"Don't keep the money from bottled beer or liquor, it's too easy to count; take the money from soda pop, they can't keep track of that."

The girl who was training me in for my first bartending job was talking so fast I was barely able to follow along.

"If you end up with an absolute stiff, raise the drink price to cover your tip and ring it under open liquor."

I didn't want to appear ignorant so I nodded and smiled a half a smile. I didn't have any idea what she was talking about but I needed the gig. I fibbed a little when I told them that I was an experienced bartender.

After I worked a shift or two on my own I understood exactly what she meant. A certain percentage of the customers would leave no gratuity for services rendered and the bartender could make up for shortfalls with freelance sales and creative arithmetic. Situational ethics.

My father was a bartender and I couldn't, in my wildest dreams, imagine him pilfering money from his employer. He taught us as children that we must never speak ill of our employer, much less steal from him. I have had dozens of bosses since then and among these a fair number of flawed ones. I considered my father's admonition absurd in the face of an obviously malevolent or ignorant restaurant manager but I would not stray from his command. If the boss is bad enough to complain about you should find another job.

Like Ann Landers says, "Nobody can take advantage of you without your permission."

The first time I stuffed the $1.25 from the sale of Coca-Cola into my tip jar instead of the cash register was my last. I wasn't so much haunted by my father's admonition about loyalty to the people who feed you, as by my growing awareness of the vicissitudes of karma. The millionaire hotel proprietor would not suffer financial collapse for my small indiscretion but my little voice made it clear that I would.

I've kept a large photograph of my father next to the cash register of every bar I've tended since that day.

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The hotel had only twenty-four rooms but it was a fancy joint. The original limestone structure was purchased from the city of Minneapolis for one dollar as part of its riverfront redevelopment project and millions were spent on remodeling. Each of the guestrooms was decorated differently, with actual Victorian antiques and reproductions and no expense was spared in attending to the tiniest details.

The back bar in the Pub was hand carved mahogany and its commission cost more than I would make in five years behind the bar. Ridiculous sums were spent on every fixture so we surmised that it was the pet project of somebody with more dollars than sense. They managed to forestall bankruptcy for about three years.

Harbingers of doom were everywhere during the last weeks and months before the place finally closed. The angry end of the accounts payable list was growing more aggressive by the day and judgements against the owners piled up much faster than reservations for the quaint little rooms. When our paychecks began to bounce the proprietors called an emergency employee meeting.

They adopted a familial tone with us and thanked us for helping them weather the difficult seas. The owners explained that they were having a hard time meeting payroll and that they would thank us to work without one for awhile. We felt like a family, in a way, and the owner's cynical appeal for free labor was satisfied. We took a vote and agreed to continue regular operation of the hotel without pay for a month. In a month's time we would be reimbursed for our accrued hours and the standard payroll would resume.

When the month passed and the supplemental payroll checks bounced we sensed that the end was near. Those of us who worked for tips weren't profoundly affected but plenty of housekeepers, dishwashers and cooks were out on the street. They made the promise to their landlords as the promise had been made to them. When the promise was broken their leases were too. They acted like a family and now they would have to live like one; dwindling resources were pooled for the rent on collective dwellings. In the final weeks of the hotel's operation all of the cooks shared one house, the housekeepers another and the dishwashers a third.

The bankruptcy court finally decided that the owner's six million-dollar alimony arrears would be the primary claim so none of us ever saw a penny. None except Julie the waitress, whose husband Guido (no kidding) confronted the owner as he climbed into his Saab one night. Guido said he wasn't leaving until Julie was paid every cent she was due and the nervous little man pulled a wad of money from his pocket on the spot and counted out fourteen hundred-dollar bills.

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We were allowed access to the padlocked premises to retrieve our personal possessions so I collected all of the board games and record albums I had brought to the bar. I made a pass through the kitchen to say goodbye to the last of the staff but found the owner, alone, struggling to disconnect coolers and other kitchen fixtures. In my naivete I thought he was turning off the gas or something but he was in fact pirating the appliances from beneath the bankruptcy judgement for use in his next restaurant venture.

I came to despise the owner but when I asked myself what my father would do, I could almost hear his voice out loud. I approached the scoundrel and offered my hand to thank him for hiring and employing me. He stood from his crouched position behind one of the coolers and sheepishly reached over to shake my hand when he noticed his own was covered with black grease and slime. He turned his palms upward and both were caked with grime to the elbow so we mutually shrugged off the handshake.

I said "good luck" and left him to his burden.


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