He was the best of customers until he became one of the worst.
He’s always been a pot stirrer, but it never directly affected me, until it did. And when it did, the slop he stirred spilled over the edge and seeped beyond my bar to the outer edges of this very small town. His perception of disrespect by other customers at my bar by was suddenly all my fault, simply because I was nice to everyone; because I served everyone, equally. Because I told him in a very firm bartender-to-man kind of way to quit the crap that was driving away my business and setting a tense tone at my bar. Stop, I told him. Now.
His mediocre tips stopped at that moment, but for weeks he still came in and drank for hours. Soon, the whispered comments about me to other patrons increased in direct measure to the amount of tips he no longer left. I was aligned with “them,” he regaled to all who would listen, whomever the perceived “them” were. Soon, my great guy was being told what a terrible person I was–the lowest of the low–all while trying to earn his living at his job that is located miles away from where the pot-stirrer said my transgressions against him had played out.
“Was my service okay tonight?” I would ask him as he left my bar night after night, leaving nothing to thank me for his fresh mugs of ice-cold drafts.
“Just fine,” he’d smile, puffed up and proud. Yeah, you are sure showing me, I would think to myself, adding to myself, what a piece of crap you are.
I stopped serving him in a timely fashion. I re-used his warm mug rather than give him a fresh one. I let his ashtray fill. I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to him or his wife or his pals who questioned their tab totals, other’s drink orders, or how fast I was getting to customers across the bar who couldn’t have cared less about the pot-stirrer and his cloned pieces-of-crap friends.
Last Friday, as I dreaded work and serving the pot-stirrer and all the rest who made me want to scream in frustration and embarrassment that he and they had finally gotten to me, “Don’t you all get it that this is so unbelievably unimportant in the grand scheme of any of our lives, despite how you’ve made it feel very important?” I came to a strange conclusion.
I will be myself, I told myself. I will serve him and them as I used to, as if nothing at all has happened in the month. And no matter what, I willed myself, I will not care how he responds.
I chatted him up about horse racing, college football, the odds of numbers being chosen in a lottery–all the while pouring him his drafts in fresh mugs and emptying his ashtray. I complimented his wife. I smiled, really smiled, at his friends.
I take no credit for the positive response he gave me. I think he, too, had had enough. Or figured out, finally, that I wasn’t his enemy. Or played the ponies and won big. It matters not. He responded in kind, as if nothing had ever happened.
Until the end of the night, when he tipped me double his usual amount when he was tipping me, and paused before he left.
“RG,” he said, beckoning me toward him. As I stood in the service bar area, he took a huge step toward me and wrapped me in a hug any bear would have considered too tight.
“Thank you,” he murmured. “Thank you.”
One of the few women friends I had in the Keys suddenly stopped being a friend many months ago. This pained me; this hurt me more than I wanted to admit. This made my small-town world of work and more work with no time off to relax that much smaller. That much emptier.
“I don’t need women friends in the Keys,” I would tell my great guy. “I have plenty up north who are the best of the best. They have spoiled me, because no one here can compare in unconditional loyalty.”
“She’ll come around,” my great guy would always say. He was still good friends with her fiance, and my rift was not his. My loss of a friend who seemed like one of the best seemed more like a shrug of shoulders to my great guy. But then, sometimes that’s how guys see things. Even when they are the greatest of guys.
Oh, how I missed my almost-best-Keys girlfriend. How I missed her intelligence, her work ethic, her humor, her ability to “get” me, as much as I “got” her. How I missed having a peer in this South Florida miasma for the first time in three years.
It’s funny, I can write more about the details of a customer who disappointed me than I can about this once potential great friend. It’s hard, it turns out, to put into words how hurt you can feel by the hurt hurled at you by one who matters. It hurts to your core, which you try to ignore by rationalizing that this is just another Keys idiot who fooled you.
Last night, my great guy and I both got off early. We both made more money than we ever expected on a random Thursday night in off season. We decided to take ourselves out “for one” at a local bar we both love.
When we walked in, I saw them–my great guy’s pal and my almost best Keys girlfriend. Would she do her usual thing and not talk to me? Would she do her other usual thing and leave the moment she saw me?
I don’t know why, because I certainly didn’t really feel this way, but I turned to my great guy and said, “I’m pretending all is okay.”
My almost best Keys girlfriend is moving out of the Keys in a week. “How’s packing coming along?” I smiled. “I would be in deep denial until the last minute, if I were you,” I laughed.
And for the next three hours we talked and talked and laughed and laughed, even as our respective great guys drank one or two drinks too many to give us both the time to talk for real for the first time in many months.
Oh, to feel her hug at the end of the night.
A lifetime ago, I went to church on a regular basis. At one point in every service, a “handshake of peace” was expected to be extended to those next to us, perfect strangers though they/we may be.
Now I get what that handshake meant. It had nothing to do with hands clasped. It had everything to do with letting go, with trust and faith in your heart.