Thursday, April 19, 2012

I Miss My Waitress

About six months ago, I discovered a new eatery near my workplace. I won’t name it (simply because who wants the hassle?) nor am I going to name my waitress, just because I can’t ask her permission.

So let’s call her H.

I first wandered into the restaurant in question roughly the way I wander into all of them: With a sense of trepidation. I’m not a total creature of habit, and I enjoy trying new things but this place was a lot more “sporty” than I usually like. And places with a theme of that kind tend to have overpriced food that can only be improved through the consumption of booze.

I was presented with a menu, which included reasonably priced lunch options, and I ordered a burger, because those are hard to screw up. I’ve had a lot of burgers I didn’t love over the years, but none that I’ve ever hated.

And so I sat.

I didn’t really take notice of my waitress at first. This not a knock on her in any way, shape, or form. It mostly had to do with the fact that I was still trying to get a sense of the space I was in. Despite the fact that it had a sporting theme, no sports channels were blaring on the multiple televisions. And the place was just about empty, which doesn’t usually bode well for a business that thrives on foot traffic.

My drink came. And then my food. And somewhere in there, I pulled out my ever-present book and started reading.

You need to understand that I am not exaggerating when I say “ever-present.” Since I started writing more, the majority of my reading time occurs during my lunch time, or the three minutes before I pass out in bed.

So I was kind of half-paying-attention when H said, “What are you reading?”

Let’s talk about this for a second.

I’ve probably consumed a work-based carrying-a-book meal in over 100 eateries in at least two different countries. The number of times a waitress or server has asked about my book? I could probably count them on one hand.

Even then, it was a polite chit-chat thing. Like when a waitress asks how you’re doing. Honestly, if you told one that a relative had just passed away, they would at best offer some condolences, before asking what you want to eat. It’s doubtful you’re getting a reassuring hug or a long discussion about how that person was really special.

Again, I’m not knocking the waitressing profession. It’s a tough gig, wherein you must appear alert and friendly at pretty much all times. I’m just saying it’s a temporary contract, wherein you ask for things, they provide them, and then money is exchanged.

I told H the name of my book, and she asked what it was about. This surprised me. Again: Hundreds of eateries, and she was the absolute first waitress to ask about the content of my book, instead of just the title.

I told her what it was about, and she countered with the title of a book she was reading. And the next thing I knew, she was sitting on the other side of my booth, and we were chatting back and forth about what we were reading, had read, and were going to read.

It was kind of magical.

At the end of the meal, she brought me my bill and asked me my name and told me her name. And I’m not gonna lie, I overtipped her by a wide margin, just because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had that much fun eating lunch alone.

I went back the next week, and she was there again, and she remembered my name (which surprised me) and I remember hers (which surprised me more, because my memory for names is just about useless) and even though it was a lot more busy this time, she still found a couple minutes to sit and chat about reading material with me.

And so it went.

After about two months, I was barely even ordering anymore. I’d come in, and she’d bring me my usual drink. I knew the menu pretty well, and would choose from one of the four things I had tried and liked. And if there was time, we’d talk books.

Eventually, our conversations drifted to other things as well. She talked about her previous job. I told her what I do, and talked a bit about my indie novels. We both have kids, and we talked about the fun and challenges they provide. We talked about our significant others.

In a sense, it was like paying to see a friend. Or going to an eatery your buddy works at. It got to the point where, even when I didn’t sit at one of her tables, the other waitresses knew my name and would send her to me.

And then. One day. The sign.

Under New Management.

This is, of course, a signal, though most people don’t talk about it. What it means is, “The food here used to be bad, and the service was worse, but now new people are in charge and Things Will Be Better.”

It is a beacon that tells people who didn’t like it to come on back and give it another shot.

I went in. My waitress wasn’t there. For that matter, I didn’t recognize any of the other servers, either. I figured it was her day off. I was served acceptably by a nice waitress who did not know my habits, and who seemed a little new on the job.

I should have realized what this meant.

I went back twice more after that, and each time, I looked on as waitresses I’d never seen before walked by me, again and again and again.

H was gone.

She appears to be gone completely.

And this saddens me.

One of the last times I dropped in to eat, she did a little wave as I sat down, and said it was nice to see me. I responded in kind.

And then this happened:

“Well, you know, it’s not real until we’re Facebook friends,” she said.

I smiled. But inside my head, I was flummoxed. I liked this waitress, a lot. She was fun to talk to. And honestly, I would have had no objection to being Facebook friends with her. I’m Facebook friends with lots of people I know only tangentially, and some of them have become actual friends, given time.

But my brain, while analytical and intelligent, has serious problems with reading certain people. And H was a waitress, which means that the plastered-on smile came as part of the outfit.

I finally decided to play it safe. “Are you Facebook friends with lots of people who come here?”

Her eyebrows furrowed. I could tell I had touched on something.

“There was the one guy,” she said. “He kept asking me for my last name while I was serving him. I told him I wasn’t allowed to tell him.” She paused, just for a second. “He sent me a friend request later. I’m not quite sure how he found me.”

I shrugged. “Well, he had your first name. I’m sure he just punched it in and found your picture.”

“My Facebook page doesn’t show a picture of me,” she said.

I shrugged again. “Are you one of those moms who puts up pictures of her kids as her avatar?”

She shook her head. “No. I have a picture of [Famous Actress] there.”

Facebook, of course, is something of a meme factory, and for the period of about a year, it seemed like every week there was something going around that involved changing your picture. Pictures of you with your spouse. Pictures of you with your kids. Pictures of you when you were five. And there was one where you were supposed to put up a picture of whatever famous person people said you look like.

“I suppose you look a little like her,” I said.

“Nah,” said H. “I just think she’s hot.”

On the other side of the eatery, someone waved a hand and H smiled, offered me a small “buh-bye” wave, and went back to work.

And I went back to my book.

The food at this particular restaurant was never what I would call great. But it was always fresh and reasonably priced, and for that I would happily take a chance on a reasonably priced meal just to get five minutes to talk about literature with someone.

After H left, and the new managers came in, the food has been… just okay. And it might have been just okay before, too.

I briefly considered looking up my waitress on Facebook and just shooting her a message thanking her for the weekly book chat. But when I got as far as typing her name into the search function, I stopped.

The fact of the matter is, H was smart, funny, and a reader, which are all qualities I admire in a human being. But she was also, in the end, my waitress. It was her job to fill my order as quickly as possible, while making me feel appreciated and welcome.

I’d love to spin this whole essay off into some kind of grand statement about the complications of friendship in the modern world. Barring that, I’d love to know where H is serving now, so I can go there, and tell other people to do the same.

Instead, I find myself feeling a little lost and sad about the whole thing. Not unlike when I was a kid, and a friend moved away, and I didn’t understand why they had to leave (what’s a job opportunity?) or where they were going (where’s Iowa?).

Those losses healed quickly. There were other friends, and at the time, letter-writing seemed alternately confusing and time-consuming.

And so this loss will probably heal fast as well. Or maybe not. Great waitresses who like to talk books are a rare thing , and we should all appreciate ‘em. They might not be curing cancer, but they make the world a brighter and more fun place.

And we all need that too.

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