Learning from the Nouveau Riche

Generally speaking, there’s only one thing that can be done when it’s been a bad day. At least, that’s was Helen has always believed. So far this week she’s had six store managers quit, which means that she only has two that haven’t give her a two week notice.

Owning eight premier dress shops has been fantastic. Her rise to success has not been difficult by any stretch of the imagination. Helen found the perfect balance between original dresses, exquisite brands, talented seamstresses, and delightful employees. The formula had been this poised for ten years. Unfortunately, several of her store managers had decided to move on to ‘different horizons.’ It is a very nice way of telling one’s boss that they feel “stalemated” in their jobs. Naturally, these sorts of things do happen. Helen did not question that they would happen so much as she questioned that they all happened to do this in the same week.

“No,” she whispered to herself, “never in the same week.” She threw back another vodka shooter as easily as she blinked. This was something like her third one? Admittedly, she could hold her liquor well. Something that stress drinking can probably do to a person…

That or genetics, she supposes.

The lounge she’s chosen for tonight’s sorrow drowning is a relatively new joint. It’s been around for a couple of years but everyone speaks very so highly of it that it would be easy to fool one into thinking it was a long established business. Public rapport is everything when launching a new start-up, after all. Helen remembers when people would speak of her business so excitedly. Now, they speak of it with high regard as though it had set a standard for all other like companies. Some part of her questions whether this hot spot will ever make it that far….

Since the bartender keeps offering free rounds and meals; “How about another order of martinis for the lovely bachelorettes tonight? Make the most of your last single night, am I right?” He’s cheery and unfazed by the cost of his gift-giving most definitely. It is very quite literally one free thing after the other. It started with the bachelorette party and spread to small gatherings of tired businessmen, to double dates, and so on!

And so on, and so on, and so on – until finally bobbles his way over to Helen. By no she has started to feel a buzz. He asks if she needs anything but she promptly declines, assuring him that she’s had far too much already. He offers her an order of fries instead. He insists that the guys in the kitchen always have a batch of potatoes ready – just in case; “Greasy foods are the best kinds of sober-up foods.”

Helen shakes her head again to assure him that she is fine. It wouldn’t hurt for her to verbally assert that there are other options while she declines; “I can walk down the street and get more fries for half the price. I bet they’d be more fryer grease than potato, too.” For lounge food, everything is actually decently priced, but there are food trucks almost every other block. All of them offer fried delights of some sort. She can get fries just about anywhere so there’s no point in paying six bucks for a basket of fries here when there’s another option for three bucks five minutes out of the way. Helen won’t, but she also can’t because she’s far too frugal.

“Well, what if they’re free? I promise you won’t be charged and you can sober up before you leave tonight.” The bartender must seriously have a problem. Everything for free? Everyone gets something free tonight? Helen can’t support that concept, but that doesn’t mean she won’t take advantage of it.

So she accepts; “But I am willing to bet your boss fires you tomorrow. No business can sustain these sorts of handouts.” Helen vocalizes her opinions with a tiny bit of a slur. Perhaps her lashing out is the result of her anger about her managers leaving. Each store manager seemed to have one thing in common in their exit interview: they wanted to be a part of something bigger. Weddings, school dances, quinceañeras, and business parties – these sorts of things are huge in any person’s life, but they are meaningless in the long run. Some of the managers went are going to not-for-profit organizations as project leaders.

“I raise you a free ginger ale.” The bartender laughs as he sends a message to the kitchen from his mobile P.O.S. device. Helen uses these at her business as well, except they’re a generation or two older. Of course, the lounge is newer than her dress shops. The plan is to get it updated next year as long this year turns a generous profit.

Helen leans into the bar and lets out a howl of laughter; “So are you sleeping with the owner are does he owe you a favor?”

The bartender shrugs and then turns his attention to small group of people that burst very loudly through the entryway. He excuses himself to greet the fresh patrons, explaining that they are regulars that drive several hours to spend the night in town. Helen is impressed by this – for a lounge, the customer loyalty is shockingly astounding. Everyone does seem to know the bartender by name…

…Which makes Helen feel guilty. She hasn’t once asked and he isn’t wearing a nametag for her to check… She hasn’t even tried to commit to memory from the dozens of times she’s heard it uttered that night…

Something like ten minutes or so go by, and in the end a cook from the kitchen hand delivers the French fries with a serving of their “Red Revenge Ketchup.” It is a homemade dipping sauce that it more alike ketchup than barbecue sauce? That’s what the cook says, anyway. Regardless, Helen digs right in and is surprised by how delicious the ketchup actually is once she’s tried it.

By the time she finishes her free dish, the bartender returns with a smile on his face and certain look of amusement; “How about that ginger ale?”

Helen waves a hand at him, “Not until you tell me why you won’t get fired. I simply have to know.” Gossip is something that can’t be avoided where formal events are concerned. Inevitably, the girls buying dresses whisper about other girls at the prom. Bridesmaids share secrets about the bride’s antics before her engagement. The managers always had a great old time having monthly luncheons with Helen and sharing the crazy things they’d heard from customers during the last few weeks.

As such, Helen thirsts to know whatever little amount of gossip she can find. It’s one of her only remaining connections to the ‘common’ world. Every other free minute is invested in her business and drinking away any struggles she faces during the workweek. The bartender is unsurprised by her inquiry.

“I guess you could say I’m sleeping with the owner.” He chuckles as he pulls out a bottle of ginger ale – which apparently is also made in-house. Helen leans back on her stool with a somewhat satisfied feeling in her chest. Sex can motivate people to do ridiculous things. However, there is a certain twinkle in his eye that warns her that he’s not done speaking.

But she manages to piece it all together before he shares it out loud, “Because you are the owner.” Helen gives him a short and quiet applaud for his trickery. Feeling a bit deflated; she is surprised that she didn’t piece this together sooner. More embarrassingly, she still couldn’t put a name to his face in spite of her awareness of his business and its positive reputation.

Carter Hammond, in the flesh he proclaims. They shake hands and Helen details who she is for his reference. Apparently he knows of her and her line of work, stating that the ladies were bragging about the great service they’d received a few weeks ago from the bride-to-be’s dressmaker; “It isn’t the first time I’ve heard of your establishment either. A good many patrons talk about your business. Many have daughters begging to shop at one of your locations. Every young lady deserves to feel like a princess, after all. I am glad that you’re able to give that to them.” This confrontation only furthers her guilt for being less conscious of his relation to the Red Revenge lounge.

Helen covers her shame by announcing that this is precisely why she wanted to have a dress shop to begin with; that when she was young there were very few places she liked to shop from for the annual ball her grandparents used to host at their banquet hall. Saying this aloud brings a level of self-awareness she’d never grasped before in her life – it sounded very entitled, which makes her very uneasy.

Carter comments that her motivations are sincere. It appears that he has no idea that guilt has washed over her mind and continues to compliment her mindfulness of the customer. He even goes on to detail what he believes to be the pitfall of many business owners; “People who grow up on a silver platter forget easily the value in their customers and employees. They become more like numbers than actual people. Unfortunately, without them – their businesses couldn’t even exist. That’s why I give out free stuff daily. It keeps everyone coming back and encourages my customers to buy more while they are here. It’s a positive manipulation of my business. I win – they win – and the economy of small business wins.”

Helen smiles at him nonstop while she pointedly drinks her ginger ale. For a low-key owner, he seems to have found his own ‘perfect balance’ between serious businessman and careless employee. She begins to quiz him how much he can afford to give away before he starts losing money. His only reply is that he doesn’t have enough to give away that would prevent him from making a profit. She is unable to analyze the validity of his statement, but she can only assume that perhaps there are vendors that offer him a profit for distributing their product. That is a very special brand of success that even she has been unable to accomplish outside of local designers that still operate as sole proprietors.

Helen questions if she can, for sure, trust this shared information. Carter Hammond seems to be a respectable man, so on that front she believes that he would not lie to her. Still, as she listens to him continues explaining why he makes these choices – he is almost equally as ignorant to the fundamental business practices of the most successful corporations. Admittedly, the story of his struggle to make a happier living out of something he truly loved is far more than just endearing. Helen admires the people who supported him and helped make his dream a success. Even to this day they continue to give him the support he needs to remain a top contender in his field of business. More and more people want to franchise the Red Revenge brand each week.

He projects that within a few years he won’t have to work in the lounge at all, if he doesn’t want to do so; “But why would I want to abandon my post? The only place I belong is behind a counter serving the people that make my brand so popular?”

Helen calls a cab and waits outside for her ride home. During this time before she makes it to her bed, she can’t help but ponder the possibility that there’s something more that she could be doing with her own business. Even though it is a different field with different trends than a bar lounge, there is a certain similarity in the dedication and loyalty of customers. She already donates dresses that are partially damaged along with any excess sewing supplies that are no longer required. But she can’t help but believe, after speaking with Carter Hammond, that this is simply not enough. What more could she be doing with her own brand?

As she pulls the covers up over her body, still fully clothed and reeking of the French fries she ate for dinner, Helen decides that she will worry more about in the morning. She’ll contact her accountant after breakfast and figure out what kind of money it would require for her to start giving back to the community without bringing any detriment to the company.

For now – she’ll sleep. After all, change doesn’t usually happen overnight.

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