If you were to ask me to sum up what it was like to work on Bourbon Street in 1975 I would think back to a batch of silverware and how a decision I made concerning that silverware might have saved my life.
In the fall of that year I was working as a busboy at Houlihan’s Restaurant on Bourbon Street while waiting with the impatience of youth for my ship to come in. For a kid not many years removed from his childhood in Lubbock and a recent foray into a still mid-sized Austin, the chance to work on Bourbon Street was heady stuff, even if my ticket came as a lowly busboy.
But I proved myself to be no ordinary busboy. Within a matter of weeks my boss informed me that I was now the “Head Busboy.” This meant that I was still a busboy in name and deed but I would be able to work Oyster Hour as a waiter and keep my tips from that sixty minutes of my work day.
There was one other thing – as Head Busboy I now had the responsibility of settling disputes between the other busboys.
In other words, he wasn’t really promoting me –he was simply telling me to take control of a workplace issue he couldn’t or wouldn’t handle.
Here’s the background. An intense, highly vocal animosity had developed between two of our busboys. They probably should have been fired – their flare-ups had disrupted the restaurant’s dining tranquility more than a few times – but I don’t think my wimpy boss had the stomach for that, either.
When he whined about it to me, I suggested he let the two antagonists work it out between themselves – let busboys be busboys – but he hadn’t actually asked for my opinion and paid no attention to it. Instead, he challenged me.
“You’re not afraid of them, are you? You Texans aren’t afraid of anybody, are you?”
I said that Texans are as smart as they are tough and, hell yes, I was just a little leery of mixing it up with those guys. Any smart person would be. He promoted me anyway.
That meant it was up to me to intervene when, not many nights a later, the two busboys ignited a loud and profane argument while the place was packed. We will call them Charles and Donald because I’m pretty sure those weren’t their real names. The object of dispute on this night was a tub of silverware. Each fellow busboy had waitresses waiting for that silverware.
Since the waiters and waitresses tipped the busboys based on their own tips, and both Charles and Donald were in a hurry to get more tables set up for the waitresses in their respective stations – that tub of silverware was worth at least a dollar to either one of those guys.
It took me a minute or two to make my way to the scene of the disturbance, burdened as I was by a tray of dirty dishes. Along the way we all learned what Charles and Donald thought of each other’s mothers and which body part would soon be missing from one or the other.
My boss was glaring at me. Fix this! You’re the head busboy!
I arrived to find Charles and Donald engaged in a spirited tug of war for that tub of clean silverware. I said something brilliant like, “Hey, guys. Cool it.”
Charles and Donald each turned their attention to me – a common enemy, no doubt.
They wanted to know who I was to be telling them what to do.
“I’m the head busboy!”
My new title didn’t impress them, but another tub of clean silverware was coming down the line, so I made sort of an executive decision.
“Charles, you take that silverware. Donald, you get the one that’s coming down now.”
This made Charles happy but it upset Donald so much that be began to insult my family, which he didn’t even know, but in the end everybody except me had a tub of fresh silverware to work with and I had shown myself to be a capable and decisive head busboy. I never did find out what was so special about that one particular tub of silverware.
I doubt I would have remembered the incident or my first executive silverware decision if not for another incident a few nights later. Walking home from Bourbon Street to my place on Magazine Street after working the late shift, flush with a night’s tips, I heard the sound of footsteps, many footsteps, behind me. It spooked me. I walked a little faster. The footsteps behind me moved faster. When I slowed down, so did the footsteps.
Finally, realizing I wasn’t going to make it home without some kind of confrontation between me and whoever was following me, I turned around to see what I viewed immediately as a street gang. Young and naïve as I was, I might have thought street gangs were mostly literary or cinematic devices. If I did, I didn’t think it after that night.
The gang leader stepped forward and peered at me as I stood, possibly trembling, in the glare of a streetlight. The dude looked familiar, but he recognized me right away.
“Biscuit nose!” (Why he called me biscuit nose is a whole ‘nother story.)
Charles informed his troops that not only was I was all right but I could walk the turf – I was cool. I had sort of a diplomatic immunity.
On my way home I thought some heavy thoughts centering on what might have become of me if I had given that silverware to Donald instead of Charles.
Was my decision guided by God? A guardian angel? Was it just a happy coincidence? Beats me. But Charles and his gang didn’t, and I like happy endings.