Real Life Firing Histories
1. Old Ownership: Fired for Fighting for Justice
In the mid 90s, middling restaurants in Brooklyn were vacillating between trying to emulate the imagined classiness of Manhattan and exalting in the noble, working-class charm of Brooklyn (that dichotomy used to exist!). At Second Street Café, in Park Slope, there was a high-end espresso machine behind the counter, but the sandwiches were no-nonsense, and the service was decidedly casual. When I first started working there, the ownership was similarly ambivalent: Jay (I never learned his last name) was manic, showing up unexpectedly to nitpick, then disappearing for weeks. He perennially tried to cut corners, then acted surprised about the results.
“Why are there only three chairs at this table? Didn’t I fix the broken one last week?”
“The duct tape broke and a lady fell on the floor.”
“Hmm. Well, OK. I’ll look into it.”
Then he’d go to the basement and bring up another duct-tape reinforced chair – or maybe the same one with more tape – and move on to complaining about something else.
For a while, he opened another café about a mile away, a tiny place with just a counter and a cooler, stocking only weird sodas and stale, pre-made sandwiches that hadn’t sold the day before at Second Street. He would sometimes have me work there, which was boring because the place seemed to get no business at all, ever. I would also periodically be given the task of carrying large bundles of cash in zippered canvas pouches from Second Street Cafe to the new place. Even in broad daylight, this made me extraordinarily nervous. In hindsight, I should have arranged for some acquaintance of mine to “rob” me, but I was apparently too upstanding at the time. (I hadn’t gone to law school yet.)
The Second Street employees were a mix of college students, Brooklyn lifers, and Mexican immigrants, and we all pretty much got along. There was an informal arrangement with the folks at Two Boots Pizzeria, around the corner, that they would get free coffee on breaks and we would get free drinks after closing. At least once a week, we’d all crowd the pizza place’s little bar and get thoroughly drunk into the wee hours.
This forged a workplace solidarity that proved useful about a year and a half into my tenure, when I was training a new hire and discovered that she was making a dollar more per hour than I was. I started asking around, and it quickly became clear that the salaries were completely arbitrary and unconnected to seniority. So, after conferring with my coworkers, I called Jay from the restaurant one Friday afternoon and told him that if all the senior employees didn’t get raises immediately, no one would come to work the next day.
“You shouldn’t talk with coworkers about what you make,” he said nervously.
“Why not?” I asked. Everyone on shift was standing around the phone watching.
He paused a moment. “Look, how about I put the raises in for the next pay period?”
“Fine!” He hung up and I reported the success to my coworkers. We got extra drunk after that shift.
Amazingly, Jay was true to his word. He had to pay some of us the difference in cash, because he couldn’t figure out how to make the changes in his payroll system in the middle of a pay period. For some reason, he waited three weeks to fire me. He handed me my check and said, “It’s just not working out.”
2. New Ownership: Fired for Losing My Temper
While I cultivated a career as a part-time office drone at a non-profit (“Communications Intern”), followed by a career as a part-time bike messenger, Second Street changed ownership. Instead of Jay, whose principle qualifications seemed to be craziness and inexplicable access to capital, the place was taken over by Joe and Ted, a career waiter and a career chef, respectively. They expanded the menu and improved the kitchen, and when they looked to hire new waitstaff, the other employees recommended me. This came at a propitious moment, as I had just suffered an unfortunate, bus-related head injury in my messenger job. So I returned to Second Street a little older, probably no wiser, and with a small hard lump on my forehead, inflicted by a violent encounter with the pavement of Madison Avenue.
The new management was way better than the old, and the place seemed to be doing well. The shifts were regular, the pay was uniform, and the expectations were reasonable. It wasn’t uncommon for me to clear $100 in tips on a weeknight dinner shift, plus I got a free meal and could periodically carry home half-empty bottles of the house red. Basically, it was a college student’s dream job.
Brooklyn was starting its long, slow metamorphosis from regular place to rarefied playground for the wealthy, and the clientele reflected this. We still got lots of the sort of old-timers who took pride in not having set foot in “the city” (i.e., Manhattan) in years, along with the young, artsy strivers. But by this time, some of those artsy strivers were established successes: Steve Buscemi was a regular (afternoon coffee), as was Paul Aster (brunch) and Andrea Dworkin (tea, if memory serves). There was also a crop of inordinately fussy, demanding patrons who never seemed to come in under Jay’s tenure: coffee snobs, people who would send perfectly good entrees back to the kitchen multiple times, tourists.
By rights, I should have been fired for how I dealt with some of these customers, but the owners seemed to feel that having surly diners get a periodic dressing-down from an even surlier waiter who could turn on the Brooklyn when he was pissed was a good thing. In my defense, I was good-natured and patient up to a point. I can remember one woman who started with soup. “It’s too cold,” she complained after a bite.
“I’m sorry. Shall I warm it up for you?”
“In a microwave?! Just forget it.” In the kitchen, I tested the soup. It seemed fine.
She had ordered the tuna, seared on the outside but rare on the inside.
“Did you write that down?” she asked when she ordered.
“I’ll remember it,” I said. “Seared on the outside, rare on the inside. I’ll tell the chef right now.”
I told the chef. The tuna came out looking delicious, but she reported that it was overdone on the inside. I ate it later, and it was a bit dry but still delicious. I was apologetic and the cook tried again, turning the heat up extra high. This time, it was deemed too rare on the inside. I ate that one too – it was amazing.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Shall I have the chef try again, or would you like to pick something else? Whatever it is, it’s on the house.”
“On the house!” she snorted. “What I want is for you people to learn something about how to run a restaurant! And you,” and here, she pointed a bony finger at me, “if you had told them how I wanted it in the first place, we wouldn’t have this problem!”
“Look, lady,” I said. “Forget the wine. Everything’s on the house. You clearly want the Waldorf-Astoria, and this ain’t it. The train station’s on Flatbush Avenue.” I stood there, pointing at the door, waiting for her to leave. Not surprisingly, she asked to speak to a manager. As it happened, Ted had been doing inventory in the back of the kitchen and heard the exchange. He came out as I was going to get him, and I was pretty sure I was about to get fired. He went over to the woman’s table.
“Josh is right,” he said frankly. “This isn’t the place for you.” And he turned and walked past me into the kitchen. The woman gathered up her coat and left, clearly furious. Ted never even mentioned the incident to me after that. (Yelp didn’t exist yet.)
The end came for me a little over a year later. I had graduated college and was teaching adult ed. in Bushwick, and was only at the restaurant twice a week, one dinner and one brunch. One morning, I came in to find the waiters’ station totally rearranged, which was irritating but not entirely surprising. While Joe was content to hover on the floor, chatting with customers and busing a table when things got busy, Ted was obsessed with improvement and efficiency. This meant that he would make periodic, unannounced changes: reorganizing food in the fridges and freezers, changing the orientation of the counter where the sous chefs did their thing, stuff like that. These may have been positive, but since most of what employees do in a busy restaurant is based on routine and muscle memory, there was always a steep learning curve.
On the day of the new waiters’ station, the learning curve involved a lot of broken water glasses — by me, the other waiter, and the busser — and a consequent slowdown of table service. At about noon, with brunch in full swing and a line out the door, Ted appeared from his basement office to chide us for letting things back up. His chiding employed the word “fuck” liberally. I do not mind the word “fuck,” but I was having a trying shift and was probably hung over, so I responded to Ted’s chiding, explaining that things would be a lot better if he would stay in the fucking kitchen and not turn every fucking thing upside-down for no fucking reason.
“OK, OK,” he said softly, holding both hands up apologetically. “We can talk about it later.”
He fired me at the end of the shift.
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