Humiliation du Jour

One Friday afternoon some eighteen years ago, I punched my time card to begin my shift at the Cafe at Brooks, a now-defunct restaurant on Providence's East Side. I was nineteen years old, a rising college junior with a double major in English literature and philosophy, who was looking forward to hitting the books -- Proust, Joyce and Faulkner, that semester -- in the fall with a nice cushion of cash in the bank.

The cafe used to advertise on local radio. Each spot would end with the tagline, "The Cafe at Brooks! Where you just might fall in love with your waitress."

Well, you might, I suppose. The waitresses (all women) were typically Brown undergraduates: bright and articulate, with good middle-class manners and enough level-headed wherewithal to get a three or four-course meal to your table and then deliver the check, usually calculated correctly, without mishaps.

Most of the time.

The afternoon was slow, and we were seating folks in round-robin fashion, distributing comers among the handful of waitresses on the floor. When my turn rolled around, I delivered menus and water to a couple whose aura of ill-will -- toward themselves, toward each other, perhaps toward the fact of simply being alive -- strongly suggested to my admittedly quite mercantile mind that I should not expect much by way of a tip.

Two choices are available to a waitress in this situation. First, you can start doing schtick. It is intrusive, but sometimes a charming smile, a joke, a little extra solicitousness can make the difference, tip-wise, between a five percent insult and a twenty percent gift. Or you can resolve to work as quietly and professionally as possible, leaving the couple space to work out whatever nasty business is between them. This second strategy is more useful when the vibe is really angry, because in that case, being exceptionally nice means making yourself a target for the bad energy that's already going around.

Snap decisions are everything in restaurant service. That night, I really didn't want anyone to be mean to me. I had just escaped a rotten argument with my mother, who'd interrupted my reading of Stanley Cavell's latest in order to harangue me about the nerve I'd shown in dropping to a size four that summer. (I'd been on a steady diet of coffee and crusts leftover from bread baskets at work, because I was too cheap to shell out for a real meal at the Cafe where employees got only a fifty percent discount.) In short: I didn't want to be an emotional lightning rod for this angry pair. I was feeling tender enough already. So, naturally, I went for strategy #2: all business.

After giving them a minute to look at the menu, I readied my pen over my order pad. "Have you decided?"

The woman placed her order; I no longer remember what she wanted. The man said, "Pepper steak."

"Pepper steak," I repeated. Pepper steak was what went into a grinder in the sub shop near my house on Wiseacre Drive. Chopped steak and peppers heated on a grill and dumped into a hoagy roll, cheese and onions optional. You couldn't get a pepper steak at Cafe at Brooks. The fare was fancier than that.

"That's not on the menu," I said. "But if you tell me exactly what you'd like, I'm sure I can get the kitchen to make it for you."

"Pepper steak!" he said angrily. And then, more carefully: "Steak oh pwahv."

What in the world was steak oh pwahv? I'd never heard of steak oh pwahv. And he really sounded strange. I looked at him closely, wondering if he was having a stroke.

He pointed to a line on the menu, at a dish for which I'd never taken an order: Steak au poivre.

"Oh!" I smiled. It was all clear now. "You mean steak oh poyvree!"

Well, I didn't speak French. And growing up, though I'd read a lot, I didn't often discuss my reading. Difficult words could take on strange phonetic identities in my imagination. I wasn't always able to correctly infer the sound of a word from how it looked on the page.

Something flashed in his eyes: faint amusement, tinged with ridicule, or maybe it was just the sun pouring in through the skylight, hot as a pretentious cafe in hell, hot as the shameful blush that I felt spreading from my neck to my hairline. His wife looked daggers at me over her Perrier, as if she'd finally found incontrovertible proof of some hypothesis she'd been secretly entertaining for a long time: Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses -- and the ones who don't wear glasses, at least not while on shift at the Cafe at Brooks, are pathetically seducing your husband by screwing up his order for steak oh poyvree.

Or maybe I'd just punctured her hope that a meal on the town, in this town, might for once be a not completely shabby and cut-rate experience.

I don't know where I got the courage to follow up properly and ask how he'd like his steak au poivre cooked, but I did.

I wrote it all down and scuttled into the back, where my boss, who'd heard the whole exchange, was bent double with laughter. I laughed, too. Because otherwise I might have jumped into the fryolator.

Afterward, the angry couple wanted neither coffee nor dessert, and for this small mercy I was heartily glad. I dropped the check and they left, silent and sour as ever. My tip was ten percent exactly.