It’s the yelping that comes back to me across the decades: the sound of an old man yelping after I spilled hot water in his lap. I was the greenhorn waitress, the clumsy college girl, always several steps behind the professionals. I was working the breakfast shift in a busy hotel restaurant in downtown Seattle. It was the late 1970s, a time when busloads of tourists—who all wanted breakfast at the same time—were a new phenomenon in our city. I was rushing, of course, with too many plates in my hands, of course, and as I reached in to set down a tiny teapot full of hot water on the table of a solo diner, I fumbled, somehow, and the water poured into his lap.
He yelped, loudly, several times, as he tried to push his table out from the wall so he could stand up. All I remember saying is, “Oh! I’m so sorry!” as I helped him squeeze around the table from his bench sit to a standing position.
The manager came rushing over.
I tried hard not to cry as I explained that I had just poured scalding hot water into a customer’s lap.
She fixed her eyes on him. “Sir, would you like me to call a doctor?”
“No, no,” he mumbled. “I’m all right. I just need to go to my room and change.”
I watched as she escorted him to the elevator, her arm lightly around his shoulders, her voice soft and reassuring. She didn’t stop talking until he got on.
“It’s OK,” she told me. “I told him we would pay to get his suit cleaned immediately and that we would send a doctor if he changed his mind. He says he thinks he’s fine—he was just startled, not burned. I’ll tell the people who were sitting near him that he’s OK and I’ll comp their meals. Meanwhile, better get back to work—a lot of them have to get on that tour bus at eight.”
This all happened in about two minutes. But it was an important two minutes. I learned that in any future crisis, I wanted to be just like my manager.
I thought of those two minutes the other day, when an employee at a big box store dropped a big box on my chin. He was getting the blender I wanted down from a high shelf. Just as I had fumbled the teapot, he fumbled the blender, and the corner of it hit me hard on the chin.
I yelped. A little.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said. But as I started walking towards the cash register, I put my fingers to my chin and felt blood.
“Excuse me,” I said, walking back. “Actually, I’m bleeding. I think I need a bandaid.”
He gave me a panicked look. “Just a minute,” he said, as he trotted away from me.
I tried to follow, but I couldn’t keep up. He disappeared behind a door. I stood awkwardly near the cash register. I pulled out a mirror and looked at my chin. It was bloody. I didn’t want to frighten other customers, so I stood there and tried to block my chin with my pocket mirror.
Finally, the young man returned with a bandaid, a packet of antibiotic cream and a paper towel, and pointed me towards the bathroom.
When I came out, with a big bandaid on my chin, I picked up my blender and got in line. The young blender-fumbler was nowhere to be seen.
“Did you find everything OK?” the clerk asked, as she rang up my purchase. I knew she had seen me standing around awkwardly near her cash register as I waited for my bandaid.
I laughed. “Sure,” I said. “Except for the injury I incurred in the process.”
“I’m going to give you an in-store coupon for 20 percent off,” she said.
And that was it. The employee who clipped my chin was, apparently, in hiding—perhaps along with the store manager, who I never saw—until I left. He never apologized. I understand he was probably terrified that I would formally complain. I did get his first name from the cashier, but that’s as far as I went.
But I have to wonder: are employees now advised to never admit fault? Is the customer, who was once always right, now always wrong?
And that is why, this Labor Day week, I just want to say thank you to my long-ago manager at that hotel restaurant. She was so good at her job.
Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!