I had just approached a party of six when I saw the man walk into the dining room and be seated by the maitre'd. His face was gaunt as though his skin had been stretched over a skeleton. He had pitted, pock-marked cheeks. His sunken eyes hid behind thick glasses which rested on his hawk-like nose. His hair was sparse and a stringy white that lay across his head in a badly managed comb-over.
Once again he wore a tweed sport coat with suede patches on the elbows like a stereotypical college professor. Not that I would know. I just knew that he had been in earlier in the week and, although I hadn't been assigned to his table, he spent an inordinate amount of time staring at me. He gave me the creeps.
"Good evening, my name is Lonnie and I will be your server tonight," I said to the three couples seated around the table in front of me." Can I get you something to drink?" I know I'm supposed to ask them where they're from and encourage other folksy inter-actions but that just isn't my style. Besides, I've found everyone likes to get their drinks quickly anyway.
After several seconds, during which each of them looked around waiting for the other to go first, an attractive lady in a blue cocktail dress with a white pearl necklace said, "I'll have a Bloody Mary."
The man seated beside her with fleshy jowls and a red face addressed the table, "We're from Ohio and since we're in New Orleans, shouldn't we sample some of the local libations - being our first time and all."
He pronounced the city's name, like many tourists do, as if it rhymed with "your jeans" instead of the "Nawlins" as we locals do. The man looked up at me, slapped me on the back and continued. "Let's ask Ol' Lonnie here what the house specialities are or what he recommends."
I have been asked this question a multitude of times and, as usual, I gave my stock answer. "All of our drinks here are very good, but I'd be glad to mention several that have developed a loyal following here at Bon Vivant and in the city." I felt the eyes of "the professor" on me from across the room and when I looked up his eyes dropped into his menu. After going through the list of drinks and their ingredients, I said to the woman in the blue dress, "And ma'am, if you'd like a Bloody Mary, we offer what's called a Voodoo Bloody Mary down here which is not only quite spicy but also has a little extra kick.”
"Sounds good, I'll have one," she replied.
"I'll take a hand grenade," said the woman to her right. "Say Lonnie, you have the most beautiful eyes - and they're different colors. How unusual."
Rather than tell her that I'm told that often or that six out of a thousand people have this condition, I said "thank you" and looked away.
The man sitting beside her said, "I'd like a sazerac and can you use Pernod in that please. I have a friend back home that told me that was the secret."
"Of course," I replied, pretending to write their orders on my notepad. "And for the rest of you?"
"I guess it would be almost criminal if someone didn't order a hurricane," said a man in a handle bar mustache and dark green cardigan sweater. "Let me have one of those." The well known rum drink originated in the 1940’s because spirits were so rare in the city and bars had to purchase fifty or more cases of rum to get one case of whiskey. Pat O’ Brien’s is best known for that drink but we sell plenty of them here also.
A Ramos gin fizz and Pimm's Cup completed the order and as I turned to walk away the man with the fleshy jowls got a look at my notepad and said, "Hell, you ain’t got nothin' on that pad of yours but lines and squiggles. Aren't you going to write those drinks down? How you goin' to keep that all straight?"
I chuckled to myself. If he only knew, I thought. It's not hard for me to remember, it's hard not to remember.
Antoine, the owner, had even instituted a special some nights when I was working, much to my embarrassment and against my wishes. "If Lonnie forgets, or makes an error in any of your orders, then it's 'on the house'," I have heard him say on multiple occasions. Pretty clever actually, I thought. It encourages the patrons to order more items in an attempt to "trick" me. It's not going to work though. If I can read a book and remember it verbatim...forever, then surely a couple more appetizers and a special request or two won't bother me. "I'll be all set," I said with a smile.
On the way to the bar I glanced at the mysterious man sitting alone and once again he looked away in what appeared to be an effort to not be caught staring. I recited my order to Carla, one of the bartenders, and watched as she frantically hit the buttons on the touch screen register; one of the negatives of having an order not handed in on a slip.
"Hey Lonnie, crazy busy tonight, huh?" said Fey, another server, who sidled up beside me and handed a slip to Alyssa, the other bartender.
"Yeah," I said, looking down at the dark floor beneath me lined with scratches from years of use.
Tall and thin with straight blonde hair in a ponytail and the owner of the whitest teeth I had ever seen, Fey had only started working at Bon Vivant a few weeks ago so I didn't know her well but she seemed nice enough. She looked like the All-American girl with an ever-present smile that was contagious. My guess is that she had been a cheerleader but I had never taken the time to ask. The truth is that even though this was my third year as a waiter, and fifth overall at the restaurant, I didn't really know any of the wait staff that well and that was the way I liked it.
In fact, I don't hang around with many people anywhere - with the exception of Dalton, who's not only my best friend and roommate - he's probably my only friend. I'm just not comfortable being around people, never have been. Although Dalton and I are about the same age, "barely legal," according to him, he has a more standardized job for someone our age in this tourist-driven city; he works as a busboy at Brennan’s, one of the city’s best known and most acclaimed establishments.
"Hey, are you waiting on the guy with suede patches on his sports jacket?” I asked Fey.
"Yeah, over on table 14."
"Have you spoken to him?"
"Just about his order. Why do you ask?"
"No reason, I was just curious. I've seen him before." Last Wednesday from 8:30 to 9:23. Same sport jacket and shoes, darker pants, blue oxford shirt.
"That's a good thing isn't it? Lots of people are repeat customers."
I didn't mention my feelings. Hell, I didn't know what it meant, but over the years I've come to trust my feelings and something about that guy just didn't sit right. He appeared to be antsy and with my peripheral vision I saw him looking at me an inordinate amount of time. I refused to acknowledge this and since my drinks were up, I headed back to my table.
Bon Vivant was hopping and the night passed quickly as I waited on my customers. At 9:32 "the professor" got up from his table and headed out of the restaurant. I felt his eyes on me as he left and when I saw that he was out the door I headed over to his table to see if he had paid with a credit card. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see cash sitting on the table cloth. Fey came by and asked if anything was the matter but I assured her there wasn't and returned to my tables.
The Ohioans were just finishing their bread pudding and beignets for dessert and, after checking on the time, asked for their check at my earliest convenience. I removed the blank order pad from my vest, thought for a minute and wrote down the total.
Once again fleshy jowls weighed in after watching as I wrote down the total. "Hell's Bells boy, now don't go tellin' me ya' added that up in ya' head. We had drinks, appetizers, meals and desserts.”
I shuffled my feet uncomfortably where I stood and purposely lowered my voice in response. "Yes sir, it's all accounted for."
"And it's all on one check like we asked?"
"Well then, let me see it."
I handed him the check which had blank lines with the number $437.63 written on the bottom. On nights that it was quiet I would go through the bother of actually writing down numbers, but on busy nights like this, I found it easier to just pantomime the task. Unfortunately, I knew what was coming.
He looked up at me incredulously and stood up, his napkin still fastened under his chin. "What is this shit?" he said with a bit of a slur, no doubt from the four Pimm's Cups he'd imbibed. "You expect us to pay whatever number you come up with in your head?"
"I assure you that it's accurate," I replied. "It's just that we're awfully busy tonight and you told me that you were in a bit of a hurry."
"That don't mean we wanna' be ripped off," he bellowed. “This is bull shit. Where’s the owner?"
The attractive woman beside him lightly put her hand on his elbow. "Gerald, there's no need to make a scene. Perhaps Lonnie has it correct, and besides, we had a lot of drinks. Let's just pay it and go on."
"God damn it Becky, I ain't coming all the way to New Orleans to get snookered by some shaggy-haired kid pretendin' to have all the answers," said Gerald, eyes bugging out, his face now a bright red.
By now the large man had attracted the attention of all those dining in the room and several of whom, those who ate here regularly, were all smiles as the owner came to the table.
Antoine was dressed in a black tux with a black dress shirt and tie. A white carnation was carefully pinned on his left chest pocket. His black hair was heavily greased and combed straight back. Although Bon Vivant is not in the same category as Brennan’s or Arnaud’s, he always dresses in impeccable fashion and exudes class. "What seems to be the problem?" he asked the large man who stood towering over my six foot frame.
"This here waiter a' yours is tryin' to rip us off, that's what. He gives us this bill with nothin' but a number at the bottom and, not only didn't he write nothin' down but he didn't add it up either. He just looked at the paper for a few seconds and wrote down a number."
The locals leaned forward to hear Antoine's response having been treated to this spectacle before. "Sir, on nights when it's real busy I've given Lonnie permission to present the check on his own. You see, he has some special skills and it makes it a lot easier on our cashiers. I can assure you that it will be totally and completely accurate. He reached inside his jacket and produced a pocket calculator. But, if you'd like me to itemize the bill and check the total for you, then I'd be glad to do that."
"Ya' damn right I would," said the man, his jowls bouncing.
I proceeded to recite to my boss every item that had been ordered with the price of each accompanying the recitation. Antoine's fingers flew over the keys and when he was done he tipped the calculator so the customer could get a clear look. It read $437.63.
A group of nearby diners hooted with laughter as Gerald threw his napkin onto the table. Glaring at Lonnie he said, "I don't know how you did that kid, but I still think you're pullin' a fast one on us out a' towners."
Gerald's wife who, like the other two couples, was anxious to escape from the spotlight, reached into her purse and said, "Lonnie, I thought both the meal and the service were wonderful. What is twenty per cent of the total?"
I, too, was glad that this sideshow was over. "Thank you, ma'am, I'm glad you enjoyed it and thank you also for the tip. Twenty per cent is $87.53 making the total $525.16. I hope you'll come back and see us again.” She handed Antoine a credit card and he hustled away to the front of the restaurant.
Several of the “regulars” gave me a round of applause and not wanting to further antagonize the group from Ohio I walked quickly back to the kitchen area out of the spotlight. Fey walked over to where I was standing. "That was great Lonnie," she said. "All the regular customers were waiting to see that big blowhard get put in his place. How do you do that anyway?"
I looked down at the floor as if I had dropped something. I really didn't feel much like talking about anything that has to do with me. I never have. "I don't know. It's really nothing special," I said.
She wouldn't let it rest. "Oh, but it is. You are special. Listen, we get off in a couple of hours. What do you say we grab a drink after work? Maybe some place on Bourbon?"
"Thanks Fey, maybe some other time," I said, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. "Besides, I really don't drink much."
She took a step closer which made me even more uncomfortable and said softly, her smile more radiant than ever, "It isn't about drinking. I just want to get to know you a little better."
I could feel my face getting red and didn't know what to say. I heard "Maybe another time," come out of my mouth. As I turned to go back into the dining room I looked over my shoulder. "But thanks," I added. She seemed genuinely nice but I’ve never found it easy to speak to girls. Most think of me as being a nerd, and always have, but that's alright by me. They're probably right.