Many years ago, I was a college student trying to hustle a few dollars in tips at a Baton Rouge drive-in called Hopper’s, where I waited on patrons in their cars.
I quit about a week later, and my experience generally set the tone for how I would treat wait staff as I grew older. When I took an order, very few of the drivers would even look up. They barked out their order and later paid me by slapping the money on the food tray. Essentially, I was invisible.
The ultimate put-down came when a teenage boy and his girlfriend arrived in a very expensive car. I was a college student and admittedly a little envious of this barely-old-enough-to-drive dude rolling up in his pricey ride. Still, I was very cordial, but once I placed his order on the tray, he flung the money and a meager tip on the tray. He laughed with his lady friend.
I was happy to get the tip, as small as it was, but to be dismissed by a high school kid didn’t sit well. That insult, along with a couple of others that were racial in tone, was the end of the road. I told my boss I was quitting in two days.
Fast-forward many years later. I was sitting in a restaurant ordering from a menu while talking with some friends. A waitress arrived to take our order, and I never really looked up at her. I placed my order, but I was almost dismissive in the way I did it.
I remember it so well because I flash-backed to my time working at the drive-in. I felt awful about how I had acted. When she returned, I made it a point to look directly at her and to be kind. I think my grandmother would have rapped her long skinny fingers across the back of my head for being so uncaring earlier.
I had kept a spotless record for years concerning my treatment of wait staff. I also pay attention to how people treat wait staff. They continue their conversations, never looking up, as if the wait staff are robots. Most of the servers probably don’t care as long as they are not shouted at or demeaned and receive a great tip. But for some, it has to hurt somewhat.
The people in that profession are working hard, and many don’t even get paid minimum wage. At least there should be a breath of kindness headed their way.
A few weeks ago, I again violated the very code I have tried to obey. I was buried in text messages, tweets and emails on my phone and never established eye contact with my waitress. She was good at her job. I was a jerk.
When she returned with my order, I barely looked up and really didn’t really speak to her as I continued to scroll my email. She was nice.
When I finished my meal, I sat for a few minutes before I received the check. When I was about the pay, the woman said, “Sir, I was looking at you when you came in. You look like that guy who writes for the newspaper. You are Ed Pratt, right?” I nodded to the middle-aged woman. “I read your column almost every week. I like a lot of them,” she said with a huge smile, adding that she has sent a few to friends and family.
I felt so small. She had taken time to notice me. She was kind in spite of my indifference. While I generally crack jokes with wait staff, this time I had treated my waiter like furniture. Or like the teenager who had shoved money at me so long ago.
This was another test in human kindness, and I had failed. We should always treat people with dignity, no matter the occasion. We don’t want to be that person with a situational value system, choosing to turn the charm on and off depending on the status of person we’re dealing with.
I smiled and thanked the waitress for reading my column. Yes, I tipped her well and promised myself I will be a better person.
Correction: In a June 15 column, I should have written that Guy Reynolds was a photo editor, not the head of photography at The Dallas Morning News.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly column, at email@example.com.