Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lessons in Science

I've never taken a physics class. That's because I could never get beyond Algebra 2 (as it was called some twenty-odd years ago). And chemistry? A disaster. It's the only class I ever got a D in when I was in high school. I was so inept that I couldn't even manage to get an F so that I could at least try to take the class over for a better grade.

So science: not my strong suit. Most of what I've learned about physics is stuff I just sort of experience, like gravity, say. And waiting tables, oddly enough. One of the unexpected perks of my job is having some basic principles of science come to light. For instance:

Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
This means that when I'm trying to set down a plate of food in front of you, I won't be able to if there is something already sitting in front of you, which includes, but is not limited to, the following (all of which I have seen set on a restaurant table at some point):


rear ends
your water/wine/beverage glass
someone else's water/wine/beverage glass
cell phones
Bluetooth devices
dentures (ew ick)
crossword puzzles
Sudoku puzzles
find-a-word puzzles

jigsaw puzzles
knitting projects
mp3 players

portable CD players
baby bottles
soiled diapers

chubby board books
stuffed animals dolls
toy cars
coloring books
baby blankets
birthday gifts
anniversary gifts
graduation gifts
hypodermic needles
prescription drugs
non-prescription drugs
food brought from home
food brought from another restaurant

guns (yup)

sports equipment

So while I'm standing there with a plate in my hand, the pads of my fingers being branded by the searing hot underside, and you're reaching across the table to hold the hand of someone you love so that your arms are outstretched right where the plate should go, and you're staring at me, waiting for me to set the plate down, but I'm trying to give you a momentary benefit of the doubt and hope you'll move, but then I have to say something truly inane and obvious, like Excuse me, please. May I set down this plate? and you say Yes, but you don't move, then I have to say, I'm sorry, but may I trouble you to move your arms?, it would all go a lot more quickly if we just all kept in mind that two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously.

It's harder to hit a moving target.
It happens with great frequency that as I am trying to pour someone a glass of wine or refill water or steaming hot coffee that that person will move the glass or cup around on the table. Usually the person is trying to "help" by pushing the glass toward me, but this is not, in fact, helpful when the person continues to move the glass or unless the glass is completely out of reach, in which case I would ask for access to the glass in the first place.

Sometimes people will sort of swirl the wine glass as I pour or sort of absently tilt the water glass back and forth, which is also counterproductive. Sometimes people try to take the glass away while I'm still pouring, which I imagine is just some random act of over-eagerness. And what usually results is my spilling liquid on the table, or worse yet, on one of those items listed above.

An object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by another force.
I'm as guilty as the next guy of flailing my arms about while talking; in particular I tend to make big, outward circles with my arms, as if I were trying to animate the idea of something being as big as the world. But when I'm in a restaurant, I try especially hard to check myself. And here's why:

Many years ago, I was carrying a particularly large armload of dishes I had just bussed from a table, both my hands full. On the top of the stack, there was a precariously balanced portion of lasagna that was to be packed to go. On my way from the table back to the service station, I walked past a table right at the moment when a woman on the aisle was taking off her pull-over sweater. With one large sweep of her arms, she knocked directly into that carefully stacked pile of dishes on my left arm.

The force was great enough that it sent me stepping backward and swaying back and forth to keep those plates on my arm. I don't remember how I managed it, but I know that I ended up in a sort of semi-squat, one knee almost touching the floor, the stack of plates leaning back against my chest and shoulder, the other arm hugging the tower to me. The restaurant fell silent as I struggled to keep the pile aloft for a couple of seconds that seemed like minutes, waiting for the the dramatic crash that never came because somehow the bussing gods were with me, and I managed to save that piece of lasagna.

Okay, so the lasagna wasn't exactly at rest, but you get the idea. The same principle of arm waving goes for wild gesticulation resulting in the upturning and breakage of glasses of wine and water. And I can't count how many times I've been elbowed in the gut or backhanded in the face by someone who was so into the conversation that my presence went completely undetected. So the lesson: keep your hands close in. I have to remind myself of this one often.

Balance is golden.
Please don't pull drinks off the tray when I'm trying to serve them to you. Please. They're balanced on there carefully, and I'm adjusting my hand underneath that tray to compensate for weight changes. I've set the heaviest objects in the middle of the tray, directly over my hand to maximize support and to get the best balance. Sometimes, though, heavy things have to go on the perimeter, so when that heavy thing is lifted off, the tray works like a see-saw, and if I'm not careful to counterbalance, the drinks on the other side of the tray will go flying, or more likely, crashing to the floor.

I don't expect you to be touching my tray, so when you do, I'm generally not ready for it to happen, and I can't anticipate the weight change, and if there's a drink I'm trying to serve with my other hand, I can't use that hand to help catch the tray. I suppose once in a while I might be working a cocktail party where it is expected that you should take your own glass off the tray, but in that instance the drink will be proffered, but it will be clear that you've got the go-ahead.

But otherwise, please don't touch my tray!

Balance is golden, the corollary.
There is a science and a strategy to clearing tables of empty (or not so empty) plates. Big ones need to go on the bottom, utensils need to be consolidated in one place (generally on the big plate on the bottom), there must be allowances for food left on plates (especially food that is to be wrapped to take home), a balance must be found so that plates do not fall over (see lasagna story above). Before and as we are clearing tables, we are calculating how we are going to approach the next thing we are going to pick up-- what's furthest out of reach, what one dish will compromise the stack because it's shaped differently, how we're going to reach over to grab a dish without dropping the dishes we are already holding or without elbowing a customer in the eye.

So when I'm clearing plates and you've waving one under my nose, shoving it toward me repeatedly, trying to get me to take it from you, there's a good reason I don't: because I can't right then. Sometimes a customer's desire to be "helpful" is so persistent that I have to take the plate and set it back down on the table until I can get to it. It makes me feel mildly like a jerk, but I always smile and say thank you when I do it.

Oh, and stacking plates doesn't help. Resist the urge to do it.

Well, that's all the science I've got in me today. Next stop: organic chemistry.

Just kiddin'.

Class dismissed!