The Worst Waiter Ever
(Or How I Accidentally Assaulted A Disabled Woman)
I was 19 years old and working at Applebee’s. Those were my first two mistakes.
I needed a summer job after my freshman year of college and working in the service industry seemed like a logical position to hold. I had done my time as a golf caddy, grocery store bag boy, and counter jockey at the local dry cleaners so I felt it was time to broaden my resume of subservient career choices. I was over the age of 18 so I could serve alcohol and potentially earn mountains of tips at Applebee’s so what could possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit, it turns out. It was not long into my tenure at Applebee’s that it was quickly determined that I was the second worst waiter in the world. I would crack under the pressure of having more than three tables at a time and completely lacked the patience to deal with the type of customers that Applebee’s tended to attract. I learned that people lacking in class, brains, and good taste love Applebee’s, are not terribly fun to serve, and do not believe in 15% gratuity.
I only held the “second worst waiter” in the world position because of my lifelong friend CJ who started at Applebee’s the same day I did. CJ was even worse under restaurant pressure than I was and held the additional distinction of having knocked over a baby. That is to say, in a rush he knocked over a high chair that had been turned upside down as a stand for a baby’s removable car seat and sent the little fellow on the ride of a lifetime. The baby was strapped in and the seat did its required job so all was well enough but still that is a blemish that never comes off of your permanent record in the service industry. It was accepted into our local Applebee’s lexicon that summer that anytime anyone found themselves “in the weeds” or screwing up an order, you could comfort them by simply saying “CJ knocked over a baby” and suddenly no mistake seemed all that terrible.
There was one night where I came pretty close to achieving CJ-level notoriety and was lucky to keep my job at Applebee’s and, arguably, even survive.
I was the scheduled closer and given that it was a Monday or Tuesday, I had hopes that I would be out at a decent enough hour to catch up with my friends and do whatever it was we did in Greenville, South Carolina in the mid-1990’s. That meant trying to buy beer with shitty fake ID’s, basically.
The night was plodding along well enough when I was informed I had a new table. As I approached it was hard not to notice that a pair of rednecks somewhere in their late 20’s/early 30’s was sitting on the same side of a booth together. It was an odd sight given that it was a more conservative world back then and two guys who just looked like they might have just climbed out from underneath a broken down 1973 Camaro were not your typical “let’s sit on the same side of the booth” sort of demographic. They were quick to explain that they were waiting for two more people and that they would sit patiently and drink all of the sweet tea on planet Earth while they waited. I honestly lost count of how many free refills they chugged in the 15 to 20 minutes they spent waiting for their dining companions.
When said companions arrived, I had to admit that I was surprised yet again. A third redneck, comparable to the first two in age and resemblance to a character from Deliverance approached the table carrying a woman. He carried her out of necessity as she was missing a couple of things, specifically arms and legs. I had never seen such a sight, had no idea how such a tragedy could occur to take all of a person’s limbs, and immediately felt heartbroken for this woman and the hands she had not been dealt in life.
Before her friend, lover, or caretaker (I never had the opportunity to ask) had her safely situated in her corner of the booth, she loudly demanded that I “get two more sweet teas over here” and my compassion level waned just a bit. This set the tone of the evening as none of the three men spoke another word after her arrival. She ordered for the entire party, let me know when someone needed a third or fifth serving of honey mustard or ranch dressing, and kept the three men meekly in their places, heads bowed in silence just eating chicken fingers and drinking their tea as if was a competition.
Truth be told, I was actually a pretty decent waiter that evening. I never had more than a table or two and was terrified to offend or anger the disadvantaged woman so I stayed pretty well on top of things. Still, I was happy to clear their plates when they finished and, as they were my last table, I assumed that I might get out of there at a decent hour. She told me not to bring a bill yet, however, as they might get dessert. By “dessert” she apparently meant “Sit here for another hour and a half sucking down sweet tea” while I watched everybody in the restaurant except for the manager and myself clean up and go home for the evening.
On my last visit to the table that night, I presented the bill and politely explained that there was no reason to leave a tip because it was already included in their tab. By her reaction, though, you would have thought I added a $1,000 surcharge for every refill that I had poured that evening.
“You can’t jus’ add a tip!” she insisted.
“Well, ma’am, it is Applebee’s policy to add a tip to all tickets closed after 10pm and that was quite some time ago,” I tried to explain.
“You can’t do that without tellin’ us first!”
“I’m sorry but it is posted on a sign in the lobby. You would have seen it when you walked… in the door.” I trailed off at the end there knowing that I had used the wrong choice of words there but it just slipped out without thinking. Really though, if I had said “when you were carried in here like a sack of potatoes”, would it have improved things? Fortunately she was willing to overlook my faux pas and focus on the more pressing matter of not tipping me.
“We ain’t payin’ it. The service sucked and you don’t deserve a tip.”
I actually found this interesting as I had been feeling pretty good about my performance that particularly evening and was suddenly curious as to how I failed this poor woman. “I’m sorry you feel that way but can you tell me what I did wrong in taking care of you guys tonight?”
“I understand that but I would like to know how I sucked so I can improve.”
“You just sucked.”
“You have made that clear but I am asking for specifics.”
“I don’t know… you just sucked.”
Determined to get an answer out of this half-witted half-a-human, I pressed on. “Please ma’am. Tell me what I did wrong and I’ll take the tip off of the bill.”
“Well… well… one time you took too long to refill his tea!” she blurted out in desperation without indicating whose tea I neglected because, well, pointing.
This is where I went from politely condescending to being completely unable to give a damn. I honestly do not think my brain knew what my hands were doing as I replied but apparently I was subconsciously reaching for the bill folder and slowly crumpling the ticket into a tight little ball. “If it is that big a fucking deal, I’ll take the damn tip off,” I said surprisingly calmly before my hand acted completely independent of the rest of me and flicked the crumpled paper in her general direction.
By “general direction” I mean “I bounced it right off the woman’s face”.
I realized as soon as it happened that I had done a very bad and potentially dangerous thing. I immediately took a big step back from the table and waited for the inevitable fists and glassware to come raining down upon me. The odd part was that they never did. All four people at the table sat there in the most awkward silence I have ever been a part of.
I probably should have apologized, begged for forgiveness, or done whatever you are supposed to do after throwing things at the disabled but instead I slowly backed away, turned, and made a dash for the manager’s office. I explained the situation the best I could and accepted the fact that I was likely fired. Instead, he simply told me to stay in the back while he went and handled the situation.
He was gone for what seemed like roughly 47 days but finally returned to tell me that the matter had been resolved and that they were gone. “Man she was awful,” was all he offered from whatever he endured out there.
The coast finally clear, I returned to the scene of the crime to clean up their table. As I had come to expect from this quality of customer, there was as much food and trash on the floor as you find under a toddler’s high chair. I honestly do not know why people bother to pay for a meal when they are going to drop half of it on the ground but I also do not know why people do a lot of the things they do.
As the clock neared midnight I finally finished cleaning up, counted out my cash for the evening, and ventured out into the still hot summer evening. As I walked out to my car, I realized that my problems were not over. The first two gentlemen that had been seated at my table to kick off this whole adventure were smoking cigarettes and hanging out by the last two cars in the parking lot – mine and the manager’s. For the life of me I could not think of more than a single reason why they would be there or who they might be waiting for. I knew I was screwed.
I had no interest in fighting two guys at the same time but the backdoor had locked behind me when I left the restaurant and I had little chance of getting the manager’s attention to open it before I was already severely beaten. Instead I feigned confidence and acted like I was completely comfortable with what was about to happen here. Spoiler alert – I absolutely was not.
I tossed my apron and notepad to the ground as I kept walking toward them and said “What the fuck are you going to do?” as if I had any clue as to what I was actually going to do. They started approaching me and quickly closed the gap between us as I measured them both up to see which one looked like the better choice to hit first. I knew it would not actually matter in the long run but I felt I would at least get some bragging rights if I at least put one of them on their back before succumbing to the physics of a skinny 19 year old fighting two grown men at the same time.
I knew things were going from bad to worse when they stopped and one of them reached into his pocket. Surely he was reaching for a knife or a gun to really make sure they drove their point home and I was about to be in way worse shape than simply beaten up. This was the moment where I learned that fight or flight are not the only two options in a dangerous situation. I knew I should either run or make the first move while his hand was in his pocket to at least have some kind of chance but, instead, I chose door number three which is clearly labeled “freeze” and just stood there as physically useless as the woman in the booth earlier.
“Charge the gun, flee the knife” is the old street fighting motto but, fortunately, I did not have to test either of those theories on this particular evening. Instead of a weapon he pulled out a $20 bill and extended it in my direction. I honestly cannot tell you all these years later if I was more relieved or confused.
“We’re real sorry ‘bout her,” he said. “She pulls that shit everywhere. It ain’t your fault.”
In hindsight I have a lot of questions, namely “Why do you put up with her?” and “What magical powers does a limbless woman hold over three grown men?” I probably would have also added “Thanks for not killing me” at some point in the conversation. They never gave me the chance, however, as he just handed me the money, patted me on the shoulder, and walked past me. I like to think that I squeaked out a “Thank you” but I cannot guarantee whether or not I actually pulled that off.
I write this more than 20 years after that evening but I still think of it often. I think of it when I see a server struggling on a busy night at a restaurant, simply not up for the stress of too many customers. I think of it when I see an obnoxious patron just being awful to their server for no reason at all. I also think about it when I realize that not everybody is deserving of compassion, regardless of their situation. Just because a person is disadvantaged does not mean they are automatically decent human beings. Character still matters, if you ask me.
I also wonder if this woman continued her reign of terror after that evening. I am not so bold to think that a simple piece of paper bouncing off her face would inspire her to change her ways but given the reaction of her companions, maybe they stopped taking her out to eat as much. She cannot hold a phone or answer the door so maybe one of them calls in a takeout or delivery order and innocent waiters, waitresses, and service industry professionals across the Upstate are now spared her wrath.
Mostly I just wonder how I managed to snap the way I did, not get beat up or fired, and actually come out ahead at the end of it all. The $20 the guy passed off to me was way more than the tip that had been included in the original bill. I am thinking that maybe I should throw things at handicapped people more often and see what kind of profit I can turn.
I kid, of course. Assholes – that is who we need to throw more things at, regardless of how many limbs they have.