It’s odd how one little detail, left out of a situation, can completely change your read on it. Or, to cut in the opposite direction, how you can think you have a handle on what’s going on, and then you learn something new about what’s happening, and all of a sudden you feel like a horrible sharknadoheel for thinking a certain way, or maybe you feel totally vindicated.
The wife and I went to dinner while the grandparents kept the kids for the evening. Sidenote: when I say dinner, for us that means we hit the restaurant at about 4:30. I know, we might as well be geriatrics, but when your kid’s bedtime is at seven, you have to rethink the way you live your life. So it’s 4:30, and we’re at dinner at a nice little pasta place we like where there’s tacky 90’s stereotypical Italian decor and they serve you way too much food so you eat leftovers for two days afterward. Because it’s 4:30, we have the place almost to ourselves, so we get served quick and we eat quick, which is nice, because having a two-year-old has left me unable to savor a meal; all I know how to do anymore is shovel foodstuffs into my beak while my mind wanders to the sprout and whether or not he’s likely to get into mortal danger before I can swallow a half-chewed mouthful. But the kids aren’t there so we actually get to focus on each other and the ambiance, a really rare treat.
I don’t know if it’s my inclination as a writer that makes me such a shameless eavesdropper or if I’m just a jerk, but while we’re at dinner this other couple comes in and I immediately start with the judging. There’s nothing special to say about her, but he is a paunch-bellied, unshaven slob, and that biases me against him before he opens his mouth. To be fair, this restaurant isn’t the swankiest of joints, so there’s no dress code, but, come on. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re taking your wife / girlfriend / main squeeze to a dinner that’s gonna cost more than ten bucks a plate, maybe don’t dress like you just came from a World of Warcraft marathon session in your mom’s basement?
They sit and we continue our conversation about whatever married couples with kids talk about (spoiler alert, it ain’t philosophical discussions on the nature of the universe or witty commentary on the issues of the day — you talk about your kids), but I keep hearing snippets of the guy’s conversation with his wife and with their waitress, and I dislike him more and more with every sentence that oozes out of him. He’s a loud-talker, first of all, evidenced by the fact that I can clearly hear him from five booths away over the could-you-be-more-cliched soundtrack of Rat Pack classics. He’s got that way of speaking that just screams out “I’m very well aware of the social situation in which you are waiting on me and therefore I get to order you around” that just makes waiters want to dunk their dongs in your soda. That offhanded “I’m not paying attention to you and I don’t want you hanging around my table, just get our food and go the fargo away” dismissive tone. He’s texting on his cell phone as he orders drinks, which itself is deserving of a throat jab, but it’s when the waitress comes back to take their food order that his jackassery fires its boosters and sails into the stratosphere.
I forgot to mention, this restaurant is one owned by a local company that has several restaurants serving different cuisines, so there are some shared dishes between these different restaurants even though one specializes in fish and this one obviously specializes in pasta. Clear enough? What he said was — and I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I’m not embellishing — “Yeah, I want to order this chicken dish. It’s not on your menu, but you serve it at the other cafe, and you have all the ingredients for it here. Just tell the chef to make the (whatever the dish was called), I do this all the time.” And, of course, it’s delivered in that tone that makes me want to stand up, cross the aisle, and just stomp on his fingers for a while.
Shall we deconstruct? Oh, let’s.
“It’s not on your menu”? The menu is the menu for a fargoing reason. The food they offer is the food they make. Maybe you can substitute alfredo sauce for tomato sauce — it’s a pasta place after all — but what you can’t do (I guess I should say “shouldn’t” do because he bloody well did it) is demand that this pasta place make you a sushi roll just because the restaurant is owned by a guy that also owns a sushi joint. You want sushi, you go to the sushi joint. (He didn’t order sushi, but he might as well have.)
Telling the waitress that “you have all the ingredients here?” I mean, okay, that may or may not be true, but just because they have them doesn’t mean that every cook on the line knows how to make this dish you’re ordering from not-on-the-menu. A Chipotle probably has all the ingredients to make you a damn Whopper on a tortilla, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to DO IT.
And you “do this all the time”? I’m not going to incriminate myself or anything here, but as a former service industry worker of many walks, ordering off the menu like that and talking to waitstaff like that is a good way to end up eating food that would probably get the restaurant shut down for health code violations. (Use your imagination.) And just because you’ve done something in the past doesn’t make it okay for every time in the future. Say you rob a bank successfully. They don’t give you carte blanche to rob any and all future banks.
In short, the guy is (not to be confused with “has”) a massive prick and I hope that the waitress served him up a complimentary side of special seasonings, if you know what I mean. I don’t know what it is about the world that makes people think that they can get whatever they want and do whatever they want whenever they want, but to understate the problem, IT’S A PROBLEM.
But here, the turn. I’ve overheard his ridiculous order and the rude way he’s interacted with her. I’ve sized up his general unpleasant appearance. I’ve formed a pretty solid opinion of this mother trucker. And then I throw a glance over my shoulder at him, and I see that he’s wearing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on his feet.
I’ve written about VFFs before here on the blarg. Suffice it to say that I’m a fan. They’re also not things you see a lot of people wearing, so, much like I imagine redheads have a secret telepathic communication when they see each other in public to remind each other about the alien mothership they’ll return to when they murder the rest of us earthlings (they do, don’t they?), I sort of feel there’s an inherent sense of community in some way between the people who wear them and enjoy them. Like we share some secret that the world at large isn’t a party to. A wink and a nod and a smirk and we both know that the other guy is over there and he knows what’s up and now I can eat my pasta safe in that knowledge.
So I’m struck by that sensation of brotherhood at the same moment that I’m thinking how much this colossal douchenozzle needs a good throttling, and my brain just trips over itself and does a faceplant and starts gibbering. Here’s a guy who represents so much that I hate about a society of entitlement and a class of people who don’t appreciate their fellow humans and a kind of person who doesn’t care enough about the woman he’s in a relationship with to dress it up a little bit for a nice(ish) dinner out, for god’s sake, and somehow, SOME WAY, his life has led him to make the same choice in preferred footwear as me. I feel dirty, betrayed. Like I had been happily trying out some new vitamin and talking it up to my friends and touting and trumpeting all its health benefits and convincing everybody I know to buy a year’s worth of this miracle pill, and then I find out that it’s made out of ground up elk penis and gives you face cancer. He’s an asgardhole, in other words, and then I find this tiny little detail that somehow aligns me with him and his jerkiness, like we’re both wearing a team jersey or something awful like that.
It shook me. But then I think about it in retrospect and it puts me in mind of some fairly handy writing advice. Nobody on earth is so simple that he or she can be explained away in a heartbeat, in a flicker of exposition. There are layers to everybody. The knight in shining armor probably kicked a stableboy into some horsesharknado at some point in his life. The child-murdering space pirate still kisses his mother on the forehead and lets her call him snooky-wookums.
I guess what I’m saying is, okay, sure, the tired old advice about not judging books by their covers. But it’s more than that. As a writer, as a creator, as a builder of people and stories and really wild things, you (and by you I mean me and also you, other fellow aspiring writer) have to be aware of the way people’s minds work. We do judge books by their covers, and that leaves us open to surprises when you slip in a detail that doesn’t jive with what we expect. We think we know it all even when we don’t know the half of it, and that lets you trick us when you turn the tables.
So yes, don’t judge a book by its cover. But more importantly than that, know the rules and then break them. Play to their expectations so that you can blow their minds later. Draw them in with a friendly face and then slip the knife in their backs.
Oh, and don’t be a jerk to your waiter. That’s not cool, bro.