Sunday, March 6, 2011

For Service of Customers

For Service of the Customers

It was only the second time a customer had thrown something at me, but this was definitely the more memorable of the two. The first time I had been working as a barista at a oil changing place that looked like a rich Italian villa had been sliced out of the hills of Capua and squeezed into the middle of a mechanic’s shop in the small town of Tigard, Oregon. Whether it was a stroke of genius or pure insanity, I am still not sure, but some inventive businessman had decided that people would like nothing less than to enjoy an Italian soda or a latte while watching dirty, greasy men change their oil.

Normally days in the Portland Metro Area do not start with the sun shining or the birds singing, so that should have been my first hint that something was up. But being the eternal optimist I was, I walked up the doors basking in the sunlight and embraced this new day.

The second hint that this was no day like any before it came when I saw my manager was not reclining in his usual spot by the door. The New York Times which he used to hide the Maxim’s he was perpetually reading lay undisturbed next to the USA Today and the Oregonian. He was in the back. Working. Yet still I failed to see the bright neon sign the Universe was painting over the villa-garage with its palm fronds and grease stains.

Starting the espresso machine up, the smokey scent of scorched coffee releasing all its aroma into the air invaded my nose and cut paths like electricity in my brain. No matter how hard the morning, there was nothing like the smell of coffee (week old as it may have been) to reinvigorate the mind. That coupled with the sunshine made me smile contently as I thought that there was nothing that could ruin my day today.

Like I said, this was back when I was an optimist.

Then she arrived. There was no ominous vibe to herald her approaching footsteps on the greasy imported tile outside. There was no organ music in the background or flash of lightning as she threw open the glass door. It seems the Universe was done trying to help me see what was coming. Though to this day I swear that as the door closed behind her, I could not see her reflection.

But by then it was too late.

“Hi there, ma’am, how are you today?” I asked in my customer service voice.

“Don’t you ma’am me boy!” she replied grimacing at me, “Ya think I look old or somethin’?”

Honestly, she looked like she was not only due for a casket but had decided to rise from one after years of slow decomposition. Her skin was a faded corpse gray, with pock mark where the worms must have been nibbling. Her eyes were hooded, baggy, and fell into shadows not unlike those of a naked human skull. And crowning that face, framed by faded, yellow-grey broom-bristle hair, was a large black mole on her left cheek.

“Oh, no, not at all!” I stammered trying to recover my composure, “Its just our standard greeting, for, um, well, women who are of... never mind, um, would you like some coffee today while you wait?”

“Can’t drink coffee. Keeps me up all day. And. It makes yer teeth go bad quicker.” she said in a whispered voice while revealing a row of vomit inducing disfigured black-pock-marked that looked like a fence after a tornado had hit, “What else you got?”

Her loud demand snapped me out of the nausea induced shock I had from the teeth, “Um, well, we also have Italian Sodas and tea smoothies.”

“Whats a tea smoothy?” she basically yelled.

“Um, well...” I sought the words to describe it, “Its a smoothy. Made with tea?”

“Damn it! I mean what goes in one.” she said, pounding the countertop.

“Well, just a fruit juice concentrate and some ice. Then some half and half. And the tea slurry.” I stammered as the ingredients seemed to have fled my mind to get away from those teeth.

“Well, aright. What flavors yew got?” she said sniffing and wiping her nose with the back of her hand, which turned her nose up in a pig like manner, improving her face if it weren’t for the yellow mucus that clung like a string to the back of her hand before being deposited with a clean swipe against her faded blue jeans.

After choosing her flavor I rang her up while the drink was being pulsed in the blender. She handed me the card, a piece of the yellow residue still on her fingers. I gingerly took the card and tried not to puke, not to think about what I was touching. After a quick swipe I almost threw it back to her.

She took her drink and walked out. I stood watching her walk down the steps of the store and onto the sidewalk out front, before she turned and yelled something unintelligable. I like to think that she yelled “Thank you, have a nice day” or “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted”. However, her words will forever be a mystery. Her actions, though, were pretty clear. She threw the container back at the glass door that did not show her reflection, and bright red raspberry tea smoothy exploded horizontally on the door and the front steps.

It took a while to clean, and all I could think about was the potential customers passing by. I turned to watch the cars slow down as they approached and then quickly speed up. I could only guess at the conversations inside.

“Oh, look Deloris, there’s an oil changing shop that only charged $20 for an oil change! What a bargain!”

“I know Algernon, and look, what a quint little coffee shop–– dear God! What is that!”

“It looks like someone was shot right there, in front of the door!”

“That’s probably the killer trying to clean up the evidence!”

“Oh no! He’s looking at us! Drive! Quickly! He has a mop!”

Even though that one looked more dramatic, for some reason I felt safe behind the comforting glass. The explosion of tea smoothy was difficult and embaressing to clean up, but this was not nearly as traumatic as the second time a customer threw something at me.

I was working at an all night restaurant, and it was late at night. Gone was my foolish optimism. I knew what late, dark, stormy nights brought. Trouble. But even though tonight was actually nice and warm and balmy, it still stank with the rank smell of trouble brewing.

That was when he walked in. We knew very few of the regulars by name, so we had devised an elaborate naming system that would have been difficult for even the most experienced secret agent to crack.

There was Tall-and-bald-with-the-ugly-handle-bar-mustache as apposed to tall-and-bald-with-the-good-looking-handle-bar-mustache. There was Speaks-with-a-Texan-accent-but-comes-from-Belgium and Doesn’t-own-soap. Some where named after deeper than skin characteristics. There was Short-term-memory-loss and Always-a-bit-too-friendly-bordering-on-creepy. There was Crazy-head-lady-who-always-asks-for-things-we-do-not-serve-on-the-menu and Weirdo-who-always-manages-to-touch-our-hands-when-taking-the-plates.

His name was This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it. I was not aware that there existed so many versions of a grilled cheese sandwich at a company which prided in teaching all its cooks how to make their sandwiches exactly the same. But apparently none of my meals were ever on par with these other chefs. Which was halarious because there was only one other one and I even had him secretly make it in the back one night and still got the same complaint.

On this night This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it had decided that he wanted a salad instead. He kept moving his hand over his shiny bald exposed scalp, which was covered by a few pointless attempts at a comb-over. He wore a black leather jacket which is so small he couldn’t zip it up if he wanted to, and which exposes a good solid four inches of arm above his bare, hairy wrists. Underneath he wore a large, stretched faded shirt with a comic hero moving in action like This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it never would be able to. The small jacket with the large, stained shirt made it look like he was wearing a dress with a vest, like the 90s gone horribly horribly wrong.

We had been directed that we would no longer be making salads to order at night but would instead be selling gran n go salads for customers. I kindly explained to him that the salads were located in the refrigerator at the cashier. He shook as he spat his words at me,

“But those aren’t the salads I want! Are you stupid! I want a spinach salad with salmon and blue cheese!”

At that second several thoughts came to mind. The first was that I wished that I had a full length mirror I could pull out to just show him who looked the bigger idiot in this moment. The second was a story I had heard about a local Italian restaurant where a couple had sent the food back several times complaining that there was not enough white sauce. When the food finally returned a third time it was swimming in sauce and three months later both were diagnoses with genital herpes in their mouths. But I had neither full length mirror nor sexually transmitted diseases with which to take revenge. Besides, I worked in customer service. I was better than that.

So I meekly bowed and went to search for some washed spinach and a piece of cooked salmon. But of course, we wouldn’t have either because the weekend crew was not supposed to sell spinach salmon salads. So while I threw a salmon fillet on the grill, I quickly cleaned and rinsed some spinach. It took a while to find crutons, but when I did I decided to be better than good and grab the fresh ones. The salmon almost done, I had a moment and so I chopped up a few baby tomatoes, which This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it had proclaimed to be perticularlly fond of once while ranting about my inability to properly deep fry french fries. I would take revenge by preparing the best salad I ever had. I would prove him wrong!

I drizzled the blue cheese sauce over the salad and added a crumbling of real blue cheese on top for presentation and taste. I proudly placed the plate before This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it and smiled smugly as I said, “Here you go sir, your salad. Bon Appatit.”

He looked at the plate, and his entire face dropped into a dark frown before he yelled, “Great! That’s just great!”

“Um, is there a problem sir?” I asked, wondering what on earth could be wrong now.

“This was supposed to be to go! Didn’t you see the container I brought!” he said, eyes popping, waving the plastic back and forth. “God! How stupid can you be!”

“I’m sorry, sir.” I replied, my cheeks turning red from embaressment but also outrage, “If you want, I can just transfer the salad into the container for you.”

“No! It’s too late now. I’ve never seen such horrible customer service! Didn’t you even think of the customer once!” he spat before throwing the empty container at my face.

Which it missed. Mostly.

Afterwards, Touches-my-hand-creepily-when-ever-he-takes-his-plate came up and smiled before saying, “Man, that guy has some issues.”

“He must just he under a lot of stress.” I said, reverting to my customer service self which was not allowed to say anything bad about people such as This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it.

“Well, I’ll take that salad, if he doesn’t want it.” he said, still smiling.

“Thanks.” I said, handing him the plate.

His hand rested on mine, and while it still carried it’s usual creepiness with it, at the same time it also carried a sense of the familiar. That he was one of the usuals, the ones who were not all as bad as This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it. In that creepy lingering touch was the promise of humanity, that while we are some good and some bad and some down right creepy, we are all people. But I had been jaded by the world, and drew my hand away, not allowing the optimist to resurface in me. I served customers and I would always be their servant and they my customers. In that professional setting was a buffer which meant that they would never see the real me, touch the real me, know the real me. It meant that This-isn’t-how-the-other-chef-makes-it could say what he wanted, I would shake it off. But in that linger touch was an attempt to cross the buffer. I would never again serve food for him. I could not expose myself like that.

1 comment:

  1. Really loved this. I don't even know where to start, really-- it was so incredibly entertaining, and well-spoken, and yet I believed every single word. :)