Out of My Head

Once in a while when nothing seems to be happening and my brain is on vacation, something will hit me and make me wonder why I never noticed. I’ve been coming to this restaurant dozens of times but there was something different about this morning. It was the waitress. Her manner. The cheerful willingness with which she went about her work as if it were a privilege and the unmistakable impression that there was no other place in the whole wide world she would rather be than right here delivering breakfast specials at Denny’s.

I watched her move — with the crisp precision and grace of a ballroom dancer, even when she was balancing two large trays loaded with food.

Waitressing is no easy way to make a buck. You are on your feet most of the time and the hours are long and the pay is modest. The job security can be questionable. You have to put up with gropers, cranky cooks, and grumpy customers. The movies have not treated waitresses very well. Remember the waitress scene in “Five Easy Pieces” with Jack Nicholson (1970) and Joan Crawford’s daughter belittling her mother for being a waitress in “Mildred Pierce” (1945). Did you ever hear an 8-year-old wanting to be a waitress when she grows up? I haven’t.

Yet here was someone so happy to be doing work that not many want or respect. This was no ordinary run-of-the-mill job to this lady. It was her profession and she was proud of it. And the pride she displayed was infectious. She greeted everyone with a wide beaming smile that said “welcome to my enclave.” And the way she made everyone feel important. It didn’t seem to matter who you were, the mayor or some teenager on the skids with just enough money for a cup of coffee.

I’ve grown up listening to people complain about the vanishing work ethic in America. But here was proof to the contrary. It would probably never occur to her to not give anything but her best. What stood out more, was her compassion. If she weren’t here, she might very well be caretaking patients in a nursing home somewhere dispensing kindness, her greatest joy. Putting her in a cubicle in some state office somewhere watching a screen all day would kill her. Barbra Streisand was right years ago when she sang “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

I was halfway out the door when I remembered to ask the cashier the waitress’s name. “April,” she said. “April Ryan.”

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