A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.
-- Dave Barry
David sat across from me at one end of the long table. Or, more accurately, he sat across from me at one end of several small tables pushed together to accommodate the 13 people in our party. The six people on his side were in chairs, as was a seventh, who sat at the head of the table between David and me. The rest of us sat hip to hip on a long cushioned bench.My right hip touched hers -- the benefactor of this meal, the owner of the gallery in New York's Chelsea district, the gallery at which art created by the man two seats to David's left had been shown and celebrated for two hours preceding our seven-block walk to the hip new restaurant in which we now sat.
The gallery owner had taken charge, had led her dinner guests to choose their menu selections quickly, had raised her petite arm forcefully into the air to attract the attention of the nearest busboy, to whom she dispatched a command to promptly send a waiter to take our order. She was demanding but not offensive, imperious but not disagreeable. When ten minutes had passed and the wine had not arrived, she called out to the waiter as he happened by, "Now. We want it now ." Her voice was low and calm, but effective. She had a job to do, to please her guests, and she would not, could not, disappoint.
Throughout the first course I kept to myself, obsessing over whether or not my Diet Coke would arrive before I finished my crispy calamari with spicy marinara. When I had my soda in hand, I directed my attention through the glass wall to my left, at the courtyard, in which leafless trees were adorned with small lights that sparkled like diamonds.
To the gallery owner's right, one pair of hips away from mine, sat one of the artists she represents, but not the artist of the evening, whose work had just been shown and celebrated. I had not noticed this man sitting so close by until his voice carried above the rest, the tone of his comments prickling my nerves like needles poking at my back. His words were thicker and more forceful -- nails being driven into my spine with a hammer.
" Great! First you practically crush my phone, and now you spill wine all over me! Just great." The waiter had apparently tipped a glass of red wine as he attempted to remove a used dish, causing the glass's contents to empty onto the artist's entrée. The artist dabbed at his lap with a white napkin that came away clean. He did not accept our offers to clear one side of the bench in order to allow him passage to the restroom.
The waiter whisked away the entrée, hurrying to the kitchen to request its replacement. He quickly returned with a glass of soda water and another napkin. It was only now, with a look of confusion that melted into one of keen understanding, that the waiter seemed to notice the original white napkin was unsoiled, and the artist's pants were black.
"It's hard to see in this light," the waiter said. "You might want to step into the restroom to get at the stain." His voice faltered on the last word.
"Forget it! Take this water back. The damage is done," said the artist.
"Sir, I am very sorry." The waiter scooped up the glass of soda water. "I will take care of your pants; we can have them cleaned and pressed for you." The artist snickered at this. "I would like to offer your table a complimentary bottle of wine."
"Yeah, great, ha! Just don't put it on me," snapped the artist.
I spent the next course staring intently at my mozzarella and tomato salad, concentrating with all my might to control the overwhelming impulse to reach over the gallery owner and slap the artist with the back of my right hand. David's face had stiffened as he chewed, his taste buds obviously distracted by the distasteful display.
I've never been a waitress. Nor have I ever worked in the retail industry or held any other kind of service-related position. Perhaps this is why I feel awkward, bad even, when someone waits on me. As if asking for a refill on my soda is a great imposition, a faux pas I dare not commit in the company of friends. "I can get it myself, if you'll just point the way," I sometimes want to say. But nothing makes me more uncomfortable, offends me on so many levels, than when a person with whom I am dining is rude to the wait-staff.
It is especially disconcerting when the offending person is otherwise pleasant. I had one friend whose company I enjoyed until we dined out for the first time. I watched this man berate, insult, and patronize another human being over nothing more than a salad. After placing an order more complicated and specific than NASA's instructions for operating the Shuttle Laser Altimeter-01, he barked at our waitress for botching the crouton mission.
Every chance I got I was catching her eye and smiling apologetically. Squirming in my seat, I attempted damage control on both ends -- pacifying my friend and overcompensating for his rudeness with pained smiles and an extra-large tip for the waitress. I arrived home exhausted.
When he next asked me to join him for dinner, at the same restaurant no less, my chest clenched in apprehension. If I made up some excuse, he would probably just ask me again. Bracing myself for the difficult task of being honest in the face of less-than complimentary truth, I took a deep breath, let the air out slowly, and said, "Mark, I'm sorry. It's just...Okay, here it is. I can't eat out with you again. The way you talk to waiters and waitresses makes me very uncomfortable."
"Oh," he said. "Oh. I see." After an awkward moment of silence, he said, "So I'll see you tomorrow at the barbecue, then." I said yes and ended the call, deliberately omitting a civil, "Enjoy your dinner."
When resolving sibling rivalries, my mother's favorite tactic was to ask, "How would you feel if you were in your sister's shoes?" If I complained about a classmate, she would pose the same question. Until every interaction we had was infused with hypersensitivity, a perceptive awareness of how the other person may have felt. The small voice in my head, sewn into my mind with the diligence of Mom's persistent needle, is always asking, "How would I feel if someone said to me what I just said?" or, the harder to control, "How would I feel if someone said to me what this guy just said to that girl?"
Throughout the third course, the artist spoke with David, and I occasionally looked up from my banana wonton to offer an obligatory, blank smile. I had not exchanged two words with this man who had openly behaved like an ungracious dick. I did not need to. I knew all I needed to know. No amount of niceties from him could ever erase from my mind the moment in which I had placed myself in that waiter's shoes and felt humiliated, indignant, and angry. Three unnecessary, painful, unproductive feelings, all because of a glass of wine, an accident, and an asshole.