The cab pulled up fast, then halted just as fast. Two heads in the back seat lurched forward. I think I saw two hands clutch the head rest of the front seat.
Both back doors of the cab opened almost before the cab came to its quick, complete stop. Two men emerged, one clutching a brown paper grocery-sized bag carefully folded down at the top. I couldn’t read the printed numbers and letters printed in black marker on the side of the bag.
“This is it, this is perfect!” exclaimed the taller, very fit of the two as he pushed his long, dark, wild curls off his forehead with enough care to not disturb the expensive sunglasses perched just so on the bridge of his nose.
“Yeah, dude. Yeah!” exclaimed his far shorter but equally thin, muscularly built friend. “We’re here!”
It was an almost slow night, which was fine. I was battling my once-every-three-years-I-catch-one cold, and I don’t care what they say about DayQuil, it makes me feel loopy. I may not have been coughing, I may have been able to breathe, but I didn’t feel at all well. A slow night from which I might get cut first was the best medicine, at that point.
“Ma’am,” smiled the sunglassed one at me. “You sell cigarettes here?”
I regarded the paper bag that he clutched to his chest, his perfectly laundered baggy shorts and plain whit T-shirt. I wondered why he was wearing such expensive dark glasses after dark.
“Yeah, you know, cigarettes?” echoed his bloodshot, yet curiously bright-eyed pal who sported a fresh raspberry scrape on his left cheek. “You got change?” he asked, waving a twenty too close to my right cheek.
My get-these-guys-outta-here instincts immediately catapulted to high alert.
“Machine’s back there,” I nonchalantly waved toward the back of my restaurant. “You have to get change from that bartender, though,” I said gesturing toward my service bartender, who is the nicest of guys as much as he is always weeded and screaming at us for ordering anything more complicated than a draft beer. These guys asking for change could put him in the big weeds for good. Better order that second Long Beach Iced Tea for table 221 before they got his attention.
I watched the two for less than 20 seconds as they explained their need for change to my service bartender, and then I watched my manager watch them for 20 seconds more. Okay, I was off the alert hook.
For the next 15 minutes, I kept running into and sidestepping the tall sunglassed one. He must have made four trips to the men’s room in that time, never without his carefully folded brown paper grocery bag held tight to his chest, and always with a “Sorry, ma’am” or “Excuse me, ma’am” to me as I hoisted trays of food and drink around him. With luck, my manager was still keeping this guy and his buddy in his sights, because I was now too busy to think much more about either of them.
“Hey ma’am,” the shorter, scraped-up one called to me a half hour later, waving an empty Heineken bottle. What? They were still here? And being served?
Apparently yes and yes, and now they were very much seated at a deuce in my section.
“Do you already have a tab at the bar?” I asked him.
“No ma’am,” he grinned. “I pay cash each time.”
“One more for me, too,” smiled Mr. Sunglasses. “Corona.”
“Sure,” I told them. “Be right back.”
As long as they were paying cash and not running tabs, as long as they were just hanging out….
“Yeah, man, our first night out!” the short one said to folks seated at an adjacent table when I returned with their beers.
“Good luck to you,” said one of the folks, raising his drink in a cheers gesture toward the two.
“Thank you,” nodded both men, both to the folks cheering them and to me as I handed them fresh beers.
As they had promised, both immediately offered me cash to pay their tab. I made their change, and each handed me a dollar tip.
I served them three more rounds, each time collecting their cash, each time thanking them for thanking me with their dollars. I watched them engage with no other customers, now seemingly content to keep to themselves, smiling and talking only to each other.
“It’s the smallest I got,” smiled the bright-eyed, shorter man, handing me a ten dollar bill. He had been paying exact cash until now. I laughed to myself at the sight of my service bartender counting out so many ones to each of these characters while the printer continually spit out drink orders from a full staff of servers.
“Me too,” shrugged the taller one.
“Okay, no problem,” I said. “I’ll bring change.”
I was still busy with other tables beyond theirs, and felt rushed to make their change, knowing I had food to run and orders to take. I shoved their tens in the back of my book as I do with all cash given to me so I always know which are the most recent denominations handed to me, counted out ones and quarters for each of them, and pretty much returned their change to them on the fly to take care of customers three tables over.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” asked the shorter one as I dashed back by his table a few minutes later.
“Be right back, two seconds,” I told him, nodding to the stack of dirty plates I held in my hands, and not pretending to stop. He still had a full beer; he was fine.
“No problem, okay,” he said, his tone still very pleasant.
I promptly forgot about his latest “Excuse me” request, and tended to other tables.
“Ma’am? Please, ma’am?” he asked a third time when I finally had time to address whatever it was he needed now.
“Oh yeah, sorry. I got busy back in the kitchen. Another round for you?”
“No, ma’am. Actually, I think you owe me some more money.”
Ah ha. I knew it. I knew it!The change scam.
“I gave you a twenty,” continued Shorty. “You gave me change for a ten.”
“Really?” I asked like I meant I was surprised, not like I was about to prove him wrong. I dug out the bills from the back of my book. “Here’s the money you gave me–a ten and a…a…” Crap. A twenty.
“It’s okay,” smiled the bright-eyed man whose friend simply stared at the table. “We all make mistakes.”
“I am so sorry,” I said, pulling a 10 out of my front-of-the-book cash. “I thought you guys gave me two tens. I’m an idiot.”
“No, you’ve been great,” he laughed. “You’re not an idiot.”
And he handed me back the ten.
Two cabs pulled up. The tall, sunglassed one clutched his brown paper bag to his chest once again. He briefly hugged his shorter buddy the way guy friends do, barely making contact with him. “Later,” he said. And he was gone.
“Bye pretty lady,” smiled the scraped-up one. “You did okay.”
Not really, with my first impressions smugly based on knowing it all. Not really.
He gave me a last smile as he climbed into his cab.
Bye guys. Good luck. Glad I didn’t ruin your first night out.