Look, buddy, I don’t know you. Maybe you’ve worked hard to get where you are today, overcoming countless social and personal obstacles and routinely laughing in the faces of danger and tragedy. Maybe you’re a beacon of goodness: A pediatric neurosurgeon/philanthropist/musician who lives in the inner city, where you volunteer nights and weekends at the battered women’s shelter. Maybe you voted Nader in 2000. Like I said, I don’t know you. But in the 15 minutes since we’ve met, you’ve been wholly unpleasant. And forgive me, but my patience is wearing thin.
Don’t look at me like that. You know what I mean: Like I’m a walking botched order and you’ll have to spell everything out for me, using tiny, tiny words lest I ruin your dinner and your life. Don’t talk to me like I’m your mentally retarded stepchild or your pet. I’m a student at a top-tier public university. I can string thoughts and sentences together without breaking a sweat.
I will get you some more iced tea as soon as I have a second. I swear. You won’t dehydrate; you’ve had four glasses since you sat down.
Take a deep breath. This is not biological warfare; it’s dinner. You’ve got nothing to be anxious about. In fact, if either of us has a right to be stressed right now, it’s definitely not you. You, you’ll notice, are sitting down, waiting for someone you can’t see to cook your dinner so that I, in turn, can carry it out to you and you can eat it. I, in stark contrast, am standing (running, actually), trying to keep up with five other tables full of people who, like you, are unduly concerned about my competence. And I am perfectly calm. Not to mention dazzlingly witty, cute and cheerful. See? Inhale.
You know what I was doing before my shift tonight? Not sleeping off a hangover, thank you. No, I was working. Here. I’ve been here since 10 a.m. Yes, 12 hours ago. (I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have pegged you as a mental math whiz, as you and your friend there ordered exactly the same thing, right down to the iced tea with no ice, two straws and extra lemons on the side, yet insisted on separate checks. I stand corrected.)
Well, to be fair, I haven’t been running myself ragged the entire time; it was really slow this morning. I spent the first 90 minutes second-hand smoking at the break table. I would have been reading the now grease-speckled Detroit Free Press I bought at the gas station on my way in, but the House Topics (i.e. “Rules”) sheet they passed out with our “pay”checks last week says we can’t read or do crossword puzzles on the clock. Basically bans all down-time activities except staring at the grimy, nicotine-yellow walls for $2.65 an hour before taxes.
Maybe they’re afraid all that book-learnin’ will make us want to quit and find better jobs, someone quipped. We laughed nervously and changed the subject, pointing out the most embarrassing spelling and grammatical errors on the lunch menu and objecting to management’s use of the word “Guest” in place of “customer.” They must have learned that in a how-to book about boosting morale and productivity amongst low-wage workers. Anybody can be a customer, but it takes somebody special to be a Guest: Warm, welcome and capitalized. Where customers are just idiots, Guests are idiosyncratic. Lovable. Worth the extra time and effort. Just like your friends.
In that case, my friend, you’ve worn out your welcome. You have been supremely disrespectful and I am not so dependent on your companionship or your three dollars that I’m willing to put up with you any longer. So scram.
Go ahead, complain to the manager. See if I care. I’ll be back at school soon, working at writing and playing at making a difference in the world.
That freedom might make me wish I’d said some of this out loud, that I hadn’t instead furrowed my brow remorsefully and insisted I was very, very sorry you had to wait so long for that refill. Because that’s all I’m going to do. If I give you the sound verbal thrashing you so deserve, you’ll conclude that the problem is all mine (i.e. I suck at my job and my violent mood swing smacks of PMS). And like a child prone to tantrums, I’ll have to explain why I wasn’t on my best behavior with our Guest.
Maybe I’ll regret that apology when I’m back at school, wishing I’d had the gumption to tell you where you really stood and how ugly your tie was, thinking I took the easy way out; shame on me for enabling your pomposity. But for now it’s all I can do to bite my tongue and walk away.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.