Welcome back to Off The Menu, where we bring you the best and strangest food stories from my email inbox. This week, we have a new topic: stories of old people in restaurants. As always, these are real emails from real readers, though names have been changed.
The magic food trash can
“After school one time, my grandma decided to take my sister and I to McDonald’s for some quick food. As some background for later, my grandma was raised in Mexico, where she lived in a house with no running water or electricity and dirt floors. She’s never been all that great with modern technology.
“We pulled up to the drive-thru and my grandma ordered as usual, then pulled around. Once we got to the window, the lady let her know the food was not ready and to pull forward. My grandma pulled forward and waited patiently at the pick up sign, which was right above a trash can. The can was one of those weird-looking ones that came up in an arch towards your car so you didn’t have to get out of your vehicle to throw away any trash.
“After waiting a bit, my grandma started looking around for an employee, but they were nowhere to be found and it didn’t look like they were headed out anytime soon. I was engrossed in my conversation with my sister, but out of the corner of my eye I saw my grandma staring inside the trashcan.
“That’s when she put her whole arm in the trash can and started rummaging around, mumbling “it must come out here.” I was shocked and could not take my eyes off, her but who was I to tell an adult what to do? I thought she must have known something I didn’t. [Editor’s Note: This sentence alone indicates Theresa and I were VERY different children.] After a short while, both of her arms and her head were hanging out of the car and into the trashcan!
“I was just getting to the point where I thought I should say something when the employee with our food approached.
“Employee: ‘What are you doing?!’
“Grandma: ‘Well, it’s not working, the food isn’t coming out!’
“He stared at my grandma a good while, probably trying to figure out if he was part of a hidden camera show. Finally, he said: ‘Ma’am, that’s a trash can.’” -- Theresa Martinez
When you’re hungry, you’re hungry
“I worked at Shari's, which is a diner chain in the Pacific Northwest. Not great food, but cheap and open 24 hours.
“One day I was working the afternoon shift and serving the old people who came in for dinner at 5pm. One of my tables was an older couple in their 60s. The husband was perfectly civil, but the wife was super cold and sharp with me even though they had just sat down and had nothing to complain about. I shrugged it off because anyone who has served an older crowd regularly knows that sometimes they are just grumpy for no reason.
“I delivered their food and came back a little while later to check on them. It was then that I noticed a giant, fresh blood stain on the front shin area of the husband's left pant leg (he was wearing jeans). I became frantic, asking him if he was OK and what we could do. At this point, the wife interjected with ‘Oh, we know, we were on our way to the emergency room and --’ (turning to glare at her husband) ‘-- somebody just had to have dinner first.’
“The husband did not react to this whatsoever and calmly continued eating.” -- Maureen Gregory
You knew one of these would involve racism
“I worked for a few years at an Outback in a Cleveland suburb.
“A couple of regulars were an elderly white couple who were snow birds. They were each probably in their late 70s and came into the restaurant twice per month. A number of the female servers thought they were cute because they had been married since the Eisenhower administration and still had date nights.
“Anyhow, I was working on a Saturday evening that had been dead most of the night. After I welcomed them, they mentioned they had just gotten back from Florida that evening and proceeded to regale me with stories of all the Outbacks in Florida at which they had eaten and how they couldn’t wait to tell their friends at our restaurant all about it. I gritted my teeth through their stories (seriously, who gets within spitting distance of the ocean and goes to a chain steakhouse?), got their waters, and punched their order in at the POS.
“Then the restaurant got slammed. About 70 (mostly) African-American customers [Editor’s Note: You may be wondering why their race is relevant. Stick with it.] who had been at a fundraiser came to our restaurant for dinner.
“After we had seated several groups near his table, the elderly husband then got up and walked, very slowly, toward the front door and looked out the window for more than a few seconds. I thought this behavior was a little odd, so I approached him and asked if I could help him with something. He turned around, lifted his key chain and FOB, and asked if I would mind stepping outside to make sure his car was locked. After I politely explained that I would not be able to step outside at the moment, he smiled and said, ‘That’s alright. I just need to make sure my car's safe. You never know with these kinds of crowds.’
“I didn’t think that was very cute.” -- Craig Gainer
What kind of fish is the chicken?
“My brother and I worked together as waiters during college at Ruby Tuesday's. An older gentleman walks in and sits in my brother's section. ‘Son, what's the catch of the day?’
“My brother told him that the ‘catch of the day’ that morning was mahi-mahi.
“‘No, I don't think I'll have fish, instead I'll have your chicken teriyaki breast with broccoli.’ After bringing the food out, my brother checked back with the customer to make sure everything was fine. ‘What kind of fish did you tell me this was?’
“My brother raced through his dilemma and answered, ‘mahi mahi.’
“‘I've got to remember that; that's the best damn fish I've ever eaten.’” -- Warren May
The saga of Mr. Choad
“The Thanksgiving three weeks after my sudden divorce was a mandatory work day for our entire crew at the ‘GermanPubAndGrill’ where I worked. Booked far in advance, the morning brunch buffet and afternoon prix fixe ‘family style feast’ was basically a busy double shift for all of us, but an easy one and we closed at 4 instead of dinner service. Plus who doesn't love all-you-can-eat, sweaty, leftover petit fours in the back kitchen?
"I had no plans beyond binge-watching NCIS with my dogs, so I did not mind working the holiday. I was grateful for my crew of friends and the lovely Thanksgiving plate that the chefs made each of us on our breaks. Yes, we even got actual breaks, which doesn't happen in many restaurants.
“Since my section was fully reserved and the menu limited, Thanksgiving was easy money. Everything normal, senior after senior shuffled in to enjoy some company and a fine meal -- second only to Dead Oma's Thanksgiving Feast of Yore.
“At about 2pm at the table nearest the server station, table 201, an elderly male who we’ll call Mr. Choad and his even older female companion silently enjoyed their dinner. After they had polished off the pie, I refilled their coffee-mugs and left the bill standing on the end of the table. They were the last reservation at that table. I carried on and ran Mr. Choad's credit card when he was ready to pay. I thanked them again and wished them a happy Thanksgiving, inviting them back next year. Mr. Choad responded with the usual holiday pleasantries and I went to the kitchen.
“On the line, grabbing up plates from the expo, I heard a sudden ruckus from the lobby. A man was shouting ‘I know she's here!’ One of the hosts burst into the kitchen and took the orders out of my hands ‘table 201 wants his credit card back!’ Confused, I hurried to the table. Mr. Choad was loudly berating another server for not being me. She fled. I asked Mr. Choad how I could help and he demanded that I return his credit card.
"Embarrassed, I quickly searched my pockets, wallet and server book right there, but could not find his card. I apologized and promised to find it. Mr. Choad harrumphed unhappily. The card was not on the table, and he would not check his wallet, which is usually where lost cards turn up. I apologized again, scanning beneath the table. I retraced two steps to the micro, then all the way to the kitchen and enlisted the help of my managers and the hosts to scour the restaurant floors just in case and check all the stacks of empty bill folders. I gloved up and began going through the giant trash beside the dish station. I tried to keep my long-sleeved, white button down and tie clean. But it was my fault, so digging through chewed sauerbraten and cold kraut was my duty.
“A few minutes later, I heard Mr. Choad hollering again: ‘She can't hide, I know she's there! Thief! I saw this on the news!’ And my day had been so blah and easy. So the restaurant Gods taketh.
“I washed my arms and hands and went back to 201, where Mr. Choad was hollering. My three other tables and the other server's guests, everyone in the lobby, and my manager Matt were sort of frozen there in shock while Mr. Choad yelled. He yelled about elder abuse and exploiting vulnerable seniors, he yelled about ‘identity theft and how I must be the scum of the earth to work in a shit hole like this which must hire felons to take such terrible advantage of vulnerable, sick, elderly people AND on the holiday!’
"He refused to let Matt have the check back, because then I would ‘have his signature, all the better to abuse and exploit him with.’ I was made to turn out my pockets again in front of the whole place, showing Matt, too, but came up cardless again. Aware of his audience and with a manager captive as well, Mr. Choad took an even more victimized, aggrieved, shrieking pitch, spitting in rage.
“Poor, vulnerable, abused Mr. Choad held the open bill presenter around to show everyone how I ran his card and now had the ‘numbers’ to use. Waving the book, he yelled I 'cannot hide from him like you tried to’ (while I was searching through the trash), how he would call the police, how ‘my kind is all the same,’ and how he ‘saw this on the news, daggummnit, and here he is a vulnerable senior on the brink of death and I have stolen his identity and will use it to buy drugs.’
"Since I am a butchy looking person of color and he is Caucasian, his accusations had double and triple meaning, and other diners were visibly insulted or embarrassed. I have been called many things by guests, but never dishonest or thief.
“Since I lost the card, I just kept apologizing while he got louder, refusing to let go of the book, even when Matt offers to comp his meal. When Mr. Choad began to stand up, Matt sent me to the office.
"I went to cry helpless and stupid in front of the GM while Matt took Mr. Choad's contact info, comped their meal, and somehow got him out of the restaurant. From inside the office, I could hear Mr. Choad shouting all the way out about how he will find me and send me to jail. I figured I was fired or about to be arrested or both. I didn't have the card, but the customer is always right.
“As soon as Mr. Choad had left, Matt walked into the office with Mr. Choad’s check holder in his hand. Without saying a word, he handed it to the GM, who opened it and fished down behind the black plastic lining, pulling out Mr. Choad’s credit card from where it slipped accidentally.” [Editor’s Note: OK, two of them involved racism.] -- Salma Zapatero
Do you have a restaurant, home-cooking, or any other food-adjacent story you’d like to see appear in Off the Menu (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Off the Menu” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
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