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.