( Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant appears on this Blog.)
Saturday´s afternoon shift couldn´t arrive fast enough. I couldn´t get the vision of the basement stairs, scraping my face as I was shoved, head first to a quick meeting with the basement´s concrete floor. What did I get myself into?
Was the guy a thug? A killer? Who the hell was he?
The gossip mill at Melon´s had managed to address a few of my questions. Cobb had a reputation for using loan sharks -jukebox placement types-to assist him in opening his restaurants. Gary was just a collector. Not to worry, he was probably a really nice guy… as long as he got money, Vinny the afternoon bartender at Melon´s explained as I finished my drink.
Feeling a tinge of rage, and a scoop of celebrity, I was once again behind the bar, in control of the room, along with Kelly and Capra. Customers, having closed the place hours before were back, and from the looks of their losses- OTB betting slips piled high on the bar, they had been for some time. Allen´s had already been tagged a neighborhood joint. It was a substitute for a stove or oven, a place to grab something better than prepared food at the Food Emporium or Balducci´ Well, better than the Food Emporium. We were not a special occasion restaurant.
Without interrupting Cobb and Kelly, who were meeting at the corner of the bar, Lah and Eric eyed me to come to the wait station.
"John, you were lucky last night. That was Gary Hat. He´s a mean guy." Lah said.
"Johnny, have you got a minute." Kelly asked.
"Be a good guy and get some change, a bottle of Hartley Parker and five steaks at Food Emporium. Just pay for it out of your pocket and put a slip in so you can take the cash out at the end of the night." Kelly said.
"Kelly, I need to speak with John first. A guy came in last night and wanted money from the register." I said.
"Oh, Jesus. Not Gary Hat."
"Yeah. Gary." I said
One of the benefits of being enrolled in the Cobb management program was being allowed to play restaurant owner. Getting the feel for the whole package, cleaning the bathroom, going to the store, buying a drink for a customer, dealing with vendors- on bright notes and sour conversation, and putting money in the register out of your pocket and not getting it back for a few days were all privileges of enrollment. Plus, great tips and eating well enabled me to always be holding heavy in the cash department – another bonus that few real owners experienced.
A few bucks here or there for a few days didn´t rally matter. Another owners´ trait.
Obviously Cobb was waiting for a shift change so he could raid the register as he did everyday. Before I went on my manager/bartender errands I relayed the message from our new mutual friend, Gary.
"Gary Hat came in. He wasn´t supposed to be here ’til next week." Cobb said.
"Yeah, Gary came by last night and wanted two-hundred-dollars from the register. I told him he couldn´t have it. He took me into the kitchen and pointed out the basement stairs. Is this guy for real?" I asked.
"Jesus. Kelly, Gary Hat came by last night and Foley, here, told him to leave." Cobb yelled out chuckling.
"Can you imagine?" he added.
"Christ, Gorilla, it must have been just after I left." Kelly said, smirking.
"It was." I said.
"What was I supposed to do?" I asked.
"Nothing. You did the right thing John. That´s why we leave you in charge. I´ll introduce you to him when he comes in. If I know Gary Hat he´ll be by in a few minutes." Cobb said.
Just before six o´clock Gary walked through the front door. He was wearing the same jacket, the same fine cashmere sweater; this time not completely buttoned, allowing for breathing room, and the same expression, with the same hand in his pocket. His toothpick seemed fresh. Without making eye contact with anyone Gary went directly to Cobb who was now eating his famous rare hamburger patty and cottage cheese in an attempt to lose some of the weight he gained as a younger man.
"Gary, it´s so good to see you. How´ve you been, you F*%$?" Cobb asked affectionately, with his Wasp accent turned street.
"I´da be betta if I didn´t ah, have da cum into da city today. You were supposed to give it to me last night. This guy wouldn´t open the register."
"John," Cobb said, "Come down here for a minute" as he summoned me from the far end of the bar.
"John, I´d like you to meet Gary. Gary will be coming in on Friday nights and it´s o.k. to give him two-hundred-dollars out of the register each week. Just put a slip in so Vail can track it on Monday."
"Mr. Hat, I am pleased to officially meet you. I´m sorry about the confusion last night but you understand. Every Friday night you can count on that money from me." I said.
When I finished my polite dissertation I noticed Cobb and Gary were both more red than the rare burger. As soon as I said Mr. Hat, C´mon Home Willy, stopped moving.
Cobb who always leaned on the bar stool because of his bad leg damn near fell on the floor. Gary turned to Cobb, who was now bright red, and gave Cobb the same look as he had shared with me the night before when he was professing his architectural knowledge of kitchen stairs. I quickly realized that something was wrong. I got the two one hundred dollar bills from the register and handed them to Gary. He thanked me, shook my hand and said he looked forward to seeing me next Friday. He affectionately whispered something in Cobb´s ear and proceeded to walk out the door. The slip found the register drawer. Cobb´s face resembling the color of pickled beets in the house salad was being over come with a smart ass smile.
"Kelly, did you hear that?" Cobb asked, laughing.
"No. What happened?" Kelley asked between Budweiser sips.
"Well, the genius here called Gary, Mr. Hat, thinking he was going to be nice and polite."
"Are you kiddin´ me? Johnny, that was great." Kelly said.
"Oh, Jesus, Gorilla, what did he say."
"Nothing, he was frickin´ speechless. He whispered in my ear that we hired a real smart-ass as he was leaving." Cobb said.
"I don´t get it. What´s going on?" I asked.
"Well, John, Gary´s last name ain´t Hat. Bobby Linen´s last name ain´t Linen. Bobby London´s last name ain´t London, and Mickey Fish´s last name ain´t Fish." Cobb said. "Didn´t you find it strange that each guy´s last names were identical to the product they delivered? You´re supposed to be a journalist. Are you stupid?"
"Oh, nobody told me that." I said. "So why is Gary called Hat?"
"Because he´d throw you down the stairs. Gary is the collection guy for a loan shark. The Mafia. Get it. And, we still just refer to the loan sharks as hats, because long ago they used to wear big Fedora´s. Next time, use his first name."
"Should I apologize? I feel awful"
"Are you a moron? Leave it alone. Let it go. He thinks you´re a smart-ass. That´s great." Cobb said, shaking his head.
That wasn´t the last unconventional incident at Allen´s. But over the course of my year as a manager I learned more
than I would ever need to know about running a restaurant. However, it wouldn´t be for another ten years after moving to St. Paul, Minnesota with Kranston, that I needed to put the education to use and test what I had learned in the restaurant business.