My Sunday School students are always asking me to tell stories about my childhood. My children, when they were small, would clamor for stories and I'd have them pick an age and then I'd tell a story from when I was that age.
Most of my stories are funny because I can tell stories and put a funny spin on them.
Recently, at work, I've been a called a liar, a cheater, a blackmailer by customers. At home there have been other words ascribed to me that have been far less obvious, but just as cruel. Like most people, I understand that words mean things and that name calling hurts. I come from the "sticks and stones" generation. No, calling me a liar, a cheater, a thief (that was one especially satisfied customer) when you haven't met me and all I am to you is the voice on the other end of the phone telling you that you were the one who put the cigarette burn in the item we installed and therefore no, our warranty will not apply to your repair isn't going to kill me. But it hurts all the same.
The past few days have been especially hard for me. PM is no longer working for Stuff, Installed and Captain Nubbin has basically dumped the unpleasant calls to my phone and left the building for places he cannot be reached. So there's no one to go to for support, knowledge, or to take on an especially furious customer. It's my job, now, to deal with it.
I'm not cute when I cry. Plus it gives me a blazing headache that lasts for days after the crying fit is over. So I do my very best not to let the tears out.
So what do I do? Where do I go when the volume on my many imperfections is turned past 11?
I have this story. I haven't told it often. It's one I keep for myself for weeks like this. But it's one I need to see in print because that's my medium of choice.
So here it is:
I was eighteen, I think, working as an opening waitress at a Big Boy restaurant. I'd been working at the same place since late in my junior year of high school. They kept bringing me back for summers when I was in college. I graduated from "carry out girl" (the person who bagged up take out orders of chicken and burgers) to waitress. I liked my job most of the time because it was good money and I liked meeting people.
I remember on this morning it was sunny. Very sunny. We had to pull the blinds on the windows because the windows were on the east side of the building, pointing toward Lake Michigan. It was sunny and it was early. And I think it might have been a Sunday because I don't recall my weekday regulars, (the couple who always ordered oatmeal, except when they didn't, the decaf ladies, the regular coffee ladies, the guy with the speech impediment who tried for an entire summer to get me to go out with him and then the next summer asked if I'd gotten fat over the school year, those people) being there.
A man was seated in my station. He was a brown man, and I point that out because living on the Northeast coast of Wisconsin in the late 1980's, we didn't get a lot of brown people. There was an influx of Asian people starting to come into town back then, but mostly what we had were white folks who didn't mind the 9 months of damp and cold followed by 3 months of damp and slightly less cold. So, being brown, he stuck out.
I went up to him, told him my name, gave him a glass of water, and asked him if I could get him any coffee. He had an accent, I remember that, but I was eighteen and hadn't been around a lot of people with accents. Looking back, if I had to sweat to it, I'd say he was Eastern Indian. He was very, very polite and soft spoken. He said he really had no money, but he was waiting for his brother. He asked if he might have some coffee. I brought it and told him it would be okay he didn't have to pay for a cup of coffee.
I attended to other customers for a bit and checked in with him. No brother yet. He was very apologetic, but asked if perhaps I could place a phone call for him. This was back in the day before cell phones. And the office was locked because the manager had not yet come in, so I couldn't use that phone. There was a payphone outside the restaurant and I said I would place the call as long as it was local because I hadn't been on very long and didn't have a lot in the way of cash myself.
He gave me the number and I told the hostess I had to use the restroom. See, back then the only people who got breaks were people who smoked, which is why pretty much everyone I worked with smoked. So I called the brother. He also was very soft spoken and had the same accent. I explained who I was and that someone saying he was his brother had given me the number. I gave him the address.
A while later, the brother appeared. I gave both men a cup of coffee and let them talk. I took care of other customers, refilling their cups only when they pushed them to the edge of the table. (That's the eternal signal, by the way, for "my coffee cup is EMPTY!") After about an hour, they left. The brother stopped me and thanked me for calling him. He didn't say much else, but I got the impression the men hadn't seen each other in a very long time. He said I was very kind and he appreciated my kindness and generosity to his brother.
Later, when I cleared the table I saw they left money enough on the table to cover the cost of the coffee and a quarter for the phone call, which I hadn't charged them for. I could have kept it as a tip, but that felt really wrong, so I wrote up a bill for two cups of coffee and gave the money to the hostess. I kept the quarter, and I actually kept that quarter for a long time, sort of as a keepsake.
Over the years parts of the story have faded. I mean, it's been nearly 30 years since I worked that job. and in the pantheon of my life it's such a quiet, tiny moment. But I don't think a year goes by that I don't think of those two brothers. And when I'm feeling especially low and I feel like maybe I am useless and a cheater and a thief and a liar, I go back to that brown man with the soft voice asking me to please call his brother and I think of the brother thanking me so quietly, yet with so much feeling that a child of eighteen would never forget it and instead would appreciate it for decades.
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