Check, Please!

Being a college student means asking for separate checks at restaurants. Generally, my friends and […]

David Peterson / 7.20.15

Being a college student means asking for separate checks at restaurants. Generally, my friends and I wait until the end of the meal to say, “Oh yea, could you split those up by the way? Yeah that’d be great, thanks,” as if it was an afterthought and the waiter/waitress had no idea what was coming all along. In truth, splitting up checks is pretty annoying. It means more buttons pressed and cards swiped and pens gathered, and I do often feel pangs of guilt asking servers to do it. But generally they’re accommodating, and they know what to expect when a group of college kids sits down to chow.


Sometimes, though, there are hiccups. At brunch the other day with some friends who were in town for the weekend, we had a uniquely unpleasant experience. It’s been sticking in my craw for a few days, and I’m thinking that unpacking it might be fruitful – humorous, but hopefully some wisdom will be there, too.

As soon as we sat down, our waitress had sniffed us out. “You’re gonna want these separate, right?” Her eye roll when we nodded in the affirmative could have sunk ships. We were doomed.


It wasn’t enough, though, that we were inconveniencing her with the arduous task of doling out separate checks, she wanted to take the battle to us. I asked if my chocolate milkshake could be made with vanilla ice cream. She responded, “So, you want it black and white?” As if that was the lingo I should’ve known straight out of the womb. “Please, that sounds great!” I said. She probably thought I was being disingenuous – maybe so.

My friend asked for multi-grain toast – a mortal sin! “This is a diner,” she said, and sulked off. Don’t expect good service at a diner? Is that what she was getting at? She clearly was not allowing a Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces moment: “Chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce … hold the chicken.”


My friends and I were so drawn out of our comfortable little selves for that meal it was a near-religious experience. We were shaken to the core, completely distraught. How dare her? I couldn’t even enjoy my chicken fried steak! When she finally came around to refill our waters, she picked mine up, filled it and placed it in the middle of the table, well out of my reach.

Leaving the restaurant, we were shell-shocked. No multi-grain toast, waiting too long for milkshakes, limited water refills, split-checks. The horror! My chicken fried steak doused in gravy and washed down with a “black and white” milkshake couldn’t keep the bad taste out of my mouth. I felt like I had endured a full frontal assault from this waitress. Why did this ordeal irk me so much?

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, released later as an essay titled “This is Water,” he warns a crowd of people like my friends and I about the difficulty of exactly the type of experience I had at the restaurant.

Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.

Jason Segal, left, and Jane Lynch present "Favorite Music Group" at Nickelodeon's 24th Annual Kids' Choice Awards on Saturday, April 2, 2011, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

In reacting poorly to the waitress, I was operating on my default setting. In my own little world, where I’ve been led to feel special and important and deserving of good restaurant service, a server not immediately recognizing what a great guy I am feels like a flat-out rejection. Waiting an extra five minutes for my milkshake is a personal affront. I left a small tip and scrammed – showing that I feel “automatically sure that (I) know what reality is and who and what is really important,” namely, me.

But Wallace proposes a different way of thinking about my grumpy waitress, one that removes the focus from me. It doesn’t require much self-examination to realize that my friends and I are basically a server’s worst nightmare: loud, sometimes crass, a little hungover and in need of water, asking for checks to be split, keeping the business of young families and older couples (better tippers than us) away. In an early brunch shift when the lady could have still been in bed or busy being literally anywhere else, we were the last people she wanted to be dealing with. Entertaining this possibility, though, requires the humility that I was far from summoning that morning.

In the speech, Wallace calls the ability to humble ourselves to see our surroundings differently the integral function of education. I propose that this is also a role of the gospel. God doesn’t promise a change in experience – that a bad meal won’t rub me the wrong way, or that people will finally come to recognize that the world revolves around me. But Jesus’ story evokes the humility that can lead me to explore new possibilities – to entertain the idea that there are things way beyond my comprehension: even a love that surpasses knowledge and persists despite my pride and narrow-mindedness.