Sunday, November 13, 2011

Raki Road

Pyrros Dimas entered Spain in 1992, freshly 21 years old, hailing from Greece, and dawning his country’s colors he stepped into the Olympic arena as a weight lifter. Young to the games, Pyrros held the weight over his head for a few seconds after the buzzer rung for pictures to be taken. Upon his Olympic gold winning lift, he shouted "Yia tin Ellada!"; meaning "For Greece!". Pyrros won the gold medal and the hearts Europeans everywhere.  The kid had defeated men in a match dominated by elder experience and long-withstanding muscle.

Reclining to the sofa, scrolling thru the channels of NFL live bludgeoning and forecasts of Gaddafi’s newly declining regime, it struck me: it’s Sunday, and I’m not working at a restaurant. For the past 3 years, I’ve diligently sped the wheels to the tour bus, or Honda Civic, to get to Minneapolis in time for my Sunday shift at the Old Spaghetti Factory. Upon my initial hiring at the Spag Factory, I made it clear I could work most Thursdays, few Fridays and Saturdays, and all Sundays. After several debacles and schedule snafus, my tenure was solidified as the Sunday shift. The manager at the time, Chris, thought nothing of it as I was able to cover shifts for those who couldn’t make their weekend schedules, or just wanted a night off. I was a ghost, disappearing from the sight of my co-workers weeks at a time, and then showing up four nights in a row to cover several shifts and take the usual Sunday. Quite the job for a touring musician.

Aside from schedule flexibility, what worked best was the management’s personable attitude towards the staff. Never had I respected a boss more than Chris and the management beneath him. Rounding my 3rd weekend of work, Chris asked to see me in his office. I had strolled in 8 minutes late, and knew I deserved whatever punishment Chris deemed suitable. Usually the messenger of a jolly smile, cheerfulness, and chuckle wherever he walked about in the restaurant, the demeanor dropped as we sat in his office.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to fire you, but we sat your section with Laura before we even opened because we knew you’d be late. And here you are, 8 minutes late. This is the kind of precedent you’ve set here with us. It has to change.” From that point on, I was never late for work again under Chris’ regime.

Punctuality has never been a strength of mine, at least back when beginning at the Factory. Chris’ simple meeting had turned that around for me. No need to threaten, scold or shame. We understood what the problem was, and it was up to me to turn it around… or find a new job. Thank bejeezus I did.

Enter Atlanta, 1996- Potentially one of the worst Olympics of all time. Bombings, disorganization, and well- the U.S. Pyrros distracted by none of it and riding off of two world championships, was the heavy favorite to take the weight lifting gold again. Still a youngster in a man’s event, at 25 years old, Pyrros dominated the field, shouting "Yia tin Ellada!" after his gold medal winning lift. By the end of the games, the phrase had become a slogan throughout Greece.

2.5 years passed, and the Factory had become one of my longest standing employments outside of working with youth. My tenure with restaurants had never been that of long-term. The Bayside Grill lasted several months over the summer, until the 2 hour bus ride from the city to Lake Minnetonka became turned into no-call no-show. The Glockenspiel worked from about a year until the schedule got so out of whack that staffing became day-to-day. You’d have to call in to find out when you worked. In the end, I’d take my schedule into my own hands and respectfully decline employment at the Glockenspiel.

The summer was winding down, veteran servers and bartenders began moving out with the incoming fall season. Along with the in-and-out wave of staff, came Chris’ goodbye. I can’t say exactly what it was that influenced his departure, perhaps the longing of more time with his daughter and a less time-consuming job schedule. Whatever it was, it changed the entire face & feel of the building. Less Chris’ departure, but more the arrival of the new general manager… Raki. God knows what the origin of it is, but I heard a few staff pronounce it as “Rocky”.

Having worked at OSF years ago in 2000, moved out to California to manage an OSF in San Diego, Raki took the opportunity to take over the general manager position in Minneapolis. Quiet, somber-faced, and all seemingly too calm, there was an edge to Raki. Not the cool Jeremy-Renner-Hurt-Locker type’a edge, but more of a Jeremy-Renner-The-Town type’a edge. Something was off, and verifiably not cool about Raki. He’d looked the kid that jocks and cheerleaders took target to in the cafeteria and had successfully hit with one sandwich too many turning a naïve & feeble minded freshmen into a cold hearted grown man.

I watched my back, but played it cool. Didn’t need the job, but didn’t want to get into it with this guy. So went the spaghetti, so went the factory.

Long past the age of youth, bordering 30 years of age, and now a married man- enter 2000, Sydney, Australia. Pyrros had recently taken Silver in the weight lifting world championships the year before in Athens, and was now facing a new cast of youngsters in the game. To win these Olympics would mean a legacy, to lose would potentially end his career.

There’s something to the Olympics that legitimizes the term “Here all, and end all”. The stretch of 4 years between each ceremony, the gathering of the best of the best of the best on the planet, or the shared human spirit of competition- to assert one’s best not amongst another, but to him or herself. To display to the world your personal best- whatever it is to the Olympics, Pyrros embodied it. Shouting "Yia tin Ellada!" once again as he raised the bar over his head to win Olympic gold in Sydney 2000.

Falling to the new regime & general management of Raki, several key players had put in there two-weeks notice to leave the Old Spaghetti Factory. It was becoming a consorted circus staff of faces without names, and some schmuck who happened to show up every now & then on Sunday… me. It wasn’t worth it, rushing from Milwaukee, Ames, Chicago, anywhere in the Midwest to make the Sunday shift. Shows were paying enough to bypass the stress and Raki wasn’t helping. Usually the gen. manager jumped in, rolled up the sleeves to help out when the going got busy and the restaurant was slammed. Raki, however, positioned himself in certain corners of the kitchen and dining rooms to survey who was slipping, not up to code, and/or falling outside of the standard in his eyes.

You see, Raki at heart is a micro-manager. The perspective is great when in the position of micro management, but when employed as a general manager… it turns into the relationship of a paranoid insecure lover. Raki, however was more surgical than this- more tedious- an overpowered useless satellite of sorts, if I may. Raki was a paranoid schizophrenic insecure lover. The only ones to accept his general management would be the newly hired females and teenage boys that knew nothing outside of his law. Chris’ previous staff realized the unnecessary work load they were incurring under Raki’s legislature and wanted out. However, for me, I ran the course of an old dilapidated car under the advice of NPR’s Garage Talk… run it into the ground. I drove the job into the dirt, and never looked back.

The secret to running it into the ground was very simple though. I knew that if I went about my job long enough, and simply did what I had always done, Raki would find a way to detach me from the staffing list. I was more interested in how he would do this than anything.

So, checking my schedule online after returning from another Midwest tour speeding from Milwaukee at 8am to make Minneapolis by 2pm (at the latest), I discovered my shift had magically disappeared. I called into Jay the shift manager underneath Raki. Jay, not the coolest fruit in the fridge, was still damn cool relative to Raki. I hated the guy after several meetings with him, but came to like him later on. Jay started as a dishwasher at OSF, and moved up to management. Humble beginnings, made for a humble manager. Once upon finding that I had to be at a show at the Triple Rock while still at OSF, Jay told, “Get outta here, you gotta make your show, Toussaint. Clearly, this is important to you”. No bullshit, no sarcasm, the guy saw my request and let me leave the building right then and there… and retain my employment.

Speaking with him now, under the Raki regime, the game had changed. He light-heartedly suggested I schedule a meeting with Raki that Tuesday. I did, we met, and it wudn’t purdy.

“Wow- when I saw that I had a meeting with Toussaint, honestly I was surprised! Didn’t know you worked here anymore…” Raki slung about, leaning his play-doh like slouched body into his twirly management chair. “Did you get any of my messages?” he asked. “Umm, I don’t believe anyone called me” I responded. “No, my emails- the messages online” he retorted. I stayed firm. This was it, this was how he was going to cut the employment. “Umm, no I check my online schedule about once every two weeks when the schedule is made, and na- haven’t seen any messages”, I responded, no smirk, straight business. “Well, what it comes down to is if you can you work 4 days out of the week- it’s a new rule- everyone’s gotta work 4 days out of the week”. I’d heard of the new rule, but never got a memo or request to subscribe to it. Never had I been stopped by Raki in real-time, by phone, or online to subscribe to the new rule. In the end, it led to my firing… for not responding online to Raki. Although I’d given him the 4 days he’d requested, it was not to be.

Now, a father, a legacy, a monolith to the Greek community, Pyrros had not won a weight lifting title since 2000 in Sydney. With an knee blown out, an injured wrist, several other injuries pending, and the pressure of an entire continent to compete, Pyrros took the challenge to defend his Olympic title in the 2004 Beijing Olympic games. The 33 year-old Olympic legend entered the arena one final time where no human being has ever reigned a 4-time Olympic champion, however Pyrros Dimas would rival it.

Failing several weight lifts, Pyrros took his last try. With several men ahead of him in ranks for a medal, Pyrros pulled… and dropped the bar to the ground. "Yia tin Ellada” would not be heard at these games. However, the entire audience at the arena would stand for several minutes to applaud the former-champs exit from the games. Seconds after dropping the bar, Pyrros swiftly took off his shoes and placed them to the right of the stage. The gesture was a signal of his retirement, and in the more literal sense to challenge the future of Olympic weight lifters to fill his shoes.

Still reclined on the sofa, bathing in the lap of the Day of Rest, I took a break from television watching Bud Greenspan’s documentary of Pyrros Dimas and the Beijing 2004 Olympics to glance over at the dining room table. There lay my work shoes next to a dining room chair where I’d last left them. Empty, torn, laceless, and reminder to the years served at the Factory. Soon moving to Los Angeles, and employed to a full schedule of music, the shoes were useless to me. Even the most evil of intention in me wouldn’t wish someone to return to work at that building. I’d wish no one to have to fill those shoes. I stood up from the couch, grabbed the old pair of black suedes off the floor and walked them out to the garbage next to the garage.

1 comment:

  1. Great introspection as always..

    I didn't realize you were moving away :/