May You Live in Interesting Times

In the early 1980s when I transferred to Dalt’s restaurant in Miami as an opening team member, I never imagined I was beginning a life in the restaurant business that would last more than a decade, that I would invent an entire category of health drinks for TGI Friday’s that are still on their menu thirty years later (and for which I would never get credit—ever drink a Silver Medalist?), nor that my experiences in the service industry would comprise enough material to jump-start my writing career. The two years I spent behind Dalt’s bar in Miami, however, would afford me more boredom, horror, and glory than I would ever again experience inside or outside the restaurant business.

Finally graduated, I drove out of Connecticut in my blue Mercury Capri in search of a lifestyle that complimented the keg parties and late night grain alcohol fests I’d enjoyed throughout my college career. After all, I was only twenty-three; I did not yet need to take life seriously. I just knew I’d always land on my feet. After all, when in college, I could study for an exam for an hour, breeze in and ace it, and still have enough time to stop by Ernie’s package store and grab a half-gallon of Riunite Lambrusco before the next party got going. The wild, wide open city of Miami, its pristine beaches and flaming, Hispanic-tinged beat seemed a perfect venue for my sybaritic lifestyle.

Our first week in Kendall, the traveling team set about training new hires to TGI Friday’s exacting standards—Friday’s was Dalt’s parent company and in those days maintained the highest standards for their customers even while upper management (all male) used female hourly employees as their personal harem. Pre-AIDS, most of the ladies tapped were delighted to oblige. Maybe they hoped it would get them into middle management or even a marriage bed. It would have been easier to get into the bed than management. This was a serious boys’ club. Women might as well have been assigned dancing poles and G-strings on the day they were hired. Balancing a P&L would never be part of their future. Having experienced a situation much the same while in college, (I hung with the jocks), this casual misogyny didn’t ruffle my feathers. Being dismissed seemed a normal part of doing business in a man’s world. I was happy twirling bottles behind the bar.

Miami’s sister restaurants, Dalt’s and Friday’s, were ground zero for these slippery tongued, hand-up-the-shirt-while-leaning-against-the-bar-before-we-end-up-in-the-motel-bed encounters between the upper management Gods who flew in from Dallas and the limber girls of Biscayne’s beaches. There was only one regional who caught my eye, and he never asked, so I remained above the fray, free to offer an amused glance across the bar, the occasional shoulder to cry on, or a free plate of chicken nachos for the inevitable female casualties. Amazing how many business trips Friday’s vice presidents had to make to our two little restaurants in Miami. We must have been pretty incompetent, or easy.

The first week I was in Miami as Steeley Dan’s Gaucho poured from the loudspeakers, I marble-polished the restaurant’s bar top, preparing to open for lunch when I heard a faint pop, pop just outside. The noise seemed to have come from the parking lot. I was not raised around weapons so figured a car backfired in Miami’s heat. A few minutes later, I heard the wail of sirens as a dozen police cars screamed into the lot and slammed to a stop twenty feet from the plate glass. Wandering to the window to get a better look, I was horrified to see the friendly pharmacist from the drug store three doors down hanging head first from the driver’s seat of his car; his left hand trailed in a widening pool of his own blood.

Miami in the 1980s was a place of frequent and violent death. The graceful mimosa trees lining the streets of Coconut Grove, the orange/blue/yellow/green parrots flying through their branches, had to compete for attention with dark faced Colombians whose singular goal when double-crossed was to slaughter not only a business partner, but his entire family, sometimes leaving even five year old children with what we all came to know as a Colombian necktie, a throat slashed from ear to ear, a tongue pulled through the gaping gash. We found out later the pharmacist had been making a bit of extra money on the side, dealing cocaine out of the back door of his place of business.

His family, who lived beyond the brick wall separating our strip center from the expensive surrounding neighborhood, fared no better. Within days, they had been gunned down at home—all five of them, including children and grandma, as a brutal lesson to anyone else who thought they were immune from the long reach of Medellin. One quickly learned that in Miami death did not come only for those who lived near Calle Ocho with its storefronts selling smuggled Cuban cigars, its tiny, dark restaurants, smelling deliciously of arroz con pollo, and its exotic witch doctors practicing Santaria alongside rabid Republican Batista émigrés. In Miami, the reaper was classless, sexless, urban, suburban, a firm practitioner of equal opportunity. I would soon understand that an Uzi semi-automatic tucked under a car seat was not an unusual fashion accessory for those living the good life here in our tropical paradise.

One bonus of living in Miami I discovered early on was the thousands of carnations sold by wizened Hispanic tias who sat all day camped on lounge chairs beneath wide umbrellas under just about every bridge downtown. Cocaine was smuggled into the Port of Miami and Miami International Airport tucked within these colorful shipments of flowers. After the product was transferred, the flowers were given away to grannies and the poor who would sell them for a dollar or two a dozen. The condo I shared with my new waiter friend Paul usually looked like a funeral home. So pretty.

The customers at Dalt’s were as wide-ranging as the methods by which one could perish in South Florida. Toward the end of my first month bartending at Dalt’s, Jack became a regular who was soon considered, like the hand-ground, twice daily mushroom/swiss burgers we served and the stainless backsplashes, a fixture at the bar. He was good looking in a mean, blue-collar, wind-swept kind of way; his face carried traces of Miami sun even in winter. One Friday night he drank a few too many Mount Gay rum and OJ’s, and I had to cut him off.

He was loud and obnoxious, bothering two women sitting near him at the bar. He screamed at and threatened me when I refused to pour him another cocktail, telling me I didn’t know who I was messing with. Luckily, two off duty policemen were sitting in the restaurant just on the other side of a mahogany partition that separated the partiers from the foodies. Jack hadn’t noticed them, but they heard him. They dropped their burgers and came around to the bar. Each grabbed one of Jack’s arms and perp walked him out of the place.

When they came back about ten minutes later, one of them pulled me aside to tell me they’d run his sheet. Six weeks prior, Jack had been released from prison after serving eight months for robbery, assault, and battery. The young officer told me they’d warned Jack not to come back, but that I should be wary when going to my car after hours for the next few months. After seeing the blood of the pharmacist, this news was unpleasant, but I was starting to get the hang of Miami life and so was only a bit worried. I was twenty-three. I was never going to die. The manager comped the officers’ meals.

Four months later, a seemingly chastened Jack strolled back through the doors just as I was getting off at 6:00 PM after working the day shift. Dalt’s and Friday’s had a policy that every staff member was allowed one free shift drink, house beer or wine, after they clocked out. This policy was deviously lucrative for the company. Show me one twenty-something who will sit at a bar after an eight hour shift and drink only one cocktail and then head home to finish up War and Peace, or, on the other hand, turn down a free drink.

For us, Miami Dalt’s was where all things happened; this was where one’s friends worked and played, where plans for hitting the Keys, driving into the Grove to dance to the Gingerman’s jazzmen or slop down oysters at Monty Trainer’s, were made. If a person went home, he or she might miss the midnight hop on a Chalks plane over to the Bahamas to gamble away the night. Not only did Dalt’s rake in money by paying us less than minimum wage, they also managed to fork in a majority or our hard-earned tip money as we drank ourselves back into genteel poverty each night, waiting for the next party to begin. These guys were monetary geniuses; horny, dirty old men, but geniuses nevertheless.

…Back to Jack. I came out of the kitchen area and sat near the service bar where I ordered white wine. I had changed out of my blue oxford button down and tie into a T-shirt. Employees off the clock could drink themselves shitfaced at the bar if they wanted to, but not in a uniform that indicated they were Dalt’s employees. We had to become incognito drunks—as if no one would know. Anyway, the bar was just getting noisy as people flooded through the front doors, searching for friends and calling out to others they knew who’d already beat them to the taps. Jack appeared through the throng and sidled up to me, careful not to get too close and said “Hi.” I replied in kind and turned to speak with another regular customer, Sheldon, a Miami homicide detective who was a fishing buddy of one of the other bartenders. Realizing I wasn’t going to have him tossed out on his ear, (I was forgiving in those days or maybe just utterly stupid), Jack ordered a rum and OJ and settled onto the stool next to me.

Sheldon strolled to the other end of the bar to scope out the ladies coming through the front doors, so I turned toward Jack, not exactly wanting a conversation with him but feeling benevolent after a second glass of Chablis. Why not, I asked myself; why hold a grudge? Jack told me he’d recently taken up a new hobby, and I mumbled something encouraging in reply, gazing around for someone else to speak to. He said he’d been taking skydiving lessons and asked if I’d be interested in learning. Before I had a chance to turn him down, he stuck his lips close against my ear and snarled, “and I’ll pack your chute.” Well, so much for benevolence. I stood and speed walked down the bar to Sheldon and told him what the moron had just said to me. I forgot to tell you, Sheldon was about six foot seven and weighed in at around 285 pounds of mostly cop muscle. He also fancied himself a protector of the fairer sex. He walked over to Jack and spoke quietly down into his face for a minute or so, after which Jack trotted out the door, his forgotten rum and OJ sweating rings on the bartop. I never saw him again nor did I ever take up skydiving.

Two more regulars, Felix and Julian, were Honduran pilots between gigs after being laid off by Tan Airlines. They became part of the family at Dalt’s, unfailingly sitting at the end of the bar nearest the restrooms in order to get a first look at all the ladies who would eventually have to pass their way. Julian was charming. Tall, dark, and handsome, he always wore brown tinted aviators, even at night. A highly educated product of the Honduran upper classes, Julian’s father was a doctor and his mother a busy socialite. Felix was his childhood sidekick, always quick with a joke or a large tip. If one wasn’t too choosey, there was plenty of work for experienced pilots in this Miami, the unofficial capitol of South America, and the two men would sometimes disappear for a week or more only to slip back into their seats, loaded down with $100 bills. Just another couple of excitement junkies, they didn’t talk about their jobs. We didn’t ask.

It was only years later when I was long out of the restaurant business, a mother of two young sons and living in Dallas that I checked out a book in the local library called The Kings of Cocaine that reunited me with Felix. The book, detailing the history of life in the drug trade in the early 1980s and focusing on the Miami I knew, explained Felix’s status as a drug pilot. We had heard a few years earlier that Julian and his plane disappeared over the Colombian mountains on a moonless night in 1986. Felix, however, our jovial Miami party pal, was serving a life sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for being a key component of Pablo Escobar’s highly successful Colombian drug cartel. By then, Dalt’s was history, its doors shuttered for good somewhere during the nineties, and now I had discovered that my old friends were unreachable too.

It is now almost thirty years on. These days I am an associate professor, making slightly less than I did as a freewheeling bartender tossing bottles in the air and pouring four at once to make Long Island Ice Teas. Escobar is dead, shot by the Colombian police, Dalt’s is gone; some of my fellow bartenders have died; others disappeared like smoke into the hungry maw of time and distance; one has become my ex-husband. My children are grown and have lives of their own. Friday’s is now a “bistro.” The sweet little pharmacist and his family are, finally, piles of milky bone and skull.

Every so often, Gaucho plays over a loudspeaker somewhere, and I am transported to an early morning beach, my bare feet splashing along the edge of Key Biscayne’s robin’s egg blue water as it stretches east to welcome another of Miami’s perfect sunrises, my eyes not yet ready to close for sleep. Sometimes, I hear Felix and Julian’s laughter erupt from their seats near the restrooms as a pretty girl walks by, and I picture Jack, skulking outside, rising to peek through the plate glass at me, his eyes still filled with a hunger for revenge. Sheldon stands next to me, his arm draped casually on my seat back as I perch near the service bar, my face fresh with mischief, my auburn hair shining and long, my forehead unlined by the vise of years as I wait for that first cool sip of Chablis that will start the party rolling, one more time.

First Published at Gloom Cupboard, 2011. http://gloomcupboard.com/2011/08/27/may-you-live-in-interesting-times-by-jp-reese/

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