On the Floor of Greens
2 - Hard Work, Low Pay
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Hard Work, Low Pay
"One super deluxe double mocha cobweb-breaker for one hung-over maitre de hotel." With a sweeping gesture Terry handed me a glass cup which I took by the handle and held before my eyes.
"Beautiful," I said frowning and squinting and tongued a nip off the whipped cream spiral roof. It was just a tiny bit of a hangover. I'd been up late playing music in Liz's Bolinas studio - an hour plus of fast driving on mostly winding two lane roads. Mainly I was sleep deprived, or, as we used to say, sleepy. Tasting the mix of whipped cream, chocolate, milk, espresso, nutmeg, and cinnamon, I sighed and felt a satisfying rush of caffeine clearing up the old noodle. It was a gray San Francisco Tuesday with lots of big parties to stuff the tables and make it all the busier. I'd had some coffee a few hours earlier when I'd arrived at 8:59 to answer the phones at nine. After a while I'd gotten the urge for some tobacco. I didn't buy, just bummed, and I knew that Bruce's Drum would be upstairs ready to roll. But the lines would ring as soon as they were free.
The bookkeeper upstairs would cover the business line but no one but me could do the reservation lines so I had to tie them up. To do this I'd have to dial one line with the other and put them both on hold. Ah - too late. A ring. After a few failures I finally got through, put them both on hold, and zipped through the kitchen up the stairs to the employees lounge where I found Bruce's drum waiting for me in the pocket of his coat hanging on a brass hook inside the men's room. A fellow employee eyed me with curiosity as I reached into the pocket. Down the stairs out the back way I lit up, drew some smoke to the bottom of my toes till the nicotine dinged in my brain. Then I lay the long expertly rolled remainder into a niche in the wall near the base of the front door where I could get back to it later, zipped inside, took the phones off hold, they both started ringing and it was back to "Greens. Will you hold please?"
Now it was almost four hours later, we were well into the day's second generation of guests, and deep into the relaxation of a micro break I leaned on the walnut slab that separated Terry and me, took another sip of the mocha, peered deeply into the grain and forgot the restaurant and my responsibilities for a few seconds.
Sometimes when I stood by the counter of the beverage bar I'd look at it and remember the ordeal of acquiring that four inch thick slice of swirling bole. This counter was made from a ten foot long slab of walnut that I'd gotten from a friend's back yard on January first 1974. Emma Bragdon, an old Suzuki Roshi student who became a therapist and wrote a book called Spiritual Emergence, had a place way up in Lake county and she said I could have the thick trunk that lay in the back yard of her country place. I went there with a couple of woodworking friends after purchasing an $80 chain for their two he-man saw which they would use to rip it into planks. On the first cut we hit a thumb-thick spike in the tree the length of which the chain caught full on. If the chain had hit the spike at a perpendicular angle it would have cut through it and just been badly dulled. Not realizing what was happening, my wood butcher buddies pushed the grinding chain into the cut harder then harder and every single bit was completely worn off in a matter of seconds. That was the end of that chain and that day's work. This is why most mills won't do custom jobs from trees in people's yards - they've often got metal and even worse, porcelain from electrical insulators. Later my friends went back without me, slabbed it all up, and took their share.
Then my recently arrived fellow student Bruce Fortin, who'd been hippie guru Steve Gaskin's lawyer at The Farm in Tennessee, and I drove several hours up to Emma's back yard in a Green Gulch truck to get what was left. The unforeseen problem was that the still wet slabs were so extremely heavy we couldn't lift them, couldn't even lift one end. We tried to pry an end up and used ropes and leverage and finally we got the smallest piece on the truck. In the process Bruce had thrown his back out. We scouted around for help from neighbors or local businesses but no one was around as it was New Year's Day. Exhausted and beaten and, in Bruce's case in pain, we drove back discouraged with our one catch - all there was to show for two long drives up there. Maybe we went back and got the rest - I can't remember - but here that first slab was at Greens which to me had made it all worth it.
Running the beverage bar was one of the most independent, pivotal, compact, and neatest jobs in the restaurant. It was a nexus of interesting action. A good friend and dharma buddy named Terry Gragg worked in there busily making espressos, pouring glasses of primo wine, and getting desserts from the bakery counter on glass plates to place on the walnut counter for waiters to glide away with on trays or twixt fingers. Like me, like a lot of us in the restaurant (and if you're not like this you shouldn't be there), Terry thrived on hard, demanding work which had to be done quickly while adding new orders to his mental list which he never seemed to loose track of. To us, jobs like that are only not fun when it slows down. Everyone in the whole restaurant was busy and worked hard and fast but they were dealing with customers or with food prep. Terry was dealing with all of us all day - the kitchen as well as the waiters, bussers, and me. And we were all demanding. You had to be especially concentrated and efficient to work there. Terry was a generally easy-going fellow, though a little rough and impatient on the edges, but worldly wise, and with a bit of a sharp tongue for BS
One day I was at the bar getting some comp wine for six guests who were patiently waiting twenty minutes after their reservation time (that's too too long), and as Terry filled the glasses, he said to me, "Look at that new guy over there on that table you're dying for."
"Oh god," I said, delivered the wine with assurances that the table would be ready in a moment, and went over to their not yet ready table.
The pace of the restaurant was at times at odds with a Zen student worker's idea of how to apply their Zen practice to work - especially with new students. Sometimes a new person would show up to work and they'd usually be asked to buss. That's the only thing they could do with a quick orientation. We'd all be going at it and then like on this day I'd look over to see the fledgling carefully placing each knife, fork, spoon, and napkin on a table - positioning each one mindfully and unrushed, pleased to be working in a Zen restaurant where the worries of the world could be forgotten, spaced out, blissed out, each movement a timeless union with the infinite, every object Buddha, every instant an opportunity for enlightenment. I went over to the nice young fellow and said, " Hi."
He turned to me, actually took time out to bow, and said, "Hi.".
"Bert," I said (we'd met earlier), and then running my words together, "thanks for trying to do such a good careful job but if you work at that pace we'll start falling even more behind on reservations and people will be mad at us which means me so I'd like to ask you a big favor. Please forget about Zen and mindfulness and doing things in a Zen way. Just work as fast as you possibly can without breaking anything. Okay?"
He looked at me confused, almost heartbroken.
"In most Japanese Zen temples," I said picking up the utensils and setting them fast and straight while talking, "They do everything at unbelievable speeds. It really drives Westerners who go there to study crazy. We're not Japanese but in this case their way works well." By the time it had sunk in I had finished setting the table. I clapped my hands to wake him up, kissed him on the cheek . "Good luck and have fun." Then I walked quickly back to get the waiting party. On the way, Terry caught my eye. He was smiling and ever so slowly polishing a glass as a waiter stood waiting, wondering what the heck he was stalling for.
Terry and I would interact 100 times in a day - kidding around quickly in the tiny spaces between duty. Like me, Terry was a priest in the ZC who didn't do anything very priestly anymore. We were still Zen students who wore our robes to zazen and services, but we weren't involved with or interested in too much of the hard core Zen stuff anymore like being at the monastery or doing priestly jobs around the zendo and Buddha Hall. Some full time students who'd rather not were working at Greens because they'd been told it was their practice now. Some were complaining they couldn't work the hard long hours at the restaurant and go to all the zazen they wanted to, or that they'd rather be working in the fields at the farm or in the office at the city. Not Terry and me. We loved working at Greens. It was great action. We weren't the only ones Most of us enjoyed it I think. When we were all zipping along together and the customers were happy, it was a high. And we were helping to support Zen Center. From the day we'd started the first practice period at Tassajara, arguably the first Buddhist monastery in the Western world, and residential full time practice was first begun in our group, work was central to our practice. We were part of the tradition started in the ninth century in China (whose denizens, unlike India, didn't appreciate begging) by Biazhang who instituted the revolutionary policy of having his monks grow their own food and who proclaimed, "A day of no work is a day of no food."
Ten minutes later Terry was making a decaf espresso and I was checking with a line of people, some who had reservations and some who didn't, and then a waiter came up and said that table six was ready and I called for Schwartz and the four of them got up from the cushioned bench and followed me to their table where I put their menus down where their plates would go, paused, and realized that the stainless-ware was all askew, so I went around and straightened it up while discovering that they'd come from the Oakland hills over the Bay Bridge, bid them have a good time, stood long enough to acknowledge their thank yous and turned around to go back to my central spot by the sculpture. Terry was raising his eyebrows and pointing with a nod of his head to the new busser Bert and I saw him setting a table like there was no two minutes from now. The poor guy couldn't stop thinking about what he was supposed to be doing Zen-wise. First it was Zen slow and now it's Zen frenzy and the reason for the latter I surmised half by looking at the twisted sincerity on his face and his frantic movements was that he'd switched from a studied mindfulness to a mindless obedience to an elder.
"You still have to do a perfect job," I said following him quickly spacing the utensils evenly and parallel. I caught Dan going by. Dan was a waiter who had lived in a Rinzai Zen temple in Japan for a year and a half when he was a teenager and had been with Zen Center since we started Tassajara. He was ordained by Suzuki Roshi. He had elegance and mindfulness and speed and brotherly kindness. "You know Bert?"
"Yeah. We met this morning." His tone said he had a second or two and I would have all of him for that long.
"Keep an eye on him please."
Bert looked at me then at Dan. Dan pointed at him with a wink. "You'll be better than David before the day is out. Twenty-one is getting up now. And he was off.
"Twenty-one?" said Bert. I pointed to the big table in front of us at the window.
"Yeah," I said looking at my clipboard. "For eight. I'll get you help." This was more than corporate Zen. I knew this business was going to knock a lot of Zen shit out of Bert real quick.
Back to the people waiting to be greeted. Connell for eight at one was now a ten. Mrs. Connell apologized. She'd tried to call but the line was busy. "No problem," I told her looking at the long table by the window next to where the divider would go if it were there. "Bert's on it. He's one of our best." Then with a tone of hesitancy, "There's a fifteen percent surcharge for parties over eight."
"That's fine of course."
"It's in addition to the tip."
"That's very understandable," she nodded smiling. All she wanted was for it to go smoothly.
"Hi. Welcome. It won't be long," I said craning my neck to catch the eyes of her party. All smiles.
I go up to a busser who's just finished clearing a table and ask her to help Bert make it a party of ten and get the extra table from the back to add to it. Into the kitchen to warn Debby. They hate large parties in the kitchen - too many dishes to be done at once. Debby's at the side table. She grits her teeth when I tell her. "We've got three sixes going now! I keep telling you not to take so many big parties at once and don't seat them so fast!" She looks at me fiercely while she chops parsley in sixty-fourth notes. I have two thoughts. 'How can she cut that fast?' and 'That could be me.' Her face softens. "Tell them we might be slow with their order."
"They'll wait all day for you."
She returns her attention to the parsley or I should say full attention because she never did stop. I turn back toward the door to see the other cooks and helpers cutting, stirring, serving up, giving each other minimally worded messages, putting a hot frying pan upside down on the pot sink counter with a hot pad on it which is a sign it's hot. Every time I look at them I'm in awe. They really have no time to bullshit. I do not mess with these people cause if I do I get bitten. The folks on the floor have got to be on their toes but these guys are in an even higher gear. The waiters are in and out giving orders, picking up plates to serve. There's little small talk. It's like two worlds meeting - the cooks and the waiters - each with different gears running. But here they mesh. I've already overstayed my welcome. I'm outa there.
Three thirty. The last few tables will be empty soon. It's Thursday, there's no dinner setup, but we've got a lot of clean up because there's a wine tasting starting in a moment and that takes away people from cleanup. Terry's spiffing up the espresso machine. He puts a glass of Shalone Chardonnay up for me. It's the best - thirty dollars a bottle. "This was left over from that big party. They left three quarters of this bottle. Can you believe it?" He takes a sip out of his glass and I mine. It's divine.
Shalone is down in Monterey County. It's owned by Dick Graff. He's our main wine advisor which he does as a favor because he loves Greens and Zen Center and Dick Baker. And he's coming to today's tasting. I help Karin, the original head manager, set up the rows of wine glasses for the tasting for eight members of the wine committee. I'm not one of them. I opted out saying I'm not fit for that type of discrimination; I'd rather depend on the waiters to tell people about the wine, and I'm too indulgent to institutionalize that much wine sipping at one time once a week. Some but not all of the wine committee spit a lot of it out into little buckets. I couldn't do that - I'd be asking for more to make sure of my opinion. They don't want me there anyway. "Thank you for helping David," says Karin, "You can have your wine with Terry. ONE glass." She's a great manager. She's got my number and along with her assistant, Rene, knows how to keep me in line. Strict but kind as the Japanese say.
Dick Graff comes in. He's polished, friendly, and high strung at the same time. He's into astrology which isn't a big deal at the Zen Center. Lot's of people were into it before they came but there's no support for that sort of interpreting or divining in our practice. But Dick isn't a Zennie. He and his friend Paul Hawken, one of Zen Center's main business advisors, are hog wild about the upcoming line up of the planets and all the impact it's going to have on world history and have even gotten Baker Roshi to listen to them talk about it's significance in Baker's ongoing salon over at his apartment next door to the city center. So I ask Graff what's happening with all that and we have a nice chat till Karin comes to take him away and return me to help getting the place cleaned up.
Dick Graff gave all of the original floor staff a one hour or so wine seminar before we first opened. When a new restaurant opens, at least a posh place like this, they always have experienced staff. Nobody on our staff had more than a smattering of professional restaurant experience - mainly just the informal Tassajara guest season dining room and the communal meals at our centers. Dick Graff was one of the top guns in the gourmet food business gave us a lot of good tips.
Dick had shown us how to open a wine bottle. He pulled a stainless corkscrew from his pocket and held it before us. "This is a waiter's standard corkscrew," he said. "None of you should be without it." He opened out the knife blade, deftly cut the lead wrapper from the top, put the blade back in, then snapped out the corkscrew. He pointed out that it had no shaft - like a winding staircase. He said that's the only type we should use. Corkscrews with a shaft tend to damage the cork. The types with the two prongs are less dependable. He demonstrated how full to fill the wine glasses - about two thirds. They were large but the amount that went in them was the same as if they'd been small and filled to the top - four glasses to a bottle. It's garish to fill them to the top. He showed us how to hold the glass - only touching the stem so as not to leave any fingerprints on the bowl and not to warm it up with finger heat. That's the way you serve it and that's the way it's supposed to be held when drinking as well. He showed us how to inspect the cork and told us why [?]. Then he made a point that would come in handy in the future. When we pour a little in a glass to taste, it is solely to see if the wine has turned to vinegar. You can't return wine because you don't like it - only because it's gone bad. For the next two years I would see people, mainly men, try to impress their party by taking a taste of the wine and then pronouncing that it wasn't up to snuff. With various degrees of pomp and thoughtfulness they'd ask the waiter to take it back. Getting a new glass from the bar, the waiter would ascertain that the wine had not gone bad which due to modern corking methods it hardly ever does anymore, and would gently appraise the customer of it's passing condition, possibly explaining the general rule on the subject. Frequently I'd be called over to do the latter bit of informing or to mediate. However, we always took it back. Why not? We want customers to be happy. We could always use it. If it was on the menu to be served by the glass it would just go to the beverage bar and if we didn't, which meant it was surely a superior one, it would go back by the dishwashing area and those who were so inclined would drink it at the end of the day. So we'd let them save face by taking it back but would slip in the rule so they probably wouldn't play that game again. Really, the customer is always - well almost always - right. That way they have a good time and come back and send their friends.
Terry and I took off our pressed white shirts and dark pants and changed into our regular slob garb. Occasionally we did something together after work and that day we were going to see Taxi Driver which had come out a couple of years earlier.
He took out his wallet to count his money as we walked out the back door at the loading dock.
"Don't worry, my treat tonight," I said.
"You stole tips," he said, "that's what you're gonna pay with right? Thief monk!"
"Yes you did. Lying thief monk."
"No. But heck man, I only make three fifty an hour."
"Blasphemous, lying, thief monk! That's more than anybody else makes. Take it back. I'll pay."
"No. Don't worry about it. I don't take much from the tips. Rarely, like when I want to go out and I don't have enough."
"It's not right. I know some people do it but that's no excuse. Most people here wouldn't think of doing that. I say if you want tips go work in the real world."
"Oh god, come on. That's too harsh man. If we work here all day like this we ought to be able to go see a movie. And have a pizza and some bear afterwards," I added.
"How much did you take?"
"Twenty." He stopped and looked at me. "Criminal, blasphemous, lying, hypocrite, thief monk. Last time?"
We walked on. I remembered when we'd first discussed tips at a general staff meeting before we opened. There were a half dozen of the Zen Center officers and about thirty of us from the restaurant staff - about evenly divided between men and women. It was a very serious discussion led by the president of ZC. What should we do about tips he asked? Should the waiters keep them, share them with others at the restaurant, or should we share them with the other people who worked for Zen Center businesses who didn't get tips, or with everyone who works for Zen Center, or should it go to the Zen Center general fund, or what? There were passionate arguments made for each of these options. It went on quite a while. It had gotten down to a fight between keep them ourselves and sharing them with the others who work for the businesses though it looked like the former would win a vote. Terry was sitting next to me and occasionally we'd eye each other We knew something and we didn't have to say what it was to each other. But Terry said it to the whole group.
"You're not going to get any tips," he started off. That got everybody's attention. "You think you're deciding here what's going to happen? This meeting is just to make us feel good - feel like we're part of the decision making process. If we decide here to keep the tips - whether we share them or not - then we'll go to bed thinking that we've made that decision and tomorrow we're going to come to work and hear from Karin who heard from Ed who'd talked with Baker Roshi or whoever, that they appreciate our concerns but that they've decided that the tips will go into the general fund. Remember the first rule of Zen Center: 'What Zen Center giveth, Zen center taketh away.'" That got a few chuckles. He went on. "Now the purpose of this restaurant is to support Zen Center. We're not here to make money for ourselves - not more than a stipend. We're here to practice Zen which means that we're here to be poor." Everyone stared at Terry with even more serious faces. They did not like what they heard. Someone started to say something but Terry cut them off. "Wait," he said. "We do have some clout in this situation though. We've got it right now and this is the only time we'll have it. Today. That's it. We can suggest that the tips go toward student bonuses at the end of the year - all students. Everyone will know we've decided this and it would have a chance to pass. But that's the best we could hope for. Give it up now and you'll have a good chance to give it some direction. Take it for ourselves and it will be taken away."
Heads nodded, people realized the wisdom of what he'd said, but when the hands were counted the majority of staff still voted for us to keep the tips. The next day Karin informed us that Baker Roshi and the a few officers had decided that that wasn't fair to the rest of the people who worked for Zen Center. The money would go to the general fund. A few people were pissed as they could be and grumbles could be heard throughout the day, but we all went along with it. There were so many fringe benefits to being there like, however feebly, we were trying to work together as part of our practice of awakening, we were helping to establish Buddhism in America, and regardless of the third-world wages we were having one heck of a time.