I work the counter at my restaurant every day and while I do a pretty good job being nice to every customer, I can sometimes be short or impatient with people. I take all the food/drink orders, work the cash register, answer the phones, and expedite the food myself, so it gets hectic at times.
Today a woman walked in--a very short, older black woman with a wild frizz of hair. She looked like she weighed about 88 pounds. Wisp thin, gaunt. She seemed angry and suspicious, and somehow I felt like she was blaming me for whatever it was that she was so upset about.
She was kind of muttering under her breath to herself, and she took a while looking at the menu. I greeted her a couple times and helped a couple other customers while she was figuring out what she wanted.
When she was ready, she began asking me questions very tersely. Almost combative. Her lips were pursed with doubt and pessimism as she asked me what toppings we put on our hot dogs. She appeared to strongly disapprove of the way I quickly ran down the list of classic Chicago hot dog toppings. I got the feeling, via her facial expression, that if she were asked to name one term to describe me, the term she would choose would be "whippersnapper", and her use of that term would not be intended to be ironic. She looked me in the eye very intensely. As if her questions about sport peppers vs. giardiniera were of the utmost import and she had no patience for a fool like me who didn't view them similarly.
Once it became evident that she wanted to order a hot dog, I turned the questions back on her, getting her order ("no mustard. tomato, pickle, sport pepper, celery salt. NO! MUSTARD! understand?") asking her if she wanted fries (no), and then whether she wanted a drink.
She seemed shocked, and personally affronted that I would dare ask such things! My youthful impudence was clearly not appreciated at all. Yet she answered my questions quickly, tersely. Her inquiry about the price of my drink cup ($1.29) and whether said price included free refills (it does) felt downright adversarial. As if she, in the role of a consumer, had been taken advantage of many times in the past by shady soda fountain operators.
At some point in the ordering process, I realized that this was a customer that certainly presented me with the opportunity to lose my patience and become short or rude in my responses to her. But I also realized that I was better served to see it simply as amusing. I took a deep breath and smiled genuinely and answered her questions, resigning myself to kill her with kindness. I asked her what her name was (Helda), which of course led to yet another round of incriminating looks down her nose at me, and then I took her four dollars, returned to her eighteen cents in change, and said "thanks," giving her a big smile.
"When you fix me my drink, I want a Diet Pepsi with ice," she said.
I paused. She said it so disdainfully. Out of the downturned corner of her mouth. Her head casually tossed back, almost as if she was spitting at me as she turned away from the counter.
Now, customers help themselves to soda from the fountain here, but lots of people aren't aware of that, so they ask for "a Sprite, easy ice" or whatever, and I usually just let'em know drinks are self-serve and wave them over to the soda machine where they can help themselves.
Part of me wanted to do that with Helda. But another part of me remembered I was supposed to be killing her with kindness, so I quietly asked Tufo, my batidero, to go get her a Diet Pepsi with ice.
Then, as Helda turned away from the counter, I realized that she was using a walker. Somehow I hadn't noticed this up until that moment. And she was moving incredibly slowly. She headed over to a two-top just opposite the counter where I take customers' orders--only three steps away--but it took her at least three or four full minutes to move herself away from the counter and slowly make her way over to the table and into her seat.
We were busy, so I went right into helping the next customer. Helda got her hot dog and was quiet for a while. I was monitoring her but she seemed content. At one point as I passed by her table, I made eye contact and asked if everything was ok. She gave me a head nod signaling assent.
She stayed for quite a while. Rodolfo bussed her table at one point, I think. Finally, when she got up to leave, she made a point of coming up to the counter and saying how great the hot dog was and that she'll "come back again sometime soon". And she gave me a big smile.
Interactions like this one today with Helda make me happy to be in the restaurant industry. I'm gratified that I was able to improve her mood and hopefully her day, but I'm also grateful for the lessons that I get to take away from how the situation unfolded.