By Michael Gutgsell
Every evening, after landscaping for my neighbors or playing mannequin for a medical school, I would put on my uniform: skinny black dress pants and a quickly-fading black polo, and bike the five minutes to the Tavern. There I would tie a mini black apron around my waist and insert my black order book into the pocket, complete with my precise formula of change. Then, I would start my shift, making a circle around the room, picking up drink orders and placing down plates of food. I was disappointed to be twenty-three and living at home, squabbling with my parents over stupid things, working in an industry that reminded me how it felt to be “summed up and degraded,” as my journal from that time says. Most of the customers were regulars, and after learning their names and predilections, they often wouldn’t need to open their mouths to have what they wanted placed in front of them. Years after working there, I don’t remember all their names, but I remember their drinks.
Dolly was a retired school teacher, and I dreaded having her in my section. She was as sugary sweet as she made her tea, but repulsively stingy, always tucking a single dollar under her moist glass at the end of her meal. For that dollar, she would run servers ragged. She always needed more dressing for her salad and constant refills of her tea. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she would say with a fake smile, and her terms of endearment always made me grit my teeth. It is rarely (if ever) acceptable to call strangers “sweetheart,” “sugar,” or “darling,” especially if they are serving you food. I would try and match her sweetness, offering larger and larger smiles, imagining that our mutual hatred fueled our display of teeth.
Dewar’s with a Twist
The Kippers were a sweet old couple who only gradually became intolerable over the course of my time at the Tavern. They were well-known by the other servers by the time I got there, and their precise instructions were so involved, I never seemed to get them right. They always ordered one salad and one entree and split it between two plates. They got separate dressing, and one had to have it mixed into the salad while the other wouldn’t touch it if the dressing wasn’t on the side. Mrs. Kipper was particular about the way her Dewars with a twist was set down, and if I ever forgot to place the napkin down first, she would sigh and say: “Andrew (another server) never forgets the napkin. Andrew knows what we like.” The dining room was always, always too cold for her, and she would call over the bartender or the owner to ask if they could turn the thermostat up “Just a few degrees, it is freezing in here, I don’t know why you want to freeze your guests.” And the thermostat would be turned up, and the servers would have sweat running down their temples as they bustled from the dining room to the sweltering kitchen.
Handsome, dignified, and soft-spoken, Vodka Cranberry would sometimes sit at the bar with the seasoned alcoholics, or sometimes bring a party of people and we would push a couple tables together. He would stare into my eyes and ask with a tiny lift of a smile where my section was that night, and I would be granted the group. After a few of his Cape Cods, he would start getting handsy. I would be taking down food orders from his friends, all women, and feel his hand hovering so close to the inside of my thigh, I’m not sure you could call it touching, but you wouldn’t call it nothing, and he would move it up as far as he dared. I would clutch my pen tighter and focus on the order ahead of me and the generous tip he always left. I would shift, just a bit, to move away from his hand, but it was the same any time I came to his table. When it came out that I was leaving the Tavern for good, he followed me out the back when I left for the night and embraced me. He tried to kiss me, but I wriggled away. My shift was over and I wouldn’t be there for long, but I still didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I told him goodnight and walked quickly to my bike, shivering in the July warmth.
Mr. Cape Cod wasn’t the only gay at the Tavern, but the other one was considerably less interested in me. “Uncle” Dickie was about a hundred and fifty years old, and looked it, if a day. He would shuffle in for lunch, slack-jawed and heavy-lidded, and mosey over to a booth, stopping to talk to customers and employees along the way. Once he arrived at his destination, he would order his lemonade and iced tea and get quite irritated if he felt you were rushing him to order food. Still, he always got the same thing. A side of Caesar salad, which he would eat ever so slowly, the creamy dressing dribbling down his chin and onto his stained shirt. Uncle Dickie would look up bleary-eyed at his server (he always asked for a male) and invite whoever it was to come by his apartment to “look at his library.” He had books–just scads of them!–and was selling them. Everyone politely turned him down. There were three male servers at the Tavern: a lazy, tipsy smart-alec with the talent to charm anyone and everyone, a good-natured, beefy rocket scientist, and me. Uncle Dickie prefered the scientist but would take the charmer over me. I didn’t mind being last pick. The other guys would shrug in the server station while we combined ketchup bottles or mixed the margarine and butter and say, “If you sit down and talk with him, you’ll get a good tip.” I disagreed. “People tip what they tip; it’s hard-wired in them. They come in to eat and the percent they leave is set before they meet their server. If it’s different, it’s only by a small amount, and because either something was horribly wrong or totally amazing.” And, I also thought, the cheapest people were the ones who demanded the most of their servers.
Two Brandies and a Bottle of Wine
Pat would come in twice a week, sit at the first booth with an enormous book on architecture or history, and without asking, was brought a tall glass of brandy and soda. He would nod his thanks and open up his book, resting his salt-and-pepper beard on his hand, top lip pressed against his forefinger. Once the glass was empty, a second one was brought, and at that time, torso revolving around and fingers wiggling, he would be ready to order usually whatever the special was for the day (often frozen fish listed as “fresh”). When his meal arrived, it was time for his bottle of wine. He took great care in choosing a wine to go with his meal and was always honest about what he thought of the wine, though that doesn’t mean negative. He was a positive man and enjoyed his routine. He was attached to his routine like a cat and disturbed if it changed. If ever he came in and his booth was taken, he would pace back and forth in front of it, vexed, and finally settle for another, less desirable spot. Those evenings he didn’t stay for long and ate in a hurry, usually skipping a brandy. If all were well, after his first few drinks, Pat was ready to talk and would invite his server to sit with him if it was a slow night. Talks with Pat were always pleasant, if not totally coherent. He didn’t seem to favor one server over another and was uniformly respectful and generous to each. People who ordered us around disgusted him, and he wasn’t shy sharing that when we came around. That, more than anything maybe, endeared him to me. In a job that could too often leave me feeling demoralized or disrespected, Pat was the one customer who consistently treated me like an intelligent person who had things to say. Which was kind of him, because all too often he was talking about books or movies I had never heard of, or some obscure term of architecture. Telling him I had quit and was moving to another city was important to me. Other customers I didn’t bother with, but I wanted to wait on Pat on our last night at the Tavern. I told him I had enjoyed our talks and I would miss him. He shook his head when I told him I was leaving. “That’s a shame,” he mumbled. “That’s a damn shame.”
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.