That’s What We Do

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September 11, 2015, is a day I do not think I will soon forget. Obviously, every year, on that day, I am reflective about the world we live in and the heartaches that occur and the way we, all of us members of the human race, are there or not there for each other.

On Friday, we here in Los Angeles were in the middle of a heat wave. In my job, one of my daily assignments, in fact my biggest daily assignment, is to find tables for guests that make said guests happy. My restaurant is mostly outdoor space and on most days, most guests want to sit outside. But on heat wave days, most people want to sit inside.

Wednesday and Thursday had been taxing and we all knew Friday would be tricky as well. All inside tables had been allocated by 11:00 a.m. which meant that if a guest had requested outside when they made the reservation, it was going to be next to impossible to find them a table inside.

There was a woman who was the first in a reservation for four to arrive. The person who had made the reservation had requested an outside table. She said they wanted to sit inside now and we told her that we would try our best. I told her that I had one high top table that we’d brought in from outside because of the dire heat and that we would be happy to let them sit there. She declined, but after a few minutes, she came to me and said she would take the table. So we sat her there. Forgive the cliché, but sometimes you are just dancing as fast as you can and this was one of those days. I sensed that she understood I was trying to help. Her party came a few minutes later and the rest of the party did not like the table. Two of my co-workers and I tried to explain the scenario as patiently as possible. In the middle of our conversation, a woman at a table inside found out that her guest had cancelled and with that news, she vacated her table. We told the ladies that we could move them to that table and all seemed pleased. They thanked me. I said, and I truly meant it, that I wished I could just magically make it be 74 degrees every day and everyone would be happy. They laughed.

A few minutes later, another party came in and though we had allocated a table inside for them, we offered them the option of an outside table.  Some people were sitting outside and we hoped that them going outside would open up a table inside for someone else. They opted to sit inside.

And as my co-worker went to seat this party, the woman who had made the reservation came to me and abruptly asked, “WHY DO YOU HATE ME?” She told me that she and her friends had overheard our conversation, that this was a special occasion and they wanted to know why I had given them such a bad table. I apologized immediately and told her I would speak to the manager. She told me that I had embarrassed her in front of her friends. I found the manager, she intervened, they moved the party to a more agreeable table and that was that.

I had not been the only person at the host stand, but I was the one this woman zeroed in on. I wondered why it had been me that she blamed for all of this. Perhaps, she focused on me because she sensed that I was the one who had been trying the most to help the table, as strange as that might sound.

They went about their meal, I continued to work, seating people. But in that instant, the energy of the day shifted for me.  Before it had been a little fun trying to make the pieces fit, like a jigsaw puzzle.  Now, I had been called out, shamed even.  And not to be too theatrical, but the whole time, to any co-worker who would listen, I only said things like, “I am truly broken. I will never get over this.”  Dramatic.  I know.

I considered saying something to the ladies as they left, but I wondered exactly what it was that I wanted to say. I work in a very corporate environment, that’s been established, and really, I’ve seen the most innocuous conversations between guest and employee escalate into alarming consequences. After they finished, as they walked to the elevator, I walked over to them. Before I could say a word, they thanked me for moving them.

I said to them, emotion already rising in my voice, “I want to apologize.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” the woman offered.

“No, I do. I am glad that (my manager) was able to get you a better table. The bad thing about me is that I really do try to do my job well and this time I failed.  I won’t forget this day, I won’t forget this moment and, AGAIN, I truly apologize for everything.”

They did not see me cry, but they could see that the tears were close. They reached out to console me, but I knew that I needed to step away from the floor. I turned to my co-worker and told her I was going to take a break.

I found a stairwell in the bowels of the store and sat down and burst into tears. You see, the thing that had stung the most was that I had been trying very hard to accommodate these ladies. I understood their desire for a better dining experience, but I was doing my best. And, at that moment anyway, I felt that I had been attacked because I cared.

A friend and co-worker found me in the stairwell. “Nobody cares!” I bellowed. “You bend over backwards to help people and then they all s#$% on you.” And this person that I was talking to, I know how much they care about me. I continued, “I mean, I know you care. But in the end, nobody cares. Maybe in the end, only three people really truly care about you and that’s it.”

And instead of placating me with a positive platitude, my friend merely offered, sadly, “You know I think the older you get, the more you realize, that’s the truth. You’re right.”

I shed a few more tears and then I wiped them on my sleeve and then I went back to work. Another co-worker who had witnessed my apology said that after I left, the ladies lingered and she sensed that the woman felt bad about what had happened. Either way, I survived the day, damaged, but mostly intact.

That night Eric and I went to dinner with friends. We talked about the day’s events and they all commiserated with me. Everyone at the table knows that I am too sensitive for my own good. On the good days, I think it’s my sensitivity that makes me special. On the bad days, I just see it as a victimizing burden.

But the good news is we had a dynamite meal. We were at an old school French restaurant that our friends have gone to for years. We all had roast chicken and pomme frites.  At one point, I raised my glass of Maker’s Mark and drunkenly toasted, “This is just what the doctor ordered.”

Our server was something special too: professional, efficient, knowledgeable, amiable. One of us ordered a shrimp dish that came with a delicious, impossible to dissect sauce. Amongst ourselves, we tried to figure out what it was in it. Oregano? Thyme? Peppercorns? When our server came to the table we asked for clues to the sauce’s secret ingredients.

Did I mention I had a little bourbon in me? Of the four of us, I was, by far, the most strident. “Please tell us a few more ingredients,” I pleaded each time she visited us. And I thought it was all good-natured, I thought she was having fun with our (MY) enthusiastic questions. And maybe she did enjoy our exchange.

Anyway, after dinner, as we were leaving, as the busboy and a nearby hostess thanked us for coming in, I looked for our wonderful server, to thank her. She was at the bar, talking to the bartender. I stood there a few moments, hoping she would look over at us, so I could wave a final thank you, but she did not. Maybe she saw me, maybe she didn’t.  I’ll never know.

This morning, during my morning swim, I thought about the events of that Friday. What had been done to me and also, the possibility that I had been obnoxious to our server. I could not blame her for not turning to thank us as we left because, sometimes when you have an unpleasant customer, your only recompense is to act like you don’t see them as they walk out the door.  Speaking from experience.

Also this morning, I had the idea that I would write about these events. Does the weight of accumulated cruelties harden us as we get older?  Do I care less about people than I did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago?  I wonder.

I was paying for gas at the AM/PM this morning when a frail, elderly African-American woman walked into the store and asked the attendant a question. I wasn’t paying attention. I was busy writing THIS masterpiece in my head. As she left, the attendant shook his head and gave me a “can you believe she asked that?” look. I think my response was a non-committal blink.

As I drove away, I saw the woman walking slowly along Olympic. I wondered if perhaps she had Alzheimer’s or dementia. I’ve been watching a lot of Friday Night Lights lately, and I was thinking about Matt Saracen’s poor grandma, Lorraine. I considered stopping, but I drove on. She’s someone else problem, I thought.  Also, maybe she’s fine and knows exactly what she’s doing.

But a block after driving by, I turned the corner, trying to find this woman, to make sure she was okay.

I found her and rolled my window down. “Are you lost, ma’am?”

“No, but which way is Wilshire?” She pointed toward Wilshire a few blocks north and asked if Wilshire was that direction.

“Yes, it’s that way. Do you need a ride home?”

“No, I’m just trying to find a Sunday paper. He said they don’t sell them at the gas station anymore. He said maybe 7/11 but I don’t know where 7/11 is so I’m walking to Ralph’s.”

“Do you want me to drive you to Ralph’s? I’d be happy to.”

She hesitated, but said, “No, thank you though. I’ll walk, but that’s very sweet of you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you, have a nice Sunday.”

The second I drove off, I decided I was going to find her a Sunday paper. Driving down La Brea, I saw a Starbucks and pulled in and bought it for her. I raced back to the street she’d been on, wondering if I would even find her.

I did find her, a couple blocks closer to Ralph’s than where I’d left her. I put my car in park and rolled down my window and showed her the paper. It took a moment before she remembered me but then she broke into a grin.

“That is so sweet of you.”

“Well, I got to thinking that if my Mama was looking for a Sunday paper, I’d be grateful to the stranger who found one for her.”

“Can I give you a hug?”

And then we hugged, right there on the corner of Detroit and 8th.

“Are you sure I can’t give you a ride home?”

“Well, it IS pretty hot.” And then we both laughed a little.

I got her situated in the front seat, I turned up my A/C and she told me where she lived, not far away.

On the ride there, I asked how long she’d lived in Los Angeles and she said she grew up here. She told me her name, Anna. She had lived many places, including Japan, because her ex-husband had been in the military. She now lived with her youngest son, her oldest son died 7 years ago.

“What year were your sons born?” I asked. She told me that her oldest had been born in 1968 and her youngest, in 1978. I told her that I was born in 1968, too. That seemed to please her.

Not much later, we arrived at her home. “This is where I live.”  I helped her out and she thanked me again.

“That’s what we do,” I told her. “We help each other out.” We hugged again and both of us, as if we had known each other a lifetime, said to the other, “You made my day.” And then she added, with a giggle, “We said it at the same time.”

“It’s true,” I said, holding back tears, not for the first time in the last 72 hours.

“Well, you made my week,” she countered and sauntered away. I watched her walk up her step, hoping she was okay, trusting that she was.

I might have helped her find her way home, but the same could be said for what she did for me.

That’s what we do.

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