compassion switch

This weekend I accompanied Rodney to meet his long lost cousins at a not otherwise notable restaurant near Lincoln Center. Very few options for food in that area at midnight; my expectations were low. Famished, we walked in and stood with that vacant look on our faces that says as loudly as possible that we’d like to be seated. We were approached by a small, odd-looking middle-aged gentleman in restaurant uniform. He spoke with a mild stutter and it required more effort than normal to explain to him that we wanted a table for seven, but I was focused on the menus we had ferociously grabbed off the counter. At that moment, the closest we could get to eating was reviewing the menu, imagining what each dish would taste like. This was surprisingly satisfying; I would rate it just below savoring the aroma of something delicious on the list of things almost as satisfying as eating when you’re very hungry.

Anyway, regarding the middle aged, stuttering, mildly dense guy, with what little of my attention wasn’t occupied by menu porn, I figured he was drunk or distracted. We sat down, and I was surrounded by people I didn’t know but was expected to talk to. An overly bubbly dominican girl started chatting with me, and I remember looking at her and being unable to focus on the conversation out of hunger: as she spoke, she turned into a steak, like in those bugs bunny cartoons when two castaways are stranded on a desert island.

Finally a very thin, mildly disheveled lady in her fifties approached and asked us if she could take our drink orders. I replied that I would like a shrimp quesadilla and a steak and cheese sandwich. Not a drink, for sure, but she looked at me as though I was speaking an exotic language. Now, with the hunger and all, I’m starting to get frustrated. As if I hadn’t said anything, she asks the table again if she can take our drink orders. Other people start ordering drinks, and she starts writing them down, but it’s taking her two and three tries for every order, I wonder if she’s reading lips or something and also wonder if I’m going perish before I get any food. Ultimately she serves the drinks and I ask her if I can order food, and it took a few moments but, yes I can. I again request a shrimp quesadilla and a steak and cheese sandwich, no tomato. She doesn’t get it. I look at Rodney, what on earth is going on. I point on the menu and raise my voice, she’s slowly beginning to comprehend but not fast enough for my appetite which now dominates all other emotion and reason. After what seemed like 45 minutes she gets my order down on her pad, and I’m incredibly annoyed, almost angry.

Rodney’s turn to order, and he’s straining to get the message across as well, what the fuck is wrong with this woman? Fortunately Rodney works with at-risk teenagers and is able to relate to her better, but still, his gorgeous locks of hair have lost their usual bounce – an early sign of patience being stretched. After she finishes with Rodney, she turns back to me, stares at me for a second, as if trying to remember something, and then asks me if she can take my order, and I am struck with a realization so thick and heavy that I might have just done a belly-flop off the high dive, the wind actually knocked out of me. This woman is mentally disabled, and so is the stuttering dude. This restaurant hires mentally disabled workers.

It took a few moments for the concept to sink in, but what happened next was even more remarkable: every thread of frustration evaporated. Instantly. In a matter of seconds I was living in an entirely different brain. Her incompetence didn’t bother me in the slightest; in fact her inadequacies as a server, which I was just enumerating in my head for a letter to the manager I was possibly going to a write, suddenly seemed like virtues. 20 minutes to process the word quesadilla? Fine. Not just fine, amazing. This disabled woman was doing a job that fully functional people find challenging. And the owner of the restaurant, who hires these people? God damn hero. I no longer cared when or if I got my food. In the end I left a generous tip.

I have encounters every day with people who frustrate me. For my work, I am charged with helping people deal with problems they often brought on themselves through vice and shortsightedness, and it is precisely these people who are the least grateful for my help and often frankly hostile, even when I’m trying hard to be nice. And sometimes it is really hard for me to be nice. Why can’t I harness the compassion switch that flipped in that restaurant? Take the compassion I felt for quesadilla lady and apply it to the world at large? Everyone’s disabled in their own way, right? Is this how jesus felt? Endless compassion? What a guy.

While our waitress was away working on our drink orders, Rodney, who lives in Montreal, flagged down the stuttering dude and pointed to soup du jour on the menu. What is the soup du jour, he asked. Stuttering dude looked at him and assumed a face that said, oh good, I can answer that question. In his most helpful voice, he replied, “It’s the soup of the day.”

Leave a Reply