I cringed when I saw her walk through the front door.
She clutched a plastic trash bag filled with God knows what. Her clothing was dirty and greasy and torn in spots. Her hair was all over the place. She limped.
My foyer was full of business people and tourists. No one protested and everyone stared as she walked right up to my podium and announced: “I am here for ice water.”
Dead silence followed. The oldies music softly played in the background. World cup soccer flickered in muted silence on the bar TV. You could have sliced and diced the tension.
“Ice water. I’m gonna get me some ice water.”
“Ma’am, are you here for lunch?” I knew she wasn’t, but I tried to sound nice. I just felt I had to ask for the sake of asking.
“No, ice water!” she shouted.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. You’ll have to step outside now.”
“Gimme ice water!”
“Ma’am, you need to step outside, right now,” I repeated, this time with a firm edge and a hint of my former teacher voice.
She stared at me for a moment, turned, and without another word, made her way through the group of customers and exited the way she had come in.
I glanced at the throng of people waiting for me to direct them to tables. I mumbled an apology to one group. They nodded. No one was smiling. It was as awkward a moment as any I’ve felt on this job in all nine months.
It only took a few moments to assign tables and get everyone seated.
“I’ll go check on the restrooms,” one of the hosts offered. And then I stood alone at my podium.
It was 90-plus degrees today. She was probably really thirsty. Why didn’t I just ask one of the hosts to get a paper cup from the back room and fill it with water?
Because it was crowded and a busy lunch time, and she was going to park at the bar, I’m certain of it. One time I let a guy go to the bar who was questionable in appearance. He turned out to be a little crazy and the bartender asked him to leave. And he asked me to be more careful about letting the local homeless people and panhandlers in.
I was thinking about that guy when I asked her to leave.
Another homeless man once ended up in our restroom, getting past all of us during a lunch crunch. Customers brought him to our attention when he lingered so long in there. The mess he left was horrible to clean up.
I remembered him, too, when I asked her to move along.
At the sister restaurant where I trained, however, a young man clearly down on his luck came in and approached me during the down time between breakfast and lunch. “I have no money to pay you, but I sure would be grateful if I could have a cup of coffee.”
I was taken aback, and uncertain. I was only three days into the job.
A manager overheard the exchange, sized up the situation and responded, “No problem. Have a seat at this table here. We’ll get you some coffee.”
Without hesitation, one of the waiters brought him a mug and small pot of coffee. She poured ice water for him. She asked if he’d like anything else.
He thanked her and said no. And he savored that coffee for a full half hour. Then he left.
I thought about him, too, when I didn’t let her in.
I know–it was busy, she might have caused a scene, she might not have left, she might have felt emboldened to return again and again.
I just wish I had had the presence of mind to fix her up with a cup of ice water.