Diary of a Restaurant: Ch. 34 – GlimpsesJul 20, 2021
A Story By Kevin Gallagher
A note on the desk in front of me, one afternoon after a busy lunch.
“This was left for you on Table 21.”
I looked at the note, read it, and re-read it, trying to make sense of it. Written on a page torn from a Sheraton Hotel notepad, it read;
Please respect my
wishes when I ask you
to cancel the party.
I do not want this
party – please cancel it.
Thank everyone who
agreed to come.
I do not want to BE
CELEBRATED. I DO NOT
want to be around
PEOPLE. My life is a
lie. I cannot be
around people knowing
what failure I am.
I HAVE TO SELL THE BOAT.
I went back to the dining room to try to make a connection. I had been on the floor throughout lunch but couldn’t put a face to anyone at that table. The dining room was deserted and none of the servers remembered anything in particular about the party. It was a deuce; no one seemed particularly unhappy.
I was left holding this note. We hadn’t been planning any parties so I knew it wasn’t for me, but it left me wondering what was going on in this person’s life to make them so dejected. I was never able to find out.
The majority of restaurant patrons come and go without revealing much about themselves. If service has gone well and they’re happy, we’re happy. Except when they’re wanted, staff move through the room mostly unnoticed, refilling water glasses or clearing plates while guests’ conversations rattle on oblivious to them. And if in turn staff catch snippets of conversation, unrelated to the dining experience, they’re quickly forgotten – whether it’s businessmen intent on forging a deal or exotic dancers discussing the most sensuous way to remove stockings.
Many regular customers you come to know by name – what they like to eat and drink and where they like to sit. Eventually, you also may get to know their birthdays and anniversaries; you may help them with their celebrations and console them in their losses.
Others though, you never get to know, but catching only glimpses into their lives like a tableau seen from a moving train. Some customers, like the apparently mismatched couple from New Year’s Eve who came early, she calmly washing down a filet with black russians while he drank coffee, fidgeting and smoking one cigarette after another, make a sufficiently memorable impression to leave you wondering long after where they have come from and where they go.
For instance, called to the phone one morning, I was greeted by the voice of a young woman, obviously in tears, “Kevin, it’s Heather. I’ve lost my job!”
The only Heather I could think of who might call me was my niece, and this seemed uncharacteristic. I asked, “What happened?”
“They said they didn’t need me anymore, so I won’t be in for lunch again.” she sobbed.
Feeling relieved on the one hand that it wasn’t my niece, and slightly guilty for feeling relieved on the other, I tried to lead the conversation around to something that might help identify her. Finally it dawned on me. She was the quiet one in a regular group from one of the photo studios. A vegetarian, she always ordered a chicken dish from the menu – without the chicken; the cooks regularly embellished her plate of sweet potato mash and rapini with extra vegetables. The staff referred to her as ‘Ms. Chicken-no-chicken’; none of us knew her name. I felt badly – she thought of us as friends and among the fuss and chatter of the busy group, we barely saw her.
“But I hope you’ll come in when you can. We’ll always be glad to see you.” adding with a dry chuckle, ” I can’t guarantee we’ll still have your dish on the menu, though we’ll be sure to have something you’ll like.”
“I couldn’t bear to see them if I came back, and I won’t be able to afford to eat out anyway.” she said.
I had hoped to cheer her up a bit, but I had clearly failed, and never did see her again.
There was a couple who came every few weeks for lunch that we knew as the Forrests, because arriving separately and without a reservation, the first thing they would do was order a bottle of Forrest sauvignon blanc. This alone would not have been particularly memorable but that a waiter, finding their table deserted when he came by with coffee, ventured out into the hallway to see if they were nearby and saw the gentleman emerge from the handicapped washroom. A single unit, the washroom was an entirely separate room set between the two gender specific ones and as it was quite large, Donna had furnished it with a small table and a chair. While he was explaining that he had been uncertain about leaving the coffees in case they cooled while they were both away from the table, the waiter observed the lady also coming out out of the handicapped washroom. Unfazed, they returned to their table and drank their coffee.
The couple continued to visit every month or so, enjoy a leisurely lunch with a bottle of Forrest sauvignon blanc, then disappear for an interval before coffee. We debated whether there was something we should say or do, but as the waiters assured us that the couple was by no means singular in their use the handicapped washroom for a happy tryst, although others were more spontaneous, we decided these were private affairs and we should simply be discreet. However, Donna did find a copy of the Kama Sutra for the table.
We often hosted birthday parties but none were so memorable as the celebration for a man’s ninety-fourth birthday. There were only about a dozen in the party – his wife and children and a couple of life- long friends. They ate and drank, laughed, reminisced and told stories until late in the evening. Their only special request was for pie instead of birthday cake, clapping with delight when Donna’s strawberry-rhubarb pies were presented.
I had to contrast this with another celebratory dinner that we hosted a week or so later. It was an engagement dinner with only the couple, the parents of the bride-to-be and the prospective groom’s father, who was himself about ninety-four. The engaged couple had separately been regulars at the restaurant before they met, so we were excited and pleased that they had chosen Mildred’s for this dinner and offered a round of champagne to start.
Gruffly, the old man demanded a steak, well-done. He could not be convinced to wait until the others had had an opportunity to look at the menu. We produced the steak as quickly as we could and he ate it with a singular focus, while the rest of the table engaged in subdued and stilted conversation. When he had finished, he left the table and sat by the door, arms folded, waiting for the others to finish, a very picture of bitterness, as if he were living out his life under protest.
Why I wondered do two people arrive at the same point in life with such different attitudes?
Of the many romantic scenarios we witnessed, there was another recurring one which stood out. A darkly handsome man often arrived for a late brunch on Sunday afternoon, arm in arm with a lovely young woman. Each date followed a definite pattern – the same secluded patio table under the trumpet vine, sheltered among the roses, with poached eggs with smoked salmon or a salad Niçoise and a bottle of Provençal rosé. But it was never the same woman. Some of the waiters began to refer to it as the ‘Sunday brush-off’ because as the meal progressed, covert kisses and soft glances were replaced by tears and sighs. He appeared a master of gentle disengagement as he hugged the young woman tightly and solemnly helped her into a taxi. He would then cheerfully settle his bill, tip lavishly and roar off in his red sports car.
A couple of the waiters claimed that the gentleman was actually gay and that one day, turning his dark eyes towards one of them, he would beckon for them to join him in the car.
“And I’ll be gone!” one would say, “I’ll just hand you my corkscrew and tray and wave goodbye. You can just drop my cheque in the mail.”
We all laughed at their fanciful thinking. I did in fact see this gentleman again. I met him in the park a few years later, walking a big dog and pushing a stroller, so it would seem that he had met his Scheherazade.