By John Kass
My father hated drinking. His beverage of choice was ice-water or Pepsi. He hated being out of control.
He didn’t much like it when I started in the news business and eagerly joined a noble tradition of drinking whiskey and listening to stories in bars.
These days I’m not much of a tavern guy. I’m more of a diner guy.
Yet there are good stories to be told over a cup of morning coffee and a nice breakfast plate of spicy shrimp and grits.
“You should write about that story you told on the podcast about your father,” said my friend Jimmy Banakis, owner of Juicy O restaurant in Downers Grove, where a group of us meet, and where I keep ordering the delicious and spicy shrimp and grits.
“Write about the lesson your father taught you. That’s a story people should hear,” Banakis said.
The one about not killing goats with a stick?
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
I may have written some version of it years ago. And recently I told it to my good friend, Thom Serafin, and Lissa Druss on their most excellent podcast, The Crisis Cast.
I’d just left “the paper” and started this new website you’re on now, thanks to Thom’s good advice and counsel. My world had flipped over, and they got me to talking about my dad and the emotion caught up with me.
He’d always come home late at night and fall asleep snoring like a lion in his dad chair. The next morning he was gone before dawn, and would again come home exhausted and fall asleep in his chair. Day after day, year after year.
When I was a boy, I once stupidly wished he he’d been some 9-5 man, with a briefcase and suit and corporate office job.
But he wouldn’t have gone corporate. He’d plowed his own fields with mules and horses and used them to draw the water from the well. He wouldn’t be broken to the yoke. He was a proud American independent operator.
And I learned about hard work from his example.
The lesson came when I was about 10 years old, maybe 12, at our family store on the South Side owned by dad and his brother, our Theo George.
A customer was on edge outside the milk cooler. I was inside the milk cooler. She was a Polish-Lithuanian lady wearing a babushka and I thought she was old. She might have been in her 30s.
Over the succeeding years, we became friendly. But just then at the milk cooler she was stern. She wanted a gallon of milk, not from the front of the cooler but from the back. I told her that the milk in the front was just as good, but she wanted the milk from the back.
Oh, all right Mrs. I said, handing it to her through the glass door. We called all the women “Mrs.”
Just then dad walked into the cooler. He’d heard us bickering and wanted to know what was wrong.
I raged: The customers! I can’t take the customers anymore!”
“Without customers we’ll have to close the store. Do you want to close the store?”
My big financial plan was to return to Rizes, our village in Greece, to grow vegetables and sell cheese and yogurt for profit.
Americans knew nothing of good yogurt then. Even today, if you haven’t tried home-made yogurt, then you really haven’t tried yogurt.
“Ok. Let’s close the store” said my dad.
He lit a cigarette and we stat on milk crates and talked man-to-man.
He asked what I was prepared to do to make money for the family. I said I’d milk the goats and the sheep and the cows to make cheese and yogurt we’d sell for profit.
“Good,” he said. “But let me ask you this, Mr. When you’re milking a goat and it kicks over the pail, and the milk spills all over the ground and the cats lick it up, you’ll be angry. Will you take a big stick from the wall and hit it, maybe kill it, because you’re angry?”
No dad, I said. Shocked that he’d even think such a thing. Why hurt the goats? They’re making money for our family. Without them we won’t have cheese or yogurt to sell, or meat. We can’t hurt them. We’ll protect them! To feed our family.
My father sighed. He crushed out his smoke.
Then he leaned over and tapped my forehead with that big butcher’s index finger. He tapped my forehead three times.
“Katalavenis?” he asked. “Now do you understand?”
The customers were our life.
When I told this to Thom and Lissa on The Crisis Cast podcast, I broke down a bit. I didn’t want to. But it happened.
At our business, we never, ever, considered our customers as livestock. That was just a device to teach me a lesson.
Dad and Uncle George respected and cherished our customers and taught my brothers and our cousins to revere them too.
The customers fed us. Without them we were nothing.
My father and uncle understood the debt and obligation between business and customer. So too does Jimmy Banakis. I see this with my own eyes every time I’m in his restaurant.
But Big Government and the politicians doesn’t see things that way. They don’t see citizens. They see servants. Big Corporate sees users. Big Media sees ratings and time of engagement algorithms.
Look at all the vacant storefronts from government pandemic shut downs in shut-down states, where independent operators were crushed and deemed “non-essential” businesses.
Government allowed Big Corporate stores to remain open as “necessary” businesses.
Now the chains are gobbling up cheap rents where shuttered small businesses once stood, and the chains will sell the same garbage here that they sell in Atlanta and Seattle:
The same microwaved back ribs and crunchy Asian salads and rivers of McCheese.
Customers are consumers now, just numbers in some algorithm.
We were individuals, or at least thought of as members of tribes.
But now we’re rather like aphids. And Big Government/Big Corporate are the giant ants that move us aphids from one leaf to another
They put us on leaves so we may chew. They milk us to feed ant royalty, with Big Media shaming stubborn aphids back into line.
It wasn’t always this way. But now, especially since the pandemic, this is the way.
Years ago, I thought my dad and uncle could teach that important lesson about cherishing the customer to future executives at the nation’s top business schools. But now I realize that it would be a disaster.
The future Masters of the Universe couldn’t help themselves. They’d mock my father and uncle as quaint relics.
It’s not that they wouldn’t want to understand. They might want to understand, but they couldn’t understand. They wouldn’t have a frame of reference to begin understanding.
But they clearly understand Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, savior of The Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness).
Bezos is richest man in the world and became even wealthier from the pandemic, as independent businesses were closed by government fiat. Bezos’ business was “essential.
His warehouses were open. His planes flew. His trucks rolled.
Bezos just went up in space in his own spaceship. And at a triumphant news conference after his space flight, in tone deaf remarks, Bezos thanked all the aphids of the world.
“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this,” Bezos said.
“Seriously, for every Amazon customer out there, and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very much appreciated.”
I don’t know if it’s appreciated. But it’s very much understood.