“And last but not least,” I say, wrapping up my recitation of the specials to the party on Table 34, “We have a seafood paella with lobster, shrimp, chorizo sausage, scallops, artichokes, bacon and saffron Arborio rice.”
“How do you remember all those specials?” a female customer asks me.
“Practice,” I reply. “Years of practice.”
“You make it look easy.”
“Thank you Madam.”
“Waiter!” the cranky looking old man sitting next to her calls out. “How much is the Osso Buco special?”
“Thirty four dollars, sir,” I reply.
“Thirty four dollars!” the old man yelps. “That’s too expensive!”
“It’s okay Dad,” the well dressed man hosting the party says reassuringly. “Dinner’s on me tonight. Get what you want.”
“I don’t want you spending that kind of money!” the old man says, panic invading his voice. “Let’s go somewhere else. I don’t want to eat here! I want…..”
“Dad!” the son says, “We’re here to celebrate your birthday. Besides, I’m not going into the poorhouse anytime soon.”
The old man shakes his head angrily. “No, it’s too much.”
I perform a quick visual credit check on the son. The tailoring of his suit and the expensive watch on his wrist tells me he can afford Café Machiavelli’s high prices. The old man on the other hand, looks like he’s in the grip of some kind of dementia. While he’s clean and neat, there are several nicks on his face where he cut himself shaving. I wonder if he needed help getting dressed.
“My Dad’s going to have the Osso Buco,” the son tells me.
“I don’t want it!” the old man protests. “I’ll have pasta.”
“It’s your favorite Dad,” the son says firmly, “And that’s what you’re going to have.”
The old man glares at his son but says nothing. I feel bad for both of these guys. It’s tough when parents and children reverse roles. When I worked in geriatric psych I saw it all the time. Old age, with its frailties and vulnerabilities, makes many elderly people fearful and nervous. One of the most common manifestations of this anxiety is worrying about money. Sure, people on fixed incomes need to be careful, but I’m talking about unnecessary worry. I once knew an old man who lived in a dilapidated old house, never turned on the heat, and, despite being sick, avoided going to the doctor because he was afraid of the bills. After his bloated corpse was found two weeks post mortem, detectives discovered he had close to a million dollars in his savings account.
Everyday I see television advertisements from financial firms pitching “wealth management” to aging Boomers worried about retirement. Maybe they should talk about growing human capital as well. Having a robust financial plan isn’t going to mean shit if no one’s around to love you. That was the tragedy of the old hermit. His million dollars might have well been Monopoly money.
I take the rest of the table’s order. The kitchen cooks the food and the runner brings it out. The old man relaxes, enjoys his Osso Buco, and even smiles when I bring out a candle topped tiramisu and sing “Happy Birthday.” He gets a bunch of presents and kisses from his grandchildren. The man’s son pays the check and leaves me a very nice tip. As the grandfather and his family leave I stand by the front door to wish them a nice evening and thank them again.
“Thank you sir,” I say to the son. “Please come again soon.”
“Great job waiter,” the son says. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure sir.”
The old man shuffles up to me. “This place is too expensive!’ he barks. Whatever was bothering him has returned.
“I know,” I reply, smiling. “I can’t even eat here.”
“C’mon Dad,” the son calls out, “Time to go home.”
The old man snorts disgustedly and walks off. The son’s wife looks at me and winks.
“Thanks again,” she whispers, patting me on the arm.
“Good night Madam.” I reply,
I watch the old man shuffle into the night air. One of his grandchildren, a teenage boy, gently takes him by the arm and starts guiding him down the street. I smile to myself. That old man might be a cranky old codger – but somewhere along the way he invested the right things.