Wednesdays often aren’t busy. It’s a nice night to work because I can take care of the tables well.
At one point, I got a four-top of two couples. I went to greet them and I recognized one of the couples. They’re regulars. They’ve been in my section several times.
They usually buy a lot of stuff: several appetizers, at least one bottle of wine. They often try the specials.
I was happy to see them. It’s nice to be a part of the experience when people really appreciate it.
I’m not good at guessing ages, but they look like the parents in a TV sitcom about a nice upper middle class family.
The guy doesn’t tip extravagantly, but well enough. He likes to chit chat with me some times. I bet he’s a vice president at a bank or a partner at a law firm. Some job where he’s surrounded by underlings. You can tell he’s used to people deferring to him.
The woman has a good sense of humor. But the man doesn’t seem to like her jokes. Maybe because they’re often at his expense.
I know she loves olives too. The last time they were here, after she ordered something, on a whim, I told the cooks to load it up with olives for her.
At the end of that dinner, she told me how she loved the dish. The gamble paid off. I told her how if she orders it again, she should mention how she wants extra olives.
She looked a little surprised. Then she said, smiling at me, “And if I said there were too many olives…”
I told her I followed my intuition on this one, because I had a hunch. And when I do that, I can’t think about what could go wrong.
Then she winked at me and said that would get me far in life. It was a moment. So, yeah, like I said, I was happy to see them.
Back to tonight.
We make the salads at the table in an overly large stainless steel mixing bowl. While I mixed everything and handed out plates, I listened to the guy telling a story. He had gone on a road trip recently and he took his car with a manual transmission for the trip.
I got the feeling that this was just one of his cars.
He drove it through the hill country out west from here. I know the area he was talking about. Old twisty roads snake through mostly desolate abandoned small towns.
You can get through there faster on the interstate, but it’s so much more fun to zoom along these back roads.
He said how all his worries left during the trip because he was totally focused on the act of driving: shifting up and down, pressing the gas pedal at the halfway point in a curve, etc.
Every bit of his consciousness was used up in the task of driving way too fast.
I liked the images that played through my mind while I listened.
Toward the end of their meal, I cleared their plates. He was still talking about his drive. He could tell that I was enjoying his story, even if his date was indifferent.
He looked up at me and said, “Marlowe, I bet you drive standard transmission, don’t you?”
I smiled, nodded, and then I said how I didn’t drive anything right now.
I made it a point to smile when I said “right now” because diners here do not like being reminded of the ridiculous gaps between the haves and the have nots.
So instead, generally, I hint that my relative poverty is just something fun that I’m trying out. Like this is all a special research project. Or maybe like an immersive vacation.
I said that the way he described his car sounded meditative. I asked what model he drove.
He lit up while he said the name. Some brand that I knew absolutely nothing about.
Then he talked about how old the car is now, and how it constantly needs repairs and maintenance, but he can’t bear the idea of selling it.
I made a mental note to look up his car the next time I’m in the school library. I could memorize a few obscure facts and then share them subtly with other diners. That kind of inside trivia helps imply how I’m one of them.
“One of them.”
I’m clearly NOT one of them. After all, I’m writing this diary entry now late at night in my tiny, run-down apartment building between a guy that drives a cab and a family of five that’s here without documentation.
But when the diners think of me like one of them, they tip better.
Sometimes I get so good at stepping into this character, this quiet, reserved waiter with encyclopedic knowledge of fine wine and food, I almost forget it’s all a hoax.
Like tonight, I imagined driving some two-seater roadster past beautiful old country homes on a sunny day. It wasn’t real, but it felt like it.
But then I got tripped up.
I was cleaning the table, and I was about to talk about our desserts, when I remembered that time in elementary school when a social worker showed up at my house.
My teacher had reported signs of neglect.
I remember how the social worker drove up in a tiny little convertible. I had never seen a car like it before except on TV. I saw it through the window of our house when she parked out front and walked in.
That day turned into a nightmare later, but at first, I was just so excited by this person in this cool-looking car coming to visit.
Her car wasn’t anything like the car this guy was talking about, but as a child, I filed her little convertible in the “fancy cars” photo album in my mind.
So, tonight, out of nowhere, I went from from enjoying about a nice daydream to remembering something much worse.
I kept thinking about the beating I got after the social worker left. Pictures and sounds played on a loop, getting more intense every time.
The room was quiet. But I couldn’t hear the table. Every time they spoke, it got drowned out by my mother screaming, or my own voice pleading with her to stop hitting me.
I had to ask the table to repeat themselves. I even wrote down their choices. I never do that for small tables.
I kept a calm appearance, but inside, I wanted to run out of the restaurant.
Next I cleaned the table. I focused on the feeling of the crumber scraping on the white tablecloth. I told myself how in a few minutes, I could go stand in the walk-in freezer until I calmed back down.
I was all shook up. But I caught a lucky break.
His date, or his girlfriend, or his wife, it’s impossible for me to know about their relationship, and that’s not the point anyway, she said to him in a teasing voice, “Darling, this could be your new charity… help troubled youth find inner peace through racing vintage sports cars.”
The other two guests burst out laughing.
I’ll always give that gorgeous woman more olives.