I’m staying at my parent’s house in the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside. Exhausted from the previous 110 work week I’m enjoying some recuperative the peace and quiet. Since I was working on Mother and Father’s Day I offer to take my parents out to dinner.
“Let’s go to restaurant XYZ,” my mother suggests.
I’ve eaten there before. The food’s good. My mouth waters at the memory of their excellent blue cheese encrusted filet mignon.
“Let’s go,” I say, “I’m hungry.”
Of course, everything’s a half hour’s drive away in the countryside. By the time we pull into the parking lot we’re starving. The restaurant’s housed in an elegant old building dating back to the Civil War. As I walk up the stairs I peek through the lace curtains and note the hand polished glasses and gleaming silver. The servers bustle purposefully about in their starched white shirts. Passing through the front door I take a deep breath and finally begin to relax. I’m looking forward to a martini, a good meal, and people waiting on me for a change.
We’re quickly seated at a nice table. My Dad and I discuss what kind of cocktails to get. We patiently wait for the waiter to come take out drink order.
And we wait.
And we wait.
After fifteen minutes our server finally appears. He apologizes for taking so long.
“Not a problem,” I murmur beatifically. My Dad orders a Scotch and soda. I ask for a Ketel One up with olives.
“I’ll be right back with your drinks,” the server says.
After fifteen minutes I despair of ever seeing my drink.
“Something’s wrong here,” I say.
“What do you mean?” my mother says fidgeting uncomfortably. She’s famished.
“In my restaurant you’d be on appetizers by now,” I grumble.
“Maybe the guy’s new?” my father suggests.
Before I can reply the waiter returns with our drinks. The vodka in my martini glass doesn’t even cover the olive. I reach out and touch the glass. It’s HOT.
“Can I take your order?” the waiter asks.
“Do you have any specials tonight?” I inquire politely.
“Oh I forgot,” the waiter replies. He launches into an exhaustive list.
As he’s reciting the specials I notice he has a southern accent with a faint trace of a speech impediment. He probably had a tough time as a kid. Years of speech therapy have worn down his disability till it’s barely noticeable. He has a shy vulnerable quality about him. I decide not to mention the sorry ass martini.
“Ok we need a few minutes,” I say, “but could you bring us some ice water and bread please?”
The waiter stares at me like I shot his dog. That stuff should have been on the table two minutes after we sat down.
After he delivers the bread and water we place our order: two appetizers, three salads, and three entrees. I get the Filet Mignon – medium.
“Thank you,” the waiter says. He goes off to God knows where.
I spoon some ice cubes into my martini. Dad and I start arguing politics. Mom talks about my brother’s wedding. Forty five minutes pass. No appetizers.
“Jesus, are the growing the food?” my Dad sighs.
“Something’s very wrong with this place,” I say, “appetizers shouldn’t take this long.” I look for my waiter but he’s disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa.
“Should we say something?” my mother asks.
“Why are you looking at me?” I say defensively.
“You’re the professional,” my Mom chides.
I get up and go over to the hostess stand. I catch a vibe from the other waiters. Something is wrong. My imagination runs riot. I have a vision of the chef passed out in the kitchen with a needle sticking out of his arm.
“Pardon me,” I say to the hostess, “is everything all right in the kitchen?”
“Everything’s fine,” the hostess replies a shade too quickly.
“Well,” I say looking at my watch, “we’ve been waiting almost an hour for our appetizers.”
“I’ll take care of it sir.”
“Thank you,” I reply courteously. “Could you ask the waiter to come by the table? I’d like to order another drink.”
“Of course sir.”
I sit back down. After a few minutes my waiter reappears. He looks stressed. “Another Ketel One sir?” he asks.
“Yes, but on the rocks this time.”
The drink comes out quickly. “Are our appetizers almost ready?” I ask.
An “oh shit” expression crosses his face.
“I’ll see what’s the hold up is,” he says nervously.
We wait so long the ice cubes in my drink melt into thin slivers. Now I’m pissed.
“Maybe we should leave,” my mother says.
I look at my watch. It’s too late to go to another restaurant.
“Let’s stick it out,” I sigh.
Our waiter is committing the cardinal sin of food service. He’s hiding from the customer. Now I’ve screwed up tables. Sometimes our kitchen’s dropped the ball. But I don’t hide from the customers. I tell them the truth, give them free shit, and usually salvage their good time and my tip. The worst thing a waiter can do is keep the customer in the dark. They begin to imagine all sorts of horrors.
The waiter appears with our salads. They were supposed to come after the apps. No matter. It’s food. We wolf it down.
The apps appear. We eat them. They’re unremarkable. I hope the entrées are better.
After an interminable wait another server brings out our food. I realize the staff’s covering for our waiter. His other tables are complaining loudly. I’m glad it’s not just us.
Shaking my head I tuck into my steak. It’s cold and raw.
My parents’ entrée’s are fine. I don’t want to upset them so I push my dinner around the plate. I’m aggravated and two warm Ketel One’s are sloshing around my stomach.
After our plates are cleared the waiter sheepishly asks us if we want dessert on the house. That’s nice of him but I want to get home before sunup. I ask for the check.
“I’m really sorry sir,” the waiter says.
I think about how well some of my customers treated me when I made mistakes. Time to pass on the good karma.
“We all have bad days. Don’t worry about it,” I say.
“Thanks for understanding sir.”
The bill comes. My two drinks total EIGHTEEN dollars. Nothing was comped.
Screw Karma. I get up and find the manager.
“How was everything sir?” he asks.
I tell him.
“I’m so sorry,” he says.
Buddy if you were doing your job you would have nipped this problem in the bud hours ago.
“I want all the drinks taken off this check. Then I’ll pay it,” I say.
The manager returns with the adjusted check. I pay it out of sight of my parents. I go back to the table.
“We’re all set,” I say pulling some cash out of my wallet.
“Well thanks for dinner,” my mom says sweetly.
“Sorry the service was terrible,” my Dad adds.
“If the worst thing that ever happens to you is a bad meal you’re ahead of the game,” I say smiling.
I count out some bills. For the first time in a long time I want to leave the waiter nothing. But I have no idea what happened to him tonight. Maybe his wife left him. Maybe his dog died. Who knows? But my inner waiter won’t let me stiff him. I leave 18%.
On the way home I think about all the customers who’ve flipped out on me. I once had a man scream at me because a drop of wine fell on the tablecloth. I remember how a customer siced the cops on me once.
Maybe I was too nice; too forgiving.
But compared too many of my customers I’m Mahatma Gandhi.
The next night my parents take me out to dinner. The service and the food were excellent.
Thank God. Even Gandhi had his limits.