As is regularly the case in our household, Kay-Kay is much better than I am at remembering names. She’s also much better at remembering birthdays, my having completely forgotten hers at least once in our 37 years of utter matrimonial bliss. Well, maybe minus that one birthday.
Historically, I’ve been horrendously bad at remembering waitstaff, too. Restaurants are generally fraught with hazard for me. Conversations in a Very Loud Restaurant are hard to impossible, since I have a hearing disability and the Mind of Wo/Man has not yet devised a hearing aid with a meaningful “Restaurant” setting. And by “very loud restaurants,” I refer to approximately 94.2% of all restaurants in America.
[Note to American restaurateurs — too-loud “background” music with pounding bass does not make your establishment feel hip and happening. It makes your joint a place to be avoided by many, many people over the age of 19. It’s also not a secret anymore to most of us that you do this, in part, to get people to drink more alcohol ($$$) and turn tables faster ($$$). Also, it’s all Wolfgang Puck’s fault (actually his wife’s), since Spago was the prototype Really Loud Restaurant. Stop copying him–his original Spago is closed.]
But back to the waitstaff. This is a recurring exchange between me and Kay-Kay:
Kay-Kay: “I’m going to go to the bathroom before we leave. Could you ask our waitress for the check while I’m gone?”
Me: “Ummmm…” <shifts uncomfortably in seat> … ahhhh <assumes sheepish look> … could you, ummm… <feels face burning with shame> … point out which one is ours again?”
Kay-Kay: <with a telling look, telepathically says, “Miranda just served you four courses and you have no idea who she is, right?”>
Me: <telepathically replies, “That is correct. I am a wiggly worm and understand the only reason you don’t divorce me at this very moment is because you have too much sunk cost in this marriage.”>
Yeah, that. Kay-Kay is really good at immediately engaging on a basic human level with waiters… well, any service professionals actually. I freely admit that I am not—and yes, that makes me kind of a wiggly worm.
Noting that I’m in the decided majority of Americans doesn’t make me a better person, but it does make Kay-Kay rather an exceptional one. She’s had this discussion with me repeatedly over the years—that I need to stop, put down the menu, look up and listen and exchange some non-foodstuffs-related conversation with each and every waiter/waitress. Sometimes I even listen.
The one time this advice actually stuck was when I went to work teaching and running international stuff at St. Scoobius School of Law up in The City That Never Sleeps and Seldom Cleans Its Streets. I resolved to introduce myself to as many non-faculty as I could my very first day, imprint their names inside my noggin, and have some meaningful conversation with each person so encountered. This is much more comfortable when you can say, “Hi, I’m Jeff and I’m the new guy.”
On my first day at St. Scooby’s—it was summer, so no students—the very first person I met was Mike the Cop, the campus security officer who worked the day shift at the entrance nearest the Law School. This being NYC, Mike was, of course, Irish, which is a firm requirement for any law enforcement position in all five boroughs. Then I met Hector, the custodian, and had a good chat. I also sat with Benny, the building superintendent, in his broom closet office and drank coffee and heckled him for being a Mets fan. It was all quite pleasant, much to my surprise, proving the truth of the old adage, “Your wife actually is always right, you bonehead.”
I didn’t expect this at the time, but that first day paid off like the Powerball. Parking was always at a premium at St. Scooby’s—it’s in NYC, so goes without saying. However, Mike the Cop and I chatted for a bit every morning and I found out about the health issues that limited him to sitting in the entrance guard house rather than patrolling. He let me park in a reserved visitor spot whenever the law school lot was full. Hector didn’t speak great English, but he always made an effort to talk with me anyway. And my office was immaculate. Benny the Building Super turned out to be a serious classic rock aficionado and was always giving me obscure album recommendations. He did me innumerable solids over the five years I was at St. Scooby’s. He was the building superintendent, after all.
It’s only gradually dawned on me over the years what’s going on here. I’m slow, but I’m trainable, kinda like a beagle. For every person—whoever they are, however much they make, whichever schools they went to, whoever their ancestors might be—what they really want and need most from people is to be accounted for, to be acknowledged, to sense that they’re not invisible to others.
I’ve tried to do better myself, although that will likely elicit an eye roll from Kay-Kay since my success has been admittedly patchy. I’m teaching a couple of courses at a Nearby University and at the beginning of the semester resolved to learn all my students’ names as expeditiously as possible. There are 48 of them. Gulp. For attendance, I go around the room and try to name every student, which is really awkward early on. One day, I joked that I subjected myself to this ritual humiliation to force myself, through negative reinforcement, to learn their names. One student said, “At least you try, Professor Walker…” About half the heads in the class nodded in rueful agreement.
This rather stunned me, since the clear message was that some, maybe most, of their professors don’t bother to learn their names. As I said, everyone wants to feel accounted for, to be acknowledged, and to know $20,000/year in tuition is at least worth a name.
I’m now somewhat certain that the Current Unpleasantness in America, regardless of your politics, is in great part attributable to a large chunk of Americans feeling unaccounted for, unacknowledged, and downright invisible. It’s exactly what can convince people to turn to populists making wild promises they can’t keep. And again, this goes for both sides of the political divide.
I read a couple of years ago a quote by the son-in-law of deceased segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama. An interviewer asked him why poor and working-class white Alabamans regularly voted against their manifest economic self-interest in state and national elections. He answered, “Because they’d rather be poor than not proud.” Although I’m not sure you can’t be both not poor and proud, there’s a lot of insight in that statement.
“Proud” people feel acknowledged as persons who matter, know others see them as important as anyone else, sense they’re being taken account of as they move through daily life. And that may be as important to many people as a little more economic security.
I’m also convinced this is a major contributor to the yawning chasm between Red and Blue America as we approach what promises to be Another Ugly Election in November. We’ve lost the ability to acknowledge and account for people From the Other Side. We see them as ignorant or evil or irredeemably misguided—and therefore not worthy of being acknowledged, of having opinions or ideas that matter.
Sure, income inequality is bad and growing worse. Health care is becoming more expensive and less available to Americans. We need to find a consensus on climate change or face catastrophe. Those are all Very Big Issues. But maybe, at our individual level, we can start fixing what’s broken here and now. That might begin with acknowledging as legitimate the fears and hopes, concerns and ideas of The Others.
It’s hard, I know. I’m as guilty as anyone else. We’re preyed upon by social media and broadcast media and media media, coming at us from every direction seeking to stoke our differences, fears, and disputes. It makes for good television and keeps eyeballs on the screen and sponsorship dollars flowing. That’s a longer term problem, however. But maybe we can do now what we can each do now?
It’d be a start.
[You can now get the third book, No Hero’s Welcome, in my First World War and 1920s trilogy here. And guess what? I’ve lowered the price of my None of Us the Same ebook to only $2.99 which you can get here. You can also get my second novel, Truly Are the Free, for $3.99 here.]