Every morning this week has been a test of my ability to find the narrow passageway between two indecisive people that will lead me to the coffee, then to the creamer, then to the cereal or waffle or yogurt or whatever else the free breakfast in our hotel has to offer.
I love free breakfast in hotels because I want to be wealthy and I believe that the road to being wealthy is paved with a series of cheapskate decisions, like opting to decipher the mysteries of the hotel waffle maker and elbowing my way to the hard-boiled eggs instead of waiting for some nice server to bring me an over-priced omelette with jam for my toast in the same wee packet I get at the free breakfast. Orange marmalade, the best.
So, of course, like every free hotel breakfast, there is a replenisher. It is the replenisher’s job to avoid running out of anything for to run out of anything is to risk the hungry, mindless rage of the cheap hotel guest for whom that item and only that item will do for breakfast. It is not nothing to be the free hotel breakfast replenisher. It is urgent, difficult work. And this morning, that work was being done by a Mexican woman.
As I sat down with my score, a toasted bagel, cream cheese, hard-boiled egg, and a really quite beautiful California orange, I watched the replenisher bring a big pitcher of milk to replace the empty one, gather up the Froot Loops that had scattered all over the counter, wipe waffle batter off the waffle iron and spray it with PAM, all of this weaving through hotel guests three deep for whom this breakfast had become their last meal on earth. She was expressionless.
I said thank you to her a couple of times like she was the hostess at a party serving a buffet dinner. Oh, thank you for bringing more Swedish meatballs! Sometimes my white guilt, patronizing self offends even me. But, I think, better to say thank you (also read as I see you here working) than to pretend the replenisher doesn’t exist. More marmalade just magically appears and we are all glad.
The replenisher reminds me of one of my sons and how the hair on the back of his neck would stand on end whenever he was with us, his white parents, in an environment where Hispanic people (usually Mexican) who looked a lot like him (Nicaraguan) cleared the table we were waiting for, wiped it down, and filled our water glasses.
It is a profoundly peculiar experience to have one’s child made so uncomfortable by being who he is; it’s watching someone who wants to go wait in the car or burst out with an explanation, apologize for having been adopted, declare solidarity with the Mexican busboys, always busboys, never waiters. Have you noticed? That’s how it is.
As he got older, he would joke. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m going to do more than say “More coffee? More coffee?”
And I would sit thinking two things. One that I so wanted him to do more in life than refill coffee cups and clear tables and two that he needed to know that any honest work is legitimate work. There is no shame in any work. But like a lady in the fifties who worried that her slip was showing, my slip was always showing on this count. By the end of our meal, we would both be completely conscious that, if we closed our eyes, he and the busboy could be swapped and no one in the restaurant would be the wiser.
As it turns out, my son worked as a busboy, had people talk to him in Spanish which was okay because he speaks Spanish, call him Jose even though his name is Joe, nothing terrible, just how folks generally treat a busboy. He’d mention these things to me, laughing. It was, he joked, inevitable from all of his years watching the busboys at our local restaurant come to our table, “More coffee? More coffee?” It was what he did best, he told me, make people feel comfortable and happy. So he poured coffee.
Part of me wanted him to give customers his address, explain that he had gone to good schools and been Bar Mitzvah’d. But the bigger part of me loved him for his humor, his pride in a job well done, his desire to make people happy even if it meant clearing away the plate with the half-eaten pancakes and dried scrambled eggs and bringing them a clean cup and saucer for a fresh cup of coffee.
He does different work now but it still involves making people feel comfortable and at home, taking care of people, serving them. He tells people his story sometimes, how he is Nicaraguan and adopted, he uses it for conversation. It’s another way that he makes people comfortable. By being comfortable with himself and his job and proud of it all.
Anyway, I thought about him today while I watched the Mexican woman go about her business at the free hotel breakfast. I thought about him and appreciated him. And her.
I appreciated her.