One of the worst things about waiting tables can be the people who sit in your station but oddly enough they can be one of the best things too. A few weeks ago, I had an amazingly cool lady sit in my booth. She was an older woman who was all decked out in that Old Lady attire that was totally in style when she bought it 25 years ago. She was with a younger couple and it seemed like they were taking Grandma out for dinner. When I told her that the special of the night was gnocchi, her eyes lit up and she suddenly became very animated. She hadn't spoken to me before that point, but she exclaimed, "I love gnocchi! That's what I want." Her voice was deep and gravely like if Lauren Bacall and Harvey Fierstein had a love child together. It sounded like she didn't just smoke Pall Malls, she gargled with them. Like if she coughed too hard, she'd poop out a cigarette or if she blew her nose, ashes would come out. "I grew up eating gnocchi so I know what good gnocchi is like. I hope this passes the muster." I looked over at the open kitchen and smiled at the cook who would be making it; Juan. Surely Juan had been making gnocchi ever since he was a little boy in Mexico. "Is it good?" she wanted to know. "Well, I like it a lot but I didn't grow up eating it," I said. "Hopefully ours can compare to the memory of what you had but if it doesn't I can promise you that I will serve it with a smile." She laughed at that and then the laugh turned into a disturbing and violent cough that ended up with her grabbing a napkin and spitting into it. "Goodbye, piece of lung," I thought.
Ten minutes later, I placed the bowl of gnocchi before her. "Is there anything else I can get for you right now?" She shook her head as she grabbed a utensil and focused on the food in front of her. "I'll be back in a few minutes and double check on everything." Already she had her first bite on the fork and was blowing it to cool it down. I stood across the dining room and watched her taste the gnocchi. She popped it into her mouth and her eyes rolled into the back of her head. It's usually a good sign when someone rolls their eyes after taking a bite. Occasionally it means they are going into anaphylactic shock because I forgot to tell the kitchen about their peanut allergy but most of the time it means they are loving the taste of the food. It was time for my two-minute check back.
"How do you like your gnocchi? Is it everything you wanted it to be and more?" I asked.
She took a look at me and in her gravely-Eileen Heckart voice she said, 'My dear, it is perfection. You made my night. Thank you." She put her hand on my wrist and gave it a squeeze. She smiled revealing yellow teeth and nicotine-stained gums. I smiled back at her.
"Good, I'm glad you like it. Enjoy your meal and let me know if there's anything else you need."
Sometimes waiting tables can give you varicose veins, a sore back and fallen arches, but every once in a while it gives you a gift. That night it felt good to give this woman something to smile about. Clearly she was already a happy woman out for dinner with her family but somehow I felt responsible for the smile on her face that night. When I cleared her plate, it was completely wiped clean. "I think you really liked it, huh?"
"I loved it! Thank you so much and please tell the chef how wonderful it was." I wondered how one says "The Pall Mall lady loved your gnocchi" in Spanish. "And you were a delight as well."
She didn't care for dessert or coffee because she said she didn't need anything else after such a perfect meal. They paid the check and left after one more brief coughing spell. As I wiped the table, I felt this weird sense of satisfaction that I don't get very often. That woman had a wonderful time in my station and she was completely fulfilled by the food and experience. She loved the gnocchi and my service. I felt good about it.
So thank you, Pall Mall Lady. You reminded me that servers have the ability to create new memories for their guests or bring back old memories and in your case, I think I did both. It's nice to know that she went home after having a wonderful night and I had something to do with it. I imagine that as she crawled into bed with her pack of cigarettes and thought about her day, it's possible that she thought of me and the plate of gnocchi I gave to her. Sometimes waiting tables can be not so horrible.