Monday, November 30, 2009

Closing Day

My second Christmas in Humbug was even better than the first. To start with, I didn’t have any reason to bother with Christmas decorations. Secondly, I had properly calculated my tobacco needs and did not need to set foot outside for a full six days. Finally, I had some unexpected visitors who really lit up my spirits by showing up with a poker table and full Texas Hold’em poker set. We played for 28 hours straight and kept the stakes low enough so that no one left crying. I hate to boast, but I actually made more money in those 28 hours of poker than I had in over a year of running the restaurant – that is to say, I made just over fifty bucks.

My dining room echoed with more laughter than it had ever been filled with before – and there were only three of us. It echoed with laughter as my friends and I plotted the perfect closing day for the Humbug Bistro. With each hand we plotted in greater and greater detail. After all the hard work, just the thought of our little conspiracy brought me more satisfaction than hitting a straight flush on the river. It was going to be a Siesta Saturday and certain to be a day that Humbug would never forget.

The first part of the plan relied on the fact that no Humbugger can, under any circumstances, resist a sale. To this end I planned an elaborate ad campaign to ensure not a soul in Humbug would be left unaware that all meals would be two-for-one on closing day. For at least one day I would have a line-up out the door and a dining room filled beyond capacity. I almost shook as I thought of all the excitement.

The last part of the plan was to arrange for an auction house that could empty the restaurant for me and dispense with all matters after I had departed. In this way I could ensure that my final moments at the bistro would be the climax of a wonderful event, rather than the tedious work of cleaning and moving all the equipment. I might have opened for business on 26 hours of wakefulness fueled by espresso, but I was going to close for business on 8 hours of partying fueled by Southern Comfort.

I was sad when my friends finally left, and I have to admit that it was incredibly difficult to open back up after the holiday. I hadn’t taken so much time off in almost two years and the idea of going through the 12 hours of prep work for opening was the last thing I wanted to do in returning to work. Still, I had my fantastic closing day to think about and the only way to get there was to open back up again.

Since the whole Trumpets and Turnips fiasco, business had actually picked up a bit. I still wasn’t really making any money but at least I was busy enough that time seemed to pass a lot more quickly. The last couple of months of any business are hard, even the ones that I had sold for significant profit. Just knowing that old customers will eventually become strangers again, and projects on the wishful-thinking list will never be, makes the whole process seem a little pointless.

I worked almost entirely alone since Jeffrey had left, except on Saturdays. He hadn’t been gone more than a week when Anna just popped by asking if she could pick up some Saturday lunch rush hours. As always, her nose for work and gumption for just hopping to it came through. She didn’t even mention Jeffrey’s departure but it was obvious that she must have heard about it. She did make known, however, that she found the whole Trumpets and Turnips scandal hilarious.

I made a point of preparing special treats for us each Saturday and including her in the preparation. She talked about becoming a lawyer or doctor but I truly felt she had the natural talent to become a chef. She was very happy to learn how to make Shrimp Scampi and even prepared the crab stuffed mushrooms for her family. She just always seemed amazed when she learned how some of the finest foods were actually quite simple to prepare.

Each day that I toiled, chopping and dicing, I thought about those pamphlets for pre-processed product that would make my life easier. I thought about them and I despised them. I had committed myself to a fresh prepared menu and by that point I was going to go down with the ship. Obviously this wasn’t the most lucrative course of action, but I felt a certain pride that I had not allowed my menu to be reduced to the lowest common denominators.

Right up to the end, Humbuggers walked in the door referring to my bistro as ‘the coffee house’, asking for ‘SUPE’, and warning me of my imminent doom when Tim Horton’s finally came to town. Apparently the notice of my final day in business didn’t catch their attention. When I tired of them I would just say something to catch them up in a Humbug Huh, something like, “You wouldn’t even say that if you expected me to believe it.” Occasionally I would leave them hung up in their Humbug Huh for several minutes without rebooting them. Usually I left them just long enough to fix myself an Americano or, for more entertainment, to do the Macarena.

It seemed like forever until I finally worked the last Friday. There was just one more day to go and every detail was in place. I actually went out for dinner at another restaurant before returning to my little apartment. My anticipation of closing day was greater than any child’s anticipation of any Christmas. As the hours dragged by I just laid there staring at the ceiling. Eventually I did drift off, and actually slept through my alarm. I had to rush to get the bistro open on time. Fortunately all the waffle batter and toppings were ready to go so all I had to do was brew coffee and warm up the waffle irons. I also had to let my staff for closing day in a bit early so they could get changed.

Closing day was going to be the only day that my bistro ever offered full table service. I had enlisted the help of five waitresses and I only had eight tables. Anna came in for a full eight hour shift to assist with the increase in expected traffic and to help get people seated. When I opened the front blinds there was a line right past the windows, a line of Humbuggers who couldn’t resist a two-for-one Belgian waffle breakfast. For the last time, I switched on the ‘OPEN’ sign.

I couldn’t even push out the front door to set up the sandwich board on the sidewalk because of all the Humbuggers pushing their way back in. I just backed up and started shouting for them to find tables because we had waitresses for the day. Everyone jostled for position and we managed to get them stopped as the tables filled up for the first round of orders. Anna gave instructions for people to remain in the foyer until there was more room and she would come and get them seated.

The room was abuzz with everyone discussing what waffle topping they were going to have. Finally I started the CD player and got some good old fashioned disco music playing. On their cue, the waitresses made their way up from the back hall, showing off their formal attire and assuming the gait of fashion models on the runway. This is where the fun began.

My waitresses were actually Marty and four friends with whom he had taken to putting on drag shows. Their drag names ranged from ‘Filly Mignon’ to ‘Charity Fantastic’. I couldn’t keep their names straight but Marty said that was fine because it was anything but a straight show. As they approached the tables and introduced themselves to their customers, I never saw such gaping expressions of horror. This was the worst thing that could ever happen to a Humbugger; two-for-one meals served by drag queens.

It took several minutes for my waitresses to solicit orders – one customer’s upper denture plate actually fell out into his coffee. The room became dark as the light from the front windows was blocked by a collage of eyes pressed forth to view the spectacle. The conflict in their expressions was obvious as they all tried to determine if two-for-one Belgian waffles was worth the humiliation. In the end, their Humbug frugalness won out over their pride.

Eventually the orders started coming back and Anna and I worked faster than we had ever worked before. Marty, who I think was going by the name ‘Filly Mignon’, took over on waffles as we weren’t getting many orders for espresso. Anna kept running the register and called the orders like a pro. Vince, who had opted out of the drag show, furiously fought to keep up in the dish pit. I had to run to the kitchen to start preparing stock pots full of toppings, for even I hadn’t foreseen the volume of orders coming in.

By the time I had set up extra hot holding for the toppings and hauled them all out to the front it was already time to start cooking the lunch menu. I had prepared about seven times as much as usual but still had to wonder if it was going to be enough. As the lunch menu became available a lot of Humbuggers started asking for ‘bah-jah’ burritos in lieu of waffles and Marty had a chance to show off his long, low cut, red evening gown as he again started waiting tables.

The highlight of the afternoon had to be when he asked Lyle Duerr if he would like any black olives on his burrito. Every single hour I had worked, and every single dollar I had spent, to get to that point in time was worth the expression on Lyle’s face five times over. I have a pretty good command of the English language but I couldn’t begin to describe that expression without writing a volume that would make the works of Tolkien look like a grocery list. In a word: gobsmacked.

The only oversight in our plan was that the average drag queen only has to maintain his costume long enough to trounce about the catwalk a few times. None of them had realized the difficulty of making it through an eight hour shift on stiletto heels. Within an hour they all had to change their shoes and none of these guys were the sort to wear sneakers. This left my team of waitresses wearing very masculine looking fine Italian men’s shoes. The contrast of their shoes with their remarkably perfect women’s attire was almost as stark as the contrast between them and the Humbuggers. All of this taken together had to be the most ridiculous situation I had ever, or would ever, encounter.

The Humbuggers kept the orders coming for the entire afternoon and traffic had barely begun to thin out as we approach closing time. We actually had to turn a few of them away at the end of the day. As we closed at five, however, things were only just getting started. I had invited my entire list of regulars for a fabulous farewell dinner.

Most of them came in the back way in order to avoid the crowd that had gathered out front. They were gratefully seated by their assigned waitresses and patiently sipped wine as I prepared the final meal to be served at the bistro. We actually had to close the blinds to get the last of the Humbuggers to go away, for they just couldn’t stop staring at the drag queens.

I borrowed the menu from Marty’s and Vince’s date and started with baked Camembert and crostinis. The salad course was a shrimp Caesar and the main course was my famous chicken and spinach lasagna baked in a ricotta béchamel. As the guests wound down their meals on a dessert of chocolate fondue and sliced strawberries we turned the music back up and began the final party.

I was so glad to be able to spend my final hours at the Humbug Bistro with these special people. We relived the greatest moments and laughed to no end about the coup of closing day. One of the best stories was Jeffrey’s experience with the nitrous oxide, but as we laughed I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad that he wasn’t around for closing day. I remembered him driving from Cuspidor to help me on opening day after Maria left me hanging and I wished things hadn’t ended so badly.

As the night went on I wound up with stacks of coasters with everyone’s e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Everyone vowed to keep in touch but I had been through this situation too many times in the past to be able to believe it was going to happen. Either way, I knew I would always have some of the most incredible stories of my life to keep me company in my memories. The last of my special guests didn’t depart until nearly sunrise and finally it was time.

With the bistro lights shut off for the last time, only the street lights cast shadows into the dining room as I closed the door. I turned the key and listened to the click of the lock; a cold, hard sound signifying the end of what was and what might have been.