Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Painful Lessons in Humanity

Note: I’m still working on the Leadville Trail Marathon race report, but in the meantime I offer this short anecdote. Enjoy.

This past week Aspen and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary, and unfortunately most of the events surrounding this commemoration will not be remembered fondly, rather with disgust tempered by resolve. This year’s occasion loosely coincided with the grand opening of a sushi restaurant in Conifer. We had been salivating over the prospect of such an establishment in our own town for months, after years of frequenting various sushi dens throughout metro Denver with no clear favorite (ok, Osaka Sushi is mine). Of course, jamming a piece of raw fish in my mouth at $2 a pop does not sit well with a guy who used to eat an entire meal for that amount, so we only indulge on special occasions and during happy hour when prices are relatively cheap.

This was our Plan B. My tragic Plan A was to surprise Aspen by arranging a candlelight dinner at one of our most favorite Chinese restaurants. The place is a bit of a dive, but the food is great, and the owner always greets us at the door and routinely sends a complimentary glass of wine or dessert to our table. However, I assumed he would only recognize me by face, so I drove to the eatery a few days before the magical date in hopes of presenting him my idea in person. I had called ahead to confirm that he would be there when I arrived, only to find that he was out making deliveries and would return shortly. In the meantime, I sat in the waiting area and chatted with his ten-year-old son, a bashfully friendly kid tending to the few customers dining nearby. I asked him about school and his outside interests as the time whiled away. After about thirty minutes I began to look at my watch, since Aspen would soon be expecting me at home. Around then the conversation drifted to a subject I was not prepared to explore, involving him being physically abused by his father. I fidgeted uncomfortably as the boy matter-of-factly alluded to an incident when his dad punished him as a five-year-old (and this was much more than a spanking). I continued to ask questions, while secretly fearful of their replies, until I could no longer justify the wait. I excused myself and made a hasty retreat to the car. My thoughts raced as I sped home in disbelief. Did I misinterpret the boy’s story? Is this commonplace or even accepted in Chinese culture? Should I say something to someone? For the next few days I struggled with the idea of this man with an outwardly kind and caring demeanor, hiding the soul of a coward. I questioned what would provoke a father to strike his five-year-old son and wondered if I could be capable of carrying out such a shameful act.

That Friday, around 6PM, I pulled into the parking lot at the new sushi place with a half-hour of happy hour to spare. Aspen had just arrived and was relaxing at a table on the patio, while Nick dined on one of his favorite meals of shells and cheese. I noticed two other couples with young children, including one seated at the table next to us with two girls about two and four years old, along with a man who looked to be their grandfather. It was a typical cool summer day in Conifer, and everyone appeared to be relaxed and in great spirits. As Aspen and I have enjoyed some of our deepest discussions at restaurants, I felt comfortable disclosing the events that had unfolded a few days before. The experience had taken its toll on my disposition, and I needed to tell someone. I expected she would then understand why my initial plan fell through. What I didn’t expect was that I would break into tears after relating what I had learned, as if the weight on my conscience had suddenly been lifted. Once I regained my composure, I apologized for my terrible timing, and we talked briefly about it before moving on to another (and more cheerful) subject. I had effectively destroyed the mood, and it was only a glimpse of what was to come.

A teenaged boy filled our water glasses, and I asked him to send out the waiter. Aspen was already enjoying a glass of wine, and I needed some alcohol in my system to temper what had just transpired. We soon became aware that something was amiss with the wait service. First, we were informed that the happy hour prices would not take effect for another few weeks. My beer showed up about fifteen minutes later, and we weren’t able to place our food order until we had been seated for about thirty. We both chalked it up to ‘working the kinks out on opening day’ and made the best of it by entertaining Nick and eavesdropping on the other patrons dining on the patio. It was obvious that the mother of the two girls at the table next to us was becoming increasingly irritated as time wore on. Eventually, I sensed the same frustration in a few of the other customers, as the wait staff continued to bungle orders and make repeated apologies for the delays in the kitchen. After about an hour, the waiter brought out a portion of our meal. His hands were visibly shaking from the verbal onslaught of disgruntled diners. Then the manager made an appearance to reassure a couple that they would shortly receive their meal, offering to comp their drinks. The grandfather stood up and muttered something about ‘going to the kitchen to see what’s taking so long’ and disappeared. The father of a family seated behind me held out a plate of sushi and proclaimed loudly that he didn’t order it and anyone was welcome to it.

By now, it was getting past Nick’s bedtime, and we were struggling to keep him entertained, allowing him to splash his hands in our glasses of water and taking him on short excursions away from the patio. The woman next to us was getting more vocal in her displeasure with the service and took every opportunity to justify it to all within earshot. Her behavior was making Aspen visibly upset. We looked at each other, and I said calmly, ‘Let’s go.’ The waiter passed by as we gathered our things, and I politely explained to him that we hadn’t received our entire order but needed to get our son home to bed. Aspen offered him some words of encouragement as she signed the credit card slip, and we stood to exit the restaurant. Against my nature, I dealt some parting words to the obnoxious woman:

‘It’s only a meal.’

She sat there in disbelief as I repeated myself, and then some. 'It’s only a meal. It’s not worth embarrassing yourself’. The waiter was standing next to the table, and his eyes grew large as I unleashed my brief but pointed reminder. Not to be outdone, the woman replied with some fallacious statement about us leaving because we received our order before anyone else. I had already said my peace, so her counterattack was fruitless.

As we walked to the car, I noticed that Aspen was in tears. I drew close to console her, underestimating the impact this woman had made. Sobbing, she exclaimed, ‘I’m so glad we’re not like that.’

‘Me too, Babe. Me too.’


David Ray said...

Definitely makes you appreciate what you have.

And that alone can make the experience worthwhile.

Happy Anniversary! I've got one coming up at the end of the month. #27.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Okay, that was intense. Good writing. Worth delaying an already late bedtime. Sorry it was not the optimal meal for the occasion, but you guys have your priorities straight. Happy belated anniversary.