There's a special group of people who gave me the wherewithal, the diligence and the inspiration to stay sober. They make up a small segment of our society. Some might consider them an aggravation, but to me they were a godsend. They gave me clarity and perspective when I really needed it most, and I'd like to thank them now.
I'm talking about The Drunk Obnoxious Assholes.
Thank You. Really. From the bottom of my heart.
Gracias to all the loud mouth frat boys who insisted on screaming their orders at me, even though I was two feet away. Their slurred ostentation, making them look silly.
Thanks also, to the guy who, when he found the bathroom locked and failed to convince me to open it, pulled the lid off of the trash can and puked for a full three minutes.
Thanks as well, to all the people who never even thought about the trash can and just puked on the floor.
Thank you, to all the people who passed out in their seats before their five minute slice of pepperoni made it to them. Thanks especially to the considerate ones who lost consciousness on the sidewalk out front.
Big thanks to the inebriated young lady who spent the five minutes she had to wait with her tongue lewdly ensconced in her male companion's throat. When she finally detached herself, she looked at him through watery, glazed eyes and asked, "What's your name again?"
Thanks a bunch to the guy who after three minutes stumbled up to the counter and started yelling, "I need my pizza! I've got low blood sugar! I need my pizza now!" The whiskey fumes around him were so thick I was afraid he'd spontaneously combust. I did recieve a large round of applause when I told him to, "Sit the fuck down or you'll be dislodging that pizza from your ass!"
Thanks to the girl who put a joint in my tip jar and them looked severely alarmed when I asked her to take it out. Leaving hurriedly through the doors without her food.
Major thanks to the girl who offered to have sex with me if I could find the pepperoni on her pizza. Sorry I refused (the sex, I found the pepperoni), but my girlfriend was standing right there, and you were kinda drooling and slurring a bit too much for my tastes.
Many sincere and heartfelt thanks to all of the belligerent, unsavory, noisome, hostile, pathetic and pompous drunkards who found their way to my counter during those shaky first months after I declared myself Mr. Party Non-Gratis. Hell, even the ones I had thrown in jail. I couldn't have done it without you.
Of course, my friends supported me as well. It's an awkward thing to explain to people you were drinking with just last week that you were no longer partaking of the potable intoxicants. Some shied away, others pledged their unconditional support. My friends from England were a little perplexed, but they still called me "Mate". Almost nobody chided me. Among the most virtuous of my early supporters was my friend Robbie Mullet.
"Bro, I completely support your decision man." He said during his last visit in the fall of 1991. "You do what you got to do. Seriously, I understand. It's cool."
He visited me many times, never once trying to test my resolve or pry me away for an after hours party. He always kept a supportive demeanor, even when he was clearly three sheets to the wind. Often, during those last few weeks that I saw him, his girlfriend would ask me to hide his keys so he couldn't drive. She'd pick them up the next day and thank me.
Rob came in to say goodbye before he headed back to L.A.. The promise of rock and roll stardom, and a visit when he made it through again. A hug and a handshake, a clap on the back. A few raucous screams of machismo, and he was off.
"Next time you see me bro, I'm gonna be rockin' with Toxin. Mel's gettin' shit lined up out there. L.A.'s the fuckin' place to make it happen. Ohhh yeah." Robbie was excited about hitting the stage in Hollywood. Playing out in Cali with the big boys.
"I'm fuckin' proud of you man. This place kicks ass. Later bro." Out the door he went.
The place was kicking ass. Business was up. Employees were stable and I could barely keep up. The nights used up our early afternoon prep way too quickly. It was beginning to look like we needed a crew to just prepare for our nightly business. I broached the subject. Frank would have none of it though.
"We can't hire people to come in, make dough, and cut vegetables. What're you, outta yer mind?" He'd say agitated.
"We're using up our dough before the next batch is ready!" A good batch of dough (we made it in 50 pound batches), needed to sit for at least a day before it got used. It took that long for the yeast to start working it's magic. A shorter period of time, and you would be stuck with a flat and unstretchable piece of crap. The pies would look and taste terrible. Like something from the frozen foods section of the grocery store. Cardboard. Crud. The best dough sat for a full two days and had little specks covering the surface. This was the yeast that was starting to die. This dough made the best pizza. The dough I was complaining about was being used 4 to 6 hours after we made it. No good.
"Tell your Mom and Dad to come in earlier." Frank would say. Cheapskate.
I couldn't believe the gall. My folks were donating their time to help me out. They got to eat for free but that was all the compensation they were getting. The motherfucker never even thanked them. I turned without saying anything and went back to work. Asshole!
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my Father was secretly negotiating to buy partner F1's shares. They had tentatively reached a deal for the 25% stake in Rockit's Inc. My Father had a little sum saved up and was anxious to go into the restaurant business.
He had been learning from me in a kind of apprentice type of partnership. How to make the pizzas, prep the dough, slice the vegetables and portion the toppings. Listening carefully about which ads worked, how the rushes hit and how to time multiple orders using our two tiered conveyor oven. He was a fast learner and enjoyed creating food for customers. He took over the kitchen in no time at all, frequently muscling me out.
One day, my Father let it slip (on purpose I think) that he was planning on buying F1's shares to Frank. Who, upon hearing this "news" blurted out, eyes wide; "I'll sell you mine for the same price!" My Pop couldn't believe the luck.
He immediately accepted Frank's offer and dropped the offer to F1. Frank had controlling interest in Rockit's Inc. with 51% of the shares. It was a no-brainer Anyone would have done it. F1, however felt betrayed. He wouldn't re-negotiate his price in accordance with the 51% price, being that the 51% price had been his 25% price just a day before. He was pissed and refused to bargain anymore. He would hold that against my Father until the end of our partnership 5 years later. Bitter. Angry. Disdained. He left town in a huff.
Frank and my Father quickly had their lawyers put together a sales agreement. Very simple and straightforward. A standard transaction, nothing fancy. Full disclosure, percentage down, easy payments, low interest. No fancy ifs ands or buts. They signed the papers, money changed accounts, and I had a new partner. Just like that.
Not just any partner, one that I trusted. One I could count on. One who had some sense in his head. Above all, one I respected and loved. One who would let me fly free (at least where making and serving food was concerned). I had ideas. Opinions that Frank had squashed time and again.
The very first thing my Dad did as controlling partner was release the remaining 22% shares to me. Bringing me to a 24% partner in Rockit's Inc. Together, the Burdeshaw's owned 75% of the business, and we operated it like that. I was never considered the lowest ranking partner (even though I was.) No, I was now a majority shareholder with my folks. My Mother, Father and I made our decisions from there on out, as a team. Our few disagreements were talked out until there was a consensus. Sometimes they were talked out loudly, angrily even, but to my folk's credit, they never pulled rank on me. Even when I deserved it. They also gave me a salary that was small but livable.
The first order of business was to revamp the menu. The prices were wacky and I wanted to add a few new items to it. I started with something Frank refused to let me do; tomato bread. This was garlic bread with tomato slices and cheese melted over the top. Frank had always objected, claiming that tomato bread was an "Italian Villa invention". One day, however, while flipping through an old Betty Crocker Cookbook, I came across a recipe for an appetizer called "Mozzarella Garlic Bread." In the text it recommended adding other ingredients to "bring variety and zest to an already zestful appetizer." You could add, eggplant, artichoke hearts, sliced meat or tomatoes. Aha! Italian Villa invention indeed. So I added it to our menu, along with sandwiches; Meatball, Italian Sausage, Ham and Cheese and Stromboli's. The ink wasn't even dry on the sales receipt. When Frank saw it he scowled.
I also monkeyed with the prices of the named pizzas and changed the menu story. I could never understand why Johnny was from a small Georgia town. What the hell was that all about? It never made sense. I changed it to Indiana, of course. Then I added new named pizzas, sauces, sizes, salads, calzones and toppings. It took months of experimenting, fiddling and figuring but when we were done it was a glorious piece of pizzeria literature! We also found a customer who was a graphic artist who would revamp our logo. I wanted to emphasize the rock-n-roll aspect more.
My dad during all of this, would take hours out of his day to sort through the mess of bank statements and bills that Frank brought him in dribs and drabs. He would sit at the table closest to the counter and go through the ledgers. Flipping through the pages, scratching his head and then flipping back to others in the pile. Soon, his page turning became louder. The occasional smack! as he slammed a page down. He'd thumb back and forth through bills, unpaid bills, from months earlier. Produce statements would confuse him and he'd come to me.
"Did we ever sell chicken breasts?"
"No." I'd answer, not quite sure what he was talking about.
"How about eggplant?"
"I know we didn't have pasta."
"That son of a bitch." He'd say and walk back to his seat.
Then one day Frank "popped" over with some unopened mail. He handed it off and quickly strode out of there. My Father thumbed through it, taking special interest in the envelope at the bottom. He tore it open with a zip of his thumb and pulled out the letter. As his eyes made their way down the page his neck started turning red. I knew what that meant. It was the same flush of anger I'd seen a thousand times when I was growing up. A warning, like the rattle of a snake's tail or the hiss of a jaguar. Red hot anger. Tempestuous. Black.
"Read this." He handed me the letter, even though my hands were covered in flour.
I read the words; "Internal Revenue Service... FICA... tardy...due with interest..." The Government wanted their money. They wanted a lot of money. They wanted it yesterday.
"Damn, that seems excessive." I was never privy to the bookkeeping. Might as well have been written in Chinese. Frank handled all of that stuff. I really didn't understand the full implications. My Dad explained.
"Son, you don't get it. He never paid. This is supposed to be done quarterly. The asshole hasn't paid for over a year! This was never disclosed. That Fucker! Sumbitch. Goddamnit!" My Pop got on the phone immediately to his Lawyer.
Soon more unpaid bills and fraudulent charges would turn up. My Dad tried to talk to Frank but got the brush off. Seems it wasn't Frank's problem anymore. It appeared that this was gonna get nasty. The Lawyer recommended another firm to handle litigation. My Father infused the business with more money, a loan to pay off the outstanding and past due bills. He then retained the other attorneys and started the litigation process against Frank.
In the middle of all this I got some terrible news. My good friend Robbie died out in California. It seems he crashed his motorcycle on the freeway. The details are lost on me now, but I believe a bus and a car were involved. Robbie was more than slightly intoxicated at the time. No one was there to hide his keys. It was February 26, Rob had just turned 28 two weeks prior.
I felt sick and angry. Like I had been mugged, something dear and valuable had been stolen. This had been happening way too much. I took his death personally. I felt victimized. I bore some guilt at my selfishness, but I felt selfish just the same. I simply couldn't imagine a world without Robbie Mullet. It was like "fun" had been murdered.
In a way, I was also not surprised. That Robbie would die on the back of his motorcycle seemed oddly appropriate. He had died like he lived; fast and hard. I imagined his rice rocket screaming as it delivered him into the afterlife, like a Rock-n-Roll Viking. A Heavy Metal Samurai. I had ridden on the back of Robbie's motorcycle once. Once. My body had never propelled through space that fast or freely, and it hasn't since. Rob, on the other hand, was meant to fly as fierce as the wind. It suited him.
There was a memorial service at a small space on the University campus called Beck Chapel. The room was filled with my friends, mourning our lost comrade. Rock played loudly from a boom box and Rob's girlfriend read a poem to her lost love. A hat was passed around to buy a keg of beer for the wake afterward. I passed the hat without contributing. Looking back now, I realize that it was an entirely appropriate thing to do in honor of Robbie. At the time however, I was still feeling on edge, and I was a little incensed at the thought of contributing towards alcohol, when my good friend had just died as a result of its effects. I'd like to think Rob would have forgiven me, not drinking in his memory.
I believe that somehow Robbie has become a part of my conscience, a little devil on my shoulder reminding me that I'm taking things much too seriously. The crooked smile. The strut. The frivolity.
"Lighten up, man."
"What's the fuckin' worry bro?"
"Fuck plans, let's rock," in that bad English accent.
He's the part of my soul that tells me when to fly by the seat of my pants, when to crank the stereo. To scream for joy at the top of my lungs. Play hard and make it count. Never grow up.
I hope my kids make a friend like that.
I worked numb for a time. Then I just worked. And worked. The business was blooming under the Burdeshaw control. We entered a pizza contest and came in second. I was mad, but I'd soon have more chances. We tried to put advertising money into things that could be measured. Radio was bullshit. Television was a bust. The newspapers were marginal. Tepid responses, no way to measure their effectiveness. Then one day a guy from a coupon book called the Add Sheet dropped by and changed the way we did our advertising.
The Add Sheet was a magazine sized coupon booklet that came out weekly. They handed them out on street corners, in stores and in bars. They even had their own newspaper machines scattered around town. Our business doubled within a month and we opened for lunch. The thought being that between the few orders, the prep work for the night time could get done. Our crew nearly doubled. I started to need two drivers during the early evening shift. Late night was getting out of hand.
With more employees came more headaches, and I had to concentrate on my management skills. They were lacking. I needed something innovative. Unique. A management style different from Frank's scorched earth method.
I needed a plan...
Ooh!?... Deja Vu!