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As an aging waiter I confront an older, more discerning customer and thus a paradox: Hearing problems, failing eyesight and familial tremors offset the greater skills acquired over many years in the restaurant business.
Steak sounds like skate, “just water” sounds like cheap, and “you are the best server we’ve ever had” sounds like, “this compliment is your tip.”
The labels on the back of wine bottles, since they changed from English to Lilliputian, are impossible for me to read.
This happened seemingly overnight with no advance warning. Don’t even talk to me about carrying a martini to a table without spilling some of it on the way.
Lately I have been choosing my section in close proximity to the kitchen: It saves wear and tear on the hips. The disadvantage is when the sous chef bellows: “No, you can’t have that well-done steak redone to medium rare. It’s not my fault you heard incorrectly! Tell your table to go to …” I then must return to my table, where they curtly inform me they heard everything. I laugh my best commiserating laugh (one of many in my repertoire) and slink away to reapply deodorant.
I have become empathetic to the mature diner’s intestinal sensitivities, so I suggest aperitifs and digestifs more often than Chi-Chis and Cosmopolitans. I am willing to forfeit a higher check average for a diner’s ultimate comfort. When asked by a senior citizen whether they should choose the 16-ounce rib-eye steak with Roquefort and frites or the poached halibut with white bean and root vegetable fish fume, I’ve been known to gently suggest the less expensive fish entrée. “The fish is lovely and fresh tonight; I think you will enjoy that,” I’ll say – and for good measure add “dear” and a benevolent smile.
Early in my career I perfected the sincere-sounding laugh, which is needed when I face the same joke for the kabillionth time and want the customer to feel like the only one in the universe who’s come up with that tired chestnut. This skill resurfaces in my later years when, due to a declining ability to distinguish conversation from background noise, I have to respond to witty comment or joke I haven’t actually heard.
If the comment and ensuing laughter is the result of one customer saying to another, “Geez, this guy looks like he served the original Caesar,” and I heartily laugh along in agreement, I am perceived to be feeble as well as old.
When serving anyone under 30 I appear friendly and efficient, but bored – not to offend or alienate, but simply to prevent myself saying stupid things such as: “When I was your age there was no such thing as a Slippery Nipple.”
A salad, exquisitely prepared and precariously assembled, will, in the hands of an aging waiter with familial tremors, arrive at the table looking more like discarded greens on top of a compost heap.
As I was clearing plates one evening from the table of a famous actress, the dishes clattered noisily in my shaky hands. Not the least bit nervous, nevertheless I dumbly clucked “Too much coffee,” and slunk away. The actress was heard saying to her guests, “I get that all the time.”
Having heard that vitamin B12 is good for easing familial tremors, I invented a drink called the B12 Martini. The ingredients are simple: anything 40 proof. Shake over ice and pour into a chilled martini glass. Drink immediately. Repeat.
I frown upon mentioning to customers that I own five acres on the Gulf Islands. This is not conducive to receiving good tips, especially from a couple whose one night out per year has been a trial of finding an outfit that isn’t wrinkled, stained or unfashionable, locating a babysitter who can handle three preschoolers, and hoping their credit card isn’t denied.
Also discouraged is correcting this same couple as they pronounce their wine “cha-bliss.” The aging waiter must remain aware and sympathetic to all demographics.
Lately I have been sensitive to my waning years in the business. At a crossroads of still needing to earn money, yet spending all I do earn on chiropractic visits, extra-strength Motrin and replacing the 1960s metal in my teeth, I face a dilemma. I have become accustomed to cash in my pocket, fabulous foods and wines, and a comfortable lifestyle. Still, I also recognize that some of the most valuable moments in life are the quiet times money can’t buy. So any chance of giving up a shift and spending the evening reading a good book is readily taken.
Despite my faults and failings I do know how to indulge my customers. Through decades of being a patron of food establishments myself, I know both the pleasure of being treated like a welcome guest and the sting of discourtesy and disregard.
I may stumble through separate checks for a party of 12 who have their coats on and have just informed me they need to catch a show. I may need to ask the soft-spoken Japanese tourist to repeat something three times. I may even give my table dessert menus before they have had dinner.
But I never forget that all my customers are unique human beings with distinctive needs, varying tempers and the right to respect. And that is something that does not require 20/20 vision.
Michael Simmons lives in Victoria.