It was the last table of the night. These two girls sat down in my section… They looked to be about 20-ish. I suppose that makes them young women. But if I’m telling the story, I’m probably calling them “girls.” That’s how old I am now. In my world, if you’re closer to my daughter’s age than you are to mine, I’m probably referring to you as a girl. I don’t know which is right… For the purposes of this story, I’m calling them “girls.”
They were both friendly and quirky and kind. One was thin. One was bigger. We all write stories in our heads about the people we meet… For some reason, the one who was bigger struck me as someone whose weight had always been a bit of a struggle for her. I asked them if they knew what they wanted to drink, and I told them the options. When I told them the soda options, the thinner one put her finger out and shook it down once as she curtly said “NO!” to her bigger friend. It was a little weird… Like she was scolding a puppy who was getting too close to the table. She said, “We’re kind of on a diet.” It became clear that the thinner girl was trying to help her friend with a weight loss plan. So the bigger girl ordered a water. Then the thin girl looks at me and says, “I’ll have a ginger ale.”
I brought them their drinks, and the bigger girl says, “This is going to sound really high maintenance, but do y’all have vegan cheese?” I work at an Italian restaurant. And because I think I’m pretty funny, I say, “I’m so sorry, we don’t… But if it’s any consolation, we have a WHOLE lot of NON-vegan cheeses.” Neither of them seems to think this attempt at humor hit the mark. She says, “I’m doing this Whole30 thing, and I’m not supposed to have cheese.” Her thinner friend says, “Just get a Caprese salad,” and she snaps back, “Dude, I can’t have mozzarella cheese!” I point her to a vegan salad we have, but it doesn’t look like something she wants. Meanwhile, her friend says, “Well, I’m having the Caprese salad…”
Please allow me to interrupt. I have always been fairly thin. It’s just the way my body has always worked. Getting older has slowed my metabolism down some, so now I have to be a little more conscious of what I’m eating… But if there were any justice in the universe, I’d be so overweight. I spent most of my life treating my body like a trashcan, and somehow I’m not obese. This is just to say that a person’s body size is NOT necessarily a reflection on their willpower or their activeness or their discipline. So don’t make judgements there. Back to the story…
The one doing Whole30 is getting a little frustrated, and she says, “I’ll just have the Caesar salad.” Her friend goes, “NO, YOU CAN’T HAVE CAESAR SALAD! Caesar dressing is SO not good for you.” At this point, I want to tell her that there is a shit-ton of cheese in the Caesar dressing, but tensions are getting high, and I figure it’s best to just stay out of it. I tell them I can give them some time to decide, but she says, “Okay, I’m getting the Caesar salad with no cheese, dressing on the side, and I’d like it with chicken.” The thinner one says she wants to keep the menu at the table in case she’d like something else, and I put their order in.
A little bit later their salads are ready, and Chicken Caesar/dressing-on-the-side says, “Can I cancel the order for that salad?” I’m like, “I CAN? But it’s already made.” They are really cool about it. She says, “Oh that’s totally fine. We’ll pay for it… I’ll just give it to someone else.” Something tells me she searched on her phone how Caesar dressing is made… Whole30 has decided that she’d just like a grilled chicken breast with some marinara in the side… Now — long story short, here — we don’t HAVE grilled chicken. We don’t have a GRILL. We can FRY a chicken breast for the Chicken Parm, but now I’m explaining to her that the only non-fried chicken breast we have is kind of broiled, and in pieces (for the pastas, the pizzas, & the salads). The thinner friend tells me she also like a side of meatballs. At this point, the one trying to do Whole30 looks totally defeated. I see her give up. She says, “You know what? I’m good.” I am certain she doesn’t mean it. Caprese salad changes her meatball order to a side of fries.
I’d like to interrupt this part of the story to let you know that these last five months or so have been THE hardest of my life. I’m not publicly going into specifics yet, but let’s just say that it has been the sort of time where your friends send you random texts saying things like, “Hey man, how you holding up?” and “I just want you to know that I’m thinking about you” and “Let me know if there’s anything you need.” A genuine nightmare. It’s been a “paying to talk to a therapist on a regular basis” sort of time in my life. In normal, happy times, it’s notoriously easy for me to tear up. But these days, it feels like dry eyes are the exception. Anyway…
I can feel my eyes welling up as this sweet girl gives up on eating a meal, and I say, “Let me see what I can do…”
The cook is really busy, and as far as trying to “grill” a chicken breast without a grill, they don’t really *do* that. And asking a cook to do a special order when they are busy like that is just a jerk move. So I put on some gloves, and I put a little bit of olive oil in a pan and turn up the heat. I grab a chicken breast, beat it up a little, throw some white wine into the pan (which causes a big flame), and I cook up a chicken breast with a little salt and pepper and lemon. I try to blacken it, but not make it tough. People are coming up to me saying, “WTF are you doing?” (they’re not used to seeing me on the line), and I explain that I’m just trying to get this girl something she can eat. About five minutes later, I’ve got a decent-looking piece of chicken in front of me. I bring it to the table. It doesn’t look like very much food. I set it down and say, “Here you go.” They both enthusiastically thank me — her friend with French fries in her mouth.
I check back a couple minutes later to see how she likes it. She says it is *so* good. I decide to believe her… At this point, they are they only table in the dining room. A 14-top I had has just left, and I’m trying to clean up their table. And while I was cleaning up, the song “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel comes on in the restaurant…
Another interruption… You might not know this, but I can sing. I used to write songs. It was initially the reason I decided to move to Nashville. “Don’t Give Up” is one of my favorite songs. Like, probably Top 10. Peter Gabriel’s “SO” album brought me through some intense heartache in my life — No song more than that one. It doesn’t hurt that my voice has roughly the same range as Peter Gabriel. I play the piano by ear, and a long time ago I worked out that song. It’s almost like gospel on the piano. It has the feeling of a prayer to me. Here it is, sung with the other-worldly Kate Bush:
And so, I know every damn word to that beautiful song. And I don’t care where I am, if that some comes on, I’m singing it… Now more than ever.
So I sang that song as I cleaned… Not even a little bit under my breath. I sang it like I was the only one in the room. “Don’t give up… I’m proud of who you are. Don’t give up… You’re not beaten yet. Don’t give up… I know you can make it.” The song finished, and I brought them their check. It was $50. They were just girls. They looked like they were in college. I didn’t expect much from them, honestly. There’s no way they could have known that the night before was one of the worst nights I’ve had at the restaurant in probably over a year. This time of year is always slow, but it’s been REAL slow… And hard times always seem harder when you’re not making as much money. I don’t know — Maybe they thought I was singing that song to them… Telling her not to give up. They couldn’t have known that really, I was singing it to myself. Anyway, those two girls thanked me, they left me two crisp hundred dollar bills, and they told me to keep the change. They said, “Thank you so much. You have made our whole week.”
The thin one also said, “Oh my God, I am SO FULL.”
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is… Maybe it’s that you never know what a simple act of kindness or generosity is going to do for someone. Maybe it’s that we have the power to affect the people in our paths with acts of love, kindness, & generosity. Maybe it’s that you shouldn’t judge college girls by how high maintenance they are. Maybe this post — like the Peter Gabriel song I sung last night — is more for me than it is for anyone else. Either way, I thought you might like to hear the story…
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