So, last year, as the Pandemic settled in like an unwanted relative who just came for a week and is still tying up the bathroom, I did a series of posts for the FB Page of the Nero Wolfe fan club, The Wolfe Pack. I speculated on what Stay at Home would be like for Archie, living in the Brownstone with Nero Wolfe, Fritz Brenner, and Theodore Hortsmann. I have already re-posted days one through twenty-one. Here are days twenty-two (April 12) and twenty-three (April 13). It helps if you read the series in order, so I’ve included links to the earlier entries. I enjoy channeling Archie more than any other writing which I do.
DAY TWENTY TWO – 2020 Stay at Home
No Easter parade. No church services. No family dinners at fancy restaurants. Things were very different this year. And speaking of fancy restaurants;
I don’t think I have mentioned that Rusterman’s is still open – sort of. A lot of places had simply locked up when the lock down order came. Sit-down dining was prohibited, so they decided not to struggle on. I’m sure a lot of them hoped that this whole thing would pass in a few weeks and they could reopen.
Quite a few restaurants shifted to carry-out and/or delivery only. And many of those couldn’t meet costs, and they closed: Probably for good.
And others have made it so far and are still trying to make it through. Rusterman’s is one of that group. Rusterman’s was run for years by Marko Vukcik, Nero Wolfe’s boyhood, and best, friend. Wolfe and I traveled all the way to Albania to find Marko’s killer and bring him to justice. In Marko’s will, Wolfe was made a trustee of the restaurant and for many years, he guided it well, though he eventually resigned that duty. Unfortunately, Rusterman’s, while still fine dining, went through a decline in the early 2000s, and Wolfe resumed his trusteeship. As you can imagine, he was quite demanding and the quality rose to previous levels.
We had ordered a dinner from Rusterman’s one Sunday, to support the cause and make sure it was still up to par. Wolfe found reason to grumble, but I thought it was fine. Delivering high-level cuisine can’t be easy.
Felix Martin was the manager, while William Dumfrey had come over from The Roosevelt to take on head chef duties. Leo ran the wait staff. I mention their names, because all of them were sitting in the office. I had put the red chair in the front room and moved three yellow chairs a proper social distance apart – and away from Wolfe’s chair and mine. Leo apparently didn’t feel far enough away, so he moved to the sofa.
Felix had called that morning and said that they needed to meet with Wolfe. I suggested a video conference, but they insisted on coming to the Brownstone. I don’t know that I could have convinced Wolfe to zoom, or skype, an entire discussion, so it was probably for the best.
Felix had been appointed, or more likely, appointed himself, head of the delegation. That was fine with me. I had found William to be arrogant. He thought he was the best chef in the City. He was good, no doubt about it, but he wasn’t that good. I hadn’t been asked, but I suggested a guy named Guiterrez to Wolfe when the position had opened up. He ran a dirty, loud, unpleasant place in Manhattan. But from what I ate, and what Lily said about him, he was almost as good as Fritz.
I actually arranged a telephone call between Guiterrez and Wolfe. Unfortunately, as I discovered, the chef can make Cramer look friendly and Rowcliffe well-mannered. There was no way Wolfe was going to hire him. I just might type up that phone call some day. It was pretty amusing for me.
I rarely had anything to do with William, so it didn’t matter much to me. Just making an observation, since he was sitting right there in the room.
Felix and Leo were arguing about whether the place should stay open, or close down until business could resume as normal, and they wanted Wolfe to decide the matter.
Felix’s argument was that the place was losing too much money. There wasn’t nearly enough call-in business to cover costs. And of course, fresh ingredients were constantly required. Wolfe grunted at that. As if it didn’t even bear mentioning.
Leo argued the other side. The wait staff was rotating half-shifts, two volunteers at a time, so people could get out of their house and get some work in. At the very beginning of the changed operations, Wolfe had decided that staff would be paid 50% of their average weekly income. The restaurant couldn’t pay them full, but Wolfe wasn’t going to simply lay them off, either. They were paid additionally for the hours they actually worked.
Leo said that staying open as they were, was good for staff morale in terrible times. They were taking all sanitary precautions. The Grubhub drivers stayed in their cars at the curb.
Leo was startled. “It’s a food delivery service, Mister Wolfe.”
“That’s a ridiculous name. I wouldn’t eat food brought to me by some organization calling itself ‘Grubhub.’”
Leo looked at me for help. I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head. Nothing for me to say.
“Yes, Mister Wolfe. I certainly understand.” He was trying to regain his footing. “If we close, we lose visibility, momentum. People will forget about us. And all the food we have on hand will go to waste.”
They could donate the stock to a food bank, or a charitable organization feeding the needy, or a hospital. But I could point that out later, if needed.
Wolfe looked at Felix. “How much did the restaurant lose last week?”
He stood up and started to move to the desk. I hopped up and said, “At ease. Stay right there.” I walked over, took the papers from his hand and sat back down at my desk. “You don’t need to be touching these, Mister Wolfe.” I looked at the numbers. “Felix has made some estimates on the utilities, included deliveries paid during the week, etcetera. But a rough number for last week is $15,000 in the red.”
“Yes, Mister Wolfe. It was worse the week before.”
“And that includes paying staff at half-wages?”
“Yes, it does.”
He frowned. Of course, until he changed his mind, that 50% would stay steady, whether the place was open or closed.
“Bring me the papers, Archie. I will wash my hands after we’re finished here.”
It wasn’t a totally unreasonable request. We can’t treat everything like it’s radioactive. I told him not to lick his fingers and put the sheaf on his desk. He looked them over for a minute or two. I had insisted he keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer on his desk. I was pleased to see that he squirted a little on his hands after putting the papers down. Rubbing his hands would be the most exercise he got all day. He leaned back in the only chair he truly fit in and looked at the visitors.
“Mister Dumfrey, what are your feelings on the matter?”
He looked disdainfully at Wolfe. What can I say? He did. “It doesn’t really matter to me. We are short staffed in the kitchen. And of course, my creations are meant to be eaten as soon as they are prepared. By they time they get to somebody’s table, they might as well have stuck a pizza in the microwave.”
Felix shook his head. He had his own version of Wolfe to deal with every day. Wolfe acknowledged that William was good enough to be chef at Rusterman’s, but he wasn’t very fond of the man’s attitude, either. “Be that as it may, do you feel operations should cease, or continue as is for the near future?”
“Are you deaf? I just said it doesn’t matter.” Maybe Guiterrez wouldn’t have been so bad after all.
“That is of little use.” He verbally dismissed the man as inconsequential and looked at Felix. Fritz came in with coffee. Wolfe waited while he poured each of them a cup, then Wolfe and I. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Fritz makes the best cup of coffee on the planet. Even Dumfrey complimented it.
“We’re bleeding money, Mister Wolfe. We must think about the future. If we run out of money before people can dine out again, we won’t be able to fully reopen. If we used frozen meat, and processed ingredients, our costs would be less while we struggle along. But you know our quality.” He was almost pleading.
Now he turned to me. “Archie, what is a reasonable estimate of when this state of siege will be lifted?”
Doesn’t that beat all? Wolfe thinks I can tell anything about a woman just by looking at her. Now, because he refuses to learn about it, I’m the expert on social-political affairs related to the Pandemic. I shook my head and looked at him doubtfully. “That’s a moving target if ever there was one, but sometime in June is probably optimistic. And even then, there will probably be limits on how close together tables can be, how many people can be inside at once, and the like.”I waved my hand as if these were trivial matters to be worked out. It was preposterous question.
He took in about one bushel of air and let it out.
Felix offered, “We could stop paying staff when they’re not working. Or only pay them a quarter.”
Leo was startled, and then he glared at Felix, but he didn’t say anything.
“Pfui.” He looked unhappy. “It seems I must work, even when there are no clients. Continue operations as they are. Get the word out that we are still open and serving food. Even a few additional orders a day will help.” He paused. “Somewhat.”
He looked over the three, one at a time. “Felix, provide Archie a financial summary every two weeks and I shall examine the state of affairs. I do not say that the restaurant can go on losing money indefinitely, but we owe it to Marko to do our best to sustain operations.”
Felix sighed, but I knew that while he was worried about the finances, he wanted to work, and to run the restaurant every day, even in this scaled-down version. Leo was smiling. William acted as if he was bored. I ushered them out from a safe distance. After bolting the door behind them, I got cleaning supplies and wiped and sprayed every surface they touched, and a few they didn’t. Wolfe went into the bathroom and washed his hands. He was taking it seriously. When we were decontaminated, I sat back down at my desk.
“Some places are better suited than others to weather this storm. Top-end cuisine has a limited target audience for eating at home.”
He hadn’t picked up his book yet, so he decided not to ignore me. “I agree. The restaurant cannot continue operating in this fashion, as well continuing to pay employees at half-pay, for an indefinite period.”
“I’ll say. Looking at last week, it’s going to get worse.”
“We have done what we can, for now. Rusterman’s will have to struggle through,, for better or worse.”
Now he picked up his book. Perhaps in honor of Easter, he was reading C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words.
DAY TWENTY THREE- 2020 Stay at Home
I called in a favor from Lon after breakfast. The Gazette is going to do a story on some of the bigger name restaurants that are trying to hang on; With Rusterman’s being prominently featured. The coverage so far on these kinds of stories has mostly been on the smaller, mom-and-pop type places. But we drew on the credit balance and he’ll get them to look at Rusterman’s. It should run later this week.
I mentioned in yesterday’s notes that I had suggested a chef named Gutierrez for the vacant spot at Rusterman’s. I’m going to relate the phone interview he had with Wolfe. Both men refused to come see the other for a proper interview, so this was the best I could arrange.
Lily had been trying to get me to visit a hole-in-the-wall place for some time. I know that this being New York City, you can get some great food at some of those places, so I eventually gave in. One day, we took a cab to Gutierrez’s. I’ll tell you about that lunch another time. The place is dingy, loud, and total chaos, with bad service. It’s like the owner tries to drive away customers. Except, the food is fantastic. Wolfe would eat it and not complain any more than he does with Fritz. I have a sneaky feeling that the owner was sitting in the booth next to us, but I’m not certain on that. Maybe I’ll go back to confirm when all of this is over.
Somehow, I managed to set up a phone call between Wolfe and the chef. I’ll just hit the high points. I convinced Gutierrez to make the call, since he was likely to be more busy during the day and Wolfe would be furious if we called and he wasn’t available. Whereas Wolfe was likely to be at his desk reading a book. I took the call right on time at 3:00.
“Nero Wolfe’s Office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Is this that slick-looking guy with the fashion model girlfriend?”
Gutierrez came from the same school of social niceties as Wolfe. “One and the same, Mister Gutierrez. Thank you for calling.”
“Where’s your fat boss? I looked him up in the newspapers. He is supposed to be some kind of genius, eh? I will know if he’s a fake, being a genius myself, in the kitchen.”
“Yes, right. Genius to genius. Here’s Mister Wolfe.” I motioned for Wolfe to pick up his phone, while I stayed on the line.
“This is Nero Wolfe.”
“Yeah? Big deal. Why should I work for you, when I run my kitchen now?”
Wolfe made a face at me. “Well, Mister Gutierrez. That is certainly one way to look at it. Speaking as the trustee of Rusterman’s, another way to look at it, is why should we hire you?”
“Why should you hire me? Because I am the great Gutierrez. I have been head chef in restaurants all over the world. I am better than any chef you could find to come work for you.”
“And where have you worked before?”
He named off several places, and Wolfe did seem impressed.
“So tell me, Mister big shot trustee, are you gonna come around and tell me how to run my kitchen? I already got a boss that does that too much.”
“I will have some input as trustee, but I am not the manager. That is a man named Felix. You two will work together.”
“I see. As long as he stays out of my way, that’s fine.”
I was enjoying this. Wolfe was restraining himself admirably.
“Are you gonna show up and sit around and drink expensive brandy?”
That one caught Wolfe off guard. “What in blazes are you talking about? Of course not!”
“Good, because I’ve got too much of that already. You’ve probably got a listening device installed at a table, that goes back to the kitchen.”
I wondered how in the world he could know that. I signaled to Wolfe to ignore that.
“I hear you have the recipe for saucisse minuit. Give it to me and I’ll make it for you. Then you shall see that there is no other choice for the job.”
“Give you the recipe? Do you have any idea what I endured to obtain that recipe. That’s preposterous!”
“Just as I thought. You don’t have it. You’re as big a phony as that Latin.”
I didn’t see anyway to get this train back on the rails, but I made the universal symbol for money, to Wolfe.
So, he asked him what salary he required. The reply reaffirmed that the man definitely thought well of himself. “Great hounds of Cerberus! Are you a nitwit?”
“Well, well. Imagine my surprise. You’re another boss who wants amazing talent at a discount price. We geniuses are never paid our true value. I wouldn’t cook for your fancy-schmancy restaurant for double that amount. I’ll stick with Latin. He drives me crazy, but at least I know what to expect from him. Good bye, fatso.” He hung up.
Wolfe put down his receiver and glared at me. I really didn’t have anything to say. By all evidence, the guy was nearly as good as he thought he was. But he might have been even harder to get along with than Wolfe was. I can’t imagine the fights those two would have.
“So, I take it the search continues.”
“The man is a lackwit. You may keep any further suggestions to yourself.”
I couldn’t really begrudge him that one.
Last night, it being Easter, all four of us ate dinner at the table together, and I helped Fritz with the dishes. We had mutually agreed to skip watching a movie. However, we were back in the front room tonight. I skipped the harder-edged stuff, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Two Mrs. Carrolls. It was Easter, after all. I picked Beat the Devil, which is a silly mess.
The movie reunited Bogart and Peter Lorre, with Robert Morley filling the Sidney Greenstreet role. And John Huston was in charge. But it’s just never comes together as a good film. Like I said, a silly mess. It’s still kind of amusing.
Stay at Home
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 1 and 2
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 3 and 4
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 5, 6, and 7
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 8, 9, and 10
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 11, 12, and 13
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home Days 14 and 15
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home Days 16 and 17
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 18 and 19
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 20 and 21
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: No Voting Day
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone
3 Good Reasons
The Greenstreet Chronicles (Pastiches based on the Radio Show)
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and returned in 2019 and 2020. Bet on a 2021 sighting.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.