The Diner

by Ed Pope

December 3, 1996

The diner would sit at a corner table with his back to the wall, always dressed in the same dark vested suit. His face had the look of the old world. He would always be alone without being alone. His dark eyes, under bushy eyebrows, did not dart around the room. He never looked for someone he might know. He never watched other diners in the crowded, noisy restaurant.

He made the act of eating and drinking not one of sustenance, but of ceremony. He didn't need anyone else except the people who brought him the things he required to enact the rite. He never asked for anything. He used his hands to attract a waiter's attention. He pointed to the menu for his selections or to his empty water glass or to the spot of a missing utensil. He never spoke; leading those who knew of him to believe he was a foreigner and did not speak the language.But his selections indicated that he clearly understood the written word. His eyes never left the table even when signaling to waiters or stewards. There were no wasted motions. His gaze was Zen like. His serenity seemed to envelop everyone who came in contact with him. Waiters, stewards and busboys immediately knew they were in the presence of an artist, a professional and they rose to the occasion. It was an honor to serve a professional diner, but very challenging. No gaffes, sloppiness or missed cues would be tolerated.

This particular night began for the diner as all other nights he had spent in the restaurant. After reviewing the label of the half bottle of wine he had selected, he tested the extracted cork for the degree of moisture. Holding the partially filled glass up to the light he studied its clarity. His nose hovered over the glass to evaluate the bouquet. Taking a small amount of wine into his mouth he rolled it around his tongue and mouth while analyzing the taste. The wine met his tests, so he somberly signaled to the wine steward with one forward nod of his head. He did not exhibit any emotion at any time during his careful analysis. He was not a wine snob. He did not put on airs. The diner then selected his appetizer, entre and salad with his usual hand motions.

When the meal was served he ate and drank slowly and deliberately.

The servers never disturbed him. They knew a genuine dining maestro when they saw one--not the loud, boorish phonies who always were trying to impress companions, waiters, stewards, lookers-on, and anyone else who might be watching and especially themselves.

But the restaurant owner, at his station near the entrance door, watched the diner's familiar machinations with hard eyes and flared nostrils.

"Why is he still there? He's so goddam slow. . .I think he does it on purpose; just to aggravate me. I've got people waiting. Who does he think I am? I didn't spend two years in chef's school to have to put up with his nonsense," the owner said, as the waiter returned from the diner's table.

"But Sir, he's eating as fast as he always does and. . . "

"I'm in the business of providing the finest food in the city; not groveling to self-impressed customers. I should tell him to take his business elsewhere and be done with it. And you, if you don't stop fawning over him and start paying attention to me, you'll be washing dishes. . . . You work for me. . . not that haughty gourmand. Understand?"

"But Sir. . . you can see he isn't slow on purpose. He's enjoying the fine food you serve. I can't rush him. He might not. . . "

"Listen," the owner interrupted, "I want you to ask him a direct question. I want to hear his voice. I want to hear what he says. He has the look of a foreigner. Go. . . go ask him something--now!"

The waiter slowly walked to the diner's table trying to think of something that would elicit a verbal response and not a hand motion. When he arrived the diner was engrossed in slowly savoring a bite of food he had just taken. When he finished the morsel he reached for his wine glass, brought it to his pursed lips and slowly took a sip while never acknowledging the waiter standing at his table. The waiter grew nervous as the wait intensified. Finally the diner put his glass down, brought the napkin to his mouth and slowly dabbed the corners. Then he placed the napkin on his lap. After a few moments, he cocked his head toward the waiter, but did not look directly at him.

Taking the cue the waiter hesitatingly said: "Sir. . .ah. . . . the owner would like to offer you a dessert for your long and faithful patronage. We are have three selections tonight: An almond creme Brulee, a magnificent cobbler in fine cognac and Bavrois a l'Orange. All three are the personal favorites of the owner who I might add also happens to have graduated from the most famous chef school in the city and. . . "

The owner was standing one table away pretending to arrange the silverware. It was as close as he could be to the diner's table without making it too obvious that he was trying to easedrop on the conversation. When he heard the waiter offer a free dessert to the diner, he could barely remain under control. He placated himself by thinking about what he would do to this cretin of a waiter who had just offered a free dessert to a customer he wanted to get rid of now and forever. When he was able to regain some composure, he looked up and saw the waiter walking from the diner towards the owner's station with a big smile on his lips and in his eyes.

The owner immediately scurried back to catch the waiter, almost knocking down a tray laden busboy. They both arrived at the owner's station simultaneously. The owner suppressed his instinct to grab the waiter by the throat and pull him into the kitchen. "Who told you to give away a dessert. Don't ever offer a free dessert to anyone again or I'll have your head.. Now. . . what did he say? Is he able to talk? Is he an alien? Is he almost finished? When is he leaving?"

"Sir," the waiter responded. . . "he spoke in the most articulate and elegant manner I have ever heard. He must be a diplomat, or maybe an actor, or maybe even an orator. I don't know what he is, but after all this time that I have served him it was a high honor to hear his eloquent words and his. . . "

"Listen. . . you fucking idiot, what the did he say. . . speak before I strangle you. . . you son-of-a-bitch," the owner shouted.

"He said," the waiter responded, "Please convey to the owner my appreciation for his kind and generous offer and tell him I look forward to many fine meals in his superb restaurant. . . and since the desserts all sounded so good I'll have a serving of each one."

The End
copyright 1997 Ed Pope