It’s my first Saturday night working at the new restaurant. Since I’m new and the manager’s unsure how many tables I can handle, I’ve been given a small section near the men’s room. The other waiters ensure that cheap tippers with psychological problems constitute the bulk off my clientele. It’s a kind of hazing. That’s OK. It comes with the territory. I’ll get my revenge later.
The customers at this place, after the entitled tyrants I used to serve at The Bistro, seem fairly benign. I’m actually glad I have a small section. While the process of selling food’s the same wherever you go, little details, like how the computers work, where to-go containers are stashed, what side dishes come with what, or whether splits and half orders are permissible, vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant. I have a high competency level but I still need to learn my way around. Sure enough, I make some mistakes.
“You got a problem on 12,” the food runner, Hernan, says.
“What kind of problem?”
“Go ask him.”
I go over to Table 12. “Sir,” I ask. “Is everything satisfactory?”
“No,” the man says, poking the greens on his plate. “I thought this dish came with broccoli rabe.”
“It does sir.”
“This is spinach,” the man says, grimacing.
Some of the special entrees are served with broccoli rabe and others are served with spinach. I mixed them up. My bad.
“I’m sorry sir,” I say. “It’s my error. I’ll have the kitchen make you some broccoli rabe.”
The man, having dinner with his much younger wife and grade school son, stares dumbly at me. “Why did you make a mistake?” he asks in a solemn, patronizing tone.
I hate stupid questions like these. Sometimes people just screw up. There are no nefarious reasons operating here. I didn’t wake up this morning saying “I’m going to screw someone out of their broccoli rabe.” The man’s prodding gives me a glimpse into his personality; exacting, detail oriented, ass covering – annoying. He must be a project manager of some kind.
“I apologize sir,” I respond politely. “It’s only my third day.”
The man’s son, an eight year old who looks like he just stepped out of a GAP Kids ad, joins the conversation.
“It’s your third day?” the little boy asks.
“And you failed?”
The mother laughs. The father beams proudly. The little boy smirks. I bite down the urge to ask the kid if he’d like to take a dip in the deep fryer. Besides the tremendous mess that would make, I have no wish to spend quality time with members of the Aryan Brotherhood.
“My my,” I say instead. “You’re going to be a tough customer when you grow up.”
The little boy keeps smirking. I respond by giving him my Hannibal Lector look. That’s when I lance a person with the Thousand Yard Waiter Stare and imagine baking them into a pie at the same time. Somehow the murderous energy leaks out of my eyes and penetrates the customer’s subconscious, inducing fear without getting me in trouble. It’s remarkably effective on children.
The little boy’s smirk disappears.
“Will there be anything else sir?’ I ask, turning to the father.
“Uh,” the father says, looking at his son. “That will be all.”
“I’ll be back with your broccoli rabe momentarily.”
I go to the kitchen and ask for some broccoli rabe on the fly. The cooks, not being very flexible, respond with grunts and curses. After a few minutes discussing the cooks’ favorite topic, sodomy, the broccoli rabe gets plated and I run the side dish to my table.
“There you are sir,” I say, placing the sautéed greens on the table. “Sorry about the mix-up.”
The father stares at the mother. The mother stares at the father. My instinct tells me they’re still unhappy about the broccoli rabe. They need to relax before their prosperous lives are cut short by coronaries. I notice the little boy scrutinizing his parent’s faces. I find it curious that he used the word “failed” instead of “mistake”. Failed is a very strong word. The boy could be suffering from school anxiety that’s common in children his age. He could be delighted seeing a grown-up screw up. Kids live for that kind of stuff. Or maybe he listens to his father talk about performance reviews at the dinner table, gloating about the employees he’s going to fire. Maybe Mom talks incessantly about the need to get into a good college. Maybe the parents, consciously or unconsciously, constantly compare themselves to the Joneses. It’s possible this kid’s already living in fear of failure. His parents look like the uptight early enrichment types, the ones that end up transforming their overscheduled kidbots into some lucky psychotherapist’s retirement plan.
The parents stop staring at each other. Whatever they were going to say remains unsaid.
“Thank you waiter,” the mother says munificently.
“You’re welcome madam.”
I walk away from the table. I feel sorry for that little boy. I worked in adolescent psych and saw many rich children, kids born with every advantage, suffocate inside their parents’ self absorbed lifestyles and fall prey to self destructive behaviors. I remember the parents at the family conferences – arrogant, successful, and impatient – wondering why we couldn’t “fix” their children. Life was a zero sum game for them. For some reason this little boy’s parents remind me of them. I hope, for his sake, that I’m wrong. He’s only going to be a little boy once. Let him enjoy it. Anxiety and failure comes for us all eventually. Why rush things?