My first waitressing job was set, like a quirky sitcom, in a small mediterranean cafe. There were less than ten round tables and two or three booths tucked up against the walls. Photographs hung at forehead height – framed images that might have been taken from a going-out-of-business sale for a travel agency in the 90s, complete with thin gold frames. The light from the two large storefront windows was softened by the pale pink decor.
A small shop was attached. I discovered halvah, wrapped in parchment paper and veined with chocolate, within the first two days of my employment. Jars of foodstuffs in olive oil, tins of spices, boxes of tea leaves, and wooden barrels of olives shipped straight from Lebanon to the tiny cement loading dock in the back, where workers would wash the green and black ovals on a white grating in a stainless-steel sink before dumping them in barrels and dragging them two rooms away to the front of the store. The aroma reminded me of the sour pungency of men’s deodorant.
I wasn’t trained on how to wait tables, just given an apron and pointed in the direction of customers patiently waiting at the “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign. “Tips,” whispered the manager in my ear with his heavy lebanese accent. His big, rough, and slightly soggy hand gently cupping my elbow and urging me forward. “Go.”
I was 18, and hadn’t yet discovered that I was an extrovert. I think I mumbled something like over here please, stuck them in the corner, and walked away. Then later, returning with a tray much too awkward for my miniature hands. I set the tray down, moving the forks and knives and salt and pepper to make room. They leaned back in their chairs and stared at the round, brown tray as I yanked the dishes of falafel, chicken tawook, and stuffed grape leaves toward them.
Waiting tables dragged me through the transition from childhood to adulthood – that abrupt realization of responsibilities when you have to put the electric in your name, when credit card offers seduce you from where you tossed them on the kitchen table, not yet ready to throw the possibilities away. Waiting tables taught me how to balance my mood, my time, and four dinner plates at once. Waiting tables became my outlet for that lost feeling that showed up in my life right around the same time that adulthood found me. At least I could manage three tables and a booth during a four hour shift. Or at least I thought I could.
An elderly couple, apparently regulars for years, came in for an early lunch. It was maybe the third or fourth day of my first week. I was no longer using the notepad they provided me – obviously that was the thing to do. Just remember the order. Easy.
I gave them menus and silverware wrapped neatly in thin white paper napkins. “Can I get you something to drink?” I said, as perky as a moody, 18-year-old, lost little girl could. I remember they both smiled sweetly and looked up at me as they recited what they wanted. I had already learned that no one looks at you when they give you their order, so this made an immediate impression. I nodded, walked behind the counter, around the glass cold-case with the tiramisu and baklava, shuffling past the large garbage cans already filled disturbingly with sweet smells, and up to the drink dispenser. I grabbed a clear, red, hard plastic cafeteria cup and filled it with ice. Wait. I stopped and stared at the silver tongues hanging down from Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Orange Crush, and the others. Wait. Their tongues seemed to wag in amusement. Wait. What did they want?
Back to the older couple I skipped – still trying out this perky persona. So sorry, so sorry. Can you tell me again? Again, they looked me in the eye, smiled and made their requests. Again, I walked the route to those taunting tongues. Again, I forgot.
This time, I brought the pad and pen. I held them, one in each hand – the pen tip poised for use, the paper resting in my palm. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I lamented. “I’m going to write it down this time,” I explained, and I forgot about being perky. They nodded and smiled and looked up at me. I leaned forward in concentration. The greying, gently wrinkled man winked at me and reached out. He looked me in the eye, smiled and patted my hand. “Two waters, Sweetheart.”
I promptly wrote it down.
“Lemons?” I asked weakly.