Thursday, January 18, 2007

october 25, 2003





October 25, 2003

For this late in October, it was unusually warm here in New York City, so Dario propped open the front door of Andrew’s Coffee Shop. Seventh Avenue and 35th Street. On one side we’ve got Macy’s and on the other Madison Square Garden. In one word: Noise. In two words: Noise and Tourists. All of the stools at the counter were occupied--full of people eating alone, people engulfed in the latest newsprint and scrambled eggs with toast. Forks, paper, chewing, noise. All the collective chatter floating above the booths gathered into one cloud of nonsense, and just barely Simon and Garfunkel faintly sang “Slip Sliding Away” overhead.

I heard him before I saw him. His booming voice penetrated the noisy restaurant.
“I NEED A FOXY LADY TO WAIT ON ME!”
A bold entrance, I must say. Having mentally noted his request I didn’t expect I would have to deal with the voice in person, but there he was rounding the corner of my section.
“THERE’S ONE!” he yelled and nodded at me.
His eyes were hidden behind black sunglasses--the kind you can get for 99 cents in a gas station impulse bin. Several people in surrounding booths stared at me. Probably as confused as I was that anyone would ever deem me "foxy." I met their concerned eyes with a slight smile.
“I NEED TO WASH MY HANDS BEFORE I EAT OF COURSE,” he bellowed, as he threw all his belongings--something multi-colored housed in a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag, a large army-green duffel bag and a black coat--onto one of the booth’s benches. He asked me where he could find the restroom and I pointed to the back of the restaurant. “Is it safe to leave my stuff here? I hear they rob you in New York City,” he said, mockingly. I told him his things would be fine.

There's usually a short line waiting to use the facilities, as the diner only has one toilet. While he waited for his turn to wash up he announced, “ARE WE IN HELL OR IS IT JUST HOT IN HERE? IT FEELS LIKE THE DEVIL CRAWLED UP MY ASS!” I let out a laugh.

When he came out of the bathroom he approached me from behind and made me jump when he tapped my shoulder. “Don’t worry—I tip better than anyone in here,” he told me as we both walked towards his table. He thrust his arms into the air and motioning to his fellow patrons, yelled, “I’LL SHOW THESE PEOPLE GRATUITY!”
He sat opposite his pile of bags. I handed him a menu and asked if he’d like something to drink. “I’ll have a tall glass of milk, I’m very thirsty.” I turned to walk away and he said to my back, “And put some ice in there. I’m very hot, I’d like my milk with ice.” I looked over my shoulder and said, “No problem.”

When I returned with his milk he was anxious to order. “I’ll have a ham and cheese omelet and whole wheat toast with butter…but make sure the omelet is big, add an extra egg if you have to or something.”
"Will do," I said. And he smiled. I walked over to one of the computers and placed his order on the touch screen. I glanced over at his table and he was looking at me still with the same smile. His eyes, blue, had a faraway sadness about them. I looked away embarrassed, like I was trespassing in someone’s daydream.

A little time passed and his food order appeared in the window. As I approached the line of booths, I noticed he wasn’t where I'd left him. So I put his plates on the table and looked towards the front of the restaurant. There he was--outside standing in front of the wall of windows brushing his gray hair and beard. I watched him for a moment. I don’t know if he saw me or only his reflection or possibly some combination of the two. When he came back in he sat down, looked my way and said, “Thank you amigo!” You’re welcome.

After a few minutes I walked down the aisle to refill some coffee cups and I stopped at his table to make sure he was satisfied with the size of his omelet.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked me.
I took notice of the two rather large crosses hanging around his neck. Uh-oh, I thought. This is not going in a comfortable direction.
“Yes…” I said.
“I knew it.”
“How?”
“Your face.”
“My face?”
“Yeah…you remind of a girl from 30 years ago…nice Jewish girl.”

A line of a poem I once wrote popped into my head: “This isn’t the first time I’ve been told that my hair or something about the way I look at people reminds them of grade-school sweethearts.”

To him, I replied, “Really?”

"Let's go, Alyse! You're not in Kansas anymore!" My manager, Dario, is one of those ignorant people who thinks the East Coast, specifically The Big Apple, is superior to any other part of the country.

Unlike waitressing back in Illinois, here we are supposed to just leave the check with the food and go. Annoyed by Dario's comment, I dismissed my "midwestern mentality" and said my standard, “Well if you need anything else, just let me know,” as I placed the check on the table. Usually people just nod and avoid eye contact.
“I’m gonna need more food than this.” I smiled.
“This isn’t enough food for a man.”
“Ok, well let me know when you need more.”

I walked away and studied him while leaning against the kitchen window counter. His crosses, one wooden, one metal, hung low against a black t-shirt that read, “NFL 2002 San Francisco 49er’s” in large letters. He wore a black hat that had an American flag patch stitched on and underneath read “San Francisco.USA” and black shorts with white socks pulled up to his knees. To whoever was listening around him he either said, “I eat for soldiers” or “I eat like a soldier.” He signaled me over to his table, silently.

“I’ll have another glass of milk and another order of toast.”
“Ok, sounds good,” I said and took his cup.
“The ice in there now is ok, though,” he added.

I set his refill down in front of him and he said, “Is your name Rayshell?”
Confused, I said, “No…it’s Alyse.”
“That’s a great name.”
“Thank you…why’d you…”
“How old are you? 18?”
“No. I’ll be 21...one month from today actually.” [Thanks to my dad, everything is always a countdown. On the 25th of every month he reminds me of how much time has passed and how much is left till my next birthday. If he had been there he would have said, “Well congratulations, Lyse, you’re 20 and 11/12 today!”]
“What were you going to ask me?”
"Oh I was just going to ask why you guessed Rayshell of all names…Was that the name of the girl from 30 years ago?”
“No.” He answered simply, quietly, and with a slight hint of exasperation.
“Just look like one?”
“Yeah.”

I had other tables that needed my attention so I left him alone with his fresh milk and toast. While he finished I lingered back around the counter, keeping an eye out on my section, but at the same time distractedly singing some song under my breath. I caught him watching me. This made me slightly uneasy and I quickly looked away.

“You’re so pretty,” he called out to me. I looked up, alarmed. I didn’t think I heard him right.
“What?”
“You’re so pretty.” He said this in a daring tone of voice. I felt my face burn. For someone who has spent her whole life--past and present--in the shadow of her beautiful friends, I was caught off guard.
“Um…thank you…” I turned around and decided it was a good time to make more coffee.

It didn’t take him long to finish his second helping. He signaled me over again.
“What do I owe you?”
I dug through the front pocket of my apron and retrieved his updated check.
“$12.05,” I said as I placed the receipt on the table.
He handed me a twenty without looking up. “I’ll take this to the cashier for you and be right back with your change.”

When I brought his change back there was another twenty-dollar bill sitting on the table. “Here’s your change,” I said.
“This is for you.” He pushed the twenty a little with his finger.
“I…um…I can’t take that…”
“Just take it and go away.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, have a good life.” He didn’t look at me.
“Um…thank you…very much. You have a good life too.” I felt stupid saying that as he looked like he'd lived many lives already. I stuck the bill into my apron, took his dirty dishes and walked away.

The next time I walked past him he said, “Say a prayer for me, ok?”
“Anything specific?”
“No. Just a prayer would be nice.” His voice had a twinge of sadness that matched his eyes.
“Ok.”

He took his time gathering all his belongings to leave. At the door he put his stuff down to adjust something on his jacket. I couldn’t just let him walk away without at least getting his name. I quickly made my way to the front where he was standing.
“Sir?” He looked at me from behind the sunglasses. “What’s your name?”
He didn’t answer right away, and then said, “Thomas.”
“Ok—I will say a prayer for you Thomas.” Although I didn't admit to him that I had never prayed in my life.
“Thank you Alyse.”
And he left out the door still propped open.

[photo taken on 6th ave. in greenwich village in spring, 2005]

1 comment:

flower =) said...

did i know that you waitressed???...so confused! but i like the story...