Heaven & Hell

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.

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Homeless?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Mmmmmm.”

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.


Comments

Heaven & Hell — 25 Comments

  1. A man who doesn’t ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” but rather, a man who just goes and does it. Would that we had myraids and millions of them.

  2. Amazing post. I loved it, and I wish more people were like that. With the way the economy is going, you never know when you may be close to, or even in, Claude’s situation. Help people when you can..

  3. This story reminds me of my something that happened a couple months back right after I moved.
    My new neighbors’ house was on fire, smoke was pouring out the door, and there were about five fire trucks on the street.
    My brother went outside to see if he could do anything for them, because they were sitting in their mini-van with there three small children.
    One of our other neighbors came home when he was outside and she started talking to him. All she could do was bitch about how she was going to have a hard time finding a parking spot because of the fire trucks, and would have to walk too far.
    Seriously, what the hell is wrong with people? She didn’t even care that her neighbors house was burning down!

  4. Waiter,

    I just discovered your blog a few days ago, and I’ve been backtracking and reading every post as I have time.

    I just wanted to tell you you’re a wonderful writer. Your stories have made me think a lot about life and people over the last few days, but none have put a smile on my face as much as this one.

    Very well done.

    Best of luck with your book. I will certainly pick up a copy.

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  6. I have a friend who used to work at a *certain* enormous coffee company. Once she had a customer with a medical emergency, and while she was performing CPR (as her co-worker stood there stupidly, not helping in any way), some lady wandered in and demanded to be served. My friend, of course, continued her life-saving procedures and refused to quit so that she could take over the bar and dole out coffee and pastries, and the other employee remained useless to everyone present.
    My friend was almost written up over this incident because she “failed to do her job”- which was, of course, to serve coffee and not to save the life of their clients. Granted, her employers were not particularly intelligent or savvy, but I thought that was a new low.
    Instead of giving out medals we now harass people for being good citizens.

    Sometimes people are so moronic and insensitive it makes me ill.

  7. And a little child shall lead them…

    I’d love to know the history behind the look that that father and daughter exchanged that led him to buy Claude dinner.

    At least some parents appear to be raising children who aren’t self-absorbed monsters of entitlement.

  8. Strange. I’d have given him a table, rather than a takeaway, and likely the father would have been grumpy because that wasn’t what he meant…

    Met a gypsy Woman begging for money in Spain, and I said I wouldn’t give her money, but I’d buy food for her child.

    Five minutes later I’d bought food for a gaggle of more than a dozen kids, miraculously materialising out of the still silent streets like some scene from Aliens vs Siesta-time.

    I knew they were taking the piss, but I didn’t give a damn, I was on holiday.

    I’m curious what his favourite food was, and how you knew it…

  9. I’ve been catching up on your posts since reading about your book in of all places, an Australian newspaper (I’m in the UK!) but this post is the first that has compelled me to leave a comment.

    Incredibly moving and I had tears in my eyes.

    Congratulations on an outstanding blog Waiter!

  10. my place of employment was robbed once and had to be closed while under investigation. People came steadily came to he door begging say we will serve them or else.

  11. “I’m curious what his favourite food was, and how you knew it…”

    Well, he did say that Claude had asked for food before.

  12. Oh, wow, Waiter…I’ve been reading the archived blogs and many of your posts have moved me to boisterous laugher, anger, frustration, and almost to the brink of tears, but this one really had me wiping tears from my cheeks. Thank you for this post.

  13. That made me tear up! I like knowing that there are still good people out there and parents willing to listen to their children on something like that!

  14. I had already read this post when I went to work last week at my retail clothing store job. As soon as I was dropped off early for my shift, this guy asked me if I had some food to spare. Instantly, I thought ‘Well, I ate the granola bar I had already.. It’s freezing… He’s standing infront of the buffet next door that I was going to anyway…’ It just clicked. I had him sit a minute at my work while I put my jacket etc away and walked next door with him. I bought him dinner and I got some takeout. It was awkward waiting in line with Sam, especially since he kept hitting on me, but it was the right thing. I mean, heated sitting (with tvs), all you can eat, public bathrooms all for $15. Fair investment.

  15. Last winter I was walking to get takeout with my (now ex) boyfriend. On the way there, we passed a homeless guy who’s around where we live most nights. We got to our favourite place and ordered our food, H ordered a little more than what we normally got. On the way back the homeless man was still there, huddled under a blanket. H simply put the extra food down next to him and we went home.
    We broke up a little while ago for a myriad of reasons, but it makes me happy to know that there are still people in the world that will do even a little bit extra for other people.

  16. Am I the only one that finds a problem with this? Feeding the guy only encourages him to come back and stare in the window. Eventually a huge group of hungry homeless are waiting outside every day. Customers avoid the place because of the new atmosphere, plus their bill goes crazy buying 15 meals instead of just one. The business goes under. Then the waiter is homeless in front of another restaurant starting the whole cycle over.
    I’m not saying to throw rocks at them, just help them at a soup kitchen or something.
    If you want to cry, just think about the owner of the restaurant losing his business cause some jerk waiter sabotaged it with kindness.

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