Thursday, August 10, 2006

Soldato's Last Stand

-Preface I-

Please read about Soldato before you read this post.

There are times when you have to take a stand. The breaking point varies from person to person. Some folks fly off the handle if someone bumps into them on a busy street. Other folks refuse to react if they get slapped in the face.

Soldato is one of those with a nasty temper. He'll throw down without hesitation for little or no reason. However, to this day I still believe that he held on longer than most normal waiters could have... this story is about Soldato's last day at The Restaurant.

-Preface II-

Spring is turning into summer. It's warm outside, and we've opened the patio for The Restaurant.

In the midwest, we get excited for the summer. It means we can shed layer upon layer of clothing. It means we can get ready to leave the house in under ten minutes. And, most importantly, it means that we can once again see beautiful women prancing around in sundresses.

It's only been two months since Valerie was unceremoniously kicked to the curb, and already The Restaurant is beginning to turn around.

As servers, we notice the little things these new managers do differently. Encouragement and aknowledgement of effort are nice changes. Morale is higher than it has been in a long time.

The most refreshing change is that these new managers are less likely to give up a free meal to a scammer. Now don't get me wrong here. They will try to satisfy the customers if there is an issue. The difference is that they handle it fairly.

They won't throw freebies to people who don't deserve it. At the other end of the spectrum, they won't try to weasel out of a problem by offering the minimum solution. Valerie's solutions were akin to either applying a band-aid to a gaping head wound or fixing a crack in the sidewalk in front of a dilapitated shack. These new managers decide what's fairest to the customer, The Restaurant, and the server. They make a decision and then stand behind it.

The new management team has also made some great personnel moves. They canned The Deaf Server, the Hippie, and The Penguin. They brought in two intelligent, experienced servers, as well as one extremely eager newbie. They also dropped three quarters of the hostesses, and then hired a couple of cute high school honor students to pick up the slack. The IQ of the restaurant has tripled.

The only problem with the new staff is their availability. We're running short several servers each shift, and the new managers refuse to allow anyone more than the four tables allotted by Corporate. This is fine for people who can't handle a lot going on at once. But for people like Soldato, who's been in the business for 15 years, this makes for some boring shifts.

Despite this one setback, the Old Guard (The Woman, Soldato, Rena, and I) agree; this is the smoothest The Restaurant has run in a long time. We're making money, we're having fun during shifts, and we don't have to cow-tow to horrible customers.

-Soldato's Last Stand-

We're in the middle of a lunch rush. I have the patio and I'm running back and forth from the kitchen. I'm sweating likeFloyd Landis before a drug test. I look over at Soldato, lounging against the wall of the side station, checking out the soccer moms sipping Arnold Palmers at the table nearest the door. Even though I'm waiting on the soccer moms, I'm jealous.

Soldato has an easy four booth section. He can handle four booths in his sleep, so he has ample time to think about what he could be doing with four housewives in a minivan.

A quick glance at the host stand gives me pause. There is a wait. At lunch. Uh-oh. This is a big no-no in the restaurant business. For the most part, our lunch clientele is comprised of business folks hailing one of the numerous office parks surrounding The Restaurant. They want their food and service fast. It's hard enough to squeeze a casual dining lunch into a 45 minute lunch break. It becomes damn near impossible if you have to wait for ten minutes at the door.

One of the new hostesses is on, and she's not handling her first heavy rush well. She's looking around helplessly as people crowd the entryway. She looks like a baby calf separated from a herd of wildebeast, about to be mauled by a pack of ravenous lions. I have time to wonder, 'Is 'pack' the right word for a grouping of lions? I think it's actually supposed to be something else...'.

I snap back to reality when I see the hostess take a half-step back from her post. She's showing weakness, and the group of people storming the host stand smell blood. She needs help.

My hands are full, so I'm powerless. I look back at Soldato.

"Hey!" I hiss at him.

"What?!! I'm busy here!" He turns from the window to stare me down.

"Dude, go help her. She's gonna drown." I nod towards the hostess. Her mouth is now open and her eyes are wide as saucers as she looks over the chattering mob in front of her. They're inching forward, moving in for the kill.

"Ah hell." He loosens his collar and stalks towards the host stand.

"Give her some room people. She needs air. I said STAND BACK!!!" Soldato can be intimidating. Years of smoking Cowboy Killers has made Soldato's voice deep and raspy. He also talks with his hands. The louder he gets, the more grandiose his arm motions become. Right now he's yelling, and his arms are pinwheeling. I'm reminded of those little windvanes, the ones where the arms spin in high wind.

I love watching an angry little Italian screaming and waving his arms. But while I find it hilarious, some folks find it intimidating. He scares most of the people away from the hostess. They soon sit quietly in the waiting area, hands folded in their laps. The hostess looks up at him, the tears that were welling in her eyes now dive back from whence they came. My hero.

There is only one person still hovering. It is a man in his mid thirties. He's a squirrelly-looking fellow. Wire rim glasses, pleather jacket, mousy brown hair. Shorter than Soldato by about half a foot, he exudes Napolean Complex. He's with an older woman that I can only assume is his mother.

I can practically smell the Drakkar. I can almost hear what I assume to be a whiny, nasal voice. Figuring Soldato can handle a guy who looks like Paul's (from The Wonder Years) older brother, I put on my best fake smile and head out to refill the soccer moms' teas.

"Hello ladies, how is everything today?" I stretch my smile as wide as it'll go. The ladies smile back.

The waitresses get to flirt for big tips all the time. I relish the opportunity when I get a chance. Doesn't mean I'm good at it, but it's fun all the same.

When I turn around to head back inside, I hear them giggling behind me. My flirtation is paying off.... or I sat in something and they're laughing at me. Either way, they're happy. Happy people=bigger tips= a happier Server. Life is good.

Opening the door that leads back into The Restaurant, I am stunned to see Soldato still at the host stand. Paul's older brother (POB from now on) has more spunk than I though.

They're still arguing. Soldato is trying to keep his cool, but I can tell he's starting to break. His hands are clenched into fists underneath the host stand, and I can see his pulse pounding through a throbbing, angry-looking vein protruding from his neck.

The little hostess has backed completely into the wall, looking for all the world as if she wants to just melt into it. Not good.

Worse, the regional manager, Karl, has decided to make a lunch shift visit. Karl is a metrosexual. Not a single strand of his closely-cropped hair falls out of place, as usual. His $200 pastel shirt matches perfectly his tailored trousers. His shoes are polished to a high shine. His persona screams "Look at me! I'm important! I'm carrying a laptop in this ridiculous-looking bag slung over my shoulder! I am personally responsible for the well-being of every Restaurant in this state and a half of the neighboring state! Adore me, my children!" Comical really.

Unfortunately, Karl is just about the only person from the Corporate Office of The Restaurant that can fire you on the spot. Even our GM is supposed to consult someone before he can tell a server to hit the road. Karl can toss you on a whim. And if it makes him feel important enough, or look good enough, he'll do it without hesitation.

Karl immediately takes an interest in the scene unfolding in front of him.

POB is leaning into Soldato, his nose inches away from Soldato's chin.

"Why can't we sit down now? My mother is old, standing around like this is bad for her back. I demand that we be seated NOW!" Soldato is steaming. I can see he's itching to shut this guy up.

Soldato gathers himself, takes a deep breath, exhales. "Sir, like I already explained to you... We are on a wait. I know there are unoccupied tables throughout the restaurant, but we are are not allowed to wait on more than four tables at a time. Our corporate office believes that we can't provide the level of service necessary to make you dining experience..."

"Screw that and screw you! My mother needs to sit..." Spit is flying out of POB's mouth as he chirps a mile a minute. He's standing so close to Soldato that I'm sure he's feeling spittle spray his cheeks.

Karl decides to help.

"Hello sir, my name is Karl and I'm the regional manager at The Restaurant. I'm sure we can make an exception for your mother's case. I'll arrange to have a table opened up for you."

"Thank you." POB is gloating now, "I knew that there had to be someone here with more brains than this stupid wop."

Oh, hell. Why did he have to go and say that? And why did Karl have to let this jerk sit down? He just let POB cut in front of about 10 people. Worse, he made threw Soldato under the bus. To top it off, Karl made Soldato prep the table.

I hurry over to help. I want to keep Soldato from boiling over. I pretend to straighten the table cloth while Soldato lays out the silverware.

"Keep cool," I whisper, "This asshole would like nothing better than for you to take a swing at him. He looks like the type that would sue."

"I don't give a shit. What the hell is Karl thinking, cutting my balls off like that in front of that douchebag?"

I agree, but...

"Just hold it together, I'll find someone to handle this table."

"Fuck this bullshit, I'm tired of this. Karl can fry in Hades for all I care. Sanctimonious bastard." Quite a vocabulary for a "stupid wop".

Soldato heads back to the host stand, grabs two menus and motions to POB and his mom.

"Please follow me, sir." His voice is calm, but that vein is still pulsing in his neck. I'm scared the pressure is going to cause it to burst. I don't want to clean up that mess.

The other patrons glare at POB as he passes by.

POB follows Soldato to table, grinning the whole way. Once there, POB sits down. He doesn't bother to pull out a chair for his "poor mother."

"Now, sir, if there's anything else you need," Soldato says, "please let me know."

"Oh, I will. Sorry about that wop comment earlier, I was just worried about my Mom. You know how it is, right?"

"Of course I do! You and your mother, you have a wonderful lunch." He pats POB on the shoulder and turns to leave.

POB looks at his shoulder, then looks at Soldato's departing back. He pushes back from the table and jumps up, the nerdiest-looking jack-in-the-box I've ever seen.

"HEY! Don't touch me! He touched me! Did you see that? He put his hands on me!" People are staring, most in disgust and surprise.

Soldato turns. "Sir, I..."

"What seems to be the problem, here?" Karl is back. His timing is as impeccable as his hair.

"He put his hands on me. Is that how you run your restaurant? What is this? All I wanted to do is take my mother out for a decent lunch, and now..." POB is working up a lather. Some folks will do anything to get a free meal.

"Please calm down sir," Karl puffs out his chest. Big Man. "Soldato, apologize to this man."

I'm reminded of the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Judge Reihold gets fired.

Karl should know better. He's met Soldato before. I wonder if Soldato will kick 100% of his ass.
Soldato looks ready to take a swing. To my surprise, he stops and smiles.

"No, I don't believe I will. You know what?"

He turns to POB. "Go fuck yourself."

To the man's mother, "I can't believe that piece of shit came out of you."

To Karl, "I quit. You can go to hell."

He takes off his apron, pulls out the change, hands me his open checks and turns to go. He gets a small cheer from the neighboring tables.

I think he's heading for the door when he makes a sudden left turn and plops down at the bar.

"A little service here, sweetheart!" He pounds a fist on the bar and pulls a bowl of snack mix in front of him.

The Woman is bartending. "You know servers can't sit at the bar." She laughs at him. "What are you doing?"

"I'm not a server here anymore. Shot and a beer, please!" He takes off his Restaurant logo polo shirt. He's got a stained wifebeater tee underneath. He lights up a Red. Classic.

"Seriously? What happened? Did you quit or get fired?" Fired employees aren't welcome back.

The ones that quit however... that's another story. In another brilliant stroke intended to improve customer service, The Restaurant is not allowed to refuse service unless someone is being disruptive or is drunk. Soldato is neither... yet.

Soldato spends the rest of the afternoon drinking at the bar. Karl fumes, but there's nothing he can do, technically.

Once Karl leaves, the staff heads over one by one to get a recap of the events leading up to Soldato's Last Stand. Soldato is happy to provide the details. He embellishes the story each time, until eventually I was holding him back from taking on both Karl and the POB (and probably the mother too).

He drinks himself stupid until close. The new GM comps his bill. Like I said, these guys were good folks.

We head over to the neighborhood bar for a nightcap. It's the whole crew, set to send Soldato out in a blaze of glory. Or at least, shots of tequila.

As we walk into the bar, we all stop dead. POB is sitting at the bar, trying to talk to some trashy-looking, disease-ridden, middle-aged bar fly.

He's drinking something with cranberry juice in it.

"Hey asshole!" Soldato yells, "You're in my seat."

POB looks up, ready for a fight. "Oh yeah?"

"That the best you can come up with? Jesus, I'm piss drunk and I could come up with better than that while I kick your ass all over this place. Actually, that ain't a bad idea..." He makes a move towards POB.

POB throws his hands up to cover his face. He overbalances his bar stool, and it falls over. He stumbles briefly, regains his footing, and books out the back door. I've never seen him there since.

We all sit down. We laugh and drink until 4 am. They turn us loose into the night.

Luckily, there's a row of cabs sitting out front. Soldato hops into the first one in the line. "I'm outta here. You guys have a good one." He closes his eyes and is asleep almost immediately. I poke my head in the front and give the cabbie directions and a $20 for the 3 minute drive.

I hate to say it... but I'm proud of Soldato. He didn't even take a swing at the guy. I know it killed him inside... just a little bit, it did. But he kept his cool and stayed out of the pokie. POB definitely would have pressed charges.

I'm not worried about Soldato. With his experience, he'll have another serving job by the end of the week. I'm gonna miss him at The Restaurant though. We all will.