Seven Men Who Challenged Me

On Monday night I sat on the deck of my Louisville B&B with a glass of bourbon and looked into the heavens. The nearly full moon dominated the sky and I became increasingly aware of how many people were on my mind in the moment. much like the stars, each time I focused on one, another appeared in the same field of view. Now you might expect that a post with this title would quickly move in the direction of an anthology of relatives, teachers, yogis, senseis and other men who played enormous roles in shaping me into who I am becoming. Those are not the ones not I am speaking of in this moment. In that moment on Monday night one particular spirit came to mind. His name was Dustin Dix.

Dustin was a former co-worker of mine. Dustin was as proud of his Kentucky roots as anyone I have met in this lifetime and here I was for the first time ever in his home. I would say Dustin and I were friendly acquaintances more than friends. Since he was one of my managers a social relationship was not a part of our time on the path together. Since we almost always worked opposite shifts we had little time for interaction, but when we did, his southern charm and caring heart always made me feel like he was one of the truly good people I have had the pleasure of knowing in my life. Dustin passed on exactly four months ago Monday night. It would be a colossal understatement to say that his presence was felt. His spirit was everywhere.

I have the great good fortune of working at one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country – Joe’s Stone Crab Chicago. What we do there transcends the work of serving food to patrons. We create experiences that are memorable. We leave on mark on those that pass through our doors that they will remember for a lifetime. That happens not just because the food is excellent or that the setting is first rate. It happens because the people who work there put their souls into their everyday routines. We are a family of servants.

Like all families we share the accolades and joy as it comes to us. We also share the pain and grief when we experience loss. Thinking about Dustin last night made me retrace some steps on the path over the 15 years I have been employed at Joe’s. Our family has experienced more untimely loss than the average would bear out. In fact in the time I have worked at Joe’s we have had seven men leave us before their time should have expired. (I should note that a few very important women have left us also, but for the purposes of where my brain space is at while on retreat at a monastery in Kentucky, it was the men who were chiming in specifically.) There was a varying degree of closeness that I had with each of the seven men of Joe’s I will write about here, yet they all have one thing in common: they challenged me to be a better version of myself even if I didn’t always prefer the challenge in the moment.

On my week in meditation at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I travel with important mementos of my family members who have departed to the other side of the veil. I have a picture of my grandfather. I have the bear that my dad gave me when I was born. I have the autobiography that my great grandfather wrote. Their spirits and the spirits of other important teachers in my life are always present with me, but in this moment in time I thought I would share with you the ones who chimed in on Monday night as I sat on the porch with my bourbon. Each of them in their own way contributed to who I am becoming now, just like those who played what I referred earlier to as enormous roles in the story of my life. I make no attempt to re-tell their life stories, but rather give you a glimpse into a moment in time that I shared with them and the awakening it provided. Here they are in the order that they left, even though on Monday night I was reminded that they are still very much here.

Dustin – One day at work  about a year ago Dustin said something to me that infuriated me. As I sit here I can’t even remember what it was that he said, but I know that I gave him a good piece of my mind as a result. Later that day I noticed how much what I said to Dustin hurt him. He had no intention of raising my ire. That was so not his way. While I can’t remember the incident I can certainly remember the hurt that I caused. Before I left that night we made amends. There was no other possibility with a man like Dustin who carried his heart on his sleeve at all times. I think it was that heart that made it hard for Dustin to find his own inner peace. He just cared so much. As I think of Dustin in this moment, I am reminded to be more compassionate like Dustin always was. I am grateful for the awakening.

Oz – Oz was a larger than life hippie cool cat who was a Chicago restaurant icon. He came to work for us after closing one of his own establishments and quickly shot to the top of the pack as a Joe’s server. Oz provided service in a way I had never seen before in my life. He was flashy without being over-stated. He as many regulars that anyone on the staff. Running the door wasn’t always easy when Oz had a line of people trying to get into his station. On one such night he questioned why I sat one of his tables when he had a request coming in 30 minutes later. I told him it was my job to keep the room running on schedule and that he should focus his attention on his own station. Oz then shot me a look that penetrated me like a laser. By the end of the night we were back to our usual friendly conversation. It was Oz who was the first to come to my support when my very public divorce happened and I immediately began dating Christiana. He told me that I should stop worrying about what other people think and that I did my job with more integrity than anyone he had known in his 40+ years in the business. As I think of Oz in this moment, I am reminded not to sweat the small stuff because it always passes quickly. I am grateful for he awakening.

Richard – Where do I even begin with Richard? He is the catalyst of the journey that I am currently on at Gethsemani. He was the spiritual coach and teacher to all of us at Joe’s for the three and a half years he worked with us. I can’t even begin to calculate how many meals he shared with his co-workers. How many hand written notes of support he sent to all of us. I often say Richard’s time at Joe’s was his masterpiece. He was given a blank canvas and he painted a Rembrandt. One day at work Richard took exception to something I said about what he should do with one of his tables. He politely told me to mind my own business. I followed up with a barb. One of the games we played to pass the time was to exchange friendly barbs throughout the day. He liked my follow up even less and right after I delivered it he turned on his heels and glared at me without movement for what seemed like a full minute even though it was probably only a second. Later that night when I got out of yoga class I had a voicemail on my phone from Richard. He made no mention of our confrontation at work and instead said that he just wanted to call and remind me how much he loved me and how important our friendship was to him. Richard was never bashful about using the word love. In fact aside from my parents and Christiana, I would say nobody in my life has loved me without condition quite like Richard did. As I think of Richard in this moment, I am reminded to love without condition. I am grateful for the awakening.

Ciaran – Ciaran was one of the original hires at Joe’s when it opened in 2001. He was a five day a week staple on the dining room floor for over ten years and he was loved equally by his customers and his co-workers. Ciaran had a zest for life and his foot to the gas pedal quest for excitement was a thing of beauty to watch on a daily basis. He was one of the most confident men I have ever know and it was that confidence that caused to butt heads at times. I have been know to be a bit head strong myself at times. When I started running the door at night one day a week, Ciaran would at times take exception to how he was being sat. It was suggested by one of my managers that I address the matter myself and have a conversation with Ciaran man to man. I hated that idea! It took me over a week to work up the courage to approach him. I can still remember slowly walking up to table #10 in the corner as we were getting ready for the night. I sheepishly said, “Do you have a minute Ciaran?” He replied, “What’s on your mind Jim?” We talked a few things out and from that day forward there was a new sense of ease in working together; a new found mutual respect for each other’s positions. As I think of Ciaran in this moment, I am reminded that the fastest path to resolution is to meet that which you fear the most head on. Only through communication can we a achieve a better understanding of others and of ourselves. I am grateful for the awakening.

Bruce – Bruce was another original hire at Joe’s. He was a true service pro and left his guests in a state of awe as his eye for detail and his memory of people’s preferences was second to none. Very early on in my tenure at Joe’s I had a lunch table that stayed well into the evening. It was a large table and it happened to be in Bruce’s section so he lost two of his tables for the first few turns. I avoided talking to him as I waited for my table to leave, but I could feel his energy and when it reached 8:00 pm he finally came up to me and said, “Can’t you do anything to make them leave?” Inside I already felt terrible, but I became defensive and told him that I was just trying to do my job of letting the guest enjoy their experience and that I didn’t “need any of his negative energy.” I’m not proud of what I said, but what it led to is a thing of beauty. Before I left that night Bruce sought me out and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be so aggressive. I was just frustrated and I held it in too long. I wish I had just spoken to you sooner and let you know that I knew it was out of you control.” I’ll always remember that moment. It was particularly poignant when Bruce was failing in health from JV virus. One day Christiana and I went down to visit Bruce in his home. His mind was sharp as a tack but he couldn’t even speak because he had lost control of the muscles needed to use his voice. As I think of Bruce in this moment I am reminded to always use your voice with kindness and contrition. I am grateful for the awakening.

Marvin – Marvin was a dear friend of our owner Richard Melman. When Mr. Melman opened Joe’s he wanted to have a team of people on the door that knew the culture and the history of our company as well as that of the sister restaurant in Florida that had been open for 90 years. Marvin was one of the ambassadors of Joe’s in his years as a Maitre D’. Marvin’s wry smile and cunning wit could diffuse even the diciest situation. He was never too worried about whether or not he had the limelight as long as the job got done correctly.When I became a member of the door team in 2003 we had our first opportunities to work together. Since I was predominately days and Marvin was exclusively nights we didn’t have the chance to work together too often, but eventually I started working on Tuesday nights and I had the pleasure ofd sharing one night a week with Marvin for a couple of years. My style was to  keep as many balls in the air as possible and move quickly to keep the juggling act alive. Since Marvin was my senior by at least 25 years, his style was…shall we say…a bit different. One night when things were going in a million different directions at once I started to step on Marvin’s toes a bit. I was trying to do both my job and his job at the same time because I suspect I thought I could do it faster that way than I could if I asked for help. At one point Marvin turned to me and said, “I may not be able to move as fast as you can with my feet kid, but I promise you I can still move that fast in my mind…and that saves me some valuable steps.” I’m not sure that the lesson sunk in right away, but over time it certainly has. As I think of Marvin in this moment I am reminded that the fastest path to the finish line is not always the right path. I am grateful for the awakening.

Michael – Michael joined our team at Joe’s while I was still serving at lunch in my first year. He was brought on from another division within the company to take over as the General Manager after a few of our key managers had left for other opportunities. Michael was already a seasoned Lettuce manager and he came in with a sense of ease in his stride that most do no have when joining a team filled with so many career professionals. On his second day on the job Michael pulled me aside after watching me serve wine at a table during lunch. He picked up a bottle, put his thumb into the punt underneath and told me that “If I held the bottle from below and turned it slightly as I poured that it would prevent the wine from dripping when I took the bottle way from the glass.” Let’s just say that my ability to accept constructive criticism has improved with age. In that moment in time I believe my reply was, “I passed my level one sommelier exam almost twenty years ago, but thanks for the tip.” Michael cocked his head to the side, smiled at me and walked away shaking his head. Over the next few months we developed a working relationship and friendship that I will remember until the day I die. Michael was always more interested in you as a person than he was as an employee. He knew things about everyone’s personal lives, He knew the car you drove, the name of you pet and where you went on your last vacation. He led by inspiring you to be a better self instead of holding you in a place of fear. It was Michael that suggested I take over the door at lunch a few months after what I think I will refer to going forward as “Puntgate”. Michael saw something in me that I did not see in myself and the job he put me in has afforded me privileges beyond my wildest dreams. As I think of Michael in this moment I am reminded that we learn far more when we are willing to learn than when we are trying to demonstrate what we already know. I am grateful for the awakening.

We often seek to find the answers to the questions in our hearts by taking a look at the dramatic things that happen in our lives. We recall the awakenings that come from those who play an enormous role in the story of our lives. On this day, and on Monday night on the balcony with my bourbon, I was given a gift of remembering a few passing interactions that have shaped who I am becoming right now. In the simplicity of allowing space for seven divine souls from the other side of the veil to speak to me, I have unveiled a set of guidelines that could quite likely lead anyone to a life of peace and joy. As I reflect tonight and each day going forward, I will remember these seven men and the what they taught me. Seven absolute truths about how to live a good life.  I am immeasurably grateful for the awakening.

Be compassionate…

Small stuff passes quickly – Pay it no mind…

Love without condition…

Face that which you fear the most head on…

Speak with a voice of kindness and contrition…

The fastest path is not always the right path…

The less you try to know the more you will learn…


Image from the International OCD foundation





About Jim Herbert

I've been wanting to write my whole life. By age 45 it had amounted to nothing more than a storage locker of half full journals and a lot of unfulfilled dreams. Then Paris in the fall of 2011 happened. It was the catalyst I needed to consistently blog. At first I had a hard time hitting the publish button, but now two blog sites and over 300 posts later I'm hitting my stride. I'm also a budding speech writer. I've recently been heavily involved in the Chicago Storytelling scene and have also won the Chicago Toastmasters Area 66 International Speech Contest. Check out our website at for more details about the amazing things that are happening in my life. A book or two are nearing completion. With another Paris trip on tap for Easter of 2015 I can only imagine that there are Infinite Possibilities on the horizon!!!
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