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Third in a series.

Slow nights -- a phenomenon that is cause for considerable despair in the restaurant business -- at The Ordinary were the worst. Waiting for the customers. And staying focused while waiting. It can be an interminable period. Unnamable pain. Hopeful Vladimir, Alors? On y va? And the dour herbal Estragon, Allons-y; biding their time, discussing doing something, but not moving, filling the hours with nonsense. The waiters -- well, we were all waiters waiting --I mean the service personnel, bartenders and waitrons depend on traffic for their livelihood. Part of the chef/manager/owner’s job is to maintain morale during these moments.

And while the motivation of the kitchen staff may be somewhat different, waiting is every bit as painful for them. Most chefs and line cooks are adrenaline junkies, never happier than when they’re up to their asses in alligators. They want to move. They want to go! And even the dishwasher, the final receptacle for the detritus of our business, is hoping the restaurant will be there tomorrow, so that he may have a paycheck. There is nowhere to go. No exit. Everyone praying that the game is not up. We need asses in chairs and bellies to fill! Bag ‘em, gag ‘em and tag ‘em!

Even the most successful of restaurants have these moments. They are horrific. There is only so much prep one can do, and once one is comfortably ensconced in ennui, a massive energy surge is required to come up to speed. 

Now, there are some restaurants on this planet that have professional waiters. Usually, these joints are in the “food-destination” cities: New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, where service personnel can make a very handsome living. The last time I ate at Galatoire’s in New Orleans, for instance, they no longer knew me (it had been years and years since my Aunt Maye had taken me there) and I was assigned a waiter who had been there a relatively short time and had no seniority to speak of. He’d only been there 17 years. But, this is the exception; on the remote possibility you’ve never booked an eating tour to Oakland, California, let me clue you in -- it ain’t a food destination. 

So, what most restaurants do for service personnel is try to find people who possess some social skills, half a brain, and clean up pretty good. Honesty is a good thing, too. Experience would be an added bonus. Without exception, these folks are transient, trawling culinary concubines in the wine-dark seas of gastronomy on their way to riches and fame in a real profession. To them, the restaurant is a temporary money machine to tide them over until they score in their real occupation, so loyalty is something of a problem. Slow nights will cause them begin seeking other employment. These nights, did, however, give me the opportunity to get to know some of these people. Here are some sketches of the front and back of the house at The Ordinary.

Partial dramatis personae. Well, lots of gays. I had two guys who were a couple early on, both very moody artists. Trouble from the get go; one in particular. I had just closed The Ordinary one night -- it was very late. He was zonked – and driving me and my girlfriend home. A cop saw him driving erratically in the parking lot. This was at the height of the Black Panther era in Oakland. Running in a couple of hippies was as welcome as a coffee break -- with a doughnut -- for these guys. They rummaged through his purse and found a bunch of drugs. I piped up and said we were just in the parking lot on private property and they had no right blah, blah, blah. They told me to shut up and to pull my legs into their car or the door would be slammed on them. I shut up and pulled my legs in. My girlfriend piped up. They told her to shut up. She didn't. They opened the door, told me to get out, put her in my place, and took the both of them off to the jailhouse, letting me go. I got them out. No charges were filed against her. 

I also had a black gay guy -- Booker -- who was 6’-8’’. with an Afro on top of that. He decided he knew my white musical taste and once gave me a copy of a Jack Jones album -- this during the early days of The Ordinary, when I played nothing but New Orleans jazz on the speaker system. I never really understood how he came up with the cultural leap to Jack Jones after hearing me play King Oliver (he had a pretty good horn player named Louis Armstrong), and Jelly Roll Morton. Maybe someone gave it to him, and he decided I would be more appreciative.

Conrad, on the other hand, paid closer attention than Booker. Conrad was straight, an excellent waiter and a very handsome guy who resembled a young Omar Sharif -- and was also a music critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. He gave me tickets to The Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco. This was my favorite rock band. Although the night of the concert -- Thanksgiving, 1976 -- had all the earmarks of a very slow night at the restaurant, I had taken reservations for about 20. I was making a special menu featuring a dish of duckling with cherry sauce, and I didn’t know anybody who could pull it off in my stead. I had to give the tickets away. I sigh every time I watch the video of the evening, directed by another favorite of mine, Martin Scorese. Conrad died a very unusual death. A car pinned his leg between two bumpers one night and he developed a wound that wouldn’t heal -- the suffering went on for months. He died of a staph infection.

Then there was Richard -- ah, Richard -- straight, but not so you would have known it. Great waiter, but, like many, avaricious. A skinny little guy, he got laid a lot by acting gay -- had it down to an art. (Logic dictates that he got laid by Geena Davis – many times, as he was her first husband.) Richard was very East Coast, cynical and hip. He grew up with some of the East Coast mobsters, and I recollect he was mentioned in the book Murder Machine. He escaped that life, though.

One of my waitrons, Tre, was a very gifted potter. She made me a series of neat blue and white bowls for presentation (she later sold a bunch of her stuff to Neiman Marcus.) I still have one of them -- it holds about 1-1/2 quarts, and has a series of happy-looking blue frogs in various postures arrayed around the outside of the bowl on a white background. On the bottom of the bowl is two frogs going at it doggie- . . . er . . . froggie-style. On the outside bottom of the bowl is the legend: Bufo bufo in amplexus, axillary. I didn’t (and don’t) give this bowl to just anyone. (The rest of the series was G-rated, I might add.) Note: For decades I have been calling this “The Frog Bowl.” I only recently found out just how ignorant I am of amphibian anatomy. Bufo bufo is a toad: the common toad.)

I had my own Mexican beer connection -- Mr. Ceballos, a truly nice human who for some reason took a shine to me. When they were in short supply, he still kept me in Tres Equis and Noche Buena (this is an end-of-the-year bock, featuring poinsettias on the label). George and Spencer, with some small assistance from me, insured that we never made a profit on these beers. We were also one of the first places outside San Francisco to have Anchor Steam on tap.

Then there was my wine connection. My house wine, a closely guarded secret -- Chateau Rege-- was loved by all. To get the discount, I had to pick it up -- ten case minimum -- at their storefront on Powell in San Francisco, at a price of $10.00 a case -- plus tax. Later I moved up to their premium wine, Chateau Rege Reserve: $12.00 per case. It only came in gallon jugs. I served it in carafes. 

We had a couple of near misses with Hollywood around this time. The first came right after I opened. A location producer asked about using The Ordinary for a week or so for a shoot. Something called Klute. He decided against it at the last moment. Later, a producer approached me about being a consultant on a film about Vietnam. Gave me the script (titled The Prisoner; not to be confused with the Patrick McGoohan thing) to read, and told me they would pay me handsomely. Robert Blake was to star. It sounded great, and this starving restaurateur could sure have used the loot. Calls back and forth for several months. The last call I got said the project was on hold: Blake had accepted an offer -- though he was pretty sure it would be short-lived -- for some television thing called Baretta. Guess the cockatoo got my money.

Line cooks were in short supply in Oakland at this time. Mostly I took what I thought were smart people with little experience. Hell, no Bay Area cooks had experience with Creole food, anyway. Well, these were the people I knew: poets, writers, sculptors, painters. They became cooks, kinda. Unlike most of the restaurants I was to do after The Ordinary, where the entire menus were a la carte, most of my items were what we call “batch” items. I settled on a menu that I thought most of my cooks could handle. 

Spencer had owned gas stations and had been a mechanic. He’d quit all that and was a hippie living in a commune when I met him. Spencer became a very good cook, and went on to have his own restaurants.

Denis, who helped out when he could, had always been a good cook. He didn’t make fans of the black ladies to whom he sent out some not-spicy-enough gumbo -- they could be heard throughout the restaurant, shouting “Who done cooked this trash?” In addition to teaching college, Denis taught wine appreciation and wine-making classes.

Then there was Bunkie, former air force officer. (This may scare you, folks. Just don’t dwell on our country’s security too much and you’ll get through it.) He was easily addled. He had the attention span of a bipolar gnat -- except when it came to drugs. Psychedelics were his favorite. Lots. Often. He did have his charm though. He had a succession of attractive girlfriends. 

One of Bunkie’s string of sweeties was Susan, a Foster, the first of four memorable sisters about which, for some reason -- we could speculate that drugs play a part here -- I don’t remember much. 

Susan was freshly sprung from a German prison -- something to do with borders and contraband. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the Foster convoy rolled in from Chicago: Ellen, Mary and Janet, hard living, brash broads, and all attractive. I’m sure they sucked the air right out of The Windy City when they left there. Berkeley wasn’t ready for them. They didn’t care about political correctness, or fitting into the Berkeley culture. These girls just wanted to have fun: sex -- a man a minute, and no commitments. Mary, given a quarter of a chance, would, upon being introduced to a man, whip out her tits and say, “How you like them puppies?” They were cute and pettable. Kinda large for puppies, though. She and Ellen went on to work for Spencer at Mama’s Royal Café.

Nestor didn’t want to work out front -- just in the kitchen. His real name was John and he became a very good friend. He decorated the employee bathroom walls extensively with clever graffiti, drawings, “sandwiches,” and silly slogans, some of which elicited surprising responses. In particular, what Nestor had scribbled about the SLA attracted the attention of the feds: things like, “Call me Cinque,” and “Meet me out back at 11:00, Patty.” One day they came to look at the wall and photograph it. Somewhere in their files are these examples of your tax dollars at work.

John lived with me for a while. Nestor Marzipan was his . . . alter ego, or maybe better, his alter id. Most of the time he looked sorta like a hippie -- John, not Nestor, a bright, educated guy. The Nestor part of him wore a fedora, a zoot suit and tie -- or sometimes, a nurse’s outfit. He talked about having an office in a dingy hall in a building in Monterey and sitting behind a desk with a pint in the drawer and a sign on the door, “Nestor Marzipan, Private Detective.” He became obsessed with one case he was working on. A missing emotion case -- what ever happened to tenderness? He became a very good cook. He died too young. I miss him a lot.

One last slow-night amusement: throwing a damp plunger at a wall 20 feet away and making it stick. Spencer says he can beat me; I dispute this claim. 

It’s hard to wrap up this section. Maybe I’ll let Beckett do it for me. From Waiting for Godot. This time in English.
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.




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