The easiest way to describe my early restaurant career in Chicago would be as a Hunter S. Thompson novel with no actual point. All that is left from the wreckage of that phase of my life are stories like this. Sometimes I honestly believe that, had I not spent so much time hell-bent on my own self-destruction and applied my constitution to physically bettering myself, that I could have been an Olympic athlete. I also know that my addiction to sickening levels of excess would never have allowed for that to happen.
Which brings me to the story of one particular day at work, c. July 2001….
The day had begun pretty much like any other, working a double shift at the now defunct N9NE restaurant in Chicago. It was billed as a “Contemporary Steakhouse,” and had all the trappings that one might expect – the suede banquettes and the sprawling dining room that boasted both a full lounge area as well as a circular “Caviar Bar,” rising up like a spire in the center of the restaurant. The domed ceiling would shift colors as the night progressed, and upstairs there was a full-on nightclub called Ghostbar (because why would we let the guests stop spending money once dinner was over?) The clientele included a broad range of celebrities and sports stars, and the whole setup was the precursor to its well-known identical twin, situated at The Palms Resort in Las Vegas.
Needless to say, we made a lot of money without much effort. The place wasn’t overstaffed, there was no online forums for customer complaints, and the mention of eliminating the tipping system and putting the front of the house on salary would be (rightfully) met with confused stares and possibly violence. On a busy Saturday, we would have 13 servers on the floor (it wasn’t uncommon to do 500-600 covers), each assigned their own personal busser to assist the team of food runners and glass polishers. Eventually, I developed a good working relationship with the strongest busser, Santino, and made sure that we were always assigned to the same section.
Back to the aforementioned double – I recall being annoyed that I was sat a three-top late in the day, as I had been looking forward to drinking away my hangover at Dave & Busters on my break between shifts. The customers were clearly stock brokers (they have a certain look), and my mid-day plans quickly faded away as they started out with a bottle of Krug Champagne and offered me a glass.. After devouring a platter of shellfish, they transitioned into a 1990 Chateau Cos D’Estournel Saint Estephe, priced at the time around $400, to go with their ribeye steaks.
Their tab comes to around $900, which they pay in cash with an added $300 tip. It gets better when they tell me that they have enjoyed lunch so much that they want to come back for dinner that same evening, with more co-workers. I promptly make them a reservation, taking the liberty of entering an all-caps “REQUEST JOE!!!!!!” into the host’s computer system. I wasn’t taking any chances on losing this one. I kept quiet about my fortunes at lunchtime all through the opening side work and pre-shift meeting, for fear of another server pulling some shit and causing me to lose that table.
My new friends arrived after the first turn and I arranged for Santino to take all other tables so I could focus 100% of my attention on them. It was basically a repeat of lunch, except that there were 6 of them and about triple the booze, including three magnums of Cristal, two magnums of Caymus Special Selection, and a bottle of Bryant Family Cabernet. Again, the $5000 bill was handled with cash, as was the $1500 tip – plus they had been basically treating me as if I were sitting with them, topping my glass off every time a new bottle hit the table. Plus, in addition to the cash, they had neatly tucked a baggy full of very good coke into the check presenter, which I quickly slipped into the front pocket of my white server coat. Towards the end of service, I rounded up a few of my coworkers to take turns hitting the bathroom to sample the wares, which put us all in exactly the right mindset for the kind of night you’re supposed to have after walking with this much cash in your pocket (while nursing an inescapable feeling of emptiness and impending doom). After finishing my checkout, I head up to Ghost Bar to shotgun a couple glasses of Champagne before corralling three others to a club called “Zentra.” In present day, I would consider this place to be the bane of my existence, but back then I guess I enjoyed that kind of thing.
If you encountered me in one of these shithole nightclubs back then, I would have likely been juggling three Stoli and sodas (I drank fast and had no patience for waiting in lines so I would order three at once, repeating this ritual all night), sitting in a corner booth snorting coke off of my house key while chain-smoking Marlboro Ultra Lights – I don’t think I could actually make myself numb enough, there was always a need for more. This night is no exception, but by the time 3AM rolls around we found ourselves crowded into the “VIP” room at a club called “Circus.” A tall, well-dressed man starts chatting me up out of nowhere – feigning interest in what I have to say while eyeballing my three attractive female co-workers. He introduces himself as “Joe,” and claims to be a “Film Producer,” offering to host the four of us afterhours at his house if we have any interest. Of course we do, because where else are we going to go this morning? I inform him that I’ve “Got a gram or two,” his response to which is that of mild amusement, for whatever reason.
We make our way back to his condo, a sparse, modern domicile in the South Loop area. Once we arrive he invites us to have our way with his extensive home bar, while he motions for me to follow him into the kitchen. He opens a drawer that I would have expected to contain kitchen utensils and produces what appears to be a brick covered in bubble wrap – but turns out to be cocaine. Now I understand his amusement at my gesture. Also, I have never seen this much coke in real life. He takes out a large black plate onto which he tosses literally two heaping fistfuls before handing it to me.
The look on my friends’ faces as I set down this goliath mountain of blow is priceless, and after pouring myself a brimming vodka on the rocks in a highball glass, I proceed to cut five lines that are about the size of a ruler. As it turned out, I was the only one who had any desire to massacre an Aztec king rail such as this, evidenced by the fact that the rest of the group had broken down one in favor of five normal “portions” for everyone.
The next couple of hours involve me hovering over this plate, pounding vodka as if I were the only person in the room (I don’t recall acknowledging anyone else during this period). I do remember asking if anyone “wanted to race” in regards to two gaggers I had lined up, and no one really paying attention until, at one point, someone realized that if they let me sit in front of that plate for much longer I was going to be exiting the condo in a stretcher. As far as I was concerned, this was the Garden of fucking Eden and I had no desire to leave, but they were eventually able to get me out of there – still breathing. Yes, I probably ruined the film producer’s party, but at the same time he’s the one who handed me the Mt. Everest pile of cocaine – what was I supposed to do? Use good judgement and exercise moderation?
Stepping out into the daylight at 10AM is jarring, and one of our companions promptly jumps in a cab to go home. The remaining three – myself, Julia, and Erin – take off on foot with no particular destination in mind (we’re pretty goddamn high). Bear in mind that we are all still in our black work clothes, performing a walk of shame but too fucked up to even realize it.
I don’t know how or why this happened, I just know that it did – we walk by a fire station and Julia mentions that “They will always give you a tour of the facility if you ask!” I’m not sure that this is actually true, but apparently they were more than happy to host two attractive women and their weird male friend (whose nose just wouldn’t seem to stop running). In fact, they must have been really bored because they actually seemed genuinely excited to have us there, and before long I was being asked to hold purses as Julia and Erin took turns sliding down the fire pole (literally, the fire pole). I begin to sense that if I don’t have another drink and a bump (I’ve still got those baggies in my pocket) I may pass out on my feet.
The problem is that at this point it’s around 12:30PM, and I am scheduled to be back at work at 4:00. The girls have the night off, so they take off to go sleep while I make a beeline to the liquor store in my neighborhood, on Argyle St. I’ve decided that I will make the coke I have on me last and just purchase more from someone once I get to work – I purchase two bottles of Turley Zinfandel to take home with me.
Admittedly, my systems are starting to fail but I am determined to make it through as I know that trying to take a disco nap will actually make things much, much worse. For the next two hours I sit in front of my graphite-colored iMac downloading music on Napster and pounding wine until the inevitable happened – it was time for work. I shower, brush my teeth three times, put on the stinky Prada boots I’ve been wearing for a solid two weeks, do a line, and call a cab.
Now I would like to tell you that work initially went ok – from my perspective it did, but I find that when I’m in a haze of self-destruction my version of the story isn’t entirely accurate when it comes to the appropriateness of my behavior. I’ve got a party of 12 in the private function room that night, so I am at least able to hide in there and pretend that I’m “Getting things set up.” I procure a large shot of Don Julio Anejo to aid in this endeavor.
My party arrives, and right off the bat I am able to get them to start ordering double magnums of 1997 Grgich Hills Cabernet at $600 a pop – and they insist that I “Keep a glass going for myself” on the side table. My second wind has kicked in, and I start to actually feel ok again – the table goes smoothly until the very end, when one of the guests insists that everyone in the room, including myself, do a round of shots called “Statue of Liberty.”
Apparently this involves dipping your hand into a snifter full of Sambuca, pulling it out, and lighting it on fire (your hand) to hold aloft (like the Statue of Liberty) while doing the shot and then blowing it out. The fire doesn’t hurt me, but the Sambuca is another story…
After this I have flashes of memory, hazy glimpses of faces, walking around, and leaving the building. Everything had gone black. The next morning, I awoke in my bed, fully clothed and still wearing my waiter coat – with pens, check presenters and all – and in my disoriented state I look at my alarm clock and see that it is 5:30. It is still dark out, so whether I am looking at “AM” or “PM” is not quite clear, and my first thought is that I have slept through a dinner shift. I frantically call the restaurant, and when I don’t get an answer I slowly piece together that it is 5:30AM and I am most likely in trouble for whatever shit I pulled last night.
After passing back out (sans uniform) I wake up again at 11:30. I immediately call the restaurant and speak with one of the managers who expresses relief that, “I’m alive,” while simultaneously warning me, “Never to do it again.” I still don’t know what actually happened that night (I was told something about crumpling up $20 bills and throwing them at people?), but I can tell you that to this day I still cannot even stand the smell of Sambuca.