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The lessons you learn

“I’ll have a Glenlivet on the rocks.”

At the time, I didn’t know what Glenlivet was, although moments earlier I’d been assuring my table that we had plenty of it.  At 19 years old, I’d never been in a bar, let alone waitressed in one, and I barely knew a Cosmo from a Martini.  But here I was, five tables deep and keenly aware that my coworkers were wishing desperately that I’d just disappear.  Not that I could blame them - I was wishing the same thing.  I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Glenlivet, I know now, is scotch, and the difference between a Cosmo and a Gin Martini are the alcohols used to make them.  But of the lessons waitressing has taught me, these things - menu items and types of alcohol - are probably the least.      (Although my manager would likely insist that a good knowledge of alcohol is of the upmost importance)  It was last summer that I started my first waitressing job, and in the months since then I’ve learned that every table has something to teach you, whether it’s something seemingly unimportant that will become lost in the broken dishes and rolled silverware by the end of the night or a message that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life, every customer leaves a part of themselves behind with the tip.  

Some, however, teach lessons more important than others.  They leave their mark on the table where they sat, and over time you learn to identify tables by the people who sat there, not by their number in the computer system or their location in the restaurant.  

For me, that table is Rose.  Rose was an older woman who would have lunch at the restaurant every morning.  Always alone.  Often she’d be there before we’d even opened, and every time we’d let her in, not bothering to tell her that we wouldn’t be ope for another half an hour.  

She’d order a rum and coke - something that I think she knew was a guilty pleasure she shouldn’t indulge in anymore but did anyway.  And always a meal.  I never saw her order something small - always a large chicken dish with a salad and whatever the soup of the day was - whether it was cream of mushroom or barbecue chicken and tomato. Or maybe the bruschetta pasta with grilled chicken and an Oreo sundae for dessert - as though this was her treat to herself.  The one time a day that she let herself indulge before getting back on the bus to wherever home was.  

She was lonely, and every day she would tell us about herself.  About the writing classes she’d taken at the local community college just to keep her brain working, and the bus driver that had asked her out.  A family man, she described him as.  One she wanted to introduce us to just as soon as he “shaped up”.  And when it didn’t work out with him, it was us she came to for advice.  She told us about her late husband named Jack (a coincidence that wasn’t lost on her) and how one day, she promised over and over, she’d bring us a photo of him. Somehow though, she always forgot the photo.  Or maybe she just liked talking about him - forgetting the photo meant she didn’t always have to be the one to bring him up because undoubtedly we would ask “where’s that picture of Jack”.  

We would have asked about him anyway.

When Rose came in, we all served her.  She only ever left two dollars for a tip, and that didn’t matter much anyway.  It was the conversation we all enjoyed, and we knew that she’d remember us all - remember the things we’d talked about with her the last time she’d come in, even if she never could get our names straight (to this day, she calls me Haley, and a coworker of mine Kiersten).  

We were her friends.

And of all the things that Rose and I talked about over the months that I worked there, I think that one of the topics which stands out most is that of my education.  Over the summer months, as we got to know one another, Rose learned where I went to school and that I was there as a journalism student, the same thing that she had studied years ago when she’d gone to college.  And when I was home recently over break and I saw Rose, she still remembered me.  She asked about my classes and how my finals had gone.  

Rose never looked like someone you’d expect to have gone to college.  To most people, she talked primarily about her husband and children.  She seemed like a house-wife through and through.  To me though, she talked about her education.  About the job she’d loved, and how much she missed classrooms and text books.  She talked about the classes she’d been taking at the local community college, but they never seemed to live up to her standards.  

I think, of all the things Rose taught me in the short time I’ve known her, this was the most important:  a person is never who you think they are.  Rose had come from South Carolina after her husband died, unable to stay in the house where they’d spent their lives together.  She’d come here and never been understood in the way that Jack had understood her.  I think she told us so much about herself, because she wanted someone to talk to.  She wanted someone to understand how she felt.  

As cliche as it sounds, Rose taught me to never judge a book by its cover.