Working Class Hero

The man with the sunglasses laughs in a mocking tone. “—You really think so?”

It is my first day waiting tables here and I already screwed up by offending one of the customers, and since my boss is at the counter five yards away, I’m probably back on the street this evening. 

The skinny man lowers his sunglasses and looks directly at me, while I still balance the damn strawberry cakes and steaming black coffee on my tray, but now with noticeable trembling.

He then turns to the small Asian woman who is also seated at the table, all in black. She is looking away from us, a knotted fist under her chin, looking like she is either very tired of the man—or of me. 

Now, for a 20-something from the country who has been hustling for ages to get somewhere in life—at least somewhere with a steady paycheck – my nerves get the better of me. It has only been two weeks since I was fired from the last place because I was too slow and ‘had an attitude’.  

“Did you ‘ear that?” the man asks the woman in his peculiar nasal accent. “I ask her how she likes Beatles records and she says she thinks they’re kind of ‘bland’.”

The woman shakes her head and then fixes me with a penetrating stare. “You can put the other coffee down now, dear.”

“W-why, yes. Of course.” By some miracle, I get both the cake and coffee onto their table without spilling anything. “I am sorry if you happen to like … The Beatles.”

The man grins. “Not anymore.”

The woman shakes her head. “Can we please—”

I retreat quickly.

On my way, two young lovers by the wall with all the movie star pictures call out to me. They ordered soup – where is it? 

They quickly go back to talking excitedly like they have had a revelation, and the man nods at the woman with knowing eyes. I hate him already.

And then—before I can get back to the lovebirds—I have to help an elderly, very querulous man who insists that a piece of pastry contains chocolate when it does not. 

It takes me a while to sort that out and it doesn’t make me shake any less when I come up to the counter for the next order. 

I fumble with the tray while Mr. Beck watches me and I am sure he has been doing it all the time. Then as I am finally ready to take the two damn bowls of tomato soup Mr. Beck puts his hand down on my tray.

“Getting to meet some of our regulars?” His voice is deep, inscrutable.

I glance nervously back toward the chocolate man, who is seated near the window where you can watch people buzzing by in the humid Village afternoon—all, it seems, with more control and direction over their lives than me. 

“No, no. You fixed that one fine,” Mr. Beck says. “But you’re not out of the woods yet.”

He nods toward the skinny man and the dark Asian woman, and his eyes narrow. 

I try to keep my voice level, act like I have done this a million times before and it’s no big deal. “I think I made him angry. Or the woman. Or both of them.”

I glance over there once again. The sunglasses guy is huddled away in an alcove on the far side of the counter with the dark woman. It feels somehow like I broke into a home when I talked to them.

In front of the counter and up to the street door, there are only a few other patrons who seem likewise stuck in their private worlds, as if each shining brown table was a mini-universe all of its own. 

The chocolate man seems especially happy with the pastry that is the same type as he had dismissed 10 minutes earlier.

Mr. Beck keeps staring at me, arms crossed. 

I lower my voice, but that’s about all the control I can still muster. “Please, what did I do wrong?”

“You tell me, Miss Sawyer.”

“Uh, I don’t know. Honest. It’s just—this guy kept looking at me while I put their cake and coffee on the table like he was expecting me to say something, and then I asked if they needed anything more and he asked me about that music as if he wanted me to, I dunno, weigh in on an argument, and I got jittery and I just blurted … oh, drat, Mr. Beck—I’m sorry.”

“Have you ever seen The Beatles, Miss Sawyer?” 

“Like at a concert? No, why—”

“What they look like?” he presses. “On TV? In the papers? On a record cover?”

“Once or twice. I think. I don’t listen to rock.”

Mr. Beck frowns. “What planet are you from, girl?”

I bite my lip to stay calm. “Please, I didn’t mean to upset your—”

“Of course not.” He leans over the counter and a heavy hand finds my shoulder. “And now I believe you when you say you grew up on that Mormon farm in the middle of nowhere and then ran away to India.”

It feels as if my cheeks are on fire.  “I—I won’t say anything—what I think—like that again. To customers, I mean.”

A tight smile crosses Mr. Beck’s lips. “I think you should keep talking to our guests like a normal human being, not like a damn robot.”

“But how—”

“Just serve the soup.”

—Excuse me—”

I swallow my breath when I hear the nasal accent again behind me.

I turn slowly to face the tall man again, and I’m not in doubt that now I’m done for. He’s going to complain about me. Two jobs in two weeks. Get ready to look for a third.

But the man just pushes up his sunglasses to rest in his mangy hair, so I can see his light brown eyes. Then he fumbles for something in his pocket and pulls out a 20-dollar bill and presses it into my hand. “I almost forgot to leave a tip.”

I stare at the bill, unable to fathom that it isn’t a pink slip. 

“Keep it,” the man says quickly. “I appreciate honesty.”

“And peace.” Mr. Beck sighs. “Pity such things are only possible for so long.”

“What’s your name, luv?” asks the man. 

I tell him.

“That is a lucky name,” he says enigmatically. “And you are a real hero—well, a heroine. You say what you think. I like that.”

“He likes it too much, sometimes.” The small Asian woman has come up, too— like a shadow, behind the man. “Especially if it is him saying what he thinks. It will get him into trouble.”

The man smiles faintly now but keeps looking at me. “I hope you’ll serve us some more strawberry cake and coffee another day, Deborah.”

“Certainly, Mr. —”

“Boogie. Dr. Winston O’Boogie.”

“Oh, you are a doctor? How … nice.” I struggle to keep smiling as if the surname sounded like a perfectly normal doctor’s and not  … I don’t know what.

He chuckles. “Yes, I have my own clinic now.”

“‘Clinic?’ Wow, that’s so nice with, uh, patients … and all.”

What remains of the skin on my cheeks just burned up. Right there.

But the man keeps smiling politely. “Patients come and go. I’m sort of on an extended leave of absence right now, though.”

The woman takes the man by the arm. “Come.”

“Well,” he nods at me for a final time. “I guess we have to be absent.”

When they have gone, I glance over at their table again. At least they have eaten their cakes. 

Another guest yells after me for more soup and I bring it to him like it’s a bomb I am trying to get rid of.

When I come back again to the counter Mr. Beck is still there. I look down but he waves dismissively at me.  “Snap out of it, Miss Sawyer. You made a new friend, I am sure of it. I am also sure you should listen to something other than that hippie yoga music of yours.”

“Oh, like what?”

He hesitates briefly, glancing at the empty cake table.  “Never mind,” he then says with finality. “The friend part is the most important. Friends come back—again and again.”


Cover photo by Michael Aleo on Unsplash


Last updated 28 Dec 2023