Last night, I was working at my restaurant. A young guy came in and indicated to the host that he wanted a table. The host asked for a vaccine card or proof of covid-negative status which is what is currently mandated for indoor dining in Los Angeles. There was a breakdown in communication between the host and the guest. Not only did he apparently not have a proof of vaccine, he wasn’t able to talk. “I think he can hear though,” the host told me. A few minutes later, the manager sat the guy. He thought the guy was indicating he was vaccinated, I guess. Of course, he was in my section. He pointed to items on the menu. A Pepsi, orange chicken, beef and broccoli. Initially I believed he could hear me, he nodded when I repeated his order. He was thin and wiry, with big brown eyes watching my every move. His metallic grey fingernails were dingy and partially grown out. He wore his mask, I wore mine. So angry, I thought. He guzzled his Pepsi and when I replaced it with a new one, his disposition seemed to shift a little. More scared than angry. I brought him his two entrees and asked him if he wanted soy sauce or chili paste. He nodded no. As I walked away, it occurred to me that probably he wasn’t able to hear me at all. He couldn’t read any of our lips because in restaurants right now, all workers are masked. On a hunch, I decided to type on my phone and ask him if he wanted soy sauce or chili paste. Yes, he nodded and pointed at the screen. And when I came back to the table, another shift occurred. He smiled at me. Still scared but also, I think, pleased I was trying my best to communicate with him. I kept his Pepsi refilled, he ate all of both of his entrees. He was really hungry, this skinny guy. On my screen, I typed, “Dessert?” He nodded as if to ask, what do you have? “Churros, cheesecake and chocolate cake,” I typed. He pointed to a lone uneaten mushroom on his plate. “Mushroom?“ I typed, confused. He nodded yes. The new mode of communication I was congratulating myself on turned out to be flawed. What did he want? But then he pointed to chocolate cake on my screen. I thumbs upped him and he nodded. I brought him the dessert and he wolfed that down too. I brought him two fortune cookies. He seemed happy but also, still anxious. I dropped the check and he sat quietly for another ten minutes. At some point, I noticed he was no longer at the table but the check was still there. I opened the book, no cash. We are not strangers to dine and dashers in the restaurant industry. So I ran outside to look for him. No sign. Soon, the host told me he thought the guy went to the bathroom. Sure enough, the door said occupied. Five or ten minutes elapsed, no one emerged.
A bit more about his appearance. I am not saying he looked like a meth addict but I can assure you, were he an actor and he showed up to audition for a skinhead, a meth head or a skinhead methhead, he certainly would not have been turned away for not understanding the brief.
I have worked in restaurants on and off for 30 years, I’ve seen it all. (Including watching a young woman poop little turds as she walked to the bathroom. Graphic, but not an exaggeration.) But while my friend lingered in the bathroom, I tried to imagine every possible scenario. Overdose, strapping a suicide bomb to his chest, digging a hole through the ceiling, digging a hole through the floor, dynamiting a wall, doing coke, doing meth, smoking a joint, smoking a crack pipe. After a stealth 27 minutes, he did come out of the bathroom. I showed him the check presenter. He looked at me sheepishly. He stood at the takeout counter, rifling through his pockets. I watched him. He watched me. He seemed scared. I felt scared. Was he going to pull out a gun or a knife? Was he isolating in the bathroom to whittle his chopstick into a lethal weapon? Was he going to make a run for it, sprinting then leaping off our second story balcony to flee down Ventura Boulevard on his way to pull the same stunt for margaritas and nachos at Casa Vega? Finally, he signaled for a piece of paper. I gave him paper and a pen. He wrote, “I am so sorry to inconvenience you. I have had a bit of trouble lately. My credit card is in my sweater. Would it be okay if I went to get my credit card and come back? It won’t take longer than 30 minutes.” I showed my manager.
“You know he’s not coming back, don’t you?” he said.
“You’re probably right, but what do you want me to say to him?“
“Ask for his phone or ID.” So I wrote down for the guy, “Do you have a phone or an ID?”
“My phone is out of service. Do you want my name?” My boss intervened, he told him to go home and get his credit card, he’d leave the check open until he came back. My friend nodded a thank you and left. “He’s not coming back, you know,” my boss repeated.
And as far as I know, he didn’t come back. I was done for the night so, you know, maybe he did return. Obviously, I didn’t get a tip from the guy, and technically, he proved to be more trouble than he was worth. But even today, I couldn’t stop thinking, wondering about him. He ate two entrees AND dessert. He was definitely hungry. When was his last meal? How many times has he done this before? Does he have friends? Does he have anyone to help him negotiate life? Is he really deaf? Does he even have a home? I don’t know. His actions seemed more motivated by fear than calculation. But I’ll probably never know. Still, I’ll continue to think about him, continue to wonder. And, root for him too. He made the night interesting. I don’t know the day to day trials he experiences. His life is likely harder than I will ever know. But for one evening, someone kept his Pepsi glass filled and even gave him extra fortune cookies. I hope they bring him luck.