Sitting in Judgment (2000)

When a waiter or waitress makes mistakes, we seldom consider there may be good reason. Maybe we should.

a photo of a waiter spilling a tray

a photo of a waiter spilling a tray

WE’RE NOT WHAT YOU’D CALL a let’s-eat-out family. But it’s my wife Lina’s birthday, so the five of us—there are two girls and Lina’s mother—have headed out for some shopping, then lunch at Red Lobster. Four femmes with firm plans? Uh-huh. I brace for a detour.

We’ve been shopping for an hour when someone says, “Why don’t we eat in the mall?” Then Lina says, “how about that-Mexican-place-near-the-entrance?” 

The restaurant, I recall, lies just past Frederick’s of Hollywood. “Whatever you want, Honey,” I smile.

We walk in. “Party of five,” I say. Filing past other gringos, we take our seats at a horseshoe table. Great for people-watching; there’s always an excuse to turn your head.

“I’m Christopher, your waiter. Are you folks ready to order?” Christopher is about five–nine, college age. He is well-groomed and well-spoken. “Actor,” I think.

No one need remind me that waiters are people. They are delighted when I ask them, as I always do, what their true calling is. Christopher’s, I learn, is Psychology.

“We’ll need a few more minutes,” Lina tells him. She is translating the menu into Russian for her mother.

“That’s fine,” says Christopher. “What would you folks like to drink?” We order two unsweetened teas, a couple diet colas, and a water for the Big Spender.

He returns with a basket of nachos and dip. We order our meals; for me, a simple tossed salad. “I’m a kosher vegetarian,” I explain.

“No problem, Sir. That’s one tossed salad, no meat, no fish, no cheese. Is that correct?”

Our orders taken, Christopher makes rounds. He returns, depositing a basket of nachos and two dips. “Here’s a little appetizer,” he smiles. He hands me a comment card. “You can drop it in the box at the door.” How he must hate that part. Who are we, to be grading him? Does he get to grade us?

Vicki grabs a nacho and dabs it in hot sauce. “Watch out,” I advise, “it’s hot.” Then it dawns on us: We never received our drinks. 

Someone says, “What kind of waiter brings hot dip but doesn’t bring water?” A busy one, I observe. Ours seems to be stopping at every table—a wall-to-wall waiter.

“I bet he’s forgotten us,” says someone. 

“Mention it on the card,” says another.

Our drinks arrive. As Christopher is leaving, I remember another sin of omission. “You know,” I say, “we both forgot about salad dressing.” I order Thousand Island. 

As we sip and dip, the women size up the other patrons. They nod toward this table and that, commenting in Russian. 

“He served that table,” Vicki pouts. “We were here first.”

“We’re five, they’re two,” I explain. “That’s how it works.”

“Well, it shouldn’t.”

“Write it on the comment form.”

We wait…and wait. Twenty-three minutes.

“This is ridiculous,” says Lina. “Write how long it took.”

“And that he gave us hot sauce before giving us drinks.”

“And forgot to ask what dressing you wanted.”

Pondering my duties, I reach a decision: I’ll cite everything but leave Waiter’s Name blank. Also, Time of Day.

“Here it comes!” exclaims Alexa, our lookout. Christopher is steering a small cart that balances our five plates. The long wait has made us grumpy, and he surely knows it. His arms move swiftly, pivoting from cart to table as they lay our meals before us: Garlic Shrimp Fajita for Vicki; Sizzling Fajitas for Lina; Chicken-something for her mother. 

color drawing of a waiter about to spill a tray full of wine

color drawing of a waiter about to spill a tray full of wine

Then, disaster. As Christopher swoops up my plate, it catches on Alexa’s. A moment later, my daughter’s taco salad lies splattered everywhere. The place grows silent.

There goes my tip, Christopher must be thinking. But you’d never know it from his poise. “I’ll have the cook make you up a new plate right away,” he assures Alexa. Before the cleanup crew arrives, he heads for the kitchen.

By now, we all feel sorry for Christopher. Such a nice, mature young man. We look at one another. “The cart was too small,” I say. “Anyone could see that.”

Three minutes later, Christopher returns with Alexa’s taco salad. “I’m so sorry about that,” he apologizes.

“Hey,” I say, “the cart was way too small. The restaurant should let you make two trips.”

“Thanks,” he smiles.

Finishing my salad, I complete the comment form. No need to mention the taco salad incident; it could have happened to anyone. I’ll bet it has.

When he sees we’ve finished our meal, Christopher hurries over. “Dessert, anyone?” We’re full; I ask for the bill. He hands it to me, then takes his leave.

I can tell what’s on Lina’s mind. “Paul,” she says firmly, “don’t tip more than 15 percent. The service was ridiculous.”

“He was doing the work of two.”

“So? They should have called in more help.”

“I agree,” I say, “but don’t take it out on him.”

“Paul, 15 percent. I want you to promise.”

“Fine,” I mumble. I’m not about to be dragged into a quarrel over quarters, especially by one in whose homeland the going rate is 10 percent. Here, the experts say, 15 percent is the floor. It’s what you give a do-nothing waiter. Not someone like Christopher. I do some back-of-the-napkin arithmetic. Then I round up: eight dollars even. I note the tip on the bill and walk it to Christopher with my VISA card.

“How much did you tip?” Lina demands.

“I don’t want to discuss it,” I say.

“Eight dollars,” announces Vicki. “I saw.”

Thanks, Vicki. “Paul!” Lina chastises. “We agreed.”

“It works out to 15 percent,” I explain, “after sales tax.”

Christopher returns with my VISA. “I saw your tip,” he says, “and I want to thank you. You know, I don’t even work here; I work at the hamburger restaurant around the corner. But this place was so short-staffed, they begged my manager to let one of our people help them out. I must be covering twice as many tables as I should be. It’s been really crazy.” My wife and I exchange glances. 

As we head out, Lina is silent. She stops at the comment box and turns to me, waving the comment form. “You didn’t mention his name on this, right?”

“Right.”

“Good.”

© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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