He was irreverent. He was loud. Chain smoking, bar hopping, yet always hardworking. He’d act the professional one moment, a perverted lunatic the next. He was one the funniest people who I ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Dave de Cliff was your typical-looking, twenty-five-year-old white male; above average in the looks department, he was 5’10”, physically fit, brown hair, brown eyes, and a brain that won’t take a break. For everyone’s sake, good or bad. Dave and I first met while opening a new addition to a chain of restaurants, this one located in Boynton Beach, Florida. He was already living in Florida, I had just moved there from South Carolina. We had each worked for the same company for several years, both gallivanting around the East Coast while opening new stores or fixing old ones. But somehow, we had never had the pleasure of meeting one another.
We were both little punk, assistant managers, with back-of-the-house operations being our strong suit. So, we were elected heads of the kitchen in this new store during the grand opening and the three-month hiring and training period of new kitchen staff beforehand. Most of the down-time was spent working in the Pompano store, some 25 miles South on I-95. Pompano was a cake walk for us, seeing as how we were extra bodies on their weekly management schedule. There were a few days per week worked in Boynton, spent interviewing possible hires, planning, and organizing the kitchen, and attending weekly management meetings. Other than that, we just ‘created’ things to do in Pompano. We worked occasional floor shifts, helped with ordering, and assisted with weekly inventories.
Pompano’s where Dave first displayed to me his strange version of love for the Haitian people. Most of the kitchen staff were recently from Haiti, and most of them spoke no English. Dave had a signature ‘look’ that he would strike for comedic effect. The head would suddenly stop tilted slightly, the mouth gaped open as if to slur “duh-huh?”, and the eyes would bug-out with no sign of intelligent life behind them. He’d pause frozen for a moment, then snap out of the coma saying something dryly witty or conversely overly intelligent. And with the Haitian staff, it was often a mix of that ‘look’ along with demented conversations with people who spoke no English.
We were doing a food inventory late one Sunday evening and had slipped into the walk-in refrigerator to count the stock on-hand. After 15 or 20 minutes closed from sight behind the big walk-in door, Dave decided to break the monotony, relieving our stress with the unknowing help of the kitchen staff, who were busy cleaning now that the front doors had closed for the night. With one foot on a storage shelf, his hair purposely messed out-of-place, his loosened neck tie thrown over his shoulder, and grasping a 14-inch Zucchini in his left hand, Dave swung open the door with a loud crash, his signature ‘look’ meeting the big-eyed, shocked faces of the all-Haitian crew.
“Quick! Robenson! Brrriiiingg me the big jug of vegetable oil!!!”
Robenson spoke zero English, and appeared completely unconcerned as he returned to his pile of dirty dishes. The line cooks soon relaxed and laughed to themselves in Haitian Creole, probably something along the line of “That Dave. Man, what a crazy idiot”. Dave had always treated them with genuine respect, and they in turn, grinned their way through his occasional outbursts of insanity.
Our District Manager in South Florida was named F***in’ Eddie Cyrus. Not his given name, I don’t believe, but that’s what everyone called him. He was the visual cross between Hitler and Speed Racer; an evil, odd-looking cartoon character who yelled and cursed while always appearing pissed-off and stressed-out. Black hair, pale white clammy skin. Most employees feared F***in’ Eddie and only uttered the nickname behind the safety of his back. But Dave would sometimes try to nonchalantly slip-in the nickname while conversing face to face with the Evil One, but only when protected by a group of fellow subordinate managers. Safety in numbers.
In the still-not-open-for-business-yet restaurant in Boynton Beach one afternoon, four of the store’s management sat together in the empty dining room for an impromptu staff meeting. In attendance were Dave, F***in’ Eddie, myself, and Mike, the new store’s general manager. Mike was more like a Michael who shopped for crafts at Michael’s (we need throw pillows!) and was a sharp contrast in style compared to the other three of us. Anyway, F***in’ Eddie and Dave were scream-arguing about everything, I was eating a lunch prepared as practice by the training kitchen staff, and Mike was panicking about a missing delivery of hanging fern baskets. There was a pause in all the verbal excitement and F***in’ Eddie turned and gave me a puzzled look as a little smile came across his face.
“Look at f***in’ Lambert! I’m sitting here arguing with your stupid asses and he’s sitting there eating a chicken fajita salad like he’s on a date with what-the-hell’s her name…Marie Osmond! Why can’t you be more like him, de Cliff? You annoying bastard”
That was one personality trait which always came in handy in the restaurant world. The ability to remain calm under pressure. My ability to tolerate was perceived by some potential heart attack victims as a weakness, as apathy. Which often drove them crazy(er).
Side story. We went out on the town one night for some “cooperate bonding’. Which translated meant that nine of our district’s mangers would be out wining and dining for the evening on the ole’ company credit card. Attendance was required. How could we possibly say no to free booze and food? It was our cooperate duty.
We went to a comedy club after drinking dinner. Paula Poundstone was the headliner. F***in’ Eddie was never much of a drinker. Or more likely, he didn’t want to let his guard down in front of his hired disciples. At some point during the evening, Alan came up with a brilliantly terrible idea. With Eddie away from the table, our waitress was brought in to collaborate on the master plan, lured by promises of big cash tips. We started ordering round after round of shots, 100-proof Rumplemintz schnapps. The waitress would then deliver eight shots of water and one shot of the equally-clear-looking schnapps for Eddie. After three rounds. he could take it no longer.
“That stuff’s disgusting! Why can’t you guys drink something normal like vodka?”
(well, vodka’s clear) “Sure! Nine vodkas please, Andrea”
Being restaurant managers, we still managed to get up early the next morning and met as a group at our centrally located restaurant for a morning of meetings followed by lunch. Allan persisted in an ill-fated barrage of barbs, ribbing Eddie about being such a party animal. Extremely hungover, Alan ordered another Coke from the waitress as he headed off to the restroom just before lunch arrived. When he returned, he continued with the little jokes thrown Eddie’s way. Then he took a big gulp of his Coke. A strange look came across his face as he started to gag, and proceeded to spit that big gulp and a little extra across his newly delivered lunch. Eddie had asked the waitress to bring Alan a special beverage. Half Coke and half Bacardi 151, with a float of Tabasco.
Don’t mess with the big dog.
With the constant opening of new stores in South Florida, there came a constant shuffling of managers among the district’s roster. Jeff Black was an unassuming sort, soft-spoken and seemingly mentally sane. But he somehow fit-in as a straight man for Dave’s antics.
In Pompano one Sunday evening, a customer left behind a shopping bag under a cocktail table. The bag was taken to the restaurant’s office for security. Naturally, Dave was the first to root around the bag, joking about each item as he displayed them one by one like game show prizes. Well, behind door number 3 was a XXX-video tape.
“Holy shit, Dave. Put it back. F***in’ Eddie’s supposed to be showing up here soon!”
“Now, now, Jeff, let’s see if this version is anything like the original “Alice in Wonderland”
There was a VCR in the office on which new employees could watch training videos. Dave popped in the porno tape as Jeff scrambled to the safety of the dining room. Periodically Jeff swung back by the office to see if Dave had regained his senses, but instead found him reclined back in the office chair, having a cigarette with his coffee, while adding his own style of play-by-play commentary to the movie.
“Oh, it’s a Whole New World, there Alice”
Dave later heard another presence at the office door. “What Jeff? I’m busy right now” He turned with his ‘duh-huh’ face only to find his worst nightmare standing in the doorway. F***in’ Eddie. After spinning an excuse for 5-minutes, Dave somehow retained his job title.
There was a waitress in Pompano who could hold her own against Dave when it came to sexual innuendos and inappropriate language. The bantering, which sometimes involved mild-mannered Jeff, had gone on for weeks and weeks, when the words finally went pass the point of just flirting and it came time to walk-the-walk. Hours after closing one night, after the staff had long gone home, the three of them found themselves completely unclad on a vinyl tablecloth which had been dragged onto the floor, enjoying a homemade human sundae, sweetened by dessert toppings taken from the kitchen. Scandalous behavior not unheard of in the restaurant late-night world, but it took a Dave to come up with the idea of whipped cream, caramel sauce, and chocolate syrup.
Our company’s ‘experts’ were amazed when the new restaurant opened for business at a 40% higher clip than had been projected. Dave and I worked every day for the first three weeks, 12-15 hours per day trying to steady the reigns of one very busy kitchen. I was the hot-shot expediter, the level-headed, non-Gordon Ramsay type, who spent hours calmly shouting over a microphone the orders of new meals to the different stations of line cooks. Dave roamed the kitchen, fine-tuning the efficiency of our small army of prep cooks and squelching the unpredictable moment to moment brush fires.
In the heat of the action, surrounded by the sounds and frantic movements of wait staff swarming about and a kitchen army clanging around pots and pans and plates of food, you could count on Dave to calm the tension in the air. At the most random, unexpected moments.
Robin ( shouting food orders over the microphone): “Next off the grill..2 Strips one mid-well, one med-rare..all-day..you should have four Strips..the other 2 well-done, 3 Steak Teri’s..one rare…2 mid-well…5, 6,…8 Chick Teri’s all-day!, 2 kid X, 5 X…pantryside..still looking for that F.O.S-sells me a ticket…let’s go dammit!…Fry-Count’s at least 12 all-day…Now Ordering, Pantry-side…Sampler– two times! One order of sticks!”
Dave (walking briskly behind Robin on his way to the next wildfire, never pausing as his pokes his thumb up Robin’s butt) “Love you!!! Miss You!!!”
Robin (momentarily stunned, but never missing a beat as a new food order prints-up) “Miss You More!!! Love you honey! Pantry-side…Ordering….Nac-hos…quick and easy…Just like the old girlfriend…”
That conversation involved 27 food orders; the average 5-hour dinner period involved 500-700 orders. That was our life, day-in and day-out. Organized Chaos. You needed a little break from time to time.
Every evening, as the dinner rush tampered off for the night, Dave and I would slip outside to the dumpster area for a break from the madness. A cigarette, a Coca-Cola, and a Snicker’s Bar. Nicotine, caffeine, and sugar. We’d sit on the curb, stare at up at the starlit Florida sky, and with warm ocean breezes blowing across hot, greasy skin, escape from that world inside for ten minutes. Dave had a girlfriend with a rich Dad.
“Ah, man. Supposed to be real-nice out tomorrow. You know what I could be doing tomorrow instead of working to death in this hell-hole? The girlfriend’s family’s taking their boat out all day. Man, I can see it now. Me, manning the helm, all greased-up with coconut oil, dark sun glasses, a big-ass Goombay Smash in my hand. The little Honey’s all sprawled out on the deck, looking good in her little bikini. Rolling Stones blasting on the radio as the wind blows my hair. Did I tell you what a good boat captain that I was? I have a God-given gift to know exactly when to turn that boat’s wheel and catch the perfect wind. Poof…the sails instantly inflate and off skipping across the waves we go.”
We’d sit there for a long moment of silence, take a last drag off a cigarette, and then come back to reality.
“Alright. Fourth Quarter. Let’s go wrap this shit up”
On the day that I finally got my promotion to General Manager and the word was out that I’d soon be moving to Miami, Dave took it upon himself to be the Grand Marshall, Emcee, and Event Coordinator for a night on the town to celebrate. He wasn’t resentful or jealous. We were like Minor League players and he was genuinely happy that I had gotten the call up to the Majors. He knew that he’d receive the call one day soon.
Dave, myself, and a bunch of co-workers were to meet up at a fancy nightclub over in West Palm Beach later that evening. The girlfriend and I were sharing a car at the time (and it was her day with the car) so I caught a ride to the bar with another employee after our shifts had ended at ten-o’clock. The night club was packed full of people and the atmosphere was electric with Disco balls, flashing lights, and loud, pulsating music. I thanked dozens of congratulations as I scanned the room for Dave. Suddenly, like a scene from the Ten Broken Commandments, the sea of people parted and there came Dave in my direction, carrying two large Goombay Smashes with up-reached arms, a great big smile on his face.
The next six hours of partying tested the limits of the human body’s ability to withstand alcohol abuse. All was near-perfect that evening except for one little thing. Cell phones had yet to be invented (using that as my excuse) and my girlfriend, Chris, had no idea as to where I was. After catching a ride down to Pompano at 4 AM, I was poured out onto the sidewalk in front of our apartment building. Adding insult to hepatitis, I had forgotten my apartment key and began to knock on the door as my knees knocked with fear not knowing what demonic creature waited on the other side. As the door slowly opened, much to my surprise, the creature looked really cute in pink panties and an old t-shirt of mine, but its eyes could’ve melted the steel door frame. Before the creature could show its deadly fangs, I went on the attack with the only worms that I could ford. “Where in the hell have you been!” My quick verbal defense momentarily stunned the beast, allowing me to escape to the sofa facedown, where I lay motionless until around lunchtime.
The last time that I saw Dave was after I had returned to Virginia. He had since received his promotion and oversaw his own store in Florida. There was an annual company convention being held at a resort in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. Restaurant managers and corporate types from all over the East coast were flying into town for the business meetings mixed with convention-type socializing.
As the last of the airport shuttle vans were dropping off attendees at the resort, a line began to form near an impressive buffet of catered food. Lots of old friends sharing handshakes and hugs, the comradery much more important than the lunch. As I stood in line surrounded by mostly strangers, I scanned the banquet room for familiar faces. Then I got that feeling, the uncomfortable one where you feel someone’s eyes watching you. On the far side of the room, I finally saw them.
There were my old buddies, Dave and Jeff, fluttering eyelashes while blowing air-kisses.
The weekend was a blast. We didn’t learn much or feel any deeper commitment to the company, but it was fabulous reunion. The highlight was perhaps dinner on Saturday night. The Blues Brothers impersonators that used to be halftime entertainment for all the Chicago Bulls home games had been booked for our after-dinner entertainment. Dave, Jeff, and myself were sitting a large, round table having dinner. Who should stop by to ask if the other two seats were available? Jake and Elroy. The Blues Brothers.
Everyone needs a Dave in their life. As the old Buffett lyric goes “If we weren’t all crazy, we’d just go insane”