The last minute customer

September 09, 2008 02:33 pm

I used to waitress at a small nine-table Thai restaurant tacked on to an Ace Hardware store in Volcano Village on the island of Hawaii.

The manager had hired me right after my 18th birthday and it was my first regular job. During an orientation meeting, the chef and owner, a few years from Thailand, dressed me in a woven wrap-around skirt that hovered right over the tops of my feet and significantly restricted my movement. Through the bathroom door, she handed me a fitted blouse made for Thai women, not this Hawaiian girl, and the whole outfit was finished with a sash across my chest and a belt made from overlapping metal pieces that looked like fish scales.

Buckled in to my uniform, I kind of waddled from kitchen to dining room, serving sticky rice and panang curry, laarb and specials made with ong choy. In between orders, the chef would come out, put my hands together in front of my body and teach me to say sawatdee kha to the customers with a slight and feminine bow.

The restaurant was rarely slow. Situated a few minutes from the entrance of Volcanoes National Park, we were one of four eating options in the little village. After the hot dog cart at Ace Hardware was put away at 5 and the Internet cafe shut down after lunch, we were only one of two places to get a bite for dinner.

Working at the restaurant was an exercise in humility and self-control; I had mastered the opposite of both in high school. Smelling the layers of flavors so well done in the chef’s cooking was torture. I was hungry the whole time, detecting the perfectly fried garlic, the warm cashews and coconut milk, the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass in simmering sauces and the toasted ground rice, kao kua.

Most customers were tourists — some dressed in neon-colored caps with flat bills, most with fanny packs, and a few wondering if they could eat the orchids decorating the tables (won’t kill you, but not tasty). Later when I updated my resume, the list of my duties was so long and varied and I realized the work of a waitress was hard and that those choosing the profession, if expecting to be happy, had to keep the benefits in sight.

At around 10 p.m., when the last tables were finishing up, I set to work straightening up the front counter, making sure the till was in order and the menus were wiped down. For the job, I opened the front doors which faced the counter and let the night air in. Every once in a while, a man would pull up in an old somewhat rickety pickup truck, come in and order tom yum talay at the last minute. A styrofoam container of the soup cost $13.95 (very expensive to me at the time) and he usually gave me a twenty and let me keep the change.

He didn’t say much.

I kind of fell in love with him, though, this mysterious working man who ordered the fragrant soup heated with crushed chili peppers and fortified with hearty pieces of mahi mahi, prawns and squid at 10:30 p.m. He never wanted to look at a menu, it was always tom yum talay.

After several months of his orders, I managed to ask him why he liked the soup so much and he said it made him feel good. He thought it kept him healthy and made his immune system strong.

That was the year I counted every wadded dollar. Clinked the coins one on top of each other, to record my tally of earnings in a notebook. That was the year I found out what exhaustion was and the year I started to discover what things were worth to me — my own time spent tied in a sash as a waitress, and the value of watching the moon in the pitch black night on the quiet drive home, on two occasions with a container of tom yum held steady between my knees.