Saturday, October 24, 2015

This Too Shall Pass

Curiously, I started my career in the hotel business at the top.  My first job was manager of a weird little hotel/bar/restaurant on the Texas/Mexico border.  The certifiably insane owner of the hotel decided—in the midst of a drunken stupor—that I might be able to shake up the place and return it to profitability.

I was superbly unqualified to be the manager of anything.  I knew nothing about hotels, I couldn’t prepare a baloney sandwich, and at eighteen, I wasn’t old enough to set foot in the bar that I was supposed to be running.  I was the kind of incompetent manager that normally one can only find within the ranks university administrators or almost anywhere at the State Department. 

No other business, in my opinion, will provide a young man the kind of diverse education the hospitality industry will provide

Note.  Why in the world do they call it the ‘hospitality’ industry?  Cecil B. De Mille claimed that young actresses were called ‘starlets’ because ‘piglets’ was already taken.  If this rule applied to the hotel business, the true name should be the Mental Health Industry.

My reign as manager of the complex did not start well:  As I drove up and was parking my car at the hotel—a place that I had never before laid eyes on—a young man came barreling out the back door with a case of beer hoisted over one shoulder.  Watching him disappear down the alley, I wondered, “Who the hell was that?”

The next 24 hours were extremely educational.  I learned the head cook thought he should have been promoted to manager, and when he found out that I couldn’t even make coffee, he promptly resigned.  I also learned that in front of the hotel was a neon sign promising, "Fresh Apple Pie Made Daily".  Evidently, a good share of the restaurant's business came from local ranchers and oil field workers who came in before dawn each morning for coffee and pie.  While the morning cook could handle breakfast, the pies had to be prepared the night before.

This taught another great lesson:  When you are the boss, you are either responsible or you are irresponsible—there is no middle ground.  There is simply no substitute for getting the job done, and if all else fails, you have to do it yourself.  Management is exactly like fatherhood:  Everything is your job.

The local drug store (which coincidentally, rented part of the ground floor of the old hotel—making me its landlord) sold me a paperback copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook.  I stayed up all that night--and many more later—learning how to bake an apple pie.  Along the way, I wasted a lot of flour and murdered quite a few harmless apples.  I think my first couple of attempts can still be found behind that hotel; the last time I saw them, they were being used as stepping stones across a wet spot in the alley.  Eventually, I could turn out a pretty fair apple pie. 

Note.  I don’t mind sharing my secrets to making a good apple pie.  Don’t overwork the pastry dough.  The pie looks better if you peel the apples, but tastes better if you leave the skins on.  Slice green apples paper thin.  You can’t use too much cinnamon or sugar.  Add butter.  Add more sugar and butter—no dish was ever sent back to the kitchen because it contained too much butter and sugar.  And the top crust needs three slashes.  One to let out the hot steam and two more because that’s the way your momma did it.

I learned a lot about coffee, so I can tell you there are five grades of coffee; Coffee, Java, Joe, Jamoke, and Carbon Remover. On any given day, I’m happy to have anything in the first three categories.  The last two can only be made by true coffee illiterates (these being tea drinkers, the US Army, and Mormons).  No one will complain if you serve them grade two (Java), but everyone will complain if the coffee isn’t hot enough to injure the drinker.

Another lesson:  People hide crap in hotels rooms and then forget to take it with them.  And usually, it is the same kind of crap:  Tennis rackets, cameras, and drugs are most common.  (Well, except for the expensive bottles of designer shampoo that damn near everyone leaves in the shower.  I worked at one hotel where the head housekeeper collected all those bottles and added it to the detergent used to wash the hotel towels and sheets.  I have no clue whether this actually worked, but the hotel laundry room smelled nicer.)

I have no idea what the street value would be of all the drugs I have thrown out after all those years in the hotel business.  Pills, powders and bales of weed were all tossed because guests couldn’t remember where they had stashed their stashes during bouts of drug-induced paranoia.  While no scientist has yet done research on the matter, every hotel maid can tell you that short term memory leads to marijuana loss.

In short, the hotel taught me that hard work and creativity pay off.  So against all odds, I made that small, little, tiny border hotel profitable and before long, I had made a deal with a seismograph crew working for a major oil company.  These guys went out into the middle of nowhere, set up sensitive instruments, and set off buried dynamite in an effort to map the underground reservoirs of undiscovered oil and gas.  This was dangerous and hard work, and the men who made up the crew were well-paid and overworked.

I rented almost every room in the hotel to the oil company, and signed a contract to provide three meals a day for the entire crew.  (By now, I was buying apples by the pickup load.  Not that those guys were gourmands--they would have eaten cinder blocks with ketchup--but no one could match them for the quantity of pie they put away.) 

We had over fifty of these guys in the hotel, and they were just a little on the rough side.  Five nights out of the week, by the time they got back to the hotel, they were too exhausted to do much more than eat dinner and go to bed.  Saturdays were different:  They worked a half-day, then came back to the hotel to eat dinner, and get cleaned up, after which they promptly went wild every Saturday night.  They drank the bar damn near dry, then went out to party as much as anyone could in a border town that boasted one traffic light, and NO night life.  A lot of the activity involved fist fights, shooting craps, and chasing every woman in town.

By Sunday morning, most of the guys were dead broke and dead drunk, and at least half were in jail.  Sunday night would be as quiet as the grave, and then the whole process would begin again on Monday morning.

Not only were the weekends a little…trying, but by Monday, most of restaurant and bar employees had quit.   Harassing the waitresses was the reason about half the roughnecks got arrested each weekend.  So every Monday, I had to start looking for a new crew to train—which is how I hired the Rios sisters.

Guadalupe and Sylvia Rios were two of the hardest-working employees I have ever had.  (Yes, the Guadalupe River is one of the larger rivers in Texas, but don’t blame me--I didn’t name the girls.)  Deeply religious, smart as a whip, and stunningly beautiful, they were two of the best employees ever.  Guadalupe cleaned that kitchen until even I would eat there, and even more important, she took over the pie making responsibilities.  Sylvia waited tables and was so outgoing and charming to the customers that, for the first time, the restaurant was making more money than the bar. 

And that was my biggest problem:  while both of the sisters refused to set foot in the bar, I knew for certain that as soon as the weekend came, those girls would quit after the way they saw the roughnecks run wild.  I couldn’t just give them the weekend off:  we didn’t have enough other employees to cover, but SOMETHING had to be done!  In hindsight, I can only plead youthful exuberance and galloping stupidity for the plan I hatched to keep my two best employees.  The chief of the seismograph crew had already announced that the next week, they would be relocating to the next county, so my plan only had to work one time…

You will remember that we fed those four dozen guys at the hotel Saturday night before they went out to party.  Every Saturday night, we set up the restaurant tables in long rows, then put out platters of food, banquet-style.  That night, each table had a large pots of kidney beans in barbecue sauce thick with chopped onions and peppers—a favorite of the crew.

The beans were especially popular that night:  the guys liked the new, slightly sweeter taste.  (Remember?  No one ever complains about too much sugar.)  The un-named, but key ingredient was a surprisingly large amount of chocolate-flavored Ex-lax—in the kind of quantity one could only obtain if he was the landlord to a pharmacy for which he had a set of keys.)

This was not a terribly clever plan—Effective, but not clever.  When the meal was over, there wasn’t a single bean left in any of the pots.  The men ate, galloped off to get cleaned up….and vanished.  We hardly saw them for the rest of the weekend.  Several phoned the front desk for more toilet paper, but otherwise, it was a peaceful weekend.

A few rugged individuals showed up the next morning for breakfast.  The buffet featured a mercy dish:  grits with cheese.  The rationale was that this was light...but binding. 

Since I was not murdered (with my corpse shoved down a dynamite-packed drill pipe), the crew obviously never caught on to the deliberate nature of my plan.  Within days, they were gone.  When I left the hotel in the fall to start my days at the University of Houston, the Rios sisters were still working there. 

Last I heard, beans were still on the menu.


  1. Hillary Clinton should learn your lesson on responsibility. At her congressional hearing she tried to find middle ground between responsible and not responsible.

  2. The hospitality industry is an interesting business. I can sympathize with you. I worked for 40 years in the mental health industry (5 of it as a middle school, junior high and high school teacher; the rest working with real mental health disorders in the nonprofit sector). Similar story with keeping staff. I never tried Ex-Lax on my patients, but it might have slowed them down a little.

  3. Tom, I suspect it would have sped 'em up a little.....