While I was putting myself through college, I worked at a local diner where I met people from all walks of life. Most people were congenial, except for one customer, an older man, whom the servers dubbed “the grouch.” And grouchy he was. Plus intolerant, unforgiving, and a terrible tipper, if he tipped at all. No one wanted to wait on him. He brought many a server to tears with his abrasive attitude and harsh comments.
Well, wouldn’t you know it. He hobbled in one evening and sat in my section. I heard the other servers snickering. I took a deep breath and sauntered his way with a smile. I offered him a menu and a hello which he disregarded.
“Gimme the meatloaf special,” he growled.
“Great,” I said. “What would you like to drink?”
“If I wanted anything to drink, I woulda told you!” he snapped. All heads in the restaurant turned our way. His hostility stabbed me. My first impulse was to launch an attack and conquer this angry, bitter man, but I had to heed our “customer is always right” policy if I wanted to keep my job. I turned to storm away but stopped and returned to his table. I could hear one of my co-workers behind the counter, “Don’t do it, Mac, don’t do it.” I stood, mustering up the courage to confront (and defeat) him.
“Why are you still here? Get outta here, and get me my damn food!”
And then he looked up at me. What I “saw” was a scared, sad, lonely, hurting soul. It arrested me.
This is not about you. He’s in pain. The anger I felt lifted, and compassion rushed in to fill the void. Without thinking, I sat down next to him, kissed him on the cheek, and whispered, “I don’t know you or what you’re going through, but you don’t have to be so mean. I am not the enemy here.” With those words, I kissed him on the cheek again, and walked away.
He left me a 100% tip that day.
From then on, Brownie refused to sit in anyone else’s section. He still gave the other servers a hard time when I wasn’t there, and I’d lecture him about it the next time I saw him, but over time he softened. We grew to become friends over the next year or so, until his passing.
I’ve often thought about Brownie over the years. I valued his wisdom and knowledge, especially as a struggling college student, trying to find her way in a world that seemed so confrontational and confounding. Any time an event unfolded unfavorably, it was my habit to take it personally and to take it out on others, just as Brownie did.
I came face-to-face with myself the day I met Brownie. His lashing out was not about me, yet on a deeper level it was. If I had attacked him, then I would have been attacking myself. I would have perpetuated unkindness. And I probably would have lost my job.
Rather than approach things with a desire to conquer, I approach them now with curiosity. Well, I try…I’m still a work in progress. Instead of a compulsion to take things (or people) down, I try the path of quiet exploration, of seeing things from another perspective. I’m willing to pause and observe, to consider options and possibilities beyond that instinctual desire to attack.
I’d say that’s progress.
Thank you, Brownie. Your lessons remain with me.