Southern Comfort vs. Sweet Tea

(This here be from Terry Austin)

I ambled into El Authentico, a local arm of a national Mexican food franchise, in search of a quiet place where I could peruse the latest edition of the Oxford American over a plate of beans and rice. But by my second swig from the salsa jug, I was mildly irritated.

Four minutes. A new land speed record for hacking me off.

El Authentico can usually be counted on to provide a solace, at least in the burg in which I work. Typically all but empty during lunch hour, this eatery is great for a loner to grab a corner table and practice stillness for half an hour. But apparently my desire to sit and eat and read conflicted with my server’s plan to feed and collect and dismiss me so that my booth could be occupied by a party of… well, more than one. That no such group was waiting to be seated seemed impertinent to Kim the Server.

"Hello, sir," she cooed. "Getcha some sweet tea today?"

Ahh, I thought. Kim, a good Southern girl, is going to be OK. I deduced she was Southern because (a) she cooed, (b) she said "sir," (c) her first offering was tea, and (d) she somehow enunciated "sweet tea" in four syllables. Unfortunately, she didn’t wait for any response before slapping down the paper-napkin coaster and placing a glass of tea on the table before me. I would’ve guessed that it was in her back pocket all along, but the ice wasn’t melted.

"Our specials today are our salads," she continued. At this point, I turned my attention to her with full, unblinking eye contact. This is a mildly self-amusing habit of mine, driving the server to distraction by acting as if she is solving the mysteries of life right at my table. Yes, Kim, your recitation of the catch o’ the day simply is the most fascinating thing I have ever heard! When she finished, I said, "That chicken caesar salad sounds great. But instead, I’ll have Lunch Special Number Six, or, as your people say, numero seis."

Summarily dismissed and mildly uneasy, Kim went and filled my order, doubtless with a complimentary double helping of grilltender’s spit. She returned within five minutes, placing a plate of rice, beans and a chicken enchilada in front of me.

Sadly, the plate was warm. Hot, even. Why does every Mexican restaurant that strives for authenticity feel that part of the "true Mexican dining experience" is eating from a warm plate? Do they feel that I expect to be scorched by their stoneware, that I might pay extra if it leaves a really good scar? Do they think I’m so stupid that I believe that the rice and beans and the chicken were prepared on that very plate? And if I believe that, shouldn’t I be terrified of salmonella or bean cooties or other sundry microbes? If we’re truly authentic here, shouldn’t Kim slow the heck down and offer me a cool, shady spot for an afternoon siesta? And do authentic Mexicans watch MSNBC or the Jetsons from televisions suspended from the ceiling? (Speedy Gonzalez, maybe, but the freaking Jetsons?)

A few minutes later, I looked up in time to see Kim glancing my way. I interpreted this glance as a non-verbal way of signaling, "You done yet, gringo? Paying customers are waiting."

Never in my life have I wished more that I had eight dollars’ worth of loose pennies than I did at that very moment. I briefly savored the image of Kim hunkered over my table, a saccharin smile plastered on her face as she attempted to count out a pile in excess of eight hundred li’l Abes. I imagined that I would sit there as she counted, carrying on polite conversation littered with as many numeric references as possible.

"Seventeen is my favorite magazine. It costs a dollar fifty-five. Or is it fifty-six? Fifty-seven? My office fax number is 555-2323. Not 867-5309… but that’s a great song, doncha think?"

But, as Andy Griffith would say – and I wear a bracelet inscribed with the acronym WWAD ("What Would Andy Do?") – that wouldn’t be Christian. Instead I asked for a third refill of sweet tea, and I sat and read quietly, just as I had planned to do all along. When I was good and ready to address the check Kim long ago left at my table, I toyed with the idea of writing something glib under the "Tip" entry. Something like, "Where’s the fire?" or "Here’s a tip: try serving the customers you have rather than worrying about ones you don’t."

But I have a soft spot for those in our civilization who toil in the service of others – as if you couldn’t tell – so I left a sizable gratuity, one that reflected not at all upon the quality of service I had received. When Kim came back to take the check, I was ready.

"Kim, I want to thank you for your help today," I said. "I needed to unwind for a little bit, and I’m grateful that you were so patient with me. I hope I didn’t occupy this table too long." Kim, filthy liar that she is, smiled and said she didn’t think I had overstayed my welcome at all.

I reckon there are times when we all need a glass of sweet tea, whether we ask for it or not

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