Last Saturday night my wife and I sent our daughter to her grandmother’s and went to a nice restaurant for dinner. It was the kind of place where you can drop a hundred bucks in a few bites. Now that we’re homeowners Annie and I can’t often treat ourselves to such extravagances, but we were celebrating and it’s nice to eat without your kid throwing food on the floor.
Judging from the high-end décor and hushed service I figured the evening would run smoothly. But right off the bat the cocktails we ordered didn’t come. After ten minutes elapsed I asked the busboy to send our waiter over.
“How can I help you?” the waiter said when she showed up five minutes later.
“I’m afraid our drinks haven’t arrived,” I said.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I’ll be right back.”
After she left I said to my wife, “I’ll bet you ten bucks my martini will be warm from sitting on the bar.” Sure enough, when the drinks arrived my Ketel One Dirty Up wasn’t dirty and had achieved room temperature. My waiter senses are dulled but not gone. My server seemed flustered and rushed which told me she was in the weeds or close to it. I was sympathetic but I like my vodka cold.
“Excuse me,” I said, gently placing the martini back on the tray. “The drink is warm and isn’t dirty. Please ask the bartender to make a new one.”
“Right away, sir.”
Restaurant patrons often squirm at the thought of sending anything back. I guess horror stories about sputum and surreptitious flatulence bombs inhibit them. While I’ve made money writing about these vengeance techniques I’ve never had a problem telling my waiter when there’s a problem. It’s all in how you send things back.
My waiter returned with my new drink and stood by nervously as I sampled it. It was ice cold and perfectly made. “Thank you,” I said. “It’s fine.”
“I apologize for the problem,” the waiter said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
As my I sipped my drink and chatted with my wife I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. Wearing a white button down oxford and blue blazer I looked like every other middle-aged Yuppie in the place. That’s ironic since I used to torture those types when they got out of line. Now I’m eating amongst them and sending drinks back. Et tu Waiter? Yeah, a little bit.
A fine restaurant is a place where you can cast your cares aside and let other people make you feel special. For a short while you can imagine you’re flying high above it all. As long as you spend money and play by the rules you’ll have a good time. It’s a lot like a strip club when you think about it. But I know my affluent culinary cocoon is an illusion and will vanish the moment I walk out the door. Some people confuse this illusion with reality, however, eventually believing they deserve special treatment 24/7. And getting special treatment can become an addiction. Whenever I busted my restaurant patrons’ self-satisfied bliss bubbles they acted like I flushed their heroin down the toilet.
Even though I knew better, I embraced the restaurant’s polished illusion of privilege. My wife and I were celebrating my new job. A few weeks after I moved into my house an opportunity dropped in my lap and I quit the psych ward. Believe me, it was time to go. Back in June I was injured restraining a patient and spent three weeks in physical therapy as a result. Then, three days after I returned to duty, a 300-pound psychopath punched me in the neck. Even though I escaped serious hurt my wife told me she was afraid my luck was running out. But that wasn’t why I quit.
Watching the condensation running down the stem of martini glass I thought about the five years I worked on the ward. Most of my patients were “frequent flyers,” people who were so sick their lives were a revolving door of jails, shelters, and psychiatric hospitals. Most of them were poor, homeless and had little or no family supports. They were the forgotten people; living on society’s fringes in what Pope Francis called “deafening anonymity.” But there was nothing quiet about the psych ward. Going to work was like entering a screaming maelstrom of fury and need. Nobody seemed to get better and the suffering wore me down. Back out of all this now too much for us.
Munching on my $30 halibut I was well aware none of my old patients could’ve afforded this meal. Heck, they wouldn’t’ve been let in the front door. I didn’t miss them. I was happy to be in a place they couldn’t go. That’s another thing about a nice restaurant – they keep the madding crowd at bay. As I watched the sleek affluent carnivores drink $400 bottles of wine and honk about money I wrapped myself up in their world and forgot about the sick and the suffering. That night I was closed to all but me. And I didn’t feel guilty for a moment.
That’s because after I digested my meal I knew I’d be back working with vulnerable people. This time around, however, I’ll have an office, regular hours and a panic button that will bring armed men to my rescue. I doubt I’ll have to press it often. My new clientele won’t be as desperate and angry. My new role is to help people from falling into the pit, before that swirling maelstrom consumes them. I will be actually able to help people. And it’s a part-time gig that will give me time to write.
I won’t miss they psych ward. It burned me out, a condition that’s rampant in the human services field. Lack of resources, overwork and bad management is usually the reason, but leaving the unit reminded me I have to take better care of myself. All people have to withdraw from the world in order to remember the spiritual reasons for doing what they do. Action is nothing without reflection. Over the years writing has become my desert, the place where I can connect the dots and make sense of life. I need to visit that desert much more often.
But going to fancy places is also part of my mental health toolkit. A commenter on this blog once wrote “If you dislike the ritzy so much, why do seem to spend so much time where they hangout?” Guilty as charged. But I’ve never disliked rich people, just the disconnect from real life so many of them seem to suffer from. You can’t think you’re special 365 days a year. But let’s face it; we all need to be pampered once in a while. Pope Francis might not approve of my withdrawal into affluence but I remembered what Robert Frost once wrote, “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Something tells me God won’t begrudge me a nice meal.
When I finished my dinner I pushed my plate aside and let out a self-satisfied burp. Well fed and slightly drunk I passed on dessert and paid the bill. Despite the screw up I tipped the waiter 25%. It was nice to be special for a few hours. Restored and calm Annie and I went home.
The world with its pain and confusion would wait until morning.