A few weeks ago, I was watching a local station's 10 o'clock newscast when I saw a story that made me stand up and cheer with sheer joy. I was so loud in my state of ecstasy that I woke up my wife Holly, who was asleep on the sofa next to me. "What, did the Grizzlies finally win a game?" she asked. "No, something much bigger," I replied. According to the report, a Memphis man named William Arnold was thrown out of a Waffle House restaurant in Southaven for talking too loudly on his cellphone.
Mr. Arnold, judging from your brief appearance and the few words you muttered on that night's newscast, you seem like a decent man. Pleading your case to the camera, you said that you were only making a quick call to check on your mother. You seemed sincere. However, I have to admit that I do not feel sorry for you. In fact, I am glad they asked you to leave the Waffle House for your lack of civility. I know your type, Mr. Arnold. Do I ever.
Last year, my wife and I bought a great old house. We got a wonderful deal, but the kitchen had to be gutted and totally rebuilt. Instead of paying a contractor to do it in a couple of weeks, we decided to subcontract the job. While this approach has been cheaper, it's also taken a lot longer than expected. What this means is that we've basically been without a kitchen for the past six months. What this means, too, is that we've eaten out almost every night for 180 days. That last sentence bears repeating: We've eaten out almost every night for 180 days.
In that time, I've come to see myself as an embedded diner of sorts. I can report that even the best meals, when eaten over and over again, can grow tiresome, and that the wait staff, no matter how friendly, gets sick of seeing you a couple times a week. But perhaps most significantly is how astoundingly rude some of the patrons can be. This is not the majority of patrons; it only seems that way given the general lack of manners and wealth of jackassery of those obnoxious few.
For instance, sitting in Huey's Midtown I saw the strangest thing, and it left me with the impression that folks just don't talk to each other like they used to. In a booth behind us, a man was with his girlfriend. They were a nice, clean-cut, respectable-looking young couple. Initially, he was on his cellphone having a conversation while she sat there looking bored and sad and ignored. As soon as he got off his phone, she picked hers up and started talking to someone. Now it was his turn to look sad, bored, and ignored. As soon as she ended her conversation, he picked up his phone and called someone. This went on and on and on. They took turns, volleying back and forth. I don't think they actually spoke one word to each other the entire duration of their meal. It was surreal, almost like a Fellini film. In retrospect, I think one of them should have stayed at home, and the other should have gone to the restaurant. At least that way, they would have spoken to each other.
On another evening, I watched as a little boy took all of the sugar packets out of the ramekin on the table. He lined them up neatly, all nice and color-coded. Next, he commenced licking each and every one of them in an orderly, systematic way. Apparently, this kid has some method to his madness. He was concentrating on what he was doing, in "the zone," if you will, so you can understand his frustration when his mother interrupted his focus and told him, in a very calm and friendly voice, to stop. He freaked out and pushed all the little packets off the table and down to the floor. Mommy picked them up and put them back in the ramekin like nothing happened. Needless to say, when dining out now, I take my coffee black.
During my experiment of culinary grandeur, I also witnessed a fair share of individuals having illicit affairs. Who needs Desperate Housewives when you can see the real thing? I saw a professor having a heated argument with his student. The student was appalled that he didn't get a higher grade in his class since they were "sleeping together and everything." Another of my favorites was the one I refer to as "the doctor and his lady." She complained about being second fiddle to the surgeon's wife. Anytime he tried to inject anything about himself into the conversation, she would erupt. For instance, he would say something about the stresses and daily grind of being a cardiovascular surgeon, and she would cut him off mid-sentence and retort with something like, "Do you think it is easy to have sex with you? Well, you are wrong." It was beyond comical. The highlight of the conversation was when he tried to interrupt, saying, "That is irrelevant." At that point, the gold-digging, silicone-filled, plastic-looking shallow mistress gave the heart-transplant surgeon a 15-minute education on how "irrelevant" is not a word, and he should learn to speak better to avoid sounding ignorant. It was priceless! One of the funniest things I have ever heard.
During our six-month, dining-out opus, Holly and I invented a coping mechanism to help us survive. We referred to it as the "Button and Dial." If someone was annoying us and we wanted to put him or her out of their misery, we had an imaginary button on the table we would hit. We imagined that when the button was pressed, a laser beam would come out from the ceiling and zap this insufferable person. It would be instant annihilation, no suffering. If someone was REALLY annoying, we would slowly turn an imaginary dial. It would zap him or her in a long, slow, agonizing manner. Much suffering was involved. He or she would slowly turn red, and you could see their skeleton and eyes light up, like a cartoon. It lasted for about 30 seconds. It was brutal, but some people deserved this.
I have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit throughout this country. And at the risk of sounding like I am trying to suck up to the restaurant community to get a free meal or two, I must say that for a town its size, Memphis has some wonderful restaurants and a wide selection of choices for even the most discriminating of palates. The vast majority of our meals were great, and my family started some dining traditions I hope we will continue when our kitchen renovation is finished.
Despite my grumblings, much positive came from my social experiment. After being embedded frontline in these eateries for six months, I have a newfound respect for the wait staff of this city. I can't tell you how many times I saw a patron ask a waiter, "Will I like this?" And I can't tell you how many times I wished the waiter would have said, "How the hell should I know what you like, lady?" But I never did hear this reply. Nor did I ever see a waiter mistreat a customer. Most were happy, friendly, and personable folks. In fact, I highly recommend that you dine out frequently and enjoy our city's high-quality eating establishments. My only advice to you is not to do it (or anything else) for six months straight.
Greg Graber, a native Memphian, is a freelance writer and educator. His "Greg Graber Growl" column appeared on the Grizzlies' NBA Web site for three years, and he was named "Best Self-Promoter" by the Flyer staff in the 2001 Best of Memphis issue. You can contact him at ggraber.blogspot.com.