Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Packing Staple

When I was in college I worked as a waiter, then later “moved up” to being a bartender which was a lot less demanding but meant staying up a lot later and missing out on a lot of mornings. Sometimes, as a criminal defense lawyer, I remember those days and feel like I use the skills I learned being a bartender more than those I learned in law school.

A couple weeks ago, as I argued before the Nebraska Court of Appeals, I remembered something that happened while I was waiting on a couple lawyers at lunch, probably twenty years ago. Why did being at the Court of Appeals make me remember the story? We’ll get to that later.

So it’s twenty years ago and I walk up to a table where a couple lawyer-looking guys sit. I tell them the soup of the day, the special and then recognize one. I ask if he’s Wes Mues, he says yes and I tell him I’m John’s son. He says, “Yeah, I remember you, how’s your dad?” We’re in a town of about 20,000 and my dad is a lawyer here too so, even though he might not recognize me, he knows my dad and likely remembers me as the kid, now mostly grown up, who used to cut through the alley by his house every day in the summer on my way to my best friends’ house.

I bring them their ice teas, take their lunch orders, and drop off Mr. Mues’ cup of minestrone, the soup de jour. I leave them alone for a minute and, when I walk back by, they wave, trying to get my attention. I walk up to the table, see that they’re laughing slightly and the other lawyer seems to be encouraging Wes to tell me something. He finally asks, jokingly, if the soup is supposed to come with staples. They’re not being arrogant or messing with their waiter, they’re just jokingly letting me know that the food isn’t like it was supposed to be. I’m confused, wondering what he means by staples and see Mr. Mues reach down to the plate that carries his soup bowl and hold up a brass-colored packing staple dripping with minestrone.

It hits me how serious this could have been and I’m suddenly impressed with the way they laughed instead of complaining, even yelling. I think of how they could have choked, or hurt their teeth or even filed a lawsuit. I apologize profusely, take the tainted soup away and find my boss, the manager. When I tell her the story, I remember the rumors about all the coke she does and start to suspect they’re true as she tells me, seeming not to even care, to “give them a free cup of soup.”

I decide, right then, that she’s incredibly stupid and to do what I know the owner would want me to do: give them a free lunch, knowing that free soup, maybe not even free lunch, won’t stop them from telling all their friends about the packing staples in the soup at the “Peppermill.” The owner has run this place well, so well that he can afford to move to California to open a new restaurant, coming back every month or so to make sure things are running smooth. It hits me that I could be fired for giving away food against the manager’s direction but I decide to take my chances with the owner if I get caught.

I bring them their steak sandwiches, first scanning for stray staples in the sides and they seem happy when I tell them lunch is on the house, telling them how sorry we are and how it’ll never happen again. I tear up the ticket, destroying the evidence that I defied the manager and hope that they don’t talk and that she isn’t paying attention, that they're not distracted by the staple and that she is, by the drugs.

A few months later I’ll realize that the staple was just the “tip of the iceberg” at this place and will take a job as a bartender for the summer, a few months shy of the legal drinking age. I’ll do that job for three years, learning to drink good booze and how to count out the bank after doing a series of Jagermeiser shots. I’ll also learn how much people change when they drink and how much money they’ll drop afterwards. Chuck Cabela will even end up asking me how much I’ll charge him for jumping out of the balcony of the poolside tropical bar I work at to land in the pool down below. I'll say “seventy-five bucks,” he’ll pay it and I’ll pocket the money, along the way subjecting the company to millions in liability to let a drunk rich kid risk his life to impress the dozens of friends he’s surrounded by each time he breaks out daddy’s credit card to go on a drinking spree.

But when you’re 21 and you can make seventy five bucks to watch an early version of “Jackass” live, you do it. At least when you're me. Later, when I decide to go to law school I read that the guy who found the staple, Wes Mues, has not only been appointed to the bench but has even made it to the Nebraska Court of Appeals. I wonder whether he’ll remember the packing staple and think of telling him how I wasn’t supposed to even give him that lunch. I think of asking him, when I end up in front of him someday, whether he remembers the Peppermill long since closed down from, you guessed it, mismanagement.

But I don’t ever get the chance to talk to him again as one day, on his way out of my hometown to a session of the Nebraska Court of Appeals, he will pull out in front of another vehicle, probably thinking about a case, and be struck in mid-turn at the height of his legal career, tragically killed almost instantly.

I read one of his opinions the other day and remember fondly how he treated me when I was his waiter, even when he found a large packing staple in his soup, never forgetting to have a sense of humor or being tempted to blame a person who was likely only the messenger and not the cause.

I remember the other lawyer, still alive, who used to snap his fingers at me when I waited on him, not even self-aware enough to see how patronizing this was or how it reflected on his profession. I vow to try to be more like Wes Mues was to me that day, quicker to laugh, slower to anger, thankful for every free lunch, no matter why it arrived. Thinking back on it makes me hopeful as the polite, driven, level-headed lawyer moved up while the finger-snapping assclown stayed put. I know, there are a lot of examples that refute this general point, but in this case the system seems to have worked.

So what’s the lesson here? I guess it’s be nice to your waiters (no matter what the experts say) and your customers too. You never know where, when or how you’ll end up facing one of them again.

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