Flat Vacant Stare
It’s five o’clock on Friday night and I’m saddled with a trainee. I hate training new waiters, but having one shadowing me on a busy night is truly a pain in the ass.
“So where did you work before you came here?” I ask the trainee as I brew myself an espresso.
“The Laredo Diner,” the trainee, a tall, swarthy looking guy around thirty years old, answers.
“How long did you work there?”
“A couple of months.”
“The money good?”
“I never worked a diner. How much can you make a shift?”
“I was pulling down $200.”
“Wow,” I reply, surprised. “That’s pretty good. How long are the shifts?”
“Four hours,” the trainee says.
“You made $200 in four hours?”
“All the time?”
I sip my espresso. This guy’s story is not adding up. I often grab dinner at a nearby diner after work. While sitting at the counter I’ve chatted up the waiters, busboys, cooks, hostesses, and managers. From our conversations I know making $200 during a diner shift is doable – but unlikely. And earning that kind of money in four hours is well nigh impossible. Besides, The Laredo’s a factory. All the people who work at the diner I patronize escaped from there. They tell me it’s a dishonest and indiscriminate machine, chewing up the knees, feet, and pride of its Turkish, Russian, Dominican, and Israeli servers while stealing a percentage off their tips through a shady pay system. There’s no way this trainee made $200 in four hours. He’s lying to me.
“That’s great money,” I say. “You’ll never make that kind of cash here. Why did you leave The Laredo?”
An evasive look briefly ripples across the trainee’s face. His eyes dart around like he’s looking for the exits. Catching himself, he forces his face into a disingenuous smile.
“I wanna work in a high class place,” the trainee says. “Diners ain’t my style anymore.”
“Did you ever work fine dining?” I ask.
“Lots of places.”
“Upstate,” the trainee says, breaking eye contact.
“Where?” I ask, pressing.
“Why do you care where I worked?” the trainee says hotly, suddenly looking very agitated.
“Just asking, man,” I say, backpedaling. “I’m a curious kind of guy.”
As I sip my espresso I look the trainee over. He’s wearing blue suit pants with pinstripes, no belt, an open collared white dress shirt, and scuffed black leather wingtip shoes. If he wore those shoes while working in a diner, his legs would’ve exploded a long time ago. This guy’s never waited a table in his life. Maybe he’s desperate for money and lied about his history to get a job. Wouldn’t be the first time.
“Well,” I say, throwing my demitasse cup into a bus tub, “Let’s me show you what sidework needs to be done at the start of the shift.”
“Sidework?” the trainee says, oblivious.
“You know,” I say, “Filling the sugars, cleaning silverware, buffing the wineglasses.”
“C’mon,” I say, “You can start with the sugars.”
“I need to eat something,” the trainee says. “When do we get something to eat?”
“We have a staff meal at 3:30.”
“I missed it.”
“I’m sure the guys in the kitchen will make you something later,” I say.
“I’m hungry now.”
“I’d do your sidework first,” I advise. “If the owner sees you eating ten minutes after you showed up, that’s not good.”
The trainee looks at me with a flat, vacant stare. A nervous tickle agitates my stomach. I’ve seen that look before. When I worked in a drug rehab I dealt with recently released convicts getting treatment as part of their parole. Most of the cons wanted to get better, but I met a few hard cases that told me they’d be stealing and using the moment they walked out of the hospital’s doors. Those guys had the same flat, vacant stares – like they could kill me and eat an egg salad sandwich five minutes later.
“Do we get money at the end of the night?” the trainee asks. “I need money.”
“You’ll have to talk to the owner about that.”
“Listen,” the trainee says, “I need to make a call. That all right with you?”
While the trainee’s chatting on his cell phone I get two tables. By the time I finish cocktailing and specialing my customers, however, he’s nowhere to be found. The owner is behind the hostess stand doing paper work. I walk up to him.
“Have you seen the trainee?” I ask.
“I told him to go home,” the owner replies.
“I went into the kitchen and found him eating soup.”
“I told him not to do that.”
“I was gonna let it slide,” the owner says. “But then the guy asked me how much money I’d give him at the end of the night. When I told him he’d get a check in two weeks, he pitched a fit.”
“Probably has a drug problem,” I reply.
“He looked crazy so I eased him outta here,” the owner says. “I told him it was gonna be too busy to train tonight and that I‘d call him back in after a couple of days.”
“You’re going to ask him to come back?”
“No way. I’ll tell him we found someone else to fill the position.”
“Good,” I say. “We don’t need anymore nutcases.”
“Willem interviewed the guy,” the owner replies, shaking his head. “He said he had fine dining experience working upstate.”
“Probably food service in Attica.”
The owner smiles. “You got that vibe too, huh?’
“You would’ve made a good detective.”
“Thanks,” I reply.
I head back onto the floor. It’s a busy night and I’m glad the trainee’s gone. I didn’t need him tugging on my shirttails. But I feel a little guilty about how things turned out. He could’ve been just been a hungry guy who and needed quick money for baby food. But there was something in his eyes I didn’t like. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust that instinct. By the time I finish my shift, the trainee’s troubles are becoming a distant memory. But that flat, vacant stare of his still bothers me.
When I go to the diner after work I don’t order an egg salad sandwich.