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On the Floor of Greens

10 - Mr. Johnson

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Mr. Johnson

Some people present a problem in terms of finding the good in them. In such a case, a little ingenuity may help.

A man named Mr. Johnson started coming to Greens every weekday for lunch. He looked to be in his fifties, was a little overweight, and wore expensive hand-tailored suits. I knew that because Renee said so. He was always accompanied by a pleasant, young brunette woman. Like a character in a movie, every day he would arrive at the same time and order the same thing - spinach salad - with cold olive oil instead of hot. At first I had to plead with the kitchen workers, who did not like to make substitutions, to make that exception for him. Mr. Johnson and his friend and I would have a few polite words every day. He'd often talk about money. He'd say things like, "I made seventeen thousand dollars today." One day he wagged his index finger at me to come closer, pulled an envelope out of his inner breast pocket, and withdrew a shiny gem.

"You know what this is?" he asked.

"A diamond?" I answered.

"Yep. It's worth twenty thousand dollars."


"This is what I earned today."


"Now you're a bright young fellow. Why do you waste your time working in a restaurant when you could be making money like this?"

On another day Mr. Johnson was talking to me when Gordon, the buyer, walked up. Mr. Johnson started in on his favorite topic of how much money he was making and how he'd like to help us to make big money like him.

"There's a lot of easy investment money to be made out there," he said. "How much can you guys come up with? Can you get five thousand dollars? Give me five thousand dollars tomorrow and I'll give you ten thousand back the next day and you'll be on the road to being rich like me. If I don't make ten thousand in a day, I feel like it's a wasted day. Now why are you screwing around here when you could be rich like me."

"Gee, I don't know. That's a lot of money. What do you think, Gordon?"

"I wouldn't know what to do with that much money."

"Me either," I said.

"I make more money here than I need," said Gordon.

"Yeah," I said. "I get three-fifty an hour! I'm the highest paid person here. I'm actually setting some aside to buy a new pair of shoes."

"Come-on guys," he said, "Get serious. Don't be a couple of saps."

But he couldn't get anywhere with us. We just teased him any time he'd try to get us to take his money talk seriously. He couldn't get anywhere with anyone - none of the waiters, nor Tom the cashier, nor the managers Renee and Karin. He had become a fixture in the restaurant and we joked about him, that is until the day Alice Waters saw him across the room. I didn't realize what was happening at first. I just saw Alice start to cry.

It turns out that Mr. Johnson had been making a living out of conning upscale restaurant workers in the Bay Area out of their savings. Or maybe he just did that on the side to keep in shape. He’d get a few people in a place to invest a small amount, double it, then when they gave him a large amount he’d come back with the bad news. Some people had lost a lot of money to him. One of the best known gourmet cooks in the area had lost what he'd saved to start a new restaurant - a hundred and fifty grand or more. Mr. Johnson was coming to Greens every day because he was in federal court being tried on multiple counts of fraud. At the next staff meeting the topic of Mr. Johnson was discussed. Some said we should not let him come back to Greens, that we can't be serving criminals, especially criminals who have defrauded our friends out of their life savings. Gordon, however, rose to Mr. Johnson's defense.

"I think we should continue to serve Mr. Johnson," he said.

"How can you say that," replied a senior staff member who was close to some who had lost money to him.

"We're open to the public, to anyone who behaves themselves here."

"He's a crook." she countered.

"Still, he hasn't been convicted of anything I know of. Think of us like a church. Do we reject sinners? Maybe it helps him to come here."

"He's tried to con us," a server brought up. "He's tried over and over."

"And he got nowhere," Gordon said. " People here either said no thanks or joked with him. We're the naïve bumpkins of the gourmet world and the poorest ones, but no one here fell for his line. Maybe cause no one had enough savings, maybe cause we weren’t smart enough, and maybe because we weren’t greedy."

Mr. Johnson was allowed to continue eating at Greens. I would talk to him briefly every day and he'd still try to con me but I'd just tease him as would Gordon if he happened to be around. I told Mr. Johnson he wasn't going to get any money out of us. "We're a non profit," I said. "We're going to get money out of you."

From some sort of perverse machinations going on my little brain, I actually got Mr. Johnson to meet with the president of ZC about how to come up with the cash to get another big room at Fort Mason in order to start a bookstore. And then I started to work on Mr. Johnson to give money to it. It really put him off his normal balance. I figured if Don Corleone could be a Catholic then Mr. Johnson could be a Buddhist sympathizer. Redemption springs eternal in the human breast.

Then one day Gordon and I got an idea. There was a young Cambodian Buddhist working in the restaurant, not a Zen student, but a Buddhist a friend of ZC had asked us to hire. She was going to college and trying to save up enough money to bring her mother over. She needed about five grand to do it. Gordon and I were standing by the sculpture and talking about how to help her to get the money when Mr. Johnson walked in. We just looked at each other and the plan awakened in us simultaneously.

"Oh so good to see you, Mr. Johnson," said Gordon, sounding as sincere as could be. He proceeded to tell our nefarious guest that we had reconsidered his offer. Mr. Johnson stayed longer that day because Gordon and I kept finding the time to get to his table to discuss the terms of the investment. We made a point that a lot of the other people in the restaurant were excited about his offer, but were timid about putting their money up. "We know you," Gordon said. "We trust you. We're a conservative group that takes time to decide things. Let us break the ice. You say you can turn five thousand into ten in one day. Prove it."

We agreed we'd give him the money on the following day. He insisted on cash. That day after work, Gordon and I drove to his bank where he withdrew, unknown to his wife, five thousand dollars. We agreed that if something went wrong that I'd assume half of the burden, but we really didn't think that we were taking a chance. The next day, Mr. Johnson came by in the morning, Gordon followed him to his car, and gave him an envelope with five thousand dollars of cash in it. Mr. Johnson drove off. Then Gordon and I began to sweat.

The hours wore on and still no Mr. Johnson. The time for his usual lunch passed, and Gordon and I looked at each other nervously. Just before we stopped serving, Mr. Johnson returned with his young friend and had his spinach salad and she her usual brochettes. I got Gordon and Mr. Johnson smiled broadly and asked us if we could guess what had happened that day. We said we didn't know and looked at him apprehensively. "Come to the car," he said.

I was still on the floor and couldn't get out of there so Gordon went with him. Five minutes later Gordon nodded for me to come to the store room with him. I went in and he pulled out an envelope with ten thousand dollars cash. That afternoon we went to the bank and deposited it. The next day he gave the Cambodian woman a cashiers check for five thousand dollars.

Every weekday after that Mr. Johnson asked where all the other investors were and we kept saying we were working on it. He got quite irritated insisting he’d come through for us and now we should come through for him. One day he stopped coming. Soon after that we learned that he had committed suicide. Later that day, I happened to be in the restaurant where the famous cook worked, the one who'd lost his nest egg to Mr. Johnson. He was sitting with his staff around a table during the pre dinner lull. I told him Mr. Johnson had taken his own life and he said he hoped Mr. Johnson rotted in hell.

Gordon and I did a short private ceremony for Mr. Johnson in which we offered him spinach with cold olive oil and prayed that he work out all his twisted karma wherever he might be.