Monday, November 30, 2009

Forward

The Humbug Bistro is a fictional novel by me, Heather Spoonheim, based on my experiences in opening a restaurant in a small town. Although many of the events are based on those experiences, they are altered with a great deal of creative license. All characters are either entirely fictitious or are composites modified for the purpose of the storyline. The final manuscript chapters follow below, and you can read through by simply clicking on 'older posts' at the bottom of each page to continue.


The infamous working chapters are now being removed.

Introduction

In 2007 I was living in Cuspidor, Alberta, running a lucrative home based business brokering large volume purchases of plastic for a large group of small buyers. That short description may seem enough to bore anyone to sleep, but there is no superlative to describe the day to day dreariness that was my life. I had had enough and was looking for a way out so I made some plans, sold my business and my home, and prepared to set out on a new adventure.

To make a long story short, my plans fell apart in a rather apocalyptic failure that left me with no place to go just three days before I had to vacate the home I had sold. Finding myself on a friend’s sofa, I began to re-contemplate my future and flailed about until, through a series of even more unusual events, I set about to convert a small town coffee shop into a restaurant. That was when the short story became very long.

When I say ‘small town coffee shop’, I’m certain the average reader envisions some sort of diner with chrome framed chairs upholstered in faded blue or red vinyl and a dining area of black and white checkered tiles. On the contrary, however, this place was indeed a modern coffee house with contrasting wood finish for the floors, front serving counter, and table tops. It had matte black framed chairs upholstered in black vinyl and walls painted in autumn colours. It was located in the town of Humbug, just 60 miles west of Cuspidor, and was appropriately called The Humbug Coffee House.

The financials of the business were a mess, although not nearly as ravaged as the owner. I contemplated if his nerve-wracked state was the result of sleepless nights worrying about a failing business or perhaps more influenced by long days fueled on espresso; I decided that it could only have been induced by a combination of both. It was obvious that a small town like Humbug just couldn’t support a specialty coffee house and I felt that switching the location over to a food venue might generate viable sales.

Only fifteen years earlier I had sworn that I would never work in a kitchen again. I hoped, however, that by sticking to a very simple daily menu with limited selections that I could avoid the nightmares of short order work and focus on showcasing some simple, freshly prepared, hearty meals. What I encountered, though, was an experience so bizarre that I often found myself looking around for hidden cameras – hoping beyond all hope that I had been cruelly selected as the mark on some merciless new hidden camera reality show. Every small town has its quirks, but I swear I must have chosen the quirkiest little village in Canada.

I cannot lament the long hours or the hard work, for that is to be expected of any new business – especially in the food service industry. On the other hand, I would like to advise the reader that if ever you should be at a potluck and receive the compliment, “Oh, you’re such a great cook, you should open a restaurant,” please feel free, without hesitation, to turn to the person that just uttered those words and punch them straight in the face. I say this because cooking great food is the smallest part of running a restaurant. They may as well have said, “Oh, you made that vest yourself? You should be a child labourer in a third world sweat shop!”

The following pages are my attempt to convey my first foray into the restaurant business.

Main Street

A good old fashioned main street can be hard to find these days – especially in Humbug; for some reason the Humbug powers-that-be opted to keep their Main Street unmarked. I had been very impressed with the pictures I’d received of The Humbug Coffee House and was ecstatic when I found out it was on an old fashioned main street. In only a four block stretch there was just about every type of business that a small town could support, and the coffee house was right smack dab in the middle.

On my first trip to Humbug I encountered a very typical prairie town. The highway ran straight through the middle of it and was cluttered with a variety of fast food franchises, gas stations, and even a big old fashioned green water tower labeled ‘HUMBUG’. My eyes darted about looking for signs directing traffic to ‘downtown’ or ‘city centre’ but before I spotted any I was already departing, as indicated by a very large sign that read, “Auf Wiedersehen”.

Turning back, I began to look at the street signs themselves. The numbers counted down to three, and then after three unmarked streets they mysteriously began to count up from three. Realizing that I had crossed Humbug’s prime meridian, I once again turned back. I crossed one unmarked street and then prepared to turn off the highway to the right, hoping this prime meridian was in fact Main Street. Upon turning I quickly realized I was heading into a residential area but I also spotted a business district in my rear view mirror. With one more reversal of course I was finally headed down Humbug’s Main Street.

It was glorious. The post office was a big old brick building with decorative concrete cornices and corbels that gave it an incredibly officious finish. On other stores, a mish-mash of facades created the impression of an old west town transported to the 1960’s. There was even an intersection with four major Canadian banks occupying each corner. Bundled up people bustled up and down the streets carrying packages and, to my surprise, there weren’t even any parking meters. If there were a heaven, and it had a downtown, then this is exactly what it would look like.

Realizing that I had completely forgotten to look for The Humbug Coffee House, I reversed course yet again. Upon finding it, I hurried in from the cold to find the owner nervously manning the register. His spastic disposition initially made me nervous but I was soon calmed by his joy at realizing I was his potential buyer. I asked him about the lack of signs for Humbug’s downtown and Main Street, but that seemed to be a question that re-aggravated his nervous side so I dropped it.

Over the course of the following months I inquired repeatedly about the clandestine nature of Humbug’s downtown district, only to receive my first lesson in how Humbuggers think outside the brain. I occasionally received an answer that involved a silly little chuckle followed by, “Well everybody knows where downtown is!” I was certain that everyone in Humbug was fully acquainted with the location of their downtown but had immense difficulty understanding how that applied to the rest of the civilized world. The most common response I got was a non-verbal gesture that I came to call the ‘Humbug Huh’.

The Humbug Huh is a perfect pantomime of a dog tilting its head in utter confusion, and Humbuggers always Humbug Huh to the right. Some Humbuggers actually make a small sound in their throat as they do this, a sound I can only describe as, “ah-roo?” There seems to be no way to continue with the same line of conversation once a Humbugger gives you a Humbug Huh, for once their head tilts to the right they assume the personality of an android with dead batteries. They can be rebooted, however, with a quick change in subject or meaningless comment on the weather.

Eventually people in town started to whisper about my inquiries. I should mention here that Humbuggers don’t seem to have very good hearing, as they are almost entirely incapable of whispering. And so it was that everywhere I went I heard raspy voices hissing, “She’s been asking about signs for Main Street!”

After a few months I was approached by one of the town’s leading businessmen, Lyle Duerr, owner of Humbug Hardware. I was vaguely familiar with Lyle because his store was down the street from my soon-to-be restaurant. His expression indicated that he was a bit embarrassed for me, and his lack of eye contact made me self-conscious and left me worrying that I might have toilet paper dragging behind me.

As he closed in, he took a stance next to me and leaned in to speak. In a fatherly tone he said, “Heather, I’ve heard that you’ve been asking around, and I think I need to tell you a little about Humbug.” He held his fist in front of his mouth as though he was about to cough or perhaps was just searching for the right words to keep from embarrassing me further. “You see,” he proceeded, “we really don’t want all those people from the highway coming downtown. This is a small town, and we don’t need a bunch of city folk coming around here shoplifting and passing funny money, if you know what I mean.” He finished with a knowing nod.

I can only describe my feelings at that point as total disbelief. Here was a leading businessman in town telling me that he didn’t want any more traffic in his store. That was the first time I looked around for someone hiding with a camera because I was sure it had to be joke. Lyle, obviously confused by my darting eyes, looked around a bit as well and then gave me a Humbug Huh. He stood motionless and for a moment I thought time itself had stopped. In utter astonishment I just blurted, “You gotta be fucking kidding me!”

Lyle snapped back to life and his expression turned to one of horrific shock. He spun about on one heel and sped away. I had no idea what had just happened. What I didn’t know at that time was that Humbuggers never swear, under any circumstances. Even while in the Humbug Tavern they will only reference the word ‘fuck’ when quoting the words of an outsider, and even then they refer to the word ‘fuck’ as, “the f-bomb.” Needless to say, I still had a lot to learn about Humbug etiquette.

The Purchase

Purchasing The Humbug Coffee House really wasn’t an option. Aside from the financials not being in order, it was a sole proprietorship in a leased location. This meant there was no way to purchase previous losses, leasehold improvements, or delineate the debts of the owner from those of the business. In short, it just plain didn’t exist as a financial entity unto itself.

The only real option was to purchase the equipment after securing an agreement from the building landlord to ensure I would be able to hold the location. There was a lot of great equipment and the furniture was a must-have because it matched the d├ęcor so perfectly. There had to have been a professional decorator involved, but I didn’t want to pry too much since I was really only paying for the equipment and getting it at a steal.

I had hoped that the coffee shop owner, Dave, would want to keep the espresso machine but he wasn’t willing to sell me a stir stick unless I was buying the entire kit and caboodle. The most awkward part of the purchase was the presence of all sorts of third party property, like the art on the walls and a piano that belonged to a local music teacher. I tried pressing Dave for some details about these things but he began to mumble and shake so pathetically that I just didn’t have the heart to demand that he have them removed. It seemed like a moot point, however, since it would only take a few phone calls to get the rightful owners to come and pick up their property.

Several trips were required to make all the final arrangements. A local lawyer was brisk in setting up a corporation and writing up a very tight purchase agreement for the equipment. A local bank quickly setup an account and point of sale terminal – although the gentleman I dealt with was initially horrified that it was going to be a ‘corporate affair’. Finding an apartment was rather difficult, but a remarkably friendly woman who worked at the post office told me of one that was coming up as she processed my application for a mail box.

Word spread very quickly in town that I was opening a new restaurant and everybody seemed remarkably excited and eager to meet me. I found their line of questioning to be incredibly invasive but wrote it off to small town curiosity. With each trip I became more acutely aware of the differences between Cuspidorians and Humbuggers. When I gassed up, the cashier in the Humbug store would greet me by name and with a friendly smile. In Cuspidor the clerk at the service station rarely took his right hand off the baseball bat hidden under the counter – at least I hoped that his hand was on a baseball bat. Humbug was so friendly that on one trip home I found myself exclaiming, “Fucking-A! This place is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”

On the night before the lease and property were to change hands I made my most exciting trip to Humbug. I was leaving Cuspidor for good and was about to become a citizen of a small town once again. The Humbug Hotel gave me a deal on a room, which I needed for nearly a week as I awaited my apartment, and I settled in to try and sleep. The excitement was almost more than I could bear and I’m not sure if I slept a wink. I just kept thinking about all the work I had to do, about what my final menu decisions would be, and about how I was going to setup my kitchen. My brain just spun like a top inside my skull as all the details whirled around.

In the morning I had a quick breakfast at the hotel and then walked over to the Humbug Coffee House. I met the landlord out front at about 8 a.m. and Dave let us in just a few minutes later. Dave had been there all night trying to clean out personal papers and belongings. I could tell it was very difficult for him, standing there for the last time in his coffee house. He stood by the register in his apron and tapped a few keys in a gesture of good bye. He handed over the keys to the landlord, who then handed them over to me in an awkwardly ceremonious fashion. Dave’s head drooped a bit and I just didn’t know what to say to him. We stood for several minutes in uncomfortable silence.

Then, suddenly, Dave blurted out, “I’m outa here!” and he charged straight down the back hall, hands flailing in the air, and he was gone with a slam of the back door. The landlord shook my hand, wished me luck, and departed almost as abruptly. I stood there in awe. I had some changes to make, but there I stood in my own restaurant; my first brick and mortar business.

I wanted to clean it. I wanted to wipe down all the counters and shelves and cupboards. I wanted to turn the chairs upside down on the tables and mop the floors. I wanted to polish each and every glass by hand. I wanted the whole place to sparkle and for the world to see the wonder that I had created. I paced from front to back and back to front as I surveyed the mighty restaurant that was to be; and it was good.

I was rather horrified when I looked in the deli cooler and found that half of the containers were bursting with mould. Obviously Dave hadn’t had the ambition left to clean everything out. It didn’t matter, though, because by the time I finished even the floors would be fit to eat off of. I was ready to work.

A few hours later, Dave returned sheepishly through the back door to return his apron and retrieve his jacket.

The Flintstone Whistle

While making the purchase arrangements for my restaurant I had traveled to Humbug frequently. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that I hadn’t actually spent an entire day there. The first full day that I spent in Humbug was the day I took possession of the equipment and location. That was also the first day that I began to learn of the rigid routines adhered to by Humbuggers.

Taking a break from my cleaning and planning, I stepped out the back door of the restaurant to have a cigarette and to survey my new back alley. Across the alley I saw a stack of plywood crates behind the undertaker’s shop. It dawned on me that the crates were about the right size to contain coffins. Then it dawned on me that that was exactly what they contained. I found it strange that they were piled up in the alley that way.

Suddenly a deafening blast came from some sort of siren and I nearly had a heart attack. It was loud and it was long – just a roaring long wail that seemed to go on forever. I was soon to learn that this happened every day at noon. Suddenly people emerged from the back doors of most of the other shops, got into their cars and tried to back into the alley simultaneously. There was a lot of jostling around with some people waving others on but everyone being much more polite about the fiasco than might be observed in the city. I also noted that there were almost no pedestrians at all. In a town so small it seemed odd that every single person had driven to work.

It was this daily stampede for lunch that gave me the idea to call this noon horn the 'Flintstone Whistle’. I imagined Mr. Slate reaching out the window to pull the tail on a giant bird that let out this horrible scream, followed by every single person in town screaming, “Yabba Dabba Doo!” All of this, followed by a stampede of remarkably polite people racing for lunch. I wondered if they had ever considered just wearing wrist watches.

One day, while playing around with the espresso machine, I looked out the front window and saw some municipal workers doing some sort of road repair. Just like in the city, they put up sawhorses, wore reflective vests, and two men stood idly by, watching a third man ply his craft with a shovel. I looked down at my espresso just as the Flintstone Whistle blew. I looked back out the front window and all three men had vanished. The only evidence that they had ever been there was the shovel – all alone and rotating in mid air.

Humbuggers are so conditioned to the Flintstone Whistle that they can’t bring themselves to stop for lunch without its permission. This makes going for lunch quite convenient for all of Humbug’s non-Humbuggers. You can walk into any restaurant at ten to twelve and find it almost completely deserted. It’s wonderful to walk into a restaurant, chose any table you want, place your order, and have your food in front of you before a single member of the lunch rush crowd comes barreling through the door.

One day, during the renovations, I offered to buy the contractors lunch. They were very enthusiastic until I suggested we leave immediately. One of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I replied, “Exactly!” I waited for this to sink in, but abstract concepts just didn’t seem to ‘sink in’ to Humbuggers. I said, “If we leave now we can have our food ordered before the lunch rush starts.” Another one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I replied, “Exactly!” I waited some more.

Finally I told the men that if they wanted a free lunch then they had to follow me immediately. Again, one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I pointed out that if they quit fifteen minutes early and then returned fifteen minutes early then they would still only be taking an hour for lunch but they would be saving themselves a lot of time and frustration. Yet once more, one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I dined alone.

The number of businesses that closed for the noon hour was astounding. Even the banks seemed incapable of running staggered lunch breaks and usually only had a couple of tellers left to handle the crowds of people paying bills and cashing cheques at lunch. City Hall locked it’s doors at noon as well. I had never witnessed anything like it before in my life.

In almost every town I had ever lived in, the elementary school children were let out ten or fifteen minutes before noon so that those who went home for lunch could do so before the noon rush hour traffic started. In Humbug, however, the children couldn’t leave their desks until that damn whistle blew.

I asked no fewer than a dozen Humbuggers why the Flintstone Whistle went off seven days a week, and how long it had been doing so. The only answer I ever got, verbatim, was, “That’s the noon whistle.” This was one of the first things about the town to creep me out - and I had a pile of coffins across the alley from my restaurant.

The Renovation

Turning a coffee shop into a restaurant doesn’t require a great deal of renovation, especially if you are planning a cafeteria service bistro. The seating and serving areas remain the same, requiring only some changes to the kitchen and enlargement of the dish pit. As small as the renovations may be, however, they leave the restauranteur facing his or her arch nemesis: the contractor. Contractors bring along a particular set of challenges for anyone, but for a female restauranteur in Humbug they can be a special pot of trouble.

Rule number 182 in Humbug etiquette is to never comment on any construction or mechanical error, no matter how egregious, unless you have balls and a penis. When I pointed out to the framer that he had put a door in backwards in comparison with the drawing, he simply said, “Well, it’s in now, so you’ll have to learn to live with it.”

In an attempt to conform to Humbug etiquette, I avoided my instinctual reply which was, “Well I sign the fucking cheques here, so unless you want me to write your name backwards, turn the fucking door around!” I thought for a bit and then opted for the more passive-aggressive response, “Well, I’ll call the fire marshal and ask him if a fire exit can open inwards.” I hadn’t even picked up the phone when I heard a drill gun removing the screws. It was frustrating to have to think of a way of saying what I wanted to say without actually saying it – but I was glad it worked.

As soon as the door was reversed, however, the framer disappeared, never to be seen again. I would like to say ‘never to be heard from again’ but of course he was prompt in sending an invoice and asking me to pay for the half of the work he had completed. Contractor after contractor disappeared after doing as much or as little of the work as they enjoyed, each sending an invoice for the portion of the work they had done. Painters were the worst. Every single painter I contacted promised to come on Monday and when I called on Monday to find out where they were, they promised to come the following Monday. This continued for five weeks and I finally decided to do the painting myself.

Since my renovations were minimal, I only had to paint a small area at the back of the restaurant. I walked down to Humbug Hardware and Lyle, in good Humbug fashion, let me have his master collection of paint swatches so I could match the colours as accurately as possible. After a quick round trip, I presented him with my selection, and asked for five gallons of ‘pepita’. Doing business on Humbug’s Main Street, marked or otherwise, seemed so much easier than the tedious journeys across even a medium sized city. It would have taken me hours to make the round trip to a paint store in Cuspidor, and there was no way that they would have let me have a master ring of paint swatches. On the other hand, in Cuspidor, I might not have wasted five weeks waiting on delinquent painters.

In just a few days I had two coats of primer up and was busy rolling in the first coat of pepita. I had to open the back door to let some of the paint fumes out, and I was quite enjoying the nice cool breeze when I got the uncanny feeling that I was being watched. I looked around and was startled to find a little old lady standing right beside me, watching the roller descend the wall.

“Who are you?” I exclaimed.

“Where’s your husband?” she asked, oblivious to my dismay.

“Who the fuck are you?” I barked at her.

Her head jerked to the right in a Humbug Huh, and I realized I had sent her into a system crash. I didn’t want to change the topic or move onto inane weather commentary but I had to find a way to reboot her. I decided to try repeating the question without the ‘f-bomb’.

“Who are you?” I asked again.

Suddenly re-animating, she replied, “I’m your neighbor,” seeming to think that would make sense to me.

“What neighbor, who the fuck are you?” I demanded.

Once again she crashed into the Humbug Huh posture and once again I had to reboot her.

“What neighbor, who the – who are you?” I demanded, sans profanity.

Once again re-animating, she replied, “I have the boutique next door! Why are you upset?”

“What the – uh, are you doing here?” I further demanded.

“Your back door was open. Don’t you have any children?”

For a moment I was speechless. What the hell did children have to do with her walking into my restaurant uninvited? Nothing was making sense. For the second time I looked around for hidden cameras. This had to be some sort of twisted prank, I was sure of it. I decided to play along.

“I don’t have a husband or children,” I responded.

“Why not?” she asked, completely void of inhibition.

“An open door isn’t an invitation,” I said, “why would you just walk in like that?”

“Don’t you WANT to be married?” she continued, so oblivious that I was gobsmacked.

I decided to just escort her out, and I asked her to please knock the next time she wanted to speak with me. She sort of giggled and muttered, “Knock, ha ha, on an open door, ha ha.” I decided she must be the senile mother of the boutique owner. I later found out she wasn’t senile, and she was in fact the owner of the boutique. As is common of many Humbug women, she suffered from the inability to speak with other women on any topics other than husbands, children, and baking. Sad.

Upon completing my coat of paint, I locked up the back and decided to head out the front and down the street to the bakery. I loved having everything so nearby. I hadn’t gotten three steps down the street when another little old lady beckoned me to stop. After a brief exchange of gratuitous salutations and comments on the weather, as I had learned was customary in Humbug, she turned the conversation to a more serious matter.

“I just thought you should know, a lot of us think the paint you’re using isn’t a very good match for the old paint,” she said. I have to admit I was quite agitated by this and spoke a bit harshly saying, “A lot of us? Who exactly is ‘a lot of us’? Just how many people have been wondering in and out while I’ve been painting?” Defensively she replied, “Oh, we haven’t been inside. We were just looking at the paint swatches over at the hardware store. The colour you picked is too orange.” “I see,” I said, a bit embarrassed that I had been so set on edge by the crazy lady I had encountered earlier, continuing with, “Well I guess you’ll just have to come in and see for yourself when I open.”

I managed to cut the rest of the conversation short but as I walked away I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of people collect in a hardware store to analyze someone else’s paint swatches. Admittedly there likely wasn’t any implied confidentiality in selecting and purchasing paint, but the public disclosure of my choice sort of bothered me. Humbug’s version of small town life had a much slower pace than I could have imagined without experiencing it first hand. The most difficult consequence of this slow pace was the rate of the contractors. The renovation, which should have taken five weeks, wound up taking well over 7 months.

The Undertaker

One of the comfy little arrangements that I had inherited upon leasing the location for my restaurant was a shared garbage bin. The previous tenant had shared the lease of a large commercial dumpster with the undertaker across the alley. I contacted the undertaker to see if he would like to continue such a deal with me and he did. We each had a key to the lock on the bin and the bin was emptied every other Thursday. This seemed to be a very simple arrangement - but this was Humbug.

The problems began almost immediately. As I began to clear the building of the previous tenant’s waste, I found the bin to be completely full. I stacked garbage in the back hall waiting for Thursday. When Thursday arrived I had to spend most of the day on the phone trying to find out where the contractors were because they were already over a week late getting started. By the end of the day I went out to see if the bin had been emptied and it had not, or least I didn’t think it had.

Now one bin full of garbage might look like another bin full of garbage, but the bin full of garbage out back didn’t look at all like it had only days earlier. I couldn’t imagine anything more had been put into it but I was equally perplexed by the idea that it had been emptied that day and filled up before I had gotten a chance to put anything into it. I called the undertaker to find out if he had already filled the bin up, and he assured me that he had not. I was suspicious, but polite.

When the contractors finally arrived the following Wednesday I told them the bin would be emptied the next day so we could just pile any refuse material against the back of the building. On Thursday I checked several times to see if the bin had been emptied and then finally called the waste company. They told me that it had been emptied the week before. I was not happy.

By the end of the week the garbage was really piling up with my backlog of trash and the heaps being quickly generated by the contractors. One of the contractors offered to bring a trailer on Monday to haul it all away – at his usual hourly rate plus $30 for rental of the trailer. I was irritated at having to pay for a bin and then again for a trailer, but his rate sounded fair so I accepted.

On Monday we got almost all the garbage into his trailer, and I just had some loose bags of rubbish in the back entrance. If I was now in sync, then the bin would be emptied on Thursday, so I felt the rest could wait until then. When Thursday came I was quite busy with the contractors all day and didn’t get to taking out the trash until the evening. As I walked out I saw a pick-up truck backed up to the bin, which was now full to overflowing, and atop the pile stood the undertaker jumping up and down trying to get it all to fit.

I couldn’t believe he had managed to fill the bin so fast and I am certain I was more than visibly upset. The undertaker stopped his jumping and stood motionless with an expression of guilt - like a child caught jumping in a mud puddle. We stared at each other for a few seconds then he glanced down at the pile, back at me, down at the pile, back at me, and he blurted out, “Wow, your contractors sure managed to fill this bin up fast, huh?”

All I could think to say was, “Like Fuck!” He didn’t Humbug Huh into psychological hibernation but he was still obviously very surprised and with a terribly shocked expression he said, “What’s the matter?” As I walked towards him I threw the bags in my hands at him and screamed, “My contractors never got to put a fucking thing in there you cunt! I had to pay for a fucking trailer to get their trash hauled away and now you’ve filled the fucking bin up already. What do you fucking think I am? Stupid?”

He took a very authoritative stance from atop his pile of trash and said, “Now look here, you can’t talk to me that way. This garbage isn’t mine. I don’t know where it came from if your contractors didn’t put it here.”

I screamed back, “The bin was locked! Only you and I have keys! You never opened the bin to find it this full because the lid won’t even fucking close it’s so full. You’re standing on the fucking pile of shit you put in there, and that purple carpet under your feet is the same as that piece in your fucking truck, asshole!”

He jumped off of his royal mound of garbage and into the back of his truck, then out of the back of his truck and onto the ground on the opposite side from me. His face was beet red as he whelped, “You can’t talk to me this way. I don’t have to take this.”

As he got into his truck I yelled, “Call the waste company and get your own bin, or get this one off my property. The deal is off!” With that, he sped off - and I only wish I could say never to be heard from again.

Two more weeks went by. Contractors came and went and I paid once again to have someone bring a trailer to take the trash away. Finally Thursday arrived and this time I checked the bin several times to make sure the undertaker wasn’t filling it yet again. By the end of the day it was completely empty and I finally got to throw in three bags of garbage. I didn’t get out of the restaurant until nearly midnight, but I checked the bin again. I was starting to think I was paranoid because no one on the planet would have had enough gall to fill it once more after the confrontation we had just had.

I drove down to the restaurant at about 6 a.m. the next morning. As I pulled into my parking space, to my astonishment, the bin wasn’t just full, it was overflowing and the lid was wide open. On top of the pile was a piece of all too familiar, purple, geometric print carpet – left as a calling card. There was no way to even start closing the lid without knocking some of the pile off of the bin. My head was spinning and all I could think was, “What kind of bastard would do this? What the hell is the matter with this guy?”

At 8 a.m. I called the waste company to find out if the undertaker had undertaken arrangements to get his own bin. He had not. I told the waste company about the problem and to expect a call from the undertaker shortly. At 9 a.m. I called the undertaker. After some gratuitous salutations and comments about the weather, which I had learned was Humbug custom, I set into the matter at hand.

“Ok, here’s the deal. You aren’t using the bin on my property anymore. If you want the bin then the waste company will move it to your property. If you don’t want the bin then I’m changing the lock. You have until noon to make up your mind. At one o’clock I’m calling the waste company and if you haven’t asked for the bin to be moved to your property then the lock will be changed. Are there any questions?”

The undertaker was silent for a moment then replied, “You know, I really only agreed to share the cost of the bin as a favour to you. I really don’t need a bin at all. For the little bit of trash we have here I can just as easily take it home to throw it out.”

“Fine then,” I replied, “I’ll change the lock right now.”

“Now ho’ up there,” he interjected, “there is no need to go getting all hasty about things. If you’ve already filled up the bin again then I’m willing to meet you half way and pay half the cost for an extra dump.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. This guy couldn’t stop lying if his life depended on it. I grew angry, furious, and I screamed, “Who the fuck do you think you are? Obi Wan Fucking Kenobi? What the fuck is this, some sort of Jedi mind trick? You know you filled the bin! You know that I know you filled up the bin! And you have the fucking nerve to suggest that I would pay half for an extra dump? You have the fucking nerve to suggest that you are doing me a favour? Here’s the deal, asshole, I’m changing the lock right now!”

Suddenly he reverted to his authoritative tone again, saying, “Now you think long and hard about what you are doing to yourself here. YOU are going to have to pay the FULL cost of the bin. YOU and YOU alone! If that’s the way you want it then I can’t help you. I’ve done all I can for you, and I’ll thank you to return my padlock!”

I slammed the phone down before the last part had sunk in. Had he actually just laid claim to the lock as part of some sort of conditional surrender? The lock had been on the bin when I arrived, so for all I knew it could be his, and so I was going to return it. I couldn’t help, however, to be reminded of some belligerent drunk being thrown out at the end of a party who turns to grab some bottle containing a couple ounces of stale liquor, declaring it as his victory trophy as he marches out the door. He was going to get his trophy, alright. That night I returned it; I threw it through the back window of his shop.

The fact that to the very bitter end he couldn’t just admit to his transgression was the most astounding and frustrating detail to me. He had been caught red footed. I knew that he was lying, and he knew that I knew it. He was completely incapable of computing what it meant to be called a liar. Eventually I would learn that this was because Humbuggers have a bigger aversion to calling someone out on a lie than they do to actually saying the word ‘fuck’.

This was a phenomenon I would come to know as Humbug rule number one: In Humbug it is a far greater faux pas to call someone a liar than it is for that person to tell a bald face lie to your face, no matter how outlandish that lie may be. This was part of a collection of higher order Humbug rules of protocol which dictated that no Humbugger, under any circumstances, should ever speak their mind directly. I would eventually learn that this was an integral part of the typical business model in Humbug.

Rule number one was greatly exploited by a vast number of Humbuggers. Whenever caught red handed in any transgression they simply made up the most outrageous lie to exonerate themselves. It didn’t matter if they claimed to have broken a commitment due to being abducted by alien beings; nothing could ever be done to re-establish their guilt because doing so would require calling them on their lie, and that just wasn’t an option. There was an old Humbug rumour that the mayor had used this very technique to acquit himself of having an affair, numerous times, by simply stating that the young lady on his lap was giving him a reverse massage for his sciatica.