Monday, February 2, 2009

"We don't serve food here. We serve people."

First of all, this is a work of fiction. None of the names belong to anyone, so far as I know. But, you have met these people before, at one time or another. And if you haven't met a 'Ruthie', I hope you do, soon.

I was talking to Fred and his wife, a wonderful couple once mentioned in Paul Harvey’s Tournament of Roses*, when the man came in.

He came in all het up, and stalked right past the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. I could see Emmaline cringe. Emmaline doesn't cringe for much, so I said, "Pardon me, Fred, I think a 'situation' just walked in. Do you mind if I come back in a bit?"

"Sure Eomer, take care of what you need to take care of."

"Thanks. I'll be back." I intoned in my best Arnold voice. That got the usual chuckle.

As I walked up to Emma, the man was just saying: "Do you know who I am!?"

Before Emma could try to answer, I said, "Michael Moore?"

The man turned to me with a glare. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"Eomer Dane. I run this place. What can I do for you, Mr. Moore?"

"I'm not Michael Moore!"

"Oh, I'm sorry. May I have your name, please?"

He rattled of an important-sounding string of syllables so fast I couldn't catch them. I mentally named him, 'Sir Loin, of Beef' and determined to just call him 'Sir'.

"Thank you, sir. What can I do for you today?"

"I'm hungry, and this greasy spoon is the only place to eat in this one-horse pimple of a town."

"Why, thank you, Sir. But you seem upset. How can I help you?"

He looked at me as if I was stupid. Self-important people often make that mistake. "I want to eat, now! I'm in a hurry!"

I looked over the lunchtime crowd. A typical Friday bunch, some were folks I know lived two towns over, and regularly made the trip for their favorite meal, or just to see ... yes, they were here today: Little Ruthie and her family. There's only one major business in our town, building farm implements, and Ruthie's mom worked the swing shift as a safety oversight. A stickler for detail, her shift recently won a company-wide award for the longest time without a loss-time incident. Lunch was a special thing once a month thing for them.

"Who do you suggest I try to hurry along? Those four road-crew guys?" Each was bigger than two of me put together, and I'm not small. Good guys, but you don't want to get between them and their lunch. "The 'Ladies'-Aid Tea' folks in the corner?" They were the blue-haired Jesus lady types, sure to bless you, and any one if them will be on your doorstep with a half-gallon mason jar of the best chicken soup (better than mine, even) you've ever used to get over your flu. I'm sure they race each other to see who can get it to you first. But don’t you mess with them; they’re close to God. "Or how about that single mom and her three kids." I indicated Ruthie's table. "Are you more important than them?"

He glared at me. "Doesn't my name mean anything to you?"

"Frankly, no. But say it again, loud, so the people can hear. Maybe they know you."

Glaring at me, he raised his voice, which had already been audible to most folks in the cafe: "I'm Robert Sarkajanianski!"

Most of the folks looked puzzled at each other. From the Crew Guys' table: "So?" It pretty much summed it up.

To 'Sir', I said, "You seem to have a high notion of your importance. I don’t kow what your standards are, but let me pick one of the least important parties here: How about that family of four there: let me tell you about them. The Mom works nights as a safety boss, over at the factory.”

“So what?” he sneered.

I ignored the interruption, “Her husband used to work there, up until someone forgot to put away an extension cord after doing some maintenance. It was a small thing, but, as such things happen, a trip over a cord here, sent a person into a control panel that started up a machine there, that her husband was working on. He was hurt pretty bad, but the injury itself would have been survivable. He was caught in the machine in such a way no one could get to him, and he bled out." I paused for a breath. "All for a simple extension cord. Sam was a good man, and is terribly missed in this, what was your word? 'Pimple', of a town." Another breath, "That lady is a trooper, though. About a week after the funeral, after all the hot dishes had been finished up, Ellen marches into the office of the plant. The secretary immediately thought: 'Lawsuit' and buzzed her boss. He was just coming into the reception area when Ellen said: 'You need a safety chief. I'm your woman!' She wouldn't take 'No' for an answer, and he, more out of pity, really, and possibly thinking that he could avoid that lawsuit he feared, put her on as safety agent on the same shift her husband had worked.”

“I suppose you’re going to tell me she is the best they have now?” Sarcasm fairly dripped from his mouth.

"As a matter of fact, she is. To say that she’s motivated is to state the obvious.”

“Hmmm. I suppose.”

"Sam Junior, Billy and Ruthie are all good kids, and Ellen is doing the best she can, not looking for handouts, and she owns that job she has. She's been training the other safety bosses in the company, but doesn't want to be promoted; she can't be on the lookout for the stray cord or tool left where it shouldn't be. 'Inspect what you expect,' is her watchword."

“Why should she be so worried? She’s already lost her ‘man’. If she pressed a 'suit' she might even come out a rich lady.”

I looked at him, searching for his face for a sign of understanding. Seeing none, I said, “She doesn’t want anyone else to suffer the same way she did, from the same kind of stupid mistake. Some folks turn inward at these times. Ellen turned outward.”

By this time, Emma had taken the checks for two or three groups, and seated new groups in their place. But the people weren't leaving. They were hanging around, watching the show: Me and ‘Sir’.

"Like I said, Ellen does her best; Sam Jay, Billy and Ruthie are all good kids. You want some name recognition? Listen:" I raised my voice, "Hey folks! Ruthie's here today!"

The Cafe erupted in a roar of applause that went on for a full three minutes. Standing ovations are hard while sitting at a table or in a booth, but some folks tried. Little Ruthie sunk down low on her seat, trying to look small, but with a shy, happy smile. I turned back to 'Sir', "Do you know that some of these people travel to this cafe, not for my chicken-fried steak (which is the best around, if I do say so myself), but for a chance to get a hug from Ruthie? There's not a person here that Ruthie hasn't touched somehow. She even has a menu item named for her. There's a story about that," I glanced at 'Sir's face. His glare had fled somewhere, only to be replaced by a sad, sad look not often seen apart from funerals. "But now perhaps, is not the best time for it."

He looked at me, as if coming out of a dream. Along the way his angry glare came back. "Very nice story. Now get me a seat, dammit!"

I looked him right in the eye, and said, "Emma, Do we have a seat for this customer yet?"

Emma, who does her best to be accomodating, looked at the line of people still sitting in the waiting area. "No, Boss."

"How long, do you think?"

"Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes."

Still holding 'Sir's eye, and with an easy smile, I replied: "You heard her. You can wait on the bench with the others, and have a cup of coffee if you'd like, while you wait. Tell you what," I added, "I'll even get you a Ruthie's dessert, on the house."

"No. Thank. You. Don't you know I could buy this place?"

"I rather doubt it, but, if you'd like, I'll get you the owner's card and you can call him."

"Do that!"

From my wallet, I pulled out one of my cards and handed it to him. He snatched it out of my hand, stalked off to the bench, sat down, pulled out a cell phone and started dialing. He had no problem finding a place on the bench; no one wanted to sit near him.

In a moment the back office phone rang. I let it go. I knew someone in the kitchen would pick it up by ring three. We get a lot of take out orders. Meanwhile, I said hello to the folks, and got back to Fred. Before I could pick up the thread of the conversation, Louis was at my elbow with the cordless phone, and a strange look on his face. "Someone wants to buy the whole place, Mr. Dane. He don’ soun' too frien'ly though. You not gonna sell are you?"

I shook my head with a smile and a chuckle, and took the phone. Covering the mouthpiece, I said to Fred, "Do you mind being a secretary for me, Fred?" I handed him my pocket notepad. I don't leave home without it.

To the phone: "Hello, how can I help you today?"

I didn't need the phone to hear him say, "I'm gonna buy your cafe today. The only question is how much."

"I'm sorry, to whom am I speaking?" he rattled of his name even faster than before. I asked, "Can you spell that for me please? S-A-R-K, Slowly, please, A-J-A-N-I-A-N-Ski? Thank you." I spelled it aloud for Fred, who was dutifully scribbling. "Mister Sarkajanianski, I'm not in the market right now. Talk to me in a few years, maybe."

He named a ridiculously low figure, "Surely, 'Sir', you must be joking." He then named an equally ridiculous high figure. I let out an impressed whistle, and replied, with a wink to Fred, "That's an awful lot of money. You'd have to wait a lo-o-ong time for the R-O-I to break even. What?! Close the place?! Whatever for?"

'Sir' told me how rudely he'd been treated, not mentioning, of course, how rudely he'd treated the clientele already here. He invented all sorts of terrible, terrible things done to him, none of which were true, how he'd write to Duncan Hines and other folks about it, and I'd never have a scrap of business again. The best thing for me, he said, was take the money and run. Most of these bullies do their best work over the phone. I glanced over to the bench and I saw that the crowd was starting to get a bit ugly.

"'Sir'," I said, "Do you mean to tell me that you'd do all that, just because you had to wait a little bit to be seated?"

"Didn't you hear all the other stuff I said?"

"Yes, indeed, and so did the whole restaurant. About your threat, I think I’ll just take my chances. You seem to think you can buy me. What cell service do you use?"

He named one. I said, "Great. They have broadband coverage here. Does your phone do the web? Good. Try 'Googling’ my name, please."

He hung up with an, "I'll get back to you."

While he was doing this I walked back to the waiting area and sat down next to him. As I did so, I saw that Ruthie, little butterfly that she is, was working her magic among the patrons. She didn’t have particular favorites, but she aims herself at people most needing a smile. It’s wonderful to see a room just sort of take on a glow when she’s been through it. It never ceases to amaze me.

I asked ‘Sir’, "Did you get a hold of him?" He just glared at me. He seemed only to have those two expressions: Angry, and Sad, with Angry being the one he used most often. Then he found the links. I found he had a third expression, one not commonly used, apparently: astonishment.

"You can't buy me." He looked up, startled. I went on, "Even if you could, I wouldn't sell. This place is a hobby, not a business; a labor of love. I run it because it makes me happy, and it makes other people happy, too. Everyone who works here is on the same wavelength. And my best advertising draw is Ruthie, and," I looked him straight in the eye again, right down to the bottom of his soul, "What she gives away for free you can't buy with money." I looked around me. Apart from the two of us, the bench was clear. Fred came by, saying, "Here's your pad, Eomer. Thanks for an entertaining lunch."

"Don't thank me, Fred. Thank Mister S., here. Have a great day!" Fred and his wife left, arm in arm, as they had done so for as long as I can remember, probably since before I was born.

I looked back at my guest on the bench, "Emma? Is there a booth for Mister S. yet?"

"Looks like Ellen and the kids are just finishing up, Boss. Be five minutes to clean the table."

"Great. Five minutes, then. Will that be good enough, 'Sir'?"

He just looked at me, dazed. I answered for him, "That will be fine, Emma. Put a platter of Ruthie's on the table for us."

“Why do you do this? You could do anything you wanted.” Sarkajanianski was truly puzzled.

“That’s why I do this: I want to.”

Ellen checked out, and as the family walked past, a familiar voice said, "Mister, you look sad. Can I give you a hug?" Without waiting, she hopped up on the bench and buried her face in his ribs, wrapped her arms around him the best she could, and squeezed. Then as her Mom said, “Ruthie…” she said, "God loves you, mister." and hopped away, giving him a little wave.

Sarkajanianski just looked after her. The whole thing happened too quickly for him to react in any way except more surprise.

"Looks like Emma has your table ready, Mr. Sarkajanianski. Let's go get you sat down."

He looked at me, "Do you always treat people like this? I mean, people like me."

"Like what?"

"Not taking their guff. Not pushing back, but not backing up. Being polite. Being ... Nice."

"Not always. There was a day I would have thrown you out, and to hell with you. But we don't serve food here. We serve people. And we try to give them what they need, not what they deserve." Glancing up, I see the booth is set, and Ruthie's Dessert was laid out: broccoli, celery, carrot sticks, apple slices, and fresh Alberta peaches.

"Let's go and get some food into you. Emma?"

"Yes, Boss?"

"Make sure we have plenty of coffee, we may be here a while."

"Sure thing, Boss."

I may have another convert.

* Actually not, but it gives a sense of how old they are.

Can people be converted this easily? Maybe not. But, it's worth a try.

Yes, you can!