A Note at the Table

August 1999

She was an attractive woman in her thirties and was dining alone before the Thursday dinner rush. The restaurant hadn’t reached its usual level of friendly bustle yet, and she sat near the window where light still filled the area. I had recently arrived to start my shift. Since that day was only my fourth time on the job as a server, I had enough experience to function, but not enough to be truly confident in my work. I still made frequent mistakes, and I still entered the restaurant each day fighting my nerves. But despite my nervousness, I knew my job was to make her visit as enjoyable and pleasant as possible. So I smiled at her, introduced myself, and took her drink order, glad that my section wasn’t busy yet so I could pay more attention to my guests.

Her face was warm and friendly as she ordered a cup of hot tea with honey and a glass of water. I told her I’d be right back, and then rushed back to the kitchen to find out how to make a hot tea. A friend set it up for me, and I returned to the woman’s table to take her dinner order, thankful that my friend had been able to help me with the tea. She seemed pleased, but I couldn’t tell whether she was happy about the tea or she was simply good-natured. She ordered the roast beef, vegetables, and a salad. I thanked her and left to send her order to the kitchen and prepare her salad.

When I returned, she smiled again and moved some of her papers out of the way to make room for her salad and fresh bread. From the colored packets of business information strewn across her table that Thursday evening, I assumed that she was either on her dinner break or studying after-hours for an upcoming project or presentation. I remembered eating lunch the same way a week earlier as I tried to memorize the menu for my new job. I was curious but didn’t ask any questions.

The kitchen prepared her meal quickly, and she seemed surprised when I brought it out so soon after her salad and bread. She thanked me again, and I realized that I had forgotten her extra cup of gravy. I apologized and returned with it as soon as I could.

Fortunately, she didn’t seem annoyed with my mistake. Forgetting special requests like hers was one of my main problems during my first week, and although most of my guests were polite when reminding me, I still regretted the mistakes. I wanted to do my job perfectly, to be a friendly, efficient, helpful, and prompt server. If I couldn’t do everything perfectly, I decided to simply be a servant, as Jesus did in the Upper Room. He wasn’t focused on washing his disciples’ feet as quickly and efficiently as possible so he could clear the table for the next group. He simply wanted to love them, to serve them, and to demonstrate the way they should serve others. I knew I couldn’t be a “perfect” server, but I was determined to be as pleasant and helpful as I could to make up for any mistakes I made.

She continued studying throughout her meal, and before she finished I took out her ticket and asked if I could bring anything for her. She said she was fine, and I left to go begin my nightly silverware rolling.

When I returned, I saw that she had left a generous tip, but I also found something I’d never found on any of my tables: a note written on the small paper band that wrapped our silverware together. It read,

“Andy, Thank you for your pleasant service. I’ve been having a really hard day. You helped brighten it a bit! Thanks!”

She didn’t sign her name. I never found out what she’d been studying, where she lived, or what happened to make her day so hard, and I never saw her again. But I valued that small note more than all the tips I took home that day.