A friend who is the GM of a high-end, perennially busy and very popular restaurant, once confided to me how he secretly worries that one day he will open for dinner service and not one guest will walk through the door.
“You’re joking, right?” I teased him at the time. Please.
“Not really,” he said. “Obviously I know it will probably never happen, but it’s just this nagging fear, almost like a phobia.”
He sounded almost serious, but then I caught him smirking as he lit his next cigarette. “I know. I know,” he laughed. “I should just shut up. Why do I even tell you these things?”
Then we had the season that wasn’t really a season. Summer provided a surprising pop, however, as mostly tourists from chilly European climates bared their fish-belly white bodies in our sweltering, 105-degree-heat-index version of a steam bath. But post Labor Day, September heralded a huge drop in business, even in the locals’ spots. And just when everyone thought September was the slowest month ever, October dragged itself into town, and now I wonder how anyone will make November’s rent.
I also fully appreciate my friend’s paranoia.
Last night–Saturday night–despite having live music and offering a cheap dinner special, I had two customers at my bar between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Two. People trickled in after that, and for a couple of hours I had a semi-full bar, but as if on cue, they all left by 11 p.m. All but a guy I’d never seen before, who had earlier introduced himself as Bob. He was a pleasant enough man, quiet and undemanding, who nursed his two drafts like they were after-dinner liquors.
As the musician packed up his gear, Bob looked around at the otherwise empty bar. “Is it always so slow on a Saturday night?” he asked.
“No, this is really slow for us,” I told him while I wiped down a section of the bar that was already clean. “Welcome to my October.”
Several giggling girls walked in just then, each sporting different work T-shirts from various eateries. They sighed as they pulled out bar stools and sat down, reacting almost as if they were sinking into comfortable plush chairs. One yanked the elastic out of her pony tail and shook her long blond hair around her shoulders. Another untied her apron, rolled it up, and shoved it in her suitcase-sized purse.
“Jaegar-bomb,” said one as I pushed coasters in front of them. “Please,” she smiled a second later. “Sorry, long shift.”
“Make it two,” said the blond.
“Just make one for each of us,” said the third girl, glancing toward the door to wave at another friend who’d just arrived. “Her, too. Thanks.”
Bob watched and listened as the group knocked back their drinks, ordered drafts, and bantered back and forth about crappy tips and pain-in-the-ass customers and how they wished they’d saved more money in season because now everything is so, so slow, and maybe they should just go west and work a ski season someplace, you know, to make it up somehow.
Bob caught my eye and called me over to his corner of the bar. “Back those girls up on me, please.”
When I placed tiny plastic cups in front of each girl, and told them, “These are on Bob, over there,” they regained their work demeanors in an instant, smiling and waving thanks in the way servers sometimes do to make you think they’re your best pal, but it’s really all about the gratuity.
Just as quickly, they turned back to each other and continued their circular discussion about their off-season woes. They were now oblivious to Bob.
Poor Bob. He seemed like a nice guy. He didn’t hide his wedding band and he really didn’t appear to want to hit on the girls. He just seemed a little lonely being down here for a week for some random work project, while his family shivered in the snow up north in Pennsylvania.
The girls wanted nothing to do with Bob, however, which I understood. When you get off work, after having to be “on” for so long for so little, you just want to be with your friends and not have to talk to anyone else. Especially a lonely married guy.
“I’m beat,” yawned one of the girls after a couple of rounds.
“Yeah, me too,” said another, scrounging in her bag for her wallet.
“What do we owe you?” asked the blond.
I gave them their tab, and they piled up a wad of ones and fives, which included a nice tip. Gotta love your customers in the business.
“Thanks again,” said one to Bob. He raised his glass toward them and smiled.
“Wait,” said the blond to her friends as she dug in her purse for some cash. “Back up Bob for us, okay?” she said.
And off they went, leaving Bob behind with a tiny plastic cup beside his beer. “That was nice of those girls,” he said.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” I said.
“Nah. I’m outta here, too. Buy yourself a second shift drink with it.”
And with that, Bob plunked a 100-dollar bill on the bar for the remainder of his less-than $20 tab, and said, “The change is yours, sweetheart. Thanks for letting me sit here all night.”
I was so stunned, I barely had a chance to thank him before he was gone.
On this slow night, during a very slow time of the year, when no one is making money and everyone is tight as hell, Bob backed up the girls, the girls backed up Bob, the girls were generous to me, and Bob ensured my night was not a financial disaster.
If he comes back tonight, I’ll have Bob’s back, for sure. And a round for the girls, too.