On Talking To Waitresses & Waiters

I was having dinner last night at my favorite hamburger place here on a corner a few blocks up from the Rexx Theatre. I find I crave a hamburger 2 or 3 times a month here, perhaps it being some sort of longing not for my home country but the home I left behind many years ago where my father wearing this silly felt hat I bought in Freedomland (a theme park from my youth that, like my youth, no longer exists) grilled Sabrett hotdogs and these big, fat, greasy hamburgers in our backyard while talking politics with my uncles. I think this memory goes back to about a year before he died and is one of those memories I have where I was filled with love and a bit of awe for the man I almost got to know.
But the reason I bring this up is because hamburgers are tied to that memory and is the reason I go to this restaurant which I feel greatly surpasses anything Burger King has to offer, and when I go to restaurants, I always somehow or other get into some kind of conversation with the waiter or waitress who is serving me. This, too, is tied into the memories of my father but I won’t get into that now. This musing is about my habit of striking up a dialogue with service industry people who unless they’re waiters at a place like Peter Luger’s or Umberto’s Clam House or Wu Liang Ye and are career waiters with the proper New York attitude toward the world and specifically those denizens of the world occupying their tables, are really somebody else. Or at least are trying to be, have the hope of being, somebody else. And this particular waitress could speak English, or at least spoke Prep School graduate English, which means she understood about half of what I said and could haltingly answer questions she thought I was asking. Anyway, she is studying cinema at Kader Has University which is down the road from my own college and so since it is a field I know something about, as opposed to say electrical engineering which leaves me clueless, I asked about her future plans. You know, what she wanted to do with the degree after she graduated.
And here it brought me back to reality. For she, like so many college students, had no clear idea about the future. Maybe, if and when I learn Turkish, the conversation might be more illuminating, but there is a vagueness there about the future she was trying to envision. And I thought that this was so very different than the way I was, and my friends were, when we were that age. We always knew what we wanted to be, and though we were often sidetracked by life, we still, in perhaps a sort of broken field style of running, moved toward it. And we did arrive at being the sort of people we aspired to being with the usual mixed results. Some ended up pretty close to where they started, in terms of locality, that is, and others far from whatever Kansas they came from. But we all ended up having lived a life in both education and/or the arts. There has been, of course, varying levels of achievement, and one can’t have lived as long as we have without incurring our share of remorse and regret (remorse for some of the things we did and regret for some of the things we didn’t do) but none, I believe, feel unfulfilled. So going back to that question she couldn’t really answer decisively, we would have all answered that question quite differently when we were undergraduates for we all knew what we wanted to be, and we all, more or less, attained it.
It wasn’t so much that it was a different time, because time has a funny way of being different and the same all at once, but that we were different. Too many young people today seem to have a rather fuzzy idea of the course of study they are embarking on. The educational system in other countries, though, is partly at fault since so much emphasis is placed on entrance exams and the results of those often limit the choices one has in the application process. In the US, the most popular major at my old college in the SUNY (State University of New York) system is “Undecided”, which pretty much means those American counterparts to this waitress would be just as vague as she is in answering that question.
Which leads me back to my father, hamburgers, and felt hats from Freedomland.
My peers and I came from Depression era parents, many of whom were first generation immigrants, and thus these parents were obsessed with their children having a more secure life. Education was a key to that life and all our parents encouraged, even sometimes pushed, us to get college degrees. And so even though a constant source of dispute between my mother and father was where we lived (he never wanted to leave Brooklyn and she was determined we would live in a house in the suburbs), there was one thing they both agreed on: I would go to college and I would read, because reading was, in both their eyes, a necessary ingredient to a liberal, open, inquisitive mind. So there were always books, magazines, and newspapers in the house. My mother enrolled me in book clubs before I could walk, and my father made sure we had 3 Sunday papers on the weekend. He read 3 newspapers a day and thought journalism was the highest calling and so was delighted when I declared one day at about age 7 after having finished E.B. White’s Stuart Little that I would be a writer. He just assumed I meant journalist. My mother, though, loved books and knew I meant novelist. But both believed in the printed word. My father sought to understand the world, (hence, the newspapers), while my mother wanted to understand people (thus, the novels). And so even while grilling hotdogs and hamburgers, the talk was always about what was happening in the world, which was my father’s second passion. The first being The Brooklyn Dodgers. Though actually, that was second, current events third, and my mother was first.
Anyway, because of them, my path was set (though I did wander off course more than occasionally), but my answer to that question I asked the waitress was always clear in my mind. And this was true of the vast majority of my friends, too. We knew what we wanted early on. It just took some of us a very long time to reach it.
So my parting words to the waitress was not to worry. She had time to figure it out. At least she was happy in her course of study. And that, if she has the right teachers and liked-minded friends, will lead her to her path and her life will unfold. Her adventure is beginning. She is, like so many others, a very lucky person. And she, like the rest of these under 30 people here and around the world, will once they figure out where they’re going, shape the future.
And to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: so it goes.

11 thoughts on “On Talking To Waitresses & Waiters

  1. Prof., I wonder if the uncertain times that we live in does not have anything to do with that …it is different world the one we live in…very fast paced, ever changing …technology driven for the most part… It is hard to believe you are going to be doing the same thing 5 -10 years from now…turnover is constant issue in every industry except perhaps in government jobs or maybe education…after all, a teacher is a teacher forever….regardless of the place of teaching…
    Best regards

  2. You have an interesting point, Fernando, in terms of technology’s effect on life, but the world was ever changing for my generation, too. There were upheavals, turmoil, assassinations, war, protests, a world not stable, and certainly not safe. Interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and also, as they would imply, a curse. It’s never easy, is it? But hopefully, for your children, it will be better. That’s always the hope we hold in our hearts.

  3. “Because time has a funny way of being different and the same all at once, but we were different”. How true. Len, you sure packed a great deal of images and thought into this particular essay. I, too, like to engage others when out and about…people can be fascinating or frustrating. You were blessed to have parents who valued the written word (I know you know that). My mom was the same. The difference between you and me is that I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or become during those crazy years of growing up. I said I wanted to be a journalist, but didn’t become one. However, I do still write. I thought of Harry Chapin’s song where he talks about the paths we take…”She was gonna be an actress and I was gonna learn to fly”. She did become an actress and he drove a cab and got high.

  4. Rentedatent, rentedatent, rentedatent. I’ve been married to a career service person for over forty years. I’ve learned a lot about the way the world works through my association with other service people. More than a few of them aspire to write and ask me how to accomplish it, believing that I might know. Of course, I don’t. I just say: “Reading is most important. Writers write, yeah, but you can’t do it without reading. And if you’re writing and it’s crap, lower your expectations for that day. But put your butt in the chair as often as possible.”

  5. I really enjoyed this, both the issues you discussed and the glimpse into your formative years.
    You know, the future is full of twists and turns. The older I get, the more I like figuring it out as I go along.

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