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Welcome to Laugh Cry Think. In this space I publish new blogs once a month about the moments and experiences in my life that drive me to live wholeheartedly: things I find funny, that move me, and drive me to live with increased passion and presence. I’m hoping the same for you. Thanks for reading!

Restaurant by the Hospital

Restaurant by the Hospital

Thumbnail photo by  Ivars Krutainis  on  Unsplash

Thumbnail photo by Ivars Krutainis on Unsplash

{4 minute read}

When you work in a restaurant, you see things and you hear things. It’s sort of like a secret club that you just have to be in to understand. I’ve heard other people talk about it and now I can fully say I am a part of the club. (After 6 months working in a breakfast restaurant! Thanks for letting me in, guys!)

When you work in a restaurant, you see things and you hear things. You see people praying and laughing, you see people lamenting loss, and you hear people talking about business and how much will this property cost and blah blah blah I don’t really listen unless it’s juicy because let’s be honest I don’t care that much and I’m just here to make some money so please just finish your meal already, thank you very much.

Sometimes people apologize for saying certain things. It’ll be something like, Oh, I’m so sorry if we’re being obnoxious about these cat photos, or ohmiiiigaaaaad, I hope you don’t think we’re crazy for talking about our nails like that, to which I always reply, “No, you guys are good!” but inwardly think “I didn’t hear anything because I actually don’t care.”

Still, you see things and you hear things.

I’m not one of those lifelong servers (God bless them), and I don’t really view myself as an excellent, detailed server, but I have taken the trouble to set 2 very important rules for myself:  

1.     I don’t say “I’ll be taking care of you today.” I’m not really taking care of you; I’m just bringing you food and beverages and then processing your credit card or breaking a $100 bill for you (really, dude?). I’m not here to bathe you, or to give you a massage, or to help guide you through the struggles of parenting. Dig?

2.     I don’t say “Are we ready to order”? I will not be joining you at the table and eating with you, because I’m sure you don’t want me to. I will keep my distance but be here when you need me.

Also, in general, like my father Alfred Edward Cambridge III taught me, I do my best to not be a dick, even when the sentiment is not always reciprocated.

Most people I serve use words like please and thank you. Most people do things like smile. Some people even do things like tip 20%.  

But when people don’t say please and thank you and don’t smile or tip well, I make sure to smile really big and then, when I’m walking away from the table, I mutter veeeery quietly under my breath things like “you dicks” and “I hate you so much” and “are you serious right now?” (All the while maintaining that big, charming smile and confident, head-held-high power walk.) And then I think about how they are probably very sad and how nobody loves them and how their life is very difficult and I am just temporarily bearing the brunt of it.

And then I feel all better!

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A few weeks ago, I was serving an older gentleman who comes in often. I hadn’t always liked the guy. He’s one of those tall business-looking guys with fading, greyish hair, with a long, fancy pea coat and a phone that seems to be perpetually glued to his ear. He always comes in before 9 AM on weekdays, which means he can order the Early Bird Special, a feature that clocks in for a whopping $5. He would typically be on his phone and seem a tad annoyed when his server tried to approach the table (which, if you aren’t familiar with the serving community, is essential in order to do your job.) Again, I’m not the type of person to eavesdrop, but as you may recall, when you work at a restaurant, you see things and you hear things. When people continue to talk on their phones during your coffee re-fill, you hear them say things like “Well, we need to just sue, then! I’d like to nail this guy and get on with my life.” That, dear reader, was my lasting impression of the guy.

On this particular day, the gentleman ordered his typical Early Bird Special. I delivered the food to him, noting the odd fact that he was not on his phone. I don’t remember how it even started, but before I knew it I was looking him in the eyes and hearing him utter the words, “I have cancer. There is no cure for it. It’s terminal.”

In moments like these, what is there to say? Nothing. So as I stood there, stumbling through some version of “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry,” he quickly, in the same tone as his previous sentence, said, “It could be worse. I could be dead. Instead of asking why me, ask why not me.” There was no real apparent sadness in his voice. He was stating facts, as confident and unbothered as he probably was about nailing that guy and getting on with his life.

In that moment, I felt utterly broken and convicted and all of the things I probably should have been feeling. And words from my pastor quickly came into my head:

Be slow to write people off. Be slow to write people off. Be slow to write people off.

It is, simultaneously, so easy to write people off quickly and so essential not to.  

I haven’t seen the guy since.

When you work in a restaurant, you see things and you hear things. A mile down the road is the hospital community of Grand Rapids, a place that causes people to weep and pray and embrace all that their humanity entails. It’s a place where some families receive heartwarming news and others receive words that have the ability to break down a soul, moments that necessarily spill over into the next family meal. You learn, in these settings, that the people who walk in your doors are much more than they appear to be, and you realize, even at the cost of cognitive neatness, that there is more to people than what we see at first glance. There is more to people than a first impression. There is more to people than the manner in which they order an Early Bird Special.

What does it mean to serve? I think, partially, serving just means showing up. I think it means showing hospitality to someone, to say—with your mind, heart, and, perhaps, words—that you don’t have them all figured out, that you know they are just as complex as you, and that you are here to listen.

The restaurant server job doesn’t neatly translate to other areas of life, but I would suggest that to serve well, we really don’t need to do much. We need to show up, and show up, and show up again. We need to listen. We need to take the position of learner. We need to offer our time and gifts. We need to remember that there is so much we do not know.

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