There I stood, by myself, at the hostess stand waiting to be seated. The sign indicated I was to wait, and as I looked up and down the single row of booths, 14 in total, in the little diner that I had been frequenting since I moved to town, I saw a happy bustle of people taking leisurely lunches on a Friday afternoon ahead of the three day weekend. There were two servers and a busboy on the floor; from the window behind the counter I could count three line cooks.
After putting my name down, Jaime – party of one, on the self sign-in sheet, I stood and waited for a good long 5 minutes until I decided to take a seat on the narrow, holding bench, just big enough to support two waiting patrons. The Diner was as put together as an Ikea showroom: small and uniform, filling every space with perfectly fit, custom engineered small pieces, bright, and happy. After another five minutes of waiting a party of three entered the door, just to the right of me, and one of the two waitresses bee-lined over to them and asked, “Have y’all been helped yet?” She had a soft, put-on, Old South accent.
With a quick, unanimous shake of their heads – No, the waitress grabbed a stack of menus and ushered them to one of the two booths that had just been cleared in her section. Surely the dismissal of me was an oversight and the waitress would be right over to seat me in the empty booth opposite the three-top she’d just taken a drink order from. I smiled at the waitress as our eyes connected, and I waited.
I waited another five minutes (it’s now been 15 minutes if you’re tracking). The waitress made no indication that she would be offering me the booth, so I stepped outside and contemplated leaving. If I say something it would likely ignite an argument, I thought, which gave my insides an electric current of anxiety. But what if I just go back in and wait another few minutes standing so there is no confusion whether or not I’m waiting to be seated? I opted for the latter, my curiosity was piqued – just how long would it take for someone to wait-on the SWF (Single White Female)?
I reentered the diner and planted myself directly between the front door and the hostess stand. It would be a tight squeeze for any new diners to be seated ahead of me, and I smiled with newly found confidence.
The minutes ticked by slowly and painfully. I shifted my weight back and forth from one leg to the other, my hips pushing themselves into a deep tea-kettle pose, as I rested one hand at my waist while raising the other hoping to catch the attention of both waitresses or the busboy. It may be cliché to write, but I was boiling, you could tip me over…yada yada yada…
I stared unapologetically as patrons were leaving and tables cleared, first from the section to my left and then from the section to my right. The bright orange vinyl booths held the shape of the wide backs that had previously resided in them, and then after a few minutes they slowly restored to their original plump shape, with a faint pop as air penetrated it’s way back in. There I was, loitering, or so it must have appeared, as no one spoke a word to me. My mind started to wander as I looked at the melting cheeses and toasted buns being served one plate at a time.
Then the bell on the door behind me announced another new arrival. I turned to see a couple smiling at each other dreamily as they prepared for their lovers lunch on this Friday afternoon. I was mesmerized by their affection, and while distracted, had not noticed the same carrion waitress swoop in to snatch the couple up and seat them at the available booth in her section.
It took everything in me not to scream. I felt angry and self-conscious and the fact that not one of the patrons cutting in front of me bothered to say, “I think she was here first,” pissed me off even more.
I stared at the waitress, this two-time offender. I stared with the weight of my anger and frustration until she took notice. She hesitantly walked toward me and asked if I had been helped.
“No, I’ve not been helped,” my mind was bitter and spewing the words, but my mouth was calm and collected.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked obtusely.
“I’m waiting to be seated,” I answered as neutrally as possible, while thinking, okay, you’re special, you are a special kind of asshole.
“Oh, I guess we didn’t see you over here in all the commotion,” she giggled as she lied. I frowned. “Follow me this way,” she directed.
She had led me to a booth in the other waitress’ section.
“Some one will be right with you, okay Hon?” As the pronoun rounded itself off her tongue in a slow southern drawl, I smiled neutrally, again, as I made a mental note to write a Yelp review commenting on the one time I didn’t have decent service at The Diner, and then I thought, no I won’t, I don’t like being negative, I prefer everyone to see me as happy and positive all the DAMN TIME!
I was seated, in a booth, menu in hand and mentally, actively choosing to change my attitude. I sat, my lunch decision made: the Mixed Green Salad, a Fresh Fruit Bowl, and a Decaf Coffee. I closed the menu, and I waited. I checked my phone, the first time since I’d arrived at the diner, and noted I had now been at the restaurant for half of an hour and had not even been asked how I was doing today. Not that it’s mandatory, but it is customary.
I watched as a second booth in my section was filled by two burly men and then a third booth was filled by two women. I watched as the waitress in my section made her way to both tables, and chitchatted. She asked them how their day was going, if they had plans for the holiday weekend. I watched her take both tables’ drink orders and then deliver the beverages. I just sat there, and I waited, smiling, and watching.
I watched as more couples entered the restaurant, sat in the opposite section of mine, and placed their orders. Finally I caught the attention of the busboy and I asked him for a glass of water and if I could order.
“I’ll tell your waitress you’re ready,” he replied.
I watched as he made his way to my waitress. I saw her glance over and felt hopeful. I watched as she hustled to my side of the diner, walk right past me and gossip with yet another table of twenty-somethings about the good old days when she was married to a “Psycho, but that was before you all were born, I’m old,” she joked, lightly.
Then I watched as she took the orders of the burly gentlemen and then the women. I watched with longing, because I had skipped breakfast and was now really hungry. I thought my choice to stay and watch how this played out was stupid, but I was too invested to leave.
As my stomach rumbled, the waitress put the orders in for the tables seated after me, and I swallowed dryly as their drinks were topped off. I flagged down the busboy once again and asked him, loudly, “Who is my server? I would like to at least get a water.”
And then, the energy shifted. I was louder then I had intended to be. In fact I had projected so loudly that the carrion waitress was upon me instantly.
“Hey Hon, what seems to be the matter?” her drawl even thicker and her smile less convincing this time.
“Well, I’d like a glass of water, and I’d like to place my order, but it seems that I don’t have a waitress,” I stated neutrally and still quite loudly.
“Oh,” her tone condescending, “well maybe she just thought you were waiting for someone, Hon. Why don’t I get your order started and I’ll let her know,” she was dripping with sweetness and insecurity, unsure of how she would be handled by me.
“Great,” I started calmly, “I’ll take the Mixed Salad, the Fresh Fruit, and a Decaf Coffee.”
“You got it, Sugar,” I wondered whether Sugar was a euphemism for Bitch or Cunt.
As she placed my order with the line cooks, I saw her gesture at me to the other waitress. A moment later, the other waitress wordlessly delivered me a decaf coffee. The mug, indelicately set before me, spilled with the hard landing. I sopped it up, also wordlessly, and I felt the deep animosity of this older waitress and thought, was it your ex that was Psycho or was it you?
Exactly three minutes later, my salad and fruit were delivered with the same amount of physical enthusiasm and silence. I ate quickly and efficiently, trying my best to enjoy the fresh cut mango. I had one silent refill of coffee and then the check arrived. I paid, left the standard tip, and exited.
When I got home I wondered if this was a normal, everyday experience for any of my friends.
That evening Jason, Jack and I went to the supermarket. I grabbed bananas as Jack and Jason made their way to the sample station, as is customary during our Trader Joe’s runs. When I met them at the sample station, there, cooing at my son, was the carrion waitress with her Old South accent. I said nothing as I looked at her and then to my husband, and I kissed my child’s head to show a little power. This time there was no denying that she had noticed me.
Her face turned as scarlet as the red, eyelet shift dress she wore. I smiled at her confirming recognition, as we had only just parted ways 3 hours prior. The guilt written on her face was enough for me, I looked at the family and asked, “what are we sampling? I’m starving! Did I tell you about the fresh mango I had at lunch?”
I winked good-bye to the waitress and pushed the cart forward as Jason (my husband) popped a bit of mini quiche in my mouth from the sample tray.
What would you have done?