The lunch rush has come and gone. I’m sitting in the back sipping espresso and reading the newspaper when Rolando, our fabulous Chileno busboy, interrupts me.
“You got a table up front,” he says, unenthusiastically.
“How many?” I ask, looking over the top of my paper.
Rolando holds up a single digit. “Uno.”
I put down the paper and look at my watch. “I bet I know who it is.”
“You psychic now?” Rolando asks.
“Its that fat old man, ” I say. “The one who always eats alone.”
Rolando looks at me in surprise. “You’re right.”
“Does that guy come here often?”
“He’s been here every lunch I’ve worked.”
“Maybe he likes you papi,” Rolando snickers. “Maybe you two are gonna get engaged.”
“Don’t be jealous Rolando,” I reply, getting up from my chair.
“I’m not jealous baby,” Rolando laughs, sashaying in the opposite direction. “Nobody’s better than me.”
I walk into the main dining room. The old mans sitting on Table 73, picking at something on the table cloth. Three women on Table 65, their bill already paid, talk animatedly while they finish their coffee.
“Good afternoon sir,” I say to the man. “May I get you something from the bar?”
Fat, bald, and jowly, the man looks like he hasn’t shaven in a couple of days. Tiny yellow globules, remains from an earlier encounter with an egg, struggle to maintain their equilibrium on top of the whiskers surrounding his mouth. The wrinkled grey sweat suit hes wearing is stained with greasy spots and a streak of dried ketchup.
“Root beer,” the man growls, not looking up.
I return with a bottle of root beer and a glass of ice. As I pour the soda I ask the man what he’d like to order.
“Zuppa di Pesce,” the man barks.
“Very good sir.”
The man says nothing else. I’ve waited on him three times already. I know he’s not a conversationalist. I place the half empty root beer bottle on the table and walk away.
“He’s a real sweetheart, no?” Rolando whispers as I key the man’s order into the POS system.
“I’ve dealt with guys like him before.”
“Always nasty that one. Siempre infeliz.”
“Every restaurant has people like him Rolando. Every one.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
I go back into the dining room. The old man’s staring off into space. His watery blue eyes remind me of a fearful child scanning the horizon, wondering who’s going to be the next person to hurt him. He looks like the world broke him like a dollar bill and didn’t give him back any change. The world’s full of people like him, hurting folk who, for whatever reason, are profoundly cut off from the human race. Unable to form or maintain relationships, but craving social contact nonetheless, they hang around the periphery of normal human activity. You see them all the time, walking around the mall, eating alone in diners, hanging out in Starbucks – surviving off the residual energy of other peoples lives. Relationships for these people are superficial encounters with waiters and cops, doormen and librarians, pretty girls who, trying to feel better about themselves, toss them two minutes of conversation while waiting in line for caramel lattes. Every restaurant has at least one customer fitting this description. Maybe it’s an old widower who sits at the same table and orders the same thing every week. Maybe it’s the uptight Yuppie guy hiding behind a book or the daytime spinster drowning nightly dreams of Mr. Right under a sea of Cosmopolitans. I can tell this old man isn’t coming here just for Zuppa di Pesce. He’s trying to satisfy a hunger no amount of food will sate.
I have no idea why this man is the way he is. Maybe he’s a veteran of war, still hearing wounded men screaming for their mothers like it was yesterday. Maybe he lost his wife in an accident or his best years in prison. Maybe his infant daughter drowned in a bathtub while her mother talked to a salesman hawking vacuum cleaners at the front door. Maybe he was a drunk or a junkie. Ill probably never know. He is who he is.
The kitchen bell rings. The man’s soup is ready. As I carry the bowl into the dining room the three lunching ladies are noisily getting up from their table, kissing, laughing, and promising to meet again. They’re all slightly drunk.
“Your Zuppa di Pesce sir,” I say, placing the bowl on the linen covered table.
The man just grunts.
“Can I get you anything else sir?”
“I’m just glad those people are leaving,” he says loudly, gesturing towards the three women.
My head swivels towards the ladies’ table. One of women heard the old man and looks like she’s about to say something. Luckily I catch her eye and shake my head. Warned off, the woman satisfies herself by giving the old man a withering glance.
I watch the ladies until they walk out the front door. Unpleasantness diverted, I turn back to the old man. He’s busily sucking out the innards of a clam. His eyes look like he really didn’t want the women to go, but they did.
“Enjoy your lunch sir,” I say. “The man, of course, says nothing.”
As I walk back to my newspaper I listen to the sound my footfalls make as they echo off the tiled floor. There were people like this old man at The Bistro and theres sure to be more people like him here. I’m suddenly reminded of that line from the Gospels, “The poor will always be with you.”
Scriptural reflection aside, I’m happy to leave the old man to his soup. I’m not in the mood for hurting folk today.
I love the way you write, Waiter. Your entries make me think.
This is one hell of an entry, Waiter. Sometimes your insights into humanity are extremely profound and make me a more patient person in the process.
I like to think I’m fairly compassionate and empathetic but sometimes I just get so grouchy with the socially retarded members of society. This is mainly because in the past I have been really nice to them and they’ve latched on to me, stalked me and otherwise have made my life miserable.
I like your detatched empathy, though. I think I’m going to try it.
Incredible entry waiter. I like the term the other person used, “detached empathy”. You seem to have that, & I admire you for it. It’s a fine line. This is another “thinker” for me. Thank you.
PHIL COLLINS SONG IN BACKGROUND
Hmm, there’s a few people who meet this description where I work. I never saw it this way.
Posts like this….such is the key to your succeess.
I know it’s an older post, but I liked it much.
And, btw, loved the Kinky Friedman reference, made me smile.
“The man, of course, says nothing.”
I am reading your book and decided to check out the site. Love this post. I actually am one of the hurting folk myself. Long, sad story, but suffice it to say I’m grateful for all the kind baristas, waiters, etc., who create places where we can sit be with other people for the price of a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
“Maybe his infant daughter drowned in a bathtub while her mother talked to a salesman hawking vacuum cleaners at the front door”
woah man, that is a gruesome scene! a little too grisly don’t you think?
I am exactly like that old man who regularly dined alone. I’m a woman in her 30s “unable to form or maintain relationships, but craving social contact nonetheless.” I’ve never thought about the fact that the servers at the restaurants I frequent find it sad I dine alone.
“They hang around the periphery of normal human activity. You see them all the time … surviving off the residual energy of other people’s lives.” You’ve dissected my life. I don’t know how to form relationships and maintain them. I’m shy and fearful. I spend much of my time alone.
Servers in restaurants are kind and friendly. I feel like I have a friend who cares about me: the server will welcome me with a smile and never embarrass/harm me in any way. The server will ask what I’d like, bring it to me, bring me little extras without my asking, make sure I’m doing OK, etc. Dining out and having this interaction with a server makes me feel accepted.
I like eating alone at times. It doesn’t always mean that someone is lost, alone, on the periphery of society or unable to form relationships. Most of the time I eat with friends but sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself to a little alone time, time with your own thoughts, and to enjoy a good meal focused on the food, the service and YOU.
I used to wonder if the waitstaff thought of me like this, a woman alone dining must be lonely, but then I realised it was their problem and not mine. Alone doesn’t always mean lonely.
I definately feel like that old man today. Don’t you just have those days when you need to escape from everybody around you, yet still crave human interaction? yes. yes I do.
“The world’s full of people like him, hurting folk who, for whatever reason, are profoundly cut off from the human race. Unable to form or maintain relationships, but craving social contact nonetheless, they hang around the periphery of normal human activity”
Definately story of my life.
I think I am one of those people.
I stumbled upon this site by googling “women who can’t form relationships”. Amazingly the old man describes me perfectly except my restaurant is Olive Garden and the soup is Chicken & Gnocchi. I’m female, 32, and haven’t been on a date ever. I don’t have one friend. I’m not ugly or retarded. It’s just that every second that I have to exercise one-on-one contact with fellow humans is excruciating. It actually puts my body under so much stress that I shut down completely. I get so exhausted so fast that blending in with my environment and observing others from a distanceis the limit to my social interaction. I sometimes wonder…am I broken?
There’s a guy like this that comes to my restaurant. He’s older, white haired, sits alone and always has a sullen look on his face. I have never seen him smile. I never thought too hard about why he may be that way, but after this entry I will never look at him the same again.
I have one of those. Down to the Zuppa and the sweatsuit. At first I thought he was an asshole, and after about eight months, realized his one and only friend in the world, his wife, died. He is alone and sad. As much as I may want to take the empty mussel shells and cut him, I have to remind myself that maybe all it takes is a waitress smiling that makes him forget his pain.
Steve, this one made me cry. I am that person on the edge of humanity afraid and just not knowing how to join. I have always felt cut off from the rest of the world. I got lucky and found someone who loves me even if I have no idea why and I am so grateful God brought him into my life. But I can so understand that craving for human contact and I wish people would realize how profoundly you can effect others by just showing a little kindness like you showed this man. You made his life better even if you didn’t realize it and he couldn’t tell you.
wow. This is why your writing is amazing! And makes me happy and proud to be a server. This post, and the comments, made me *almost* cry. Sometimes I struggle with social anxiety, but obviously not on the level of many people (also this relates to one of your other posts I love about being shy and serving allowing you to connect for a fixed amount of time with people). I know sometimes those guests are difficult to deal with, but its awesome (I use that word in the literal sense – fills me with awe) that you really think more about where they are coming from. I’ve had some of these situations (usually later on brunch shifts) where people come in alone. While they give off that “I just want to sit here alone and not talk vibe” perhaps I should make more of an effort to talk to them. Thanks for this blog, it really has meant a lot to me in terms of making me more introspective about my work.