At the risk of stating the obvious, it looks like the holiday season is in full swing. Parking lots are overflowing with traffic and normally organized store shelves look ransacked.
Watching all the hustle and bustle this week brought back a memory of a holiday season from long ago. I was sixteen and working as a waitress in a department store restaurant. (Yes boys and girls, before malls had food courts many department stores had restaurants where tired and hungry shoppers could refuel.)
It was my first real job and although I’d been working at the restaurant for months, I was totally unprepared for the insane lunch crowd on the Saturday before Christmas. A line of people waiting for tables snaked out the door. The hostess looked frazzled. Bus boys couldn’t clear tables fast enough and the kitchen staff was grumpy.
My head spun with customer requests… more coffee, no mayonnaise, wheat, not white. I prayed that I could remember it all. On top of everything, the kitchen was so overwhelmed that orders seemed to take forever. I spent a lot of time soothing the tempers of both customers and cooks alike as I ping-ponged in and out of the kitchen.
One man in particular had been waiting for his club sandwich for a very long time. He’d already finished soda refill number two so I couldn’t stall much longer. Finally, his order appeared on the shelf in front of the sandwich cook. I grabbed it and rushed out of the kitchen. Before delivering the food, I decided to bring a third refill so the man would have everything he needed to enjoy his lunch.
I wove my way to the man’s table and put the plate in front of him. And then disaster struck. In my haste to put down the soda, I somehow knocked the (completely full) glass onto the plate.
Over 30 years later, the image of a club sandwich swimming in a pool of soda remains etched in my memory. Words failed me. I stammered an apology and waited for an angry response that never came. The man ended up comforting me!
Red faced and shaky, I cleaned up the table and rushed back to the kitchen. How could I ask an already overwhelmed cook to remake the sandwich? Immediately.
Maybe it was the crazed look in my eye, or the near hysterical tone of my voice, but Gerry-the-sandwich-cook made that sandwich again in record time (God love him). The man finally ate his lunch and left without further comment.
I learned a lot about communication and organizational skills as a waitress. But I also learned something else. On that terrible-horrible-very-bad day, I received the biggest tip of my life (nearly twice the amount of the bill). From who? The club sandwich guy.
His loving act of compassion and kindness still tugs at my heart decades later. It wasn’t logical. I didn’t deserve it. He had every right to be upset but instead of anger, this man gave me empathy, understanding and comfort – the greatest gifts of all.