Friday, December 19, 2014

A Diner Story (Only in New Jersey!)

    New Jersey is known for a lot of things and not all of them are good. One of those things is that there are a crazy number of diners. In fact we have the most diners in the world; real diners, not "family restaurants" that think they are diners.  Jersey diners come in all shapes and sizes, many even resemble the train cars of their distant past. More often than not they are open 24 hours and they all have huge menus, great coffee, weathered servers and decent prices. There are diners in every town - usually more than one - and often one of them is named after the town, which is nice because then you know where you are when you are eating. Some of these diners are owned by Greek families and just like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, many of the family members work there: This can be a source of dining entertainment. In fact, you never know what might happen at diner in New Jersey.
     Another quality New Jersey is known for is the rudeness of its people, especially the women, and sometimes Jersey girls really can be headstrong, opinionated and very picky. Occasionally one of those Jersey girls (who, by the way, are all ages as long as you have the correct chromosome pair and breathe) goes to a diner and is hell bent on having things her way. What follows is what my mother and I witnessed recently in a strip-mall diner in a retirement community.
     Mom and I decided to go to one of the local diners in her neighborhood; one with the name of the town. It was 6 PM and the place was dead, not because it's a bad diner, but because senior citizens are "early birds" for the most part, but Mom's a rebel and will go out to eat a little later. We were greeted by the owner's wife as always and she walked us over to a 4-top along the back wall. We were the third inhabited table in the place. I think there were more servers on duty than there were customers actually, but they seemed happy regardless as some of them gathered up at the counter and chatted between doing the rounds for side work or to check on their customers if they had any. 
    I put my purse down at the table and pulled my chair out, but when I sat down it felt like something bit my butt.  I popped back up like a piece of bread out of a toaster and ran my palm along the seat cushion. Nothing!  I felt nothing, so I sat back down. Ouch! There it was again so I got back up and this time I pressed on the cushion in the appropriate vicinity and sure enough there was a small nail facing up which my derriere found twice as it pressed down. Up I popped again and began to swap chairs as our energetic young server approached to table and asked me if everything was alright.
    I explained that there was a nail sticking up from the chair and she insisted that rather than swap the chairs, that I give the offending piece of furniture to her so she could remove it from the floor. Smart girl. Right? Being a curious human being, she was most interested in where the nail was so she lightly pressed on the cushion as her hand surveyed its surface. She did not find the culprit with her first pass and the puncture of the pleather was undetectable without the correct amount of pressure.  I encouraged her to press harder and pointed to the area where the sneaky bastard was lurking below the surface. On her second pass she found it, "Shit! That's somethin' huh!?" she said as she then pressed on either side of the nail to get a good look while one of her more curious colleagues approached to learn what all the fuss was about.  Our server then allowed her coworker to find the sharp protrusion the hard way too.  Maybe New Jersey is a little sadistic too?  Nah. 
    With such a dramatic precursor to our dinner, we settled in and placed our order: a burger and coffee for me, a cheesesteak and decaf for Mom. As usual, my mother had to hit the restroom before the food got there so she got up to make her way to the back of the restaurant while I fiddled around with my phone to kill time until she returned. As she was returning to the table, the hostess was seating a tiny woman of about 80. She was perhaps five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds if she was lucky. She was flying solo and had a thick book to read while she was waiting for her food and such. 
    A server went over to her table to take her order, "I'll have a glass of water and a Chicken Parmesan sandwich. Make sure that comes out so that I can cut it and that it's not messy.  I don't want to pick it up and have all the sauce and cheese fall out. I don't like messy sandwiches and I have to be able to cut it.  Make sure you tell them."  The server smiled, promised to let the kitchen know of her requests, did an about face and walked into the kitchen.  I started shaking my head and smirking which got Mom curious to know what was going on.  I told her I have to let her know later. We only a few tables away and I didn't want the little old lady to hear what was going to be a parody of her ordering diatribe. 
    Our food came out fast and hot, another signature of a Jersey diner, and we dug in and made small talk as we ate.  A few minutes later, the server comes out with the picky old woman's plate followed closely by the owner - a 6-foot tall, 300 pound, white-haired, bespectacled man.  In a kind demeanor with a voice incongruently soft and gentle compared with his appearance, he repeated the instructions that were given to the kitchen and explained how they did their best considering the nature of the sandwich she ordered. The woman was openly disappointed with the appearance of her sandwich and informed the man who was trying to help her that it was not the way she wanted it and that she could tell just by looking at it that the sandwich was going to be messy and not easily cut. 
    I stopped eating and cocked my head to tune into the conversation more intently because I could not believe what I was hearing.  The owner remained calm and concerned.  He seemed determined to make his customer happy and was willing to do whatever it took.  I watched as he gently manipulated the sandwich to tuck the cheese in and gently cut through.  He then maneuvered its contents as he explained that "doing it this way it will all stay in the roll."  I was impressed and thought this woman would be thrilled that she received so much attention just to make sure she got what she wanted. I could not have been more wrong.
    After this gentle giant went above and beyond what anyone would expect the woman said, "It doesn't even look like a sandwich anymore. It's all a mish-mosh.  Why do they have to make them so the cheese falls out?  Why do they have to be so messy.  This isn't a sandwich."
    The owner tried a few more minutes to make the sandwich work for this demanding customer before she unceremoniously dismissed him from her presence. He walked away, back into the kitchen, never allowing a grimace or flinch to appear on his face as the woman picked up her sandwich.  She examined it, shook her head, sighed loudly then put it right back down on the plate. Her server went over to the table immediately. She asked the woman if everything was alright and was told in no uncertain terms that it was not.  She demanded in the most sickeningly sweet yet condescending tone for the offensive food to be removed from her table and that a menu be brought. I was shocked, shaking my head and outright staring in disbelief.
    A few minutes passed and the server returned to the battleaxe with a smile on her face and took a new order.  The woman returned to reading her book while she awaited the arrival of her food.  Take 2: a turkey club on whole wheat.  A sandwich which would not be messy, came precut into quarters and only needed a little slathering if mayonnaise to make it edible. I watched as the woman applied her chosen condiment with surgical precision while her server sat at the counter enjoying a hot dog. 
    By the time the smallest, most demanding old biddy took her second bite, Mom and I were finishing up and ready to head off to the cashier to pay the bill.  On the way out, I slowed down at the counter and whispered at the server, "You have the patience of a saint!"
     She turned to me and laughed, "I have a lot of kids." she said, "a lot of kids!"  We laughed together. "Have a merry Christmas ladies," she called out as we walked away.
     "Same to you!" we answered back, and off we went still shaking our heads that a little old lady could behave so badly all by herself at a diner.  Jersey girls!  Gotta love 'em. ;)

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