September 5, 2002
The Ma'am Treatment

miles to go: i can't even remember, frankly. ask me again this weekend.

Our young waitress is earning her tip.

She's cute, but not too cute ... friendly, but not too friendly ... quick and efficient, but not pushy or obnoxious. She seats us right away, even though the restaurant is obviously doing a booming business this morning. She gives us a decent booth, with a window view and plenty of room to spread out and read the newspaper. She supplies us with coffee and menus and ice water before we've even finished settling in. Plus she does that impressive Look what an amazingly groovy waitress I am! thing: she takes our complex breakfast order without even bothering to write it down. (A California omelette and sourdough toast for David, Belgian waffles and cheesy scrambled eggs for our young dining companions, orange juice all around.)

And then she blows it.

"And you?" she says, turning to me with a cheerfully insincere smile. "What will you be having, Ma'am?"

An apocalytpic silence descends on our table. Next to me, I can actually feel David clench. If either one of my daughters were here right now, I'm sure they would be kicking me under the table. (Behave yourself, Mom.) They all tell me that I'm much too hard on waitresses: that I have a bad attitude, that I misinterpret professional deference for snootiness, that I don't understand how difficult and demeaning it is to provide cheerful service to a bunch of rude crabby ungrateful customers all day long. (Yeah? Try sitting at the front desk sometime.) But my family has it all wrong. I don't hate waitresses: waitresses hate ME. Usually on sight, as a matter of fact, and usually for no reason whatsoever. I can walk into any restaurant on the planet and tell you -- within five seconds -- whether a waitress and I are going to get along.

Rule #1: If they call me "Ma'am" ... it's all over.

"'Ma'am'?" I mutter blackly, hunched over my menu. "Do I look like someone who should be called 'Ma'am'?"  And then I glance up at her, blinking, with my patented Oh gosh! Did I say that out loud? expression.

I swear you can actually see all of the blood drain from her face.

"I'm so sorry!" she gasps. "I didn't ... I just ... "

"We forget that we're old people sometimes," David jumps in, beaming across the table at her in amiable crisis intervention. Don't mind my wife: her meds haven't kicked in yet. "Most of the time," he laughs, "we still think we're sixteen." The rattled young waitress looks at my middle-aged husband -- sitting there in his Motörhead T-shirt and his beat-up sneakers, spooning five extra sugars into his coffee -- and she smiles uneasily.

"OK," she says.

She finishes taking my order without even looking at me -- the #2 Breakfast Combo Plate, eggs over easy, hold the Geritol -- and then she flees to the safety of the kitchen, no doubt wondering how to salvage her tip from the crabby old bitch at Table 17.

The instant she's gone, of course, I am filled with remorse. She really IS doing a good job, after all. It's not like she's chewing gum or dribbling coffee on our laps or attempting to engage us in gratuitous baseball chat. ("How about those A's?")  And it's not like she's a telemarketer, or a Fed Ex trainee, or one of those sleazy teenage salespersons who go around the building peddling "framed motivational posters." We get a bazillion of those at the office every day, and every damn one of them calls me "Ma'am." (Although with them, at least, I get the luxury of hanging up the phone/slamming the door in their face.)

Our nice little waitress doesn't deserve The Don't-Call-Me Ma'am Treatment.

Plus ... who am I kidding? I AM a "Ma'am." It takes me fifteen minutes, these days, to thoroughly spackle the creases around my eyes in the morning (and then another fifteen minutes to sandblast them clean at night). I didn't recognize ANY of the Best New Artist nominees at the MTV Awards last week. I watched the very first episode of "Gilligan's Island" ... the actual night it was broadcast. I have a tube of Icy Hot in my purse, right this very moment.

I'm a Ma'am. It's time I face that fact, I guess, and quit tormenting hapless young waitresses/sales clerks/Customer Service Representatives for sport.

"Don't worry," I whisper to David. "I'll be nice to her when she comes back." 

He nods. Good. You should be nice to her. He doesn't like it when I'm less of a human being than I should be. While we wait for our food, I sit at the table with my hands folded in front of me, smiling benignly ... prepared to be pleasant and forbearing and appreciative. But when our waitress returns with our orders, fifteen minutes later, she still can't bring herself to look at me. Everybody else at our table is rewarded with a smile, a clean napkin, extra foil packets of jelly and marmalade, refills of orange juice.

I get dead silence.

But that's OK. I deserve it. Karma will probably repay me at the reception desk tomorrow morning, anyway, with nine hours of hang-ups, heavy breathers and pompous assholes calling on their speakerphone. That'll be OK, too. I've earned it. I'll deal with it. 

Hungrily, we all dig in and enjoy our breakfast. Just to be on the safe side, though, I examine my food with a little extra care before I eat it.

And -- when nobody is looking -- I drop an extra five dollar bill onto the tip as we're leaving the restaurant.

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that was FOAM floating on the top of my
orange juice ... right?