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.


The Skull Beneath The Skin

My father always loved to dance. Dad’s dancing earned him a plaque at a sales convention decades ago: Gold, spray-painted ballet shoes mounted on a maple square, a brass rectangle beneath pronounced John Reese “Twinkle Toes” for all time. That award hung in his home office for years after his retirement, long after he had taken down all the others he won throughout his life as a successful businessman, a traveler of the country, and a man almost as famous for his ribald sense of humor and vodka martinis as his business acumen.

As soon as we could walk without falling, he taught we three girls to move smoothly around a room, to twirl and touch lightly, then move out and around, beneath his extended arm, led by his gentle, confident hands. He was a big man all his life, yet when we pushed the coffee table aside and moved the chairs, he became feather-light. His feet knew exactly how to touch the earth, his hands to lead us in flight around the room as Benny Goodman did his turn on the record player. Fred Astair had nothin’ on him.

I couldn’t stop yawning. My long teaching day over, I just wanted to sip a glass of cabernet and settle in to watch the news and drift. When the phone rang, I didn’t want to answer it. The ringing eventually stopped but began again almost immediately so, reluctantly, I answered. It was my brother-in-law, Carlos. For the rest of my life I will associate the inciting moment of my father’s dying with Carlos’ voice over a telephone.

“Your father is in the emergency room. You should come.”

“What happened?”

“He was at your mom’s, and we think he had a stroke.”

Earlier that Friday, Carlos had taken my father to the Alzheimer’s Day Care center where he spent a few hours putting puzzles together and dancing with the ladies. His mind was slowly shutting down; the myriad pills he had to take made drinking a cocktail impossible. He was no longer allowed to drive a car, but his feet still remembered how to move around a dance floor. He was a popular partner, and the ladies waited for a chance to be his. Afterward, Carlos dropped him at my mother’s apartment for a visit before Dad would return to my sister’s home where he now lived. He never made it to my sister’s. So began our lesson in the inexplicable cruelty inherent in the process of a dying that lasts too long.

It’s not as if I were a virgin to death. As a teen in the late sixties and early seventies, some of my friends died; one, on a rainy night, flew from his Harley, handsome head sans helmet crushed against a curb. One friend left his body behind after downing one Rohr 714 too many. Another, when I was a mother myself, the five year old child of a friend, simply slipped away in the middle of a bubble bath. I knew what dead was. I knew the fellow feeling I had for those deeply grieving others left behind, their eyes seemingly a bit wider, trying to assimilate a new inner vision created by the suddenness and shock of death. To the me who existed before December 2005, people were alive, then they were dead, and a funeral ensued. The process was usually sickeningly, startlingly sudden, and then it was over. Ironically, I came to understand that these are the lucky deaths. I was not yet familiar with the process death might choose to take, the long, sad whimper at the end of life that some human beings are forced to articulate before they are allowed to let go.

When I reached my father’s side in the emergency room, my mother was there, a woman whose body had literally shrunk in the last two years of my father’s illness. She looked fragile, her pale face a series of lines and shadows under the harsh glare of the hospital’s fluorescents. The man who balanced the checkbook, made the reservations, drove and gassed the cars, and took care of every bill had been slowly disappearing into his dementia over the many months leading up to this moment.

My parents had wed just after World War II. Products of their time and place, my father took care of everything—my mother supported him from home and as a charming bauble on his arm at conventions and other business functions. He was the worker bee, she the queen. It was almost impossible for her to accept that every truth she ever depended on was slipping away in the agonizingly slow substitution of this person on the table, whose second infancy was upon him, for her dynamic husband of over fifty years.

Though we did not recognize it at the time, that night in emergency was the beginning of my father’s long, painful, and disappointingly inarticulate conclusion. My sister Ellyn, in the next few months, truly believed Dad was going to get better and come home to her house where he lived away from my mother who was unable to care for him in his progressively dangerous wanderings and intellectual loss. He didn’t.

For hours, we took turns holding Dad’s thrashing and still remarkably strong body onto the emergency room table so he wouldn’t injure himself further. He could speak a little, but made little sense and was clearly not present from moment to moment. One thing I sensed was that this man was afraid. This recognition was hardest of all for me. My father never once in our lives indicated he was capable of feeling fear—It was impossible, absurd. Who was this person in my father’s body?

Thus began hours of sitting, weeping, cajoling, anger, begging nurses and interns for any information and, because this is my family, a few jokes to try to temper reality. We finally got Dad moved to a room upstairs. No one could offer us any definitive prognosis or diagnosis; dark faces in turquoise, purple, and pink scrubs simply glided in and out of his room, silently taking pulses, temperatures, injecting sedatives.

For a couple weeks we took turns sleeping in Dad’s room at night, Carlos bearing most of the burden, as Ellyn and I were working, and my mother was exhausted, incapable of anything but a short visit or two a day. Some days, they strapped my father’s hands to the bed rails. We didn’t object. Numb, we deferred to the doctors, the nurses, anyone who remotely resembled an authority figure. We should have taken him home.

Finally, word came down that Dad could be moved to a temporary healthcare facility nearby for “rehabilitation.” He again knew us, (most of the time); he could walk, haltingly and with help; he remembered some things, forgot others. He seemed to show improvement, and there was reason for us to believe he actually might get better. As the days turned to weeks, we scheduled all free hours to be near his bedside in shifts, Carlos again taking the brunt of the night to morning hours, sleeping in a green lounge chair I brought from home because the facility was understaffed and could not protect my Dad in his desire to escape. After a few weeks, we hired outside help for the long night hours.

When Dad was first admitted, I noticed that every day eight or nine patients were pulled up in their wheelchairs in front of the nurses’ station down the hall from his room. Most sat speechless, semi-dazed, their mouths agape, hands twisted, lying useless on their laps. I felt lucky Dad was not anywhere near as bad as they were. I pitied them their plight even as their circumstances gave me reason to hope Dad would walk out of there someday soon.

My father was given physical therapy daily; we wheeled him into the garden and around the halls, gave him chocolate ice cream from the cafeteria and sat for hours at his bedside, a thin, white curtain separating us from a progression of much sicker roommates. The bed next to him emptied twice while we sat watch, our denial of death fraying with each new silence beyond the curtain, as Dad begged us over and over to let him go home. We thought the staff and doctors knew better, and so we ignored his pleas with smiles, offering platitudes that did not soothe him in his desperation to get back to the familiar.

My father slowly stopped speaking. The pureed food they gave him so he wouldn’t choke to death dried on the plate or dribbled down his chin as we fed him. I learned to tend to him in the bathroom, wipe him gently as I did my small children, and help him safely back to bed. One day I walked in to find him slumped in his wheelchair, the newest member of the lost people placed around the nurse’s station.

At 7:00 am on a Saturday morning, I found my father alone in his room, naked from the waist down, pajama pants puddled around his ankles, face contorted in pain. His body was braced in his wheelchair with a special pad that did not allow for escape, but his hands had managed to work themselves beneath the pad, and in the thirty minutes between the exit of our paid private helper and my arrival, he had managed to pull a recently inserted catheter only half-way out of his penis.

It took me four hours to get a nurse to remove the catheter completely—by that point, my Dad was bleeding internally, though we did not know it at the time. Death was now coming faster. After weeks of crawling toward my father, death had begun to run. He never spoke to any of us again. There was no sweet smile, no parting words of wisdom to savor over the long years ahead, no gentle goodnight, only an imported hospice caregiver and an increasingly harsh rattle of breath, morphine, and three days of unrelenting pain. My father died alone at 3:00 am. We had been told to go home and get some rest and come back in the morning. We were exhausted. We left.

Now I know most dying is undignified and cruel. It is not a gentle last smile on a loved one’s face before he sinks into some sort of heavenly oblivion. It is not a series of neat, final conversations that clearly mark the end of one’s beginnings. It is not a mother who turns for a warm towel only to turn again to find her baby gone.

In dying, many are not allowed to wrap up all those loose kite tails that trail out behind through the hurried air. Responsibilities one intends to meet tangle together like multicolored strings that multiply over years of living, strings most meant to braid into a coherent whole as time progressed. Often, these strings fray as they tangle; some flutter loose at the end to remain uncountable or uncounted. Some become knotted in ways that we are forced, if we are lucky enough to remain sensible, to recognize finally as irreparable.

Others in their dying do not get the opportunity to know anything at all. Much of the existential emotional work we imagine we’ll complete so neatly is often left behind, doomed to remain forever unfinished. Death is not the falling action, well directed, expertly produced, that viewers see over and over on television and in film. Death is not a neatly wrapped plot, a denouement that offers the answers to all previous events, not Dickinson’s civilized epiphany of that swelling of the ground. Dying is often sloppy and ugly, and for some like my father, far too long as it steals hours and then days from the living and dying alike.

I like to think that the real plans for my father’s end written in the book of death somehow went awry that last day before the emergency room, the hospital restraints, the rehab. Sometimes, when I imagine my father’s last day, I see him driving himself to his own home; my mother will mix him an Absolute martini with three olives, and just after he swallows the last, cool sip, he’ll tell a joke, look at her with love, settle back in his recliner, and his spirit will float painlessly from his body in a final dance, surrounded by family and the music he loves.

©JP Reese 2011
Published at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact

For Captain Paul

It was a tropical morning, 3AM. The four of us slumped at the scarred kitchen table, empty Budweiser’s full of Salem butts, Jimmy Buffett wondering why we ever go home. The jug of Gallo callled to us: “One for the road!”

After closing up Dalt’s in Kendall, we’d driven south to Paul and Kathy’s apartment and worked hard to catch up to all the drunks we’d served earlier. When he worked, Paul kept his female fans mesmerized. He made up silly songs, gazed at them with his blue eyes, singing—

“I’m just too good to be true, God made me better than you, I’d be like heaven to touch…,”

—the bar a barrier that kept the adoring separated from this handsome, newly married young man. We all appreciated the extra tips.

As the jug emptied, Paul explained his hemophilia, his brother’s early death from complications, said the clotting factor kept him alive. Italian to the core, he was ashamed to share this weakness of the blood with Russian Queens.

“Hey Kathy,” he said, “they aren’t even sick watching this!” He stuck the needle in his arm, aim smooth from practice.

The clotting factor, this batch and those to follow, was culled from blood sold by desperate Haitians to escape Miami’s poverty. How could we know every drop was tainted, coated in the new pestilence of the 80’s, the clock ticking, and Miami ground zero?

AIDS was then only an article at the bottom of page six, just gaining a foothold in the ideology of the Christian right, the scourge of the deserving. AIDS sailed over on leaky boats from Haiti, emerged from Fidel’s prisons, took its place at Chrome Avenue detention camp. Later, we’d read about a steward on Pan-Am offering it up like Christmas candy to everyone he could fuck, but at the time, if we thought of AIDS at all, it only affected gay guys, and none of our gay friends seemed worried. How could it ever touch us?

Paul dug out pictures of himself grinning, holding up prize bonefish. He and Kathy dreamed aloud of the restaurant they would buy, the charter boat. Someday.

When we left that morning, the light draped a golden shroud over Paul’s face. He leaned in the doorway, waving goodbye.

We moved to Dallas in July. They bought the restaurant, the charter boat. Paul was our best man in September.

Then came the first illness, then Hurricane Andrew, then the second , the third…

Telephones that ring at 4 A.M. never bring good news.

“It’s Paul.” Kathy said.

First published in the June, 2010 issue of Connotation Press
©JPReese 1999
revised 2010