Regular Customers

Random Reminisces of Gretchen's Gourmet Grille

#Customers

Mon, Jan 11th, 1999 03:00 by Jester ARTICLE

When I worked in the restaurant business, I used to get what we called "Regulars." Not "regular" in the sense of going to the bathroom, but there is a slight excremental theme running through both.

When you think about regulars, you probably think about loveable Normie from Cheers, waltzing in day after day with a wry joke or observation. Everybody loves Normie, right? Where I worked, Normie would have been deliberately fed rancid meat to kill him or put him off the restaurant forever, whichever came first. As for Cliff Clavin, nobody would come within thirty feet of him. He'd be bounced from section to section, and the manager would probably have to end up serving him.

For the most part, we hated our regular customers. Now, most restaurant personnel hate all their customers. It's only natural, because customers are egotistical, cheap morons. Oh, yes we are. Trust me, I've been one. But regular customers tend to get hated the most. We had a few good ones because they a) didn't ask for much and shut up, or b) tipped well. They were rare. Most of them were in the restaurant because it was the only place in Mississauga that would serve them. Our managers were mostly gutless who wouldn't kick out anybody. Our servers, on the other hand, were an ornery lot. You had to be. If you weren't a complainer, you'd get stuck with three tables full of teenagers who'd sit there all night, not order much, and by closing time, wait patiently for the change from a $14.98 tab (with which they paid for with a five and a ten).

This whole idea that servers hate their customers is probably new to many people. Explaining why is a whole other deal in itself. But let's sum it up. No matter how funny you think you are, you're not. That smile you see on your server face is forced. Any joke you make a server has heard 10,000 times. I don't care if you're John Cleese meets David Letterman. You cannot come up with an original joke. You're not charming, you're obnoxious. We get paid to like you, and as soon as the meter's not running, we don't like you. Servers are deeply resentful that what they earn depends on pretending to like someone.

But regular customers are a whole other matter. You see, with one customer or group of customers, the standard tricks work. You smile, you ask the usual questions, tell the usual jokes, the same snappy patter, blah blah blah. You don't usually have to think of something new. A regular customer is in too often to use the same ol' BS.

Although you have to change your material, the regular doesn't. He'll come in with the same anecdotes, talk about sports you have no interest in. Restaurant work is seen by many of the people who enter it as a temporary thing. Servers think "I'll be here until I graduate and I can use my philosophy degree to get a better job" or "I'll be here until I get that dream job which should be any day now" or "I'll be here until I'm abducted by aliens and forced to save their civilization by vigorously copulating with some Venusian Love God/Goddess at least six times a day." Restaurant work has a tendency to suck people in, like a vortex. We used to talk about "Lifers," people we knew would be working at our restaurant until it closed, at which point they would find another restaurant job. Those with hope dreaded becoming a lifer. And for that reason, seeing a regular customer is a reminder that things haven't changed, and time is passing. Seeing a regular is an unpleasant reminder to a server that their world is not moving.

And that's why most servers hate regular customers.

I used to have regulars, including this one old man when I was tending bar. I supposed it would be impolite to call him senile, since it was clearly the boozing that drowned all the neurons in his brains and accounted for his behavior. Let's be fair--he wasn't senile, just a drunk.

He had no memory capacity. I'm sure he walked in every day to check out the restaurant he's heard about but never tried before. Once he asked if we had Kidney Pie. We didn't, so I asked if he'd like to see a menu so he could pick something else. He picked an omelet to go. So I gave him his omelet. About an hour later he returned complaining about my mistake--he'd ordered Kidney Pie. After a bit of discussion where I filled him in on the "missing time" using hypnotic regression (often used to interview people who encounter UFOs and extra-terrestrials), he ordered a beer instead.

He always wore a brown suit, the kind accountants wore in the seventies. Bad accountants. It may have been tailored from the living room drapes. Sometimes he would wear a baby blue baseball cap, the hat stained and faded, but somehow the brim was straight as a homophobe. It didn't have the curve that a well-loved cap has. I would say it looked terrible, but the truth is the alternative was worse. His hair was grey and matted, but thinning. Have you ever seen that spray that they used to advertise on infomercials? Basically it was spray-paint for your hair. You used it, and it looked like you had a fuller head of hair. Actually, it made you look like a dork, but roll with me here. As bad as that stuff was, whatever this guy was using was worse. I suspect he might have used a coat of house paint. It camouflaged his hair loss about as effectively as a sheet of paper with the words "This is not a tank, it's a tree" affixed to a tank in the middle of an open field.

Sometimes his wife would come in, and she could knock it back too. Her vice of choice was brandy. His was beer. She drank as hard as he did, but she was marginally better dressed.

He was an old fool in the classic sense, and he was in usually two or three times a week. He was cheap and left a pretty useless tip unless I wanted a gobstopper, but I didn't mind him so much because he ordered a draft, the simplest thing in the world to serve, drank it quietly, and usually didn't insist on talking to me.

Servers have ways of getting revenge on their customers. The classic method is to put something vile but unnoticeable in the food. I've seen dessert spoons I've used to scrape the black gunk out of a sink drain quickly rinsed, wiped, and plopped in sundae without passing through that time-consuming wash and sanitize stage. I warned the person what I'd been doing with it, they said "Ask me if I give a shit." That's a rhetorical question, so I didn't bother to ask.

I was never really utterly evil with revenge (actually, I probably was at some point, but I'm conveniently forgetting it now), and this guy never really gave me an excuse to get nasty. I wasn't even rude with him. In his mental state, he wouldn't have noticed anyway. "Sir," "Mister," "Motherfucker," it was all the same to him. I just had that nagging feeling of resentment. Like most regulars, he was depressing. He was haunting the place, like a ghost. My shoulders would slump when I saw him, "You again?" would appear wearily in my head. Everything he did was predictable. It never changed, and although I have no way of knowing it, his entire life may have been this way. For certain he was an alcoholic, and there I was, feeding him more of what was likely to kill him. I can be pretty cold at times, but with my own feelings toward alcohol and alcoholism, I would feel guilty giving this guy his fix. But so what, eh? As long as I got my gobstopper.

Once, I did have a little fun with him, but unintentionally. He was sitting there drinking his beer, and a few stools down sat a bum, from off the street. All the bum wanted was some coffee. I gave him a cup. The bum, being what he was, didn't have the utmost in personal hygiene, but I have seen (smelled) far worse. He mumbled to himself, and occasionally cursed under his breath, making a spitting noise (he wasn't actually firing saliva everywhere, I would have gotten rid of him for that, but it did sound like it). I suspect he had a mild case of Tourette's. I didn't mind him though. He was just sitting there mumbling. He drank his coffee, didn't pester me for more, and he paid. That should put things in perspective for you. A slighty smelly, slighty Tourettish bum who orders one cup of coffee is pretty high as customer standards go.

But what really endeared me was the expression on my regular's face as he watched the bum drink his coffee. He had a look of complete disgust. So stained old baby blue hats and hair care products from the paint section of Canadian Tire were okay, but this bum was beneath even his standards. I remember some young yuppie kids out drinking and giving a similar look to my regular. It's all relative I guess.

Nowadays, I like to order from a sandwich place down the street. Whenever I go in, the same guy is always there. He knows exactly what I like on my sandwiches. I usually order one of three different subs, but all I have to do is tell him which one. He doesn't need to ask what I like on my sub, he just does it.

I'm his regular customer. Probably one of several.

He smiles, and his smiles seem genuine. He has no overwhelming need to make it seem so, since he doesn't make tips like I used to. I tend to think that he doesn't mind his job so much and is relieved to see me, since he knows I'm not going to freak on him or hand him some impossible order.

Of course, that's probably exactly what my regulars thought when I was fantasizing about what I do with them, a chainsaw, and an isolated cabin with the phone lines cut.

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