Some of the strangest people you will ever meet show up at diners in the middle of the night, especially cheap diners. Also, some of the drunkest people you will ever meet show up at diners in the middle of the night. I worked 3rd shift at one of these diners for three years in my late teens and early twenties. At this particular diner we typically had two people working on a weekday and four working on a weekend. We were all trained as waiters and as cooks so we could bounce back and forth if necessary. During my first year and a half there I usually worked on the weekdays with a fifty year old woman named Debbie. Debbie was four feet tall and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. She was married to a man that was six five and smoked six packs a day. That’s one pack per foot tall I guess. I don’t remember a time when Debbie wasn’t waiting on tables where she didn’t have a cigarette in her hand.
On weekends we would add another waiter or cook and a dishwasher. John the dishwasher was in his mid-forties and probably hadn’t brushed his teeth in a decade. He liked wrestling. He liked wrestling a lot. He was the type of guy that would take the train to Chicago to watch a wrestling event and then get lost on his way back to the train, arrive at the train station five minutes after the last train leaves for the night, and have to call for someone to come and pick him up. That was just the way he was.
John’s job was to stand in the back of the restaurant, usually with a cigarette in his hand and wait for people to leave. Then he would scurry over and clear off their spot and get it ready for the next group. That sounds really easy, but when the bars closed at 2:30 in the morning it could get a little rowdy. John hated it if you helped him do his job.
If you cleared off a table because there was a line out the door, you were trying to make as much money as possible and would want to turn the table quickly. Logically, it made sense for Debbie or I or Chiquita (another lady we worked with) to run over and empty the table and bring the dishes over to the sink. This infuriated John. John was the type of guy that would rather throw dirty dishes away or smash them in the sink than wash the ones that he had not cleared himself.
I hesitate to say that every single time he worked he told me he was about to quit because three years of him saying that would seem ridiculous, but I don’t remember a day that he didn’t tell me that. However, years later I was out late and drove slowly by the big picture window in front of the restaurant and saw him clearing tables, probably bitching and moaning about how he was going to quit.
John liked to talk to me. He had three topics of conversation. The first was wrestling, but not current wrestling. It was always wrestling from when he was younger. Matches that he remembered seeing fifteen years before. The second topic was trips that he took that went wrong. This might be an exaggeration, but I probably heard about the same five trips he had taken in the last ten years fifty times. Each time he forgot how to get home or lost his bus ticket or his wallet or never figured out how he was going to get back to Milwaukee in the first place. John was, at times, beautifully ignorant. The third topic was how much he hated his sister. I should have asked him more about that, but what I took away was that she used to tease him and he still hated her for it. One night he walked into the kitchen and declared – the bitch is dead – referring to his sister like he was the one that killed her. I asked him if he was going to go the funeral since I knew she lived a couple of hours away. Without thinking he told me that it had already happened a few weeks before and he just found out about it from a friend of the family. No one else told him.
John rented a room at Debbie’s house. She lived on the south side about fifteen minutes from the diner and took the bus to and from work. I lived about 5 blocks from the restaurant, but would drive. Being 19 years old I didn’t understand that it was normal for people to take the bus. That’s a strange thing to write down, but I didn’t get it. I thought people only took the bus because something was wrong with their car.
We have all had an experience like this. You offer to do something nice for someone one time and it turns into a new normal. At six one morning, when Debbie, John, and I are finishing our shift, it starts pouring, so I offer them a ride.
I probably drove them home a hundred times before I made up an excuse to stop doing it.
Isn’t a little strange when the people you work with start to become your friends? Maybe it was just strange because there was a time when I was nineteen or twenty where two of my good friends were a 50 year old chain smoking little person and a mentally delayed 40 year old dishwasher that lived together.
I am the oldest of five kids and the first to leave home. I only lived an hour and a half away and would come home a lot. I liked driving and I liked going home so, when I called my mom and told her I wasn’t going to be coming home for Easter she was confused. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but John’s plans fell through for Easter dinner, which looking back on my experiences with him, sounds about right. So instead of heading down for Easter with my family, he and I went to Baker’s Square together. Isn’t it weird when you work with someone at a place where you wear a uniform and you almost exclusively see that person wearing the same thing, but then see them in something totally different. That happened to me on that Easter Sunday. I drove down to Debbie and John’s house for the hundred and first time, parked, got out of my car, and walked up to the front door. As I am walking up John walks out wearing a suit.
Maybe it was the stark contrast in apparel or maybe I was a little home sick or maybe it was something different. It was the same feeling you get when you are in middle or high school and you befriend someone with a serious disability. You are trained to be nice to them, but in the process of being nice to them you develop a friendship, just like you would with any other person. I remember sitting in that Baker’s Square realizing that the man sitting across from me was more than just the caricature of him I had created in my head. I didn’t cancel plans with my family on Easter to take pity on another person by inviting him to dinner. He was a friend and I cared about him. I knew he was upset about not having a place to go on Easter and I could help fix that. Sure, he was odd. His hygiene wasn’t great. I had already heard every story he cared to tell me. He had nothing material to offer. As a professional dishwasher, his skills were lacking. At work, he actually probably made my job harder. He didn’t even bother to offer to split dinner and I don’t remember him saying thank you.
Driving back to Debbie’s I do remember, though, deeply understanding that the guy sitting next to me was another human being and that he had value, he mattered, and I was no better or worse than he was then or is now. We were both dealt different hands and played them the best way we knew how. My mistakes weren’t any better or worse than his and my life has no greater or lesser value than his does. In the eyes of the world (and customers) I was better off, more talented, probably smarter or at least not quite as strange. I had my entire life ahead of me and I already eclipsed his accomplishments. But in that moment and from that point on I understood that I am his equal and his is mine, and if that is true, than there really isn’t anyone else that is any better or any worse than I am.
It would be easy to sit here years later and pretend that thinking this radically changed my life, but it didn’t. Luckily, I had another year or two of working there to help re-iterate this concept. When you are working in a restaurant, your goal is to provide the customer with a good experience in the hopes that they will want to come back and support your business. In order to accomplish this you serve them, both literally and figuratively. If they need something you walk over and give it to them. The better servers anticipate when a customer needs or wants something. There clues they use to tell, some obvious and some not.
If you have a table of four and they are sitting and talking and appear to be having a good time, you treat them differently than a single person sitting at the counter. You want to make the table of four feel like you could be the fifth member of the table if you weren’t at work. You talk with them, joke a little, and ask them about their night. If they like you, they have a better experience, they tip more, and you win. At three in the morning most people aren’t at their best. Some people are at their worst. Four drunk assholes looking for pancakes in the middle of the night could go either way. You learn quick, though, that providing lousy service, while it might make you feel better, is really counter productive. It doesn’t get you anywhere. You still treat each table the same, even though you know in the back of your head that they might piss you off or they might leave a mess. They might send everything back or they might go throw up in the bathroom. Night after night was practice in understanding that no matter what you might interpret a situation to be with a particular table, attempting to provide a high level of service mattered. Just because someone is jerk after they have been drinking all night doesn’t mean anything. That way of thinking could be overly simplistic or too analytical.
Assholes helped me establish boundaries. I will serve you up to a point, and after that I have to change from a server to someone that is trying to minimize the damage you do. Being a sloppy drunk is one thing, but being abusive or even violent is another. Can you imagine the number of opportunities for a group of intoxicated college guys to comment on a four foot tall waitress that chain smokes while she works. Being hammered late at night/early in the morning, hungry and tired, decreases the likelihood that anyone is going to make a good decision. I can imagine how much more I would be inclined to say something stupid at three in the morning. On one hand they embody the exact thing I am working against. At that moment to those college students, Debbie isn’t the person I know her to be. She isn’t a mom and a grandma and a hard worker. She is someone who is different, wants something they have (a tip or at least she wants them to not be assholes), and they might not ever see her again or they at least might not remember any of what happened. It is hard think that those types of people matter. That they have value. The worse offenders were guys that were trying to be sly about making fun of her. Calling her a munchkin or an oompa loompa is a pretty lame way of teasing a person, so it’s easy to brush off, especially the thousandth time you heard it. Standing behind her and pretending to have sex with her from behind and then sitting down and saying you fucked a munchkin all while she is taking the tables order is a little different.
Unfortunately, assholes are people too. I guess that is a good thing since I have been an asshole before and I will be one again. Everyone has the capacity to be mean or rude or insensitive or cruel. Some people are more inclined to lean in that direction. Some people are much more inclined to be that way when the right set of circumstances are met. Some people are jerks when they are drunk in the middle of the net. Some people are more inclined to get mad when you clear dishes off of a table for them. Circumstances dictate responses in the moment, but also the collective set of life events and experiences shape and mold the actions of all of us.
I have painted three rooms gray in the last year. I have painted both bathrooms in one of my rentals gray, but the first gray I picked out I didn’t like. It was too blue. I try and use the same paint color in multiple buildings since it makes it easy to go and touch up a room later. Since I didn’t care for the shade of gray in the first bathroom, The next time I was ready to paint a room, I picked out a different gray. The only problem is, I couldn’t remember the name of the color I picked out the first time. So I am standing in front of the giant display of colors trying to make sure I pick out one that is similar but a little different than the first one. In my mind the worse thing I could do is pick out the same color. I already know I don’t want that one. After I landed on one, acquired the paint, grabbed a hot dog for lunch, made my way back to the rental and started painting I saw that I didn’t pick out the same paint, but where the first one was too blue, this one was too dark. The third time I was repainting a room in my own house so I figured my wife needed to come with. We, again, stood in front of the giant color sample board. We looked at the little pamphlets where they showed the trendy colors for the year. She picked one out and I was pretty sure it was the same as one of the first two colors, but when we got it home and starting applying the paint to the walls it was perfect. It was different. It was a shade or two off of the first two room colors. I didn’t want the first two, but really liked the third. Sometimes I think people are like paint colors. Not literally or physically, but we are all just different shades of the same color or maybe we are all just different shades of one of many colors. I hated two grays, but loved another one and if I walked up to that giant paint sample board I couldn’t tell you which one I picked out any of the three times I was there. They all look the same from a distance. The first one might have had a little more blue in the mixture and the second a little more black. We are all just slight variations of the same color influenced by the things we have gone through, the people we have met, and the work we have done in ourselves to improve who we are.
That’s why even assholes matter. They are just a shade off. The color combination to make those three grays is probably almost identical except for a small amount of red or blue or green. From a distance they seem to be identical. When you see them up close, under the right circumstances you see something a little different…
A single person sitting at the counter is different. So is a group of two that come in together but spread out a little bit. Maybe they take up three tables between the two of them, so they can spread out like royalty. We had a pair of regular customers that would come in around 4:00 most Friday and Saturday nights. The first guy looked like George Castanza and ran a hot dog cart near a group of bars nearby. Debbie liked him. I know she like him or maybe even loved him because as soon as she would see his blue Ford Explorer pull up with his little hot dog cart behind it she would smash out her cigarette and power walk over to the coffee pot and pour a cup for George. The second member of the team was a homeless artist that lived in a tent village near the river. George paid him in hot dogs and dinner after their “shift”. He liked Diet Coke. By the time they would walk in, their place would have been set, their dinner started, and ash trays cleared out and ready to be filled back up over the next few hours.
The homeless artist was the first person I met that chose to be homeless. John the Dishwasher hated the homeless artist and the homeless artist hated John. I have always kind of thought that choosing to be homeless or at least forcing yourself into a materialistically simple lifestyle was somewhat romantic. Obviously, the logistics of living that way are much more challenging than this overly simplistic view. But, you could tell that he appreciated the freedom he had from a lifestyle that set very little expectations of him. He was an artist and had endless hours to explore his passions. He had an immense amount of talent, but I was never really sure if he used it for profit other than trading it for food from time to time. Although I have no artistic talent, I could see a lot of myself in him. He might have been more than a few shades off, but we were both gray.
One night the blue Ford Explorer dragging a hotdog cart pulled up in front of the restaurant Debbie crushed her half smoked cigarette into her ashtray, grabbed a mug and a glass and yelled at me to get their order ready. I waited for George and the homeless artist to make their way to their corner, but that never happened. George stopped in front of the register out of my site. Debbie talked to him for a minute, then he turned around and walked out. I finished making their order and went to bring it out to them, but couldn’t find them. Debbie was back to her perch, sucking down a fresh smoke. I put the plates down and walked over to her assuming they were in the bathroom or maybe forgot something where they set up shop for the night. As I get closer I see tears in Debbie’s eyes. George hadn’t intended on staying for dinner. He had just come to tell us that the homeless artist had died. I don’t remember the specifics, but he died of something really stupid, something he could have easily been treated for, like an infection or pnumonia.
How did his life matter?
John was a real stickler for rules about eating free food. I had already made two dinners and was going to toss them out so I offered them to him. As I go to hand them to him we make eye contact and he also has tears in his eyes. Taken aback, I pause. He stares at me, I start to speak, he cuts me off, tells me to shut up, and grabs the burger and goes to the back storeroom area.
If you are at a diner in the middle of the night by yourself sitting at a counter for much longer than the time it takes you to eat, you are probably have something intriguing about you. If you are sitting at a counter for hours on end and order the cheapest thing on the menu, say a grilled cheese and a Coke with no ice, you are looking for one of two things, you want someone to talk to or you have some serious work to do and need a place to do it and you don’t care about the food. This man thought he had serious work to do, but I never saw any of it. He drove a late 80’s or early 90’s Porsche. It was red. He was an overweight black man in his mid 40’s with a well established graying afro. Strange is probably not the nicest way to describe him, but it is fitting. Maybe eccentric or odd would be kinder. During some of the time I worked at the diner, I was enrolled at the college up the street. I was a math major and I had already taken several obscure math classes. One night he ordered his grilled cheese and Coke with no ice and pulled out a tattered transformational geometry textbook. Coincidently, I had just completed that class a few months before so I started asking about it.
Are you in school? I just took a class on that. What are you looking to know? Did you have any questions?
Turns out he did have some questions. I was expecting to be asked something related to the information in the textbook. It was from an upper level college course, so I wasn’t sure I would actually be able to help, but it was the middle of the night on a week night and I was struggling to stay awake and a little conversation could help with that.
Inside of his textbook he retrieved a piece of paper folded in half. Complicated math proof writing was something I had done a lot of and I was mentally running through different themes or important aspects of the course to try and jog my memory so I could help him. I had done well in the class and I was excited to actually use some of that information. He held the piece of paper in his hand and started to unfold it.
Instead of containing something that might look like a foreign language to some, it had a picture of a circle on it and the formula for the area of a circle. He asked me what it meant and wanted to know if I could help him figure out what the symbols were. Have you started a conversation with someone assuming they were one way and immediately realized they were the opposite. It’s kind of like when you were in high school and a guy you thought was a jock asshole actually was really nice to the kids with down syndrome. You just didn’t really see that coming. The contents of the book don’t match the cover. I assumed he was a reclusive math genius and it turns out he had the abilities of a middle schooler. When I regained my bearings, I explained that A stood for area, and that r stood for radius and that is the distance from the center of the circle to the edge and that we use the number pi to help calculate the area since it is for a shape that is curved. I’m not sure he totally got it, but he said he did and continued with his evening slowly eating his grilled cheese and ordering several refills of Coke with no ice.
Have you ever known someone that is a little strange, but you like them anyway? They are kind of quirky, but for some reason you are drawn to them. That was this guy. He was weird, but at the same time interesting, like if a couple of things in his life had gone differently, he wouldn’t be sitting at a diner in the middle of the night. He would be a research scientist or a millionaire hedge fund manager. Instead he was sitting at a counter at a diner at three in the morning talking to me.
After that night he would come by more often, probably 4 nights a week. He would sit in a similar spot each time so he could talk to me. He must have been comfortable with me, since very quickly he told me how much he loved prostitutes while simultaneously complaining about the issues he was having with his multiple std’s. At that point in my life, I honestly didn’t think prostitution was even a thing any more. Obviously I know that not to be true now, but being a 20 year old from the suburbs of Chicago, I never imagined a situation where I would meet a prostitute much less meet someone that would freely, and I mean freely, talk about how much they enjoyed them.
Sometimes I have to process things from a view of the situation looking down. Like a lot of us, I can’t see the forest through the trees or however that saying goes. I have to state a situation with just the facts and no interpretation of those facts. He was an overweight, middle aged man with the mental capacity of a teenager, who drove a Porsche, and loved prostitutes, and was dealing with the effects of that.
So, is he no better or worse that me?
Knowing someone like him, as much as I did, helped me to deeply know that everyone has equal value because it wasn’t just some idealistic concept. I was forced to decide that over and over while working at the diner. Just because someone was odd or a kind of gross didn’t negate the fact they were a human being. I don’t understand the circumstances that would bring someone to the mental place he was in, but I can respect the fact that under the right conditions I could have been him.
Now, a single person at the counter is one thing. A single person at a table in the back of the restaurant really just means they want to be left alone. I wouldn’t say we had a problem with homeless customers. I mean that in the sense that there were not an overwhelming amount of them. I think we would have three or four different ones during a week. It seemed like they would mix it up in regards to where they go and eat. I am guessing they have their favorites just like people who are not homeless. I am sure those places are spread out throughout the city and they have to travel, most likely walk to them. It makes sense then that you wouldn’t see the same person every night. Sometimes, though, you would get a stretch where the same person would come in more often, say three nights in a row or on a Friday and on a Saturday.
I would always try and figure out the reason for this, but Debbie seemed to love certain homeless guys and hated others. I couldn’t tell you why or how she decided or even what she was looking for in the ideal homeless customer. They are all kind of the same. This sounds terrible, but you know they aren’t going to tip you, or even if they do, you feel bad taking their money. It’s likely they are going to be there awhile, and if they restaurant is full, that means you are losing out on the tip money from that table multiple times. It’s also kind of a buzzkill for someone to be sitting next to them. Most people have one of two emotions when sitting next to a homeless person at a restaurant. They are either uncomfortable or they want to help. Both created tension for me. I was constantly worried that a person seated next to a homeless person would be dissatisfied with their dining experience and say something rude to the homeless person. Even more so, I was worried that they would want to help the homeless guy and this would create a dynamic where the diner would become overrun with homeless people and we would never make any money.
Homeless customers, again, reiterated in me the need to have boundaries and gave me a lot of chances to practice using them. Your interactions with a homeless customer, for me at least, required you to walk a fine line. How do you fulfill the obligations of your job – run a restaurant, while still being kind.
You have this thing that a person wants (or needs), but the person can’t really afford it, but you feel bad for them so you want to give it to them. You feel bad because the thing you have is food and a warm dry place to hang out. Those are necessities, basic fundamental needs. Food, shelter, and clothing. Those are human needs, and you are standing there behind a counter deciding if you are going to provide someone with two of them.
There was a sign in the corner of the restaurant that said something like, you have 30 minutes from the time you get your food to eat your food and leave. Obviously, that’s a paraphrase, but that was the point of it. Really it was just something that we could point to when we needed someone to leave. It was a tool to use when someone had overstayed their welcome. Like with any tool, you get to decide how and when to use it. After 31 minutes do you walk over to the table and kick the person out? When referencing the rule do you just shrug and say it’s company policy and there is nothing you can do about it? How do you know who the rule actually applies to? George and homeless artist could sit there all night, but if you didn’t like someone you could get them out of there much quicker.
When you work with someone night after night and then drive them home in the morning, you develop a working relationship where you can sense what they are thinking or how they feel about a certain customer. I knew who Debbie liked and didn’t like. If the customer reminded her or I of someone she liked then the rules didn’t necessarily apply. If she didn’t like them or if they were similar to someone she didn’t like then the rules were followed much more strictly.
It takes time for a new guy to be able to exert any say in a situation like that. If you are like me, when you were younger and just starting to work you probably where very careful to fit in with the culture and the dynamics within whatever place you were working. Like, who you gave free food to. My friends and future wife could eat cheese fries and french toast there pretty much any time I was working, but that took awhile and I eased into it. It was the same with homeless people. It took awhile to get my bearings while working with Debbie in regards to who was allowed to stay. Which ones just needed a place to sit for an hour or two and which ones would cause actual problems.
I liked the ones that you could tell were just tired. Not sleepy tired, more like warn down. They sit low in their chairs and their heads tilt down instead of up. Their fingernails are long and darker than normal. Sometimes they smell, not terribly but not good either. Most of them had beards and several coats on – like they were cold and couldn’t get warm.
There was a stretch where the same guy would come in a couple of nights a week. I liked him. He would order chicken soup or chili. The soups at this diner rotated daily so one of my duties at night was to make the soup for the morning. We would then throw away whatever was left over. It was easy to justify giving him a bowl of soup. Debbie didn’t like him very much, but she was ok with me “helping” him.
After a couple of weeks I asked him his name and he told me it was Dave. A couple of weeks after that my future wife and a friend or two of hers came in for french toast and cheese fries. It was a little busy in the restaurant so I wasn’t able to talk much with them until after they ate. When I finally came over to their table you could tell something wasn’t normal. My future wife blurts out that her friend thinks that one of the people in the restaurant is her uncle. Her uncle had been estranged from the family for years. He was a war vet with PTSD or some other mental health issue. He was a shade off. Their family, specifically, her dad had looked for his brother for a long time and wasn’t even sure if he was still alive.
I ask who and my future wife’s friend points to a man sitting in the corner in the back of the restaurant by himself.
My response: Oh yeah, that’s Dave? He comes in here all the time. Nice guy.
It turns out they guy I had been giving soup to was one of my future wife’s best friend’s uncles. She called her dad and within an hour Dave was reunited with his family. He still has mental health issues. He still is a shade off, but he is off the streets and living in an apartment now.
What you do matters.
Everyone has value.
I learned those lessons over and over in the middle of the night at that diner. Looking back on those three years, it doesn’t shock me that when given the chance to do something a little radical (be the only white family in an all black, almost all poor, neighborhood and everything that is wrapped up in that experience) to show that even the poorest of the poor in Milwaukee have value, that we would jump head first into it. We live where we do because we know that what you do matters and that everyone has value and that value isn’t dictated by anything other than the fact that the person is a human being.