Days Like These

I am convinced days like these happen because we as humans are both too stubborn and too stupid to heed the warning signs. You all know the kind of days I’m talking about. You wake up at the wrong time. Go to shave and the head falls off your razor. Get in the shower and the knob comes off in your hand. Put on a shirt and a button pops off just as you get done putting it through a hole. You may be smart enough to hesitate going to the bathroom to take a leak for fear of whatever else might come off, but, you continue on with your day instead of doing the only reasonable thing … going back to bed!

Today was such a day for me. I woke up early for no reason on a Saturday. I set about filling the dish washer, doing laundry, and generally making progress with my to-do list. Other than waking up early for no reason, there was no warning. About lunch time I noticed a horrible smell coming from the trash in the kitchen. No big deal. I gathered up all of the trash around the place, put it in the bin and tied off the bag so I could take it out later. Since the weather was nice out I opened a window to air out the place.

A bit later I decided it was time for a new 3-season jacket, preferably leather. I surf the Web to Burlington Coat Factory and find they have half a dozen which are styles I kind of like. I click the link for store locations and find one which is close. I print out the map and get cleaned up to go. I decide that since it is close to 4pm I should also eat supper out after buying a new coat.

I open my door to leave and a shocked to find a ruggus-rattus standing there. My door opening freaked him out. His mother was up a flight or so of stairs telling him not to run ahead. For no apparent reason he volunteers that his mom forgot her phone. I realize that I forgot mine and go back inside to get it. When I come back out he is still there waiting for his mom. We all exit the building together. In a move which defies Darwin the ruggus-rattus darts out into the parking lot before his mom can grab or yell at him. I notice that some of the locals trashed a few bags of chips just outside of the door and note they were at least polite enough to have picked up the bags. (Both of these were warnings my brain didn’t process.)

Driving past the trash compactor I realize the stinky bag of trash is still in my kitchen. Turning onto the Interstate I realize I forgot to bring my directions, no problem, I’m familiar with that exit. (Yet more warning signs.)

After turning around twice I realized why I was having trouble finding BCF, it was located in a mall. (Yet another warning sign. I have never seen one of these in a mall.) Between construction and shoppers the mall is a zoo. I park and as I go inside notice the signs that this particular location had just opened. I wander aimlessly past all the kinds of goods nobody associates with a “coat factory” until I find the tiny little spot for mens coats.

Pay close attention to the phrasing, tiny little spot. Any other BCF I’ve ever shopped at has a huge mens coat section. Usually there is a very large fence secured section containing leather coats and then a much bigger “regular coat” section around it. This looked like someone reminded them they had to stock mens coats at the last minute so they stole two short racks from another store in the mall and hung a dozen coats. Yes, they had leather, but not the kind anyone would steal. When a clerk asked me if I needed any help I told him I had come to purchase a leather coat but this inventory looked like Kansas after the locusts got done with it. He laughed and said they get another truck in on Monday but he didn’t know what was on it. I smiled and asked if the store had a Berman’s only to get a deer in headlights look as a response, then after a couple minutes of silence “I think so.”

Please remember the look, I certainly didn’t pay attention to it.

I walk out into the rest of the mall. I don’t get far from BCF before I realize “this place is ghetto”. Lots of smaller stores which rely on high end customers brought in by great anchors are boarded up. I walk a long time before I find my first “you are here” mall map. On my way too it I wander past a Zales with one, count her one, forlorn looking clerk. My first thought was “I hope you didn’t take that job on commission girl because nobody coming here is looking to spend what your stuff costs.”

The mall map was an even bigger disappointment than BCF. There were only three men’s clothiers and the only “traditional” blue jean store was American Eagle Outfitters. I said fine, I need a new jean jacket and they tend to have well made stuff. I should have just left. AEC was an even bigger disappointment than BCF. They had six jackets. All of which looked worse than the jacket I was throwing out. They weren’t just pre-washed, they were pre-chewed. It literally looked like a colony of rats was allowed to use them for bedding for a month before the jackets were hosed off and put on a hanger for sale. Thankfully none were my size so the store clerks didn’t have a prayer.

All of the driving looking for BCF had shown there was an Outback, so I decided to drown my sorrows by clogging my arteries with the unhealthy menu. Let’s be honest. Outback isn’t a great steak. It isn’t even a good steak. It’s a decent steak. You are really paying for all of the other nummy things on the menu and the flare. I’m telling you this so you will understand why I walked in, took one look, and walked out. It’s not the kind of meal one is willing to wait for, well, not anyone who grew up eating open range beef raised by themselves and their neighbors. We didn’t call it open range back then. We called it the few head of cattle we raised for our freezer.

I didn’t want the day to be a total bust. I cruised on down to the Steak & Shake. Yes, they have good management there, at least at this one. While there were a couple of families waiting for tables, the single person bar stools were all open. I rarely if ever eat at Bob Evan’s anymore because most of those locations will let a family with little kids take up ALL of the single customer bar stools.

After I sat down I looked up and there at the grill was a dude I had seen having the worst day of his life at another Steak & Shake some months before. Today he wasn’t dropping burgers on the floor then slipping on them and taking headers off the grill. Today the place was packed. He was sweating like a bull during mating season over that grill and all of the burgers were making it to their plates. He was behind, but he was in control.

We need to detour our discussion here just for a moment mainly because my thoughts detoured while I was waiting for my meal. The kid didn’t flourish at the other location due to management. The manager at that location was one of those high achiever people. I’ve been a traveling consultant for over 20 years. I’ve eaten at more places than I care to count or name. One thing remains true across all eating places. High achiever/MBA type managers can only manage an A team because they can only manage the business. As a general rule, no matter what they say, they aren’t the “whatever it takes to get the job done” people. They are the “who do I have to replace to get the job done” people.

This Steak & Shake was yet another point in the case. This location was managed by a couple that spoke broken English. I knew everything was going to be fine when I sat down. It has been my experience that those people, when in food services management, truly are the “whatever it takes” crowd. When there was a bottle neck checking out because one customer was waiting on a to-go ice cream thing he told the person running the register “stay register, I get” and flew back returning with the drink in moments. In his brief trip past the grill he noticed how behind it was getting. After he smiled the drink t the customer he waved someone up from the back and said “help him, 5 minutes”. The dude didn’t want to, but he did it when the manager looked at him. Five minutes after he asked the griller dude what help he needed, the orders all cleared the grill, including mine. During that same 5 minutes the manager refilled the soap in the bathrooms because someone said one was out AND he bussed two tables so they could seat more customers. That’s management! Doing what it takes, not hollering at someone who is already at their limit to do more or find another job. I was so inspired I decided to get a chocolate shake to go.

Not wanting the afternoon to be a complete wash out I swung by the local K-Mart to look for a jean jacket and to dig through their cast off movie bin. There they had Wrangler jackets, not my size, but exactly the style I was looking to get. Feeling good I dug through the abandoned movie bin and found some real troves. They had 150 TV Western episodes for $10, perfect for dad. If I get him all of the movies the Westerns channel has they might finally be able to drop the Starz package since nobody watches it anymore. Then I found a major score, “Return to Lonesome Dove” for $7.50. (Okay, that one is for both of us.) Then there was the home run “The Prophecy” all 5 episodes for $5.

You see though, these days don’t let you forget about them. Feeling good I wheeled around the end of my parking lot only to have a deer standing in front of me. (I told you to remember those chips.) Yes, where I’m staying for this contract is kind of rural. What kind of rural? The kind where the local coin operated car wash has a big sign stating “ABSOLUTELY NO MUDDY VEHICLES”. It’s kind of a modern town and a bunch of wooded areas all merged together. Naturally all of those wooded areas are where the wild life afraid of being eaten by coyotes migrate into. Why? Because it is the kind of area where coyotes are a synonym for target practice.

Both deer and vehicle avoided any kind of contact, but the day wasn’t quite over yet. As I unlocked my door I was greeted by the aroma of that trash.

I did end up getting a jean jacket I liked, one that wasn’t pre-chewed, from JCP.COM. Why there? Both Sears and K-Mart’s Web sites are absolutely wretched. When you search for “mens denim jacket” there you get women’s flannel shirts, perfume, and every other kind of thing showing up in the results. 500 items later I still hadn’t found what they had on display in the store. At JCP.COM it was one search and done. I assume JCP is using U.S. citizens to create its Web site and Sears is using an off-shore team. I find shotgun blast results are the norm for off-shore developed sites. The sites may look nice, but they are useless. I guess the CEO of Sears didn’t heed the warning signs of his bad day when he made that decision.



Why Do You Tip So Much?

I get that question a lot. If I’m in a particularly pissy mood my response resembles a line from Heathers, “Because I can.” The truth is a bit more moderated. “Because those who can should.”

Some might say it is because I’ve been dead broke and destitute before. While there may be some of that involved somewhere, the people who say that need to know that as a software consultant and an author, my life routinely toggles between being broke and being able to buy a new car without asking the price. While I prefer the second condition and have been there multiple times, I have also been at the first condition multiple times as well.

During my early twenties I switched from being an employee paid jut above the poverty line to a software consultant. Not only was this a great career move, it instantly tripled my income. Now I didn’t have to drink in bars that sold beer in pitchers. Not only that, I could afford a higher quality of alcohol, get far less hammered, and go out more nights per week. (Ah, to be young enough to go out even two nights per week now.)

 What some people don’t know is that once you hit such a level of income you feel you need a reason to go to a bar. When you are a working class slave paid at or below the poverty line, your job is the reason you drink and the reason you have to drink in the lowest cost bar in the area. Once you obtain the income level most of those people would kill for you can’t go to a bar looking for sympathy while bitching about your job. Thankfully, I found a reason, darts.

Back there and back then bars wanting to pull in upper scale people who would pay more for drinks would come up with reasons for people to spend their drinking dollars. A good many bars made the mistake of bringing in karoake. Bars that wanted to cater to the unionized working class created pool leagues. Bars that wanted to bring in mostly office and tech workers hosted weekly dart tournaments.

Dart tournaments tended to be blind draw double elimination cricket tournaments. (No, not that outdoor game with funny bats.) True, some of these dart tournaments attracted people who simply followed the dart tournaments around to generate or enhance their income. Any person who could consistently put up eight or nine marks each time they threw could win with most any partner drawn out of a hat. If you lived in a big enough area you could find a weekly blind draw tournament up to six nights per week so you could add $600 a week to your gross income.

A double elimination tournament was a great thing from the view of the bar. Most everyone would drink. Half of the field would be eliminated by the third round with little else to do while waiting to see who won.

I guess it is a natural that the tournaments became a blend of office workers looking for an excuse to drink and people with wait staff type jobs working mostly over the lunch hour. It was at one of these tournaments where I got caught up in a conversation with a guy who was marrying a girl that worked at Denny’s. Actually I enjoyed listening to the conversation. One line I overheard stuck with me the rest of my life.

“I don’t care how big of a percentage tipper you are, when you are working off a $1.99 Grand Slam, it simply isn’t going to be much.”

The conversation, of course, was him trying to get his friends and hers to convince her to go work at a higher paying place so they might one day be able to get a home of their own and have a baby. The problem was that she liked the crew and the regulars she had. The place had become home to her. The fact she would never be able to purchase a home anywhere near where she worked for what she made didn’t enter into the equation for her.

Why is this topic finding its way to my blog now? I went to Steak & Shake for breakfast this morning. I sat at the bar as usual and left a $3 tip for a meal which cost less than $7. Someone sitting farther down the bar gave the tip a hairy eyeball which he hoped I didn’t notice. I said nothing and left.

For those who have never sat at the bar in a Steak & Shake, it is literally right up by the grill. The person working that grill can, in less than two steps, roughly one good stride, get over to that counter and whack a patron with those diabolically long spatulas they have. You do not, under any conditions, start or attempt to finish an argument in that general area unless you want a bleeding ear covered in grease fresh off the grill.

We have a large discussion in this country centered around forcing big box stores to pay a living wage. What we don’t have is a discussion centered around patrons who can, providing a living tip.

Speaking as someone who has observed this many times, it does appear that wait staff serving you 4 meals for under $4 have to do just about the same amount of work as the staff serving you a $30 meal. The main differences appear to be they don’t have as nice an outfit and cannot inflate your bill dramatically by providing high priced domestic alcohol like those chain places with “flair” or is it “flare”?

Putting it bluntly, why aren’t you leaving a “living tip”? They burned a half hour of their lives waiting on your table, why are you leaving less than $3? Don’t give me that “kids to put through college” bullshit. If that were true you would bring lunch from home or pick it up at a counter where tipping isn’t allowed. You wanted someone to wait on you and you didn’t want to pay for it. When you kid is finally in college and waiting tables to help pay for it, I hope they have you as a customer.