It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m walking through the neighborhood where I used to work. When I pass by The Bistro’s front window I take a peek inside. A waiter I don’t know is standing in my old section and talking to customers I don’t recognize. As I watch the server’s lips silently move I get the feeling that the restaurant’s plate glass window is an extra-dimensional membrane, separating me from an alternate universe that’s strange but familiar at the same time. I shake my head and walk away. What a difference a year makes.
I cross the street and head into Starbucks. All the baristas I used to know are gone. I order a cup of coffee, slip a few coins into the tip jar, and leave. Outside the sidewalks are crowded with teenagers holding hands, retired couples peering into store windows, and young couples walking their dogs. Because summer’s overstaying its welcome the neighborhood’s restaurants still have their outside tables set up. Pedestrians are forced to navigate around the throngs of chattering al fresco diners camping out on the limited sidewalk space. I feel sorry for the waiters. People who like to eat outside are usually pains in the asses. Servers are happy when the cold weather arrives and these socially vain bad tippers are forced into hibernation. This year, however, global warning seems to be prolonging the pain. Maybe it’s a sign of the Apocalypse.
As I walk down the street and sip my coffee I pass by a vegetarian restaurant. A customer sitting on the outdoor patio is haranguing a harried looking waitress about his tofu. I can tell the server’s struggling to keep her cool. Vegetarian al fresco diners are no different than their flesh easting compatriots. If anything, they’re worse. A line from the Gospel of Mark floats into my head. “Nothing that comes into someone from the outside can make that person unclean; it is the things that come out of someone that make a person unclean!” Is smugness a form of uncleanliness? I wonder.
“Take it back,” the imperious beatnik snaps at the waitress. “I don’t want it.”
“But it’s what you ordered sir,” the waitress replies.
I stop, lean against a lamppost, and pretend to savor my coffee. I’m interested to see how this turns out.
“Haven’t you heard the expression the customer’s always right?” the beatnik hisses.
“Of course I have,” the waitress says.
“Then why are you arguing with me?”
Suddenly I recognize the waitress. A cute blonde around thirty, she always split an entrée with her boyfriend at The Bistro every Thursday night. I remember her because she always sat in my section and I thought she was cute. I also thought that her boyfriend was way old for her. As I close in on forty, however, I’ve noticed I seldom have those judgmental thoughts anymore – probably because I’m going to be the guy that’s much too old for someone one day. Luckily, in spite of what I thought, it was obvious the couple was very much in love. I remember that they were nice people and good tippers. My mind races. What happened to this girl and her boyfriend? Are they still together? Are they happy? Why is this woman waiting tables? Was she always a waiter and I didn’t know? Is she supporting her art career? Making some extra bucks while she writes the great American novel? Quick cash to finance a root canal? Who knows? It’s just interesting to see someone I used to wait on working as a waiter themselves. In some circumstances that would be delicious revenge. Not today though.
The blonde waitress smiles weakly and takes the plate from the haughty beatnik’s hand. . “Very well sir,” she says. “I’ll ask the manager to take care of it.”
When the waitress walks away the beatnik turns to his companion. “Can you believe that stupid bitch?” he says. “Where did she learn to be a waitress?”
“Hard to get good help these days,’ the man’s companion replies.
I look up from my coffee and calmly peer at the beatnik. It doesn’t take long until he notices I’m staring at him. When our eyeballs met I bore into him with my thousand yard waiter stare. The man starts looking very uncomfortable. He probably thinks I’m a psycho. If the situation was reversed I’d probably think the same thing. For my purposes, however, that’s OK. A weak smile plays on my lips. The beatnik looks nervously away. I sip my coffee and hold station by the lamppost.
After a short interval the blonde waitress returns. “The manager said we’ll make up a new plate for you,” she says. “It’ll take about ten minutes. To thank you for your patience we’re comping your raspberry ice teas.
“Uh, thanks,’ the beatnik says, glancing anxiously at me. “That’ll be fine.”
“Thank you sir,” the waitress replies tonelessly. “Sorry for the mix-up.”
The waitress goes back inside the restaurant. The beatnik and his companion are looking at me. Satisfied that I’ve satisfied some kind of karmic debt, I wink at them and walk away. I know this’ll sound weird – but suddenly I feel like Batman.
And like all good superheroes I walk off into the setting sun and never look back. I smile to myself. Who knows? Maybe in an alternate universe I am Batman. What a difference a year makes.