Posted by: dougery | May 26, 2011

Deferential Treatment

Despite every intention of living each day to its carpe diem-est, I am generally a creature of habit. In Chicago I had a coffee-shop that I would go to almost every morning right before work. And every morning I would get a small coffee, a bottle of Cranberry Nantucket Nectar, and a bagel. My order never wavered, not the type of bagel, not the brand of juice, nothing. If I wanted something else, I’d have gone somewhere else.

Most days the cash register person who took my order, a middle-aged Asian woman by the name of Chew, would see me walking in and light up. She would scramble to put my bagel in the toaster before I grabbed my juice and stepped in line like we were in a race. There’s no non-douche-y way to say this but the regularity of my order/presence seemed to fill her with an inexplicable kind of joy. We’d trade how are yous and even though her English wasn’t great, there was a level of connection that went beyond consumer/retail machine transaction.

One the weekends L and I had 2 favorite brunch spots, one for Saturdays near our apartment and one for Sundays way the hell up in Andersonville.

Spot ‘A’ was kind of trendy, always crowded, full of preposterously well dressed yuppie types and Gold Coasters slumming it in Oldtown. Women with “good bone structure” and men with iron gray hair that smacked of stock options. Yes, there were some Depaul students here and there, alma maters stamped on the asses of their sweatpants, their bloodshot eyes betraying their hangovers, but for the most part a well-to-do customer base.

We were regulars there to the point where the owner knew us (he’d seat us almost every Saturday), the other hosts knew us, 90% of the waitresses and waiters knew us. We didn’t get preferential treatment and still had to wait our turn outside in the mob, our yoga mats tucked in L’s gym bag, a paperback in my hands while she read the Chicago Reader. We’d be seated and asked, “The usual?” It was nice. The food wasn’t terribly good, but that wasn’t the reason we went. It was a block from our apartment and everyone treated us as friends. We even got a Christmas card from the owner.

Spot ‘B’ was more of a sanctuary. L wrote a lot of her novel there. We had a table that was always ours. The staff, which had relatively high turnover, still made an effort to get to know us, these strange regulars who showed up every Sunday the moment their doors opened and always ordered the same thing. A blond server in her 30s left shortly after we started going there, but not before memorizing our orders and telling us to keep an ear out for her band–they were heading out on tour. There were a smattering of men that followed until they settled on a young woman who had the strangest way of taking our orders as if she had been transported back in time to an old diner. Calling me ‘hon’ in the way an overly fond Aunt might, even though I was like, almost a decade older than her.

It was a complete facade, but a winning one. The kitchen was right around the wall from our table and that girl had more drama to share with the rest of the staff than she knew what to do with. And she went about her stories loud enough that she obviously didn’t care who heard just that people did. As L sat and typed and typed and I filled out my Onion crossword I found way too much about her personal life. By the time L got the new job and we prepared to move east our young server didn’t call me ‘hon’ anymore, but had our orders in as soon as we sat down, no questions asked. It was just beginning to become outwardly obvious what she’d overshared a month or two earlier, the life of our kindly ‘Aunt’ was gonna change drastically by year’s end.

Here in the Berkshires I go 2 or 3 times a week to this other coffee-shop. I’ve come to recognize the people who work there every day and those that just fill in part time. They are friendly enough but there’s just one thing. My order never changes, but I always have to give it, and my name, to the same people, over and over again. It is awkward because they do know my name, there is just a routine they all have to follow, and it is visibly a bad fit. Its that uncomfortable moment in a Proust dinner party where the narrator knows another guests name, and knows the guest is aware of his too, but for propriety’s sake neither can admit or even use this information, only, you know, retrofit to apply to the retail world. Its kind of like watching a computer or a toaster come slowly to life, to see a person struggling to toe the line between service robot and human being.

I miss all those human beings in Chicago, even if I didn’t actually know them at all. I don’t like to be reminded that I always order the same thing, and that I am forever a customer and not something less capitalistically banal. I’m not asking for a big smile, for them to over-enthusiastically scuttle about, to tell me about their band, to detail the moments leading up to the conception of their unborn kid or even a ‘hello.’ But a ‘your bagel will be ready in just a moment’ as I grab my juice from the cooler would make all the difference.

Reading: Live and Let Die (1954) by Ian Fleming.


  1. i love this.

  2. Have you considered that Chew may have appreciated you for never hassling her in any way? Working with the public sucks, and people were probably always going in there and asking weird questions or haggling over the price of orange juice. She probably saw you coming and thought (in Chinese) “Oh, phew, here comes that normal guy.”

  3. Thanks, O!

    KAO, I’ve not only considered, I’m dead certain that’s the case. I’ve seen the place she works at mobbed around lunchtime with dozens of impatient assholes who treat her like dirt. Especially when she can’t parse their mumbled orders as they stand there texting or something.

  4. ::theme from Cheers::

  5. Well said. And so, so true. Made me tear up a little…

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