When I sat down, though the restaurant was half empty, I could tell my server was overwhelmed. Since I'd planned on a working lunch anyway, I plopped my computer down on the table and began to type, figuring that she had enough anxiety from other customers and that any delays would only give me more opportunity to finish a few writing projects. I got my usual drinks - a water and a Diet Coke (or Pepsi, depending on the location) - and continued to type. She took my order, and I continued to type. What you must know at this point is that I've had much, much worse service than this day. Were the drinks a bit slow? Sure. Did she forget something when she first brought my meal? Yes. But, in all, these were incredibly minor, and almost negligible infractions even by American service standards.
What I didn't notice until far too late is that this was affecting her more deeply than it was affecting me. Her other tables seemed a bit more impatient, but even so, there were no uncomfortable confrontations. Just reminders or a request to have some stale chips exchanged for a fresh batch. Pretty normal stuff for food service, but again, this was affecting her deeply.
I only fully noticed how bad when she brought me my check, with tears in her eyes. I had noticed her go to the back, just thinking she was getting an item for another patron. At this moment, I realized it was an unsuccessful attempt to to hide her tears. As I took the check, I smiled to her brimming eyes and thanked her for her service. At that point, I planned to write a note on the back of the check, something like, "There will be better days. Hang in there!" You know, a phrase that seems like a good idea at the time and always feels trite upon reflection. What I should have done was share those words with her, to name them to her face, because what happened next was almost unbelievable.
One of her coworkers began to disparage her, not so loud that we could hear what was said, but loud enough that I, across the restaurant, could hear the conflict rise. I looked over to see the coworker point toward the door, and my waitress, in shock, shook her head. The coworker once again thrust her pointer finger, this time first at my waitress and then at the door. After a moment of shock, Nikki grabbed her purse from under the counter and left.
I don't know if she left for the day, for the week, or forever. I don't know what else may have been going on in Nikki's life that complicated the day for her. But I do know three things.
First, the coworker did more to turn me away from this restaurant than the slow service, because after Nikki left, the coworker began to berate her to other tables. Not just explain the situation, but to gossip about this clearly grief-stricken woman.
Second, the food that day did much more to turn me away from Applebee's in general than the slow service. It seems that, across the country, this chain has mastered the displeasing art of overcooking food, then serving it cold. It's bafflingly reproducible.
Finally, I know that Nikki needed a word, some compassion, that reminder that I wanted to offer, trite though it sounds, and I know that she didn't get it from me because I delayed. I was moments too late, and as she walked out the door, my heart sank.
Whatever it was that caused her so much anxiety that day, I wanted her to know that her identity, that her value in life, was not wrapped up in serving appetizers to ungrateful putzes like me. That, even as mistakes were made, she there was still a brighter future ahead. Compassion is a nice feeling to have, but it's worthless if we don't actualize it when it is needed most.
That's what I learned this week. Feeling compassion is useless without immediate corresponding action, because if we're moments too late, that means our compassion goes nowhere.