Mystery Beers were the drink special of the night. I like Mystery Beer night, because it’s the easiest portal into the land of table banter. That’s what I love most about waitressing: table banter.
The universe usually gifts some launching pad of mutual conversation: the heavy rain last night or Ryan Lochte or the new pizza special. But especially, Mystery Beer. You say that it’s $2.50 and they say “Is there a way the mystery beer could be a Sweet Josie?” and you shake your head solemnly and say “Sorry, there are rules in this world about mystery.” But you end up bringing them a Sweet Josie anyways, pulled from a giant cooler of beers the bartender wants to get rid of. And then you feel like some greek god blessing the masses with their favorite beer, and they feel really special. “This is so mysterious!” they’ll say, taking a sip, and you laugh together.
This is the way it went for most of the night; the tables outside mostly filled with people my own age watching the Olympics. Cleaning up the table, I talked with the kind, funny grad students about how beautiful swimming looks, when projected out on some giant restaurant projector: these clean, giant strokes cutting across the screen above us; larger and more beautiful than life. I told the graduate students I was jealous of the heroic emotions the Olympians experienced that I never would.
“Don’t be so sure.” They told me. “You never know.”
“That’s true. Maybe I’ll spontaneously take up gymnastics.”
“We’ll see you in 2016.” They said and raised their Fat Tires. Now, that’s what I call generous optimism.
Inside, however, neither of the two tables wanted surprise beers: that’s how it goes; you turn 30 and start wanting wine from a particular vineyard. One of the tables held a couple who was very obviously Artsy; they were probably in a band (everyone in my town is in a band). She had on cowboy boots and drippy feather earrings and did not smile, and he had a beard and the same immobile expression. Neither of them seemed interested in table banter. I complimented her boots, and she nodded vaguely, like we were addressing each other underwater from opposite sides of the pool, even though I was standing there filling her water glass.
I understand. Sometimes you just want your burger.
The table next to them had two men. They were both about fifty, but the kind of fifty year olds who wear trendy glasses and read The Wall Street Journal and because of this, believe this excuses themselves from the possibility of chauvinism. They probably have daughters in middle school; they probably have at least one tattooed college relic or wish they had one. I know the type. They are always going out for beers together, always friendly; but the dialogue will also skim the surface of sexism; will always contain the threads of a bygone generation. The kind of men who watch Mad Men and think “Don Draper is really shitty to his secretaries” but use the same indulgent tone with younger women. I want to tell these kind of men: this isn’t Car Talk. I’ll table banter, but I won’t ask for your permission about how to fix my life. If, indeed, it needed fixing.
They wanted to know my name, Sarah with an H, and they teased me about being Vegetarian when they asked about the meat pizza and I gave the usual sunny, nebulous answer—“people seem to like it!”—but when I told them that I’ve cheated and eaten meat before, they put their hands up.
“Don’t say that. We don’t want your image to be tarnished.”
I made trips to all the Mystery Beer Tables and the Artsy Couple and back again. The men wanted to know which three jobs I was working and what I was majoring in. Saying “poetry” is practicably pavlovian; in that it instantly elicits a remark about job shortages and poems on paper napkins. It’s an invitational sort of ambition, and people will forever be wanting haikus about their cheese fries. I wish I was the kind of person who kind easily conjure up haikus about cheese fries; really, I do. But I’ve never been that gifted with the immediacy of syllables.
“Hence the waitressing.” I will say.
“Hence the waitressing.” Customers will echo, before usually issuing encouragement and, if they are a Grandma, grasp my arm and whisper, “But that’s just lovely, dear! The world needs more poetry.” And my heart will get giddy and I’ll think, this job, it’s worth it! Because it is.
But these men laughed, ha-ha, how about this economy; I can’t believe you want to get your masters.
“What about computer programming?” the guy with the baseball said, which sounded cheesy, like it was out of an early 1990’s Lifetime Movie script about a guy with a baseball cap who is trying to discourage a waitress. “Computers are the future.”
“Can I get you another beer?”
“We’re being such assholes.” His friend of the trendy glasses, said.
“I’m just trying to give you a glimpse of reality, honey.” Baseball Cap said. “Do you have a lot of student loans?”
“No. That’s why I have three jobs.” This might have sounded testy, but I had already told them before that I had three jobs. That day I had worked two jobs; they were witnessing hour thirteen.
“Good for you, good for you. Write a poem about computer programming, maybe.”
I didn’t really mind too much. I’ve only waitressed since the beginning of the summer, but I’ve worked enough jobs since early high school — a meandering litany of coffee shops, a publishing company, a rabbit farm, an herbarium, giving tours, you name it—that involve having a thick skin. I do think it’s funny that people want to give me advice about the way the world works when I am serving them burgers with a side order of garlic fries, but okay. This is life, and we’re somewhere on the same page (a big newspaper page with a lot of opinions, but still, the same page).
It is going to be hard. I don’t expect wanting to do something like writing to be easy in a tight economy full of young, gifted people. I don’t think I deserve some enchanted arrival at any point, and that’s why serving Mystery Beers is perfectly okay.
I brought both tables their checks. The men left, quieted after the alcohol. They left small, calculated tips with the .88 cents written out like high-rise office building. The Artsy Couple left, too, still quiet; and the acoustic clicks her exiting cowboy boots made were the most vocal the couple had been all evening. I picked up their check. They had left a neat stack of bills, a hefty forty-percent tip, and a note written on the top of the check.
Those guys are total dicks. Good luck with your MFA!
I stood there and I wanted to cry. I thought about the beautiful Olympians, experiencing athletic emotions on the television screen that I’ll never get close to. But I also thought about the vast catalogue of other emotions in the world — how good people are, and how without knowing it, what you have been waiting for is some small affirmation, spelled tidily out on the top of a receipt. I had no idea they’d been listening to the things that the Middle-Aged Men had been telling me.
But that night, those two receipt sentences were the only kind of poetry I needed.
The point of this essay is not that there are dicks in the world (it’s no secret that there are). But even where there are dicks, I’ll tell you who else is nearby: some stranger listening, and all that stranger wants to wish you is a quiet good luck. I promise you, these people are around every corner and that’s the truly exciting thing to keep in mind. Color me sentimental, but during these long shifts, long summers, long years of swimming out to a destination I’ve not yet marked — I’ll be keeping that receipt handy in my apron pocket as a reminder. I have been wished luck. We can spend years crafting algorithms for ways to make life more meaningful but I swear, carrying such luck can’t be far from the answer.