Back in the 1980s, my family had many intense conversations in restaurants. We were younger and more alive in both a metaphorical and literal sense. We were tall, smart people with the resonant voices of singers. If you put some or all of us around a table with cups of coffee, those voices rose up to discuss politics or history or music or real estate, loudly and at length.
At times, our conversations were spirited enough to invite participation from the wait staff. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” a server might say. “Excuse me, I heard you talking about…” a server would shyly offer. Of course, we listened politely, but I didn’t really care how the waiter voted, or what neighborhood the waitress grew up in. Backpacking in Italy was probably an adventure, but excuse me. I was talking to my mom.
Once, way back in the eighties at a Mexican restaurant, a young server stood at our table and recited a poem he’d written. It was a lengthy, worshipful ode to Oliver North. He may have been an actor, but he clearly did not know his audience. We never returned to that restaurant. Now it is long gone. Decades later, most of the places we used to go are gone.
The family has also suffered some attrition. Our most recent all-family restaurant gathering was after my father’s memorial service, when we filled a long table at his favorite restaurant–Bannings–for one last meal on Dad.
Bannings is one of those places we all hope to find in our neighborhoods–a family diner with good food and comfortable booths and the most attentive servers on Earth. All the servers at Bannings knew Dad. They vied to have him in their sections. They made him welcome, brought him sides of sausage gravy at no charge, and kept his coffee hot. He always tipped well.
At this post-service-last meal, with all the family and some friends ranged around a long table, meal, many of the servers came by to say they were sorry. They hadn’t seen him because Dad was housebound for months before he died, but they certainly remembered him. “I’d wondered when we didn’t see you.” “We’ll sure miss him.”
You forget, or at least I did, that his decline was pretty obvious from the outside. He changed rapidly from a relatively hale man who took smoking breaks after a meal, to a frail man wearing an oxygen tank. Of course they noticed when he stopped coming.
After that last meal, I couldn’t go to Bannings without Dad. It was just too sad to sit there and think about all the years we’d met there for breakfast, all our conversations about everything in the world. Dad knew so much about the mechanics of the world, and how our government actually worked. We met there nearly every week for fifteen years.
So I left Bannings alone. A year and two months after Dad died, Covid hit and everything shut down. It was 2021 before I started going there again. One August day, I was having lunch with my friend Sarah and realized it was my dad’s birthday. Our server, who I remembered, didn’t remember Dad when I asked her. It had been almost two years, after all. But she asked me what his favorite dessert and brought me a piece of strawberry shortcake as a gift.
This was so human of her. So kind. And yes, I cried.
My husband and I were at a company Christmas party on the Portland Spirit years ago, and a young woman who looked so familiar came up to me on the dance floor and said, “Karen!” and hugged me. I knew her but I couldn’t place her, so I bluffed my way through the encounter, smiling and laughing and wondering where the hell I knew her from.
As I walked back to our table, it hit me. She was a server at Bannings. She was a doll. And I knew she was going to school, and she was bright and kind and funny, but I absolutely couldn’t place her out of context.
This made me feel like a real jerk.
In my home city, almost no one who waits tables does it for love. They do it while preparing for something better; a new job, an upcoming move, a leading role, or a paying gig. The people who wait on me are human beings with opinions and passions. I know that. I grant them privacy for that part of their lives. I think this is more dignified.
If you are a server or a waiter and you’re reading this, I probably owe you an apology for the fact that your dreams don’t concern me. I know you’re a real person who has tied on the apron. I appreciate you. But I only want your attention when I want it.
Swoop in with more coffee, more water. Bring me extra napkins. Don’t make me wait forever for my check, but reassure me there’s “no hurry” when you lay it on the table. I know some days it takes everything to show up, put on your apron, and tend to your tables. I admire the seemingly effortless ballet of your service, a dance that is actually a great deal of work. I like that you perform it with the invisible grace of a professional.
For what it’s worth, I always tip well, too.