I moonlight as a server/waiter at a local restaurant. One of the perks to the job is that I get to converse with a broader swath of my fellow man than I would otherwise in my own circles.
The other night , I was taken to school by one woman of a different circle than i am used to. She came in with five others, most of them older- pushing 80. If it wasn't immediately apparent from the embroidered vests and personalized cuff links, a little eavesdropping made it clear these people were upper crust, old money aristocrats- ivy league graduating, charity board sitting, 5th Ave. shopping aristocrats- and definitely in their twilight. Their individual expressions of this status varied among them. But I think that coming of age in the post WW2 era, there were distinct roles for men and women. The men were a bit more loosey-goosey in attire and sense of humor, while the women asserted an kind of iron fisted self-certainty.
All was more or less going according to plan with their ordering of cocktails and dinner. They got their appetizers, and after a few minutes I could see that most of them were done, but one woman still had a half bowl of soup in front of her and I couldn't judge if she was finished or was just taking her time, so I asked, "Are you still working on your soup?" She made a gesture towards my wrist with her hand, not a grab, but a kind of gentle but firm kind of motion and said, "No... I am eating my soup... Don't say, 'Are you working on your soup,' I am eating my soup." I heard one of the men a the table begin to interject, 'oh come on now...' to quell her admonishment, but I immediately said, "You're right. You are right. I appreciate your point." No one made anything of it, I began clearing plates and they went on with their conversation.
My reaction was really rooted in my own sense of what it means to bring professionalism to the job of waiting tables. It has to do with sensing the mood, motives, tastes and dispositions of any given customer (short of some extreme case scenarios) and essentially countering them with whatever would best bring them pleasure and calm. Where there is Yang, I serve Yin, where there is Yin, a dash of Yang.... It strikes me as a kind of art that finds expression in this rather simplistic server/customer dynamic. But in this moment, another voice in the back of my head began to deconstruct this woman's psyche. How her sense of social superiority has over the years nurtured the audacity to be so condescending without hesitation or equivocation, and from that, the neo-intellectual-progressive-egalitarian retort I could have issued. But I had another thought too- the image of an old woman, with her arthritic fingers, engineering a lump of nutritional matter into her moist, feeding orifice, bile, saliva, mucuses churning through her aging, though still essentially functional, digestive system, to finally be expelled into a Clorox-dappled toilet bowl a few hours later- and I thought, yes, "working on your soup," brings us there, in some corner of our mind. And this is why we eat our food rather than work on it. If food was synonymous with an object of labor, rather than an object of pleasure and satisfaction, then the notion of selling food of a higher quality at a higher price is lost. This woman had obviously spent a lifetime affirming this fact through her choices of where to eat, and this was why she choose to eat the food I was serving her, and not the nasty Mexican food next door, and so I stood socially and intellectually corrected. But my response must have kept peace among the titans governing this meal, as evidenced in the fact that the party left contented, offering praise of the restaurant, and they tipped quite well on a very large bill. And the whole thing affirmed the fact that I like the job- with so very little to lose on my end.