Friday, February 19, 2010

My Shameful Defect of Character

My Shameful Defect of Character

These are hard times. I wake up at two in the morning wondering how I’ll make it through the year. What happened to my money? My wallet is flat. My investment portfolio is a joke. The paper my dismal checking account statement is printed on cost the life of a good tree. My emergency savings account at the Bank of Beautyrest is empty. Each day I read the employment ads in the paper.

I used to joke that if all else failed, I could probably get a job waiting tables, slinging hash, washing dishes. But now I must confess to a shameful secret, a painful defect in my character. While for most people it is a simple thing to deftly swish coffee into a cup, I would rather invent a power source which uses a minute speck of dust, negotiate the end of all wars, or implant a device which leaks common sense into the brains of all politicians. Anything would be easier for me than restaurant work. In short, I lack the necessary skills to wait tables. I tried. I failed. Here’s what happened. I was sweet sixteen. My friend Charlotte asked me to cover her job while she went on vacation with her family. So, for two interminable weeks I worked the early shift at Frip’s CafĂ©.

Everyone in Harlem gathered at Frip’s. The merchants congregated for mid-morning coffee. Their employees dashed in for a quick and nourishing lunch. Housewives graced the establishment for mid-afternoon pie. Football heroes swaggered in after practice to fill up on double cheese-burgers with fries. Families filled the booths for an evening meal. Frip’s was a landmark, now a piece of history, but then as vital to the nourishment of our community as church.

I was a girl from the farm, lacking the grace and sophistication of the ‘town’ girls. I was shy and awkward. My hands shook holding the coffee pot. I could not carry a cup in a saucer without jiggling the cup. Once I juggled the cup, splattering coffee everywhere. I even dumped a plate of spaghetti with meat balls in a tourist’s lap. What’s worse, I tried to clean it up. When the elderly men teased me, attempting to put me at ease, my face turned beet red, my eyes watered, threatening to spill over, my throat closed and I hung my head and stumbled back through the swinging doors to the refuge of the kitchen.

In the kitchen Beulah ruled. She had cooked at Frip’s for years. She had trained dozens of young women. Beulah cared. She tried her best with me. I think she even liked me. But I was impossible. For example, there is a special language in restaurants. When you order two eggs over easy, ham, hash-browns, and whole wheat toast, the waitress conveys the order to the cook in a kind of short-hand code. I always bungled the code. Beulah would roll her eyes in exasperation and gently correct me. I would repeat what she said and then promptly forget. I was so afraid of making mistakes that all I did was make mistakes. When she rang the bell signaling ‘order up’, I could not remember which customer to take the food to. ‘Chicken fried steak’ arrived in front of ‘hot beef sandwich’. I don’t know who was more relieved to see Charlotte return; me, Beulah or the customers. I washed dishes at Frip’s from time to time, but nobody ever asked me to go back on the floor. I was an unmitigated failure.

Because of this excruciating early experience I have great empathy for restaurant workers. I know how hard their job is. I admire their multi-faceted skills. I see the human being, the unique individual, living a life of service.

So I surprised myself on my recent visit with my friends in Watson , Saskatchewan , the owners of the Quick Stop Diner. The restaurant was crowded all the way up to closing time. I drank tea at a corner table and watched the activity. Sharon had told me she would have to wait tables all by herself the following day. I wanted to help. As I sat there I took note of how the process flowed from order to kitchen to tables. I hatched a plan to redeem myself after all these years. I knew I could help Sharon . After all, my fiasco was safely in the past and I was no longer that shy, bumbling youth.

We did a brisk breakfast and lunch trade. In my new yellow Quick Stop Diner tee-shirt and apron, I put out cups and saucers and cream, napkins and tableware, delivered jellies and catsup, poured coffee, joked with the customers and carted dirty dishes back to the station. I left most of the order taking and food serving to Sharon . I figured to ease into that part of the job. I planned to sign up for advanced training my next trip. I was relaxed. I felt good. Ahhh, sweet success.

Well, almost. There was the incident with the coffee machine. Sharon had explained the precise steps. First place the filter in the basket and hold the basket under the bean grinder. Next slide the basket filled with freshly ground coffee into the slots beneath the water shower. Place the pot on the heat pad. Pour water into the reservoir. The rest is automatic. Sure, simple. I can do that. In actual practice, to my dismay, no two steps may be reversed. Unless the basket is firmly in place and the pot beneath it, you’d better not pour the water into the well. After Sharon mopped the floor, I noticed she raced to beat me to the coffee machine when the pot was almost empty. It was mid-afternoon before I had another chance to make a pot of coffee. I felt like the little train that could. I know I can. I know I can. I know I can. Grind. Basket. Pot. Fill. Auto. Yahoo!

I figure I’ll need two more trips to the Quick Stop Diner for advanced training and then I can apply for my new job. First I will need to master order taking and food serving, including language interpretation. Then I’ll finalize my training with money handling, change making, and charge machines. Two trips. Or maybe three. Soon I’ll master the diverse intricacies. Or, I can always wash dishes.


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