“Why are you the way that you are?”
We laugh at the unashamed hatred Michael Scott directs Toby Flenderson’s way on The Office, but perhaps it’s a question we should permit ourselves to ask more often.
It’s certainly the question I’m asking myself now, at this gorgeous café infected with the most off-putting blight in hospitality—an eternally, irredeemably, cranky waitress.
Maybe she’s just having a bad day, I generously allowed the first time, having noted the fact that a smile from her seemed just as improbable as an alien invasion, and equally out of place within the stern set of her downturned mouth and fierce eyebrows.
What had I done to so offend her? It seemed, from the moment I stepped inside, that my very existence seemed to expel a puff of exasperation through her pinched lips. I acknowledge that my own nagging need to form tiny, sparkly connections with everyone I meet—if only in the exchange of a simple, kind word—might explain my fascination with this woman who evidently does not wish to speak to me at all.
I assume that the air of regality by which she marches from table to table, apron-less and sparing with even the most minimal of social courtesies, stems from the fact that she has been here a long time. Perhaps this is also why she remains, like mold on the ceiling, too high to reach, left by the owner who decided she would be more of a hassle to remove than to keep.
When the phone rings, she hitches it on her shoulder while continuing to pound the coffee grinder as though it has wronged her in some way. “Hello?” she demands, rather than says.
A large group of elderly folk wander inside and she roughly orders them into seats like a Sergeant attempting to scare recruits into compliance during their first day of training. “Don’t put that there,” she snaps, pointing to the end of the table, where a man has set his walker against the edge. “I need to walk around there.” From what I can see, there is space aplenty for walking, and what seems like a higher priority is this man’s inability to walk without the device she is insisting he move. I watch him wobble to the door, and the scene is made all the more comical due to the wind and rain that assaults him as he steps outside.
I note the faces of a few of the women back at the table—who, judging by the lilt of their mutterings, are European. They do not seem pleased. Being half-Croatian myself, and knowing the immense and irreversible consequences of wronging a European with the power to hold a grudge for eternity—I’m tempted to warn the waitress. Though, she might just be the only soul I have ever encountered that could outdo even the sourest of us.
I have heard her laugh a couple of times, or should I say—bark, with the occasional fellow staff member, but it’s so rare that I find myself cutting a glance up at the counter each time I hear it, like I’m bearing witness to an eclipse or some other extraordinary event. And it doesn’t last long either. A shooting star that catches your eye and then disappears before you can get a good look.
My self-assigned mission has been to crack this woman—to trigger a smile or engage in the slightest, most insignificant form of small talk. I might as well have set out to capture and bring home the Loch Ness Monster. That would probably prove less distressing.
I hear metaphorical eggshells crunch under my feet every time I tiptoe inside, requesting “whichever table is easiest”, or asking “where will I be the least in the way?” If the café were packed, I might understand her reluctance in having a pesky little writer claim a table for two hours, ordering only coffee and toast. But the place is mostly empty, including the tables she has placed steel RESERVED signs over like little shields—despite the fact that nobody ever arrives to claim them. I wonder to myself whether she does this to minimize human interaction and ward off those who dare to request a meal.
And so I’m led to the question—“why are you the way that you are?”
First, I posed it bitterly and with a shake of my head. How hard is it to be polite? Do you think this will attract more customers? Would you rather nobody came in at all?
Now I pose it from a place of baffled curiosity. It must be tiring, navigating life like a storm, radiating dark energy with every turn of the heel.
I wonder, is it more natural to smile or to frown? Is this waitress simply expressing what we all feel in our heart of hearts when forced to interact with strangers? Is she the physical embodiment of our reluctance to set foot outside the house? The scowling, selfish resentment we feel when making a coffee we aren’t about to drink ourselves? Is she the primal force of egocentricity, blazing against the precise, opposing definition of the very word—hospitality?
Today is my fourth visit to the café, and though the woman appeared just as unimpressed by my presence as always, when I crept through the door with a nervous wave, I did receive something new. Not a smile. Not a welcome. But a—“skinny latte?” The question caught me off-guard, as I had just sat down, and I was momentarily speechless before recovering … “Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.”
I can’t be sure whether she really remembered my order, or whether the offer was a lucky guess, as skinny lattes seem fairly standard orders these days. But I’ve decided to take it as a tiny, sparkly win.
I have come to see that where we receive less, we not only crave more, but we notice more. For a time, lack of responsiveness demands more of our attention. Our eyes open wider to take in what we might be missing. And perhaps we know that if any such indication of a heart breaks the surface of the stony-faced, it will inarguably be sincere, simply due to its rarity.
Imagine how much we could see if we opened our eyes in the same way to the most deserving points of our attention. If we watched the ones we love with the same careful attentiveness with which we study those who are a mystery to us. If we became equally caught up in the easy smile that blooms on the face of a friend or the gathering embrace of a partner who seems to know exactly how to hold us.
There is a novelty in analysing the strangeness of strangers, but there is a different sort of power in turning that same gaze upon those we know and love. If we opened our eyes a touch wider, I daresay we would see a lot more of what we’ve come to overlook.