Friends Don’t Let Friends
Imagine how awful it would be to have no friends. And I don’t mean imaginary or virtual ones, like Instagram followers, LinkedIn connections or Facebook friends. I mean real, tangible, actual friends. The sort of person who has your back. The friend who gently but honestly advises you that those pants really do make your ass look fat. The friend who is your reliable and faithful wingman. Someone who will, no questions asked and no quid pro quo: lend you money, bail you out of jail, help you move a refrigerator into your fourth floor walk up. Everyone needs friends like that. Having even just one true friend can be your life’s greatest accomplishment. Sometimes it’s enough to have a friend who tells you that your fly is down, your skirt is tucked into your pantyhose, or your hair is doing something weird. At the very minimum, a friend should tell you if you have spinach in your teeth.
Well. Poor, friendless Sean Spicer. He recently gave a televised press briefing with his lunch wedged in his chompers. Spicey sees the folks in the White House Press Corps every day. Every single damn day. And not one person said “Hey Sean, there’s something in your teeth.” No one pointed at their own mouth, pretended to brush, and then pointed at his mouth. It was just so sad. To be clear, I am no Sean Spicer fan, but I would tell a complete stranger if they had spinach in their teeth, never mind a guy I see every day. But then again, Spicer is a dick and I wouldn’t have had anything to laugh about otherwise. And I wouldn’t have thought of the theme for this blog post: Friends Don’t Let Friends.
Yesterday I went for coffee with a friend of mine. We went to her local; a hipster-ish, non-franchise establishment. The kind of place that is artfully run down and a just little – but just perfectly – seedy. The tables are small and rickety, and precisely square for maximum Instagraminess. There is just enough space on each table for an Americano and a script. Or a soy matcha latté and a Russian novel. Or a half caf coconut foam cappuccino and a stack of headshots. It is the sort of place where people write terrible screenplays. My friend is hugely more cool than me. I feel like a middle-aged interloper, a wrinkly old rhino amongst lissome gazelles.
There is a large espresso machine on the counter, as sculptural and gleaming as a Lamborghini. I suspect that the establishment’s building joists have been bolstered to support the weight of this contraption. It shimmers elegantly and hisses frighteningly. There are so many louvers, flaps, buttons, spouts, lights and knobs that I am certain this thing can not only make coffee, it can probably launch nuclear warheads.
The trouble starts when I order tea. (I have never been a coffee drinker. I admire coffee’s qualities: its delicious aroma, its multitudinous variety and configurations and, of course, its magical properties, but it quite literally makes me sick. As wonderful as it smells, coffee is tortuously colonic as far as I’m concerned.) As fanatical as coffee drinkers might be, they cannot hold a candle to the insufferable rectitude of the tea drinker. The water must be freshly boiled, the teapot must be adequately warmed, and the tea itself must steep for precisely 5 minutes. This is why timers were invented.
The barista, impeccably slouchy-toqued and impressively bearded, offers me the tea menu. Obviously, someone gave this a lot of thought. The menu has clearly been designed by a graphic artist and a poet. It is laminated. All the teas have fantastical names, none of which is “Orange Pekoe”. The teas themselves are arranged in stainless steel canisters on live edge shelving, and I don’t recognize a single one. “Do you have Earl Grey?” I ask. The barista languidly spoons loose tea (of course) into a hemp filter tea bag. He then plops the tea bag into what looks to me like an oversized Luminarc juice glass and pours some standing water into the glass. My tea bag bobs like someone lost at sea who has lost all hope of rescue. A drinking glass? For tea? This espresso machine looks like it has a function for bleaching assholes but it cannot produce boiling water?
I touch the glass. It is barely lukewarm. I stick my finger in the water and it feels like if the glass were big enough the water would be just the right temperature to hand wash my delicates. I say to the barista, very politely I might add, “would you mind making my tea with fresh boiling water? This isn’t very hot.” And he says, and this utterly floors me, “why don’t you try it with your mouth first”. Say what? So I say, “I’ve had my finger in the glass for a minute and the skin hasn’t sloughed off so I’m pretty sure the water isn’t hot enough.” Then barista takes my glass, dumps out the water and proceeds to fill the glass with hot water from the espresso machine. Kindly and, I think, charitably, I tell him he can use the same tea bag for my new cup. “Yeah”, he says, “that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
I think I might fall over, or combust, or evaporate with a pop and a cloud of tepid and wan tea vapour. How does he get away with this? I think of how I bow and scrape and ingratiate myself with every single customer at our restaurant. I wouldn’t DREAM of serving one of our customers something so great in theory but obviously lousy in practice, and then be chippy about it when I’m called on it. Barista produces my fresh tea and I thank him. My friend pays for our refreshments and tips him. My friend is impressed with my restraint. She can’t believe that I thanked him. I can’t believe that she tipped him. And then we put it all behind us and get to gabbing about important stuff.
There are two groups of women who regularly frequent our restaurant to celebrate birthdays. We reconfigure the tables in one section of the restaurant to make a very large square that accommodates up to sixteen people. Both groups have fairly regular gatherings, maybe once a month or so. But one group’s attendance had tailed off recently and we hadn’t seen them for a while. Last night, the MIA ladies were back. When they had all arrived and were seated I made a point of visiting their table, welcoming them, thanking them for their return and wishing the celebrants a happy birthday. I joked that I knew that they had been cheating on us, but that we forgave them and were pleased to welcome them back with open arms and no hard feelings. We all had a giggle and any awkwardness was dispelled.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until the main courses arrived. Most of the women oohed and aahed, and began tucking in immediately. But one woman, as soon as her dinner was placed in front of her, and I mean within nanoseconds, said “I can’t eat this, it’s fishy”. This is about the stupidest complaint I hear. Fish smells fishy because it’s fish, steak smells steaky because it’s steak and coffee smells coffee-y because it’s coffee. Right? Isn’t that the whole point? Yes, I know,“fishy” is code for “bad”, as in “my fish is rotten”, as if semantics is enough to assuage the insult. But here’s the thing: we get fresh fish every day. Sometimes the fishmonger delivers it, and sometimes I pick it up myself. Our fish supplier sells only organic, naturally-raised, and sustainably caught fresh seafood and fish. My husband, the chef, has been cooking professionally for more than 30 years. Our family business is small, but it supports our family as well as the families of our staff. What is the likelihood that our fishmonger would sell us rotten fish? What is the likelihood that we would pay good money for rotten fish? What is the likelihood that we would cook rotten fish? What is the likelihood that we would serve rotten fish to our customers? What is the likelihood that we would still be in business after more than 20 years if we did any of these things?
Fishy had requested that her fish be cooked without salt. She had asked that the accompanying sauce be on the side, that the vegetables be lightly steamed, and that she would prefer extra vegetables in place of a starch. So, of course, she got everything she wanted because that is the nature of a hospitality business like ours.
“I can’t eat this, it’s fishy”. My hackles stir. “I beg your pardon?” I say. “This is fishy, I won’t eat it. Bring me the menu I’ll order something else.” She hasn’t looked at her dinner for more than a second and she hasn’t tasted even the tiniest little piece. I think of barista guy and want to say “why don’t you try it with your mouth first?” Instead, I assure her that the fish is fresh today, that it is cooked and plated exactly to her specifications, and that it smells like fish BECAUSE IT IS FISH. Her friends, many of whom ordered the same dish, are happily devouring their meals. She is so put out, and apparently her appetite so completely ruined, that she orders instead a green salad (literally just mesclun greens) with no dressing. She might as well have gone foraging for grass clippings. I take her dinner plate into the kitchen and relate the complaint to my husband. I see the colour rise from beneath his chef coat and up into his face, and then I notice the steam emerging from his nostrils. As he reaches for the plate to violently shove the contents into the garbage I say, “don’t pitch it, I’ll take it home and our daughter can have it for lunch tomorrow.” “No!”, he rages, “it’s obviously FUCKING SHIT AND BELONGS IN THE GARBAGE.” A $32 dinner in the bin means we break even on the table of ladies. Maybe we even lose money because she might complain on TripAdvisor or tell all her other friends that we serve rotten fishy fish.
One of Fishy’s dining companions makes sad, apologetic faces at me all night. Or else she beams magnificently and tells me how delicious her dinner is, so delicious in fact that she asks for her leftovers to be wrapped up to take home. Later in the evening, she approaches me at the bar and asks me for a plastic bag for her leftovers because her friend is complaining about the smell. And she rolls her eyes at me, nods her head in the direction of Fishy, and then resumes her sad, apologetic smiling.
Later, I remind my husband that Fishy does this every time she comes for dinner. It’s been a few months since I’ve seen her, but it starts coming back to me. She always orders fish, she always says it smells fishy, and she always sends it back and has a salad instead. Every single damn time. And this has been going on for YEARS. You know how a server asks, as you are eating your dinner, “is everything ok?” This is the woman you would ask “is ANYTHING ok?” On second thought, you don’t want to ask because you already know the answer. “My salad is fishy”, “my dessert is fishy”, “my latté is fishy”. I know there are customers who will manufacture a complaint because they want something for free. They will lick their plate clean and then complain that their steak was tough in the expectation that you will comp their dinner. But she wasn’t like that. She didn’t even have one little bite, and she never does. What she does is even worse: it’s not conniving or deceitful, which is bad enough, what she does is flat out mean, insulting and malicious.
I used to own a restaurant on a street with a handful of bars and restaurants. Our neighbourhood’s hospitality community was so small and collegial that we often hung out together. We would frequent each other’s place of business. We even arranged golf tournaments amongst ourselves. As friends, we alerted each other to dangers: the light-fingered server who was looking for a job, the supplier who ripped you off, the customer who welched on bar tabs. We all knew which person was barred from which drinking establishment. A patron may be barred if they don’t pay their tab on time, or if they are handsy with the staff or other customers, or if they are belligerent, excessively rude or extremely obnoxious. For the most part, a bar patron who is banned from a pub is aware of his behaviour. He knows he is an obstreperous or violent drunk. He knows he can’t pay his bills. He might make grandiose threats as he is dragged out by his buddies or a bouncer, but he’s usually contrite and apologetic when you next see him, pleading to be given another chance. There are usually no hard feelings on anyone’s part. He promises to improve his behaviour and pay his bill, and you eventually relent and give him another chance.
So why don’t we ban restaurant patrons like we do bar customers? Not because they are rowdy or disruptive, but because they are annoying and mean? I would love to tell Fishy that she is not welcome at our restaurant. I would love to tell her that I can’t take any more of her demanding, unpleasant, difficult, mean, insulting and impossible to please bullshit. But I don’t. Why? Because restaurateurs don’t do that. We suck it up. We apologize for a customer’s own bad behaviour. We take the abuse with a smile because we are afraid of bad on-line reviews and negative word of mouth. But this one time, with this one woman, I won’t do it again. I told my husband that the next time she comes in I will refuse to serve her anything but salad.
At my old restaurant we once offered a 48 day dry-aged rib-eye steak. It was very dark, almost black, and stunk to high heaven. But it melted like butter and tasted divine. Sure, it was gamey, but that was the point. The chef told me to advise customers of the taste and that, because we sold it for more than $50, it could not be sent back. She would not accept any complaint about gaminess. Everyone who ordered it loved it, and not one person said anything about it tasting funny. Maybe that’s how I deal with Fishy in the future. Straight up, up front, honest. “Yes, you can have the fish but you cannot send it back. It’s fish. It smells like fish. If you don’t want fish that smells like fish then you can have the salad.”
But here’s the thing. Why is this my job? Why do I have to educate this woman, very likely to my own detriment? There are usually at least a dozen other women that she regularly dines with. Why doesn’t someone say something to her? “You know, Fishy, you can be a little rude sometimes.” “Hey Fishy, I like coming here to eat so please don’t be unpleasant like you were last time.” “Look, Fishy, you can’t send food back when there’s nothing wrong with it.” Or maybe if they stopped inviting Fishy to their birthday parties she might eventually figure it out. So here’s my point: friends don’t let friends wear fat ass-enhancing clothes, friends don’t let friends get weird haircuts, friends don’t let friends skip leg day, friends don’t let friends hold press briefings with a grill full of greens, friends don’t let friends drink bad tea, friends don’t let friends skip out on their bar tabs, and friends don’t let friends be colossal cunts in restaurants.