George (not his real name) was the owner of a popular restaurant in the San Francisco financial district. Fresh from a stint at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, he told his waiters that during his years of meditation and gardening, he never thought about money, but now, he "couldn't get enough of it." A middle-aged husband and father, George encouraged me to add four top-shelf vodkas to the tab of an alcoholic businessman every time he came in for lunch.
"Won't he notice?" I asked, my moral principles not yet eroded from years of waitressing.
"The shape he's in?" George scoffed. "He can barely sit up straight."
Whenever large parties arrived, George's cheeks flushed with excitement. "Throw in two more cases of Silver Oak," he muttered as I tallied the check for a wedding reception. "I gave them a deal on the food."
George was the first person I worked for who was obsessed with check averages, tensely calculating each waiter's average at the end of every shift. "You only did eighty bucks per person!" he'd cry, as if I were personally taking cash from his pocket.
"I had a lot of women on diets," I'd argue. "They wanted iced tea and chicken salads."
"Cristo averaged over one twenty," he'd say, beaming at an Eastern European super-waiter who worked nights at the Carnelian Room and owned an apartment building. That Cristo's tables were always seated with regulars who ordered wine and multiple courses was an injustice I overlooked. That diners felt an obligation to spend more when faced with a foreign-born, professional waiter as opposed to a twenty-something girl biding her time didn't occur to me until later.
Several of my fellow waiters had caught George's virus-like greed, and it wasn't long before I came down with it. Whenever he wasn't in the restaurant (he was too cheap to hire a manager), we swiped cash transactions and removed the dupes from the kitchen so they couldn't be traced. If a corporate function called for a no-host bar, we pilfered a healthy portion of the evening's drink total and split it among the four of us. We routinely took home expensive bottles of wine and felt no guilt whatsoever. Hell, the boss was doing it!
Occasionally, George would express confusion over the disappointing profits from a large party the evening before. "I don't understand," he'd say, squinting at the numbers. "There were so many of them and they drank so little."
No matter how brazen we were, or how obvious the evidence ("Only sixteen people came in for dinner last night?"), George never suspected that his waiters were doing to him what he did to his own diners. Maybe it was a leftover Zen habit of only seeing the good in people. Or maybe we were just good at it.
After all, we'd learned from the master himself.