The Library of Congress appointed Billy Collins Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-03.
A student had introduced me to Collins’ work. For an assignment, she chose “The Waitress” to present to the class, explaining why she liked it and what she wanted them to appreciate.
The poem focuses on a single waitress, who, smiling, brings Collins a fillet of sole with parsley and lemon. She replenishes bread in the basket and checks if he needs a refill in his wine glass.
As he eats and she circles the room checking diners’ needs, the turning blades of the ceiling fan suggest to him “every waitress/ who has ever served me/ and every waiter, too/ young and old.”
His imagination — aided no doubt by wine from the refilled glass — sets him “to picture them all/ living and dead,/ gathered together for one night” in a “vast silvery ballroom” where they “are dancing with each other/ turning slowly in one another’s arms/ to a five-piece, rented band.”
Collins pays his bill, leaves “a large sentimental tip,” and heads into the chilly night where the swirling figures in his imaginary ballroom become “autumn leaves/ red, yellow, gold,/ waiting for a sudden gust of wind/ to scatter it all/ into the dark spaces/ beyond these late-night, practically empty streets.”
The imagery is strong and lovely enough for the reader to savor the reality of being served by competent, kind, graceful people — as omnipresent and beautiful as the twirling colored leaves of fall.
It is a heartening thought these days when selfishness, greed and extreme weather prevail in headlines and on social media.
Waitresses and waiters are more present in my life now that I have moved to a retirement community. Every evening residents are served personally for dinner. Orders are chosen from a three-course menu with additional a la carte choices. Meals are brought together for each four-person table and served on white tablecloths.
Our waitresses and waiters are local high school and community college students.
I am very impressed by them as are the other residents. When I ask for an initial descriptive word, I hear generic ones like “nice,” “polite,” “sweet.” More vivid are “strong,” “observant,” “well-trained,” “patient.”
I remember a trip back east early in the 1990’s. Somewhere in Massachusetts we heard for the first time the greeting that has since become standard: “Good evening! I’m Matt, and I’ll be your server tonight.”
Our servers wear name tags, so it’s not long before we can talk to them as individuals. Some of the residents take time to question them about their school work and plans for the future. But not too much time. There are other diners to process and clean-up to finish before heading home.
One had applied for several programs in occupational therapy. When she told of being accepted at one with the offer of a scholarship, the good news spread quickly. Another was in her school’s homecoming court and showed pictures of her dress to our aging fashionistas who requested to see them. One listened kindly to a resident explain how much she reminded him of his little sister. Some are always willing to sing or dance for special celebrations.
A very specific goal is one waiter’s to become a professor of film studies. I don’t doubt its possibility. He can even now give his judgment on every director we bring up — from Vittorio de Sica and Ingmar Bergman to Sam Mendes and Quentin Tarantino. And, of course, plots and actors.
As for being observant, these young people fall into the classic category of older movie, tv, and real life waitresses who know exactly what their customers like. They anticipate orders. Georgia’s soup has to be “very, very hot,” Kurt’s steak has to be “practically raw.” Ross wants spinach salad “minus any dressing or topping whatever.” Another reality is there will always be a diner who complains.
My favorite example of a spontaneous interaction is this: At her table Marina was describing a lakeside restaurant where “small furry animals” come up from below the floor to amuse the diners. “I can’t think of what they’re called,” she said. So we guessed — chipmunks? squirrels? guinea pigs? weasels? marmots? Guesses became outlandish. Beavers? Our waiter placed the last dish down and leaned in. “Otters!” he said.
That was it. “Perfect!” I use his favorite response adjective. And my memory clicks back to the wonderful Billy Collins poem.