That's My Argument, Restrict Immigration!

The obnoxious customers in restaurants remain in your mind, unfortunately, long after the nice ones depart. This is true of many things in life, at least for those of us for whom the good far outnumbers the bad. It may just be that, after a few years, the bad customers make better stories. After all, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson came in for lunch several times a week, had a pair of margaritas up no salt, ate their lunch, tipped 20% and left. Lovely people, very glad to be there, charming, polite, and delightful, and though I saw them several times weekly for nearly four years, I have but one good story about them*.

But Dr. Wilcox I recall quite vividly. I remember when he first arrived in Santa Fe and came to The Compound. He had just moved here from some "other" place, and was eager to ingratiate himself into Santa Fe society. He gathered a group of the movers and shakers at lunch and regaled them with abundant liquor and food. Having waited on these slugs for a few years, I knew they'd be happy to take his gifts, yet still sneer at him as an interloper. Customers seem to think waiters are deaf and blind.

But they actually appeared to like him. We didn't. There are several types of customers waiters hate, but they usually fall into two general, and often overlapping, categories. There are those who make endless demands, demands often made to appear discerning rather than because something is needed. The fake tycoon, ordering his minions around with confidence and authority. "The pate seems a bit tough, can you get me a slice from the center?" (This one was especially irritating as pate was pronounced with one syllable and a long a.) There's the guy who asked what vintage the Dom Perignon was, thought for a second, shook his head no, pondered the list for a moment, and ordered Mouton Cadet.

Then there are outright cheapskates. Waiting was my job, and fine dining remains the one place where an implied contract has no weight. In a four star restaurant, the agreement was that if I provided excellent service, the customer provided me with fifteen per cent at lunch, and twenty percent at dinner. The vast majority of customers made an honest effort to meet their obligations.

Dr. Wilcox was a master of both crappy behaviors. Doctors are notoriously bad tippers; one of my worst weeks ever was the AMA convention when I worked in New Orleans. Big tables, lots of alcohol, (they were hardly an example of moderation) and an average of somewhere between five and ten percent. After a while we learned the not-so-good doctor was a dentist, not even a "real" medical practitioner. Maybe he was aspiring to AMA membership with his bad tips. But cheap we can live with, if we grudge it. He was so demanding, so pompous, so self-assured, that he quickly arrived in the pantheon of completely despised customers.

He regularly came for lunch, rarely for dinner -- was it too expensive? -- and usually drank pretty heartily. One lovely afternoon, he arrived at 11:30, as we first opened, and was seated at our choice round table in the front dining room. While waiting for his party he started on his favorite beverage. The Compound served a stout margarita, probably 2½ ounces of liquor in a 4½ ounce glass. He preferred triple margaritas -- which were served in a 13½ ounce Bolla Grande glass. After five or six of these, and a bottle of wine with lunch, he showed no signs of intoxication. How could such an obnoxious jerk get worse?

At 2:30 he was sitting in the bar lifting his second or third snifter of cognac. As the maitre d' (yes, I'm the one who gave him that good table) I could not leave until he did. The bartender and I were on the opposite side of the bar from Dr. Wilcox and his remaining guest. We stood, sending those telepathic "go home" messages that rarely seemed to work. But we had nothing left to do but transmit. We stared. Stood. Sighed. Hmmmphed. Eventually, his guest tipped his empty snifter and asked "Another?" Dr. Wilcox looked at his watch. "Ummm, no, I've got surgery in fifteen minutes."

My jaw dropped. I hope my gasp was not audible. And that's why I always schedule my dentist appointments for early in the morning.

* Mr. And Mrs. Nelson were very regular customers. Always the margaritas and almost always the specials. They dressed for lunch, he in a tie, she in a lovely dress, tipped very well, demanded little, seemed to genuinely enjoy the food and service, and probably felt as if Santa Fe was a charmed life for a former plumbing contractor from Milwaukee and his wife. Another pair of regular customers were the Grillos. Came regularly, were clearly not of old money, and enjoyed the pomp and drama of a fancy, somewhat snooty restaurant. Mr. Grillo pounced on Elizabeth Taylor while she was dining. That's what you pay for at a place like The Compound, a chance to rub elbows with some pretty famous elbows.

One day I seated them at adjacent tables. Though both came regularly, I guess this had never happened before. They smiled upon being seated and chatted amiably through the entire meal.

The Grillos left first. They pulled me aside at the door. "Jim, what was the name of that couple sitting next to us?"

"The Nelsons."

"OH! Yes, that's it. Thanks."

Several minutes later:

"Goodbye Mr. and Mrs. Nelson. Thanks for coming."

"Jim, what was the name of that couple sitting next to us?"

"The Grillos."

"OH! Yes, that's it. Thanks."