By Bob Dorn
The other day, while I was cruising the pants section of one of my off-fashionable thrift shops, something within me caused me to notice one of those inevitable and pointless engagements between two putative human beings.
“Hi, howsa goin’. ” The cashier was greeting a guy about her age, unsmilingly.
“Hi, howsit goin’, he said, riffing a bit on the theme, also without affect.
Neither one of them changed their expressions and nothing more was said. It was clear they were goin’ nowhere, at least not with each other.
Now, if he’d have said, “Good,” he might have opened up their meeting for her to take another step, like, say, “Sure is a nice day out there.” But I suspect he wasn’t going to go there; how it was goin’ for him was none of her business, really. Nor did he have any real interest in hearing how it was goin’ for her, even if he did re-launch that question, “Hi, howsit goin’.” Those were two calculated dead-ends. A simple nod might have been more friendly.
There aren’t so many rituals as damn dumb as these two found themselves pursuing that day. It’s true most of these noises we make really do little more than announce our presence, but I can live with those.
Somebody sneezes in public, you say “God Bless You,” meaning what only God knows, but, still, you’ve declared some interest in what just took place. “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” “Happy New Years,” they and other recognitions can pass between us as good wishes, and, after all, that’s not so dumb. Good wishes is a good default attitude; what you do when you don’t know what to do.
What I can’t get over, though, is how freakin’ formulaic our encounters have become.
Let me pick up at another recent day when my wife and I had scraped together enough coin to go to a restaurant. We chose to do that. We chose a restaurant with a patio because the weather was so good. Up came a young guy, white shirt and black pants, carrying a notepad and smiling at us. I figured he was the waiter.
“Hi, I’m Christian, I’ll be your waiter,” he said.
But, see, I knew that. I didn’t know he was Christian, but I figured he was the waiter, or, I guess I mean, “our” waiter. Dedicated to us.
Of course all this bonhomie, with declaration of service and personableness is no more sincere than an Alabama Congressman’s commitment to efficient and limited government. It’s just that few of us living down here on the ground actually come into contact with “our public servants”; most of us encounter such extreme unction only in restaurants, or at car dealerships, where service is their most important product.
What’s so off-putting is that we can’t control these situations. That’s how it is in the service economy; the ones being served are the ones selling the service.
But really, what do you say back in these situations without running the risk of seeming grumpy? Well, we can try to be witty. Witty’s good. Like Dorothy Parker who, when she was told that the least best President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, had died, is said to have replied, “Oh, how can they tell?”
So here’s some stuff you can say when Christian comes up to your table — after ignoring your beckoning eyes for an eternity — and announces he is “your” waiter.
If you’re feeling philosophical you might say, “No one is truly someone else’s waiter, or banker, or whatever; we’re all much more than what we do, and we certainly don’t belong to someone else to whom we do it.”
Or, if you’re mean-spirited and don’t like the waiter’s looks you might say you’d rather have another waiter.
What occurred to me was to answer Christian’s announcement with one of my own. “Well, Christian, I’m Jewish, and I’ll be your eater.”
Or, “Well, Christian, I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe in waiters.”
Or, “Well, Christian, I’m Roman Catholic (or at least I was, way back when Popes couldn’t cease being the right hand of God just because they could no longer make sense) and I’ll have your two loaves and a fish, with a Stone Pale Ale.“