I Learned This Most Valuable Life Lesson … From a Meal With an Amazing Waiter
In a theater basement 20 years ago, Emily Winslow learned a lesson in generosity that she'll never forget.
Yann Kebbi for Reader's DigestFresh out of acting school, I got a short-term job with a touring theater company. The terms were ridiculous: $300 for a month’s work away from home, to be paid at the end of that month. Only one meal a day would be provided; for the rest, we were on our own. We depended on cheap food from convenience stores that could be stored and prepared in a hotel room. Did you know that you can cook ramen noodles in a coffeepot? I also learned that you can eat Pop-Tarts without toasting them and that you can live on Cheez-Its.
The first of our venues was a lovely, sprawling resort. I don’t know what had happened between the staff and the previous theater company, but we could sense the bad feeling when we arrived. The waitstaff despised us from the start. They withheld utensils from us at dinner, while our one-meal-for-the-day cooled. The owner invited our company to eat Thanksgiving dinner in the restaurant because we were far from home, but the staff refused to let us in. It was ugly.
When we arrived at the second venue, the Valencia Ballroom in York, Pennsylvania, our first order of business was to reblock the show for the new stage. While we practiced, I saw in my peripheral vision a table being set. I panicked. It was midday—which meant that they were serving us lunch. Sandwiches were better than Pop-Tarts and ramen, but getting lunch would mean no hot dinner. We really counted on that being our hot meal of the day.
We were called over to eat. The table was beautifully set, with a linen cloth and origami-folded napkins. The sandwiches were elaborate and generous, along with heaps of potato chips and pitchers of cold drinks. It was so nicely done. How could we complain in the face of it? Afterward, I took the headwaiter aside and expressed our preference for our one meal to be dinner.
Our dinner would be at six, he told me. He added that the “one meal a day” clause in our contract was nonsense and that for the entire run of the show, the venue would be giving us lunch and dinner daily.
We returned at six, grateful and nervous because this still seemed too good to be true. Our table was downstairs, away from the audience but set as beautifully as an audience table. We sat down to table linens and folded napkins again, and because it was dinner, we had multiple forks for courses and side plates for salad. Potpourri simmered in a chafing dish.
We were served by a cheerful waiter who sang to us. He refilled our water glasses, took orders for coffee, and even brought us dessert. At the end, we tried to bus our plates to the kitchen. We felt that it was only fair—after all, we were staff too. But that caused a minor scuffle. The waitstaff said that we didn’t have to do that; we insisted that we must. We relented when the headwaiter explained, “This is enjoyable for us only if you let us do it right.”
That was more than 20 years ago, and I still get teary over the memory. We were so hungry and tired from dancing and so tense from the meanness of the staff at the first venue. The new waiters were joyful, and they took such pride and pleasure in their work. Since then, I’ve tried to live like them: Enjoy work by doing it right. Be generous. Fold those metaphorical napkins into pretty birds, sing while you serve, and treat those who have nothing to give you as well as you would treat a paying customer.