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.