doesn't violate the terms of your contract, that is.

And if that doesn't get me a call-back, I don't know what will.

I've spent a significant portion of the last three days filling out applications at some of the larger, finer restaurants in the city. I have a few thoughts.

If I bring you a resume, then there is no need for me to fill out all that information, like address, education history, employement history on an application. Because that's already on my resume. I'm not a high school kid applying for a job at Burger King. Asking me to transfer over perfectly clear information on my resume to your application in my illegeble chicken scratch is a huge waste of time. I'm sure some anal retentive lawyer back at corporate has a perfectly good reason for having me do this. He's also a tool.

One of the things I love about the restaurant application is the questionnaire they include with it. It has such burning questions as "how do you define great service?" and "what do you like the least about restaurant work?" These questions make me want to pluck my eyes out with a rabid hampster. No one is going to answer these questions truthfully. What do I like the least about restaurant work? Dealing with self-important managers who get in my way during a busy dinner rush with their silly corporate bullshit ("Ross, you need to fill the water glasses higher.") while I'm in the middle of inputting an order for a six-top. Seriously, tell me that shit when I'm not running around like a starving cop at a doughnut convention. My appplication answer? I don't like the standing.

Similarly, all my answers on these questionnaires are designed to appeal to the anal retentive, overly fussy corporate lackeys that infest the restaurant business.

Then comes the obligatory first interview. I honestly don't know what they're looking for. Well, I do. They want me to tell them how I place the customer first. How I cater to their every whim and need. How I work as a team player. And all of that is true (believe it or not). Unfortunately, I think they want me to elevate this to a level of hyperbole that's unreasonable. Or maybe I'm not using the right corporate buzzwords, like "actualize" and "enhance." Whatever it is these managers want, I'm apparently not giving it to them.

I am a salesman. I sell food and drink. And I'm very good at it. I'm pleasant to customers; I don't argue with them, and I want everyone to leave happy. But it's not important to your customers whether I serve from the right and clear from the left, or that I crumb the table every 8.5 minutes. They don't know any better anyway. And you don't care about that either. You care about profits. And I can sell sneakers to amputees. I upsell at every opportunity. I can make your grilled, free range chicken in hollendaise and chocolate sound like it tastes like manna from Heaven. That's what's important here. Sales.

Let me put it this way. In yesterday's NY Post, the food critic complained about the effects of this corporate stupidity has on good, basic service. Servers who pester their customers at every stage of the meal with "are you enjoying your food?" or "is the food to your liking?" Honestly, there's a thin line between good service and obsequious boot licking. He complained about servers who prattle on about tanins and chocolate-raspberry grace notes in the wine, but can't answer the simple question "is the wine good? Will it go well with lamb?" Servers can tell you all about how the mango chutney pairs well with the scrod and fresh tarragon, but they have no idea when the fish came in.

In short, the corporate wank-scrotes who define service in their glorified McDonalds, and the minions in business suits who call themselves "general managers" who enforce these dictates, have forgotten the main thing: Give the customer good, basic service.

I can do that.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Server Lesson #3: Anticipation

I have a spare hour before I must go out and look for a job, so I thought I'd continue my posts about how to wait on tables. I know, you're thinking "why would you, an international man of mystery, need a job?" You have no idea what the mortgage payments are like on a Fortress of Solitude. These things don't come cheap, what with the arctic isolation and all the crystal. Also, Hostess doesn't give away those Ring Dings for free. And I love me the Ring Dings.

Before we move on to the edutainment portion of the blog, it's time for a little housekeeping. I see by the old followers counter on the wall that I've lost one of you. I don't know who it is, but clearly I've either offended them (what? Me be offensive?!) or they thought I'd be giving out tasty recipes. Either way, I've gone from eight followers to seven, and all I can say is bon chance. That's French for "don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out."

On to anticipation. No, not the anticipation of Christmas morning, as you sit waiting for mom and dad at the top of the stairs and stare at all the pretty boxes under the tree before you realize they're all filled with sweaters and socks. Nor is it the anticipation as someone curvy and smelling faintly of vanilla and stale cigarettes slowly peels off her stockings.... Ahem, sorry about that. No, we're talking about knowing what's going to happen before it happens. You have to anticipate the needs of your customers.

Every meal has definte stages to it. If you've ever eaten out, then you know what they are, even if you don't think you know. It's ingrained by our society and culture. If you're aware of the stages, then you have a general idea of what your customer expects. And you're going to be there about a half-beat before your customer realizes what he expects.

As an aside, I've waited on many European tourists in my day. No, this isn't going to be a tirade about non-tipping European douche-scrotes who know about tipping but choose not to do it because they think the money's better spent on more jeans. The cheap bastards. No, this is about cultural expectations. I've gone up to Europeans (typically French) who have just sat down, and you know why I'm there: To take the drink order. But these people don't seem to know that. They look at me all scared and surprised and tell me they're not ready to order yet. Yes, I know that. I'm here to find out if you want a drink. Sometimes I have to make the drinky hand sign for them. I don't know why they assume I'm there to take their food order so quickly. Don't they drink in Europe? Does everyone order everything all at once? I have no idea.

Anyway, back to anticipation. Once your customers sit down and settle, they start to look at the menu. If you're not there in a timely fashion, two or three minutes, they begin to get antsy. They begin to think that maybe they've been forgotten. They start to swivel their heads around looking like puppies in a pet shop window hoping someone will take them home and give them Liv'r Snaps. All they want to know is that you know they're there. Knowing this, you, as server, should go up and offer them a drink. Once you've given them something, they're content, and you can go back to ignoring them for five minutes while you flirt with the bartender.

The next stage of the meal is the food order. They've gotten their drinks, talked things over, made their decisions, and now your customer wants to order. One of the key ways to anticipate your customers is to watch their body language. I've seen rookies go up to the table while the customers still have their noses buried in the menu, or while they're still catching up with each other. Why would you go to take an order before your customers have even looked at the menu? Once they've put the menus down, that's your cue to go to the table. They're ready now.

See, the customer will tell you how they want you to treat them, if you can spot the signs. Some customers want you to be funny and joke around with them; they'll start off by joking with you. Others want you to be Jeeves the Butler -- quiet, efficient, invisible; they'll be a little brusque with you to establish the mood. A few customers want to treat you like you're beneath them, because you have a menial service industry job while they work in a law office or bank; they'll start things off by talking down to you, rolling their eyes a lot, and treating you like a two-year old. Knowing how your customer wants to be served helps you anticipate their needs.

Watching the table top also helps. Do your customers want to wait until they've finished their drinks before ordering? Then they want to go slow through the whole meal. Are they taking their time eating their salads? They're slow eaters, and you can wait to fire their food. Are they shovelling the appetizers into their mouths? Then they're either fast eaters or have someplace to be. You should fire their food a little faster, so it comes out quicker. Do they have a mouthful of wine left in their glasses? Then you should be ready to offer them another. Did they order a steak? Bring the steak knife, ketchup, and A-1 before the food gets there. Ditto for dessert; make sure the dessert forks are on the table before the dessert.

You want to be there before your customer needs something, holding the exact thing he or she will need before they need it. You don't want your customer waiting on you. You are waiting on your customer.

You want to be aware of the stage each of your tables is at. If table 10 is about to finish their appetizers, you don't want to go to the six-top at table 14, because they're going to take a long time (big tables always do) and you'll forget to fire table 10's dinner. Fire table 10, then go to table 14. Table 5 is sipping the last of their coffee? Ask them if they want another, but have the check ready in case they don't. Because those are the only two options left to the meal. They're not going to order another dinner. They either want more coffee or check. Don't make them wait for either because you weren't paying attention. You should be constantly updating the priority list in your head as you move through the dining room. You should know where each of your tables is in the meal, what's coming up next, and what they'll need.

I hope you've found this just a little informative. So when you find follower #8, you can tell him or her that they missed a scintillating, educational blog posting. Or just mock them. Now, it's off to the job search. 'Cause I needs me some Ring Dings. And fortified wine.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Serving Suggestions

Here at Confessions central, high atop the eastern tower of my Fortress of Solitude, I like to think I'm here to educate as much as I am to waste everyone's time by reading my mindless prose. I find it gratifying that all eight of you continue to read this blog, though for all I know you decided to follow me and then never showed up again. But I like to tell myself that you're still out there, still reading. Just like I like to tell myself the hottie at the next table with the huge, brown eyes and cute nose is going to come home with me tonight and let me gnaw on her delicate shoulders.... Which is to say, I'm good with lying to myself.

And this is the central theme of today's post. When I told you that your server was lying to you when he told you the pasta was indeed homemade (it isn't) and the seabass was delicious (he has no idea), I didn't mean to suggest that all aspects of waiting tables involved lying (it does). No, certainly not. Lying is only a small part of your job. The majority, in all seriousness, lies in suggestive selling.

Now I certainly didn't invent this concept, and I lay no claim to it. The idea of telling customers what they want is as old as the Nile. I often wonder what the very first restaurant in human history was like. For some reason, it's not covered in the bible, and I wish it was. Couldn't Abraham stopped off at a shwarma place on his way from Ur to Canaan? Couldn't God have issued a few commandments on the subject? After all, there are 613 laws in Duteronomy. Don't you want to know what the heck the restaurants in Sodom were serving? But for that first guy selling crocodile burgers down by the Temple of Hatshepsut, he had to invent everything. Like the first service charge for eight or more customers, and the first "no shirts, no shoes, no service" policy. It's not like he could consult anyone; he had to come up with this stuff from whole cloth.

Anyway, it's your job as a server to anticipate your customer's needs, by overselling him as much as possible. What you're doing is giving the customer options he may or may not know he has. You're trying to enhance his dining experience by making helpful suggestions, all of which involve making the check more expensive.

For example, when a table sits down, the first thing I'm going to do after saying hello is asking if anyone wants a drink "from the bar." This is crucial. If you ask if they simply want a drink, you're like to just sell them tap water. After all, that's a drink. However, if you casually mention the bar, now the customer is thinking "alcohol." Maybe they didn't see the bar on the way to their table. Maybe they didn't even know they wanted a cosmopolitan.

You can get even more devious (I mean "helpful"); "Can I get anyone a cocktail?" puts the idea of a tasty, and more expensive, drink directly into their minds. You can, and should, tailor this to your table. For example, if I'm waiting on a table of 20-something guys, that question becomes "would you guys like a beer?" Because they're more likely to order beer. For older guys, suggest the cocktail because they're more likely to want a scotch on the rocks or a martini. For a table of women, just suggest a glass of wine. Chicks either drink white wine or cosmos. Now this isn't perfect, but a rule-of-thumb. I once had a table of old grandmas order Dewars on the rocks and manhattans. I almost fell over.

The point is, you have subtly let your customers know that you indeed have a bar, and would be happy to get them a drink.

When the customer agrees that, yes, what they need is a tasty alcoholic beverage, the next question that must reflexively come out of your mouth is: "what brand?" If they order a martini, what kind of vodka (or gin)? If it's a scotch and soda, what brand of scotch? Would you like that cosmo to be a Grey Goose cosmo? I'm doing this because a name-brand alcohol costs $2-4 more than house liquor. And because my customer really doesn't want to drink house vodka, because that's really turpentine drunk by hobos. See, I'm looking out for you.

You do the same thing with the food. You go to the table, and your guests immediately go right to the main course. No worries. They're hungry and they want food now. So what you do is "go back to the top of the menu", by which I mean you ask them if they'd like an appetizer. "Oooo. They have appetizers," the customer thinks. See, they're so focused on dinner they didn't even stop to consider an appetizer. About fifty-percent of my customers order something, at least to share. A calamari or a ceasar salad. In fact, I'll sometimes suggest just that; "can I get a calamari for the table?" This generally works better in larger groups -- four tops or bigger. You're offering options here.

Similarly, you should be thinking "upsell" for any main dishes on the menu that have them. Some dishes have options, like adding chicken or seafood. So when a customer orders the fettucini alfredo, the questions "would you like that with chicken?" pops out of my mouth automatically. Because maybe the customer didn't see the tiny type under the entry on the menu that informs him he could do that. And because the fettucini alfredo tastes better, is a bit more of a meal, with the chicken. Your customer deserves to be informed of that option, so he can enjoy his meal even more. Oh, and this bumps up the check an extra $5.

Going back to the booze section of the meal, I just remembered something. If you've got a four-top and they all order a glass of wine, you should instead suggest they get a bottle. Your standard 750 ml. bottle of wine gives you four glasses, so it's more efficient, and the wine by the bottle is generally better than the swill the restaurant serves by the glass. Try to pitch it that way. Make it about enhancing the diner's experience. Depending on the bottle they choose, you've also just increased the check.

I can see that I've missed the central tenet of suggestive selling. Know your customer. Read them like you read the newspaper (if any of you read the newspaper. If not, then read them like you read 4 Chan). Some examples:

1) When a mom and dad come into the restaurant with a young child, I always suggest a drink (alcoholic) and pitch the mother. Because she's spent all day dealing with precious little bundle of joy, and could really use a drink right about now.

2) Women generally order salads. So when you "go back to the top of the check", suggest a salad before dinner. Don't waste your time pitching the beef carpaccio. Similarly, suggest white wine. You may get them to go for a cosmo or other "girly" drink, but white wine, especially pinot grigio, is a good bet.

3) Four young men dining together are going to go for the meat on the menu. You're going to be selling steaks and beers (maybe scotch). At the end of the meal, ask them if they want to see the dessert menu, but don't count on it. They're more likely to go for an after dinner drink.

4) Four young women don't want to look like alcoholics. So when you see empty wine glasses on the table, don't ask each one individually if they'd like another. They'll say no. Ask them if they'd like another round; you'll get a few takers, and go from selling no wine to selling two or three. Also, automatically bring a dessert menu; women will wrap up their half-eaten dinner to make room for dessert. (They're also going to ask to split the check. For some reason, women don't like to pay for each other's meal. They'll sit there with a calculator and figure out to the penny what each of them owes. Guys, on the other hand, will pick up the check. I'm not sure why women hate each other so much as to be jerks about the check).

5) You've got a date table. You can tell it's a date table by their body language. Don't even bother with a dessert menu. If your restaurant has a dessert tray, bring that over. Once the girl sees the dessert, she's gonna want one. And the guy doesn't want to look like a cheap jerk, so he'll buy her one. Net sale of one dessert. In fact, use this to your advantage at every stage of the meal. Offer her options that the guy will have to pay for. Isn't love (or the desire for hot sex) grand?

Lastly, the most important aspect of suggestive selling is: don't let on how much all this costs. If you do it right, that tap water becomes either an $8 glass of wine or a $10 Ketel One mixed drink or $12 Hendricks martini. You go from selling two dinners to including an appetizer, and from selling the basic meal on the menu to upselling with options. And you can get them to go for dessert, too. You can take a $40 check up to $80 easily.

All in the name of "enhancing your customer's dining experience." Present options, subtly. Think of who you're waiting on, and what they'll likely want. Tell them what they want before they know it. Your customers will love you for it (and so will your manager). Learn to anticipate your customer's needs. Which is the subject of the next blog.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Server Lessons

Now that I'm writing about it, I realize that I can teach you all you'd ever need to know about waiting tables in New York City. Read my advice, take it to heart, and you'll be qualified to work in any restaurant in the city. One of the strange things about New York City restaurants is that they require you to have New York experience. If you waited tables in Chicago for ten years, it doesn't matter to the managers of New York. For some reason, they think restaurants here are somehow different from those any place else. That they're somehow special. I don't know what it is, but I think if you read my advice, you'll be well qualified to lie on your resume and be able to pull it off.

First, the basics.

Just because you've been waited on in the past, and it looks easy, doesn't mean you know how to wait on tables. There is a lot of specialized knowledge you have to learn that has nothing to do with the cuisine you're serving or the wine you're pouring. It's a way of thinking.

Learn to carry a tray. Nothing tells everyone in the restaurant, by which I mean the staff, that you have no clue what you're doing faster than not being able to carry a tray. Or a plate. Or a glass. I've had girls swear up-and-down to me that they've worked in Friday's and the Olive Garden, but they couldn't carry a tray if you put a gun to their head. One girl cradled it like a baby. Another one kept putting her finger prints all over the martini glasses.

What's the big deal? If you can't do something simple like carry a tray, chances are you've never worked in a restaurant. You have no idea what you're doing; so how can you be expected to accomplish the more difficult tasks in a restaurant?

Learn to multitask. While serving one table is pretty easy, it's when you multiply the number of tables that you multiply the difficulty. And let's face it, waiting tables is easy. All you've got to do is take an order, input it into a computer, and collect the money. You have to run your drinks to the table, but most places use food-runners so you rarely have to carry a plate. You spend about five minutes at any table. However, each meal has several distinct phases, of which you must keep track. The more tables you have, the more phases you have to keep track of.

There's: the greet (saying hello), the drinks (getting the drink order), reading specials, taking the order, appetizers, firing the main course, checking on the customer (do they like their food?), dessert and coffee, dropping the check, cashing out, and throughout this asking if they want more drinks. That's a lot of little stuff to manage.

So it's easiest if you know how to multitask. I've seen servers who treat each table individually, and this never works. Take the drink order from table 10, then take the food order from table 11 (if they're ready); this way, when you go to the computer, you're inputting two orders for one trip. If you're running a credit card for table 10 and the bartender puts your drinks on the bar for table 11, take both the credit card slip and the drinks at the same time. Any way you can combine two trips into one is going to save your ass when the dining room gets slammed.

However, a rookie mistake is to go to several tables in succession and take their food orders; taking the dinner order for tables, 10, 11, and 12, for example. You don't want to do that. First, you're more likely to confuse the orders, even if you wrote them down. Second, you've just pissed off the kitchen, who must now cook all that food just for you. Third, you've now just created a huge lump of work for yourself, because now all three tables will want dessert and checks at the same time. You end up waiting on all three tables in a block. Not good. You want to know when to multitask, and when not to.

Read the table top. I've had steady regular customers that I've served for years. I know what they like to drink and how much pepper they like on their food. But I have no idea what they look like or what their names are. If I ran into them on the subway, I'd be hard-pressed to place them. This is because when I'm on the floor, I'm not looking at your face. I'm looking at your table top. I'm doing this for a particular reason, because the table top tells me all I need to know about your dining experience.

Let me put it this way. If I see you've eaten half your salad, I have a pretty good idea that you'll want your main course soon; so I've got to keep in mind that I'll have to fire your table in the next five minutes. ("Fire" means to tell the chef to start cooking your food). If I see your wine glass is almost empty, then I know you'll want another glass, especially if you haven't had your main course yet. By watching the speed at which you eat, I can tell if you're in a rush to get someplace, and I'll have the check ready as soon as you order your coffee (so you don't have to ask). Looking at the table top helps you anticipiate your customer's needs.

Learn to read the dining room. This is a lot like reading the table top, but you're doing it for the entire place. You're trying to keep track of when you should speed up your service, or slow it down. The last place I worked had a real problem with this.

When it's busy, you want to speed up your service, because it's about table turnover. The faster you turn over your tables, the more tables you can wait on, and the more money you can make. That means subtle tricks, like firing your table's main course while they still have half their appetizers. This means that as soon as they're finished with one course, the next one comes out without a moment's hesitation; they're not sitting there for ten minutes waiting for their food. As soon as they finish their main course, you print out their check and ask them if they want dessert. This way, when they say "no" you can slap the check on the table immediately and get them out the door; if they say "yes" you just throw away the printed check and order them dessert (and make sure to print a new check for when they finish dessert). You want as much air out of the dinner as possbiel.

When it's slow, however, you want to slow down your service. First, because this is more relaxed for your guests, and for you. It's a more pleasant dining experience. Second, when people look at restaurants, they look in the window to see if there's anyone inside; if they see an empty dining room, they assume the restaurant must be bad and keep walking. So you use your tables on a slow night as bait to catch more customers. After all, you don't need table turnover. The longer your customers sit (within reason) the more likely others will come in. Let them linger over coffee....

As I said, my last place was horrible for this. On a slow Tuesday night, the food runner is rushing bread and water to the table before the customer has even taken off his coat. He's whisking away appetizer plates and hurrying out food. He's bringing the dessert tray over to tables that still haven't finished their after dinner drinks. In short, he's rushing them out the door like it's a Saturday night. And you know what happened? We sat in an empty restaurant all night long. So know when to be fast and when to be slow.

Next time, I'll teach you the psychology of selling.

Stupid Questions

Yesterday, I suggested that restaurant managers asked some pretty stupid questions when they interview potential servers. These are your typical job interview questions, but tailored to the food service industry. So I can't really fault the managers for asking them. Heck, when I managed a restaurant, I asked them. We do this in order to weed out all non hackers, those people who think waiting tables looks easy, so it must be easy; after all, all you do is take orders. They have no experience, despite the lies they've put on their resume, and asking a few basic questions is a good way to find these people out.

But some of these questions seem to come from people who have no idea the business in which they're engaged. Waiting tables is a miserable experience. You stand on your feet for a minimum of eight hours, you're generally not allowed to nosh or drink (I'm not sure why customers aren't allowed to see you drink a glass of water, but I've been chewed out for it at every place I've worked), and you put up with customers' ridiculous nonsense.

So when a manager asks you, with a straight face, "tell me what you love about serving", you have to wonder. Because the answer every professional waiter will give you is either "nothing" or "the money."

But that's not what the manager wants to hear. No. He wants you to blow smoke up his ass about how you love to enhance the guest's dining experience through your professional, efficient service. He knows this is horse-shit; you know it's horse-shit. But he wants to hear it.

I was asked once, "what are your strengths?" My strengths? My strength is in not slapping your customers when they ask me a stupid question. (Oh, and I'm usually the highest-grossing salesman on the dining room floor.) Really, I get a lot of stupid questions in this business. We all do.

For example: Customers invariably ask me for food recommendations. "What's better, the Chilean seabass or the prime rib?" How the fuck should I know? I haven't eaten the food. Let me let you in on a little secret: No server has ever eaten anything but the cheapest crap on the menu. In many places, you don't get to eat anything on the menu; the chef prepares a giant bowl of something for the entire staff, so he doesn't have to make 12 individual dishes. This is called "the family meal". And this is typically off menu, because the owner doesn't want to serve 12 free Chilean seabass dinners to his staff. That's real money out of his pocket. It's much better to cook up a batch of penne alla vodka and throw it at the miserable servers.

Now if the restaurant has specials, and they're serious about having you sell them, the chef will typically prepare one dish, so you can see it and all have exactly one bite. This is rare. Some restaurants will let you order food off the menu, but, again, it's the cheapest stuff on the menu. So if you're really curious about the ceaser salad or the bruschetta, I can give you an experienced opinion. But the Chilean seabass or the prime rib? You may as well ask me how Katie Holmes' pussy tastes, because I haven't eaten that either.

When you ask me which dish is better, or which I prefer, you are basically asking me to lie to you. Now I can do that. Because I can sell bubblegum to a lock-jaw ward. I know how to sell a line. Ask me about the veal saltimboca, and I'll tell you I love it. It's delicious. And I do love veal saltimboca, though I haven't actually eaten it at any of the restaurants in which I've worked. But how bad can it be? Servers are instructed by management, any management, anywhere, to say every dish on the menus is excellent. Even if the veal saltimboca is overcooked and dry, and you know it.

Now rookie servers will make a stupid mistake. When asked to choose between two dishes, a rookie will choose the more expensive of the two. Bad decision, because the customer can see right through you. You lose all credibility (not that you had much to start with, but they don't know that). The smarter answer is to listen to the order in which the customer asks the question. For example, "which is better, the veal saltimboca or the branzino?" Chances are, because the customer asks about the veal first, that's what he really wants; it's his first choice. So recommend that. It's called suggestive service.

Getting back to stupid interview questions. I was interviewing at a seafood restaurant once, one that specialized in raw shellfish. So I was asked to pick three words to describe the taste of oysters. I hate oysters. To me, they are slimey nuggets of cold snot on a half-shell. The manager didn't like my answer. This was silly, in my opinion, because I'm a salesman. Just tell me what you want me to say, and I'll say it. I'll say it with such conviction that you'll think I eat oysters for every meal (even though the restaurant would never give me oysters for my shift meal).

Ditto for wine knowledge. I don't care if I tell you the malbec has hints of raspberries and chocolate. You won't be able to taste it anyway. I could give you the merlot instead, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Because the majority of people haven't developed their pallates. I know of restaurants that serve Absolut when you order a Grey Goose bloody mary, because you won't be able to tell the difference over the horseradish and tomato juice. But they'll still charge you for the Goose. All any restaurant manager has to do is tell me what he wants me to say, and I'll say it. Maybe I'll even learn something about the food along the way. So all the questions about food or beverage knowledge is pretty silly, if you ask me.

Remember this the next time you eat out. There's no point in asking your server about the dishes on the menu, because all he'll be able to say is "they look nice" or he'll be forced to lie. Most of the time, he's eaten nothing on the menu in the first place. He's a miserable wretch whose had rice and beans for dinner because most cooks are Mexican, and they make Mexican food for the shift meal. And if he's had any of the food on the menu, it's the cheap stuff, so if you want an opinion between the penne alla vodka and the fettucine alfredo he has an opinion. Otherwise, he's been coached to tell you that everything on the menu is amazing. He's a salesman, and he's selling food.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Be Vewwy, Vewwy Quiet; I'm Hunting Jobs...

I see by the old date stamp on the blog page that it's been awhile since I shared my thoughts with you. I'm sure you've awakened in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, perhaps even shaking uncontrollably, and wondering what caused it. Now you know. For the past two weeks, I've spent my time looking for work, because despite President Obama's best efforts to turn us into a socialist country, I can't sit around smoking gauloises and discussing Sartre and collecting welfare (like all of France). Mostly because you can't afford strip clubs on what unemployment pays you.

I'd briefly considered writing about the television of my youth. I recently had a discussion about television in the '70s in New York City, and how great it was. Yes, we had TVs back then. They even broadcast good shows. But I'm going to have to save that subject for a different time, and instead discuss what's going on in my life now. Which is the job search.

Looking for work as a waiter is very different from your standard job search. It's not often that your typical IT worker or regional sales director can go door-to-door looking for work. Imagine walking up and down the street, stopping into every office you find and saying "hi, I'd like to drop off a resume for the manager just in case you're hiring." But that's exactly how it works in the service industry.

Certainly, you can go on-line and search for server positions; "server" is the politically correct, non-gender way of saying "waiter" or "waitress." Sort of like how we can't call stewardesses stewardesses. Honestly, most places like to hire women because they're curvy and look better than men do in low-cut tops. But if they say "waitress wanted" in the ad, you can bet your ass someone (namely me) will try to sue them for reverse discrimination. Hence the use of the word "server."

(On a completely unrelated note, good restaurants, ones concerned with actually serving customers efficiently, will hire only men for their dining rooms. Because men come to work and make money, so managers don't have to worry about a) cat fights over the hot bartender, b) waitresses crying because they had a fight with their boyfriends, c) waitresses leaving in the middle of the shift because of "that time of the month", and d) sexual harassment suits.)

The problem with on-line searches is that every other waiter in the city is doing the same damn thing. So for every "open call", which is basically a casting call for servers, 80 people show up. Then the manager asks two or three silly questions, trying to weed out the Russian chicks who've never waited on a table in their lives, and are lying on their resumes. When I was a manager, I asked one to name two types of wine, she said "red" and "white." Gee, thanks. Another one couldn't name three kinds of red wine, even though three different magnums of red wine were sitting right in front of her. But I digress. So the manager sees some 80 people, asks them silly questions, never really gets to distinguish one person from another, and throws your resume on a pile. What happens next? He pretty much pulls one out at random and gives the person a call.

It's much better, in general, to wander the streets ducking into every restaurant you see and dropping off a resume. First, you never know when that's the day a waitress gets into a fight with her boyfriend and tearfully runs out of the restaurant, leaving the manager holding the bag. Now he's got few options and a shift to fill, but has your resume staring him in the face. And gives you a call. Second, you don't have to compete with 80 other servers-hopefuls showing up at the same time. That is to say, unless you're being followed by 80 other unemployed servers, chances are that you're the only person the manager's seen that day. It's much easier to make an impression, so that when he does need to fill a position you're more likely to get a call.

There are some things I've learned about this kind of job search, however:

1) Managers give your resume a shelf-life of about two days. Even with the open calls posted on Craigslist. Everyone knows you're looking for a job, and don't have job security, and need to find a job pronto. So the assumption is that you'll find a position in a couple of days, and there's no point in calling you after that. Also, after two days, even if you make a great impression, the manager really won't remember you. He's likely to take the first person standing in front of him when he needs to hire. Which is why it's better to pound the pavement and be that person. It also means even though you've been to Pastis three times already, it's a good idea to pop in again (because they don't remember seeing you the previous times anyway).

2) You can tell who's serious about hiring by the questions you get asked. In The Boiler Room, a movie about chop shop stock brokerages starring Giovanni Ribisi, they talk about a "sales question" like "what's the minimum buy for your firm?" That's a sale question; you know the guy's interested. For the restaurant business, you want the manager to ask you a sales question, like "what is your availability?" That tells me he's looking to hire someone, and not just wasting my time. "When can you start?" is another good one. Even better if the manager subtly bitches about his problem to you, such as "I expect everyone to be on time and show up for their shift." That tells me someone has been consistently late, or didn't show up to work, and the manager wants to fire them. That's good.

3) Conversely, you can tell instantly that you've completely wasted one of your resumes when you leave it with the hostess or another server. You have no proof that they'll actually pass it on to the manager, for one. Typically, it just goes into a pile that you know the manager won't wade through. And even if the manager looks at it, he has no face (or personality) to put to the information on your resume. But you've still got to leave the resume so a) you don't look like an ass, and b) maybe, by some miracle, the manager will give you a call (often, because he's desperate).

4) There is a time to leave a resume. All other times are a waste of your time (see point #3). The dinner shift starts at 4pm. That's when the servers show up to start their sidework (polishing silverware, steaming glasses, checking tables, filling salt shakers...), and the managers show up to supervise them. A lot of restaurants close their dining rooms from 4pm to 5pm for just this purpose. So showing up at noon isn't going to help you get a resume into the manager's hands (which is what you want); he's not even in the building. Similarly, showing up at 8pm is just plain stupid. The manager is in the middle of his dinner rush (even on a tuesday night), and is thinking about supervising his floor; he doesn't want to interview you. He's got servers to chew out and customers to grease. Also, weekends are a bust. Either the weekend manager is working (the assistant manager or floor manager) and not the guy responsible for hiring. Even if the general manager is there, Saturday is the busiest day of the week and Sunday is definitely the B-team's day. The best time to go door-to-door is weekdays between 3pm (just in case the manager gets in early) and 6pm (the dinner rush hasn't started yet, and he may be frantic to fill a hole in his staff).

Thus, finding a job in the service industry can be pretty hit-or-miss. You've got to hope to be in the right place at the right time, and talk to the right person, and hope to make a positive impression. If you can't do these things, then you've got to try again. Personally, I have one of those restaurant guidebooks, complete with maps. I highlight the streets I've walked down, so I know where I've been. I'll usually wake up in the morning and plot where I'm going next. For example, tomorrow it's TriBeCa. Eventually, I'll get a call back.

And there, gentle readers, is more than you ever wanted to know about finding a server position in NYC. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for a Hostess apple turnover and a bottle of fortified wine.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Regime Change

I've decided today to remove myself from the lofty confines of the Fortress of Solitude and go out to enjoy the day. The change of surroundings fascilitates a change of perceptions and stimulates the thought processes. Also, the peacocks roaming the Fortress' halls were driving me crazy. In my last post, I posited regime change for Iran, so I figured I'd explain my reasoning in this post.

First, this post in no way draws on any past experience I may or may not have had. It does not depend on any secure or classified documents, to which I have no access. I am merely an interested civilian with a penchant for military matters and a healthy imagination (also, I'm big on conspiracies). So if anyone should pass this document along to certain government organizations that shall remain nameless, I have plausible deniability on my side. (And if not, then look for reports of my demise by some innocuous means. I can't tell you the number of people made to "disappear" through seemingly stupid accidents; like I'd ever try to toast bread and take a bath at the same time. As if!)

Now that we've gotten the boilerplate out of the way, we can move on to the regime change. That this is the best option of Iran is clear. See, Iran is lead by fundamentalist mullahs who believe they're following the word of God. They believe that the time of the Hidden Imam (a sort of messianic figure) is approaching, and they can hasten this along by oh, say, incinerating Israel. Imagine, if you will, an America led by Fundamentalist Christians who believed they could force Christ to appear by shooting puppies in the head. That's the kind of people we're dealing with. Which is to say, when politics is married to religion, your options are sort of limited, and the leadership becomes less rational.

Now I don't know that all the mullahs in Iran believe their messianic "vision", but it is certainly a means for them to control the populace and justify their policies. As in "Allah told me to shoot you peaceful demonstrators in the head" and "I'm taking over this industry and all its profits in the name of Islam (and not for myself)". It's not like anyone can argue against you, and declaring your opponents as heretics pretty much ends all debate. So even if Iran's ruling body could be reasoned with, they've painted themselves in a corner with the religion. You can't call for the destruction of America in the name of God, then turn around and say "oops, my bad" after you've cut a deal with them. What I'm saying is, even if Iran's leadership isn't composed entirely of dead-enders, their rhetoric kind of paints them into that corner.

So negotiations are really not possible. I haven't even begun to consider the Iranian Republican Guard, or their elite Quds forces. Increasingly, the Republican Guard has gained not only political influence, but also economic might, as generals take over key positions in both arenas. So not only are we dealing with a theocracy, we're increasingly dealing with a military theocracy. Imagine the Knights Templar killing the Pope and taking over Rome, all in the name of God. Now give them The Bomb. So I think we can agree that the only "negotiations" we can have with Iran is through the barrel of a gun. Because these people are completely unspooled when it comes to religion (even if they don't quite believe everything they say).

Militarily speaking, taking out the numerous nuclear sites sprinkled around Iran would be difficult. And by "difficult" I mean "practically impossible." In addition to blowing up Natanz, you'd have to take out the SAM sites around Natanz, and the airfields from which pesky Iranian jets would take off in a counter-attack. Now multiply this by the number of actual nuclear sites we know about (five, so far? or is it six?). Tactically, you would have to take out all these sites simultaneously, so one could not warn the others; and you couldn't attack the airfields or SAM sites first, because that would tip your hand on the nuclear site attacks. (And you certainly can't attack them after the nuclear sites, since you're trying to limit the amount of casualties the Iranians inflict on the attacking planes). The kind of firepower required would make "shock and awe" (from Gulf War II, remember?) look like a fireworks display in your uncle Ken's backyard.

Next, even if we could take out every surface-to-air threat and the nuclear sites, the mullahs would simply unleash the truely insane killers in Hezbollah and Hamas. And not just on Israel. We'd have backpack bombs in every Starbucks in America, potentially. The Iranians have been reading from Von Clauswitz, The Scorched Earth edition.

But there is one way to eliminate the threat of a nuclear Iran. Regime change. Cut off the head of the snake. Get rid of the lunatic bozos who are directing the construction of the nuclear missile program.

There are quite a few things in our favor with this plan:

1) We just happen to have an army in Iraq, and one in Afganistan. Both are scheduled to leave soon. We could just have them leave their respective theaters of war. Through Iran. A two-front war sucks. Ask Hitler.

2) There appears to be a native opposition movement in Iran. Stealing the last presidential election has galvanized more Western-oriented elements in the country, particularly among the urbanized middle-class. I say "appears" because the leadership of this movement, the guy who had the election stolen from him, is really just a less-radical member of the Khomenist government. That's like saying Sean Hannity is less a rabid conservative than Rush Limbaugh, so I'm not sure rallying support to this guy is a good idea. But there is a thirst for change among Iran's population, and we could exploit that.

3) The Arab world has no love for the Persians. We can exploit the Sunni-Shia religious rift as well as the Arab-Persian political rift. Saudi Arabia does not want to see a resurgent Persian Empire dominating the region with nuclear warheads. The Saudis will keep the other Arab governments quiet (if not the Arab street).

How do we do this? Affect regime change? You send in a combined force of special ops guys and CIA guys. Tell them to roam around the country, being their own, charming selves. This is called "prepping the battlefield." The special ops guys are there to sow confusion and create rifts inside the country. Demonstrate that the government doesn't quite have the control it should. It's amazing what happens when you sabotage a few electrical power generating sites, and blow up a few bridges. Bonus points if they manage to tie up the Republican Guards in and around their barracks. There's a lot of land in which to hide in Iran, and those frequency-hopping burst transmitters are a bitch to find; which is to say, a light, lethal force could operate for awhile inside Iran with little outside support (or could simply hop over the border into Iraq). The CIA guys are there to spread around America's good will in the form of cash; we did this in Afganistan -- guys hopping out of airplanes with $24 million in cash in anodized briefcases to buy off the right people. They can also link up with the Iranian protest movement, and provide information and advice.

Once the Khomenists start with the infighting and hurling of accusations, once they start to lose control over the population (and perhaps a part of the military), we roll in with tanks. Or, just sit back and do nothing, while the locals tear the government apart on their own (which might be the easier option).

Not, of course, that any of this will happen. But it's certainly the better option.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Iran and Funny?

It's Wednesday here in NYC, and the weather has gone from unseasonably warm to seasonably cool. This is a typical weather pattern for the North Atlantic states, where we have to worry about snow up until Easter. Meanwhile, I'd like to thank the South for the warm weather pattern we enjoyed last week (and also for biscuits and gravy, which is nummie-good). Also, whenever I have to write "wednesday" I have to pronounce the "d" to remind myself it's there, so I try not to write that word very often. Because I feel stupid.

Now one of the things we try to do here at the Fortress of Solitude is educate. I believe it's important to teach, to leave something behind for future generations, to better my fellow human beings. And to mock. I don't know what Superman does in his Fortress of Solitude (I imagine it has something to do with making sculptures out of Wonderbread), but here in my Fortress I like to mock. It makes me feel better about myself. I'd briefly considered teaching you about the personalities unique to New York City, but then my friend Patrick Goodman challenged me to make the current situation in Iran funny. And I don't back down from a challenge.

For those of you not in the know, Iran has been pursuing the atomic bomb for years now. They say that they want to enrich uranium for their domestic energy consumption, but Russia -- the fine, upstanding citizens of the world who have been building a nuclear power plant for them -- hasn't given them the formula needed to make fuel for the reactor. So this is like saying they're making the formula for New Coke before Coca-cola has finished building the bottling plant, and telling them they no longer make New Coke.

Their president, Mahmud Ahmedinejad (motto: stealing elections since 2009), likes to come out and threaten Israel with annihilation every once in awhile, presumably with his non-existent, domestic fuel uranium that doesn't actually exist. Really. And, for a non-military, non-weapon program, the Iranians have gone to great lengths to hide it. They've spread their nuclear sites all around the country, placed them in the middle of population centers, and buried them far underground. Completely normal. Nothing to see here.

It's the multiple sites buried underground that is the most interesting, to me. See, in order to take out this completely peaceful, non-military program that will wipe Israel off the map, you would have to hit all the locations simultaneously and you'd have to do it with bunker busting bombs. So we here at the Fortress have been following the news pretty closely, because, believe it or not, the government tells you exactly, precisely what it has in mind. If you piece the stories together in the correct order.

That's why we have analysts at the CIA pouring over newspaper stories and listening to foreign broadcasts. Amazing what you can learn from an innocuous story about grain production in the Ukraine and reports of troop movements in Beloruss. Oh, and don't forget the electronic intercepts through the NSA; those often confirm suspicions. If you ever actually listen to them. Now I've lost my security clearance, but I think I can do this pretty well without those. Three things interest me:

1) Israel has been conducting massive air attack training missions over the Mediterranean Sea. These include bombers, the attendant air support (the planes protecting the bombers), and air refuelling tankers. That's a lot of airplanes in the sky at any one time. They practice attack runs on Cypress. Now, the only people who care about Cypress are the Greeks and Turks; I don't think Israel is planning to invade Cypress any time soon. It only makes sense once you realize that the distance between Cypress and Israel is exactly, precisely the same as the distance between Israel and Iran.

2) Last year, Bibi Netanyahu and President Obama had a meeting where they both declared Iran's obtaining The Bomb to be unacceptable. Obama said it had to be resolved by the end of last summmer; Bibi said it was more like the start of the autumn. I'm not sure what the difference is between the two, but I think it was a case of them saying the same thing different ways. Granted, nothing happened by the end of last summer and the beginning of last autumn. I'm not sure why. But there seemed to be an agreement in principle of a date certain to do "something."

3) We have recently prepositioned 379 bunker busting bombs on the island of Diego Garcia, which is perfect for, say, supplying someone in the Persian Gulf region. Now I'm not sure why the number is 379; why not make it an even 380? Did they need that last bomb someplace else? Anyway, you need bunker busters because they're designed to tunnel underground before they go boom, and the Iranians have buried most of the important nuclear sites underground. You don't need these babies to hunt Osama, so it seems our friend in the Pentagon are setting us up for a showdown with Iran.

Not that I think we have the cojones to do it. If the Israelis do it, they'd have to inform us first. Because they'd have to fly over Iraq, and we get testy when 75 airplanes fly over our heads without a warning. We may be supplying them with the bombs, too. So we don't get plausible deniability here. I just can't see President Obama signing off on this one. But if we did, I'd think we'd have to go for regime change as part of the mix.

Next time, I'll discuss just what "regime change" entails. For more shits and giggles. In the meantime, we here at the Fortress are planning to buy oil futures so we can hit it big on the commodities market. Never let it be said I don't take advantage of an opportunity.

There, was that funny enough, Patrick?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Me and David Byrne

Today finds your humble narrator at his usual haunt when he needs some time away from the Fortress of Solitude, and the care and feeding of his elaborate menagerie of hissing cockaroaches, halucinagenic toads, and peacocks. Which is to say, I'm swilling beer from a size 9 Manolo Blahnik at my favorite Russian chick cafe. Where else can you get internets, beer, and hot Russian chicks in any one place? Except Heaven.

Since I've subconsciously decided to take you down memory lane, let's all get in the Way-back Machine and go all the way back to 1988. I realize that for some of my loyal readers, this is around the time they were born. Which not only depresses me, forcing me to order another beer, but also means I may have a lot of splaining to do.

It was August of 1988, and I'd recently returned from a semester abroad in China. While there are at least two good stories out of that trip (and several amusing anecdotes), this is not one of them. I had been back for about a week, and I was spending the Pergatory between end-of-one-semester and beginning-of-the-next in New York City, hanging out with my dad. Dad was great, and the subject of quite a few interesting stories on his own. This is not one of them.

I was hanging out with dad at one of his stores in the Bronx. Dad used to sell new and used furniture to people on Welfare, which is why his store was in the Bronx. It was a cash-only business, though he did take lay-away. It was lucrative, and would remain so until the advent of Ikea, which catered to the same crowd. Who knew poor people wanted so much crappy furniture with names like Snott and Blikendorf? Before you judge, dad also owned a few antique stores, but rich people don't buy in volume. The important fact of the story was that I was on Grand Concourse in the 180s, which means I may have well been in Beirut. Remember that.

So the phone rings, and it's my step-mother Elaine. Elaine is awesome. The first time I saw her, my dad took us to dinner so I could meet his new girlfriend (which is kind of sweet, considering how many times I'd taken girls home to meet him). He asked me about an exam I'd quite frankly bombed on, and I tap danced furiously about it. "Who do you think you're kidding?" Elaine asked. "Do you think you're fooling us? You fucked up. Just be a man and admit it." I was instantly in love with Elaine. So Elaine wanted to talk to me, which was unusual.

"Ross," she asked, "do you know a singah named David Byrne?" (I'm going to try to appoximate Elaine's thick New York accent).

Why yes, I do, Elaine. Why do you ask?

"I'm at the office," says she. Elaine was a CPA, and worked for Chris Callas, a famous fashion photographer. She did his books, and actually had power of attorney to draw money from his private account to pay his personal bills. So she was in his offices a lot. "And this nice Jewish boy keeps coming in and showing me pictures of monkeys. He wants to know what I think of them."

That's very nice, Elaine, albeit strange. Why are you telling me this.

"Well, this man says he's a singah, and the monkeys are for the cover of his new album. He says his name is David Byrne. Have you ever heard of David Byrne?"

Yes, yes I had. Lead singer for the Talking Heads. Burning Down the House. Psychokiller. Stop Making Sense. Yes, it's a famous band.

"Oh, well, he just came in my office and asked me to join them for lunch. I told him about you, and he said I could bring you along. Would you like to have lunch with David Byrne?"

I admit, my brain locked up. I couldn't process what I'd just heard. But I recovered. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?! YES! I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE LUNCH WITH DAVID BYRNE!

"We're leaving in 15 minutes."

Dad, can we get from here (Grand Concourse in the 180s, in the Bronx. Like I said, may as well be Beirut), to midtown Manhattan in the next 15 minutes? Dad just looked at me, rolled his eyes, closed them, and shook his head. Dad always rolled his eyes to make his point. It was his way of saying "I'm serious." I was doomed.

No Elaine, I can't make it. Thanks.

I was so bummed for the rest of the day. I tried to pick a fight with a gang of Puerto Ricans just on general principle; when they asked me "yo man, what's your problem?" I told them the story, and they understood. They bought me a beer. One of them gave me a hug. At least, I consoled myself, I could ask Elaine about lunch with David Byrne when I got home. Maybe hear an interesting story (David Byrne likes escarole! He's allergic to shellfish!). Maybe get a contact high.

I burst through the door that night, tackled Elaine, and asked her how lunch went. "Oh, I didn't go. I had too much to do, so I had a salad at my desk."

Gee, Elaine, why not punch me in the balls, too? I briefly considered killing her. It was a momentary thing. But it passed.