Alan Catlin: An Essay
“You can’t shit a shitter.” They all said it. The veteran bartenders, career waitresses, shady bosses, one step away from foreclosure or the taxman, whoever shows up first. One boss even sold out to the mob, for washing and wearing money. You have to love Mr. Cash Only businesses. The Tax Man Cometh, would be the title of the play about the restaurant/bar business. It was a lot like O’Neill but much sleazier. The taxman always wins. If you call shuttering a business for non-payment, putting people out of work, and creating vacant space to be used by other nefarious businesses, getting your due, the taxman is your guy. Eventually someone will probably come along and make a car lot out of all that dead space with a lot of parking. I guess that’s better than nothing at all.
I worked for a guy like Trump once. He was a low-level megalomaniac, womanizer, narcissist...Also a bully, personally charming, but vicious at heart. He was all show and very little substance. He claimed to have been in army intelligence, during Vietnam, as a captain, which might even have been true. He knew ways of keeping you off-balance, like tapping his ring on the bar as he talked to you when he wanted to persuade you to do something for him. He was throwing the shit and you weren’t suppose to know it was coming, were not supposed to duck. Management would always be saying stuff like, “How could he end up owning four restaurants if he didn’t know what he was doing?” Sort of like a spokeswoman for Trump saying, “How could he get elected president if he didn’t know what he was doing?” Accept the premise and you are accepting shit from the shitter.
Always pay attention to what gets left out the narrative: the bankruptcies (Trumps/ the restaurant owners), the firings (the owner) the shady business practices (both). Ask yourself, how could a self-proclaimed multi-billionaire have no legitimate credit standing as recently as a few years ago. Or, why did a restaurant manager never make it beyond a year and half at one location.... Always look at the facts, I thought, early on in my checkered career as the guy who wouldn’t make it in restaurant management (and thank God they were right as my first book dedication reads)... Separate facts, from the crap, and consider that the company line is all an illusion based on some absurd sense of personal aggrandizement and Business Management 101 (or BM 1).
It’s all a matter of focus. The veteran bartender who proclaims he is bullshit proof, knows, inherently, the opposite is true. He has a highly functional BS detector but his premise is false: he believes that you believe what he says is true. And if you don’t, a bullshitter is the easiest guy in the world to fool. Know what questions to ask.
Guys like Trump. They thrive on chaos management. The thinking is, if there is no clear chain of command, no power source below the top gun, then there can be no serious contender to the throne. The thinking is: no one will be able to gather enough support to be as powerful as he is. But this thinking ignores one crucial aspect: the man at the top actually believes what he says, his own lies, the bullshit that comes out of his mouth. He thinks that he is smarter than everyone else, that only he can make the right decisions (or any decisions at all), and that everything he does is right. And above all, he will never admit to being wrong. Or apologize (BM 2). For anything no matter how egregious his mistake might have been. Double down on lies when you are confronted by an untruth or a misdeed. But if you are paying attention, if you are a realist, you can smell what is in the air, see what is lying on the ground.
The inherent fault in Trump reasoning, is: stuff still has to get done in a daily basis. And someone has to do it. You don’t do these things, other people do. The boss is more aware of this than Trump is, as there is a specific, on the spot product, that has to be made and distributed on a daily basis. Trumpworld is more fluid, less time constrained and, results or failures, are often measured in months, if not years. The people who do the everyday jobs are the real people in charge. The guy at the top, more often than not, is a hindrance. An important lesson learned by me, in the bad old days enacting: How I Beat the Draft by Using the System Against Itself. Grand, big ideas are nice, but it is through the little people that you can run the organization and make things you want, happen. First the little stuff, then the big stuff. Make yourself inevitable and you become indispensable. Pretty simple, really.
After all, The Bosses of the world, can’t be bothered with the minute details of making the organization functional. Stuff like learning how to read a balance sheet. Boring! That’s what accountants are for. Know thine enemy: watch what he does and learn how to counteract it. Own the fact you are an underling, but one who will know how to pull all the strings. In time the world becomes yours. But never, ever forget: patience pays. And keeping your hand close to your chest. Clichés to live by.
Way back when I was failing in business management, my right-hand man, then studying BM in college, handed me an organizational chart of the restaurant, and a copy of The Prince and said knock yourself out. What fascinating reading! We were only a few years removed from the Nixon years, and his style of management followed many aspects of The Prince. Nixon’s big problem was his personality got in the way on his style of doing business. I wondered if what the adviser suggests to the Prince works in politics, could it work in a small restaurant, where there is a huge power vacuum at the heart of the organization? Only one way to find out.
Isolate the king (boss/prince) and infiltrate the management structure. Sounds like a plan. Looks like what is happening now but that’s another story.
When I embraced my course of action, the owner was trying to juggle managing four locations at one time, designating the everyday functions to managers. Here was an inherent gap between the top and the next level. Two of these places were minor league. He mostly let them be, except for surprise visits to scare the wits out of everyone, creating the illusion he was micromanaging the places. (You have to love those guys who think they are micromanagers, they always know absolutely zilch about the daily life of their businesses and how they operate and are so easy to jerk around). I almost wished I was working at one of those satellite locations, (and larcenous,) as I could have owned them both inside of a year. But I was neither, at heart.
Applying The Prince to restaurant management, was an experiment, not a scheme. Besides the owner and I were at war, I just neglected to inform him of our changed status. Once he attempted to humiliate me in the work place, while I was performing my weekend miracle of waiting on three cocktail waitresses, fourteen dining room waitresses and a full bar/lounge that could accommodate a 100 or so, by myself, I was in no mood for being disrespected by the owner or anyone else. (I actually had total strangers stop me and ask, “Are you doing this all by yourself?” And I said, “Yes I am.” “Let me shake your hand.” The guy with a New York accent once said. He gave me a ten-dollar tip while he was doing it. Just because.)
I had no time or inclination to interrupt my routine to kiss the boss’s ring. To flatter him in front of the money guys, the real owners of the restaurants. But that is another completely different, less important issue to me. The war and the experiment were the important issues as far as I was concerned. Then. And solving the work problem. It would take at least two people to replace me and we both knew it. Round one ended in a standoff. He insulted me, the power boys laughed, I declared war. But round one was only step one, as far as I was concerned. Life would get much more complicated as I saw how The Prince could be applied to the restaurant.
The manager of the place I worked at was a woman I had worked for, and with, for a decade, in three different places. I liked and respected her, but she was also the boss’s main, on-the-side girlfriend, so when push came to shove, you know where that leaves me. As the former bar manager, I still had a fiefdom (no one replaced me in the capacity. Big management gap there) as the face of the place, who had cultivated a strong working relationship with the crew and the customers, simply by not being a typical, asshole bartender. This came natural to me as I like people individually, respect their lives, and have always taken a “where in this together so we might as well get along and help each other out “attitude.”( in basic BM, there is only bottom line, people are moving parts that can be replaced. In theory). Anyone who has worked in The Business knows that a working together attitude is as foreign to professional bartending as ethics is to upper management.
The staff always looked to me for guidance, even after I quit my management position (but allowed myself to be bribed to stay on weekends). That made me in a position to make almost as much money as before, at less than half the hours, and none of the responsibilities (i.e. the triple duties of bar manager, night manager and bartender for one badly paid iteration of those job titles.) So who were the staff going to listen to? Some new guy who might come along? Or the guy they knew? So all of your out-front staff, except the manager (who would cut me slack anyway as old friends) were receptive to anything I might suggest or do.
It’s a given that you can’t control the kitchen. The best you can do is work with the guy who runs it. He happened to be one of, maybe, three chefs/cooks, I have worked with( I have worked with hundreds,) who was sane(everyone in The Biz knows cooks are the drummers of the rock band in terms of restaurant staff). Head chef was a nice guy, hard worker, reasonable, stable, dude. His staff, well, who cared? Most of them were only working long enough to earn enough to get blasted after work. And really blasted on weekends, where they wouldn’t have to force themselves out of bed the next day at three in the afternoon to come to work at five (if they were lucky).
Your little spies tell you, things aren’t going well in the back office (money changing room) and you perceive, someone is going to end up holding the bag. Who will it be? The kitchen guy who is responsible for maintaining the all important high-quality food? No. The Hostess/Manager? Obviously not her? Or the nice guy who tends the bar, who brings his kids over to pool parties at the boss’s house on Sundays? Yeah, him. And what form what holding the bag take? This is the scary part?
The numbers are bad. The price-cost ratio of the bar, is way over what it should be. It wouldn’t matter that all those cases of booze I saw going out the back door for private parties at the money men’s house counted against that ratio. When push came to shove at explanation time, it would all be about You, then, and the deck was going to be stacked against you. Throw in a phony charge of appropriating funds, under the assumption that all bartenders are crooks well... Believe me, I knew of a way to appropriate funds using a dummy inventory that they would need a team of accountants to figure out, if I were inclined to use it. It wasn’t in The Prince, but it was a Machiavellian scheme big time. (A former franchise restaurant manager spoke highly of it as he laid out the precise details of how it works. Very intriguing.) No, it was best to let someone else take the fall. Our Prince would do just fine. His name was on the front door after all, not mine.
Of course, you are always cultivating your base, that is the people who are paying your wages in the form of tips. They know you, they see you every week, and like that you know them and they don’t even have to order their drinks. Their preferred cocktails are always ready and waiting as they slide into their places at the bar. What do they really think of the big boss? Well, he is a phony and rarely around, so anything you tell them to enhance that idea, goes down well. Besides, you give these guys free drinks, as a form of buy back, that is definitely not a house policy. It’s our little secret.
You suffer the fools and treat the real people right. Still, at some point, near the end of the dynasty, self-respect factors in. There is a point in one’s life where you have to stand up and say, “I can no longer be nice to despicable people just because they have money. I just can’t do it any more”. Howard Beale anyone? The absolute end of a management career, anyone?
So you cut out upper management from your process, by cultivating the people who do all the real work of business. Well, almost everyone. The accountant was some kind of tight- assed, no-life loser of questionable sexuality, who knew some ways to move money around that would take a team of experts months, maybe even years, to figure out. Whether he learned it from the big boss, or taught it to him, I’ll never know. And I don’t care. All I know is he was always the signature feature of the bosses’ staff before, after, and during the war. He had the final say of reviewing the numbers. Still he was one of those shit eating grin people, whose idea of a big night out, would be an annual bender on three Sombreros, that did not exactly inspire respect or fear. Wariness, yes, fear, never. Besides, the night shift was definitely way past his bed time. But not for the head cashier, and her best buddies in the office, who actually shuffled the paper Before it got to the accountant. And counted the tills. These are the people you need to cultivate, to care, and feed. And to flirt with. Why not? All’s fair in love and war. Spies in the house of love.
Finally, there is the house band. Ah yes, the joys and perils of local talent and an extremely smart guy who put the band together and runs the show. A guy who hates phony big shots almost as much as you do.
As the main guy on the bar, the boss trusts you to pay the guy every Saturday night. In cash, of course. Ed, our band leader, and I have a very good relationship: he’s in it for the money, this is nice steady, local, gig he has complete control over. Still neither of us can stand the bossman. So you level with Ed. You tell him things, things told to you in secret, that you aren’t suppose to share (though it is never explicitly said you shouldn’t). Like the boss’s play to bring in some cut rate, asshole Tom Jones wannabe, for a New Year’s Eve gig. Ed and the boys have been on unpaid vacation and the boss wants them off for another week, which they plan to use to rehearse some new material. So I say, “Why not rehearse on stage?” And, “Think of this way: you get to screw that cretin entertainer, who no one likes, out of a job. You get to stick it to the boss. And you get to make your nut for the week. Plus free, cheap champagne at midnight. Works for everybody, right?” Sure does. Ed liked my style. Good man.
Still you must not completely neglect the care and feeding of the boss. This is the guy who assumes you would never stand up to him or contradict anything he says, or most inconceivable of all, disrespect him. You have a family. You need this job. Almost as much as he needs you. Bottom line, he thinks: you would never shit the shitter.
He once told you never to assume anything, so you don’t. If he lays down a specific policy, even one you know, ten minutes later, he probably forgot, you follow it without question. The more ridiculous and harmful, the better. And when he asks you, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” You tell him the truth, “What you told me to do. Never assume anything.” There is no rebuttal possible. As manager/owner, he is never wrong.
Working for charismatic owners is always like this: capricious, whimsical and nonsensical, depending on their moods. Sometimes all three at the same time. Regardless of how successful they are or aren’t. It is the mood that is paramount. Wife number three wants a kid, or, you drove through the electronic garage door for the fourth time, because you were preoccupied and thought it was open, resulting in expensive damage: bad moods, bad policy decisions. Everyday something. Always.
Now, when someone asks you. “Name one thing you like about Trump?” You say, “He doesn’t drink.” Seriously. Imagine if he did.... I can. I worked for guys who did drink and man what a mess that was. And guess who they expect to clean up after, “stuff said when drunk”? “Who said that?” “You did, Boss.” “I didn’t. No way.” Yeah you did. I have witnesses.” Even if you have it on tape, he won’t believe you. The boss is never wrong.
Most of all you have to humor him. “Right, Boss.” works great. He says something, no matter how stupid, how fast it goes through one ear and out the other, how you never intend in a million years to even think about what he said, “Right, Boss”. He says, “Don’t let me catch you giving those underage bus boy beers.” “Right, Boss.”
So you don’t. You open a beer, leave it on the service bar, wander away from the area, and tell the kid there is a pick up on the service bar and they go get it. After awhile you don’t even have to tell them, they just know. You really never know when you might need one of those kids. The primary function of bar backs and bus boys is to sneak outside for a smoke. I also know that they have seen important shit out there. Like my supposedly crippled barmaid, sprinting through the parking lot after I fired her. Or the boss snogging the new size 8 waitress in the parking lot. They will tell you stuff.
And sometimes there are fights (Yes Virginia even top ten rated restaurants have fights. In fact, the worst two incidents, involving ER visits, in my checkered career, happened in “Nice Places”. Never in the last twenty-five years, often working alone, at night, in a rowdy bar, where different rules apply. No Mr. Nice Guy there.) Like that massive state trooper brawl. Amazing how much two different Troop HQ’s hate each other. Anyway, when it came to blows, I don’t know where I ‘d be without those bus boys on the floor.
Never forget dishwashers either. It’s the worst job, by far, in The Biz. Maybe his name is Jose, or Juan or Eddie, you find out, you remember, and make sure you greet them every time you see them and ask after the family. Dishwashers are people too. Even Elmer, the professional dishwasher who worked the Florida-New York circuit and wore cashmere cardigans after work. At least, I think Elmer was a person. He was a hell of a dishwasher, I’ll say that for him. Weird but good. Maybe even great.
Jose turned out to be neighbor too. Nice guy. Good connection. “Be nice to everyone you meet on the way up, you never know who’ll you meet on the way down.” So said Johnny F., former business owner and part time banquet bartender, who took me under his wing when we were working the banquet circuit. Man, what a fount of information, and Albany dirt, that man was. Some of which came in very handy down the line. I could tell you stories.
As with most charismatic leader in the biz (any biz) he has ADD, a pre-twitter attention span, of one short sentence with no adjectives in it. Knowing this can come in useful. Especially when you have something of a CYA (cover your ass) nature to tell him. Like you discovered, by accident, a way to make the soda dispensers stop working with a swift, well-placed kick, and you might really want to do something about it (knowledge that comes in handy when you decide to quit, with no notice, after locking the money in the safe, locking the back doors, and dropping the keys through the mail slot with a See ya! message attached to them.)
You can play a kind of ADD/CYA game for the inherent amusement factor it can bring one of the participants. You can string together several sentences, towards the end of which is valuable business-related information he won’t be listening to, as he ogles the young female “action” on the dance floor and later, you can say, truthfully, when he asks, “But I told you all about it.” And cite day, hour, and minute when you did so. He will disavow all knowledge, of course, but whose fault is it that he didn’t listen?
The bottom line is: The Prince is the first How to Guide. It is not my place to implement this, but this is how to do it if you want to rule absolutely and with impunity. The Prince/Boss is paramount, the author, in this case, Machiavelli, is the servant. In Theory. On paper.
This is the lesson Steve Bannon failed to learn as the Trump Whisperer: the ruler is absolute, but the role of the advisor, no matter how important, is to serve. Clearly Bannon understood the power vacuum and how to fill the ideological gaps. He got himself appointed to the NSC knowing the president would not read the executive order so decreeing it. And he was right, Trump didn’t. (He doesn’t read anything. if he did he would see the handwriting on the wall and resign, if only just to get it over with. And, perhaps, lessen his jail time.) Though Bannon’s tenure on the NSC was relatively brief, and noted for the animosity he created, is one thing. That he got himself appointed was another.
Through a fatal combination of hubris, lack of institutional knowledge, and personality flaws, Bannon over-estimated his importance and his power. (It doesn’t take a genius to know: it’s easy to blow things up. It is difficult to make them work for you.) There is only one spotlight on the world stage and it must shine on the chief Narcissist at all times. Getting fired is one thing, but shooting your mouth off in front of a tell-all reporter is another. And the stupidest move of all. Once you’ve walked the plank there are no do overs if the high dive doesn’t work.
I have been accused of having the world’s worst bad attitude as a sub-ordinate. I plead guilty as charged. I went to war with my boss and “I won.” I told no one but my handpicked helpers who worked with me behind the bar. We kept our collective mouths shut. The war went on and on and on and on until there was no more reason to fight. I quit a month before the place went under and the mob took over and reopened the four locations as Laundromats. How did I know they were mob figures: I was there when they showed up, that is arrived in black caddy limos with New Jersey plates, wearing black striped suits and waltzed in with violin cases. (Okay, the last two are a slight exaggeration. But only slightly.)
Ultimately, the question is why the war? Why this bad attitude? It’s more than being a misfit, which I was, and still am. It was about the six, out of my nine years (at the time), working life, doing a slave’s bidding, at ridiculously low wages (got to keep payroll down the owners’ mantra in the Biz) for the man I ultimately turned against. Initially, he treated me in such a way that you could mistake his attitude for friendship. That is, if you were foolish enough not to realize, men like him don’t have friends, they have people they associate with and subordinates. And people he fucks.
The signs that the Empire is dissembling are unmistakable. (sort of like the Trump presidency on a localized scale). I can say, with confidence, that when liquor deliveries go to cash only, your place of business is on the way out. Besides I had witnessed, previously, firsthand, the place I remained behind at, that The Boss had managed prior to “buying” his little restaurant, (from where he was fired, as in don’t even clear you desk, just leave fired,) go down in flames. You tend to pay close attention when yours, and your families livelihood, depends on your job.
And then there was that little matter of self-respect. Here you are, every Saturday night doing stuff that no one else could do behind a bar. Crazy wired on adrenaline (no speed, Virginia, as had been suggested) focused as if on a mission. I used to psyche myself up by watching the bombing run at the end of Apocalypse Now! before I came to work then pace like an unchained beast, behind the bar, to get the blood flowing before the rush started. Whatever works, right? It all felt like a battle to me and I hate to lose.
Try waiting on roughly 250 or so people with a full-service bar, for eight or nine hours, and then have someone walk in as you take your first breather in three and half hours and he says “You need some help?” As in think you can handle it?
That the boss is the worst bartender in the world, only good for getting in your way, and making your job twice as difficult, is one thing. Another is telling him. The Boss can do everything better than anyone else. It’s a given. So you look at him, blow a long thin stream of smoke in his general direction and say, “I got it.” And the money man at the bar laugh so The Boss says, “We know everyone here, set everyone up with a drink.” That would mean about 30 people at the time. He never had done that previously in three years and he never would do again in the next year. Everything would have to stop while I do it too. Completely. If that wasn’t the key to the new rules of engagement, I wouldn’t have done it. But it is my war now, my field of battle.
So I do. I make those drinks even if no one wants them. At least four people in The Biz leave after refusing the drinks. Lost business all around. Not my problem. They tipped extra well that night.
I made the drinks, declared war, and wrote the round up as A&P, which I never did when he bought drinks. He had to explain those to the money guys. A little birdie told me that.
Power is a drug. And using it is addictive. As with all addictive stuff, ultimately it destroys the user unless he lets the addiction go.
It was all fun for awhile, then it wasn’t.