A long time ago, what seems to be another life now, I had a job working at what I call a diner. It wasn’t really a diner in the 1950s sense, but a little hole in the wall in a fairly fancy hotel in a bustling city next to the newsroom of what was a very famous newspaper.
The hotel had three “rooms” a term used for fancy eating establishments. The room I worked most days was the cheapest of the three and catered to mostly second and third shift researchers, beat reporters, camera men, and secretaries. There was public access to the establishment, people walking down the busy avenue, occasionally a wealthy shopper in a rush for a bite would pop in and on the beaten path folks looking for work.
The place was fairly bright considering its location and the design had a 50’s 60’s feel, winding counter with anchored spinning red cover vial stools and just a couple of tables off to the side. The snack-bar served everything you would expect a restaurant to serve, breakfast, lunch and dinner were big and the objective during those times, the rush, was getting the customer in and out as fast as you could.
Since we were in a fancy hotel quality was present even in the snack bar, our flatware was higher end, even the napkins were thick and big enough to cover your lap or serve as a skits under your chin. Plates were a simply design, almost Danish Modern, but heavy and meant for long life under a heating lamps and endless use. Cups still came with saucers and matching small dishes for rolls.
One of the main objectives in this place was topping off the coffee and at no extra charge, same for the hot water for tea. Being a full service restaurant we also had a fountain and the entire ice cream accouterments one would expect, even the ice-cream dishes were reminiscent of a soda shop, with long stainless steal spoons to get that last bit of hot fudge at the bottom of the tapered glass cup. Other than burgers and the traditional fair of hot meals and sandwiches, with potato chips, not fries, every sundae came with all the trimming, real whipped cream, nuts and a maraschino cherry with stem. Course there was an art to making the creamy desert look delicious, not too much, not too little, it wasn’t weighed like every ounce is today, you had to eye-ball your creation. It was a skill learned by observation and applied aesthetics. It was also a great way to increase a tip just by adding a little more whipped cream and an extra sprinkle of nuts, sometime two cherries. Outside fast and accurate service a fancy end to a dinner and topping off the coffee is what drove your tips and tips are what you lived on then.
Day in, day out same customers ordering the same meals, along with a variety of people popping in off the street, guest were mostly businessmen in the hotel down for a quick meal before they caught their flight out, and a few people who actually lived there, these were mostly well kept older women with their gems and jewels, furs and brass claps pocketbooks, dark cloth coats and heavy silk and linen dresses. You could distinguish them by the caked on makeup and permed dyed hair all done in the hotel beauty solon, a throwbacks from another era down for an early dinner.
One afternoon, about 3 PM the second shift eaters were just gearing up a young woman came in off the street with a little boy. I figure he was around 4 years old. The weather had turned so she was laded down with coats and scarves, gloves and winter pants. I surmised that she was dressed to work in an office. She looked exhausted and sat at the snack bar with the child, she spoke softly to the little boy who was surprisingly very well behaved and then started digging into her purse. He was excited about being at a restaurant and now receiving the treat he was apparently promised. I set the tableware up, brought two short glasses of water and gave her the menu with the dinner specials. Off I went to take other orders, when I returned I asked what she would like and she had her money, all coins, spread out on the counter, she was counting what she had and comparing that to the prices on the menu, she apologized that she wasn’t buying much as the place started to fill up; real estate is important during the rush, it’s how most people in the industry make their living. I told her not to worry it was still early. In the end she figured she could afford a cup of coffee and a small dish of ice cream for the boy.
I brought her the coffee and almost automatically, at least without thinking, made that little boy a beautiful ice cream sundae. Much fancier than one scoop of ice-cream she had ordered. I didn’t think of the costs or if I was doing anything wrong or even if I was doing anything I was supposed to, I assessed the situation and did just what seemed to be called for naturally without fear, reprisal or expected accolades.
Oh, did his little face light up when I put the dish in front of him, and the dreary tired look on the mother’s face changed instantly, the moment between utter sadness to complete joy is really nothing, but poetic. I went back to my work and eventually wrote out the check, placed it face down on the counter next to her coffee. She of course was very grateful, said thank you and that she was very sorry, but didn’t have enough to leave a tip. I gestured to her not to worry and like all the other people in that place she packed up, paid the cashier and was on her way. When I returned to clear the counter I noticed she wrote something on the napkin, “Thank you so much for your kindness.”
I still have that tip, best one I ever got.