October 26, 2007

Strange Days…..

Category: News — admin @ 7:08 pm

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“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.
Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what
it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it
wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
—Alice in “Alice in Wonderland”
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These are strange days. The fractured splinters of existence plunge and roll along in two dimensions. In the normal one, life proceeds; I go to work, where we are in the middle of a very busy fall run. The blazing colors, the chilly nights of fall, my favorite of the seasons. I am immersed in football, the World Series, planning one more fall hike, all the daily things I look forward to and enjoy. Life is good.

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The second dimension, a bleak landscape shimmering in the black haze of threatening skies. It never stops. Bizarre and extraordinary things unfold as a matter of course to the point where they are ordinary and expected. One waits for the next explosion, the next eruption, the next blow to the pit of the stomach. It always comes, and the shock of the last one recedes into the distance of yesterday or last week or last month. I wit-ness unhinged and irrational behavior, bordering on madness. With no visible regard for any consequences. It is a crumpled, confused world of opposites, a fragmented false reality: down is up, west is east, wrong is right, and night is day. Weak is strong. And death is life, in this life.

In the aftermath of the latest events that have unfolded, some have prayed to the Lord to open eyes that cannot see. I have not and will not. Those who have deliberately chosen not to see will walk into the destructive consequences of their choices. To them, darkness is light. And light darkness.

They who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. God is not mocked. I believe that. I also believe the present whirlwind in my own life may well be the result of my own sowing the wind on the long trail of a checkered past. Who can say? Lord knows I have done plenty of that. Sowing the wind, I mean. In most separations, there are no adult innocents. And ours is no different than most.

A lot of crap has come rolling down the pike in the last few months. Some of it is known, and some unknown. Some has passed and some comes soon to fruition. And some, I’m sure, will emerge from the sulfuric darkness of the second dimension in the near future. All of it will be “proclaimed from the rooftop” into the light of day on this blog in due time.

These are trying times. But not unusual. Such things have been with us always. It’s just unusual in that it happened to happen to me and others close to me. And I don’t want to hear any blather about how we can all use this situation as an example of the falling away of the end times. We can’t. Pious end-time platitudes do not apply. (I consider end-time teachers to be false prophets anyway.) We can view these strange days as an example of the vile and fallen condition of the human heart. That is all.

These are uncharted waters. For those involved and the extended families. And there ain’t no instruction manual. Overall, I am doing remarkably well emotionally. My mental status remains amazingly stable and calm. The thought flits through my mind that I may be in shock and will at some point erupt into madness and rage. But I think not. So much has transpired over the last ten months that little jolts me anymore. The defenses are up, the flaming arrows pierce but do not penetrate an invisible shield. Below that shield, I stolidly proceed with the remains of the day. And the remains of my life.

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In the current situation, I almost feel worse for my family than for myself. My siblings and their children view the unfolding events with horror, mostly from a distance. They almost cannot comprehend or process the brutal reality of what is happening. They think it cannot be. As do many others.

But it can be. And is. And will be, apparently.

They hurt for me. I feel it from those nearby. And from those afar. And I appreciate it. A lot. To them I say, “Thanks and I love you. I’ll be there when it rains on you.” In battles of this nature, the participants cannot pass off their burdens to others, regard-less of others’ willingness to take them on. The battle must be faced alone, by those involved. However brutal the terrain, however long the duration. Whatever the cost.

Battles have collateral damage. At the very center, in the eye of the hurricane, two families. Then four extended families. Then those around them, including members of a little church nestled at the top of the hill in Gap, PA. The church house is probably a hundred years old. What has all transpired inside those walls over the course of years has been lost in the fog of history. The church sat vacant for many years. Then a hopeful, optimistic little group began a new church. It was considered a bit out-there by the surrounding conservative communities. But it prospered and blossomed.

But, unknown to anyone, part of the foundation was infirm and rotting from the start. Earlier this year, the optimistic little group took a direct and devastating hit. The con-gregation exploded. Many left. A shaken core hangs on. The remaining leadership has endured a lot of heat. Fairly or unfairly. Although decisions were made that I did not understand, I did not criticize. Monday morning quarterbacking, so easy in retrospect, benefits no one. Then or now. I believe the leaders did the best they knew with what they knew, at the time they knew it. Including some pretty heavy decisions this past week. But twisted piles of wreckage mar the landscape. Collateral damage. From demonic warfare. Now wicked realms rejoice.

As I walk the fields of my memories as a child, there was one who was present from my earliest recollections. One who was always there, somewhere, in every facet of my development from childhood to young adulthood to the present years. One I trusted, one who I had not the slightest doubt would be there always, until death. It was not to be. Now those fields are shorn and vacant, swept by desolate winds, the memories shattered and defiled. I know him not at all and wonder if I ever did. And that jolts the core of who I am.

One day, soon, I will curse him. Before God. Right here, on this site.

These are strange days. An evil pulse throbs and resonates below the surface. I con-sider and absorb many things. I am not afraid, but there are crevices in my mind I have refused to enter or examine. It hurts too much. It’s a bitter harvest, reaping the whirlwind. It’s a heart blown to smithereens in the vast and barren infinity of the second dimension.

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This site was down several times this week. I apologize. Occasionally, the site just disappears for no discernable reason. My webmaster says it’s for maintenance. Of course, when it goes down, it’s always in the evening, right when site traffic reaches its very peak. I would think the maintenance could be done at 3AM instead of prime time.

Well, the Red Sox made it. For any who care to check (9/21 blog), I predicted they would reach and win the World Series. Of course, the other team I picked, the Mets, promptly choked and crashed. I felt bad for Cleveland and actually was hoping they would get to the Series, but the Sox pitching just overwhelmed them when it counted, especially Josh Beckett in Game 5. And now, in the Series, the scrappy Rockies are suddenly down 0-2. I kind of feel bad for them; they made a great run to get there. But it’s not over until it’s over.

In college football this weekend, I will grit my teeth and cheer for Ohio State against Penn State. Both fan bases are pretty obnoxious, almost equally so. But I so despise Penn State that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But just this one night. After that, I will go back to booing Jim Tressel and his team as usual. Just like I did in last year’s championship game against Florida State, in which the Buckeyes were badly kicked about and soundly beaten. It was a sweet and joyful night.

I have not hiked for more than two months. Now with the fall colors, I plan to take one more loop around the Tucquan Glen trail, maybe as early as this Sunday. If the rain stops. This late in the year, I won’t have to worry about Lyme’s disease, and if I hike on a Sunday, the hunters either. In PA, it’s illegal to hunt on Sunday.

Jason requested a definition of “regressively conservative.” While I have not been around the little church I defined as such for many years, I remember that when I left in the early 1990s, a lot of families were joining from Amish or other plainer settings. These people tended to drag with them certain severe practices, ie galluses, long beards, etc. Even some little black hats. Unfortunately (in my opinion), they influenced the church in a plainer direction, which I resented. I recall grim somber faces (but few names), little humor, and much talk about the virtues of serving soup instead of fancy meals to Sunday dinner guests. As if that will make one holier. (Not that there’s any-thing wrong with soup. I eat as much as the next guy.) Once I was admonished that the red shirt I was wearing was too loud, and therefore sinful. If that isn’t regressively conservative, I don’t know what it is. All that said, I don’t know if that condition remains in that church today. I have no beefs with anyone there and wish them well.

Special thanks to Ray and Maggie (my sister) Marner for the box of healthy goodies.

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October 19, 2007

A Waiter’s Tales

Category: News — admin @ 7:14 pm

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“A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter,
is not a nice person.”
—Dave Barry
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In 1989, my life was in a state of flux and turbulent transition. The year before, I had broken away for the final time from the Amish church, and moved from Goshen, Indiana south to Daviess County. There I became a proving member of the regres-sively conservative Mt. Olive Mennonite Church (which in and of itself could provide a few stories, and probably will some day).

In the summer of 1989, I loaded up my trusty little tan/gold (what an awful color) T-Bird and headed for the greener pastures of Lancaster County, PA. There I worked long 12-hour days in the dust and heat, doing construction work for wages far superior to any I could earn in Daviess County.

At summer’s end, I reloaded my trusty car and trundled back to Daviess to start college classes at Vincennes University. I had just turned 28 years old. About ten years behind the average student, I figured.

When I arrived, Daviess County was buzzing with a great deal of gossip and specu-lation. A group of visionary investors had just opened huge new restaurant complex on the outskirts of Montgomery. Named The Gasthof, it featured Amish-style cooking and had a large gift shop. One of my friends told me they were still hiring servers. Waiting on tables was something I’d often considered, but never done. Now, as a full-time student, I definitely needed some cash flow. Intrigued, I decided to apply.

I walked in one afternoon. The place was simply breathtaking in its vastness. Rough timber-framed with wooden pegs. Post and Beam throughout. Seating space for several hundred diners. Two banquet rooms, including one on the second floor. And the aforementioned gift shop. After ogling the place, I inquired about a job and met with Gene and Mable Bontrager, the managers. We hit it off right away. I was hired on the spot for Friday and Saturday evenings. Wear a white shirt and black pants and black shoes. Come Tuesday evening for training and orientation. Half the minimum hourly wage plus tips. And so began my career as a waiter, one that I would follow through four years of college.

At the Gasthof, I usually arrived and clocked in at 4 PM. The place closed at nine. Dur-ing the first hour or so, things were usually slow. We paced nervously. Where were the customers? We needed work. And tips. Between 5 and 6 PM, the flood gates opened. Suddenly the place was swarming. No more nervous pacing. Hammer down, all night. The next four hours were a frantic race to keep up, to feed as many people as possible and get them back out the door, fat and happy. I could never figure out where all the people came from. This wasn’t Lancaster County. Not that there was much time to consider such esoteric questions. A typical waiter or waitress was responsible for five to seven tables. I took to the work quite naturally and quickly rose to become one of the most productive and favored waiters on staff. A good night netted anywhere from $80.00 to $110.00 in tips. For four or five hours of work, that’s not bad wages. Espec-ially in 1989.

A server has one responsibility: make the dining experience as relaxed and enjoyable as possible for the customer. And smooth as possible. The better you can do that, the better the tip. Well, not always, but as a rule. Be unobtrusive but available. Does the customer want conversation? If so, converse. If not, fade back and respect privacy. Don’t interrupt too often. Keep your eyes on your customers. I often stood leaning against a wall, seemingly doing nothing, but scanning my tables constantly for the slightest sign a customer needed me. And responded instantly. Refill drinks and coffee without being asked. Remove dishes when done. Smile, regardless of the situation, no matter how rude the customer. Thank them when they are leaving. Invite them back. Pick up the change they leave and slip it into your apron. Don’t act too eager doing it; your other customers are watching.

At The Gasthof, the servers developed a real rapport with each other. There were a few other male servers, but most were waitresses, high school and college girls. I listened to more dating problems and discussions about guys (from the girls’ perspect-ive) than I could have imagined possible. Breakups. Pursuits. Fights. I heard it all in excruciating detail. By remaining quiet and emitting an occasional sympathetic grunt, I soon developed a reputation of being quite wise. And so I heard even more problems. A sympathetic ear with an occasional sympathetic grunt multiplies exponentially what you hear, believe me. But it was all good. The experience, I mean. Not the problems. Often after hours, we’d go out for pizza or meet at someone’s house just to hang out. And swap tales from the battlefield.

The Gasthof had some launching and growing pains during its first year, and in the ensuing turmoil, Gene and Mable Bontrager were abruptly and rudely dismissed. The loyal wait staff, which universally respected and loved them both, stirred with revolt. At the meeting where their dismissal was announced, I was elected to ask some of the hard questions. The staff fumed and stewed. But somehow the management held us together. All of us stayed. In coming months, we often looked back and reminisced fondly on the Bontragers’ brief tenure. They were good people. And they got a raw deal.

After the Bontragers, we had a slew of unsuccessful managers. Each one came in, was received suspiciously by the staff, and was gone within a few months. One such mus-tachioed shyster, I forget his name, turned out to have an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He was led unceremoniously from the restaurant in handcuffs by state cops one day. I wasn’t there to see it, but heard all the juicy details on my next shift. We never saw him again. He may still be locked up, for all I know. Another manager, an older guy named Tom, was brusque but efficient. He constantly scolded the girls, and more than once I stood up to him on their behalf. But he taught me one thing. After one shift, as we were getting ready to leave, right in front of my co-workers, he barked, “Ira, wear a T-shirt under that white shirt.” I was embarrassed, but learned something I never forgot. No one had ever told me before.

The Gasthof had many Amish workers and servers. And many Amish customers. At that time, and it may have changed by now, most Amish customers did not tip. So if you got a table full of Amish, you simply counted it off as a loss. And told the hostess you’d had your turn for the round. Once, for breakfast, one waitress served a table of ten or so Amish customers. As they were leaving, she saw no one had left anything. Then one little old Amish man came limping back, beaming, and thanked her for her service. She held her breath. Would this be the exception? With a grand flourish, he handed her a quarter. Beaming with good will. She stammered an astounded thank-you. It was not an insult, they simply didn’t know to tip. They paid for the food and probably felt that was costly enough. But that was fifteen years ago; it may be different now.

One busy Saturday evening, the hostess hunted me down in a panic. She pointed out a trio of sour old ladies who had been overlooked unintentionally for more than half an hour. They were mad. And the waitress who had that table was afraid to approach them. Would I serve them? What could I say? Sure. I approached. They sat stonily like a trio of grim judges. I apologized for the delay and asked if they were ready for some good food.

“We don’t know if it will be good,” the oldest one snapped. She was rotund and wore wire-rimmed glasses. “We haven’t tasted the food yet and the service so far has been terrible.” The others sniffed in disdainful agreement.

Undeterred, young and idealistic and full of energy and good will and that would be difficult to summon now, I decided to accept their outraged grumpiness as a personal challenge. And so I gave them the most perfect service of which I was capable. Even though the evening was extremely busy, I hovered. I made sure their drinks were always filled. The food served hot. I gave them free deserts because of the earlier mix-up. Slowly they softened. The grumpiest old lady with the wire-rimmed glasses even smiled a time or two. After they left, the waitress who had originally been re-sponsible to serve them almost collapsed in gratitude. I found two shiny quarters on the table. I consider that tip among my most memorable ever. From an insurmount-able negative to a positive two quarters. You take what you can get.

In 1991, after graduating from Vincennes, I transferred to Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. Before I left Daviess County, the Gasthof crew held a good-bye party for me one Sunday afternoon. Most of those present I have not seen since that day. My trusty and aging T-Bird got me back to Lancaster County to work for the summer. I traveled to Greenville a few months before classes began to tour the University and line up a job. I walked into the local IHOP just a few blocks from campus. The owner met with me and promised a job when I returned in August.

In August, after registering for my classes, I returned to the IHOP to claim my promis-ed job. The owner met with me at a table. He acted somber. He had no openings. And no job. I stared at him. No job? But you promised. He could not look me in the eye. “Tell you what, why don’t you enjoy that coffee? It’s on the house today,” he said, and fled. I seethed and simmered, shook the dust from my shoes as I left, and never returned. I boycott IHOP to this day.

I then began the brutal process of walking into local restaurants, asking for a job. At about the third one, Swensen’s Ice Cream Gazebo, I was welcomed by the manager. He told me I could start that weekend. The place was not The Gasthof, but it was something.

Swensen’s was comparable to Friendly’s Restaurants, a well-known chain of ice cream eateries. It had high quality ice cream and a sandwich menu. A different clientele from The Gasthof, that’s for sure. The manager, Rusty, was a local Redneck who claimed to bleed orange for the Clemson football team. He was a good-hearted and simple man. He also claimed to have a brother named Billy Bob, but I never met him.

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With Rusty, the Redneck manager

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Outside Swensen’s at night

At Swensen’s, we had a saying that pretty well held true, “If the people at the table pray before eating, there goes your tip.” Not always true, but generally. Some such people left a small tip. Some left a tract printed like a fake $50.00. Or worse, a fake $100.00. A very few left a good tip. Most left nothing. And we served many large groups like that. Usually, much swearing ensued after their departure. All the tracts were instantly thrown into the trash can.

Once, a young mother brought in her three young children for ice cream. I waited on her and took her orders, ice cream for each child. About that time, the children started fussing and scrapping with each other. She firmly told them once, then twice, to settle down. They did not, but continued whacking each other. One started crying. She called me back to the table, apologized quietly and asked me to cancel the order. She then took her children and left. Just like that. I was impressed. Most mothers would have urged me to hurry up with the ice cream so the children shut up. I never forgot her. I’ll bet her children never forgot that lesson. I’ll also bet that today they are well-adjusted, mannerly adults.

Rusty the Redneck manager loved to lurk about and watch his servers work. He knew what was going on. He dubbed me and another BJU student, both squeakily clean-cut and above reproach, his Apostles.

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The Apostles; From L, Dave Bell and Ira. Spring, 1992

Once, while serving a table of young urban coffee drinkers, a full cup of coffee slipped out of my hand and crashed onto the table. The coffee splashed and splattered all over, a good deal of it landing on the person I was serving. I was so horrified that I began to laugh before I could stop myself. Fortunately, the fine young urban coffee drinkers found the situation hilarious as well. I apologized profusely. They left a $5 tip. You just can’t never tell. Rusty saw it all come down and shook his head and placed the story into the category of unbelievable Acts of his Apostles. I overheard him retell it many times to his friends.

Waiting on tables is hard, brutal work. I always worked the late shifts, and most times after clocking out, I could not relax or unwind for hours. I often was doing homework at 2 or 3 AM, unable to sleep. It was hands down the most stressful job I’ve ever had.

Since my experience as a waiter, I always tip heavily. I can imagine almost no sce-nario where I wouldn’t tip. If the server hit over me the head or deliberately poured hot coffee over me, I might consider leaving something less than usual. In the early 1990s, I took a local Lancaster girl out to eat one night. We had such a lively conver-sation that I completely forgot to tip. I remembered after dropping her off at her home. Horrified, I raced back to the restaurant and arrived just as it was closing up. I asked for the server by name; she was just clocking out. I handed her a $10 and apologized humbly and sincerely. She looked dumbfounded but appreciative.

The server is at the very bottom of the chain. All who walk into a restaurant feel superior to the lowly waiter. Some customers feel they have a right to be condescend-ing, rude, demanding, or just flat-out mean. I had less troubles with such customers because I’m a big guy and generally amiable. But many of my co-workers throughout the years were younger, less experienced and easily intimidated. Students, working for pocket change. Scared single mothers, struggling to survive, out there just trying to put bread on their own tables, to provide for the child or children at home. I remem-ber them especially, their hard, tired faces run together, their lives and circumstances blend as one.

As for the customers, I have seen them all. And served them all. The harried and abrupt doctors. The lawyers and their spouses and snooty friends. The professionals. The businessmen in suits. The parents with the sulking teens. Parents with screaming kids. Grandparents with screaming grandkids. The coffee klatch ladies. Groups of students. The Goths, the Grungers, the tattooed bikers. Cops and thugs. The young couples, out for a date. The young couple on the first date. The doctoral student from Bob Jones who was so distressed at our contemporary music he waited for his food outside (upset his spirit, he said). The Amway guy who boasted an international im-port/export business (and had a card to prove it). The guy who asked me to micro-wave his pie and ice cream for exactly fifteen seconds. The local politico trawling for votes. The whiners and the grumblers and the “special request” freaks. The polite and the rude. The demanding and the passive. From every background, every culture, every lifestyle. I have seen them all and served them all.

For me, waiting on tables provided a sufficient part-time income for a specific time frame in my life. The experience provided many good memories, but few profound conclusions. Perhaps in some small way, the moments we shared, as the server and the served, provided my customers a brief and enjoyable respite from the quiet drudgery of an otherwise mundane day.
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To those it concerns:
A certain house in the Albuquerque, New Mexico area will be infested with demonic activity this weekend. Address the matter to the Lord as your heart leads you.

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