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Sunday Journal: To Bern, extremely well done was the only way

I first met Bern when I applied for a job. He was sitting in his cluttered office above the restaurant. I didn't know who he was or, quite frankly, what Bern's Steak House was. My two children and I had arrived recently after eight years in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. I was working toward my doctorate at the University of South Florida and wanted a night job.

My Indian accent, full beard and long hair, coupled with my wandering right eye, didn't seem strange to me. This was who I was. In India, acceptance and respect were conditioned by one's spiritual commitment rather than by physical appearance.

Cutting through an alley behind the condemned mansion on Bayshore Drive where we lived, I saw a sign inviting job applicants to appear after 5 o'clock for evening work. It was 2 in the afternoon, but I liked to be home when the kids got home from school, so I figured I might as well pop in now. I meditated in the corridor for an hour or so until I was called into the office.

The guy behind the paper-strewn desk stared intently at me as we talked. He seemed intrigued by my history and we spent a lot of time chatting. I would be contacted. Not expecting much, I continued my search for local employment.

They called me for a follow-up interview. When my brother learned it was Bern's, he was excited but not terribly encouraging. This was a world-famous restaurant; the waiters made good money. There might be a job for me in the kitchen. But I had better clean up for the interview.

I took a bath, combed my hair and beard, and even wore "real" shoes. The convenience of working close to home was enough of an incentive to merit the extra effort. The same guy I talked to before met me at the stairway and wished me luck. When I was called in, there he sat.

You will have to take a polygraph test, shave, get a haircut and spend about a year in the kitchen as a trainee. No problem, I said. A minimum of three years on the job was required to repay him for the training. It would probably take me that long to get my degree. Why not? I said okay.

I didn't realize I'd been talking to Bern himself until I started working in the kitchen; and work it was. We did everything from washing dishes to whitewashing the alley outside. The garbage had to be taken out and the entire restaurant made spotless every night after closing.

He watched and corrected us, explaining his reasoning as we worked. We rarely finished before 3 in the morning, but he was always there when we staggered out. We were the hardest workers in the restaurant, and he worked harder than any of us.

The waiter trainees I worked with became friends. Many of us have gone on to other lives, but we still get together from time to time, and talk with affection, amusement and just a touch of rancor about the old days at Bern's. It's like having been through boot camp together with Bern as our drill sergeant.

I remember working at the pass, getting the dinners from the grill to the customers. Bern worked right there next to me.

"You have to work faster. My steaks are getting cold," he shouted.

"I'm going as fast as humanly possible," I replied.

"You have to go faster than humanly possible to work at Bern's Steak House," he said with no hint of exaggeration. Although I never achieved the superhuman speed he demanded, he sensed my determination and allowed me to stay on.

Bern offered me the opportunity to work with and learn from him well past our agreed-upon three years. Twenty-two years later, at age 67, I turned in my black jacket.

We often disagreed, but I knew Bern was true to his principles. He didn't make a personal issue of differences of opinion. I respected him and felt he respected me. One night when Bern came to see how the place was doing, I happened to walk up to the office while he was showing someone around. He looked over his shoulder at me and said to his friend, "You should have seen this guy when I first got ahold of him!"

Mitch Greenman was a waiter at Bern's Steak House from 1980-2002. He is also retired as an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of South Florida.

Sunday Journal: To Bern, extremely well done was the only way 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 4:30am]
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