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Kristin Conard makes some snap judgments and catches herself. She finds she’s mostly wrong. But sometimes she’s right.
I’M AT A POSH RESTAURANT. What’s worse, I’m at a restaurant that knows it’s posh (judgment). There are multiple crystal chandeliers, gold brocade fabric hanging in swooping swags. My tennis shoes and windblown hair from being out on a boat aren’t quite right, and I’m hating myself for not changing or running a comb through my hair (self-judging).
I see one of the waiters. No, he’s not a waiter, he’s somewhere between busboy and waiter. He is the folder of napkins, the setter of tables, the server of bread. He wears a black shirt that is straining the tiniest bit at the buttons. His pants are a tiny touch too tight with the white inside of his pockets peeking through. The seams are fraying.
He’s well-practiced at folding the napkins into the shape of little tuxedo shirts; he’s worked here for a while, I think. I’m guessing that this is the outfit he’s worn at this job since he started, long enough ago for the clothes to not quite fit anymore.
I worked as a waitress at Applebee’s, where I was required to wear an “Apple smile” and run on “Apple time” (5 minutes early). I ran on “Kristin time” (5 minutes late), so it wasn’t a great fit. I spent my shifts wishing I was somewhere else. I had a picture of the beach in Brighton, England taped in the back of my waiter pad that I would stare at when I was supposed to be rolling silverware or cleaning.
I also worked at a movie theater where my uniform consisted of a vest and a bow tie. I wore the same two pairs of black pants to work, and after three months of snacking on popcorn and soda during my break, they fit the same way this waiter’s did.
I make up a story, imagining him as a starving artist, resenting having to wear the same thing everyday, someone who would want to be out in the world — exploring, traveling, running along the beach — resenting being cooped up and folding napkins to look like little shirts. But he keeps his feelings hidden — the only thing betraying him is the slight blush to his cheeks.
His name is Joey, and it turns out he’s studying business economics, and he wants a desk job as a banker. He’s looking forward to sitting behind a desk, to being in the same place, to wearing a suit and tie to work.
I’d gotten him wrong; I’d just projected myself onto him. I go back to eating my unnaturally smooth mashed potatoes and doodling in my journal, trying not to be disappointed in him wandering so far from the image I’d so quickly and completely built inside my head. I want him to feel like I do, just a bit out of place and wanting to be somewhere else.
As I doodle, I see a pair of legs walk by. Slim, tan legs in high, pointy black heels and in a very short, very black skirt.
It’s a woman in her 20s (maybe 30s) coming in with her boyfriend.
Nope. Wrong again. It’s a woman, probably in her 60s, with her even older husband. I am 0 for 2.
She sits at the table, perched on the edge of her seat. A woman battling against aging with all the money and plastic surgery procedures she could find. My mother works at a dermatology office — I know filled cheeks, botoxed foreheads, plumped lips, and facelifts when I see them.
Her husband is showing his age with no qualms, a stomach that bulges over his belt, age spots prominent on his face and hands. They are the quintessential stereotype of a rich older couple — the wife obsessed with her appearance and the balding, paunchy husband. I check myself.
Remember Joey. Remember the legs. You’ve been getting it wrong. Don’t judge.
The waiter goes to their table for the drink orders. She confirms my latest judgment of her. “The mojito,” she says, pointing to it on the menu with a perfectly French-manicured fingertip. “It has to be sugar-free. Can it be sugar-free? It has to be sugar-free.”
“Oh, and do you have a black napkin that I can use? I need a black napkin. Because of my skirt. It has to be the same color.” She gestures at her black skirt with a hand full of sparkly rings that I think, if sold, would pay for my rent for a year.
The waiter nods deeply, almost bowing. “I’ll see what I can find, ma’am.” The woman looks back at her husband. “I have to have a black napkin. I mean, I usually carry one with me, but today, I just forgot.” He nods. “You remember last time,” she says, “it was a disaster.”
I realize that I’m staring. She looks over at me. I smile quickly, then look back down at my plate. There are people in the world who carry their own napkins with them, so they don’t have to use non-matching napkins at a restaurant. But I’m not judging.
It’s a struggle to not judge. It’s almost instinctual. But it’s never helpful. How do you deal with it?