Friday, January 27, 2012

Today I Just Couldn't

 Elwood and Jake Blues
Berwick, Pennsylvania January 2011. Heavy fog and rain. The Susquehanna River gray-green and swollen as a gangrenous limb.  Even the ghosts have abandoned town, leaving behind little more than a tangle of limp electrical wires strung pole to pole over a thin skin of festering asphalt. The windows of the Saab vibrate violently as I rattle over scabs of ruptured and patched road suface.  I have left the Walgreens, visited the Bi-Rite and I am now on my way to the Big K.  

I had hoped to buy a clip board, but each store's stationary and school supply shelves were identical; a few reams of typing paper, some flimsy three ring binders, planning pads and colorful packets of Magic-markers and Bic pens.  No clip boards.  An emaciated clerk stands with his back toward me, staring listlessly at a shelf on the opposite side of the aisle. He is touching the displayed merchandise and speaking softly to it as if it were a childhood collection of stuffed animals.  I know better than to interrupt him, but I hold up a plastic covered folder and ask.  "Is there a price on this?"  He turns his profile to me, reaches out and takes the organizer from my hand and without a word walks off toward the front of the store.  I follow, tempted to raise both arms in front of me, fingers extended, so that there will be no mistake we are both zombies. 

There is a scanner at the end of the cosmetic section for customer gift cards and promotional discounts. He exposes the folder's bar code to the machine's magic eye.  In montone he reads the display: "$16.90". He then holds the thin vinyl pad out to me.  

"Sorry, but I am actually looking for a clipboard" I say.  

He shrugs, drops the hand with the folder to his side and shuffles off.  At this point I'm thinking Staples.  I turn and approach the check-out counter with a smile and presto, like magic I disappear.  Gone.  Invisible. Whisked away to the fourth dimension.  There are no other customers around me so I assume they have de-materialized as well.  The matronly cashier is looking straight through me, expressionless, and as my lips part to say "Excuse me..."  she turns away and lumbers off to the instant photo counter, where she picks up the phone  and places a call.  On any other day I might have left, but my curiosity is aroused.  How long will she ignore me?  I stand there quietly, my eyes following her every move, a pleasant smile fixed upon my face.    

Four full minutes pass. I know that doesn't sound like much, but remember, for every year of human life, a dog ages seven.  I'm not sure what that ratio is for a Walgreens shopper, but I fear I may have aged a decade or two before I hear Grandma say:  "May I help you?"

No longer invisible I am caught off guard and stammer, " Why yes!  I was wondering if you know of a place in town where I might find a clip board?"  

She dons the kind of expression reserved for difficult questions in eighth grade algebra.  

"In Berwick?" Her voice betrays mild shock, as if I am inquiring after an adult book store.

"I suppose your best bet would be Staples." Then almost as an afterthought she adds, "But there isn't one in Berwick.  Its over in Bloomsburg.  That's about ten miles from here."  

"So there isn't anywhere else in town to buy a clipboard?"  I ask.

"Well, maybe the Big K, you know, K-Mart.  That's on route eleven south, about three miles from here."  Her face begins to relax as if a time-release Excedrin is gradually taking effect.

"Rt 11 South?" I question, accentuating my lost tourist status.

"Yes, just go to the light and make a right.  You might try the Bi-Rite, that will be on the left in about three blocks."  She is smiling even more peacefully now and I feel myself fading, molecules dispersing, my form evaporating again before her eyes.

Back in the Saab, glass fogged, I visit the Bi-Rite and then head the distance to the  Big K, but I don't hit pay dirt until the Dollar Store.  There I find a card board backed clipboard for $2.49 along with an umbrella for $3.99. (The Big-K discount store wanted eleven dollars for the same rain stick).  So now I am happy.  I am an alliteration in the making! I am buoyantly bounding boisterously about Berwick blessed with the best of bonne fortune!  I am grinning and telling the check out girl what a wonderful place the Dollar Store is.  She responds with equal enthusiasm.

"Well, next time you'll just have to come here first!"

I agree, and as I am walking out the door, I turn and say, "Hey, since you solved all my other problems, maybe you know a good restaurant in town?"  

She wrinkles her nose, rolls her eyes and places an index finger to her chin.  "Well.... now let me think...  How about Bandits!?  Its just down the road on the left.  You can't miss it.  Just look for the Blues Brothers on top of the building."

So I am back on Route 11 and in two minutes I am pulling into Bandits, the recommendation of the sales clerk at the Dollar Store.  It is a sinister looking version of Cracker Barrel, with wrap around porch, dark-brown board and baton siding and enough neon glowing in the windows to land a 747 in an ice storm.  Yep, and sitting atop the roof, are two larger than life reproductions of Jake and Elwood Blues, dressed in signature black suits and Ray Bans, on a mission from God to reunite the band and save their Chicago orphanage.  Granted "The Blues Brothers" is a film classic that grossed Belushi and Aykroyd over 115 million dollars,  but it was released more than thirty years ago.  Since then, entertainment, like the economy of Berwick, has moved on. 

Thanks to Pennsylvania's new public smoking laws, I am not overcome by clouds of tobacco as I enter Bandits, but the place still has that unmistakable odor of stale beer and heartbreak that is so much more pungent in the filtered light of day.  Obeying the "Please seat yourself" sign, I wander past the huge rectangular bar and a scattering of grizzled men in bill-caps floating in a swath of liquor induced camaraderie.  Beyond the one occupied booth in the bar area, I find a second chamber of tables with windows opening onto the drizzle blighted flat-lands of the side parking lot.  I toss my copy of John Irving's "Last Night on Twisted River" beside the paper placemat, slip out of my Champion brand windbreaker, sling it over the back of one of the table's four chairs and sit down.  

The walls are covered with reproductions of nostalgic Americana memorabilia; half-rusted Coca Cola signs, a warning for a railroad crossing, posters of James Dean, a mirror featuring Marilyn Monroe and a painting of John Wayne.  A glass-topped Esso pump stands in the corner.  I take it in like a familiar face and then glance over the menu. It's the standard fair where removal of cheese will reduce the listed entries by half.  You never order fish in place like this and you know the pasta will be glue, so you stick to the brainless burgers, chicken breasts or Bandits gourmet sandwiches. There is also an unwritten rule in American retail dinning.  Never provide water unless requested and always send the waitress in for the drink order first.  This soft-sell approach will add $2.00 per person minimum to the bill.  Bandits is no different, but my waitress is.

Maybe I was a Civil War amputee in my last life or had my body shattered by shrapnel in the Ypres trenches along the Western Front. I don't know, but the thought of lossing a limb has always sent shudders through my soul.  So you can imagine my shock when looking up from the menu I find myself within inches of the three quarter length stub of my waitress' right forearm.  It is protruding naked form a sleeveless blouse.  My eyes shoot from the scared limb to her good arm, back to the amputation and then to her light brown irises, all in a nano-second.  

"Something to drink?" She asks.  

"I'll have a Coke please." 

"Pepsi okay?"

"Sure." I grin, never taking my eyes from hers.

Her arm is severed about two inches above the wrist, and from the look of it her hand must have been torn off, the muscles stripped like stringy taffy from between bone and skin.  I imaged a tree chipper, its grinding, gripping iron teeth or the gears of a corrugated box maker, advancing reams of thick paper at high speed into a cutting and folding press.  The forearm, either from lack of use or the original injury, has withered and the tightened flesh is now tapered to a dull, spear-like tip. Its unnatural length and boney thinness are disturbingly disproportionate and cause stinging rivulets of emotional distress to pierce the bubble of my blessed and as of yet, unscathed life.  To mask my feelings, I smile and say,  "Quite some weather we're having."

"Sure is"  she smiles back.

"Well at least its only rain and not snow."  Too late I realize I've spoken in metaphor.  I could have as easily blurted out:   "Well at least you only lost a hand and part of your arm." 

She disappears into the other room and I open my book.  Before a second passes another waitress appears.  She is tall and curvy and has dirty blond hair pulled back in a cute pony tail. She also has all her limbs.  

"Can I get you something to drink?"  she smiles.

"No thank you.  I've already ordered."  I feel the grip of incredible quilt tighting around me.  I have gotten the short end of the stick and I am uncomfortable with it.  This is my well deserved lunch hour.  Instead of having a normal waitress, I am being served by the one-armed Bandit herself.   I know how horrible that sounds.  It sounds worse than horrible.   Unfortunately it is the sad, remorse-filled truth. 

Left alone with the wall of knick-knacks and the dismal parking lot outside, I turn again to the Irving novel.  I have not yet read a paragraph when waitress Number One is back, a tall plastic cup of Pepsi in one hand and my grilled chicken and cheese platter balanced on the stub of the other.  She places the soda down, transfers the plate to her working hand, slips it in front of me and then pulls a straw from her apron pocket.

"That sure was fast."  I say, staring down at the oddly shaped roll that houses my chicken melt.

"Yep.  Anything else I can get you?"

"Ah..., that cup of bisque soup?"

"Oh sure, I almost forgot!" she says and is gone.

Beside the sandwich is a scattering of ripple chips and a ceramic shot glass full of thousand island dressing.  I try lifting the top half of the bun to add a bit of sause, but the cheese has hardened like glue and it refuses to budge.  So I cut it in half like a pie, add some of the pinkish goo to its sawed edge and take a bite.  Its Cold.  Really cold.  And how I hate a cold chicken cheese melt!  I back away from the sandwich and take a good look at it.  The once warm swiss cheese is now the consistency of hardened wax. The roll appears to be some type of unleavened bread fit for bedouins descending toward the Dead Sea. The mouthful I am judiciously chewing, is tasteless. My lobster bisque soup has arrived.  The waitress has left it and vanished before I could even swallow.  When I sample the broth, I am happy to find it is still liquid though only a hair warmer than room temperature.  I wonder, should I consider myself lucky? 

I am busy extracting the chicken patty from its ripped and torn breading when a tall thin man enters the far end of the dining room.  He is talking loudly on a cell phone.  He throws a dismissive glance in my direction then turns his back to me and pacing nervously, proceeds to make arrangements for a funeral service.  I hope for his sake that it is a distant relative, as I can discern not one shard of remorse for the passing of a loved one.  From the business skills he displays on the phone, I assume he either owns or manges Bandits.  As I pick at my cold chunk of chicken he covers the time and location of the viewing, the procession to the cemetery and then requests a "few brief words" at the grave site.  A pause follows, which apparently contains an inquiry concerning the circumstances of the death.  

"Oh well," he says,  still dancing half circles around the table  "It was her time.  She played bingo earlier in the evening and then the Good Lord called her home." 

He goes over a few other details and then exits the room just as my waitress returns with my check.  It is in a neat leather bound folder.  Classy.  So is the bill.  Fourteen dollars and change.

I stare down at the rat chewed bun I've left on the plate, the dime size slices of sweet pickle left behind, the puddle of Russian dressing, the remnants of imitation Ruffles chips and I think to myself, "These people expect me to pay them fourteen bucks for this shit?"  Fourteen dollars is what I make, after taxes, working as a field Interviewer for an hour and fifteen minutes. On top of that, they expect me to stare at the butt end of an amputated arm, listen to funeral arrangements made for some senior citizen while surrounded by these gaudy apple-pie decorations and the view of a quarter acre of acne scarred asphalt.  This is a business for God sake!  Its a job. And the job here is to provide a decent meal in a comfortable setting.  I'm not asking for anything gourmet, just the basics.  That is what I am suppose to be paying for.

So I pull out my wallet, slip the exact amount into the leather bill book and then, on the back of the check, print in very large, bold letters, 


I am about to add "AND ABOMINABLE SURROUNDINGS!"  but think better of it, careful to avoid any allusion to the amputated arm.  Not even I am that insensitive.  Instead I decide to forgo the tip. It is the second time in perhaps eight years that I feel obliged to withhold a gratuity.  My apologies to the waitress, to the reader and to God.  I know a better man might have left a little something. On any other day I might have too.  But today, I just couldn't. 

Note to the reader:  

Had I described a book-load of events proceeding the "stiffing" of the waitress or created a thousand more details that conspired to produce the customer's dissatisfaction, many readers would still see the waitress as a victim; a victim at the hands of the customer, the restaurant, the local economy and her handicap.  If she had done her job well, providing food politely on a timely basis, then she should have expected to receive her tip.  

Gratuities are considered part of the wait staff's salary. Some would argue that an implied contract exists demanding the customer remit this payment.  It follows that not tipping a waitress due to dissatisfaction with the quality of the food is no different than walking out on the bill itself. Complaints should be brought  to the proper authority, in this case the owner or the manager. To do otherwise is to act inauthentically.

Psychological pain and frustration are often passed on in society instead of being properly channeled, vented or diffused.  It happens that the weakest, most vulnerable in our culture often become the catchall for this negativity.  The woman-wife-mother-servant has traditionally been cast in this role, ingesting and digesting male angst without complaint.  The handicapped waitress is therefore a particularly disturbing image when described as the recipient of the male customer's multi-dimensional, non-verbalized displeasure with the service.

At the same time, just as a corporate customer service representative fields complaints levied at the company as a whole, so is the wait staff the first line of contact in regard to praise or criticism for the entire establishment.  If a server's wage were not contingent on customer satisfaction or if it did not function as an incentive for quality control management, then one could assume the tip would be included in the bill and distributed at the discretion of the employer as part of the restaurant's total income. It follows that servers would receive a pre-determined compensation at a minimum wage level or better.

All time possess what the meteorologists refer to as  "perfect storm" potential.  The current moment is the telos of everything we have remained attached to in of our lives fused with the environment of the present.  Our actions are influenced by memory and are never simply a product of the present.  "Today I Just Couldn't" explores that interactive dynamic and the way it effects the outcome of our every day lives.  

So with all that said, the moral of this story might be:  "It never pays to punch a cop or to try to beat a one-armed bandit."


1 comment:

  1. I have put in a lot of time over the years serving soup and sandwiches, eggs your way, and steaks and seafood. If the steak is too rare or too well done, that's the kitchen's fault. If the soup tastes like wallpaper paste or dishwater, that is also the kitchen's fault. But if the food is cold when you get it...that's likely the server's fault. And if you don't get an opportunity to let your server know that something's not right, and give her (or him) the opportunity to make it right...that's also the server's fault. The tip may be part of the salary, but good service is also part of the contract. In my opinion. Others may disagree.