As a waitress, I encounter many different aspects of a person's emotional state. There are the cheerful couples, the happy kids and parents, the stressed out business folk and the moody non-talkers. At my restaurant, we have our regulars who encompass pretty much all of the above. There's the Catfish Man, who comes in for lunch, mumbles his order - fried catfish and iced tea, extra lemon - eats and leaves. He's a salt and pepper weathered dude, furtive glancing as he rapidly consumes his food. He doesn't want to talk, he just wants to eat and get out. There's a manic shyness about him which I find endearing and I like to bring his extra lemon arranged like a flower on a plate. There's the old World War II vet, whom I embarrass with eager embraces and sloppy kisses on his bald head. I came in once for lunch on my day off and sat with him for two hours, absorbing every fascinating word out of his heroic mouth. Who would have thought, watching him meticulously cut up shrimp into doll-sized bites, that he had helped save the world; indeed, saved the lives of over a dozen wounded men in the bomber he was flying over Germany? Their plane was stuffed to the gills with wounded soldiers on the way back to base when they came under fire. The shit kicker lieutenant aboard opened the bomb bay doors to lighten the weight, and all the hapless men lying there fell to their deaths. My beloved old dude pulled his sidearm and aimed it directly at the lieutenant's face, stating the fact that he would blow his fucking head off if he didn't stop kicking the man still clinging to the edge. I bring him his cheesecake with the strawberries arranged in a graceful arc, grateful to know him at all. There's the stressed out sweetheart of a daughter, gobbling her hasty lunch and ordering a hasty take out meal for her ancient and Alzheimer-ed mother. I bring her her ice cream sundae with extra chocolate and a kiss to the back of her hand. There's the dapper old story teller who comes in for late night dinners. Everybody knows him by name and everybody loves him dearly. He wears fedoras and antique rings, a crisp hanky tucked just so in his breast pocket. I smile as I write this, he is such a treasure to us all. When he first found out my love of the bizarre, he brought in a tiny paper clown from the World's Fair and placed it on my open palm. It curled into a U and he laughed with delight. "You're in love," he said, and gave me the clown. They were favors given out at soothsayer booths long ago, when he walked with ice cream laden stride as a tiny young boy. There's his alter ego, an old man with enormous eyes and enormous heart, who nurses his whiskey sour and grilled dinner, sitting at the bar and watching the world unfold before him. The fedora gentleman finishes his meal and comes to sit beside him, their heads bent toward each other in the easy companionable air of long time comrades.
All these people are beloved to me. I don't know Catfish Man's real name; he's been coming in for years and I don't think anybody else does either. I know only the last name of the veteran and only the first names of the elderly comrades, and the twitchy loving daughter I know only by sight. It doesn't matter. They are familiar to us all; a family of strangers made precious by the simple fact of us feeding them. Caring for them.
There are so many who sneer at the fact that I'm a waitress and I, myself, once shuddered with fear at the thought of ever being forced to wait tables again. I did it for years before and during my marriage, and it had become the thing to dread. But this past year has been a revelation. I even find myself enjoying this very manual job. Not the work itself, which is dull and repetitive and often filled with crusty crabby curmudgeons, but those shining moments of treasured souls. I find myself a magician of sorts: I wave my wand and bring their plates and watch the tension disappear. Regardless of their often low opinion of me, the untouchable who lives only to refill their glass and clear their plates, I am still creating a positive shift in their emotional state. Eleanor Roosevelt once said she accomplished more good over tea and crumpets than she ever did over a negotiation table. There's an ethereal wonder in the consumption of good food and smiling faces. I've helped the heartbroken (there's a hospital nearby), the angry, the weepy and the raging, and all by the simple act of bringing hot food and a grin to their table. What's that, if not magical? Merlin with chips and tartar sauce, pie and ice cream. That's a secret I've discovered, one I wasn't even looking for: the graceful, unexpected joy of a simple full stomach.
I get a kick out of it all.