Smugglers' Inn started as a theme restaurant in Blaine, Minnesota and has become, if not a legitimate advertising agency, then a viable agency alternative with two dedicated ad employees, Carol Henderson, art director and Jarl Olsen, copywriter. Read the whole saga in these posts or click the pirate to follow the entertaining tweets of our dishwasher, Pongo. Who may or may not be an orangutan.!/PongoTryHard

Monday, November 27, 2017

Is it too late to become a zookeeper?

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is one of those things, like the coelacanth or the Snoop Dogg award for community activism, that shouldn’t exist, but yet, there it is. The museum occupies a small space in a one-story building on Venice Boulevard in West LA, 1200 miles from Blaine, Minnesota and Smugglers’ Inn.  Other than the fact that both institutions have websites that have been “under construction” for years, we scarcely have anything in common.  They are a non-profit organization that owes its existence to a an endowment from a Swiss industrialist of the previous century who followed a charismatic mystic.  The mystic maintained that around the time the dinosaurs disappeared, The physical dimension that contained the known world halved and that, basically, the other side got all the cool shit.  We are a combo restaurant and ad agency.  Which, all of a sudden, doesn’t seem that strange.

This is how I remember the call:

“Hello, Smugglers’ Inn.”

“Yes, we sent you an email.”

“I’m sorry. Lots of people email us.” (A lie.)

“I’m calling for The Museum ...(MUMBLES)...ology.



The woman on the line then explained that her real job was as a personal assistant to an actor whom I’d never heard of, but pretended to know in the hopes of finding out what the hell she wanted.  She was working at the museum “just for the summer, until (ACTOR’S NAME) got back from a three month ayahuasca cleansing with a shaman in Brazil.”

Suddenly, I remembered that I had to order towels.

“Is there something that I can help you with?” I asked, regretting that I’d asked.

“You have an employee there...Pogo?”

His name is “Pongo”.  So, If I said “no”, I would not be lying.  Technically.
“To be perfectly frank, we’re not keen on answering any questions about our employees without a very good reason.  Did you have a good reason?” I regretted asking.  Again.

“This is going to seem like one of those miraculous coincidences, but MOJT’s next exhibit will highlight instances of inter-dimensional travel in shamanistic cultures throughout recorded history, augmented by statements by quantum physicists who argue for a multi-verse models of the universe where competing dimensions exist on top of one another and can, in theory, be bridged.

“And the coincidence is, what?  “MOJT” and “poop” have the same number of letters?”  

I didn’t actually say that, of course. But I was thinking that I needed to get to those towels.  The young woman went on.

“The shaman whom (ACTOR’S NAME) is currently receiving guidance from has claimed to travel to another dimension and on occasion, encounter others who were making similar journeys.”

“I see,” I lied.

“Well, quite recently, my guy’s shaman encountered another shaman who was trying to lead an acolyte whom had lost his home.  This is all coming from (ACTOR’S NAME).


“Nothing.  How does this involve us at Smugglers’ Inn?

“Getting to that.  The two Shaman’s communicate, but they don’t really speak the same language, one being from Brazil and the other being in Sumatra.  Sumatra is part of Indonesia.”

“You know your geography.”

“I had to look it up.  Anyway, the lost acolyte’s name was “Pogo” and his spiritual center was in Blaine, Minnesota, specifically a restaurant that had portholes and shopping center
nearby.  I went on Google Earth.  You got portholes.”

My worldview is pretty elastic, but it doesn’t stretch to include shamans who communicate telepathically in the never-never.  It occurred to me that someone was probably pranking me. 

“One minute, please,” I said and extracted my clunky Galaxy Note V from my too-tight cotton/poly manager pants.  The voice recognition on Google worked, which was good since I couldn’t have spelled “Jurassic” had you given me four tries.  My phone showed a picture of a deliberately blacked-out storefront blocked by a tree and hard by place called “Hurry Curry” along with a phone number and a website for the Museum of Jurassic Technology.  Legit.

“Sorry for that, Miss...”  

“Wendra. Would you rather I call back in the morning?”

“I’ll be asleep. No, please. Go ahead, Wendra; this is interesting.”

“OK, here’s the elevator pitch.  The Museum wants to fly Pogo to Los Angeles for our opening, but that’s not the big thing. You know what TED talks are, right?”

“Sure.”  I sort of knew--smart folks talking, normal folks pretending to understand.  

“Well, Dr. (EGGHEAD’S NAME) is one of the the physicists who is  helping us put together our show.  He’s been asked to do a TED talk on multiverses and he wants your man, Pogo, to appear with him and tell everyone how he made the journey from Sumatra to Blaine, Minnesota.”

“And how was that?”  It had taken substantial donations from our entire staff to get Pongo to Jalalabad, Indonesia with a bit of cash to get himself to Sumatra.  It was not a round trip ticket.



“I told Dr. (EGGHEAD’S NAME) that he should come up with a more scientific name, but he’s a big Deadhead and I guess that’s, like, the name of a Phish song.”

Don’t ask.  I didn’t.
“Basically,” the young woman said, “your man, Pogo, was able to get from Indonesia to Minnesota in a matter of minutes when his Shaman opened a hole to an inter-dimension.  The Shaman actually carried him on his back for the short duration of the journey, like a Sherpa.”

“That explains the name, anyway.”  

“I know; it’s pretty wild.  I’ve caught a couple of (DR. EGGHEAD’S) lectures, and he presents a ton of anecdotal evidence. He’s identified four cultures where these voyages had been described.  There are probably loads more, since societies with shamans tend not to leave written histories. 

I no long thought the person on the other line was pranking me.  Scarier still, I was convinced that she was completely sane.

“I’m a bit busy, um...”


“Gretchen, I wish you all the best, but I am sure that you can understand, given the current political climate, my reluctance to discuss our employees with strangers.  I can tell you there’s no one named Pogo here.”

“I forgot to say that (DR. EGGHEAD) is offering Pogo, or whatever his name is, two thousand dollars for appearing with him on stage.  This is on top of the airfare and expenses that the Museum would cover.”

“That sounds like a lot.”

“Believe me, we’re stretched just to cover the airfare, but (DR. EGGHEAD) has deeper pockets and he’s looking big picture. He thinks that being able to show off a living inter-dimensional traveler would help prove what lots of quantum physicists believe, that there is no one, definitive reality.  If this talk gets noticed, your guy could be doing this a lot.  He’d be famous, in a YouTube, Scientific American sort of way.”

I was silent.  My brain was catching up.

“Look, let’s do this,” the caller went on, “When I hang up, check out the Museum of Jurassic Technology online and satisfy yourself that we aren’t some false front for ICE or anything.  The museum is actually closed Mondays, but I’ll be in the rest of the week and your guy can get me there.  If he calls Wednesday or Friday, there will even be someone there who’s been to Indonesia and who speaks some Tagalog. I’ll give you my cell, too.”

Gretchen apologized again for keeping me from my work and ended our call.  I looked at her number, but all I saw was a two with three zeros.  Two grand is about what Pongo earns at Smugglers’ Inn in a month.  Those were OK wages when we’d hired him as a dishwasher and prep cook, but we’d quickly drafted Pongo to help out with Smuggler’s Inn, the ad agency and it was here that he’d shown his worth.  Pongo’s talent for big picture thinking and his intuitive ability to know what tactics would motivate people had helped us win pitches.  We didn’t trot him out for company, but he was our head of new business and planning all the same.  Since his “vacation”, Smugglers’ Inn had been little more than another theme restaurant with agency pretensions. Well, it was high time our little, ginger-haired Sumatran reaped some good karma after all of his his contributions to the team.

When Pongo showed up at 3:45 for his five-o’clock shift, I pulled him into the office and sat him down.
“Pongo, I’ve looked over the the brand manifesto for the University Hospital Network that Cat worked up from your notes--brilliant.  I want you to know that if we end up with an assignment from these people, I’ve decided to give you a one hundred and fifty, no, two hundred dollar bonus.  How does that sound?”

Pongo did two back flips in his chair, high-fived me and ran off to change into his uniform.  Damned if I was going to let some mad scientists from California poach my head of new business.  Heck, they hadn’t even cared enough to learn how to say his name.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Be careful who you wish for.

"The Nunz" by our seating hostess, Caitlyn.
“Nunzio!  Nunzio, Nunzio, Nunzio!  Life is a Broadway musical since Nunzio came to stay.  Every day, he eats pork chops and does not pay.  He corrals our waitresses and asks them if they pray.  He says, “Chicks dig the uniform.” Oy, vey!  Now, all I want is for this priest to go away.  Away! Away! Away!” 

OK, Andrew Lloyd Weber is not now trembling in his Beatle boots.  I’m just trying to find something to sing about after this whole Nunzio affair.  It ain’t easy. 

If you’ve been keeping up with this blog and you didn’t just land here looking for pirate porn, then you know that on December 31st, 2016 your friends at Smugglers’ Inn witnessed a miracle.  Well, some of us did.  We clearly saw our former dishwasher and planner, Pongo, appear just in time to rescue New Year’s Eve from certain disaster even though, as would be revealed later, Pongo was then 9,000 miles away on the island of Sumatra.  Members of Smug’s kitchen staff, who were raised believing that miracles not only happen, but that when they do, it’s your duty to report them to the Mother Church, wrote a letter to one Bishop Hebda of Minnesota, explaining the unexplainable appearance and subsequent disappearance of someone who was never there.  I signed this letter, but I never imagined the bishop would reply, let alone do what he did.  Hebda forwarded our letter the papal ligate in Rome.  “Ligate”.  Now, there is a word no one knows.  Two months later, “Special Advocate Nunzio” arrives.  He is supposed to find alternative, non-miraculous explanations for what I and five others saw that night or, barring that, verify the miracle.  Chef Jorge and cooks Little Jorge and Miguel, who penned the letter to the Bishop (in Spanish) are over the moon.  They would be; they don’t have to feed this guy.

Although I am sure “Senor cura”, as Little Jorge calls him, has a stipend, he prefers to eat three meals a day at Smuggler’s Inn.  Smugglers’ Inn isn’t open for breakfast, but when the white van from the local Catholic church drops Nunzio off at our place at eleven AM, either Little Jorge or Miguel has an omelette and toast prepared and waiting for him.  He eats lunch around four then, in the European tradition, has supper at 10 PM.  It’s a lot of food.  You would think Nunzio might appear the slightest bit grateful, but rather the opposite is true.  He complains.  Almost no one complains at Smugglers’ Inn; we’re in Minnesota.  Certainly, no one complains about our food.  Our menu?  Yes, we do not have a very imaginative menu, but we have been preparing those items the same way since 1972.  Consistency counts for something in the restaurant world, even if it doesn’t in the ad land.  Smugglers’ Inn, the ad agency, has been re-invented so many times that I’m not sure if we’re calling ourselves as marketing enablers or brand champions this month.  Cooking is different. You do not need an proprietary algorithm for making beer cheese soup.  You need two bricks of Velveeta, an equal volume of Low-melt© butter substitute, a gallon of whole milk, a low-heat source and voilla!  Creamy nectar of the gods.

“Abomination!” Nunzio had declared after Little Jorge served him some of our First Mate’s Beer Cheese Soupe, for which we are justly famous.  “Abomination” is a word that means the same in Italian and Spanish as in English.  Even if it doesn’t, the “Are you trying to poison me, motherf***r?” glare Nunzio shot Little Jorge needed no translating.  Did I mention that Nunzio looks like Zero Mostel?  It’s true.  Check out “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.  Anyway, after the “abomination” comment, our head chef, Jorge, came to me and asked if we could drop beer cheese soup from the menu and replace it with something Nunzio had suggested.

“Menudo? You want to serve menudo instead of beer cheese soup?”

“It reflects the changing demographic of the market,” Jorge told me with a straight face.  

Seeing my ears turning red, Jorge added, “Plus, beer cheese is a lotta cholesterol.”

Granted, a stick of butter doesn’t have as much cholesterol as equal volume of beer cheese soup, but that is not the point.  The point is that none of our previous head chefs ever had any difficulty explaining beer cheese soup to his Mexican, Ecuadorean, Panamanian or Honduran kitchen staff before.  They could see that our customers liked it and that was enough.

“Jorge,” I said, “Smuggler’s Inn is a nautically-themed restaurant that also makes ad campaigns.  Or brand experiences.  Don’t you think that people are confused enough?  Now, we are supposed to offer Mexican fare--Mexican fare approved by an Italian priest?”

I sent Jorge back to the kitchen and counted backwards from two.  This had to stop.

“Where’s Nunzio?”  I shouted to no one in particular.  “Nunzio!  Nunzio!  Nunzio!”  

I found the chubby cleric in the parking lot, shaking holy water on the hood of a modified Honda Civic with a brahma bull decal in the windshield and a home-made spoiler that looked like it had been fashioned from aluminum siding.  Nunzio, I was aware, had a side-hustle blessing cars.  

“When you’re done there, Nunzio, kindly see me in my office. Thank you.”

Three minutes later, I heard an unmuffled engine and squealing tires.  Great.  Our landlords at the Northtown Shopping center could follow the rubber strips right to our door.  In no time, Nunzio appeared in my office, standing with his hands clasped in front of him and looking drifty, as if he’d been interrupted while meditating in the garden.  

“What is it you wish, signori?”

A musical car horn sounded outside, playing what I had always called the Mexican Hat Dance Song.  Who would have guessed that there were so many Latin tuner boys in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota?

“Nunzio, I would appreciate it if you would not stray from your mission while you are with us.”

“Nunzio, stray?  Signori...”

Nunzio gave me his best pout.  If you do check out “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, look up the scene where Zero Mostel’s character gets caught dealing in erotic pottery.  It’s that look.

“Father...” I began. 

“Technically, I am not a priest.  I will be a priest again, God willing, but for now, I am a humble servant of the Holy See.”

Nunzio looked heavenward just as the Mexican Hat Dance horn sounded several times in a row.  

“How much you get per car?” 

“Get?” Nunzio cocked his head as if he had no idea what I was talking about.  

“$20?  $50?  I know the guys gave you $100 for blessing the kitchen.”

“Donations! Si, donations. Given willingly. The Church does not “charge” for blessings.  Signori, I know that you are not of our faith, but surely, you understand that donations are necessary to maintain the good works.”

The “Mexican Hat” horn sounded once more and I had to put a hand on Nunzio’s shoulder to keep him from going to it.  

“Nunzio, you’ve been her for what, three weeks?  You’ve taken statements from everyone who was in our kitchen on New Year’s Eve.”

“I did not take your statement.”

“What do you mean? I told you that I saw Pongo plain as day.  Your guy in Rome checked with your priest in Sumatra, who reported that he had encountered Pongo in the company of a holy man.”

“But you refused to swear to this.  Which ees...suspicious.” 

We had been over this already. “I resent being asked to swear on the blessed virgin,” I said.

“My son, we do not swear ON the Virgin...”

“Again, Nunzio, I’m Lutheran.  We don’t swear.  It’s just not our thing.”

Nunzio spread his hands apart, palms up,  like he expected songbirds to come roost on them. 

“Did you call the Lutherans to verify your miracle, my son?” 

I have asked Nunzio never to refer to me, or any Smugglers’ Inn employee, as “my son” or “my child”.  Two weeks ago, one of our cocktail waitresses had come to me saying that Nunzio had offered to hear her confession.  “All the while, he’s saying, “my child, my child” and staring at my tits.”

A young, dirty-minded Zero Mostel.  Did I say that already?

“Look, Nunzio, I don’t know if you fully understand how Smugglers’ Inn operates, but there are two parts to our business.  On one hand, we’re a restaurant, but we are also an ad agency--sorry, a marketing consultancy--that does branding projects.  For money.  The idea is that when the restaurant is slow, the branding biz will be busy and vice-versa.”


“Yes.  Yes, it is a little complicated, but it works.  Or, it has worked.  Right now, neither one of our core businesses can seem to make a profit.  It’s got me half out of my goddamn mind.”

Nunzio’s head snapped back in mock offense.  As it did, an involuntary little belch escaped his lips. Nunzio crossed himself, a motion that was probably meant to dispel the unmistakable odor of mint.  So that’s where that missing bottle of creme de menthe went.

“Nunzio...” I began.

The “Mexican Hat Dance” horn sounded once again and I physically 
had to restrain Nunzio from going to it.

“Nunzio, I need your undivided attention for one minute, OK?  Thank you.  In case it’s not obvious, we’re trying to cut our operating costs just so we can keep the lights on.  If you’re going to be staying with us more anything more than a few more days, I’m going to need you to pitch in.  Now, I’m sure that the church must have given you some kind of meal allowance so, from now on, I would like you to sign for whatever you eat.  I’m going to ask that you reimburse the restaurant at half of the menu price, just so we cover out-of-pocket expenses.” 

“Out of pocket expenses?” Nunzio chewed the words as if he was weighing his possibilities, then said, “No, I don’t think that is possible.”

“I guess you’ll be wrapping things up, then.” This was really the outcome I had hoped for.  More than his mooching, Nunzio’s presence was a disruption that I just didn’t need.

“Unless there is another miraculous event, I cannot stop the investigation unless directed to do so.  Neither can I allow church funds to flow to a company that is involved in, what is the saying?  Yes! Cyber espionage.”


“Eet is my unna-standing that you were recently trying to convince a drug company into giving you the account, as you say.  It is a profitable business, the making of medicines, no?”

“Your point?”

Nunzio held up a finger. 

“What do you think this drug company would do if they know someone had breached their internal firewall to gain an unfair advantage in a news business pitch?
Nunzio had said, “breached their internal firewall” without any trace of an accent, but had pronounced pitch like “peach”.  Suspicious.

“That wasn’t our fault!” I protested.  “That kid we hired from the Geek Squad was just supposed to find out who else they were talking to.  How were we to know that he was part of an anarchist hacker ring that posts horrific pictures on websites of companies that engage in animal testing?  We found the guy at Best Buy, for cryin’ out loud.  Don’t they vet their employees?”
Anyway, who...?”

“A leetle bird.  A leetle bird.”

Nunzio mimed launching a bird into the air and watching it fly away.  

One of our team, it seems, had taken the Nunz up on his offer to hear his or her confession.  This changed everything.  


“I would not think it would be a bad thing if Smugglers’ Inn made some small donation to ease the church’s burden.  A small amount, say, fifty dollars a week.”

“Wha...? No!”

“You are right.  A hundred dollars is better.”

I was stunned beyond speech.  This was what happens when you write letters.  

Outside, the driver with the car to be blessed was revving his engine impatiently.  I saw the corners of Nunzio’s mouth curl in a little victory smile.  God, but he looked like Zero Mostel. 

“If there is nothing else signori,...”

Then, a square of acoustical ceiling tile exploded.  There was a blur of orange-red hair and Zero Mostel’s face was gone, replaced by a 4-gallon stainless steel tureen.  Like the one we mix beer cheese soup in.  

The mendicant holy man grabbed at his thighs, which were nude. 

“Como?!” said Nunzio.  His voice sounded as if he were in a well.

“Looks like you’ve been pantsed.”

“Pantsded?” Nunzio echoed.  He went to yank the pail from his head only to be driven off balance by the unexpected resistance of the gaberdine slacks that were bunched about his ankles.  He fell hard, hitting the square corner of a filing cabinet before landing on his posterior in a giant pratfall, the dislodged tureen bouncing on the floor with a “clang!” that caused the employees who had been lurking outside to rush in to see what the commotion was about.

Nunzio sat clutching his hip where the filing cabinet had bitten him, swearing in perfectly serviceable East Coast American English (Providence?  Baltimore?), oblivious to the fact that his junk was peeking out from behind his tidy whiteys for any and all to see.

The novelty horn sounded once more and in that instant, my faith in god, Martin Luther, karma and the Minnesota Twins had been restored.  I addressed my Smugglers’ Inn brethren.

“Guys,” I said, “everything’s cool;  Pongo’s back.”

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pope Francis hears from Smugglers' Inn.

 "It just keeps going.  There must be six pages here."
   Bless me, father, for I have sinned.  It has been two months since my last blog posting.  OK, so if you are a fan of Smugglers’ Inn, you know that two months is about par between transmissions from our cramped manager’s office nestled between Smug’s kitchen and store room.  Still, when God sends you a miracle, it behooves you not to keep quiet about it.  There are social media obligations.

Yes, I can just hear you now, ye disbelievers.  “A divine miracle at Smugglers’ Inn?   What, did they win a new business pitch?” Hardee-har-har.  We are SO amused.   I will have you know, Snarky-puss, that a letter was written and has been mailed to his holiness, the archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul, father Hebda.  I’m not sure if “his holiness” is just for addressing a pope or if anyone in Catholic upper-management can be an “holiness”, but the Pope is definitely is and the Pope appointed this guy, Hebda, so if I’m in error, it’s only by one degree.  

About the letter.   It describes a sequence of events which occurred in our kitchen between the hours of ten o’clock on December 31st until shortly after midnight, January first.  These events were witnessed by myself, Patrick “Scotty” Wallace, a bartender, Jorge, our head chef and Miguel and Little Jorge, cooks.  With the exception of me, all of these men are Catholics.  True, Scotty claims to be a Buddhist, but he was born in Ireland and was never excommunicated, so he added his signature to the letter along with the others.  I refrained, in part because I am Lutheran, but also because I don’t read Spanish well and I like to know what I’m signing. Jorge, Miguel and Little Jorge had felt it their duty to inform the head of their church about what had transpired that night in case this should fit the Church’s criteria for a bona fide miracle.  My understanding is that if it Hebda deems it worthy, guys whose job it is to verify miracles will launch their own investigation.  It’s all very DaVinci code.  All I know is, I have been turning what happened over in my brain for three weeks and I cannot explain it away.

If you have been keeping up with this blog, then you know that Smug’s beloved dishwasher and brand strategist, Pongo, departed some time back for his native Sumatra in order to assist in disaster relief efforts in that country.  The original disaster had been a series of mudslides, but this was followed by an earthquake, then a Tsunami.  Kind of a “come for the mud, stay for the apocalypse” scenario.  Pongo being Pongo, our man would naturally throw himself headlong into any situation where he could be of service to others.  At least, this was the reason we had used to explain why, outside of one call from the Jakarta airport, Pongo had not even bothered to check in to let us know he was OK.  It was going on nine months without a word.

To be sure, Pongo was missed; our advertising division had not logged a single win without him.  While no one was coming out and and saying it, it was becoming obvious that Pongo and his surprising insights into human behavior had been the only thing that Smugglers’ Inn had to offer prospective clients.  Other than a full bar. 

Our core business, serving surf’n turf to working class people from the Coon Rapids, Spring Lake Park and Fridley areas, was in fair shape.  Not that this wasn’t to Pongo’s credit, too.  After first distinguishing himself as a dishwasher and then as a prep cook, Carol, the day manager, and I invited Pongo into our management clique, bestowing upon our hairy, red-haired friend the title of “director of operations”.  While he’d been functioning in this capacity for scarcely a month before his departure, it had been enough time for him to re-arranged the cooler, store room and kitchen area for maximum efficiency.  Several of our  suppliers had been swapped out for others whose goods were cheaper or whose services were more reliable.  A cosmetics company was now buying our used fryer fat and our nightly mountain of recyclables were no longer being picked through by raiders in pick-up trucks with plywood sides.  Miguel and Little Jorge were taking all of our bottles and cans to the recycling center and that cash was going toward our bottom line.  Pongo, who claims to have never had a drink, asked the bartenders what they would like to be in the well instead or Smug’s notoriously unpopular Phillips Scotch, vodka, whiskey, bourbon and tequila. (Phillips brandy, the exception, is excellent).  Pongo threatened to fire our liquor supplier of 40-some years and lo and behold, we found ourselves pouring better drinks for same price.  After years of slow decline, our monthly bar sales had been ticking up a couple of percent points each month.  We’d even spotted a few parties of honest-to-god millenials in our lounge.  I didn’t care that they were slumming.  They were DRINKING.

What does organizational efficiency have to do with popes and bishops and miracles?  Getting to that, I am, Skywalker.

Thanks to our operations manager, Smugglers’ Inn was running lean.  Our just-in-time business model extended to human capital, too, although payroll was ultimately my responsibility.  Restaurant staff is constantly coming and going, so I didn’t need to lay anybody off as we tightened our belts.  If an employee quit, I’d dole a portion of his or her hours out to remaining employees.  Bar and wait staff are part-time and most live in a perpetual state of scrounging for hours, so few complained when they were asked to handle more tables or pitch in with cleaning. Our behind the line workers, our cooks and chefs, tend to stay on a bit longer, anyway, but none of them had quit for a year--considered a respectable run at any restaurant.

The one problem was the dishwasher/food prep position.  Before Pongo had come along, these used to be separate jobs.  Pongo had no problem de-veining shrimp, making chocolate mouse and putting messages on tiny birthday cakes in frosting while simultaneously feeding trays of glasses and plates through the ancient Hobart Service Master.  But he was Pongo.  The dishwashers who want to be dishwashers, and there are a few of them, don’t want the responsibility of preparing food.  Those who are more ambitious are going to move up as soon as possible, so they leave after a two or three months, parlaying their food prep experience into entry-level cooking jobs at hotels and restaurants.  We were almost ready to start paying more to keep someone around.  Almost.

As 2016 lurched to an end, Smugglers’ Inn had two dishwasher/prep people on the schedule.  Both were young women.  Neither Kimberlee nor Lucia had been blooded; i.e., they had yet to work a New Year’s Eve.  Of the two, Lucia was the better and I had told her that she would just be working prep that night and that Kimberly would just be washing.  If I’d had a third dishwasher/prep person to call in, I would have.  Two could handle it, though, provided they didn’t get behind.

My mistake, looking back on it, had been in not letting Kimberlee know that she had the less-glamorous job of dish duty.  She’d been informed of this fact from Lucia.  Words were exchanged between the two women and Kimberlee threw a fine little fit, ending with her pitching a crusty saucepan against the metal wall by the dish spray. A loud “BOOM!” reverberated throughout the restaurant.  There is enough drama in a kitchen on New Year’s Eve without a dishwasher making noises that sound like cannon reports and Jorge, our chef, took time out from barking at Miguel and Little Jorge to bark at Kimberlee.  Jorge maintains that he doesn’t remember saying anything bad, but Lucia, who speaks Spanish, had found whatever he’d said so offensive that she demanded he make an apology to Kimberlee.  Jorge declined.

You can, no doubt, see where this is going.  Lucia and Kimberlee, who only moments before had been enemies, formed one of those instant bonds of solidarity that only combat soldiers and young women can.  They let the dishes and the prep work pile up and then, when waiters were screaming that there were no desserts in the dessert cooler and the cooks did not have one clean plate to put orders onto, Kimberlee jammed a mop in the conveyor of the Service Master and she and Lucia walked off the job, together.

I was assisting with seating duties when my two dishwashers strolled past the clot of people at the hostess stand who were there for the 10:30 seating.  “Is your bathroom backed up again?” I’d asked before I saw that Kimberlee and Lucia were carrying coats under their arms. “Hold on, guys!” I’d called out, but the pair kept walking, past the women’s powder room and out the front door.

To say the kitchen was in chaos was to say that Gravity’s Rainbow was confusing.   Miguel was trying to wash a few dishes with the sprayer and still man the saute’ station.  Jorge had dropped any pretense of speaking English, which did nothing to allay the concerns of the wait staff, who saw a broiler completely covered with cuts of meat that looked suspiciously like the steaks and chops that they were waiting for.

“Yo, boss!” Scotty said to tell you that he needs you to break out more beer glasses and highballs, pronto.”

The bar boy’s words were followed by a tremendous crash, as if someone had tried to carry more than two trays of stemware at once and had dropped the unstable stack on the floor.  Customers in the dining room clapped,as they always do.  They would not be clapping when their cocktails didn’t show up.

I knew that I would get through this night.  But god, I did not see how. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

“If only Pongo were here,” I thought.  I could almost see him, attacking the dishes, sweeping up broken glass, flipping on stainless steel machines that whipped and stirred.  Taking charge.  I opened my eyes.  Several times. 

Pongo WAS there, in his white dishwasher’s uniform, trademark Marlboro Lights jammed in his front pocket and a paper hat on his head.  He moved with the grace of a kung fu master.  I saw him jump INTO the Hobart dish washer and started the machine back up when he jumped down, holding the mop in his other hand. 

I clapped my hands.

“OK, people! It’s New Year’s Eve! What are you doing standing around?”

Miguel and Little Jorge picked their jaws up off the floor and ran back to the kitchen where Big Jorge was screaming in obscenity-laced Spanish.  There would be time to welcome Pongo back later.  For now, we had to pull the meat from the dirt.

A verbal fight had broken out in the lounge when a bartender refused to serve a group of young men after one couldn’t produce an ID. Threats were made.  A more physical confrontation had occurred in the parking lot over some supposed fender-scraping. I had to mediate between two combatants with identical bloody noses and identical hysterical dates, both of whom swore the other had sideswiped him.  The combatants’ vehicles were blocking several cars and they were each refusing to move them until the police came.  As if the police could spare someone on New Year’s Eve for that bullshit.  I made a call to my pals at Leo’s Towing and a yellow tow truck there in five minutes.  Highway 10 runs right in front of Smugglers’ Inn and tow trucks had lined up there like cabs at the airport, waiting to tow DWI’s or pull people out of the ditch on this icy New Year’s Eve.  As soon as my brawlers saw the hook coming and realized that they were about to lose their wheels, they skidaddled.  I gave the driver of the tow truck two twenties and he called in a roadside assistance stop, which went on my triple A.  “You may want to get that battery replaced,” he said. “Happy fucking New Year,” I said in reply.

It was hardly the most drama Smugglers’ Inn has seen on a December 31st, but a series of minor emergencies kept me scuttling between the hostess desk and the bar all night.  I didn’t feel the need to go back to the kitchen; I knew Pongo was on the job. 

I listened to the DJ count down to midnight and watched everybody kiss. (Nobody kisses me; I am the manager.)  I made the same silent resolution everyone who finds him or herself working in a bar on New Year’s Eve makes, i.e., to have some other job come next year.  And who knows?  Now that we had Pongo back, we could chase after some bigger marketing projects.  A couple of decent wins and we might become Smugglers’ Inn, America’s favorite ad agency and former theme restaurant. 

“Pongo!” In my preoccupation with keeping tables turning over, I’d neglected our prodigal son of Sumatra.  I had a million questions, not the least of which was how did he know to appear exactly when we needed him the most?

I had Scotty mix a Shirley Temple, Pongo’s favorite, then headed for the kitchen, stopping by a six-top of over-served 20-somethings to say that police cars were waiting outside of the Northtown parking lot with the anticipation of bears at the start of a salmon run and if any of those present wished to call Uber or Lyft, his or her car would be fine parked overnight.

“Happy New Year, you big prick! For me?” Jorge, the chef, indicated the drink in my hand.  The kitchen had been closed for half an hour ago and Jorge and los chicos each seemed to be on his third beer.

“It’s for Pongo,” I said, moving the kiddie cocktail from Jorge’s grasping mitt. “Where is he?”

“Haven’t seen him for a while.  Is he back for good?

“I’ll find out, I said.  “I sure hope so.”

Pongo was not at the dishwasher.  Or the prep station.  He was not in the store room or the office or the male employee’s changing room.  Or the female employee’s changing room, either.  He was not in the lounge or the dining room or the customer bathrooms.  He was not sneaking a smoke by the dumpster or putting salt on the sidewalk.

As soon as the last citizen was hustled out and the front doors locked, all employees gathered in the prep area for the Smugglers’ Inn employee New Year’s celebration.  Much like the utility room during a house party, the prep area is an informal place where everyone naturally gravitates to.

“Pongo didn’t want it?” Scotty looked at me as I sipped the Shirley Temple.  I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

“I don’t know where he is,” I said. “I looked all over.”

“Pongo’s back?”  The DJ had not been told, mainly because this was the first time he had worked at Smugglers‘ Inn.  
We don’t have a lot of call for DJ’s anymore.  Now, I was curious.

“How do you know Pongo?” I asked.

“I don’t, not really.  I worked an event with Irish and she had told me stories.  I didn’t realize he had come back.  I’d like to meet him.”

It took a while, but it soon became clear that “Irish” was Erin, our old hostess.  Erin and Pongo had been close.  In a platonic sense.

“Irish said that Pongo was studying with a shaman and I’ve been kind of curious about that.  Indigenous wisdom, healing, that sort of thing.”

“Wait a sec--a shaman?  Like a witch doctor?”

“Pongo was a Catholic,” Scotty piped in.  “Devout. I think you got your stories mixed up.”

“Completely,” I agreed.

The DJ raised his hands in a “don’t shoot me” gesture.

“Hey, this is what Irish told me.  She said he got to Indo and he was just lost.”

“He got lost? Like, he couldn’t find his village?” I was not getting it.

“There was no village to find.  A mudslide took it out.  No survivors.  All his family?  All his relatives?  Dead, man.”

“Shit,” Scotty and I said in unison.

“Your guy just kinda lost it.  Went back back to nature.  Threw away his clothes and became his essential self, living on fruit and small animals.  Stopped talking.  Became an animal.”

“Shit,” Scotty and I said, in unison.

“What happened then?”

“Well, some shaman had gone deep into the jungle on a spirit quest and he had a vision of a giant monkey pod tree.  There used to be monkey pod trees all over Sumatra, but they’ve almost all been cut down.  The shaman knew of this particular tree and he went there and found this Pongo curled up at the base, dying.”

“Shit!” I said.

“Fuckin’ ‘el!” Scotty said.

“Your guy was starving.  In desperation, he’d eaten some poisonous fungi.  This shamen made up some antidote for the poison and nursed him back to health.”

“He looked like his old self tonight,” I said.

“Hale and hearty,” Scotty added. “If anything, he ‘haps looked younger than when he left.”

“Not surprising.  Not at all.  This shaman was a very old, very wise dude and he was passing on his wisdom to your friend.  That’s why I’m super-stoked to meet it.”

Scotty started calling for Pongo and then went in search.  I hung with the DJ, whom I was starting to think was cool.

“Did Erin, I mean Irish, say how long Pongo had been back?”

“Actually, that’s the weird part.  She said that Pongo wasn’t coming back.  His letter said he was going to study with this shamen and eventually take his place.  The letter was a farewell letter.  When Irish told me that, she was crying, but she was happy for him. You know?”

I didn’t. Pongo wasn’t there to explain it to me, either.  Scotty had failed to find him that New Year’s Eve and other than he, myself and the cooks, no one had seen him although everyone, it seems, had seen Kimberlee and Lucia walk out.

We were closed New Year’s Day, but I came in. to get a start on end-of-year accounting. I left the back door propped open because I had a gut feeling that my red-headed savior would swing by.  He didn’t.

Miguel and the Jorge’s came through with candidates to fill the dishwashing/prep openings.  I would have preferred to hire two more (English speaking) women to replace Lucia and Kimberlee, but the new guys show up on time and seen to be picking up the job.  A welcome-home party for Pongo had been planned for Jan. 7 at the Haufbrau in Coon Rapids, but when the date rolled around, the guest of honor was still missing.  Scotty and a few others had the party, anyway.  Life goes on.

I found the letter from Pongo in a stack of bills that I had been letting accumulate on my desk.  It was addressed to me, Carol, and “My Smugglers Inn Family”.  The letter had clearly been dictated.  Pongo, clever though he is, speaks a peculiar pidgen English and writes, when he must, in terse sentences, all spelled out phonetically.  This letter was grammatically perfect and penned in a beautiful, spidery cursive might come from the hand of an old school teacher.  Or a nun.  It recounted the same unhappy series of events as the letter that the DJ said Erin’s letter had contained--including the part about Pongo never coming back.  The letter closed with “December 14th, Year of our Lord 2017.”  Two months ago. I checked the envelope;  It was postmarked just four days ago.

“Wh the hell at?” I thought. 

I re-read the letter.  On the bottom, I noticed a small, U-shaped arrow written in pencil.  I flipped the letter over.  Running along the edges of the paper, like a tiny border, was a smiley face followed by this message: [smiley face] NEW YER!  YOU NEED PONGO SO PONGO COME.  ONE TIME OWNLEE TIME.  LIKE DEPECHE MODE REYUNUN MUSICONCERT. HA! LIF BAD BAD NOW GOOD. PONGO HELP SUMATRA PEPOL SUMATRA PEOPLE NEED PONGO EVERY DAY NOT ONLY ON NEW YER.  PONGO HOEM. GOOD BEYEHALL! HALL PONGOS LOVE PONGO!!!!”

So...who was was here on New Year’s if Pongo was 9,400 miles away? (I looked that up.)  I saw what I saw.  However Rome comes down on it, I am calling “miracle”.  Jesus, he even spelled “Depeche Mode” right.