What is it with people swarming the eateries in rain? she thinks, glancing over the huddled, undulating mass of black, brown, and olive-drab coats towering over the host stand, threatening to devour a wispy, pale hostess, the newest one, who flashes them her most courageous smile, practiced in front of the mirror for a few hours the previous night. Unable to leave the podium, the girl holds a pen in one hand and a fan of paper menus in the other, the barricade too feeble to protect her from all those hungry stares. She looks like a frightened rabbit facing an emaciated wolf in late February, and there is no one to help her.
The puddles on the floor keep on changing shape like a slobbering beast in a constant state of metamorphosis, interrupted at times with a bold Ugg or a precocious neon-accented sneaker. From beyond the windows, which front all sides of the diner, the rain descends as a sheet of steel, impenetrable and relentless. A few grade-schoolers jostle around the juke-box which sends out muffled refrains of California Dreamin’ chorus no one is really paying attention to. It feels like a siege, she chuckles, as she marches towards her section, grabbing a handful of strawberry jam packets in one hand and a pot of regular coffee in the other.
I can pretend I am dancing, she imagines, my movements smooth, elegant, and coordinated to perfection, each skip and bounce measured to cover the distance between the tables. I can do a pirouette and daintily deposit the jam in front of the lady with a bun at the beginning of the turn and at the end pour the precise amount of coffee for the couple seated on the diagonal…
She detects a brand new customer at table #75, her last empty table, and approaches with a wide smile, the pot of coffee steaming in her hand.
‘What do you have to drink?’ asks a fifty-something man, whose companion is yet to appear.
‘The drinks are listed on the menu, sir, at the bottom right corner,’ she chirps.
‘What soft drinks are available?’ he continues, without looking at the menu.
‘We have Pepsi products: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Root Beer, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew-‘
‘I’ll have a lemonade.’
‘Very well! I’ll be right back!’
The food for the party of thirteen should start coming up at any moment. The little girl in the pink sweater has a birthday, so in about five minutes I should get her ice cream. By the time I am back with lemonade the love-birds will have made up their mind-
‘Can I have some salsa?’ asks the bun-lady’s husband.
She nods with a smile and floats away, picking up a few dirty plates on her way out of the room.
Lemonade, salsa, two to-go containers, the check for table #62, and yes, the party’s food is coming up, the steaming plates piling one on top of another, as the cooks frantically churn dish by dish on the interminable assembly line. She rushes into the room, delivering salsa to one table, check to another, to-go containers to the third, and lemonade to the man, still sitting by himself. The love-birds order, she plucks up the menus, punches their order into the computer, and hurries to the kitchen line to start taking the food out. The plates are scalding on the bottom and she winces, willing the pain to subside. A few of her colleagues follow with more plates until all thirteen are served.
Rubbing the angry red spot on her underarm, she listens to the clinking of the utensils and staccato of smartphone cameras that signal a brief respite as she turns around to take an inventory of seven tables in her section. A woman in a white sweater has joined the man at #75, looking over her shoulder, already impatient.
‘Hello! How are you today? Isn’t this rain something?’
‘Are you serving any other tables besides the ones in this room?’ the woman inquires.
‘No, ma’am. Can I get you anything to drink?’
‘I want coffee with French Vanilla creamer and water.’
On her way out she picks up her tip from a table, checks on the party, and clears the dishes from the birthday girl’s family. She purposely avoids looking at the ravenous throngs of people fighting for space in the waiting area. Get coffee, water, French Vanilla… Get coffee, water, French Vanilla…
The woman at #75 asks for lemon. The man wants a glass of water as well, with lemon.
Birthday girl’s parents are miming they are ready for “the surprise”.
She hastily makes a small sundae, tops it with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and sprinkles, grabs a spoon and hollers for the singers. She pours a glass of water, drops a lemon into it, and scoops a few more slices onto a saucer. She manages to corral a busboy and a couple of sad singing volunteers on her way to the birthday table. Singing is loud and disharmonious, clapping intermittent, but the family joins in and the girl beams with a wide, snaggle-toothed smile.
She places water and the lemon dish on the table, her mouth still curved up at the ends.
‘We’d like to order if you don’t mind!’
She blinks rapidly, but recuperates and pulls out her old, faux-leather order book, slightly bent in the shape of her hip after years of fitting snuggly in her apron. The woman starts talking, looking straight down at the menu, her words mumbled and garbled. She asks her to repeat, bending at the waist, bringing her head at the level with the woman’s head.
‘I want some kind of vegetable omelet. What do you have?’
‘There are a few options right here, ma’am.’
‘A vegetarian omelet with egg whites then. No tomatoes and no onions. I want fruit, but no melon. And I’d like a waffle instead of the pancake, very light in color.’
‘Thank you. For you, sir?’
‘Steak and eggs, steak well done, eggs over-hard, grits with no bacon or cheese, and dried wheat toast. And I don’t want my eggs to touch other food.’
Extremely busy – the wait for a table is almost an hour – special orders, well-done steak – this meal is going to take some time, she mulls in her head as her fingers fly over the computer pad. Her gait is heavier, the lilting notes of sunny arias slowly morphing into a somber minor key, and the sparkle in her eyes flickers on and off.
New customers are already seated at two of her tables. She greets them, summoning the cheerfulness from before.
‘Excuse me! Excuse me? Ma’am?’
From the corner of her eyes, she glimpses a white-sweatered arm shaking a coffee cup and runs towards it, hastily scribbling the order in her book.
‘Can I have a fresh cup of coffee? I put too much cream in it.’
”I’ll be right back.’
Grabbing a few more dirty plates off the tables, she rushes to get the drinks for the newcomers and a fresh cup of coffee. As she places the cup in front of the woman, the man mutters:
‘Can I have a root beer? I don’t want this lemonade.’
‘Is our food coming soon?’ the woman demands testily.
‘We are really busy, the cooks are doing their best, and the well-done steak takes a while, ma’am. I’ll check for you.’
It’s been only twenty minutes and the steak is probably not done… She forces a smile to her eyes while she flits from table to table, clearing plates, pouring coffee, fetching fresh sodas. She can feel the laser beams boring into her back from #75 and her heartbeat accelerates as she leaves the room to check on the food, print a few checks, and bring more t0-go containers.
While she pours a root beer, another waitress brings the plates to #75 and the woman beckons with her heavily ringed index finger.
‘What is this?’ she asks, an inch-long bedazzled nail pointing at a pancake as if it were a mangled rodent rotting at the side of the road.
‘I don’t want it. Take it away!’
‘I am so sorry! I will be right back with your waffle. Can I get you anything else?’
The silence is leaden, the air suddenly arctic. No one even looks at her.
She shuffles to the kitchen line, searching for the waffle. It’s perfect golden-brown, but she knows it will be returned, as she asks for another one, cooked very light. She approaches #75 timidly, the bearer of bad news…
‘It will be only a couple of minutes more…’
A slow shake of the head is the only response.
She tends to her other tables like a zombie, her heart in her throat, her mind a prisoner of #75’s obvious displeasure with her service. They’ll complain… They’ll write a scathing review on Yelp… They’ll email the corporate office… The manager might cut her hours…
The waffle is ready. They don’t want anything else. They don’t need a container to-go. Only the check, please. She leaves the check on the table, trying to catch their eyes, a tentative smile breaking through anguish.
‘Have a wonderful day and try to stay dry!’, her voice a trembling falsetto.
‘Hey!’, the cashier stops her. ‘The woman at #75 wanted to know if you are new when they were paying. I told her ‘no’ and asked her why, but she said, and not very nicely, that she’d rather keep her opinion to herself. What happened?’
‘Nothing and everything,’ she utters, staring blankly at the growing mob as the rain furiously hammers thirsty asphalt.