The first time I served Maureen, it was on my second day on the floor at my current job, and I was warned: “She’ll run you and send back everything, and she doesn’t tip.”
Apparently, everyone with whom I worked had served Maureen many times; no one with whom I worked could stand to serve Maureen, ever; and everyone was smirking their relief and delight that the new girl–me–was now stuck with Maureen on this night.
“It’s like she thinks she can behave badly just because of her handicap,” someone muttered. “Good luck with her.”
Maureen wheeled her bulky chair toward a deuce, ignoring the host who ignored her as well, and somehow managed to move the restaurant’s chair out of the way before I could help her. Once she was settled, I approached her table. “Hi there. How are you this…” I started with would have been my usual introduction and an offer of a drink.
“Who are you?” Maureen interrupted in a demanding voice so pitchy and shrill that it rendered my own voice silent for a few seconds more than was comfortable.
I despise introducing myself by name to a table in any manner that smacks of “Hi, my name is RG and I’ll be your server this evening.” Frankly, when I am out to dinner as a customer, I’d rather not know the name of my server than be forced to acknowledge it when prompted by that annoying style dreamed up years ago in a random corporate store that every other store in the world decided was worth mimicking in all it’s hackneyed insincerity. I’ll tell you my name if you ask. I’ll tell you my name if I sense you are going to ask. I’ll tell you my name if I have an extra 67 seconds before I head over to the service bar to grab your drinks, because nine times out of ten you will ask what RG stands for and what on earth prompted my parents to name me that, and really, is that the name on my birth certificate? During these 67 seconds you will render me in the weeds as I am double and triple seated and you are still clamoring for an explanation of my name that you don’t really need to know at all, unless I fail to pay attention to you when you need more booze or food or need to pay me for both.
“I’ve never seen you before. So, who are you?” Maureen whined, loud enough so that all the tables around her who had previously averted their glances and politely paid attention to everything but her now pointedly paid very much attention to me standing before her. Yeah, who the heck are you? they all seemed to silently ask me. Introduce yourself to the lady, since you never did to us! they all seemed to demand.
Okay, okay. Okay.
“My name is RG,” I smiled in the forced way I do when I’d rather scowl and frown. It is a hideous smile that fools no one except the occasional store shopper that has to note in his/her notes that I did, in fact, smile. Yep, that smile.
“And…?” she sarcastically trilled, moving her clenched hands in a half circle as she stared at me, her eyes bigger and darker and more intimidatingly and impossibly penetrating than they had been two seconds ago.
“I just started here,” I said quickly, making a motion with my book and glancing over at another table, a cue most customers understand to mean chit chat time is over; your order now, please?
“And this is your section tonight? So you have to serve me?” she asked, clearly disappointed. “Isn’t that nice girl here who always takes care of me?”
Maureen could only mean one of my favorite coworkers who reminds me of RG Daughter and who everyone mistakes for me or me for her or figures we HAVE to be related. I feel complimented when this happens, as it does at least three to four times a shift when we work together, because she is beautiful and sweet and really could be my kid, given her young age. She had trained me the week before, so I knew Maureen had to mean Lindsay.
“No, sorry. Lindsay is off tonight,” I explained.
“Lindsay! That’s her!” exclaimed Maureen, her attitude softening a tiny bit. “She knows just how I like everything.”
“I’ll do my best,” I told her. “Are you ready to order, or do you need a few minutes?”
Maureen pouted up at me, placing her clenched hands on the table. She sighed.
“Bring me a diet Sprite with another small glass of regular Sprite on the side. Lindsay knows how to mix them together for me, but since I’ve never seen you before, just bring them in separate glasses.”
And so it began. Appetizer sent back for “better sauce” and “more cooking!” Entree refused because “it doesn’t look like it usually does.” More Sprite. No! More diet Sprite! Coffee, please, and strong. This isn’t strong enough! Use two packs of coffee when you make me a new pot; that’s what they always do for me.
“No cream. And no real sugar with the coffee, just two pink packs with one half of the blue one. You can stir them in, please.”
Which was when I noticed her hands had remained clenched the entire meal. I wasn’t really sure how she had previously managed to use the fork to eat what she’d finally agreed was suitable enough.
I dutifully prepared her strong coffee and stirred in her customized sweetener concoction.
Later, I groaned at the $1.72 tip added on to her credit card.
“Hey, be thankful she tipped you at all,” mumbled a co-worker.
As the weeks at my new job evolved into months, I served Maureen roughly five more times. She remained unhappy with everything, and her scrawled gratuity never deviated a cent from $1.72. On most occasions, Maureen stuck me in the weeds with her incessant demands.
On a particularly busy weekday night, Maureen appeared precisely at a moment when the host was seating a couple at what I now recognized was her favorite deuce. Nothing else was available except a four-top in my section. Crap.
“May I sit there?” she asked, pointing to the four-top. The host was long gone.
I don’t think I hesitated, but maybe I did, before I said, “Hey Maureen. Sure, the table’s yours.”
“But I don’t want to sit there if he’s serving me,” she frowned, pointing to one of the newer servers. “I want you.”
Me? You despise me.
“It’s my section, Maureen,” I told her, adjusting the table and moving chairs out of the way so she could comfortably place her own just so. “You’re stuck with me.”
Without waiting for her order, I brought her the two kinds of Sprite, the extra straws she always asked for, and the extra plate she inevitably requested but never used.
“Thank you,” she said as I placed the items before her. “You know me now, don’t you,” she almost, but not quite, smiled. “That’s why I asked for you.”
I served her usual appetizer, remembering to tell the kitchen to overcook it so she wouldn’t send it back. I typed in a huge modification message to the kitchen, which I knew would make the line cooks shriek at me when I picked it up, but I wanted to make sure the entree “looked like it always does.” I had a big section on this busy night and weeds were not an option.
“I want something else,” Maureen said when I brought out her entree.
Do not send this back, I thought, knowing that doing so would give the term “Hell’s Kitchen” new meaning if I returned the plate to the line.
Maureen sensed my impatience and reluctance. “No, no, this is fine,” she said, gesturing to the entree. “But I want something else.”
Wait, something else?
“Okay, what’s that?” I asked, curious. Maureen never deviated from her predictable order.
“I want a baked potato,” she said, then motioned me closer to her with her clenched left hand. “But you have to cut it up for me, and not out here, and I’ll need extra butter,” she whispered.
My manager saw me smearing unwrapped butters atop the hacked-to-pieces baked potato.
“What are you doing?” he asked, clearly annoyed. “We’re slammed out there and you’re cutting up someone’s food for them? No. Take it as is. Go!”
“But it’s for…”
“I know who it’s for, and I know you don’t have time to do this any more than I have time to tell you this! She can handle that as it is.”
As it was, I had already rendered the potato easily edible for Maureen. As it had been, the potato would have been an embarrassing nightmare for her. As it turned out, she took one bite of the thing that had surely cost me precious points I’d barely accumulated with my tough manager and declared it “cold.”
“Never mind,” she scolded me, clearly exasperated. “Never mind.”
No good deed….
On a slow night two days later, in wheeled Maureen to her favorite deuce. She was wearing a royal blue blouse that fully complimented her clear pale skin and large dark eyes. She looked lovely, actually.
“That is a great color on you,” I said as I placed her Sprites before her.
She looked up at me, puzzled by my comment. “Thank you,” she said without emotion. A second passed. “You know,” she began, looking directly at me, “If you pour me three quarters diet Sprite and add three long shots of regular Sprite from the fountain, it should be right.”
“Okay, let me pour you one and let’s see,” I said. Which I did. And it was “right.” I cleared the other two glasses.
I brought out her burned appetizer. I served her the usual modified entree. She returned nothing.
“I’ll try that potato, again,” she said, hopefully.
I rung it in, dashed back to the kitchen to cut it up, adding three pieces of unwrapped butter. My manager, who seems to be in ten places at once and always where I am, noted the potato as I rounded the corner to the dining room.
“Only when you’re not busy,” he said, nodding to my plated potato handiwork. But he didn’t seem irritated by it tonight.
“I don’t want any coffee tonight,” Maureen said as I cleared her empty plates. “But you don’t need this table right now, do you?”
I glanced around at my empty section. “No, Maureen,” I smiled. “Stay put as long as you like.”
Maureen half smiled up at me, her clenched fists in her lap. “Thank you. I’m just not ready to go back to the apartment, yet.”
A subtle turning point in our server-customer relationship occurred then, and not because of the potato, and not because of the perfectly poured Sprite, and certainly not because of my compliment about her blouse. No, the point turned when I realized I had just gotten a very limited glimpse into a corner of Maureen’s predictable world.
Going out to eat here meant time away from what had to feel like confining,albeit comfortably familiar, walls there. The more we rushed her, the more the food wasn’t “right,” because the complaints and the send-backs bought her more time to watch the families, the singles and the couples. Being here gave her time to absorb the ever-changing energy that a restaurant’s tableau provides, to save it up in a way, and take it with her when she has all the time in the world to be within her apartment’s walls.
I now purposely slow down my service for Maureen. She still periodically whines at me, even sending food back upon occasion. She still tips $1.72, no matter the tab. But mostly she sits quietly at her table, watching. Periodically we engage in small talk about the weather, about how busy or slow it is, about how do I do what I do and keep it all straight when it’s busy, and don’t my feet hurt all the time?
I surprised her yesterday when, in the midst of unexpected season’s-about-over-but-not-today madness, I plunked myself down in the chair across from her and said, “How about I just sit here with you and pretend I’m not working. Wanna do some shots?”
The table across from us smiled in a slightly patronizing way, because, you know, I was being so nice to hang out with the lady in the wheelchair.
Maureen giggled, a sound I had never heard from her. “Sure!”
“Alas, I can’t afford to be fired today,” I said. “But pretend to have one on me.”
Maureen giggled again. The table across from us, still staring and smiling, awkwardly signaled to me for their check. Righto, back to work.
This is not a story about RG the good-hearted, sickeningly sweet server who won over the Scrooge-like wheelchair-bound customer. Nor is it a story with a lesson about looking beyond a person’s outward negative demeanor and finding a gem. No, this is a simple story about simply and barely getting to know one of my regular customers, a customer about whom I still know very little at all, except that she needs time. Time, I got. Time, I can give her.