One of my favorite things about working in restaurants is the unlimited entertainment potential of observing the characters that pass through. Middlebury, Vermont does not disappoint.
Once, in High School, I took a class in Nonfiction Prose. The first week, the teacher had us walk around the neighborhood, observe the people around us, and write a few character sketches. A few descriptive lines that form a verbal portrait. They can be straightforward or metaphorical, humorous or serious. In what seemed an apt metaphor at the time, and in retrospect more like poor judgment, I distinctly remember comparing my teacher to a baboon. Better choices have been made. Regardless, I love this exercise, and I would like to present to you some of the characters of the – Café. No names, of course, will be named.
M— is a tall, odd man. He almost always comes alone and almost always orders a hummus salad to very precise specifications. It is shocking when these two things are not the case. He wears a bucket hat and leans slightly when he walks. Though a bit withdrawn at first impression, M– proves quite garrulous on any subject when engaged. He does not like ice in his water, and he eats very, very slowly.
G—worked in the foreign service, but I would never have heard it from him. It took a long time for him to decide I was worth conversing with at all. He must have his soup piping hot and immediately. He comes for lunch with various friends. Last week, he asked me if I had seen any sea monsters lately in Otter Creek. I suspect he is hiding an eccentric sense of humor.
Mr. and Mrs. – are my favorite regulars. They are understanding, appreciative, and very sweet. They always drink iced tea—many, many glasses—and sit for a while.
C— sits at the bar and has a Switchback beer with his lunch. He might be in his seventies. He speaks gently, likes golf, and has a wife that I have never seen. We don’t have many things to talk about, but he is kind, pays in cash, and tips well.
J—and A—, whether they come separately or together, are strange and, in my opinion, wonderfully entertaining. They have raised friendly banter to an art form, and on a busy day it is best to avoid them as much as possible. On a quiet day, a conversation at their table is a great way to fill up time. J—is tall with very short hair, and always leans in to speak. He likes Caesar salad and sometimes quiche. A—has curly hair and an old, lumbering dog who waits outside.
Mr. and Mrs. A— are always very nice, and they always order the same thing. Always. I could tell you their exact order, but that might give it away. Inside, they like the table in the corner. Outside, the table against the wall. They like straws and lemons with their water, but they only sometimes use the straws. They never tip over 17%.
The I—‘s would be lovely if they weren’t so troublesome. An order for two can be a foot long with all of their additions, substitutions and peculiarities. They usually come for brunch, order more food than I think a person could eat, and finish it. They think the — Cafe is their private kitchen, and we do nothing to disturb this conviction.
The lawyers are very important people. They never have more than 50 minutes for lunch. They like their soups and salads first, and M—with the blonde hair must have her soup extra hot. With all that, they are surprisingly agreeable, and they never linger.
Mr. D—owns something in town. He is also a very important person. He likes his iced tea with no spoon in it. His lackeys drink soda, sometimes; they defer to him in all matters. There are usually four of them; only Mr. D— orders an appetizer. As far as I can tell, only Mr. D— speaks. He takes up twice as much space as those around him, in every sense of the phrase.
When I was little, and we had to eat at McDonalds on family road trips, I would order a cheeseburger without the burger. We called it a Toby Special. Now that I am not six years old however, one, I avoid McDonalds at all costs (along with the rest of my family), and two, I order off the menu. I can make myself a sandwich with no bread and nothing on it at home.
When work is slow and I have time to, I often wonder how people come to have such exact, particular peculiarities. Likes and dislikes. Demands. Needs. Are they born that way, or is it a byproduct of aging? Are they raised to need straws in their water with no ice, to demand that their soup be hot enough to give third degree burns, and to require, absolutely, that there be no trace of onion on their burger? Are we all so peculiar in our tastes, only more self-conscious of demanding their satisfaction? Do I just have lower standards? Were our parents less indulgent? Are “characters” just average people whose idiosyncrasies have gone unchecked? Possibly.
Or maybe, as my experience as a server indicates, idiosyncrasy is the norm, and those without restrictions, requirements and specifications are the exception. Maybe this pattern is a unique result of American culture and values. That seems likely, for in all the time I have spent outside the U.S., I have never seen someone order a sandwich without bread.*
*That is not to say there is anything wrong, necessarily, with ordering a sandwich without bread. It is simply interesting, and maybe indicative of something, to observe the frequency of such requests.