She always takes a spring break, and always at the height of season when throngs of college kids and families and everyone else in between vies for a coveted spot on the soft white SoFla sand.
“I don’t know why I still take a vacation in March,” she said on day two of her stay. I had served her breakfast two mornings in a row, and now, on the third, I considered her my regular. “It’s not like I’m on anyone’s schedule at my age,” she laughed.
I don’t have regulars much anymore–not the kind of regulars I used to see day upon day in the Keys, knowing them well enough to mix their drinks when I saw their car pull in to the parking lot, and knowing just by the way they walked through the front door whether or not to cajole or let be.
Working in a hotel as a server means fleeting good mornings during an always harried breakfast service. If I am lucky enough to make any kind of connection with my guests, they may or may not request my section the next day, because it is, after all, simply breakfast–a meal that at most is a means to an end of sleepiness, and at the least, a necessary hurdle in order to spend the rest of the day at the beach.
And, let’s face it, no one lives at my hotel. I have an average of three to five days to remember cream or no cream with the coffee and scrambled eggs with a side of crisp bacon. Which wouldn’t be difficult to remember, except I serve so many people in a given morning, and there’s only so many derivations of eggs and creamer.
“I guess it’s like a summer vacation,” my new regular continued. “Hard to shake the idea of summers off when your school days are over and you have a real job,” she continued as I poured her a second cup of coffee. “For me, it’s spring break. Can’t not take it,” she shrugged.
“What are you up to today?”I asked my new regular. She was traveling alone, I knew, but that was about all I knew.
“Oh, I’m not sure,” she replied, almost absently, and a sudden silence ensued, during which she pushed back an imaginary stray strand of her cropped gray hair and stirred a second sugar into her steaming coffee. “What would you do?” she asked, suddenly looking right up at me.
With free time? An actual full day off to do anything I wanted to do and not include laundry and grocery shopping and cleaning toilets in the mix? Haven’t experienced that since I moved back from the Keys. And while I am not complaining about this–because season is season, and money has to be made in season to cover the dry spells that always slither their way into your bank account come August and September–I found myself unable to answer my new regular, because I honestly couldn’t remember what it was like to have an entire day stretch freely for hours with only fun choices to consider to fill the time.
“I, um, well, I…” I stammered like the village idiot.
“Oh come on now,” she scolded me. “What do you like to do the most in your free time?”
“Oh well, I mean I like to write and take photographs…”
“I’m not interviewing you about your hobbies young lady,” she laughed–at me. “I’m asking you what would you do if you were me and had the day off to do exactly what you would like to do.”
I knew I had food up in the kitchen for one of my three other tables. I knew table 121 needed more hot water for their tea. I also knew, for the moment, they’d have to wait another moment.
“I’d go to Gulfstream Park and stand at the rail and watch the ponies,” I smiled. “I’d watch a pre-race parade, see which jockey looked tense, and then I might–might–toss a two-dollar bet on a horse whose name was something impossibly girlie, like Diamonds Desire or Rose’s Dream or something.”
Because a wonderful regular of mine in the Keys loved the ponies, and he promised he would take me to Gulfstream Park some time,”When we can do it up right, get dressed up, and go out to a nice dinner after the races.” He had been a wheeler and dealer in something in his day, a day long ago enough to make him old enough to be my father, and he always said as I poured him his CC Manhattan, “If I were 20 years younger…”
The first time my great guy and I went to Gulstream after we moved back from the Keys, we called him, much to his shock and surprise, and told him where we were and asked him for a hot tip.
“Oh, sweetie,” he said, “I’m not watching the races much these days. But I cannot thank you enough for calling me. For thinking of me. Have fun.”
“Do they have a casino there, too?” asked my new regular.
What? I thought, remembering my beloved horsehead, as we called him and his buddies.
“Casino? Lots of tracks have them attached,” said my new regular.
“Oh, yes. Yes,” I laughed, thinking about how my great guy had to drag me out of the casino when I was up $25. “It’s not huge, but it’s so much fun. Less crazy than the Hard Rock.” Where I might have been known to play Love Bug and Sex in the City more than a few times after a tasty mojito at Murphy’s Law and a show at the Improv.
“Good!” she exclaimed. “Tell me how to get there. I like to play the slots, and I’ll bet a horse for you.”
Well, okay then.
On day four of her stay, my regular arrived a half hour before sunrise and 10 minutes before we opened–a full two hours earlier than she normally ate breakfast. I was still setting up my section when she stood in front of me, the hostess gesturing “Sorry!” toward me from behind her.
“I know I’m early, but I didn’t want to miss sunrise,” she said a little breathlessly.
“No problem,” I told her, gesturing toward a front row seat for sunrise in my half-set section. “Sit here and I’ll bring you some coffee. Just give us a few minutes before I can take your order.”
My new regular sat quietly sipping her coffee while I polished knives and steamed juice glasses at the tables adjacent to her.
“I was going to bring my grandson here next year for spring break,” she suddenly said.
“Oh, that would be great!” I said a tad absently. I was behind in my sidework and we opened in 15 minutes. “I’d love to meet him.”
“But I got some bad news yesterday about a medical test I had before I left home,” she said, gazing out at the ocean and the pink clouds that hinted at the imminent arrival of the the orange disk on the watery horizon. “So maybe not.”
I paused in my mindless setting up.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling as inane as that phrase is in such circumstances.
She looked down at her coffee, then up at me.
“I’m not, so you shouldn’t be,” she said, stirring her coffee long after the sugar had dissolved.
“I got up this morning to see the sun rise over the ocean. How many people get to do that?” she asked.
I do, six mornings out of seven, and I appreciate it as much as I resent the fatigue that makes it all mine to watch day after day.
“The way I figure it,” she continued, “If I am up before sunrise, I have that much longer of a day. So it’s sunrise for me from now on.”
Oh geez. Okay to that,too.
“And before I forget,” my new regular with a new appreciation for sunrise smiled at me, “This is for you.”
She handed me a thick wad of fives and ones.
“I won this on a high odds loser who turned out to be a winner,” she laughed. “It’s all yours.”
“Thank you,” I said, awkwardly shoving the bills in my apron pocket. “Did you have fun, I mean, you know…”
“My dear, I had a wonderful day. I did exactly as you would do. And now I want to enjoy sunrise over the ocean on my last vacation day.” With that, she turned her back to me and toward the ocean.
I can only wish my new regular many more spring breaks and to hell with the tests. I hope she enjoys next year’s spring break with her grandson. I hope I remember to watch my six sunrises a week over the ocean for what they are worth–a longer day to live it all.
On a day when I heard my beloved horsehead had passed away before I could call him one more time, I will toast each and every sunrise that I hope never to take for granted again, and remember the rare regular who, for such a brief time, transcends the everyday server/bartender-guest relationship and suddenly seems like a friend too precious to lose.