Matt W. is a gentleman
I’ve been thinking about this event for some time. We were working a slow Friday one afternoon, Matt and I. He was a server and I was a cook. We often worked the overnights together. This particular day there was little to do. It was the in between time, after what little lunch crowd we’d get and hours before dinner, hours where the customers were sparse, if any. There was one table left in the bar area. Kids. Wayward youth that you could find at any given time in any given place anywhere downtown. In one incarnation or another these kids have always been there. I don’t know what it’s like in that area now, I haven’t lived there for a few years and I hear things are changing.
There were three or four of them seated at the table in the bar, the only place you could smoke, which is why they sat there. Matt kept coming back to the window while they were there and commenting on their appearance and how he thought they’d been in before, and how, if it was the same group, they didn’t tip him the last time he waited on them. They were that particular breed of white trash freak you find in the dark corners of Arizona, where the trailers are carpeted and that small pile of outdoor belongings bake to the point of uselessness in the sun. One of them had chin whiskers and we couldn’t tell the gender. Every single one of them looked to be the product of a dash of inbreeding somewhere along the lineage. Maybe they were continuing the family tradition. Our boss came downstairs for a second, we asked him his opinion and he took a stroll through the bar. He said it was probably a girl and he’d seen plenty of people like that, being from one of the poorer parts of Missouri. Maybe that’s why he fit into Tucson so well.
Matt came back to the window cursing. There wasn’t a customer in sight but that wouldn’t change his handling of the situation; he’d still exercise the proper etiquette and never curse loud enough for it to reach the ears of the floor.* I asked him what was wrong. He said they didn’t tip. He also said they didn’t tip the last time they were here. He recognized them. I told him that we should go after them and talk to them. We told Graham, the prep cook, to stay and watch the restaurant if he wanted to. He was a quiet and stoic man and not interested in our petty confrontations that we knew would satisfy only us. So we left and walked down the street, my yellowish apron folded down at the waist and still wearing my tough-guy blue bandana on my head. Matt walked ahead of me and we figured out pretty quickly they were probably already at, or going to, that small strip of 6th avenue right across the street from the bus station. It was a hive for the homeless and transient youth, the drug-addicted youth, the in-between youth. They were standing in front of an outreach or counseling center, some court-ordered venue where kids talk about how their fathers locked them in closets when they misbehaved as children and how that closet is now a bigger metaphor for life.
Of course we didn’t have a plan, but they recognized Matt as he walked up to them like a small bull at half-charge. I stood behind him because it would look far better to have the taller person standing behind you. They asked him what was wrong and he told them. They didn’t tip him today and they didn’t tip him the last time and there would be no next time. The kid, whichever kid he was talking to, nervously raised a lit cigarette to his lips. His hand was shaking slightly and he dropped the cigarette.
Maybe you’ve experienced this, maybe you haven’t, but there is such a thing as time slowing down. Not in the way you expect it. It doesn’t literally slow before your eyes, physically speaking. It slows in the sense of anticipating what is to come. If we can see what’s going to happen in a film or television show, when a story becomes predictable, time slows down because we know what’s to come and we want it to be over with, waiting for each beat and the formula to reach its unsurprising conclusion. Maybe that’s why the future seems like it takes so long to get here, because we’re trudging through a retread territory. For those who experience the monotony of a stereotypical work week each day drags on and on in its familiar routine, each hour as indistinguishable from the next. But the unexpected comes quickly and without warning. We call an event shocking because it flashed before us in an instant almost unseen, in that modicum of unpredictability, and leaves us with only residual time to catch up and process what just happened.
And there we were, frozen in time as the kid leaned forward to pick up his cigarette. And I knew and I knew that time was slowing down for Matt and I to psychically click with our intentions in this moment. And we did. And Matt did exactly what I knew he was going to do, what he was supposed to do. He took one graceful step forward just as the kid’s fingers were about to reach the cigarette and crushed it beneath his foot. The kid, hunched over, his posture suggestive of a peasant begging forgiveness from his Lord, looked up to Matt. “What’d you do that for?” He asked. “Because you didn’t tip me” Matt replied. And his actions and words resonated throughout the galaxy because every server who has ever had that happen tot hem in one form or another, who had to take it like an insult like that meant absolutely nothing to them despite the fact that these insults accumulate over time and mean everything, they felt that psychic reverberation hit them like that a wave. And they felt good when it hit them because Matt W. is a gentleman.
*I can remember one time this wasn’t true on a busy weekend night when I kept yelling at him for something that, it turns out, was my fault, and his voice boomed throughout the entire restaurant as he swore long and hard to call me on my fuckup.