Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Shrewd Operator?

We show up at Seasalt and Pepper (since renamed “Seaspice”), a trendy eatery on the Miami River, at noon on a Sunday, without a reservation.  Not surprisingly, the hostess laughs at us when we ask about a table for two.  No problem, we say, we’ll just eat at the bar.  Of course, the bar is as replete as the restaurant.  So we stand around, waiting for a couple of bar stools to open up.

A few minutes later, a busboy sidles up to me and says, sotto voce, “Forty bucks and you’ll have a table right away.  Twenty for me, twenty for the waiter.”  I hand him two twenties, unsuccessfully attempting to be inconspicuous about it.  Three minutes later we are seated in a waterfront table for two, Bloody Marys in hand.  Although a part of me feels thrilled to have “beaten the system,” so to speak, most of me feels somehow soiled, as I think about the parties of two with legitimate reservations waiting outside while we enjoy the fruits of my questionable transaction.

Am I a shrewd operator, or a douchebag?  Are the waiter and busboy corrupt racketeers, or enterprising individuals seizing the opportunity? A few Bloody Marys later I’ve temporarily forgotten all about the questionable provenance of our marvelous setting.  But to this day, months later, it haunts me.  And I realize exactly what bothers me about it, as I remember Joe’s.

Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant is a Miami Beach institution.  They famously do not take reservations, and 2 to 3 hour waiting periods for tables at dinnertime are common.  However, it’s an open secret among locals that slipping the maître d' $100 will get you a table quicker.  Much quicker.  The problem here, as is the problem with the entrepreneurial wait staff a Seasalt and Pepper, is that most customers are not aware that the “fast track” exists.  Tourists wait for hours while experienced diners get right in, oblivious to the fact that there is another possibility.

If Joe’s would advise patrons that they can wait 2 hours, or, in the alternative, pay $100 and be seated in 15 minutes, they can make a conscious choice, sort of the way theme parks offer “fast track” passes these days.  And although “fast track” scenarios have their own issues, elitism and divisiveness among them, at least there is the semblance of fairness: everyone is aware of the alternatives available, and you get what you pay for.  What most bothers me about Joe’s and Seasalt and Pepper is that people are unaware of the alternatives, and are actually punished for playing by the nominal rules, oblivious to the existence of the de facto rules which lurk, like the second set of books of a shady enterprise, under the surface.

Of course, part of what makes those “hidden” opportunities desirable is precisely that they are generally unknown.   Knowing valuable things that most people don’t know, particularly things that can be leveraged to obtain an advantage, strokes our egos, especially when we can use them to impress a member of the opposite sex.  

Back to the Seasalt and Pepper episode.  Was I a shrewd operator or a douchebag?  Can you blame the waiter and busboy for taking advantage of an opportunity to supplement their presumably meager earnings?  What would have been the “right” thing to do?  

Before answering, let’s consider the story of an American businessman who visits a client in Finland.  The Finnish client picks the American up at the American’s hotel in the morning, and they arrive at the client’s office building early, so the parking lot is empty. The Finn parks at the furthest spot from the office building’s front door.  The American is puzzled.  “With the parking lot empty, why would you park all the way out here when you can park right next to the front door?” he asks the Finn.  “We are early,” replies the Finn, “so we have plenty of time to walk.  Let’s leave the parking spots close to the door to those who are running late and can’t spare the time.”

The same criteria that would consider me a shrewd operator back at Seasalt and Pepper would consider the Finn a fool.   We live in a world where, given the chance, most people will act like I did, not like the Finn did.  Finding opportunities and taking advantage of them for personal gain are part of what makes us human, and the reason why capitalism is the only economic system that actually works.  But is the Finn a fool, or does he simply live within a more evolved society?  A place where a multitude of circumstances allow its inhabitants to act less greedily, and more magnanimously?  Will selfless, generous acts continue to be rare exceptions, or will they become more commonplace as humanity evolves?  Is it simply a matter of resources, in that people will be generous as long as resources are plentiful, but descend into greed the moment resources are scarce?

If I consider myself a microcosm of humanity, I see a glimmer of hope.  Because although at Seasalt and Pepper I clearly descended into selfish greed when presented with a scarcity of resources, at least I felt like a douchebag about doing it.