Charm Above Circumstance

Another boring day at the office?

The Pie Shoppe had another couple hours left before closing and I was feeling crabby. There were very few customers to wait on. Ahead on the to-do list was cleaning the server aisle, where sticky pie fillings and greasy pie crust crumbs managed to get onto everything. The unstimulating, corporately designed decor, with its drab brown tones and dreary furnishings, was weighing me down. I was bored and wanted to go home. Feeling sorry for myself, I greeted my new table.

“If your name is ‘Dawn’, how come you’re working at night?” His face was merry and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled flirtatiously. He sat with two white-haired ladies.

“Working at night keeps me off the streets,” I quipped back, hoping my current crankiness didn’t put too much edge in my voice.

“Do you work late?” he asked.

“I’ll be closing the place.” Sadly, I wanted to add.

The older of the ladies asked, “What time do you close?”

“We close at 11 p.m. on Saturdays,” I replied.

“What if I came in at 11 p.m.?” she asked.

“I suppose if you walked in the door at 10:59, you’d get served,” I replied, still hoping my annoyance didn’t show.

“Yeah. With a bunch of spit in my food.”

“Ha!” I laughed in spite of myself. “There might be some surly spread on your burger and fries.”

The dry humor didn’t stop, especially with the gentleman. “I suppose I need to tap a spring to get more water around here.”

“It’ll be fresher and better tasting, then,” I said.

At the end of their meal, I accidentally gave them the wrong bill.

He waved me over. “There’s a problem here. I want to pay this but I don’t remember drinking a root beer.”

I apologized and gave them the correct bill. “You’ll probably like this less since it’s more.”

“I’m still waiting for my rootbeer,” he said.

“I’ll bring your rootbeer.” I smiled and winked. “And pour it over your head.” Their mirth was contagious.

“Dawn, go away, you’re no good for me!” He sang the oft-sung-to-me song charmingly off-key.

“Stop it,” said the younger lady, smiling. “You’re making her nervous!”

“It’s true,” I said. “I’ll go home and cry myself to sleep tonight.”

She said, “Well, tomorrow will be the dawn of a new day!”

They paid their bill leaving a generous gratuity. I didn’t see them come in so as they stood up to leave I was startled to see the gentleman struggle to set himself upright on two canes. His face twisted with pain as he balanced himself. Then he looked up, saw me, and instantly brightened, “You have a nice rest of your night, now.”

“Thank you. I hope you do as well.” I said.

He slowly lurched out of the restaurant with his two ladies tottering behind.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself?

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Job Searching 101: Early Warning Signs Your Employer is a Jerk

The day was too warm to be pounding the streets and dropping off resumes in restaurants. The Sushi Place was my last stop and I felt wilted walking in. The sign outside offered a happy hour with $1 off sushi and half-price Asahi and Sapporo beer until 7 p.m. It was close to 5 when I walked in. Near the entrance was a bar, where a tired looking bartender stood staring at a huge, soundless, wide-screen TV located over the sushi bar. An experimental art film seemed to be playing. The images were visceral and discordant, closeups of food being chopped and chewed, raw. A Lady Gaga song played innocuously in the background. There were a few occupied tables, but it wasn’t very busy.

“Hi,” I said to Weary Bartender. “Is the manager or owner available? I’d like to apply for a server position.”

A small smile cracked his stony expression, more out of amusement than friendliness. He gestured to a seat at the far end of the bar. “The owner is in the back. You can wait here if you’d like.”

“Sure. Thank you. It’s hot out. The air conditioning feels great.” As I sat down, I noticed a half-finished pint of beer and a laptop in front of an empty seat at the other end of the bar.

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“Oh, yes, please. Are you hiring servers now?”

“We’re always looking for someone,” he said, filling my glass and placing it before me.

“Oh. Great. How long have you been here?”

“A few months.”

“Are you pretty much settled in, then?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

I gratefully drank as I took in the place. It was decorated in a lean, vaguely Asian style with oak wood paneling throughout. The sushi bar sat in front of the kitchen and next to the bar. A sushi chef was unwrapping fish and placing them in the bar display. A couple of girls were nursing beers and staring at the sushi chef expectantly. In fact, there were a lot of expectant faces and I had yet to see a server.

The TV caught my eye again. What I thought was an art film turned out to be a Japanese horror movie with subtitles. A man had just thrown a naked woman across a table. Her face was made up Kabuki style. Another man, also naked, held tongs in one hand and poured a brown sauce on her with the other. I stifled a shocked laugh.

“Have you seen our waitress?” A man from one of the tables had just approached the bar. “We’ve been waiting 30 minutes for our sushi.” I looked over at the sushi bar and there were some plates with sushi on them at the service area waiting to be delivered. The girls at the sushi bar still sat waiting to eat. The sushi chef was slicing fish laggardly, like a DMV clerk processing forms.

“She’ll be right with you,” said Weary Bartender, not moving.

Just then, the kitchen door banged open and belched forth a man. His hair was greasily combed over half his forehead, barely covering a bald patch. A couple of facelifts had given his face a wide-eyed skeletal appearance. He shambled over to the half-empty pint at the other end of the bar and drew a draught between surgically fattened lips. His colorful collared shirt was unbuttoned almost to his navel, revealing sparse hair, strange scarring, and the top half of his beer-gut. He seemed to be hanging onto a style from his heyday.

“Are you the owner?” asked the customer at the bar.

“Yes,” said Weird Owner, not even looking up from his now finished beer.

“I’ve been waiting 30 minutes for my sushi.”

“Yes, well this isn’t fast food you know.” He then pirouetted away from the bar and toddled to the back to pour another beer. Frustrated Customer went back to his table to rejoin his friend. After setting the beer down next to his laptop, Weird Owner walked over to the sushi bar, sashaying to the music of Rage Against the Machine. I thought he might deliver the still-waiting sushi plates, but he stopped at the two women. A caterpillar roll finally sat in between them, upon which they were nibbling. They looked up at him as he inquired about their food in a voice that carried over the thin din of music and guest murmuring.

The girls smiled and said something I couldn’t hear. “Pretty girls and pretty sushi go together like a handroll with spicy tuna.” He snorted at his own joke.

They smiled politely. He went on, pointing to his chest. “See these scars? I got them in ‘Nam. I got this there too.” He rolled back his sleeve to show them a tattoo on his upper arm. It continued onto his shoulder, ending who-knew-where. I was afraid for a minute he would take off his shirt to show them the whole thing. “You ladies really are pretty, and for a kiss, dinner is on me! Hell, I’ll pick up your tab even without the kiss.” He chortled.

This time the ladies didn’t smile back and I heard a reply. “That’s not necessary,” said the bolder of the two.

“No, I insist,” said the owner.

The kitchen door banged open again and a young server, looking bored, walked out. The owner jerked around and marched toward her. “Where have you been, skank? I don’t pay your lazy ass to stand around.”

She looked unsurprised by his outburst. “I took a cigarette break,” she said and went to the server station to pick up the waiting sushi. When she arrived at her table, Frustrated Customer started complaining to her.

At this point, Weird Owner finally noticed me taking everything in. He approached, his bee-stung lips parting into a grin. “What can I do for you, young lady?”

“Um. Nothing. I was just leaving.” I fished for my wallet and pulled out a dollar for Weary Bartender. Then, as he continued to stare, I picked up my résumé and handbag and scurried back out into the stifling air.

I may be broke, but I have standards.

Server for Hire

The Art of Persistence

I was shopping at Jons, an Armenian grocery store chain with locations throughout Glendale and East Hollywood. The locals call it Little Armenia. Their selection of quality Mediterranean ingredients make them one of my favorite foodie haunts. I especially love their yogurt, kefir, and carbonated yogurt drink.

I don’t typically dress up for such adventures. Rolling out of bed, throwing on an old tank top and shorts, and stuffing my hair in a ponytail was my beauty regimen. There was no make-up on my face. I was proud I washed it. Living in the quasi-barrio offered many advantages, including dressing with what look liked rash carelessness in other parts of shallow L.A. People preened to be seen on the Westside. I dressed to disappear on the Eastside. The last thing I expected as I scrutinized the cultured dairy section was any sort of male attention.

His softly insistent voice startled me. “Can I take you to lunch sometime?”

I looked to my left where a man about my age stood. He didn’t have a cart or basket and wasn’t carrying any products. His clothes were mismatched and his hair hung willy nilly. Eyes were gray and wandered about. Nails were bitten down to waning crescent moons.

“Um… no… I have boyfriend,” I said, thinking a boyfriend was irrelevant to the question. He made me edgy. Not sure I would even be comfortable discussing the merits of various yogurt brands, much less arranging for lunch.

“I don’t mind if you don’t mind. There’s room for all of us.” His tone was serious and his gaze intent.

“Well, I’m really busy… but thanks for asking.” I still endeavored politeness as I was afraid of pushing some button and him acting out like he came from Crazytown.

“I’m really easy to squeeze into a schedule.”

“I don’t think I can squeeze you in.”

“Well, can I have your number and maybe we can chat?”

“No, I’d rather not.”

“Would you like my number?”

This guy was not going to take a hint and his persistence was turning my edginess into screaming meemies. “No. Look, I really think you should just let this go and leave me alone.”

“Okay, I don’t want to annoy you or anything.”

I stifled an ironic laugh. “Thank you.”

I went back to my kefir selection and he shuffled away. I kept an eye over my shoulder all the way home.

The Gold Crown Incident

With three new tables sat in quick succession, on top of four other tables already started, I was barely caught up. The Pie Shoppe was thick into its lunch rush. A couple at table 70 sat with faces of stone as I greeted them with a harried smile. A Very Old Mom with her Bland Son, who looked to be 50-ish, sat with glazed, almost expressionless eyes and pale skin. My Favorite Busboy had brought coffee for her and iced tea for him. They were ready to order, as were my other two tables

“Is this how it comes?” he asked, with all the personality of a rice cake. He pointed at a picture on the menu of The Pie Shoppe turkey dinner. “We’d like to split it.”

“It sure does. Would you like the lunch portion or the dinner portion?”

“What’s the difference?”

This was all explained on the menu. “The lunch portion is slightly smaller and doesn’t come with soup or salad.”

“What’s the difference in price?”

“The dinner is $15.99 and the lunch is $12.99,” I said, pointing at the clearly marked menu. “The dinner portion comes with soup, salad, and bread, or you can add it to the lunch portion for $2.59. Since you’re splitting your meal, you might want the dinner portion with a salad for 40 cents more.”

Pause.

I could literally hear both the wheels of calculation rotating in his head, and the table behind me tapping their feet impatiently waiting to place their order. Very Old Mom asked, her voice a rasping whisper, “What do I get?” Bland Son explained what I’d just explained.

“Do you want soup, Mom?”

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable,” I said.

“I want soup,” Very Old Mom said.

“Okay, we’ll take the dinner portion,” Bland Son said.

“What kind of soup would you like?” I asked.

Pause.

“What’s the soup?” she asked.

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable.”

Pause.

“Potato.”

“We’ll take the potato cheese,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Would you like cornbread or garlic bread with your potato cheese soup?”  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another table of mine being sat. I groaned inwardly.

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Huh?”

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the cornbread.”

“Great. Thank you,” I said.

I gathered their menus and did my best to look like I wasn’t running away from that table. I got the drink order from my new table and took lunch orders from two other tables, then rushed to the kitchen to fulfill everything and catch up.

Later, two young girls at the table across the aisle from Very Old Mom and Bland Son flagged me down.

“The table over there needs your attention.” They both looked smugly joyful, like they couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Indeed, table 70 was also staring at me, eyes still glazed, and there was a metallic object sitting on top of a napkin.

“Mother found this in her soup,” said Bland Son.

It was a gold crown, sucked clean of the potato cheese soup. It looked for all the world like a real tooth, browned with age, a bit spotty, only shiny, like jewelry. Its sparkle mocked me.

Very Old Mom sat stirring her soup.

“I’m sorry. I’ll get the manager.” It was all I could say.

The Bald Man stood at the hostess stand taking the name of a customer waiting for a table. I rushed to him wondering how could I miss a solid chunk of metal while ladling a pureed, cream-colored soup into a bowl. Who in the kitchen could afford fancy dentistry? A thing like that didn’t just fly out of one’s mouth. If it did, it’d be hawked on Pawn Stars before being pureed.

I approached with a vain attempt at wry humor. “Are you ready for this?”

He looked grim. “Yes.”

“Table 70 found a gold crown in their potato cheese soup. They wanna see a manager.”

At first I thought he might laugh, his face contorting into a strange grin. Then, just as quickly, his face became a grim mask. I suggested the crown possibly belonged to Very Old Mom.

The Bald Man took that in and accompanied me back to table 70. Awkwardness hung in the air. I could see the girls across the aisle watching intently, as were several other tables. It was a free show.

The Bald Man quickly offered apologies, then said, “Are you sure this isn’t your crown? None of the kitchen staff has a crown.” My jaw dropped. I hadn’t intended my supposition be mentioned aloud to them. I expected him to follow his apology with a comped meal. The air grew more taut. Nobody said a word. Finally, he offered to comp their meal, or provide another one gratis.

“My stomach’s a little queasy now. I’m not sure I can even eat lunch,” said Bland Son.

“Well, I’ll happily comp your meal. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” He apologized again and marched off, a couple hundred dollars’ worth of gold in hand.

I stayed to pick up the rest of the pieces. “Would you like a pie to take home?” I thought if there was a gold crown in the potato cheese soup, there might be a diamond ring in the pie.

“Sure. Okay. We’ll take a pie,” said the son. Of course. Free stuff. Now, pie decision-making prevailed. Bland Son seemed pleased. Very Old Mom sat vacantly. Holes were being bored into my back by the eyes of waiting customers.

“What kind of pie do you want, Mom?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want a peach pie?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

I tried to facilitate the decision. “I like the fresh peach better than the baked.”

Pause.

“What’s the difference?” asked Bland Son.

I sighed inside. “The fresh pie is made with fresh peaches and a peach glaze and is mounded on a crust. The baked pie is sweetened peaches baked between a double crust.”

Pause.

“Do you want the double crust, Mom?”

Pause.

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the double crust.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back with your baked peach pie.” I ran away saying, “Thank you!” this time without hiding it. I came back with their pie, apologizing as sincerely as I could– “… hope you’ll try us again…”– as I wished silently, with even more sincerity, I would never see them, ever.

I tried in vain to win back favor with my other tables. My slow service annoyed, though they witnessed the event. You’d think I put the gold crown in the soup. It set the tone for the rest of my shift.

My Favorite Busboy sought me out. “The guys in the kitchen– they no can afford gold for teeth. That guy wanted free stuff.”

I said, “Maybe. I think they were too out-of-it to know it came from her mouth.”

He shook his head.

I guess we’ll never know.