My first job was waiting tables at a restaurant in a small farming town in the Red River Valley of North Dakota.
The place had three owners in the short time I worked there. The first were a pair of eccentric identical twins who grew up in the town, then went off to pursue a career in vaudeville. They returned years later and tried their hands as business owners in their hometown. They always wore three-piece suits and bowties and helped bus tables when it was busy. They taught me that no matter how crazy it was during a Sunday morning, after-church rush or a Tuesday night when the women’s bowling league crammed into all the booths just 20 minutes before closing, it was imperative to acknowledge people and let them know that you know they are there. Even if you can’t meet their needs right at that moment, let them know you plan to soon. A good life lesson.
The second owner came along within months of my hiring: Stan, a New Yorker now flipping burgers on the windy plains. His move had something to do with his oldest daughter and the Air Force base just 14 miles west of town. He was a widower with a pack of boys at our school and knowledge of good food. Stan introduced “smorgasbord” to the community, and his Sunday spreads were fantastic: baked ham, real roasted turkey, real mashed potatoes, carrot cake, and sour cream and raisin pie.
He was a skinny little man with a thick East Coast accent who measured out six teaspoons of sugar into each cup of coffee he drank. He was often gruff and a bit formidable.
One frantic Saturday morning he called me into the kitchen to pickup an order, and just as he was about to slide a pancake on to a plate, it slipped off the spatula and onto the kitchen floor. He picked it up without missing a beat, put it onto the plate I was holding, looked me in the eyes and said, “The floor is clean.”
I knew not to say a word, just walk through the swinging kitchen door and deliver that food to the customer now.
When I worked evenings, I often waited on a fellow named John who lived in the Violet Hotel, a run-down two-story building that was, yes, painted violet and just a quick walk from the café. I suspect it was a boarding house for many guys like John, men living out the end of their lives alone. John was old. His hair and beard were long and dirty and his fingernails in desperate need of a wash and a trim. At first he scared me, but then, we started talking to each other.
I wish I could recall all the stories he told me about his life on those slow nights when he sat at the counter, stretching out his last cup of coffee and sharing the tales of his youth. He was kind, and seemed generally interested in learning about me, a stir-crazy teenager with great plans to blow that town as soon as I graduated from high school. John had made a meager living working on other people’s farms and now, here he was, a man with little means and seemingly quite lonely.
The first time I waited on him, Stan called me into the kitchen to tell me that I was to charge only 25 cents for his meal. John could order a no-meat hot sandwich—two pieces of bread, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a cup of coffee—for a quarter. Stan couldn’t afford to give him the meat for free every night (though once in a while he did), but he gave the guy a pretty heaping hot meal and a little dignity for two bits.
Stan didn’t really know John, but what he did know was it wouldn’t take much for him to help a stranger. And he did.