Beth and I are sitting by the front window drinking coffee and kibitzing. It’s early and we’re not expecting customers for an hour. Side work finished, the tables are arranged with military precision; uniformed in starchy crisp tablecloths and brocaded with newly polished silverware, they stand at attention, ready for combat.
I take a sip of my coffee and sigh. The Bistro’s humming with potentiality. Like it knows being empty is an unnatural state, it waits for the inevitable onslaught.
“So did you hear how that lady’s doing?” Beth asks me.
“The woman from last night?” I reply.
“I called the hospital but they wouldn’t tell me.”
“What a shame. That poor lady,” Beth says.
“Yeah, it was terrible,” I murmur.
Last night one of our customers in the back section, an elderly woman, suffered a stroke. After projectile vomiting all over her table she slumped unconscious in her chair. I thought she was going to die there and then.
“Well, the paramedics got here fast.” Beth says.
“Thank God.” I reply.
“You know what though?”
“I’m still pissed at those assholes.”
“The four top?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Beth says, “Can you believe how insensitive they were?”
“I believe it,” I reply……
It’s the night before and the restaurant’s crammed with emergency personnel. A foursome walks in and demands to sit the back section. I tell them we’re having a medical crisis and the section’s closed. They don’t care and start arguing with me.
“You’re gonna sit us in the back right?” one of men says. “You’re gonna sit us in the back like we want right?”
“Do you see the paramedics working over there?” I say incredulously.
“Well, we want that table when it clears out,” the man huffs.
I point to an empty table near the door. “I have that table available,” I say.
“Unacceptable,” the man says.
I look towards the back. The paramedics are busy stabilizing the woman. The entire Bistro’s ground to a halt. I don’t have time for this shit.
“Listen sir,” I say, putting steel in my voice, “You can either sit at what I have available or dine with us another night.”
The man looks flabbergasted.
“But……” he stutters.
“I’m sorry sir, but that’s the way it has to be.”
“I don’t want….”
“I need to keep this door clear,” I order, “You need to sit down now.”
The self involved foursome finally sits down. The medics bundle the woman into a stretcher and tear out the front door. The cops and I talk outside as the lady’s loaded into the rig, looking like a frightened wounded bird. With a blast of sirens, the ambulance streaks off into the night. I head back inside. The bus people clean up the mess, the waiters run out the food, and I go around thanking everyone for their patience. The bitchy foursome glares at me but I don’t care. It’s all over……
“I can’t believe how shitty those people were.” Beth says. “It’s almost criminal.”
“Hell is other people,” I say quietly, quoting Jean Paul Sartre
“You ain’t kidding,” Beth replies.
“I wish I was.”
Beth and I are quiet. We sip our coffee and watch the world go by. Outside people bustle along, faces set to grim purpose, running around like so many rats in a cage. I think about that four top and how cold hearted people can be. And not for the first time I remember that indifference to the suffering of others is the ingenuity of evil. When you don’t care, man’s inhumanity to man becomes that much easier.
After awhile the door chimes. Two parents and their daughter walk in. My face brightens. I remember the father is a good tipper. After I seat them and bring their cocktails they order expensive entrees and a $200 bottle of wine. It’s my lucky day.
The table polishes off their appetizers and tucks into dinner. In the middle of their entrées the little girl waves me over.
“Yes Miss?” I ask.
“Who’s that?” she says fearfully, pointing towards the window.
I look over. Claude, our local homeless guy, is outside looking in. I wave to him. He waves back.
“That’s just Claude,” I reply, “He’s harmless.”
“See dear,” the mother says reassuringly,” I told you it was OK.”
“Why is he out there?” the girl asks.
“He’s always out there,” I say.
“Is he a bum?” she asks.
“Claude is homeless Miss.”
“Where does he sleep?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“Why doesn’t he have a home?” the girl asks.
“That’s a good question young lady,” I reply, “And the answer is very complicated.”
“Does he ever ask you guys for food?” the mother asks me.
“On occasion,” I reply.
The little girl looks at her father. He looks at her. Something passes between them.
“Listen,” the father says, looking uncomfortable, “Give Claude dinner on me.”
“That’s very nice of you sir,” I say, mildly surprised.
The father gazes at his rack of lamb. “It’s the least I can do,” he mumbles.
“Do you know what he likes to eat?” the girl asks.
“I know what Claude likes Miss,” I reply, “Don’t worry.”
I go in the back and order up some food for Claude. When the food’s ready I wrap it up and go outside to give it to him.
“Hey Claude,” I say, “One of the customers bought you dinner.”
“Oh boy,” he says.
“Your favorite dish,” I say holding out the bag.
I watch as Claude peers into the bag. He looks very happy.
“I’m set for life,” he says, grinning.
I smile at the irony of his statement. “Enjoy, Claude.”
Claude starts to walk away. Then he stops and turns around.
“Thank those people for me,” he asks, staring at a spot on the sidewalk.
“I will Claude.”
Claude walks away holding the bag to his chest. I go back inside.
“The gentleman says thank you for dinner,” I tell the father.
“No problem,” he says sheepishly.
“Enjoy your dinner sir,” I say.
I walk back to the hostess stand. Suddenly I remember the woman who suffered the stroke the night before. I remember how frail and vulnerable she looked. I remember how cold those selfish customers were. I remember what Sartre said about hell being other people.
But then I look out the window and see Claude sitting on a bench eating his dinner. He’s having a hot meal because something in a little girl’s eyes moved a father to feed a hungry stranger. I stand there and try to figure out what that something was.
But then I give up. I don’t need to know. I content myself with the knowledge that love is ingenious.
And Sartre? He was only half right.
Heaven can be other people too.