At the beginning of 2021, I started writing a serial story blog for the group that I email each weekend. When I started, I had no idea that would be a eight and three-quarter chapter journey that would take me through my many years at Joe’s Stone Crab as the daytime Maitre D’. What’s with the three-quarters you ask? Well stick with me we’ll get to that about halfway through the story. Originally I thought this piece was going to be a single blog post, but it just kept evolving and growing, just like we all do. Now that I’ve finally brought the story to a conclusion, I thought I’d post the entirety of the piece in one location. Oh and if you don’t already get Jim’s weekend emails and you’d like to join the ongoing “Stories from the Mind of Jim” list, click here to get these tales sent direct to you inbox.
Chapter 1 – Michael’s Twist
I love wine. I’ve loved wine for longer than I even should have loved wine. When my friends were buying their 30 packs of Meisterbrau at the Village Corner convenience store in Ann Arbor, Michigan during college, I’d be browsing through their surprisingly deep fine wine collection. I’d save my pennies until I had enough money to buy something like a 1980 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet or a classified growth Bordeaux from the mid 1970s or maybe even a German Trockenberenauslese. If you don’t know what that last one is, I’m not surprised. Most current day wine drinkers don’t know much about German wine and it’s fairly likely that I was the only freshman at the University of Michigan who was buying rare late harvest German Riesling in 1982. That’s just one of the many ways that I’ve always been a little different in this lifetime.
At one point I even considered running off to study oenology at the University of California, Davis campus. It was a dream of mine that I never chased. Many times I’ve wondered how my life might have turned out differently if I had chosen that path, but I have no regrets. I was never really passionate about chemistry or botany and I was kind of over the whole college thing after a few years, so in all likelihood even if I would have gone west, I’d have wound up working in a restaurant serving great wines instead of making them anyways. And why should I have any regrets about my life choices? Much like all of you, I’ve had a life of peaks and valleys and everything in between. Some of my life stories are filled with great joy and some are tinged with pain and sadness. Isn’t that the circle of life? Ups and downs. Expansions and contractions. Ascensions and descent. We can either accept things as they are and follow the current of life or we can paddle upstream and remain out of alignment with our our own hero’s journey. We can either resist change or move into it gracefully. While we will always play a role in the story, we can’t BE the entirety of the story. Our life story as a human incarnate is a symphony not a soliloquy after all.
Speaking about stories and serving wine, as many of you know, I spent the last two decades working at one of the best known restaurants in the country – Joe’s Stone Crab in Chicago. I write that sentence in past tense with intention. As of December 16, 2020, those of us who were on furlough were permanently let go.
It’s funny because when I took the job at Joe’s, I never thought that I’d be there more than a couple of years. I was in a transition between a “career job” that I had left a year earlier and building a business plan for a martial arts dojo and yoga studio I would open a couple of years later. Interestingly, my job at Joe’s outlasted the yoga studio by nearly a decade. In fact after a few years at Joe’s, my mindset changed from thinking that I would never last a few years to thinking that I’d never leave. Then came a worldwide pandemic and there was no decision to make. The fork in the road appeared all by itself. As one of my dearest friends always reminds me, the highly quotable baseball great Yogi Berra’s advice for life included the phrase, “When you come to a fork in the road…take it!”
So I did take it and here I am using some of my time telling stories.
For the purpose of today’s story we need to go back to the very beginning of my time at Joe’s which takes us to May of 2002, when I almost didn’t even get hired. On Friday May 17th, 2002 I walked into Joe’s in a suit and tie with a long pony tail tucked into the back of my shirt that I had grown out while I was on a year of personal sabbatical. I was eager to find a little income to bridge me through the gap until I got my new business up and running. I hadn’t worked in a restaurant for over a decade. In fact when I left my last restaurant gig back in the spring of 1991, I swore to myself that I’d never work in a restaurant again. As I would learn, that promise I made to myself was out of alignment with my intended life journey.
When I dropped off my application, I met a nice man named Mark who identified himself as one of the managers. He told me I was too late; that they had finished interviewing and had already hired a few candidates who were scheduled to start on Monday of the next week. After we chatted a few minutes he asked if I could have a seat by the window while he checked on something. I told him that I would be delighted to wait and I took my seat.
A few minutes later he returned with a nice woman named Julie who he identified as the assistant General Manager. Julie and I chatted for about 10 minutes and then she asked me if I was available to come back the next morning on Saturday because she would like to have me meet the General Manager for future reference and that he was in a meeting right now. I told her that I was leaving town later that afternoon and would be gone until Monday. She asked me to wait a few minutes once again and then returned, this time with a man named Mike who she must have taken out of his meeting. Mike and I sat and talked for about 30 minutes. His energy was powerfully intense. Every question he asked me challenged me and he seemed to be able to hold a wry smile the entire time we were talking no matter whether he was speaking or listening.
Mike also had one of the most focused eye contacts I had ever experienced in my lifetime. It felt like he was seeing if I could hold eye contact with him at the same level of intensity for the entire time we spoke. I was a much younger and way more brazen version of myself back then and I was all too willing to take Mike’s challenge. It would be the first of many duels we would have during the decade we worked together. I learned a lot from Mike. I’m grateful.
After our conversation he told me that they “would be in touch.” I left with no expectation of ever hearing from anybody at Joe’s again and went home to pack the car and start my drive to Michigan for the weekend as planned. Before I even crossed the Illinois/Indiana border, my phone was ringing and Joe’s was calling. I picked up the phone and heard Mark’s voice. He told me that they would love to have me join the team but I would have to be at work on Monday morning at 8:00 am with a tuxedo. I graciously accepted the offer and told him I would figure things out and then I asked him about my hair.
Mark replied, “What about your hair?” I said to him that I had a long pony tail and I wasn’t sure if that was permitted in their fine dining establishment. He told me that I indeed would also need to get a haircut. During my first week of work Mark would come up to me at one point and say, “I can believe that I didn’t notice that you had a pony tail. I can see how Julie might’ve missed the fact that you had a pony tail. I find it almost impossible to believe that Mike didn’t notice that you had a pony tail. You must’ve been looking straight on at him for the entire conversation because if you would have turned your head even a little bit he would’ve noticed.”
Funny how things work out sometimes, isn’t it?
That moment in time would begin my nearly two decade long journey at one of the world’s most famous restaurants. Many of my life’s most significant events played out on the stage of the theater named Joe’s. There are many stories to be told about those events, but this story (which is already 1500 words long) is supposed to be about a bottle of wine and that bottle hasn’t even appeared yet so it’s about time I got to the telling of this story in earnest.
About a year into my time at Joe’s, a new Mike appeared. This one would be a man named Michael Waugh. Michael was one of those leaders who had the ability to inspire you by being able to kick you in your ass and make you feel like he held you in his giant heart at the same time. I’ve always felt that the best leaders could intimidate you a little bit without even trying to be intimidating. To inspire you to be your best self without looking for any credit for being the inspiration. That was Michael Waugh.
On his very first day he came up to me after I had served a bottle wine at table #43 and said, “”Hey Jimmy, check this out,” while holding an unopened bottle of wine in his right hand. Michael continued, “If you hold the bottle by the bottom with your thumb in the punt you can easily twist the bottle at the end of the pour to prevent the bottle from dripping.”
I can only imagine how my face must have looked as I, the most requested waiter at Joe’s during the lunch hour, took in his constructive feedback. I think I said something like this. “Just to let you know Michael, I was Operation’s Director at a chain of wine shops for twelve years before I worked here. I think I know how to open and serve a bottle of wine, but thanks for the feedback.” Michael probably should have written me up or fired me on the spot, but instead he just tilted his head, smirked at me and said, “You and I are going to get along just fine.” Thus began the relationship between me and one of the finest mentors I would know in my lifetime. Michael would be a teacher who that would study under for far too few a number of years before his sudden and tragic death.
Now I need to step out of the story for a moment here….If you’ve been following along with my weekly reflections you may remember last month I talked at length about Charles Dickens. Dickens is quite possibly is my all-time favorite author and his writings have been known around the globe for two centuries now. I even went so far as to say last week that one of my greatest desires in life is to write like Dickens. What many people don’t know about Dickens though is that he was largely responsible for something that we have all become quite familiar with in our current day in age. Dickens is largely credited for creating the concept of telling a story and serial format. The wild success of his novel The Pickwick Papers published in 1836 launched the then fledgling format of “leaving the reader waiting for more” in a way it had never been used before. American monthly periodicals went on to publish many other stories by Dickens in monthly installments as well as other famous stories by authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, Henry James, Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Can you even imagine our modern day world of Netflix series and reality TV without the concept of serial format stories? The concept is woven into every fabric of our current lives.
So with the tip of the hat to my writing idol Charles Dickens, I’m going to “write like him this week“ and stop my story right here for now. And with that you know what the little twist is, come back next time and hear more about “The Bottle With a Story” and find out what that bottle is and how it helped me through one of the greatest transformations of my lifetime.
Chapter 2 – Oh Brandy
Last time when we left off I had just started to get to know Michael Waugh who had been brought in to become the new General Manager of Joe’s. A few months after Michael arrived at Joe’s, our daytime hostess took a short leave of absence. If I remember correctly, she was getting married out of the country and was following up her wedding with an extended honeymoon. I had been working Monday through Friday lunch as a server for about a year at that point and had a strong knowledge of the lunchtime regulars as well as a good familiarity with how things went overall at lunch. I remember one morning when I arrived for work a bit early and was strolling through the dining room towards the time clock to punch in when I heard Michael call, “Hey Jimmy come here and sit down.” When Michael asked you to sit down with him your heart always fluttered a little bit. There was no way of knowing whether you were about to get some constructive feedback or whether he was about to praise some awesome thing you did the day before that you thought nobody noticed. His energy was exactly the same in serious moments as it was in playful moments. More often than not though, Michael just wanted to chat with you about your own personal life. This was the enigma that was Michael which always kept you on your toes and made every minute you worked with him a beautiful mystery.
On this particular morning, Michael was sitting in booth #65, which is the big round booth about halfway back into the dining room on the right side where the opening manager always set up to do the morning ordering and paperwork. Michael was nibbling on a plate of Big Daddy’s Hash, an order of Joe’s hashed brown potatoes with crumbled up bacon bits, cheese melted on top all buried underneath a fried egg served with a little sour cream on the side. Incidentally, this giant plate of joy was named in his honor because Michael was affectionately referred to as “Big Daddy’ by the many who he called friends.
I sat down anxiously on the edge of the booth as Michael smiled at me, pausing just long enough to hold me in suspense to the perfect degree, and then he spoke. Here’s what Micheal said:
“You know Jimmy, Lindsey’s gonna be gone for almost a month when she leaves to gets married. I think you should run the door at lunch while she’s away…”
I sat in silence for longer than I probably even realized at the time. Of all the many possibilities I had built up in my head in the few seconds between the time I sat down and the time Michael spoke, none of them sounded even remotely like what he said. I met Michael’s suggestion with great resistance. I began to list all the reasons why an arrangement like this wouldn’t work:
~ I made too much cash on the floor to be switching to an hourly rate position
~ I didn’t want any responsibility
~ It would be hard to work the door for a month and then go back to the floor with my fellow servers and bitch about the way the door was being run
~ The last time they tried a making a server the daytime maitre d’ it ended in that person quitting
The list went on and on…
Michael listened to all my objections without even trying to refute any of them. Then he smiled at me the same way he did on the very first day and said, “Think it over for a little while, I’ve got a few ideas and I think we could do something pretty special here.” I remember going home that night with my head spinning. I had just spent the last year getting used to being in a position as a server which was entirely transactional. I came in every day and did my job and went home with money in my pocket. As I mentioned in chapter one of this story, I spent the year before that on a bit of a personal sabbatical while helping out at a friend’s yoga studio and at my Sensei’s dojo. The idea of moving into a position that included a bigger emotional investment and a potential future (gasp!) was one part exciting and another part terrifying.
That night at home, my mind wandered back to my early college days. You remember the ones, right? The ones where I was buying late harvest German Riesling at the corner convenience shop? At that same time I was working part time at a new restaurant named Brandy’s on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor. I really wanted to be a server, but I didn’t apply soon enough in the restaurant’s opening process and all the server jobs had been taken, so instead they offered me a job as a host with the opportunity to become a server down the road. The punk rock record shop called The Alley that I had worked at the previous year had closed and I needed a spending money job so I took the gig as a host,
Brandy’s was a sight to be seen. It was built into an old renovated theater building that was called The Orphaeum. When the owners of Brandy’s renovated the building they maintained the original frontage, preserved the 50 foot vaulted ceilings and constructed a balcony on the upper level for seating. The food was high-end southwestern food at a time in culinary history when most restaurants in that genre served nothing but tacos and burritos. I had never heard the word fajita until I start working at Brandy’s in 1983. Nowadays you can’t even go into an Applebee’s without seeing fajitas on the menu. That is assuming you could still go into a restaurant at all these days.
The reason I’m allowing my mind (and this story) to wander back to my college days again is because of this one important fact. I absolutely loved my job at Brandy’s running the host stand. I was still only a teenager, but I took command of that position like nothing I’d taken command of before in my life up to that point. The restaurant instantly became the hottest ticket in town and we would often have one to two hour waits to get in on a weekend night. Every Friday and Saturday night I would take my position at the door at 4:00 p.m. and stand up inside the host box as people begged and pleaded to get in and tried to figure out what they could do to shorten up their waiting time. Most nights I didn’t even take a break to go to the bathroom because I was so focused on being in control of everything.
Even though there were numerous reasons why I didn’t want to take the job that Michael offered me at Joe’s running the door while our daytime hostess was on vacation, it seemed like this path had been written in the stars long before I ever even lived in Chicago and perhaps even long before I was born, but that’s an even deeper story for a different time. I went to work the next morning and told Michael I would do it on a trial basis. I agreed to do it for the first week that Lindsay was gone with the promise that if I hated it I could go back on the floor and work as a server no questions asked.
When I gave him the news Michael smiled at me and said “I think you’re gonna like it Jimmy. You were made to do this job.”
Michael always seemed to know what was best for everyone even before they knew it themselves. As usual Michael knew what was best for me and launched me on a path to the job of my dreams. Not only did I not hate the job that first week, I loved every minute of it. In the years ahead so many of my major life mileposts would be crossed in the nooks and crannies of Joe’s. I would be served with divorce papers while standing in the maitre d’ box. I would have my final chat with one of my best friends before he wen’t home and had a heart attack in bed that afternoon and died. I would meet my future wife on St. Patricks Day morning in 2006. Much like my litany of reasons that I gave Michael about why I should have never taken the job in the first place, the list of these mileposts could go on and on, but for now this seems like a good place to end this chapter of the story
Come back next time to learn more about my first few weeks on the door at Joe’s, what happened at the end of those few weeks, and how the “bottle with a twist” outlived many of my fellow brothers and sisters who I worked in the trenches with over the last 19 years. Thanks for reading.
Chapter 3 – Billy and The Kid
My first day running the door at lunch was sometime in the late spring of 2003. I don’t remember exactly what the date was but it really doesn’t matter. There was no training period, to me it all seemed very intuitive. I had just run the door at another restaurant a short twenty some years ago after after all so it was going to be an easy transition, right?
I say that partly in jest, but the truth is that what Michael said was 100% accurate. I was made to do the job. First off, I only wanted to work days. Most severs endured the lunch shifts until they got the opportunity to move to nights where the big money was to be made. Secondly, I really did like having a bit of responsibility and being in charge of some stuff even if I denied it going into the situation. Third, I love the art of hosting. I enjoy having people in my home and preparing food and creating space for them to unwind. I like to be the ringmaster, the storyteller, the coach, the leader, the hugger and hand shaker, the energy holder, the healer and the safe container for people to step into to feel like they are being held. Finally and most importantly, during my first year at the restaurant I had come to fall in love with everything about Joe’s; the food, the energy, the people, the neighborhood, the company who ran the place and most importantly…the customers. In the years ahead the bulk of my closest inner circle of friends would come from the people who sat in the seats and listened to my stories and shared their own. When I remarried in 2013, better then half of the people in attendance were Joe’s customers.
At the end of my first day on the door I decided to walk across the street to the Marriott hotel and say hello to the head concierge. One of the things that drove me a bit nuts as a server was that we would get hit with intense waves of business on certain days with no advanced notice. It always seemed to happen when there was an event at the hotel that didn’t include a lunch service. I figured it would be good to know when those events were happening so we could staff up a bit more. Now if you know anything about servers, most of them never want to have MORE staff on the floor on any given day. Quite simply it just reduces the size of the piece of pie they are going to get. Finding that sweet spot in the ratio between staff and guests each day is one of the challenges that every restaurant faces. I wanted to be really good at assisting in making that decision each day, and as time went by many of my managers would marvel at my ability to forecast cover counts. Apparently my mental transition from server to Maitre D’ was already in progress on day one, far sooner than I would have ever dreamed.
When I arrived at the Marriott on that Spring day in 2003 I met a woman named Gloria who was in charge of the concierge desk. I asked about the hotel’s meeting scheduled to which she replied, “That information is confidential. I’m sorry but there’s no way I could share it with you.”After a brief chat and some time spent listening to stories about how long she’d been working in the service industry on Michigan Avenue and tales about her grandkids, Gloria handed me a copy of the events scheduled for the balance of the year and told me to keep it between the two of us. I thanked her and invited her to come over for lunch on us someday. I didn’t even know at that point if I had the authority to buy somebody lunch on the house, but I offered it anyways. It felt organic. Even on day one, the sense of propriety seemed to be setting in for me.
When I went back to the restaurant the next morning I showed the Marriott events schedule to our guest relations manager and to our acting GM/soon to be partner, Mike #1. You remember him, right? He’s the one with the laser like eye contact and the intense energy. Mike #1 looked down at the schedule and then looked back up at me and said, “You managed to do in one day what I’ve been asking others around here to do for two years?!” He shook his head, smiled at me with his big ear to ear smile and said “Niiiice…” Coming from Mike that was high praise. It made me feel really good inside; I always loved to please Mike #1. Now mind you, he intimidated the hell out of me and kept me feeling unsettled all the time, but that just made me want to please him even more.
The next few weeks went off mostly without a hitch and they flew by like I was on a vacation. With each passing day, more lunch regulars would come in and ask what I was doing at the door. I would always say that I was just filling in while our regular hostess was on her honeymoon. Over those early days I felt like I was gliding around on clouds through the dining room; like I’d found the job I’d been waiting for my whole life.
I got better and better at the basic job functions that went into running the door. I tried to make sure each server got at least 15 guests per day. I tried to make sure that everything was in just the right place each day before we opened. I tried to jump to answer the phones as soon as they rang so nobody ever felt like we were too busy to pay attention to them. When business started to drop off after the lunch rush, I tried to be aggressive with cuts so that the servers who wanted to leave early could do that and so the closers could get even more tables.
Some of my regulars we’re a little uncomfortable with having somebody else take care of them after a year of sitting in my section on an almost daily basis. I can recall one gentleman in particular named Ed. After three or four visits during those first few weeks on the door, Ed told me that he was going to wait to come back until I was back on the floor. By that point I was already starting to suspect that I might never be going back to the floor, so I told Ed that the next time he came in I would take care of him myself even if it was before I went back on the floor.
Ed came in the next day to take me up on my offer, so I sat him in an area of the restaurant that was closed on that particular day. The lunch business at that point was still growing and most days we used less than half of the dining room. I knew Ed’s needs inside and out so it was quite easy for me to take care of him while still doing my job of running the door. It felt very natural to me. I didn’t want Ed to be unhappy and I didn’t want Joe’s to lose the business. What I failed to recognize in the moment though was the opportunity cost of that decision.
I’m fairly certain that no manager even noticed that I was taking care of Ed while running the door at the same time for the next couple of weeks. I was given an immense amount of latitude to do my job the way I saw fit right out of the gate, partly because I earned it quickly and partly because there are so many moving pieces in running a busy restaurant that the lunch service can at times be treated as an afterthought. I was about to say treated like a “red-headed step child” instead of an afterthought, but since it’s extra important to choose our words with intention these days and since I’m married to an amazing redhead I chose differently.
While no manager might have noticed my double duty, I can assure you that my fellow servers noticed. Even though Ed usually only ordered a sandwich or fish and chips or a salad and then tipped me $5, I was taking a piece of that pie that I mentioned above and it created a distance between me and some of the other team members who felt I had a sense of entitlement. I would have to work years to mend some of those relationships. In retrospect I should have let Ed go to Shaw’s for lunch instead during those three weeks, but what can I say. We learn from the things we label as mistakes in life even if they’re not so much mistakes as they are opportunities for growth.
Speaking about learning, each day at about 2:00 p.m. our night time Maitre d’ Billy would stroll in to get ready for his shift. Billy was a Chicago legend. He had worked at every hot new restaurant in the city for more than a decade, usually staying for one of two years before moving on. Some would say Billy would grow fidgety over time and needed to move on to the next trendy place. Others would say that Billy had a tendency to wear out his welcome. All I can say is that I’m exceedingly grateful for the limited amount of time that I had to learn from Billy by observing the ways he did his job. You can read that last sentence a couple of different ways, read it however you like.
The first thing Billy would do each day would be to look at “the book”. As soon as he walked in to door he would size up the reservations, look to see which VIPs were coming in and decide how much wiggle room he had to overbook the room. Billy would then order his pre-shift meal which he would sit and eat at table #303, the high top bar table that was closest to the phone. During his meal, Billy would get up and grab the phone dozens of times as people called and asked for him by name. On rare occasions there would be somebody sitting at table #303 when Billy was ready to eat his meal. On those occasions he would instead sit on a bar stool facing out through the windows to Rush Street, but he never looked comfortable to me when that set of circumstances unfolded.
By the time he sat down to eat Billy would be in perfect uniform all except for the tuxedo jacket, which he would drape over the back of his chair and cover with a cloth napkin. His shirt would be pressed as stiff and as crisp as a piece of white cardboard. His green bow tie would be tied perfectly right up to the top of his collar. He typically had on some shiny pair of flashy cufflinks and his thick, mostly pepper with a little bit of salt hair would be slicked back to his head glistening nearly as shiny as his cufflinks. Billy always tucked another white cloth napkin under his collar and wore it like a bib while he ate to be sure he stayed as perfect as he was when he arrived. If was quite a sight to see.
Billy would typically refer to me as “kid”, partly because it set the tone of the traditional guru/student energy that existed between us and partly because I’m not sure he ever bothered to learn my name. When it came to customers though, Billy always knew their names. He also knew their kid’s name, their spouses and ex-spouses names, the type of car they drove, where they worked and most importantly…whether or not they knew how to show their “appreciation” for the right table or the prime time evening reservation.
I once heard a story about how a customer walked up to Billy, handed him a $20 bill and asked for change so he could leave Billy a tip. Billy responded by saying, “This is change!” as he stuffed the $20 in his pocket and walked away. I have no idea whether the story is truth or urban myth, but it’s not a stretch in my mind to see him uttering those words.
Billy worked the phone like a politician. He had that natural ability to make everybody feel like he knew they were going to call before the phone even rang and that they were the most important call he was going to take all day. He always smiled the entire time he was on the line because, as he told me, “the customers can hear your smile through the phone.” Then he would frequently mumble about what a pain in the ass they were to him as soon as he hung up with them.
Even though we never even worked a single shift together, I can truthfully say that over those few weeks of midday overlap, I learned everything I needed to learn to succeed in my job as a maitre d’ just by watching Billy wield his magic. I probably learned a few things about what I needed to NOT do to succeed as well, but that’s different story.
Speaking about different stories, it looks like it’s time to wind up another chapter of this one. Before I leave you this time though, I will tell you that my three weeks filling in for Lindsey did eventually come to an end and on the last day I worked the door before returning to the floor I got a little surprise. Tune in next time to find out what that surprise was and how it would still be a part of my life right up to this day. Thanks so much for reading.
With love and gratitude,
Before we get on to Chapter 4 let’s take a minute to talk about staves. What’s a “stave” you ask? Well by definition, a stave is a verse or a stanza of a poem. As it relates to this piece of writing though, if you’ve been following along so far you have noted the significant role the writing of Charles Dickens has played in both this story and in my novice efforts at doing the same – writing that is. When he first published A Christmas Carol, Dickens did so in five “staves” as he called them. If I ever more officially publish this story, I may do the same. I can only hope and pray that my writing may someday flow like the poetry that is Dickens. Until then I muddle on with apologies to my readers for any shortcomings I might possess. (As I re-read that last paragraph I can’t help but notice that it sounds just a tiny bit Dickensian, doesn’t it? I’ll take that as a sign of my progress at the craft.)
Well enough about where we’ve been so far. Let’s move on to the task at hand which is to continue to tell the tale of A Bottle with a Story and a Twist and the good news is that after thousands of words, that bottle is finally about to arrive!
Chapter #4 – The Gift
When we left off last time, my days of filling in for our daytime hostess Lindsey were drawing to a close. Lindsey was due to return from her extended, nuptial based sabbatical the following Monday, so after my weekend away in Michigan, the place where I would be traveling to once again, I would then be scheduled to return to the floor as a daytime server, the same position I was engaged in for the year prior. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time working at the door on a temporary basis and despite my early on doubts about the whole experience, when it was all over I rather enthusiastically told my benefactor in finding my position, one Mr. Michael Waugh, that I would be delighted to fill in should the situation present itself again in the future.
Mr. Waugh then informed me that he predicted that exact opportunity would likely present itself sooner rather than later and that I should have my “green tie pressed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.” For those of you who are not privy to the uniform traditions of Joe’s Stone Crab, the people who work the door as the maitre d’ wear a special color green bow tie to identify them in a unique way to the guests. I found Mr. Waugh’s news about my possible impending return to the door both intriguing and stimulating. As I prepared to depart at the conclusion of my final shift as a temporary maitre d’, Mike #1 once again appeared and floated into the story as if he was an apparition from a dream I might have had the night prior.
Mike #1 instructed me to see both he and the aforementioned Michael Waugh at the credenza in the middle of the dining room in five minutes. If you’ve learned anything about Mike #1 from the first three staves of this story then you would most certainly deduct that when Mike #1 said five minutes, he meant precisely five minutes, not one minute less nor thirty seconds more, so in exactly five minutes I navigated my own self into an upright position approximately two feet to the right of and 18 inches behind the said credenza.
Okay has anybody else here noticed that we seem to have somehow drifted into mid 19th century London and at the mere mention of the word “stave”, my writing has slipped into a steady stream of Dickens-like verbosity? While this might be a fun and temporary diversion, it’s time to get back to my standard “Jim voice” and finally get on that frequently promised but never yet delivered bottle. And here it is!
While I stood at the wine credenza, Mike #1 reached into the left side door and pulled out a copy of Joe’s Captain’s list. The captain’s list had all the rare or older vintage wines that were a part of the restaurant inventory. This list was not presented to every table that sat and was only offered upon request when a diner asked if we had any other “special selections.” Mike #1 placed the Captain’s list face up and open across the top of the credenza. At that point, Michael Waugh told me that as a thank you for a job well done, I could pick any bottle I liked up to $300 and take it home with me as a gift . I was blown away.
While I certainly got paid a fair wage to work the door instead of the floor for those three weeks, I definitively “left money on the table” because I would have made a good bit more as a server then I did with my hourly wage as temporary maitre d’. The $300 worth of wine they were offering me might not have made up for my losses dollar for dollar, but the gesture and affirmation of the effort I put into my job more than made up for the difference in my mind. I left that Friday afternoon on Cloud 10 with my bottle of Joseph Phelps 1994 Insignia Reserve Cabernet and a big smile.
When I got home I took the bottle out of my backpack and placed it on the counter and told my first wife the whole story. We considered cooking up a couple of steaks and drinking the bottle right away since it was already almost 10 years old, but something inside told me that I might want to save it for an even more special occasion down the road so I tucked it in a little wine fridge I had in the kitchen and forgot about for the rest of the year.
For the next few weeks I returned to the floor as a lunch server at Joe’s, same as I had done for the year leading up to my three week trial on the door. My day to day activity was routine and pleasant, but something had changed for me. Being at Joe’s was no longer just a job to me. It wasn’t something that I was doing to fill the gap in between my former career job and my future entrepreneurship. Joe’s had instead started to become an integral part of ME and before much longer, a little twist of fate would create an opportunity for me to become an integral part of Joe’s.
Michael Waugh’s prediction that I would be wearing the green tie again soon came to fruition within a month. Lindsey moved on shortly after her return and just like that, I became the full time, daytime maitre d’ with a creative financial agreement that served both me and the restaurant very well. For the balance of 2003 I learned more of the craft of maitre d’ing through the art of practice. I got to know all the names and the preferences of the Joe’s regulars. I learned how and when to make a little extra room to squeeze in a VIP and more importantly, when NOT to make room. I learned which tables I needed to “keep in my back pocket” for when that special guest walked in without calling in advance. I learned how to push the business right to the edge in order to maximize revenue for the restaurant without creating chaos for the guests and the staff. In the years ahead whenever I trained a new member of the door team, I would always start by saying that being a maitre d’ was one part science and one part art. The science is using your head to manage the reservation book and the table numbers…the art is in trusting your heart.
New Year’s Eve was a Wednesday in 2003. I worked my normal lunch shift and departed around 4:00 p.m. just as things really started to heat up for the evening shift. A part of me wanted to stick around and experience the festivities, but I had already crossed the first of what would become many holiday lunch season finish lines in the years ahead. It was time to go home and celebrate. My first wife and I seldom went out on New Year’s Eve. We typically preferred to cook at home or have a few people over. Once again I thought about opening that special bottle of 1994 Phelps Insignia that the two Mikes gave me, but it just never happened. A little voice inside me seemed to say, “Save it Jim. Once you open the bottle it will be gone forever. You’ll know when the time is right. Trust your heart…”
A couple more New Year’s Eves came and went. I continued to grow in my position and eventually, at the suggestion of Mike #1, I started working one evening of the week in addition to my five weekday lunches. The one night per week on the door gave me a little extra income and it got me in better touch with the goings on of the evening shift. The night I worked was typically Tuesday and at some point along the way our Chef at the time, who was named Chef Gary, started to refer to it as “Jimmy Tuesday.” That catch phrase stuck and countless other managers and other co-workers through the years would see me on my second day of the week and excitedly say, “It’s Jimmy Tuesday!” I found it all rather endearing.
I had some amazingly wonderful days doing my job as maitre d’ at Joe’s and some incredibly difficult days. None would ever be more difficult than Tuesday January 31, 2006. On that particular “Jimmy Tuesday” I walked in the front door and started to charge up the steps to the time clock two steps at a time just like I always did. I got about halfway up the steps when I heard a voice say, “Hey Jim we need to talk to you right away.”
When I looked down from my vantage point halfway up the stairs I saw Mike #1 and Chef Gary standing by the front edge of the bar. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant then you know that nothing good ever comes from a conversation with two managers at the same time. My heart fluttered as I walked slowly down the stairs to my uncertain fate. When I reached the front of the bar, I stood in front of Mike and Gary with every cell in my body tensed up expecting to hear the worst news I would possibly ever hear. I was going to get fired from my dream job before I even had it for a year and I had no idea why. The news that I wound up hearing was even worse than the news I dreamed up in my own head in the 30 seconds between being on the stairs and being in front of Mike #1 and Gary.
“Jimmy we’ve got some bad news. Last night there was a plane crash over the Palwaukee airport and there were no survivors. Michael Waugh was on that plane…”
My benefactor, mentor, friend and the number one champion of who I had become over the last two and a half years as a maitre d’ at Joe’s was gone just like that. I realized that my life was never going to be the same. I also realized that it was a really good thing that I trusted my heart and that I still hadn’t opened that bottle. The significance of that bottle had taken a twist that was impossible to imagine and unbearable to consider.
Oh and one last thing. In a rather extraordinary coincidence that I never in a billion lifetimes could have predicted, this serial story that I started writing just under a month ago that I thought was going to be just one blog post, but is now instead is now four “staves” long, has reached that part where Michael exits his body EXACTLY 15 years to the day from the day of that plane crash.
Wow. Just wow…
Well that’s it for this week. This a good place to stop, pause and reflect. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read this chapter of the story. Next week we’ll talk about how Michael’s Spirit lives on through the years, we’ll visit a few other milestone moments of my life and times at Joe’s and we’ll inch a little bit closer to “pulling the cork” on that bottle…and my time at Joe’s.
With love and gratitude,
If you are a fan of the Harry Potter stories then you will most certainly remember platform nine and three-quarters. For those of you who haven’t read the books or seen the movies, platform nine and three-quarters is the mythical, magical platform which appears from behind a brick wall at the London train station. It is at platform nine and three-quarters that the magical children of the Harry Potter stories climb aboard the Hogwart’s Express to ride the steam train to their school of wizardry and witchcraft. Someday we hope to take our magical child Emma for a ride on the steam train, which is actually in Scotland where they shot the train footage for the movies.
So why am I writing about a mythical train platform that exists in somebody else’s story instead of continuing with the task of telling my own tale you’re wondering? The truth is that I’m buying time. I’m not quite ready to continue with my story just yet. My original intention was that I would hammer out a fairly long post for this weekend. That I would finish up the telling of the story about a Bottle with a Story and a Twist. That I would call it Stave Number Five, publish it and then move on to other new writings in the weeks ahead. Well that’s not going to happen. What happened instead is that life happened. Our quick overnight getaway last Friday to visit my wife’s parents turned into a three-night, snowed in weekend adventure in the suburbs which was almost as magical as a ride on a steam train through the mythical English countryside (even if it was actually shot in Scotland). Our weekdays filled with writing and planning for the months ahead began instead with the “black screen of death” on our laptop computer which, as we suspected, led to us learning that our motherboard was fried. Oh and then there was the little business of our daughter Emma’s third birthday this past Thursday. Let’s just say that the downtime I had for writing this week was entirely non-existent.
So here’s what I’m going to do instead. Instead of putting a bunch of pressure on myself to meet some sort of deadline that is as mythical as the train platform that I mentioned earlier, I’m going to take a break this weekend. I’m not going to rush to the finish line of something that has evolved into so much more than I ever planned. I’m not going to half-ass the final chapter of this epic saga. Instead I’m going to savor the end of the story and let it emerge on its own organic pace. I’m fairly certain there’s a lesson in this whole exercise. We’ll see what I learn in the days and weeks ahead.
For now though, I thought I’d leave you with a tiny little story somewhere in between stave number four and stave number five. I like to call it:
Stave Number Four and Three-quarters
Nothing could have adequately prepared me to do my job at the door after hearing the news about Michael’s tragic death in a plane crash, but do my job that day I did. To this day I think it is the greatest work accomplishment of my lifetime. Something inside me just clicked. I put on my tuxedo and went into costume for the next ten hours.
One of the things I often talked about when training new co-workers was the concept of stage. I would always tell trainees that our restaurant was like the stage of Disneyland. Some people could afford to go to Disneyland all the time and other people would save up for years so they could take their child there just once in a lifetime to feel the magic. No matter what their circumstance, what the people didn’t expect was to see Mickey holding up a giant middle finger when they walked in the door because he was having a shitty day. No matter what was going on in our personal lives, we had an obligation to put on a show. I put on the Mickey head that day after Michael was killed in that plane crash and I wore it with pride and if I do say so myself, I did an awesome freaking job.
Each time I passed by a co-worker I’d share a smile that spoke a thousand unspoken words and offered a much needed energetic hug that didn’t even require physical touch. As guests or other co-workers asked about Michael throughout the day, it was often me who would be the set of ears they needed or the shoulder they put their head down onto. When the phone rang with condolences or questions, I held the space and listened when needed and spoke when asked.
When I needed to catch my own breath or get some space. I’d sneak into the coatroom and hide behind the curtains for a minute until I was ready to put the Mickey head back on. I’d lean on my dear friend Heather who ran the coat room and reservations office and she’d lean on me right back; just like we would do a few years later when we both went through our divorces or when other coworkers died in the years ahead. Oh yes, Michael was far from the only death our Joe’s family experienced in my two decades. His was just the first and probably the most dramatic. As I often say though, those are different stories for different days.
At the end of the day I grabbed my backpack from the coat room and dashed into the accessible restroom behind the main bar to take off my costume. After I stepped in and locked the door behind me, I collapsed onto the floor and wept as I released the energy of a tsunami of grief that I had held back for the entire day. I have no idea how long I stayed in that bathroom, but it must have been long enough to get noticed,
As I got ready to leave, Mike #1 approached me in the bar and said, “I’m sorry we didn’t think to call you and give you the news before you arrived. I’m afraid we didn’t prepare you very well to do your job today, but I want you to know you did an amazing job of leading the team today…”
It was the kindest and most tender moment Mike #1 and I ever had in all the years we worked together. I was then and am still to this day infinitely grateful for that moment of recognition. It’s no secret that Mike #1 and I had our skirmishes through the years, but in this case like pretty much all situations, we were both trying to pull the rope in the same direction. The goal on January 31, 2006 was to simply survive the day, which we did.
In the days and weeks after Michael’s passing we would have many visits from friends of his and acquaintances from the industry who would stop in to offer condolences and share stories. While manning my post at the door, I was usually the one who got to hear those stories and share some in return. As Michael exited my life as a mentor and friend, the door opened for somebody new to walk in and that person would be one of those people who came to offer condolences. His name was Richard and although it would take years for us to connect again and eventually become friends after his brief visit in 2006, Richard would go on to fill a big role in my life and the lives of many others who worked at or dined at Joe’s between 2011 and 2014.
So that’s it for my transitional story this week. Tune in next time for what might just be the final chapter of The Bottle with a Story and a Twist. We’ll learn more about that Richard character. We’ll visit with some of the other family members who have crossed over to the other side of the veil during my time at Joe’s. And lastly, we may even find out what finally got me to pop the bottle that sat around and got moved around from one home to the next for almost 20 years. As always, thanks for reading.
With love and gratitude,
Have you ever hung onto something that you knew in your heart it was time to let go of just because you couldn’t figure out how to let go of it? Well that seems to be what’s happening with the story of The Bottle with a Story and a Twist. Once again I intended to dive in and finish the story this week, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there may just be another stave waiting out there in the future. For now though, I write and I let the words take me wherever it is they intend to take me. Whether or not that’s THE finish line or just another finish line along the way is yet to be determined. So now it’s on to the next chapter where we eventually get to know my new mentor and see how dark moments in our history are often filled with a hidden gift. Some gifts just take a bit longer to unwrap than others.
Stave #5 – Waiting for Richard
As I mentioned in the last chapter, many people came and visited in the weeks following Michael‘s death. One of those people was a tall, handsome man with salt and pepper hair and a deep melodic voice. His name was Richard.
Richard had a sadness in his eyes. At the time of our first meeting, I presumed the sadness was related to his affection for Michael Waugh and that fact that Michael had just passed. Down the road I would learn that that sadness ran much deeper. I would also learn that Richard’s heart was filled with an infinite amount of love and joy. Isn’t that the way all of our stories go though? It’s how we walk that tightrope between sadness and joy that determines the way that our path unfolds.
When Richard came in to offer his condolences on Michael’s passing we made an instant connection. It’s that look you see behind someone’s eyes instead of in their eyes. That look of knowingness that exceeds the ability to know as we think we can know as humans. We’ve all had these moments in our lifetimes. We either explore them and unveil deep intimate relationships that honor the history of others in our soul group – or – we ignore them because they seem too personal and scary. I wouldn’t have been ready to make room for what Richard was capable of bringing into my life in 2006 when I first met him. Fortunately for me by the time he came back into my life five years later things had changed.
At that first meeting in 2006 we swapped stories about Michael. Richard told me that he worked with Michael in his early days at Lettuce Entertain You, the company that owns Joe’s Stone Crab. We laughed about some of the crazy things that Micheal did through the years. The conversation was pleasant and upbeat, despite the fact that the only reason we ever even connected was because Michael had just died.
At the end of our conversation I asked Richard if he was working in anywhere currently. He told me he was currently at a fine dining restaurant at one of the upscale hotels in Chicago’s Gold Coast, but that he might be moving on in the near future. I invited Richard to apply at Joes and told him we we preparing to interview for a new training class in the near future. Richard told me he’d think about it, but said that he might need more time to pass before he could work in the place that Michael worked when he died. I gave him my card and told him to stay in touch. That was the only time I saw Richard until he reappeared some five years later.
Much would change for both of us in the time in between our first meeting and Richard’s return to Joe’s to apply for work as a server in the fall of 2011. I would end an 18 year marriage and meet my current wife Christiana. Richard would lose his 28 year old son Zach in a quick and tragic way that offered no chance to say goodbye, just like we lost Michael. And in yet another extraordinary coincidence, Richard’s son would die exactly three years to the day after Michael’s plane crash. Two and a half more years would pass from the time Zach died until Richard came looking for his new path and entered the story at Joe’s. Two and a half more would pass before Richard made his own sudden exit.
In Richard’s brief stint at Joe’s he touched and cared for the hearts of many co-workers and guests. How blessed was I to be the one he seemed to care for the most. At first, Richard’s intense level of desired intimacy in our friendship made me uncomfortable. It caused me to hold him at arm’s length. Within months of getting to know each other, Richard was suggesting trips to places like a monastery in the desert in New Mexico or a haunted sanitarium in Tennessee or to Thomas Merton’s resting place in Kentucky or his favorite one of all – The Cathedral in Chartres, France. Eventually I would make that journey to France with Richard, but in a way I never hoped for.
Over time as our friendship grew we would try to get out one night each month together. Sometimes it was a simple dinner at one of his favorites like Bandera or Frankie Scallopini. Like a big brother or a father, Richard always insisted on paying. On one occasion Richard concocted a plan to see a performance of Motzart’s Requiem mass at St. Vincent DePaul during the lenten season. I could barely stay awake because i was so tired that night, but it made him so happy that I was happy too. I still have the mug he bought me at that performance. I drink my last cup of tea for the day out that mug a few nights per week. There were tours of cemeteries, visits to art galleries and conversations at tea shops on the south side along the way. I usually just showed up and went along for the ride, and oh what a ride it was!
When Christiana and I got engaged in July of 2012 there was nobody more delighted than Richard. He instantly started to jockey for position to officiate the wedding. Day after day he would say things like, “James you know that I am ordained to perform wedding ceremonies, don’t you? “ Richard was the only person in my entire life that consistently insisted on calling me James. At that point Christiana and I hadn’t even decided when we were going to get married or picked out a wedding site, so I would usually dismiss him and say things like, “We’ll see what happens Richard…” As a parent now I’ve learned the true meaning of the phrase “We’ll see” – It’s basically a delayed “no”. That was what I seemed to be trying to do with Richard in the matter of who would officiate our wedding.
The next spring after we had committed to our date and to our site and nearly everything else, we finally committed to Richard. We asked him to officiate our wedding ceremony one day after a group tour of Graceland Cemetery that he led for us and few other Joe’s employees. His face lit up like he had just gotten the toy he had been hoping for on Christmas morning when we asked.
We made an exceptional choice. Richard put his entire heart into helping us craft what many have told us is the most moving wedding ceremony they have ever attended. The ceremony had elements of numerous faiths. We had readings from scripture, excerpts from the Velveteen Rabbit, a Celtic handfasting ceremony and an Apache wedding blessing. Richard pulled off all of them with the skill of a master craftsman at the peak of their craft. He even used the Brigid’s Cross that he had been given by Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernadin as part of the ceremony and then gifted us the cross as a remembrance of the day. I can’t help but think that if it hadn’t been for Michael Waugh’s passing, I never would have even met Richard in this lifetime and now he was playing the starring role in one of the most important days in my life. If you were there with us then you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t then you can take a peek in with this 15-minute video that captures the essence of that magical day.
When the festivities came to an end I grabbed the microphone and thanked everyone I could think of for everything they had done to make our day special. Somehow I forgot to mention Richard in that address. It’s an oversight that still bothers me to this day.
Six months after our wedding we decided to leave our posh, but tiny south loop apartment that was steps from everything and move to the far north side of the city to get more space for our money and more quiet for our new world ahead. I dreaded leaving a neighborhood that In had lived in and loved for nearly 25 years. The one piece of solace that I took in our move is that we would be less than a mile from where Richard lived. We would be able to meet for dinner, grab a late night drink at the Green Mill or even car pool to work together.
We started to move in mid March of 2014 and were settled in by early April. I looked forward to start taking advantage of my close proximity to Richard by inviting he and his wife over for dinner on Easter Sunday in mid-April. Richard had a different plan.
On the morning of April 9th, 2014, Richard arrived at work and told me that he wasn’t feeling very well. I asked him if he was “I have an upset stomach not feeling very well” or whether he was “I need to take the day off and call my doctor not feeling very well.” He told me he was concerned. I immediately told Richard to go to Northwestern which was a few blocks from the restaurant and he left to get some immediate care.
Around 2:00 p.m. I felt my cell phone ringing in my pocket. I typically didn’t pay much attention to my cell phone calls while I was at work, but I answered Richard’s call. He told ne he was feeling better and that he was going home to take a nap and was to return for more tests next week. I was relieved.
Later that night I was in a yoga class at the Corepower south loop studio which had amazing views of the city skyline. I had been running late for class that day so instead of putting my stuff in my locker, I brought it in the studio and put it next to my mat. I placed my cell phone on the floor next to my towel which is something that I have probably only done once or twice in my entire 25+ years of practice. About 10 minutes into class I noticed my phone was ringing and the caller ID said it was Richard’s wife. In the two and a half years I had known Richard, his wife had never called me. The only reason I had her number was because when Richard applied at Joe’s he did not own his own cell phone and he gave us his wife’s number as a contact. I saved the number in my phone literally as “Richard’s Wife” because at that point he gave me the number I didn’t even know her name.
I took my phone to the lobby of the yoga studio and answered the call. This is what I heard:
“Oh my God Jim. I just got home from work and Richard is face down in bed. He’s a little purple and I’m not sure if he’s breathing. I think he might be dead. I didn’t know who else to call…”
I left the class and started to drive north on Lakeshore Drive towards Weiss Memorial Hospital as the sun set. As I drove, I started to compose Richard’s eulogy in my head. I already knew that Richard’s wife was right. Much like my writing idol Charles Dickens wrote about “Old Marley,” Richard was as dead as a doornail before he even got to Weiss Memorial.
Well it’s not my favorite trend, but it seems that for the second time in three weeks I’m going to leave you with somebody exiting their body. That being said, much like Michael Waugh and the bottle that this whole story began with, Richard’s role in the story was far from finished. Tune in next time to hear where I traveled with Richard in the months ahead, where the bottle traveled in the years ahead and maybe, just maybe we’ll finally open that bottle and see if it still has any legs. As always, thanks for reading.
Love and gratitude,
If you’re a professional golfer, then moving day means the day before the final round of the tournament. It’s meant to signify the round of golf where people move onto or fall off of the leaderboard as the final round of the tournament takes shape. Many of the best golfers in history have used moving day to get themselves into position to play in one of the final pairings on the last day at major tournaments like The Masters or one of the two Open Championships.
If you’re not a professional golfer and you’re one of the 99.999999999999% of the rest of the world, then moving day is nothing more than the much despised day when you pack up all your crap and haul it to a new residence. I’ve met nobody in my entire life who loved to move. So why am I talking about moving instead of returning to my story? Well it’s because our story today is about where I moved some of Richard’s ashes and how many times I moved that bottle that you are all waiting to finally see uncorked. So now on to the next chapter we go!
Chapter 6 – Moving Day
The night that Richard died was one of the most surreal of my entire life. When Michael Waugh was killed in that plane crash I was the receiver of the news. With Richard I became the bearer of the news. After spending a few hours at Weiss Memorial Hospital with Richard’s body and his wife, I stopped and bought a bottle of good wine and went home to start making phone calls. I began with the GM of our restaurant and then started working my way through my entire contact list. I wanted to do my best to make sure that nobody wound up in the situation I was in the day that Michael died where I showed up to work, got the news and then had to put on the Mickey head right away and try not to say “Welcome to Disneyland…I hate my life and I wish you would go the f#*k home!”
Over the next few hours I held it together pretty well as I got increasingly more numb from the wine and waited for my wife to get home from work as I made my calls. I prayed that she wouldn’t somehow find out about Richard while she was still at Joe’s and then have to process everything in a cab on the way home. My prayers were answered.
After speaking to dozens of co-workers and friends, I heard Christiana coming up the stairway of our two-flat around 11:00 p.m. The instant she walked through the door I collapsed on the floor and babbled out the news of Richard’s death in a manner where it took her more than a few minutes to understand what I had even said, much less process the magnitude of the news. Telling everybody else the news helped the news start to settle in for me. Telling Christiana made the news feel real to me. It was no longer some bad dream or April Fools prank. At that point the grieving officially began.
There are more points to cover about the days and months that followed Richard’s passing than this story can even begin to touch upon for now, but for the purpose of our story here there are two important pilgrimages that would follow within a year. The first was to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and the other was to the cathedral in Chartres, France. In both cases, Richard accompanied me while traveling inside an empty bottle of baby powder. Yes, you read that correctly. I’ll explain that more shortly.
From very early on in our relationship, Richard made me promise him that if and when he predeceased me that I would be certain that some of his remains were left at two places. One was at the gravesite of Thomas Merton, Richard’s favorite Catholic mystic. The other was behind the Chartres Cathedral, arguably Richard’s favorite place on earth. Why someone you were just getting to know would share such intimate desires about their own death was beyond me, but he secured similar promises from his wife and a few other trusted friends. Since both of those journeys were ones that Richard wanted to make WITH me, I felt an immense sense of duty to fulfill his final wishes. One of those journeys would be a solo flight and the other I would make with my wife Christiana and Richard’s widow.
The first of the two journeys was to France. Richard’s widow was kind enough to use some of his life insurance money to procure accommodations for Christiana and I to travel with her to The Chartres Cathedral. We started our journey with a few days in Paris to celebrate Richard’s life and visit some of his favorite Parisian places like Hemingway’s favorite bars, the Rodin Museum and Montmartre. We ended our journey by spreading the preponderance of Richard’s ashes at the Fleur de Lis cross behind the cathedral in Chartres on a somber, cold, misty Easter Saturday afternoon – exactly one year to the day since his passing. The two different moods of the trip could not have had more contrast.
About those baby powder bottles? Apparently it is not legal to transport human remains out of the country without special permits. To avoid any red tape, Richard’s widow distributed his ashes in equal parts between multiple baby powder bottles which we each packed into our carry on luggage, so that if anyone’s precious cargo got lost or was confiscated that we would still have some left for our Chartres ritual. I could write an entire story as long as this one just about our three days in Chartres. As usual that’s a different story for a different day.
My second journey would take place in the summer of 2016. During an incredibly hot stretch of June, I traveled to stay in the un-air conditioned Abbey of Gethsemani monastery south of Louisville, Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived at for the majority of his contemplative adult life. How these monks endure the Kentucky summer night after night is beyond my comprehension. My three night silent retreat in the heat was a proverbial “sweat lodge” of an experience ending in me leaving a small portion of Richard’s ashes at Merton’s grave site on the grounds of the monastery the final afternoon. The graveside ritual included readings from The Sign of Jonas by Merton; the scattering Richard’s ashes; and me pouring three drams of bourbon into coffee mugs, one of which I drank and two of which I poured into the ground for Fr. Merton and Richard himself. I mean we’re talking about Richard here and we were in the state of Kentucky! What other choice could possibly be made?
With the completion of the second ritual I truly felt as if I had carried our Richard’s final human wish or desire. His Spirit energy was set free to follow his Soul energy which had already long since moved on. In essence it was sort of a “moving day” as it relates to the nature of my relationship with Richard’s spirit, which had been quite literally sitting like an elephant on my chest for the two plus years since his death before I finally traveled to the place he wanted he and I to travel to together.
So how many time days I move that bottle of Joseph Phelps 1994 Insignia in the 18 years since Michael gave it to me as a gift for a job well done? Well let’s see…
I moved it from my south loop townhome when my first wife and I separated in 2007 and ultimately divorced the next year. She was kind enough to let me take it with me. Perhaps she understood its significance even more than I did at that point. Next, I moved it from my then girlfriend Christiana’s Hyde park apartment to my cottage in Michigan later that year. I moved it back from the state of Michigan to the Michigan Avenue apartment that Christiana rented together in 2008. I moved it from that first ever apartment together to our fancy new Roosevelt Collection apartment 18 months later in 2010. And then finally I moved it from our fancy downtown apartment to our far north side two-flat in 2014 weeks before Richard died. When the bottle got to that two-flat, I placed it in the cedar room in the basement where it sat untouched for the next 7 years which would be the its longest time in one place since it came into my possession.
The day before New Year’s Eve 2020, I went to the basement, fetched the bottle and brought it upstairs to let the sediment settle just in case I decided to open it the next night. It would be Bottle with a Twist’s final move. Tune in next time to travel with me through my brain as I struggle to decide whether or not to finally open the bottle. I’ll write about light topics like grief, letting go, closing chapters, embracing change as well as my relationship with alcohol and other substance. You know, just basic around the office water cooler stuff.
Thanks for reading. With love and gratitude,
Chapter #7 – New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve. It’s a built-in measuring stick for everything else that happens in your life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re someone who celebrates and parties on New Year’s Eve or whether you’re someone who sits at home. Either way it’s typically unavoidable that at least some level of contemplation and reflection takes place for most people on New Year’s Eve. Saying goodbye 2020 created a mountain of opportunity for contemplation and reflection in my heart and mind. The first and potentially the most important stage of any New Year’s Eve is the planning stage. That’s the part where you have to make decisions about what you want your New Year’s Eve day and night look like. It’s also the part where most people fail miserably. Now mind you, I do my best not to judge people in any aspect of their lives or label anything someone might do as failure, but when you’ve answered phones for almost 20 years listening to all the reasons why people need to get a last minute reservation, it’s hard not to get a little cynical.
Through the years in my life, I’ve planned everything from elaborate outings to simple nights at home on New Year’s Eve. I’ve had stretches of my life where working was the primary focus and other stretches where partying was the primary focus. All too many times, I put an immense amount of energy into both the working AND the partying and wound up leaving myself spent and depleted causing me to start my new year in an enormous energetic deficit.
When I was younger and still living in my parents home long before I either worked or partied, I remember that my dad would always take me down to Chris’ party store on the corner of 10 Mile and Middlebelt in suburban Detroit. There we would buy a bottle of Moet and Chandon White Star champagne to open on New Years Eve with dinner. It was the only time we had sparkling wine in the house for the whole year. My mom would usually make some special dinner that often included seafood, I’d get a sip or two of champagne and we would stay up late and flip the channels between Dick Clark’s Rockin’ NYE and Lawrence Welk’s NYE special. My mom and I always preferred the former and my dad the latter. Oh and by the way, when I say “flip channels” I mean literally get up and walk to the TV to turn the knob. It’s hard to even imagine that pre-remote world nowadays.
By the time I hit my teens I was always working on New Year’s Eve. I started washing dishes and prep cooking at a fine dining establishment run by the Marriott corporation when I was 15 and then eventually moved into bussing and waiting tables. Since NYE is typically the biggest night of the year for most restaurants, I worked every New Year’s Eve night between the ages of 15 and 25 without exception. Most of those years we started the partying while still at work with a champagne toast at midnight and a shift drink as we did our side work and checkouts. Things were a bit different back then. Things were a bit looser and less restrictive. The only thing that broke my streak of working through the midnight ball drop on New Year’s eve was my move in the retail wine and spirits industry. When I was 25 years old and new to Chicago, I took a job at a high end wine shop in the Gold Coast called The Chalet. That job led me to a 12 year career in the wine industry where I would work every NYE from the time we opened at 9:00 a.m. until we closed at 8:00 p.m. After we closed the store we would pop open champagne bottles and celebrate the busiest day of the year and the end of the intense holiday season. That celebration would then spill over to my home or to another co-workers home before ending in the wee hours of the morning.
I had a one year of sabbatical between my wine retail career and my return to the restaurant industry in 2002. I can’t even remember what I did that year but I’m sure I felt like a fish out of water with no 12 hour work day before a long night of revelry. In 2002, which was my first year at Joe’s, I started a new tradition of working only during the day on New Year’s Eve. Since my role at Joe’s was exclusively a daytime role, I was neither needed nor even wanted during the night shift. To the PM Maitre D’s staff, NYE night was like the Super Bowl of gratuity opportunities so for the first time since I was 15 years old, I found myself free to do whatever I wanted on NYE after 4:00 p.m. Ultimately, the only real change was that the partying started a little bit earlier.
For the last few years of my first marriage which ended in 2007, my first wife and I would typically stay home, fix a nice meal and open good champagne. It looked very much like my NYE looked when I was living at parent’s home as a young boy, minus the Lawrence Welk part and add in the part that I wasn’t limited to just one sip of champagne. When my current wife Christiana and I came together, we started our trend of going out on the town with friends. That tradition turned into an annual party at our dear friends Tom and William’s apartment that always lasted well into the morning. I think the only exception during that 10 year stretch of parties at Tom and William’s place was one year that they had to cancel their party because they were sick. That year we threw together a last minute gathering at our fancy downtown apartment with a few friends and one of my cousins. I still remember playing Dance, Dance Revolution and wearing my old Michael Jackson Thriller style red leather jacket from high school that night.
And then along came Emma. With Christiana’s pregnancy and the arrival of our daughter Emma in 2018, our last four New Year’s Eve celebrations took on an all new shape where we, like most parents of young kids, struggled to even stay awake until midnight. So what’s the point of this little trip down memory lane of Jim’s NYE history you ask?
Well the point is…even though the NYE plot lines and activities have changed immensely through the years, there has always been one constant and that constant is the fact that at no point in my life, even from when I was a very young child has my NYE celebration not included wine. That fact alone is worthy of some contemplation and reflection.
So that brings us up to New Year’s Eve 2020 – the dawning of 2021. It’s hardly as dramatic as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but in other ways it feels like it is exactly that – a new beginning for humanity, global civilization and idealism, all of which are often associated with the sign of Aquarius. I can’t recall any year in my current incarnation that has been accompanied with as much change, ego death, grief, growth and transformation. What a worthy event to celebrate and hold ritual for in my mind.
Of course so many of the ways that we used to celebrate and so many things that we used to do to hold ritual are no longer a part of our movement through the material plane of our human existence right now. No parties. No end of year transformational workshops. No dining out. No in person yoga and meditation rituals. No revelry of any kind, in fact in my wife Christiana’s case, not even any wine. She decided to go completely sober mid-pandemic last summer. I have not made the same bold choice…yet.
And that brings is smack dab to the place that this story was always headed whether I wanted it to or not. That place is a place where I’m once again confronted with my relationship with substance in general and wine in particular. I started this story over 15,000 words ago with a three word sentence that said, “I love wine.” Through the years the question I’ve frequently had to ask myself is, “Does wine love me back or is it just using me?” It’s a complex question.
Over the years I’ve taken a countless number of “breaks” in my relationship with substance in general, but with wine more specifically. Sometimes that break was because I decided to “give something up” for the Lenten season. Sometimes it’s been because I was doing some sort of dietary cleanse. Sometimes it’s been because I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I could and other times it’s been because I felt that I needed to take that break. Every single time I take one of those breaks I have to decide whether or not I want to go back.
A few years back in one of my therapy sessions I mouthed the words, “I’m not sure if my relationship with wine is a healthy relationship or an abusive relationship.” It took years of peeling back layers of the onion of my psyche in therapy to get to the point where I had the courage to ask that question, even in the safety of my own personal therapy session. Ever since the question first came up, it has been a source of great contemplation and reflection inside my own mind, just the same way New Year’s Eve has been through the years.
One of the things that has emerged for me over the last couple of years as I have reflected on this relationship with wine is a list of the reasons why I love wine so much and why I drink wine on a regular basis. While I could come up with dozens of specific “reasons” as to why I choose to drink wine, they all seem to fit into one of four main categories. Those categories are:
I could easily write another 15,000 words breaking down that concept alone, and I likely will in the months ahead, but for now suffice it to say that I’m fairly comfortable with the first two categories and I’m entirely not comfortable with the last two. In reality though, I drink wine for all four of those reasons at various times. Like all relationships in our lives, my relationship with wine is fluid and ever changing. Sometimes it’s healthy and sometimes it’s not.
Perhaps this little tour through my history with substance is a little uncomfortable for you to read because I can assure you that it is equally uncomfortable to write, but I can also assure you that it is a critical part of the entirety of the story of The Bottle with a Story and a Twist. It needed to be written in order for me to close a few chapters in the larger story arc of the entirety of my life story. So as radio great Paul Harvey used to say, “and now; for the rest of the story.” Like I said in our last chapter, on the day before New Year’s Eve this past December I went to the basement and I retrieved my bottle of 1994 Joseph Phelp’s Insignia Cabernet. You know, the one that came to me from my friend and mentor Michael Waugh, the man who put me in my dream job at Joe’s even before I realized that I wanted the job. The one that moved with me seven times over the 18 years since it was gifted to me. The one that somehow managed to not get uncorked yet despite the countless times that I could have pulled the cork to celebrate, hold ritual or even just cope with life. Was now the time?
I’ve come to understand many things about myself in my 56 years of self-discovery on this planet. One of the most obvious things is that I am a MASTER of hanging onto things that I place value on even if might better serve me to let go of them. Part of that comes from a fierce sense of loyalty and commitment and another part comes from my fear of loss. Never has my fear of loss been more challenged than it was in 2020 as I had to let go of nearly every piece of my self-identity and watch my ego die even further than I ever dreamed it needed to die. Haven’t we all had to do that to some degree this last year?
So did I open the bottle you ask? Well I think I’m going to hang on to this story for just one more week. There are a few loose ends to tie up and this is already a fairly lengthy stave. Thanks for taking the time to follow along. Tune in next time and I’m fairly certain I can tie this whole story up and put a bow on it!
With love and gratitude,
I used to think that all stories needed to have big, dramatic, perfect endings. Imagine the amount of pressure that creates for an aspiring writer. It’s enough to paralyze you in fear and prevent you from even starting the task of writing at all. That’s exactly what happened to me for the first 40+ years of my life.
Back in my early adult years, I’d go out and buy the perfect new journal every few months. I’d then make a commitment to myself that I would write everyday until I finally came up with something worth sharing or publishing. I still have dozens of those mostly empty journals packed away in a plastic crate somewhere in the basement or the garage. They are symbols of my previous broken commitments with self and my failures to create the perfect story. Part of me thinks I should burn them all as a healing ritual and another part of me wonders if there might be some nugget in one of them that I can still mine all these years later. By the way did you happen to notice how much baggage there is in that last paragraph alone? Perfect journal; write everyday; mostly empty; broken commitments; failure to create; perfect story. That’s some very HEAVY weight to carry around one’s life. I’ve done a fabulous job in this lifetime of setting impossible to attain standards for myself…and for others. In some ways I marvel at the fact that I’ve even survived under the shadow of my own expectations or that I have any friends at all. I’m not always the easiest person to be around, but I’m becoming a bit kinder and more gentle with others…and with myself as I season with age.
I’ve loved writing ever since I was a little child and long before I ever loved wine. The story about my love of wine is the place where this whole tale of The Bottle with a Story and a Twist began ten weeks ago. LONG before that beginning, I can still remember the true beginning of my writing career when I wrote a story about an ant and a dinosaur back in first or second grade. I recall being told by my teacher and by my parents that I was very creative and that I had great promise as a writer. I couldn’t help but feel for most of my life that much of that promise was still largely unfulfilled. My relationship with writing started to change back in 2011 though, when my then girlfriend, now wife Christiana and I took a trip to Paris, London and Cannes that October.
For the first time in my life I felt like I had something interesting to share with the world. I would write about my adventures on my trip and just see what happened. Maybe this time I wouldn’t fail? I started a WordPress blog site before the trip. I figured that I would never even publish a story, but rather just keep a file of drafts that could serve to be a more modern day version of those mostly empty, perfect journal books in the plastic crate.
A funny thing happened in the first few days of that trip though. I actually liked what I wrote! It was interesting to me. I went on to publish 20 blog posts over the next month, many while I was still adventuring in Paris, London and Cannes and others after I returned home to my much more mundane existence. In between those two extremes of traveling to glamorous cities and being at home, I realized for the first time in my life that there was gold to be mined right under my nose. I didn’t have to travel halfway around the globe, fight tigers in the jungle or be a double agent to be interesting. My everyday life was interesting in and of itself. I just needed to tell the stories and practice my craft. And so practice my craft I have!
Over the last ten years I’ve written hundreds, if not even quite possibly over a thousand blogs, stories, speeches, serial social media posts and the like. I guess I’m a bit of a writer after all. Who knew? So with that, it’s time to finish up this little piece I’ve been putting my heart into since the beginning of the year. Fortunately, I now know that I don’t need the perfect ending. Like all good stories, the conclusion just needs to tie things up a bit. It’s the journey itself, with all of its peaks and valleys and twits and turns that tell the biggest and most dramatic pieces of the tale. It’s the ending that “puts a bow” on the package.
And now much like I did with my green tie for 18 years, let’s get on with the tying of that bow…
Chapter #8 – The Ending
At some point during the worldwide pandemic that we have all been living through for approximately the last year, I came to a level of acceptance that the world that I used to know had come to an ending. I suspect that every one of us has had to come to some level of acceptance with that fact, regardless of our individual beliefs system or ideological stance on the whole matter. Endings aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are frequently quite unsettling.
Like most of you, I have faced a multitude of endings over the last year. None of those endings have been as tumultuous a roller coaster ride as the end of my 18 year tenure as an employee of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in general, and as the daytime Maitre d’ at Joe’s Stone Crab Chicago in specific. Back and forth. Up and down. Twists and turns. It was quite a ride indeed. The ride as I knew it though, ended on December 16, 2020.
There was that brief period in the middle of the year that I returned to work at Joe’s before taking a leave of absence to preserve my mental health and the stability within our family. There was the flirtation with some sort of second return when that leave of absence ended in the fall, only to find out that the deal I had negotiated was no longer on the table the day before my scheduled return. It wouldn’t have mattered anyways because a few days after that deal was removed from the table, the restaurant closed again as Covid numbers in Chicago soared, placing me back in the furlough category. That furlough ultimately led to my being permanently let go with the rest of Lettuce’s other furloughed employees on December 16, 2020. I have no resentment or regrets. That ending needed to happen in order for me to be untethered into whatever might be next. Regardless of what the future holds, I needed the individual pieces of me to die so the more holistic version of me could start to be reborn.
Like I’ve often said to others, being energetically tethered to things from the past that prevent you from being more present in the moment is a distraction from living an intentional life that is in alignment with your soul’s true calling. It makes perfect sense when I’m sharing that teaching with somebody else, but I’m not as good at understanding it myself. It seems that I’m a reasonably good teacher and a very stubborn and closed minded student at times. I’m also not very good at letting go.
And that brings us back to where we left off last time. To the bottle that has been in question since the very inception of this little story. The bottle that finally traveled from the basement to the on deck circle of life on my dining room credenza. The 1994 Phelps Insignia Cabernet that was gifted to me by the very man who gave me my job at Joe’s, Michael Waugh; and it was gifted solely because I did a good job at that job when I first started the job. Could there be a more fitting time to finally open the bottle that I had schlepped across state lines, through a divorce and around many other perfectly fitting opportunities to pull the cork?
I still wasn’t sure.
In our last chapter, I noted a list of four reasons I’ve identified as the reasons why I drink wine: celebration, ritual, habit and as a coping mechanism. During the pandemic I have drifted in and out between those four reasons, but as 2020 wound down, I was starting to feel that the latter two reasons were starting to take the lead over the former, which was a circumstance that I was less than comfortable with. I decided that one of my little breaks from wine would be in order in the New Year. As I also said in our last chapter, each time I take a break I wonder if I’ll ever go back. Wouldn’t it be a shame if I decided to never have wine ever again in my whole life and that special bottle never ever got opened?
I inched closer to a decision.
On the day before New Year’s Eve I asked my wife Christiana if she would possibly have a glass of wine with our special dinner at home the following night. I had purchased some wonderful lamb chops to grill for our NYE dinner at home and I thought they would be an ideal match for a soft tannin, mature high end cabernet like the Phelps Insignia. She told me that she was possibly not going to have wine at any point in the future ever again and certainly she wasn’t ready to experiment with it yet after six months of total sobriety. She then of course asked me why I asked her that question.
I told her the whole story about how I got the bottle in the first place, that I have been waiting for a perfect reason to open it and that I felt that doing so would be a sort of release ritual from my past life at Joe’s and all the people who came into both of our lives as a result of our time working there. She encouraged to do whatever felt right to me and said, “If you decide to open it, you can pour me a glass and I will toast with you and lift it up to my lips, but I probably won’t actually take a sip.” That was all I needed to hear to tip the scales.
The decision was made.
So on New Year’s Eve 2020, I fired up the grill as Christiana put Emma down to bed. I set our TV tables up in the living room in front of a virtual restaurant scene on Youtube with jazz playing in the background on our flat screen television. I roasted brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes and grilled our lamb chops. I polished up our best wine glasses and got out my best crystal decanter. I took my special bottle in my left hand and inspected it one last time with its cork still in-tact as I grabbed my best Laguiole corkscrew with my right hand. After a little wiggling and jiggling, I got the old, dry cork out of the neck of the bottle and I got my first glimpse of the 26 year old nectar that awaited me inside the bottle.
I slowly poured a couple of ounces into my wine glass and then carefully poured the rest into the decanter making sure that none of the sediment in the bottom of the bottle tainted the juice. To my delight, the color was still quite ruby with just a little rust around the edges of the glass. To the eye it looked like my bottle had survived the many twists and turns it had taken on its own road of life. The nose was lush with notes of black currant, tobacco, lilacs and so many other little nuances. Before we even sat down for dinner, I lifted the glass to my lips for that first sip and it was quite literally….heavenly. By that I don’t mean it was the best wine that I had ever tasted in my life, but what I do mean is this. That sip of wine had the essence of Michael Waugh, the person who gave me that bottle and put me in that job that I loved and did so well for almost two decades. Oh, and along for the ride in that heavenly moment in time came the essence of my dear friend Richard and Ciaran and Oz and Bruce and Paulette and Marvin and all the other Angels that left their bodies while working at Joe’s Chicago over the years. Sometimes a sip of wine is just a sip of wine and other times it truly is a ritual and a celebration.
For the next couple of hours, Christiana and I sat in front of our virtual restaurant and remembered stories from years gone by and shared tales about people who had moved in and out of our lives. We had planned on watching a movie while we ate our NYE special dinner, which was always one of our pre-pandemic, pre-parenthood favorite pastimes. In the end the movie of our own lives seemed way more interesting than anything we could have pulled up on Netflix. We had wonderful, emotional moments and we laughed like we hadn’t laughed in months. It was quite literally, the perfect New Year’s Eve celebration of life.
I am SO grateful that I waited until this particular moment in time to open the Bottle with a Story and a Twist. Some things in life are most definitely worth the wait, and sometimes the story comes to an end at the exact perfect time. I guess maybe I have finally crafted a perfect ending after all. Sometimes we see endings like they are a door that is closing. I’ve learned to see the transitions in life more like they are windows. It doesn’t matter if the window is open or closed….once you step through it, you can either choose to look back and see the things you still want to see, or you can keep your eyes focused on the path ahead. The choice is always yours and the focus of your vision is as fluid as the water of life and the nectar of the vine. To die and be reborn. Isn’t that the true measure of life well lived and a story well told…
Boundless gratitude to all of you who have stayed with this story all the way through. Tune in next week and see what new stories are unfolding. I have no idea where the path is headed, but I’m fairly certain it will be an interesting ride.
Peace and Love,