Monday, October 30, 2017

The Hungry Ghost


When I worked as a waitress I once had a table complain about me because I was "too smiley." That is a true story.

I waited tables in high school and all through college. I had a lot of stories. Like the one about the irate father who became practically hysterical when I told him I could not bring his young daughter a grilled cheese sandwich. "I know it's not on the menu, but HOW HARD IS IT??" He helpfully offered me his own recipe, "Just put some CHEESE between some BREAD and WARM IT UP FOR CRYING OUT LOUD."

"Sir, this is a Chinese restaurant. We don't have any bread. Or cheese."

It was a fun job.

It's always fun when your sole source of income is dependent on the whims of people who may or may not become enraged when you tell them that fried rice costs extra.

Admittedly, I approached it with the same sort of enthusiasm one might muster for an appointment to get a mole removed. I suppose I could have had a more positive attitude, but someone had already complained about me being too smiley.

My last waitressing job was at a P.F. Chang's China Bistro adjacent to a large shopping mall. One evening, right before the dinner rush, I noticed the hostess leading a well-dressed middle aged man to one of my tables. She handed him a menu and plopped down an extra in front of the empty seat across from him.

There was nothing unusual about this scene, many people choose to be seated while they wait for the rest of their party, but I did notice he appeared to be having an audible conversation complete with hand gestures, pauses and an occasional burst of laughter. At first I assumed he was wearing one of those bluetooth earpieces that were suddenly so popular. It was 2003 and important people couldn't be bothered to actually hold their flip phones to their ears while milling about in public anymore.

As I approached the table the gentleman was still deep in conversation. I placed a beverage napkin by his elbow (or "bevnap" as we in the biz call it) and leaned in to politely signify I was ready to take his drink order.

"Oh hello," he acknowledged, turning to me, "I'll have a Diet Coke and she'll take some unsweet tea," he motioned to the empty spot across the table. "You do have Sweet 'N Low though, don't you? She likes to add it to her tea."

I nodded and suddenly felt an uncomfortable chill down my spine, because now I had a clear view of both his ears and there was no earpiece in either of them.

While at the beverage station I tried to make sense of the odd interaction. Surely he ordered a drink for a close friend who was on her way...but the talking? Had they started making Bluetooth earpieces so small they fit inside the entire ear? Maybe it was some kind of new telephone implant.

My lone patron was still chatting away when I approached his table with the drinks. "Thank you so much," he said as he reached to pour sweetener and stir the tall glass of iced tea on the opposite side of the table, "I think we are ready to order."

"Um, ok," I replied hesitantly.

"I'll take the Beef and Broccoli and what would you like, dear?" He glanced up at the empty chair and waited.

I waited.

He waited some more.

"How about Chang's Spicy Chicken?" I suggested helpfully. It was one of our most popular dishes.

"Oh no, Sally hates spicy, don't you, Sally? Well, do you know what you want? I thought you had decided already! Oh, really? Hmmm, that does sound interesting." He turned to me again, "What do you think of the Mu Shu Pork?"

Sometimes when we find ourselves in situations that we cannot seem to make sense of, we simply react with the most normal instinct that is programmed into our social schemas. If I saw an alien from outerspace taking a walk through my neighborhood I would like to think that I would run and hide, but it seems I would probably just wave and say, "Hi, how are you? That is a lovely dog you have there." So, when asked my opinion on a dish for his invisible friend, I did not exclaim DOES IT MATTER?? THERE'S NO ONE THERE TO EAT IT!!!

Also I was still hoping for a decent tip. The only way to secure a good tip from restaurant patrons is to happily go along with whatever they say. What's that? You ordered your Lemon Chicken without lemon sauce and now it just tastes like plain chicken? Shame on the cook! He should telepathically know the exact dish you were visualizing in your head! I'll refund your money immediately.

"The Mu Shu Pork is delicious," I answered.

I have zero pictures of me waiting tables because film was expensive and we were not going to waste it on pictures of ourselves in dirty aprons. But here is me at a restaurant in college. Taken by the only person we knew with a digital camera. Thanks, Jeff!

A well-known fact in the restaurant world is the only thing worse than a bad customer is a restaurant manager. I'm not saying all restaurant managers are condescending jerks, I've known some lovely ones, but if I were forced to choose between being stuck in an elevator with a restaurant manager or with Hannibal Lector, I could at least have an intelligent conversation with the cannibal.

I approached my manager who was stationed at the bar, completely absorbed in a football game on tv. "Um, excuse me," I began. He turned, clearly annoyed at the interruption. I went on, "There's this man at one of my tables and he's with his girlfriend, but the thing is, his girlfriend isn't real."

The manager blinked. I continued, "Like, there's nobody there. He's just talking out loud to a chair. He's ordering food...for the chair." I emphasized 'chair' really dramatically, just letting the impact of the situation take full affect.


I wasn't really expecting a non-reaction, although I probably should have. "SO, either he's totally nuts or his girlfriend's a ghost. And I don't really feel comfortable waiting on crazy people. Or ghosts."

The manager stroked his chin. He had this habit of rubbing the soul patch under his lip, as if he were constantly checking to see if it were still there. I liked to believe it was because growing that inch of facial hair was his greatest achievement in life and I wanted nothing more than to rip it off his stupid face.

"Yeah, well," he finally replied, "If the crazy dude pulls a knife on you or tries to drag you out of the restaurant, just don't make a big scene. Wouldn't want to interrupt the other guests." He laughed as if he had just told the funniest joke of his life.

"I hope he stabs you in your stupid chin," I muttered under my breath because I am really good at insults.

Failing to gain any support from management I relayed the situation to some of my fellow servers. The restaurant was getting busier, but the employees still had time to carry on a conversation. When the restaurant becomes so slammed the servers can only bark commands at each other we refer to it as "in the weeds" as in "Please run my apps to table 11, I'M IN THE WEEDS!!"

Sometimes I still use it on my family during the dinnertime hour at our house. "No, I can't get you a glass of water right now," I yell while manning 3 different pans on the stove, "I'M IN THE WEEDS!!"

Between "bevnaps" and "in the weeds" you have basically leaned all there is to know about working in a restaurant. You have me to thank if you ever get the urge to serve ribs at Chili's.

Anyway, the other servers were pretty impressed by my story. Every night there was always this unspoken competition over who had the best crazy customer story. Tonight I was going to blow everyone out of the water.

"You know," one guy pointed out, "maybe this is part of some sort of new hidden camera show, like Punk'd but with regular people." His theory was not half bad and I suddenly wished I had taken the time to wash my hair that day or at least worn the shirt without the soy sauce stain on the sleeve.

I figured I might as well go all in. If this were a hidden camera show then I was going to win an Emmy for "Sweetest and Most Cooperative Victim on a Prank Show" and if the guy was a complete psychopath set on murdering me after his meal, I may as well spend my last few hours having fun.

The order finally came up and I brought it to the table. Mu Shu Pork is a dish consisting of sliced pork stir-fried with mushrooms, bok choy, eggs and probably some other ingredients that become difficult to distinguish once they are all tossed together in a flaming wok. This mixture is then served along side paper-thin Chinese pancakes with the intent of wrapping the mixture inside the pancake to create a sort of Chinese burrito.

Because PF Chang's is such a classy, distinguished restaurant, they have a strict policy that guests are not to wrap their own Mu Shu. Oh no, the servers are specially trained in the art of Mu Shu wrapping using only two large spoons because hands would be gross. The whole process of presenting the Mu Shu, dividing the filling into 4 equal portions and somehow maneuvering said portions into perfectly wrapped burritos using only spoons, takes anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes and always seems to need doing while the server is already in the weeds and her other tables are giving her death stares while she painstakingly forms Chinese tacos as the waiting table sits awkwardly.

As I worked my Mu Shu magic, Harry narrated my every move for Sally. (I decided to secretly call him Harry because obviously.)

"Would you look at that, Sally? She's putting the filling in one of those taco shell things and, well I'll be, she's wrapped it up in a bundle! That sure looks delicious, Sally."

I placed the first Mu Shu wrap on a plate in front of Ghost Sally. I noticed her ice tea remained untouched, the condensation rendering her bevnap a soggy, pulpy mess.

"So," I attempted some smalltalk as I wrapped the final Mu Shu, "How long have you and Sally known each other?"

"We've been seeing each other for a while now," he replied.

"Oh yes, it's nice to see people," I winked, tossing my unwashed hair back over my shoulders in case Ashton Kutcher might be watching.

The story of Harry and Sally would be pretty good if it ended right there, but it gets even stranger. After Harry finished his Beef and Broccoli (and Sally's poor, cold Mu Shu remained untouched), he stood up, knelt down on one knee and began proclaiming his love to the empty chair.

At this point I felt very invested in this relationship, so I immediately ran over and asked, "Oh my goodness, what is happening?!"

"She said yes! Sally said yes! We're getting married!" Harry joyfully exclaimed.

I replied the only way I knew how, "Yay! Let's have cake!"

I brought him some cake on the house and Harry visited each nearby table to tell them the good news.

Since you're wondering, yes, Harry did leave a good tip and one of the busboys took Sally's leftovers home for himself. Maybe ghosts don't like Mu Shu, but broke college kids sure do.

My manager was very confused and slightly annoyed when I asked him to take the cake off of Harry's bill. "You want us to buy an engagement dessert for the man sitting by himself? Where is his fiance?"

"Well, technically I suppose she's a ghost, but love breaks down all boundaries, you know what I mean?"

It wasn't the best job but I sure got a lot of stories out of it.

I'll admit my ghost story is not very scary,

...but the thought of having to wait tables again?

That is something of which I am truly terrified.