Monday, November 30, 2009

Coffee Row, The Final Round

By mid-February I was at my wits end with the coffee row leeches. Their hollow eyed leering stares continued to drive away a good percentage of new customers. Imagine someone walking unannounced into a room full of people who are in the midst of planning a conspiracy. The conspirators would all turn instantly to view whoever walked through the door, and if the person was unfamiliar to them then their jaws would hang wide open. It took a lot of nerve for strangers to make their way up to the counter with such a cabal of mouth-breathers staring them down so steadfastly.

When customers finally did get to the counter to order they would inevitably be interrupted by Earla Hueber chirping, “the medium roast is empty!” If I didn’t stop serving my new customer to remove the coffee urn immediately then Earla would start pushing it inwards onto the hot holding trays. I asked her repeatedly to stop this and she would just sneer, “Well I was only trying to help!” It didn’t matter how many times I told her that pushing the urn over the counter wasn’t helping me, and I’m certain she knew it was driving me crazy. I really began to hate that bitch.

They found every way imaginable to keep me out of the kitchen. When I came up front to sell a mug to a newly arrived leech, the newcomer would hover around the tables until I finally gave up and headed back to get my work done. As soon as I got back to work the leech would finally approach the counter and as I came out it would leave and say, “Gotta use the washroom – I’ll be right back.” In retaliation I finally refused to leave the kitchen without getting at least ten minutes of work done unless a real customer actually managed to get past the pack of what must have appeared to be starving zombies.

When they realized that I was happy to leave them waiting for ten minutes if they didn’t order promptly, they started ‘accidentally’ spilling their coffee or the cream and calling for a mop or rag. I wasn’t about to leave the mop bucket and a cleaning rag leaning up against the front counter to further repel actual customers who walked in so their little ‘accidents’ always cost me quite a bit of time. It seemed they wouldn’t be happy until I spent my entire morning hovering around them, warming their coffee at their every whim and fancy, and perhaps shining their fucking shoes for nickels. They were relentless.

The final straw came one morning when three young women came in and ordered coffee and muffins to go. Like a well practiced offensive line, the coffee row leeches leapt from the line of scrimmage and produced every empty mug they had to drain the urns empty. This wasn’t the first time they had used this play, so I already had one extra urn brewing under the basket in the coffee machine. Earla began chirping, “the medium roast is empty,” as she pushed the urn onto the hot holding trays. I told her I would replace it when they made room for the young ladies to get their coffee.

I had the last muffin clasped by tongs in my right hand as I bent down for a wrapper to place it in. Earla pushed the urn with all her might and started to tip over the entire hot holding warmer right above me and all I could do was push back with my shoulder to keep it from coming down on me. I yelled for her to stop and lurched to push the hot holding warmer back. Standing up I grabbed the coffee urn and told her to back off. She just sneered back, “But I was only trying to help.” The bitter smile that split her face was pure evil. In my frustration I just threw the empty urn behind me on the floor and reached for the fresh urn under the basket in the machine. It wasn’t quite done brewing but I was willing to let some coffee just run across the counter to placate that psychotic bitch.

As I pulled the urn out from under the basket, the urn’s handle hooked the basket and it spilled about three cups of 190 degree Fahrenheit water across the back of my left hand. I dropped the urn and stifled a scream as I returned to grabbing the wrapper so I could free up my other hand. I gritted my teeth as I handed over the final muffin to the young ladies, apologizing that I would have to brew another urn of coffee if they wanted medium roast. They were horrified at what was happening and just stared at the back of my left hand as it welled up into one huge blister. I was doing everything I could to hold back my rage as I looked at the filth of coffee and wet grounds pooled around my feet. Earla just sniped in, “Oh, well how long is THAT going to take?”

I reached across the counter and grabbed her by the hair and pulled her straight over to my side, knocking over the hot holding warmer and dousing her with scalding hot water in which she began to melt as she screamed, “I’m melting,” in an evil cackle of a voice. Then, realizing that this last part had only happened in my imagination, I gritted my teeth until they nearly crumbled as I said, “Oh, it’ll just be a few minutes.”

I ran my hand under cold water and then wrapped it with a dish towel and ice. The rest of the morning was a haze as I tried to ignore the pain in my hand. Marty was horrified when he saw the injury and begged me to go to the hospital. I couldn’t go, however, unless I was willing to close my restaurant. I was already slowly losing money, but to close up and pay the door costs without any revenue because of that vile whore was something I just couldn’t accept. I just did the best I could to treat the injury myself while I imagined filling the coffee urns with sulfuric acid before the leeches returned the next morning. I think I would have actually done so, but it occurred to me that the parasites would likely actually thrive on pure acid – as vile as they were.

Over the next few days I adapted, as well as could be expected, to becoming an unwilling right hander. Every time I changed gloves I had to fold and layer some gauze to keep the blister from ripping when I pulled the glove off. Every night I dressed the wound with antibacterial ointment and got up an hour earlier to take off the dressing and let the wound dry. I kept the wound as well hidden as I could from customers because it had become rather unappealing in appearance. Jeffrey spotted the wound when he came in on Saturday and nearly became ill. Fortunately the pain wasn’t nearly as much as one might expect.

As the week ended I realized I would once again have to do the Monday prep work. This meant doing all of the dishes by myself and I wondered how I could keep my left hand out of the hot soapy water. I decided to start as early as I could on Monday to give myself extra time. I had barely gotten started on the prep work when the phone rang.

“Hello, Humbug Bistro,” I groaned.

“Hey, boss!”

“Jeffrey?” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, boss. How you doing?”

“Ok, I guess. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you could use a helper today.”

“Not a bad idea. So you want to come in?”

“Yeah. I just couldn’t help but wonder last night how you were going to do dishes with that hand.”

“You’re a saint, Jeffrey.”

“Nah, boss – just a pastor.”

Sometimes it’s just amazing who will actually stop and think about you. I’ve been let down by plenty of people in my life and gotten used to going it alone. I’ve been in some crazy predicaments and always managed to grind my way out. Once in a while though, just as I’m struggling to find a foothold, some random person just happens by and gives me a boost. These are the people that well stick in my mind for the rest of my life – no matter how brief our encounter. Jeffrey is one of them.

That afternoon Jeffrey learned to make real Caesar dressing as well as a few other emulsions. As we worked together I gained a new insight into that young, aspiring pastor. He really didn’t seem all that devoted to Christian dogma and actually tried to live his life with a ‘what would Jesus do’ attitude. He was one of the only Christians that I had ever met who openly discussed the bible, its origins, and even the divinity of Christ. By the end of the day I had another reason to remember him.

Having finished the prep work in the early evening, we actually had some time to sit and chat. I spoke at length about my problems with coffee row. He left me with some simple advice, saying, “If you were a business consultant, what would you tell yourself?” I began to think he must have majored in psychology at his seminary. I didn’t like the answer that popped into my head.

I wasn’t making a penny before 11:00 a.m., except on some Saturdays. There was no way that I was ever going to convert the coffee row leeches into food customers and they were actually doing my food business harm. The smart business decision was to shut down for the morning hours; but it also meant admitting that those damn leeches had won. I am a stubborn person and there was no way I was going to swallow that pill lightly.

Tuesday began like every single other Tuesday had for sixteen weeks, with the exception that I had had a full night’s sleep. The well dressed woman with coal black hair and brilliant, icy blue eyes walked in and ordered her white mocha. A few hours later the leeches, lead by Lyle, arrived and began guzzling coffee. The leeches leeched and I plotted. There had to be a weakness in their group and I was damn well going to find it. Finally, the clinching blow reared its head. I was heading down the back hall when I ran into Earla Hueber returning from re-plastering her evil face. As she approached, she smiled the ugliest smile I had ever seen and chuckled, “How’s the hand?” I gritted my teeth and said, “Just fine.”

I imagined dousing her in gasoline and lighting her on fire then running her over with my car. Never before in my life had I felt the urge to kill but at that very moment I suddenly understood the relieved faces of so many murderers that appeared on the television news. They never looked angry, not even fretful about the trial and sentences that laid before them. They all looked like they had just gotten a huge load off of their mind. I wondered who the Earla Hueber in each of their lives was. I wondered if murder was actually the rational action of a rational person in an irrational situation. I struggled to find a reason not to grab my best chef’s knife and leap upon her, plunging it into the void where she should have had a heart.

Fortunately I found that reason. I could have just walked away and allowed the equipment to go to auction before things had gotten this insane. If I had done so, then some other victim might have purchased the equipment and tried running the business, encountering the same obstacles I was now facing. If I killed her right then and there then that is exactly what would happen – some poor fool would buy the equipment at auction and the remaining leeches would be allowed to continue torturing another innocent. There was no way I was going to allow another human being to fall prey to these vile fuckers.

Right there, in that moment, I knew the only solution. There was absolutely no way to dodge this bullet and I knew that the end of the battle was at hand. I walked into my office and began to edit the document that would finally end the torture they doled out. My hands shook as I typed, for this wasn’t an easy decision to make. I stopped and plopped my head into my hands, elbows on desk, as I finally admitted aloud in a sigh, “They’ve won.” I had lost. I was beaten.

I raised my head and typed out the new hours. “Monday to Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday”

I carried the new sign to the front door and replaced the old hours sign. I posted a notice of changed hours on the wall by the menu behind coffee row, and walked away. They didn’t say a word – didn’t even make a peep. I had expected laughter, heckling, and a walk of shame, but it was as though they had no idea what sort of victory they had wrenched out of me. They would never again have my bistro to abuse as their own personal coffee club but I was forced to admit that I would never be able to serve a weekday breakfast either. There was no way to beat them. I went back to my office and sat the dark in silence.